Recently my meanderings of the day took me first to a presentation by a Calgary painter, Liz Sullivan, and later to an announcement of a new camera. When I looked back on the day, I realised that I learned something new and that was about how an image is represented on the flat surface of canvas vs photographic inkjet paper. Many will probably say that I should have been thinking about this a long time ago.
After Liz talked about where her travels took her, where she was inspired to create the paintings she was showing, she then talked about her methods. I was particularly interested in her description of brush strokes to create the feeling she wanted to display.
When her presentation was over, I looked closer at her paintings and paid particular attention to her brush strokes. Up close to her canvasses I could see brush strokes, in fact that is all I could see. Leaves on trees, ducks in the water, and a small window in a building were nothing but blobs or sprinkles of paint. But stepping back and looking at the image as a whole I could see a scene that was representative of our world. A real place with real things. Her images might have been somewhat impressionistic, but I knew exactly what was represented.
Later in the week I had a conversation with Peter Deacon, professor emeritus of art, University of Calgary. Peter concurred with my fascination with brush strokes and offered that he and others consider the brush stroke to be the signature of the painter.
In my world of art, I deal with the photographic print—the ones that I create. I tried to take what I had learned about brush strokes and apply it to my art. Up close or standing back I looked at many of my prints, trying to find my ‘signature’ in the physical appearance of my print. I couldn’t.
With master photographers such as Yousef Karsh, Cecil Beaton, Bruce Barnbaum, and Michael Kenna, I can see a hint of a signature in their images. These ‘signatures’ are not associated with the technical details of the image you see when you put your nose to the print. Rather, they are to do with the photographers style, choice of subject, and how they use tones in black and white image and hues in colour images. I think that those are the factors that invoke an emotional response in the viewer rather than the artist’s printing style. Viewing a photograph at nose-distance from the surface of a print, does not, for me, provide a clue of who the photographer might be.
I can always pick out the viewing photographers at an exhibit of photographs. They’re the ones with their faces right up to the images. Many photographers, myself included, call these folk the ‘pixel counters’.
I want to come back to my own photographic images. What is it that makes them mine—gives them my ‘signature’?
Is it my printing technique? No, I don’t think so. I’m a good printer, but so are many others. With the inkjet printing of today, many can produce equivalent quality prints of a digital image.
Is it the technical quality of my digital file as it comes out of my camera? No, I don’t think so. I have a good camera, but many photographers have cameras that record more pixel details than mine. Others have the same camera as mine and produce the same technical quality as the images that come out of my camera.
My subject material? Perhaps. I am emotionally attached to the openness of the plains and the uniqueness of the things I find upon those plains—the coulees, the abandoned farms, the lakes and marshes, the skeletal foliage that sticks out like sentinels, the visual quietness of the prairie towns. My photographs of those places do attract the eye of others—probably people of the prairies who can relate to the images.
I have been told that my images evoke a peaceful feeling in the viewer. If that is so, I’m pleased I accomplished that with them.
Now, about that term ‘signature’. I think the only personal ‘signature’ I can see in my art is that scrawl of my name down in the lower right hand corner of my mounted prints or on the back of my printed sheet. That little piece of uniqueness satisfies me.
About looking at a photograph in an exhibit, or anywhere else for that matter, stay away from ‘pixel peeping’. Step back. Look at the image and what it is trying to portray. If the image ‘gets you’ it probably reminds you of something in your past or a place that is a favourite. It also might be because it is aesthetically pleasing to your eye through colour, tone, and composition.
If the image doesn’t ‘get you’ or you just don’t like it, then move on. No photographer believes that everybody will like every piece of art they’ve ever produced for exhibit and that’s OK.
Copyright © 2015 Jack Blair Photographer