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

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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

May 27, 2017 – Walkabout

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“It’s often about the simple things, isn’t it? Painting and photography are first about seeing, they say. Writing is about observing. Technique is secondary. Sometimes the simple is the most difficult.”
~Linda Olsson

I’ve collected a lot of portraits like this during my bike rides and walkabouts in Tucson. North Stone Avenue is rich with old barber shops, auto repairs shops, and unique private markets. In an urban and suburban landscape increasingly swallowed-up by Levittown-style housing homogeneity and glossy corporate businesses, it’s nice to see small, privately owned businesses. Sometimes the character is rustic, and many of these businesses are struggling, but they have a salt-of-the earth quality that I will always appreciate.

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May 26, 2017 – Downtown Tucson

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“Photography is simultaneously and instantaneously the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact”
~Henri Cartier-Bresson

Originally known as the Willard Hotel, this property on South 6th Avenue – a stone’s throw away from the heart of downtown – was renamed the Pueblo Hotel in 1944. This weathered sign was installed in the 1950s. The hotel and apartments closed in 1984, when I was only one year old, and is currently home to a law office. The sign remains, though, even if it might be a little misleading. It was restored to like-new condition back in 2012 and I’m really pleased that I photographed it before the change.

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May 19, 2017 – Somewhere In New Mexico

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Hillsboro, New Mexico, is one of those places you would never know existed unless you intentionally decided to go out of your way. Luckily for me, that’s something I try to always do when traveling cross-country. The interstate is efficient, but it divorces the driver from the surrounding world; state routes always take you through winding paths, beautiful scenic views, and into strange little towns.

Hillsboro is due north of Deming, New Mexico, just off state route 152. It’s right on the edge of the Gila National Forest, and the winding road takes you through some absolutely gorgeous territory. When I last passed through, it was late October and the trees were dropping yellow leaves all around. The town proper is tiny – if you blink, you’ll miss it. There’s a post office, a couple of empty store fronts, and quaint little manicured lawns. According to the 2010 census, only 124 people live here. Like so many other small towns of the Southwest, Hillsboro was primarily a mining town, but even at its height in the late 1880s, the population never swelled past one thousand.

Always keep your eyes peeled when you’re on the road. There are a lot of interesting little places out there, just waiting for you.

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April 30, 2017 – Abstract April Finale

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“Quit trying to find beautiful objects to photograph. Find the ordinary objects so you can transform it by photographing it.”
~Morley Baer

This months blew by quickly; I can’t believe that Abstract April is coming to a close. I had a lot of fun putting these images out there, even though I know that abstract photography can be difficult for some people to appreciate. I do like looking for interesting compositions, strange textures, and random objects – this kind of photography is like a scavenger hunt, and it motivates me to play closer attention to the world around me.

I think to start out next month, I’ll be taking a step back from a lot of the macro photography that dominated this month’s images. Rather than surfaces and textures, I think the them of May will be ‘Places.’ I think that’s a sufficiently vague theme to give me decent breathing room. I hope you’ll join me.

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April 28, 2017 – Red White Blue

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“Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”
~Imogen Cunningham

Nothing tells the truth – not even the camera.
I know it’s a popular expression – “the camera never lies” – but that’s a lie. The camera has been used by governments as early as 1860 to create fictitious tableaux to galvanize opposition to political parties and rulers. The tools of photographic manipulation are more democratized, and much more easily accessed in today’s digital culture, but photographs have been manipulated since the very beginning.

And it’s not that it’s all lies, really, is just that the medium can be used to deceive as much as it can be used to enlighten. It’s a tool, not a philosophy. Tools can be used in many different ways. In a media landscape where an increasing number of people are becoming savvy to photographic and digital manipulation, it’s harder to tell the lie.

That’s why CGI in feature films ages poorly – the more people are aware and engaged, the more they are aware of the deception. The same thing is becoming true of still photographs, and scandals abound in the popular press of news photographers manipulating their pictures to try and make the scene more emotional, more beautiful, more dramatic than it actually was.

Can you spot the manipulation in today’s “Image of the Day?”
Double trouble, because it’s a purely aesthetic, ‘abstract’, composition. I’m confident that only trained eyes and other media professionals could even begin to peel this one apart. Give it a shot in the ‘comments’ section.

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