To be in conversation about any of the arts always prompts the artist within to show up. This blog is simply to be in conversation about the art of photography.
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Light and Shadow
I once wrote, “If you deny the shadow in life, you are only living one-half of your life.” I find photography or any art medium subject to this same insight. The play of light and shadow, their discourse so to speak, is critical to communicating thought, emotion, and/or story. In the book ‘Reverence’, Paul Woodruff wrote, “We know where light is coming from by looking at the shadows.”
What is prompting the shadows in our personal, spiritual, social/political, and physical lives? And, then we may ask, where is the light coming from? Light is always there, but from what source? Are shadow and light on speaking terms? I believe that the photographic magic of masters like Adams, Cunningham, Brandt, and Weston was found in how they made sure that light and shadow played well together.
Today the dark times of our economic, social, spiritual, and political lives may not in be any direr than other times in history. However, one must ask is the play of light and shadow working well? Polarizations are separating communities in strained and sometimes dangerous ways. With these thoughts in mind, is this a time in which photographers and other artists could take advantage of how the light and shadow life today can be visualized?
For example, a new photograph of mine would communicate clearly a growing fear of how light (in the form of hopefulness) is being suppressed by shadowy ideologies? Is there a subject, approach, or style that would communicate this growing sense of fear? What kind and level of light would come through if any and, from what source?
I know one thing for sure, the photograph (if successful) would share a deep foreboding. The shadows, more than likely, would dominate. And, they would capture how I sometimes feel lately, overpowered and lost as to what one can do to bring more light into being.
On the other hand, I might take the path of this adage, “It is always darkest before the dawn.” With this more positive outlook the photograph would have light clearly prevalent and even diffusing the blacks and shadows.
One of the reasons I so like doing what is called light painting is that I practice bringing light into a completely dark situation. I feel the responsibility of applying just the right amount of light in manifesting at least one positive aspect or character of the subject. To at least bring enough and the right kind of light into illumination even though the negative space darkness persists.
On a personal level, what frames your life? Is it a frame of fear and foreboding? Or, is it held by a frame of some position or way of being in life? Can it be filled with just the right amount of light to illuminate one’s most noble self? What kind of frame holds your life and can it be changed to allow the best light in?
Master photographer Paul Strand October 16, 1890 – March 31, 1976, chose to go to France in exile because of the anti-socialist McCarthyism in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. This was due to his socialist orientations that appeared unaccepted at that time. Living in France without begin able to speak French caused him to use his photography to speak…to communicate.
For several years now, I too have been using photography as a second language. I have noticed that when I embrace this way of communicating while in the process of subject capture, the results are significantly different from those captured with other perspectives and approaches. I even feel the difference internally. The interest, energy, passion, for the work is so much stronger. The internal feelings and external results are maintainable throughout the total workflow from vision to presentation.
The main thing I have always wanted to communicate to and with others is to encourage civility and a sense of calm in this sometimes harmful and noisy world. Many times, amid offering my work in art shows people come into my booth saying, “We just came back to calm down.” This is said without any need for me to say even one spoken word.
Capture with me for a moment. What if we were to try to communicate photographically the meaning of love, hate, passion, apathy, confidence, fear, happiness or sadness? How would we capture and thus communicate the very essence of who we are as an individual? I have noticed as well that when I am overly preoccupied with other life issues, the photographs I make seem to image that preoccupation. Maybe even the subject of my preoccupation! I feel it is true that no matter what image is made by the photographer, it is a tell, it is divulging a self-truth.
When it comes to photographic approaches, technical manipulations, subject matter choices or the metaphysics of imaging or making art, I believe those aspects to be only my personal dialect of my second language.
I now answer the question, “do you speak a second language,” by saying yes. My second language is photographic art.
The next time you go about your workflow pretend whole-heartily to be unable to speak or write. Tell somebody something through your photographic language. See if you notice a difference in how you feel and see?
Currently, I am working with a wonderful group of photographers who are desiring to explore what it means to create a masterwork. Though there are many definitions of masterwork or masterpiece, we are trying to determine if one of those definitions can be applied to our own workflow in creating a photographic image. Two definitions I would like to use in this blog are:
There are times in which I experience an artist's block. Is my signature style still resonating with what I want to communicate? Do I listen too intently to what others say about my work? Am I truly creative in making a photograph, or, am I merely taking or capturing something that appeals to me at a particular moment in time?
As I was going through some earlier writings of mine, I came across this prose from 21 years ago! What interested me about this writing was the word veil. Veils tend to allow only a partial vision. We are not quite sure what is being felt, seen, heard, or touched.
When I am making a photograph I at times wonder the same thing. What am I actually seeing and how much remains hidden or unknown? How this veil or barrier can be lifted?
The following is one perspective about veils as they affect our creative work and in many cases certain aspects of our lives.
Can the veil between what is known and unknown be lifted to truly see the other?
After all, it is only a veil made by we who insist on being apart from the other side.
Perhaps it is the artist who has felt the veil's rending, if only for a moment's moment.
The artist continues the 'genesis' not through selfish design but by illustrating dreams unfolding.
There is no act more noble. It is a partnership with that of the highest order.
Feel, see, listen, dream, perform O' artist of creative passion, yours is the flower of all humanity.
Adapted from March 14, 1995
The more I use all of my senses, the better I feel about the captures I make. Listening is one of those senses that bring an additional perspective and way of seeing. It can lead to positive change within one's personhood as well.
Listen, listen closely.
Only the silence will bring forth
ribbons of aliveness the past affirms.
Our ears still hear the faintest
of cries for help.
Works of love and empathy
Survive yet another moment.
Look quickly now,
to the conforming shapes and lines
that blur in the now
of shadow and light.
Touch the harsh texture of
risk and feel the sinking flow
of anxiety that greets perseverance.
These are the hallways of transition
and the doorways to transformation.
Sense the rhythms of
community flowing through
over and around that which blocks
Let the music of civil living
guide the way.
Listen yet again, be very still and
hear the gentle and persistent hum
of energy not yet lost.
Experience the diversity of a people
and experience the common likeness!
It is the symphony of possibility,
an instrument of peace and hope.
Out of the test come
the authentic call, touching the world.
From the moments of loving empathy
come openness and acceptance, touching the heart.
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© Essence Photography by Don Mendenhall