Sunday, September 22, 2013

The African Basket: the value of craftsmanship

A gift for my wife from a daughter, the woven basket is used for all sorts of carrying operations and each time I see it I feel warmed and satisfied: it is such a beautiful thing, woven with skill by someone I will never know personally but whose skill I admire just the same.

It is not just pretty in the conventional sense, but is sturdily made and will be with us for the rest of our lives, - a faithful companion, you might say, til death do us part. Someone has built it carefully within a long tradition of basket making and with a care for materials and colour combinations that goes beyond the merely practical. It is interesting how an inanimate object can be, will be, invested with so much meaning, so much of our identity.

We see these baskets for sale in our local markets and stores, and they are not expensive. When one calculates the original purchase price, the shipping costs and resale markups, the maker must have received a pittance, and yet she still made it with care and pride, really put herself into it, independently it seems from any consideration of the purchase price.

Could this really be thought of as art, that elusive quality that never lacks for definitions, definitions that always seem to fall short and change with every definer? For me it is simply excellent craft; it does not aim to talk about anything more exalted than form and function, no matter how much I appreciate it. Its just a beautiful example of how powerful craftsmanship can be.

What is really being show here is how seldom we see it in our mass production machine-made world of plastic throw away items. This African basket rests comfortably on the floor and is a valued part of our surroundings. Whoever you are, you maker, I feel I do know you after-all: strong, smart, dependable and very beautiful!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Negative Space. A design component of every photograph and of the other visual arts.

Negative Space.
Zut! Is this something that the spaceship Enterprise will have to overcome? Or perhaps a psychological state? Possibly, we are able to take whatever slant we like of course, but lets assume 'negative space' refers to a visual design term whose companion is 'positive space' and together they monopolize the spacial characteristics of our photographic image.

But to take a step back before we go farther into design theory. When we take a photograph we actually take a piece of reality and make a two dimensional image from it, just as a story about a real event refers to reality but is no longer the event itself, but is rather an artificial construct with its own conventions and ideas. Art itself, as Joni Mitchell recently said in a CBC interview comes from the root artificial ( or artifice). The singer and her song are obviously not the original circumstance that may have suggested it. I'm beating this idea hard because it is the essential concept that must be grasped before the idea of designing or composing one's photograph can be built upon.

An image is made, whether drawn, painted, two or three dimensional or photographed, with the purpose of communication, just like a story, poem or a piece of music is made to transmit some idea or other, and good ones do this with some clarity and intent. There is nothing to be gained by jumbling and creating confusion (although we see and hear this technique used all the time by leaders of all stripes for their own propagandist ends). So, now we come to negative space and it role in visual communication.

A few years ago I took a lovely shot of my big traditional schooner but was annoyed to find it had an extra mast in the print. I had seen only the positive space, my ship, and had not checked in the background , the negative space, for that pesky mast of a yacht behind her. My binocular vision had created separation but the monocular camera and two dimensional print had not.

This summer I was photographing a poppy, picked it and held it up with one hand against the blue sky and snapped its photograph. I had thought ahead ( pre-visualized) and removed it from the clutter of the garden and placed it so the blue negative space around it added to rather than detracted from the effect in the final image.

I am photographing my granddaughter swinging on a branch over the waves foaming onto the beach. With all the rapid action, this is difficult to do, but I pause before beginning and select a very low camera angle facing out to sea, so the camera is at the surf line and my subject high above it. I have manipulated my photograph so the resulting image will separate the positive image cleanly from the negative space around it and coincidentally create a much more dynamic picture in the process.

The blurred forms of summertime dry ocean spray are still the subject, even thought the usual conventions of picture taking are reversed. The sharp background is the negative space in this case. Finding new ways of  designing is not just for the challenge; getting the viewer to take a fresh look is important if we are to communicate.

In many cases I find that a slight cropping will bring the positive space firmly to the edges of the frame and so organize the negative space around my main subject into varied shapes that help the design and avoids the problem of one large uninteresting background. One can blur the negative or positive space through manipulation of the depth of field or, in the computer, darken or lighten or soften or replace one colour with another. To suggest only a few possibilities.

And yet it is so hard to generalize, and formulas for successful pictures are not worth much in the end, just as rhyming in itself does not make a poem or 'painting in oils' guarantee a great picture. It is a very nuanced thing and only training ones eye to observe everything, positive and negative, and being willing to endlessly experiment will lead to picture making proficiency over time. That is the challenge for all of us.

Which is negative space, foreground or background? I have used a 'frame' to guide the eye towards the yacht, so is that the subject, the positive space? Or is the very interesting rock formation that fills half the space the positive? I like this image because of the interplay, the permanently unresolved space that " just keeps on going".

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The photographic show. What is the role of the viewer?

I visit a photo show at our local Artspring Centre for the Arts and cruise along at a distance at first, trying to get an overall appreciation before stepping closer to view each individual piece. One of the photographers, on duty being a minder of the exhibit, asks me which is my favourite image. I realize that I have no pat answer, but choose an interesting image of stacked chairs and indicate that I liked that one. But really that question was not on my radar today and I still dislike the assumption that lay behind it. Yes I know that it is the usual question, along the lines of discussing the weather, or how are you, but why must we stand in judgement, and use our likes and dislikes as the ruler to measure the value of a piece of work?

In 'The Song of the lark', Willa Cather's book about a pioneer girl finding her singing voice in America, she notes that the only certain remark about a performance was that it felt good, the listener liked it if it moved them or fitted into their idea of beauty. It was always self referential. In the far west in the late 1800s listeners had little except their feelings with which to understand a piece of unfamiliar artistic expression. Are we still stuck in that mode of thought some hundred years later?

As I looked carefully at the images before me I realized why I had reacted so strongly. I was trying to understand each piece, not judge it as to whether I liked it or not. ('Understanding' assumed of course that the photographer was actually trying to communicate something more than 'Aren’t I pretty, buy me!') The task for me, the viewer of art, was to attempt to get into the mind of the maker. As this was a very eclectic show with a dozen or so exhibitors with each artist having only three images presented, there was not much there to allow me to understand where they were coming from. 
Photography is such a vast and varied field: is this image social commentary, is that beside it simply a beautiful flower, is that one in the next room aiming at a psychological, almost literary theme? It is important that I make some tentative categories if I am to approach each image with the right mind set and I need to do all this with my thinking mind wide open. This is the pleasure for me, rather than seeking a beauty hit and then moving on unchanged. 

Do I like it or not may be my final thought, but that will be based on how successfully I think the photographer may have hit his personal mark: was he successful, rather than does this fit within my own personal parameters of artistic expression. I feel good about an image because by pausing to examine it closely I have had a view into another creative sensibility. I leave the show knowing more than I did before, my world view is expanded, and that surely is the real objective of the arts.