Hidden Color And The Utility Of Art

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When I was at university, one of my mentors said something that has stayed with me. It was obvious to me the he realized how the photography program was utterly failing its students by providing zero instruction on career development, small business management, or information on how to navigate the gallery system. I had a sense that he was as disappointed with the department as I was (and continue to be), but it was equally obvious how passionate he was about the craft with the time and attention he paid to those students who demonstrated a genuine interest in fine art and photography.

As innocuous or even silly as it sounds, I remember him saying that “everything you make is a self portrait.”
Everything you make is a reflection of your sensibilities, your attitudes, your appreciations, and your conflicts.

I don’t know why, exactly, but that sentence had a marked impact on how I began to approach each new project. Rather than trying to make the most beautiful print, or try to imagine what my audience might want, I began to think of each painting, each photograph, each mono-print or lino-cut as a part of myself – a thumb-print on a skyscraper, small and forgettable, but unique – rather than a ‘product’ or an attempt to fulfill some arbitrary notion of what other people may value as great art. The tension between commerce and art has always existed, and compromises almost always need to be made in creative professions. But that doesn’t prevent the artist from taking time out of his day to make something in the privacy of his home or studio, make anything, for no other reason than he thinks it’s interesting or beautiful.

I liken the creative process to meditation. It’s where I find my center after a hard day. It has navigated me through troubled relationships. It has connected me to other people and helped create very fruitful and lasting relationships.

A frustrated piece is only ever the result of having an idea in your head, the vision of exactly how you want it to look when it’s complete, and getting to that point can be hard – sometimes impossible. But just as often, tinkering with a sketchbook or fooling around in the darkroom – having a glass of wine and slapping some paint onto a canvas when there is no pressure to achieve a specific goal – and the artist is free to improvise and embrace their own intuition and stream-of-consciousness. And that’s when real magic can happen.

Wasn’t it Picasso who said that every child is born an artist, the problem is how to remain one as we grow up?
I think there’s truth to that. Going to school, memorizing dates and spitting out correct answers for the test, learning the formula to a successful job interview, paying bills and raising children, taking the car into the shop and watching tragedy after tragedy unfold on the nightly news – these things can tamp-down our artistic impulses, distract us from our Selves.

Art is a magic trick. A therapy. A language without syntax. I absolutely love it.

Now do me a favor and try to enjoy this stupid picture of a glass bottle, will ya? And while you’re at it, think about picking up a paintbrush or photographing the sunset, making a collage out of old magazines or designing a scrap-book page to commemorate last Christmas – it certainly won’t hurt you. Find an excuse to smile, and enjoy your weekend.

With much love,

-joe

Patterns In The Blacktop

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From my earliest days in the darkroom, before the digital revolution, I started veering toward abstract compositions. It seemed so incredibly counter-intuitive, contradictory even, to sculpt abstractions from camera images. In the beginning, the camera was designed to be the most accurate method for re-creating images from the world around us; before the camera, we relied on drawn and painted images to reflect the world. The painter’s hands could be biased, however, but the cold gaze of a lensed machine promised to never lie.

As an example, photo-mechanical images brought the true horror of war to the public, rather than the glorified tableaux as depicted in works like Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s “Washington Crossing The Delaware” or Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading The People.” Scholars in the field of visual culture studies credit broadcast television for helping galvanize the American public against the Vietnam War; with images of dying young men being beamed nightly into American households, it helped foment an unprecedented anti-war attitude.

The camera also liberated the painterly arts, which had been preoccupied with attempts to reflect the real world. Once the camera proved it could make the most accurate portraits, the most detailed architectural studies, we begin to see the painterly arts fragment into impressionism, expressionism, cubism, die brucke, de stijl, and a multitude of other styles. If we look at the timeline, we’ll see that this revolution in painting began at almost the exact same time that Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre patented their photographic technologies in the mid-1800’s.

The truth is, though, that the camera can lie just as effectively as anything else, and the photographer can be just as biased as the painter. The process is different, but the camera operator is perpetually editorializing, purely by choosing to photograph ‘this’ over here rather than ‘that’ over there. Framing, color, composition are all methods to generate atmosphere, convey emotion, manipulate the audience’s reaction to the images presented. With the modern advent of image editing software, it could be argued that the camera has the ability to both tell the objective truth and, at the same time, lie more effectively than virtually any other medium.

I think the reason I enjoy abstract photography is because it’s very difficult for it to become political. We respond to shapes, colors, and textures based on our own individual histories. Each viewer can have a potentially different reaction to an abstract composition, based solely on the emotional and intellectual experiences they carry with themselves into the room. I’m fascinated by the little details we miss on the way to the bus stop, making our morning coffee, walking down to the mail box. I like to think that, by making images like this one, I can help remind my audience that there are curious little things all around us, at all times, that we kind of choose to ignore. And if we could just slow down for a moment and look around, turn over the rocks and see what’s underneath, we might develop a greater attachment and appreciation for this tiny, insignificant little blue marble we have the unique and exquisite privilege to live on.

Creativity is one of the greatest gifts we possess, folks. Life is a blessing, and I hope each and every one of you has a wonderful day.

-joe

That Long, Old, Forgotten Project…

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I don’t even know how to advocate ‘art for art’s sake.’ The notion has always felt like a total cop-out, at least to me, for creative types. You know, somewhere along the line of “you just don’t get what I do” as a deflection when audiences don’t respond positively to a body of work. I am hugely of the opinion that artists don’t just make work for themselves, quietly hoping that other people like it. People who crumple and flee, screaming “you just don’t get it,” would do better painting a mural on their van. Creative types are always – whether consciously or unconsciously – concerned with the attitudes and opinions of the people that might see their work.

An artist, ultimately, isn’t really an artist without an audience.

At the same time, I have boxes upon boxes upon boxes of photo prints, sketch books, illustrations, and paintings – things I made because I had the free time, the tools, and was indulging in doodles, exercises, and free association. I have an avalanche of compositions that I made ‘just because.’ It can be exhausting trying to justify every composition, every brush stroke, every print. Sometimes an object or color or concept strikes my fancy, and I would be hard-pressed to find a precise explanation why.

I know I could completely b.s. my way into a reason why I made the above image, and I have several hypotheses. But this is an image made on instinct, without specific intent. I celebrate the idea that my audience, on occasion, might bring their own ideas into the mix, providing their own interpretation. That’s the beauty of working in an abstract, or semi-abstract style.

Sometimes the analysis is better left in the hands of the critics, the philosophers, and the psychologists. Nobody asks a five-year-old why they painted something, but there will always be a team of people who will have a theory. And hell, I’m interested in your insight. Feel free to tell me what you think this image is all about. Maybe I’ll learn something about myself.

April 16, 2017 – Paint

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
~Edgar Degas

One man’s vandalism is another man’s art, I suppose. Not that I necessarily condone the act, but I’ve enjoyed finding and photographing all manner of graffiti throughout the years. By photographing these things, I have the opportunity to frame the image, manipulate the saturation and apply subtle edits, and make somebody else’s art into my own – photography is the appropriation of reality, which is alchemical in its own right, and I thoroughly enjoy the process.

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April 09, 2017 – Red White Blue

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“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”
~Edward Weston

I don’t have a lot to say about today’s image. I was on a bike ride through the warehouse district, and I stopped several times to make some pictures. There’s something about these industrial textures that resonates with me, and I don’t feel like spending the time or energy trying to intellectualize it.

There’s something beautiful and perplexing about this kind of imagery to me, so I use my camera to document it.

Notice, of course, that it’s an industrial textured photograph in red, white, and blue, which aligns itself with an old series I never finished about the corruption and death of the “American Dream.” One of these days, I may draft an essay. But for now, I’ll let the images just exist on their own merits.

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April 07, 2017 – Abstraction In Red, White, Blue

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“A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.”
~Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965)

This is an image that would fit well into a series I started (and abandoned) a long time ago, consisting of abstract photographs in red, white, and blue, usually of broken, decaying, or aged surfaces. The idealism attached to the colors of our nation’s flag, contrasted against industrial patterns, chipped paint, and scratched surfaces seemed, to me, to represent what we were enduring during the early days of the great recession.

After the housing market crashed and local economies began to suffer, jobs began to evaporate. Construction projects in metro Tucson stopped dead in their tracks. Rent-a-fences sprung up around half-completed housing projects, graffiti proliferated, and I was laid off from my job at a local photography lab and retouch studio. I had some time on my hands, so I started making something of a documentary about the death of the American Dream, and it eventually evolved into something a little more aesthetically pleasing and less overtly depressing.

With this image – and with the image I made for April 1st – I might consider finishing the series.

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April 06, 2017 – Latch

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Somebody designed it. Somebody dug the ore out of the ground. Somebody smelted the ore to separate the metal from other materials. It was liquefied and molded, painted and installed. It’s just a simple latch – nothing more and nothing less. But the material likely circled the world a couple of times before it wound up affixed to the back of a delivery truck on the loading dock of a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona.

And I really do find it kind of remarkable – the sheer complexity of it. I also think that there’s an elegant beauty to all of the little things we, collectively, have invented, designed, assembled, and put to use. The average person doesn’t understand how tumblers work in a simple door lock, and I saw an incredible TED Talk where the presenter asked people in the audience to please illustrate precisely how a zipper works. These are things we use every single day, and we take them completely for granted.

Take a closer look at the objects you interact with every single day, and think about where they came from, and how they came to be in your possession. You might just appreciate what you have a little bit more, and you might just find yourself marveling at how we, as a species, have arranged our world.

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January 26, 2017 – Black and White

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One of my friends – more of an activist, politically motivated, and extreme personality – once commented that my work specifically seeks to “mean nothing at all.” This was over a decade ago, but I remember the comment; it made me think a lot about the kinds of images I was making at the time. I didn’t feel insulted, but I did feel compelled, initially, to try and defend myself.

My natural instinct was to disagree (and I did disagree), but it was the first time I really sat down and tried to apply meaning to the photographs and paintings I was making. And it made me think about the utility of abstract imagery in a broad and general sense, too.

I don’t think all artwork needs to be a didactic teaching tool, or direct the thoughts and emotions of the viewer. In fact, in many circumstances, I have a contrary opinion. I am seduced by abstract compositions specifically because they can mean any number of things to any number of people. The possibilities aren’t infinite. Color, movement, composition, film grain, delicate or light brush strokes – these all guide our interpretation and emotional response. But abstract compositions allow us to think broadly about how an image impacts us, and the experience of viewing abstract art becomes very personal. An abstraction can remind us of a specific event, a movie we watched, an experience we had – and in an almost slight-of-hand kind of way, through some peculiar magic, an image made by a complete stranger can ascend to significance in the hearts and minds of the individuals looking at it.

I am compelled to make pictures like this for reasons that still evade me, but I make them because they affect me, they move me, they touch a part of my subconscious and tickle a part of my mind. I can’t expect images like this to be universally adored, but I have to have faith, as an artist, that there are other people out there, like me, who find this kind of composition interesting.

The hardest thing for an artist to do is follow their instincts. If I listened to all of the criticism, all I would do is try to mimic the landscapes of Ansel Adams or take endless ‘desert sunset’ pictures. There are plenty of those images in the world, and I just need to make images of my very own.

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January 12, 2017 – Abstractions

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Today’s image is a throw-back to a years-long phase in my development as a photographic artist. After working at The Center For Creative photography, I became unapologetically obsessed with the works of Aaron Siskind and Minor White and Beaumont Newhall. I had never considered the camera as an effective device to make abstract images (in the most literal sense, cameras can only document actual object that are actually in front of the lens, so the idea of ‘abstraction’ is counter-intuitive), but began seeking out compositions, colors, and textures.

I spent most of my free time walking around Tucson – where I lived at that time – looking behind dumpsters, in the more colorful and decrepit neighborhoods, behind shops, and through alleyways. Chipped paint, graffiti, rusted metal – these became my obsession.

Whenever I feel like I’m struggling with a creative idea, I know I can always take an urban hike with my camera and find something interesting. This image came from an alley in Flagstaff, Arizona. I was on a road trip with my girlfriend and, as most photographers do, I tortured her with my constant detours. This is, for reasons I’m not entirely able to articulate, one of my favorite captures from that visit.

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