Saturday, February 19, 2011

Artistic Choices in Photography

As a fine art photographer, I have pursued establishing my own art style by experimenting with many artistic choices in photography. My work, Last Summer of Wrath (2009), which was exhibited in a group show at the Gallery Amalia last year, is a good example of these experiments. I made a lens assembly myself by cutting plastic lenses and putting them together with a flexible tube. This homemade lens provided exaggerated blurriness around sweet spots (clearly focused areas) and made the images distorted and painterly. Until I obtained some satisfactory images, however, I had to struggle with the handcrafting over and over again. By taking pictures through the homemade lens, I could successfully transform the objects into the exact representations of my burning emotions in the hot summer days. In his book, “The Origin of the Work of Art (1960),“ Martin Heidegger (1889~1976) stated that art has two realms, “world” and “earth,” which inherently conflict with one another. Unlike many other manmade things, art holds its own small “world” of human history and culture that artists intend to create. He argued, however, that the “earth,” which roughly refers to objects and materials used in art, tends to resist changing into a new “world” in an artwork. Therefore, to express their intentions satisfactorily, artists should consider how to balance the “world” and “earth” in their own arts. In this regard, I think that an established style of an individual artist can be redefined as a crossroad of the two conflicting essences of art. For example, Jackson Pollock (1912~1956) could find the crossroad where his “world” and “earth” meet by dripping paints on unstretched canvas. This practice, so-called Action Painting, became his established style of abstract art. In the history of art, some crossroads formed influential art movements in which many artists got involved. Minimalism, represented by the well-known phrase, “Less is more,” seeks for ways to minimize the strife between the “world” and “earth” in order to maximize messages. The conflict is essential in art; agreeing with this idea of Heidegger, I think that the levels of the conflicts must be artists’ own crossroads as their artistic choices.

In the beginning of the history of photography, people believed that unlike other genres of art, photographic images were determined more by the equipment and chemical process, and less by human touch. For a long time, this belief prevented photography from being regarded as one possible art form. People thought that photography had fundamental limitations of artistic expression due to its machine nature. It seemed that the notable thingness of photographic equipment and process triumphed over the possibility of a new kind of visual art. To overcome this common prejudice, many master photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz (1864~1946) and the photo-secessionists, dedicated their lifelong efforts to make photography recognized as a fine art. Instead of ignoring its earthy aspect, they attempted to broaden the artistic choices of photography by manipulating and developing the photosensitive imaging processes. In fact, one major stream throughout the 150 years of photographic history has been to provide more creative and flexible tools for photographers, so that they are able to have a variety of artistic choices. Photographic equipment has been developed from the fixed pinhole obscura with primitive film to multifunctional cameras with digital image sensors. The materials and processes also have been diversified into numerously different mediums from traditional darkrooms to digital printing labs. Particularly in fine art photography, both traditional and modern processes still coexist. Moreover, like my experience, sometimes artists experiment with making equipment and process themselves to find their own unique styles of art. Although my homemade lens worked well for the particular work, it does not mean that I have found an ultimate style of my visual art. For artists including me, I think that establishing their own styles of artwork is a long-term journey, maybe lifetime effort, as is the journey of defining identity throughout one’s life.

All rights reserved © 2011, Gabe Sheen, San Francisco, California, The United States of America

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