Oct 23, 2009

Robert Irwin

Mostly sunny today, what a difference compared to Wednesday's cold wet misery. It's still cold -- low 30's I'd guess -- but at least I'm dry and even have fleeting moments of true warmth. If I can stay warm enough I'll stay here after dark to get some night shots as the next few days are supposed to be more wet snow and, in the absence of a hot tub, a shot of whiskey and a naked woman, better suited for studio work.

I've been thinking more about what makes an image powerful. My current conclusion is that powerful images are like pornographic images in that you know them when you see them but they're damn hard to describe. They differ from porn however in being an awful lot harder to make.

My dear and talented friend Chandra Meesig turned me on to the work of Robert Irwin a few years back and in particular to his biography Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees that's so skillfully written by Lawrence Weschler. I've been re-reading it here in CO and would like to share a few paragraphs that relate to power in images. He's talking about painting but the concepts are applicable to any art form:

"Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn't just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum...
...some people call it 'the inner life of a painting.' Shapes in a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It's a psychic build-up, but it's also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists all knew it too. That's what a good Vermer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they've got it, they just jump off the goddam wall at you. They just, BAM!"

Yeah! That's what I'm looking for, that BAM, that WHOA, that whateveritis that stops you in your tracks. It's different for everyone of course, I have friends who yawn at Jackson Pollock's work while my heart races every time I see one. My artistic cork is more likely to pop when someone achieves that power with a minimum of visuals, whether Avedon's white backgrounds in his portraits or Sugimoto's seascapes that are literally just sky and water. That's what I work towards in my photographs, images that are as simple as possible and as strong as possible.

OK, so what does that mean in terms of how to shoot trees -- should they be towering trees? Dark and stormy trees? Bizillions of trees? You once again have not told me in which direction to point the camera. Well, I think trees and photography share an essential commonality. Neither could exist without light. (Of course every living thing on earth ultimately depends on light, but not at such a first-order need.) So that's where I think the power lies -- how trees, even barren ones, interact with light. My time-lapse videos show trees in transition from daylight to night to daylight again. My day-long exposures condense 8 hours of daylight into one image. My nightime shots expose trees using either artificial light or, as I'm doing right now, starlight and moonlight.

My goal is to make the resulting images as visually simple as possible. They will, however, ultimately be recognizeable; they can't be totally abstract. A limitation of photography is that a photograph can never achieve the complete abstraction of Robert Irwin's image above. A photograph is a trace, it's always an image of something else. Turning that recognizeable image into a visually powerful experience, that's the thing.

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