I am posting the entire interview in my blog post as the Canadian Photographers Online (CPO) link is no longer working. It is an interview that I did in early 2013 where I expounded further on some of fine art photography theory and photographic vision principles including my concept of “oramagraphy” (vision drawing).
Q~ John, there are two things that struck me when I first viewed your work: you have an unteachable sense of composition and, more interesting, a strong visual aesthetic. How is it that you approach these two, sometimes conflicting, practices when creating your art?
A~ First, I would like to thank you T. Gordon for the honour and opportunity to not only display some of my photography but the chance to elucidate some of my thoughts and theories about photography that have evolved with my own personal vision.
Let me start by stating that I do not believe in rules of photography in absolute terms. I believe in practical principles of photography that foster an authenticity, aesthetic, and affirmation in an artist’s photography which inevitably leads the photographer to discover this synaesthesia of vision and voice in the pursuit of their own fine art photography. The way I practice my art is to focus on three synergistic and complimentary principles of photography: composition, content, and context. Although seemingly simple as concepts on the surface, they provide a complex framework for a personal treatise on creative-expressive skills and what may be classified as a “non-zero sum psychology” that involves a continuum of fine art photography from its preconception and process to its positive recognition between the photographer and the observer of the photographer’s art.
Many photographers, including myself, tend to gravitate towards the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, and even the diagonal method as a basis for composition when they first pick up a camera. Although I believe photography is a skill that develops and evolves with experience and time like any other skill, these rules of composition are helpful but they set limits for instinctual discovery and trajectories of ingenuity in photography. There are many geometric compositions, such as the Gamut or 1.5 Armature, that offer a more interesting balance to the eye when viewing a scene or photograph. However, if we were to imagine a tesseract composition, for example, where the inner cube of the cube focuses on the main subject(s) and the outer cube stretches to elements within the frame that compliment the position of the subject, we would be creating a more complex geometric perception that may work well (or not). In many ways, a resilient composition is the foundation of a strong visual aesthetic in photography because it balances and orders all elements within a minimalist or multi-layered scene into a flowing perspective with a pleasurable and powerful sensory and emotional impact. When a photograph offers resistance to true vision because it lacks a stimulating subject matter, perspective, or composition, it disavows the Rothkoesque notion of the felt aesthetic as an essential condition and content of all art. In essence, a good composition, whether standard or idiosyncratic, instinctual or calculated, is the starting point for all photographers but it also becomes a tipping point for a natural and beautiful geometric harmony in the photograph that just looks and feels right.
The content of a photograph is equally important but is not limited to one subject or style of photography. Although there is a strong association with fine art photography being “black and white” and sometimes “long exposure” for landscapes, waterscapes, architecture, abstracts, portraits, and artistic nudes, colour is just as valid and can be just as timeless. It is one of the main reasons I espouse and promote an “eclectic aesthetic fine art” (EAFA) philosophy of photography. I think the main mission of any great photographer, in my estimations, is to explore and capture the complexity of beauty in the simplest of moments while offering a reflective psychological and emotive experience based on the artist’s self-expression or vision. Originality in content is not a prerequisite for mastery of one or more subject matters in photography. It may be said that “originality” has been done before. It is one of the reasons that I also ocus on something I refer to as “oramagraphy” (literally translated from the Greek as “vision drawing” – photography based on a meaningful pursuit of an artist’s own realized vision) to obtain a personal originality. However, I do believe we should strive for true innovation as photographers and try to distinguish our own work from others while pleasing ourselves first and foremost. As you can imagine, innovation is much harder in the digital age even if we try to take up the worthy notion of “photographic celibacy” promulgated by the accomplished American photographer, Cole Thompson, and not ask or observe what others think about our work. Inevitably, promotion of our own work on social media, for example, may take away our second and third virginity. Fine art photography is about the communication and contemplation of a revealed aesthetic meant to awaken something within us. There is vast but precarious agreement about what is beautiful as a subject in fine art based on masterful works and our own learning about what beauty is and means as individuals. I may find architecture as a striking subject for artistic expression but you may disagree. However, the aesthetic content of photographic art matters in so much as it can be contextualized as part of the artist’s personal vision.
Context is perhaps the most important principle of photography of the three because it is intimately linked to the photographer’s vision and voice and the possibility of avant-garde photography. In many ways, context is everything in photography simply because it sets the mood, it tells a story, and leads to discourse about the function of beauty through the artist’s visual interpretation and “final” statement about the world around them. In the simplest of terms, context is the way a photographer uses photographic and post-processing techniques to realize their own vision of beauty based on content and composition. Photography as art does not occur magically in a vacuum but happens within the context of the photographer’s personal statement and vision as they look through the lens of the self to look through the lens of the camera and back again. We evolve as photographers when we understand how to liberate beauty and make it profound. For the photographer, it becomes a phenomenological experience, a mindful praxis, and a continuous liveable moment prior to taking the photograph until the photographer makes the photograph, as Ansel Adams famously said, into something both real and unreal at the same time. Context also involves the observer of the photographer’s art. Individuals can relate to the photographer’s vision in ideographic ways, on a more personal level, or in nomothetic ways, within a more generalized aesthetic culture common to all individuals that leads to dialectics about the artwork in relation to humankind, nature, and society as in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. I think it is one of the main reasons that photography can offer a potent psychological reactivity, emotional resonance, and associative or relational qualities for both the photographer and the observer of the photographer’s art. Overall, good photography offers personal milestones in technical prowess where a rose becomes a rose; exceptional photography reaches the status of fine art when the artist can create visual poetry through an innovative unification of philosophy (e.g., existentialism) and psychology (e.g., perception and sensation), where a rose becomes more than just a rose but a contextualized object of art.
Q~ Patterns, both natural and man-made, dominate some of your images. At times, your focus on these designs creates photographs that become abstract as a result. But, to my surprise, your depictions retain a warmth that is rare considering the one dimensional subject matter. Are you naturally drawn to find patterns in nature and design elements in architecture? And, do you find difficulty in bringing life to them?
A~ I appreciate your insightful analysis of my work. I am naturally drawn to finding enlightenment in my photography where I least expect it. There is something so satisfying about treading where others have tread only to find something that is uniquely your own. Photography is a passionate and romantic pursuit for me. I strive to hold the cold mirror of reality up against the world to create warm memories of indelible moments and mold them further into art using photography as a medium of discovery. I also endeavour to liberate subjects from literal translations, similar to what Steiglitz accomplished with his Equivalents series of clouds, by utilizing patterns for impressionistic works, intricate or minimalist abstractions, or as part of a portrait. There is an inherent aesthetic sensitivity and sensory prioritization when observing patterns in nature and man-made objects that draws us in as photographers. I often immerse myself in a quiet contemplation within the kinetic geometry and opposing symmetries of elements within the ecology of any space. I attempt to find something distinctive in the interplay of subjects in my compositions, a fleeting instinctual and emotive formula that Henri Cartier Bresson called a “definitive moment”, and a contextual and psychological fit to my own vision and voice as a photographer. Perhaps that is my way of instilling “soul” into a scene that feeds my own soul. It has not always been easy for me to bring a subject to life with palpable warmth and vibrating patterns but when it happens, it is quite rewarding. One of the other ways that I also infuse personality into my abstract work is to give my photo an interesting title. Many photographers are reluctant to provide titles or labels to their work other than to describe the subject and scene. However, I believe that stimulating and thought-provoking titles and labels can provide a personal human touch without circumscribing or constraining the interpretation of the image by the observer.
I am also drawn to the notion that photography becomes fine art when a courtship leads to a marriage of art and science. Photographers are neuroscientists. art historians, and futurists at the same time. We are also sculptors of perception, painters of light and forms, and poets that use the language of math and physics (e.g., motion). As a scientist-practitioner and educator in the behavioural sciences, it comes naturally for me to interpret the experience of art as a “biopsychosocial” phenomenon. Our brains search for patterns to make sense of things, to connect dots even though they may be invisible at times. We learn from our experience to make those dots visible. We invest in neuroesthetic principles (e.g., symmetry) while producing something almost ethereal – the unique and evocative signature of the artist – whether we are aware of it or not. Although architecture itself, for example, can be seen as art, it is a worthy challenge for us as photographers to make uncommon sense of architecture and offer a new interpretation based on our own vision. When I photograph architecture, like many other subjects, it is a beautiful and almost musical distraction for me. This is one of the reasons why I sometimes refer to architecture as “Euclidean jazz”, a play on Goethe’s notion of architecture as “frozen music”. It is also the reason why I focus on promoting a functional definition and practical philosophy of photography known as “Archistract”:
“A concept, philosophy, and classification of fine art photography that focuses on the abstract qualities of various architectural styles and subjects using monochrome or colour compositions while highlighting patterns, forms, geometry, and gradations of light and shadows across various exposures. It is a portmanteau of the words “architecture” and “abstract”. It is a style of abstract and architectural photography that has recently evolved into a cohesive and functional vision combining elements and traditions found in abstract art, architecture, and photography as a whole.”
Although the word itself is not my own, any more than the word “abstract” or its variations are my own, it is one of the ways I am able to explore patterns in many creative ways as part of my vision.
Q~I understand that you are a resident of Toronto, one very beautiful city that abounds in architecture and diversity. As a photographer who shoots interior and exterior architecture, without the physical presence of people, how do you work in town of millions without having them seep into your images?
A~ Every great city has something to offer the photographer. Toronto has boundless opportunities for any type of photography (e.g., street, architecture, waterscapes) similar to its diversity. I sometimes act as if I am a tourist in my own city so that I can explore and feel the urban pulse with a sense of wonder. It is challenging to get the shots I want without people in them. This is where patience is a virtue and planning becomes a necessary vice. I will literally wait for 10-20 minutes at times to take a shot or more! I tend to trek downtown on a Sunday morning where I know the numbers dwindle. It would be easy to photoshop away people in a photo, but the purist in me tries to avoid that as much as possible. I also use long exposure techniques to essentially erase people out of the photo although this technique can also provide “ghosts” that offer fascinating images. Besides planning and having a lot of patience, I simply look up a lot to take photos. That sounds simplistic, but architecture and the celestial beyond always captivate me.
Q~As a photographer who is interested in finding the inherent beauty in your surroundings, I am interested in how you view the current state of photography. Specifically, do you feel that the recent rise in self documentation photography with camera phones, and the application of filter software to artificially add emotional depth and nostalgia, is one that aligns with the search for beauty in the mundane? Or, do you believe that the continuous flood of these types of photographs lessen the value of the medium and, inevitably, the message it carries? What are your thoughts?
A~ Picasso infamously declared the death of art and all learning as an artist with the advent of photography. It is widely acknowledged and quite obvious that his pronouncement was not only impulsive but went against the dawn of a new zeitgeist in shaping the art world. To me, photography is a type of written autobiography where the ink is the light that captures beautiful moments. Not every autobiography is profound and worthy of the status of art. When you consider the history of photography, the earliest photos depict people in portraits or in their travels. In many ways, the obsession with documenting memories and life events will never change. Technology and social media have made it much easier to do so without reflection. It is true to say that the rise in self documentation photography has diminished photography as an art form, but on the other hand, it has also created a much greater interest in photography as a form of self-expression. I am not a pessimist about the state of photography. Not everyone will pursue photography as a fine art form to the nth degree. You have to ask yourself why you picked up a camera in the first place and what do you want to do with it. What is its value to you? If the camera is a means to an end, then it is just a machine with a narrow purpose; if it is a natural extension of you, then it may offer limitless capital for “oramagraphic” creativity. With photography, I am often lost and found in its value and pursuits as an art form. I don’t believe that authentic art comes from some level of existential angst or raw emotion, although that can be a motivator. I believe in the endless journey of capturing an exquisite and timeless aesthetic. I also strongly believe that it is not the camera, but the person that makes a great photo. Some of my most popular photos were taken with a relatively cheap point and shoot camera and not a DSLR. When you can go beyond the “auto” functions of a camera and one-click post-processing, then you start to appreciate its creative value as something much greater. Many, if not all photographers use some level of post-processing in their work to mold reality into their own version of reality. When a photo can make an indelible impression on you, regardless of how you captured or created it, it is priceless. We are bombarded by images that flood our screens and often desensitize us but when an individual can appreciate and hone the art of seeing, photography has taught them to see the world with nascent eyes. It becomes an evolution to a new natural state of seeing and being. When photography, like all great art, can offer a sense of forgetfulness and mindfulness at the same time, an almost “zen of zen” peaceful state, then perhaps we have understood its potential as a fine art rather than as a mindless medium for archiving every moment in our lives. In this way, photography can never be devalued as a potential art form. Art can be just as valuable in pixels as it is in paint. As photographers, we need to advocate more for photography as an art form worthy of great museums such as the Louvre while educating others about the intricate psychology and philosophy of photography.
Q~ Finally, I am very interested in how you found your voice in this medium. Was there a moment where you felt it was important to pursue as an art form. And, further to this, are there any Canadian photographers who have inspired you?
I come from a very artistic family. My sister is a painter and interior designer and my brother is a graphic computer artist. I used to draw, write, and paint when I was young. I still write, but I definitely found my voice with photography in the last five years or so. When I first picked up a camera for purely artistic purposes, I envisioned a way to photograph the world as if I was trying to discover its secret wisdom and graceful beauty. When I realized that a camera was more than a camera but a way to express myself as an artist, I was completely hooked by its promise to offer me a deep exploration and a sense of wonder about the world. I tend to be quite observant of the world around me so I sometimes notice things that perhaps others may take for granted. As photographers, we have a sixth sense when it comes to finding subjects worthy of our time and effort even if it means traveling the road less traveled and becoming strangers in a strange land.
As for influences, there are several Canadian photographers who have inspired me. Although I have not delved deeply into portrait work, I absolutely admire the works of Yousuf Karsh for his immortalizing silver portraits of many well known figures in history and Christopher Wahl for his whimsical and honest nature and moving pictures concept. I also admire the long-exposure photography of Michael Levin. His work left me with the need to discover harmony in my own photography. I also find Freeman Patterson’s impressionistic landscape work to be some of the finest around. My newest photography hero happens to be Commander Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who is currently in space conducting science experiments while taking breath-taking, poetic images of our planet. He has produced some of the most compelling photographs ever known to mankind. I dare say that they meet the requirements of eclectic aesthetic fine art!
Thank you for an inspired interview!