Sunday, December 30, 2007

What is Fine Art?

In Lenswork Magazine #63, in the Editor's Comments section, Brooks Jensen wrote a response to a question he was asked. "If you were going to demonstrate to a non-photographer the nature of fine art photography and why you are so passionate about it, which ten photographs would you show them?" At the end of his list he posed another question, "Now which images would you choose?"

I liked his answers and I think it is a very valid question and exercise. So here goes.

  1. Ansel Adams. I would be very dishonest if I did not recognize Ansel Adams as one of the main reasons I got into photography. His images created within me a desire to create, not imitate but create. I realized that to make images as amazing as his then I would have to learn to look at the world differently then I ever had before. As I started to look I realized that his pictures only existed in his pictures. I could not put my tripod in his marks and take the same picture. There was far more to photography than pushing a button and this gave me the desire to learn the craft of photography. There was no shortcut to becoming a good photographer. Of his images there are two that stand out the most to me. Moonrise over Hernandez and Clearing Winter Storm.
  2. Paul Caponigro. While in school I went on a school trip to San Francisco. We went down to Carmel and visited the Photography West and Weston Galleries. I distinctly remember seeing two images that cemented the feelings I mentioned in regards to Ansel Adams. Running White deer by Paul Caponigro and the second image will be shown next in my list. I had already learned about f-stops and shutter speeds and what they do. When I saw this image it was they first time I realized what they can do.
  3. Brett Weston. The second Image I saw was Mendenhall Glacier II. I had seen pictures of glaciers before and that was all I had to reference and there was no comparison. Much like I mentioned before I realized that his craft was not a crux it was what set him free to show the world how he saw. It also taught me to look at the world differently and see things not for what they were but what I could do with them.
  4. Edward Weston. I could not mention Brett without mentioning his father Edward. Most people see the relationship the other way around. Pepper #30. A boring name for a boring subject. Edward could see beauty in things others could not. He could take the simplest of objects and transform them into a masterpiece. Through his images I have been given another lens to look at the world through. I can not walk through a grocery store without having this image come to mind and changing my experience there. That is art.
  5. Ruth Bernhard. All of the photographers I have mentioned so far have a lot in common artistically and socially. Ruth is no exception, counting Edward Weston as one of her closest friends and mentors. Her images are definately her own. She is mostly known for her figure studies. I know her most for her use of light. Starting with her images of lifesavers, and door knobs but then carrying over to her figure studies. She was able to transform a female into a sand dune. It is probably due to her feminine characteristics but her images were the first time I noticed the real difference between pornography and art. Her images made me appreciate and respect women. It is hard to pick out one so I chose two to represent her.

  6. W. Eugene Smith. Tomoko in Her Bath. A beautiful irony I find in photography is when I see an image that is by nature ugly, sad, depressing and the first word that comes to mind to describe it is wow! This image is photo-journalistic by nature and as such is fairly straightforward. Everything about the subject matter is counteracted by its execution. What is in the picture is a deformed child being bathed by her mother. (She was crippled before birth because of mercury poisoning by large factories.) What I see in the picture is exquisite rim lighting, unreserved love for a child, a tender touch and a desire for the world to change so things like this don't happen.
  7. James Nachtwey. I have a hard time narrowing down a picture for Jim. He is a photojournalist who specializes in war photography and the human condition. Much like Eugene Smith, in Jim's pictures I am able to see past the horror to see the human and how they are affected. I think his compositional prowess puts him into the elite status of a Vermeer or a Da Vinci. Yet he is able to do it with very little premeditation and composing all the same while bullets are whizzing overhead and the risk of death is real. He works in a field that I don't think I could but creates images that epitomize visual brilliance.

  8. George Edward Anderson. He is by far the most unknown of the artists I mention and overall I am not a huge fan. But he does have one image that does what I think very few if any have done successfully. Using photography to create religious imagery. The story he tells is also not well known but is relevant in my religion, Mormon. His image allows me to feel the story and it's significance without being cheesy or sappy.
  9. Michael Kenna. Is a mix between Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. He takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. He has mastered the concept of less is more and also Da Vinci's observation that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I have a book of his called Monique's Kindergarten that consists of images taken inside a kindergarten. He can take the simplest of things and elevate them to something grand.

  10. Nick Brandt. Nick created images that will forever change how I teach and view photography. If you have taken an intro photography class chances are good that you were given a list of taboo subject matter: kittens, barns, railroad tracks, babies, etc., etc. I have never been a fan of wildlife photography. There was something very plastic and too straightforward for me. Until I saw Nick's images. I no longer forbid any subject matter. I realized that it is not a fault with the subject matter but with the photographer. He made me love wildlife photography. That is fine art described as best I can.

  11. Dorothea Lange. I am going to cheat a little and show 11 instead of ten. Of all the images I discussed there is currently only one of these hanging in my house. It is Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. Yes, this image is over shown. You would be hard pressed to open an American history book and not find a copy in it. This should not negate how good of an image it really is. This picture taught me the power of an image to evoke change and emotion from people. This single image could be credited with saving many lives during the great depression because it had the power to move people to act.

Honorable mentions: John Pfahl, Richard Misrach, Keith Carter, Huntington Witherill


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