Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Did It Really Look Like That?

There is one question that I've gotten more than any other from people looking at my photography: "Is that what it really looked like?" This is a question that has so much baggage attached to it, that it needs to be unpacked before I can answer it. This blog post is an attempt at that unpacking.

Motivating this question is a sense of incredulity about the picture in question. Usually, I take it as a compliment, understanding it to mean, "Wow, I've never seen anything this beautiful or interesting myself. How lucky you were to be there with a camera to capture it." However, another way to take this question is that it is calling into question the authenticity of the photograph. Slyly, the questioner is suggesting that the picture isn't an accurate representation of the original subject. In this digital age where Photoshop and similar programs make it extremely easy to manipulate images (Iranian missiles anyone?), it's hard not to understand this suspicion.

A full discussion of the complications Photoshop adds to this issue will have to wait for another post to do it justice. For photography generally, though, the issue surrounding authenticity is intimately tied into the concept of what the original "really looked like" and that ultimately is a question of phenomenology, and as such, I can't answer it. I have no idea what *anything* looks like. I only know what my senses tell me about it. Hell, if you want to get really into it, you can ask whether we know with certainty that "it" is there at all outside of our perceptions of it. In this way, I have no way of knowing what it looks like in "reality," but only what it looked like to me at the time.

Let's look at a specific example. I took this photo last summer at Coney Island:


GOLDEN TICKETS (processed)

Now, as you can see, there's quite a difference between these two images. I didn't crop this image in the processing stage, but I did do some color correction which resulted as you can see in a much more vibrant photo.

Now, you could say, "Aha! This *isn't* what it really looked like. I *knew* it!" but such a supposition implies that the camera blindly and completely captures what was actually there to be captured. Instead, the technology itself in getting that original RAW image is working all kinds of voodoo on the subject, not the least of which is its transmuting the subject from three dimensions to two which results in various shifts in the visual geometry of the original subject.

Along with that, the sensor doesn't capture light and color in the same way the eye does. It can capture spectra of light that the human eye can't even see, for example, and so this original file is only an approximation of what the *camera* "sees," not the photographer. Therefore, that image straight from the camera doesn't resemble what I remember seeing nearly as much as the final, processed image does.

So I ask you, "Is that what it really looked like?" Depends on who you ask, me or the camera. For me, the artist, I can only say that the final, processed version is my best approximation of my memory of the subject on that day. It captures not only the physical actuality of the subject as closely as possible, but it also is my best attempt at capturing how that subject made me feel because ultimately that is what photography is all about. A photograph shouldn't just document the physical reality of the subject, but should attempt to communicate its emotional and subjective reality as well. That is my very long, and I'm sure, incomplete answer to a very short question. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, I'd love to hear from you. Please comment below. Thanks and take care.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Coney Island, Baby

On July 18th, over 32,000 photographers around the world gathered at various locations and spent the next few hours photographing everything they could get their cameras on. This was the second year for Photowalk, an event inpired and organized by Scott Kelby, and based on the results of the photos I've seen taken on that day, it couldn't have been a more rousing success.

My brother Jacob to come down from Illinois to do the walk with me at Coney Island. At our location alone there were around 40 other participants and we couldn't have had a more beautiful day. It was an amazing experience for at several reasons. First, Coney Island. What an amazing riot of color and people and activity. Normally, I feel too self-conscious and invasive to take pictures of strangers on the street, but because Coney Island was so crazy no one even noticed if I snapped them. Of course, it didn't hurt there there were so many other people doing the same thing. It made what I was doing with the camera just background noise. The other photographers also made the day special by giving me a sense of community that is all together too easy to be without. Photography can be such isolating work, just you, your camera, and your computer. It was wonderful to be with other people just as obsessed with the visual world as I was. And oh what amazing images they created. I felt honored to able to be a part of the group.

For those interested, you can go here to see a stream of the worldwide photowalk images. If you want to see some of the images I captured at Coney Island, you can see my photostream here. As a part of the event, Scott Kelby is going to choose some photographs from the entire walk as prize winners. Below, I'm including my two entries. If you get a chance to go next year, I highly recommend it. You don't have to be a professional. You just need to have a camera and love photography. As Émile Zola said, "In my view, you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it." Take care.

High Cotton

Coney Island Cone

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Altered States

This is a photography blog where I have wrestled with various issues that I confront as I continue to develop in my craft. This entry will be a bit of a departure from that. Okay, maybe more an extension of that.

I have been experimenting with some of my photos and am curious about viewers' responses to those experiments. The following images all started out as traditional photographs but have been photoshopped to within an inch of their lives. Such manipulation takes the representationality of the photographs and leeches out the indexical nature of the image, leaving only its most basic constituent shapes, colors, and textures.

I'll always be firmly committed to "traditional" photography, but I find something very freeing about this experiment. I'm considering putting together a show of these images printed onto stretched canvas, so I'm very curious how others respond to these images. Do you find them compelling or contrived? Somewhere in between? Which ones do you find the most and least interesting? Why? Thanks in advance for any feedback. Take care.





Burning Angel





Tuesday, June 2, 2009

HDR fun

I just got Photomatix Pro because everyone seems to be having so much fun with HDR photography. It's early days yet, but here is my first experiment with it. It's an HDR version of a picture from the previous entry, so you can compare the two images. I was very heavy handed with this one, but it's got me intrigued enough to continue to experiment with it. Any thoughts or reactions from the peanut gallery?

Avebury Circle HDR

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

post while on IR

Sorry for the long absence on the blog, but my broken hand has made both photography and typing rather difficult. I thought, though, I could at least share some of my photos from my recent trip to England. Photoshop and Light Room at least are still one-handed activities. As always any comments and insights are welcome. Take care.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Sad to say, I didn't get accepted to the New Jersey Arts Annual that my previous post was all about. Nonetheless I was very happy with the entries I submitted and was glad I entered because I forced me to sit down and create something that had long eluded me: the artistic bio. When I first started this blog, I talked about struggling to write an artistic statement. I finally got a basic one done and was happy with it. However, I never had any luck doing an artistic bio.

There are a number of reasons for this I am sure. I don't like to write about myself because it is difficult. I feel like you are caught navigating an impossible strait between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, you don't want to build yourself up so much that it appears that you are arrogant and full of yourself, but on the other hand, you have to have *something* to say about yourself or why else would anyone want to read about you.

I also feared that by talking about my past, I would only highlight what a relative newcomer to fine-arts photography I am and so only provide people another reason to give short shrift to my work.

Lastly, I just didn't see how it was relevant. Yes, I could state where I was from and what I used to do for a living, but who cares? It doesn't help anyone connect with any of my work. However, there I was wrong. A gallery director friend of mine once told me that the most common request from potential art dealers was to know more about the artist and the past history of the work. They want to have some kind of window into the art, something that will help them contextualize it. An artistic bio can help do just that.

But I was still stuck with what I saw as an impossible task regardless of how necessary it now was. Fortunately, I met Nancy J. Ori who founded the New Jersey Media Center where, among other things, she runs workshops to help develop emerging artists. The last workshop I took with her, she covered how to write an artist bio. It was a very helpful experience that helped me finally get past my issues. While it's still a work in progress, as is my life so it only makes sense, I'm happy with what I have now.

Riley A. Vann was born in New Mexico and grew up in Texas. Studying English at Texas A&M, the University of Florida, and West Virginia University, he went on to teach college writing and literature for fifteen years. After studying and teaching the stories we tell ourselves and how those stories identify us, he became interested in the ways we mark ourselves outside of words. With the camera, he began to capture the visual signs and symbols that also tell our stories. Drawing inspiration from photographers like William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Joel Sternfeld, he now uses his camera to discover that which literally makes our culture visible.

To borrow from Eggleston, as a photographer Riley Vann is at war with the obvious. His art engages the mundane objects of everyday life, the things that have become invisible to us, and rescues them from the background into which they vanish. This may involve more abstract studies in texture and light or a cultural anthropological “dig,” focusing on objects that act as signposts and touchstones for a range of social values and concerns. While his subject matter may vary, all of his images strive to find the beautiful in the strange and the strange in the beautiful.

It's a combined artistic statement and bio as you can see. I think it's a good start, but it definitely needs work. I'd love to hear any comments or suggestions anyone has. It has been a tough task, but one that in the end I really learned from. Thanks and take care.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jersey Art Splash

I am finally entering my first New Jersey art show. It's the prestigious 2009 New Jersey Arts Annual. This is a very selective show which showcases the best of Jersey fine arts. While getting picked for such shows is always a dicey proposition no matter how good your work is because judging is such a personal process, the topic this year is one that I think my subject matter is well suited for: Local Life. This is how they describe what they are looking for:

"In these transformative times, the headlong rush into 'globalization' sometimes obscures the intimate, familiar details of life immediately around us. We are asking artists to turn their vision towards their own communities, their own homes, their own lives, their own thoughts, to explore life as an intimate experience, and through art find what is profound in the familiar."

Needless to say, if you read my entry about my struggle to create an Artistic Statement (one of my first entries), then you know how well this fits what I am interested in capturing already. Couldn't be more tailor made for me. As long as they don't interpret this to be a Norman-Rockwell look-a-like contest, I think I have a good chance, but as I said, you never know.

Without further ado, here are the 8 images I submitted:

The Duke in the John


First Grade, Mrs. Maskew

The Santa of Christmas Past




Take a Number

I'm very excited about this show and the images I've sent in. Regardless of the outcome, it's exciting to finally start my entrance into the New Jersey art scene. If you are interested, the show will run at the Morris Museum from April 29th to June 28th. Wish me luck!