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

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February 09 – Industry, Steel, And Aaron Siskind

02-09 Industry post“Stone, steel, dominions pass,
Faith too, no wonder.
So leave alone the grass
That I am under.”

~A.E. Housman

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I’m not sure who said it first, but it always stuck with me: there is nothing as unnatural as a perfectly straight line.

There’s actually some truth to this. Straight lines don’t really just occur in nature. Every natural process with the potential to create a straight line is subject to other processes that disrupt it. Theoretically, trees would grow straight up were they not subjected to wind, rain, gravity, uneven soil. If the distribution of air, sunlight, nutrients, gravity, and other factors were perfectly even, we would have straight-edge trees. These elements aren’t even, have never been even, cannot be even, and so they produce randomly mutated fractal patterns.

Interestingly, we humans now we live in environments wholly based on the straight edge; I-beams and milled lumber, the foundations of our homes, our streetlamps, television screens, windowpanes. There is no greater example that I can think of that represents the unbroken human endeavor to conquer nature.

Today’s photograph is how I present the tension between humankind and the natural world – steel beams, the skeletal structure of a half-complete hotel in Albuquerque. I made this image when I was in my “Aaron Siskind” period. It was my second or third year of college, and I refused to photograph anything other than sub-par replicas of his patented abstract style. For those of you unfamiliar with Siskind, he was a prolific American photographer considered to be closely involved with the Abstract Expressionist movement, whose works focused primarily on the details of nature and architecture. At his height in the 1950s, his works were often described as blurring the line between painting and photography – something I’m personally interested in as an artist.

I was working as a research assistant at The Center for Creative photography on starvation-level wages under the Federal Work-Study Program. At the time it didn’t bother me; access to so many wonderful, historically significant photographic prints and photographer archives was plenty enough for me. Hell, I considered it an honor (and still do).

Then, recently, I found a faded, crinkled pay stub in an old suitcase. Boy was I being robbed.
But that’s a story for another day.

They say that emulation is the greatest form of flattery. I hope Mr. Siskind was looking down on my  from high with his notoriously crooked smile. I learned a lot trying to copy the masters, and I believe this is how many artists begin their journey. Not from square-one, but on the shoulders of giants, borrowing their voice while we struggle to find our own.

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