Posts Tagged ‘interpretation’

Thoughts on Art – What Is It?

July 29th, 2016

 

What is Art?

I want to talk about art.point_lobos_abstract_120809

Mind you, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’ve done some reading and talked to a lot of people about art and there are a lot of ideas out there on what art really is.

Some say art is a work that is displayed in a gallery or performed on a stage. I can see that (pun not intended; well, actually it was) although I’m not there – yet.

Others say that art is a work commissioned by a patron. Alas, not there yet either.

Still others say a work is art if the artist says its art. That’s fine as long as the artist can get others to agree.

But none of these definitions help me to grow as an artist. They don’t provide any indication of a path I can take to become an artist (other than perhaps bribing someone to hang one of my photographs in a gallery, at least for a day or two).

I’m looking for a definition of art that will provide some guidance in my quest to become an artist – to grow as an artist.

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Four Types of Photographs

December 12th, 2015

Something hit me the other day on the way into work. That happens quite often. I mean I didn’t get hit by a car or anything. I got hit by an idea. And the idea this time is that there are four types of photographs. In this blog post I want to illustrate what I have in mind by showing you the same raw file rendered four different ways.

 

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Is That What Your Camera Saw?

July 24th, 2014

Occasionally at art festivals a visitor to my booth will point to one of my photographs and ask, “Is that what your camera saw?”  This question points out a common misunderstanding about the physics and art of photography.

Those of us who are serious about our photography capture our digital images in RAW file format.  That’s a format that does a minimal amount of processing on the image before it saves it to the memory card.  It is more like what the camera sees.

The other format is  JPEG and is not what the camera sees but rather a highly processed image that is controlled to a large extent by the settings the photographer sets in the camera – settings like sharpness, contrast and saturation.  So if the photographer likes saturation he just has to up the saturation setting in the camera.

JPEG is much closer to the photographs that were captured in the wonderful days of film.  Each different type of file had its own unique way of responding to the scene.  Kodachrome film was great for reds while Ektachrome was perfect for blues.  Fujichrome was prized for its treatment of greens and its high contrast.

So what did the film camera see?  The question is really, “What did the film see?”  Was it a faithful documentation of reality?  Not in the least.  The same can be said for JPEG digital files.  They are no more a faithful documentation of reality than film was.

The fact is, RAW files are closer to what the camera saw than film or JPEG files ever were or will be.  And, as one workshop participant put it to me, “I don’t like shooting in RAW because the photographs are so plain and uninteresting.”  There you go.  What the camera sees, exactly what the camera sees, is often plain and uninteresting.

So the physics of digital images captured in RAW format is that the images are the closest to what the camera sees.  But from an artistic point of view, these images generally do not speak to us.  These are documentation but that’s not art; art is interpretation.

Now, a RAW file is the perfect starting point from which to create art.  It is neutral, unbiased and open to the artist to express what she saw, what she experienced that inspired her to set up the camera and compose the image, that led to the decisive moment that the shutter was pressed.

In the days of film we relied on our selection of the type of film that would do the best job of rendering particular situations.  In the digital era we have much more powerful tools that we ever had with film – Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomatix and all the wonderful software that we have access to that allows us to express our vision, our interpretation of reality.

So, are my photographs what the camera saw?  Not at all.  They are what I saw.


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A Conversation about Fine Art

April 13th, 2013

What’s on your mind?

I’ve been thinking about ‘fine art.’

You’ve got to be kidding. I mean there are PhDs that study this sort of thing, masters of the arts that won’t touch the topic. What makes you think you can think about ‘fine art?’

I don’t know. I just wonder about it. I’m trying to be an artist and I wonder what it all means, if I’m truly an artist or if I’m getting any closer.

Ok, you’re a photographer, aren’t you? So you must be thinking about fine art photography. You must be nuts! Nobody agrees on what fine art photography is.

Yea, fine art photography, that’s it. What do you think? Do you have any ideas of what it really is? I mean I’ve heard people say that if you want your photography to be art all you have to do is to call it art and it is so. ‘My photographs are fine art.’ Lord knows you hear that enough. But that seems a bit too simplistic, a bit too easy. It seems like it should be more than that.  I mean, can you snap a picture, run down to Costco to get a large print and call it art?

 

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Best Photograph of 2012 – California Desert

February 2nd, 2013

We are choosing the best Ralph Nordstrom Photography photograph of 2012, or, more precisely, you are.  We’re running a series of surveys, selecting the best photograph from each of five areas where we did workshops – Death Valley and Joshua Tree (collectively the California Deserts), Eastern Sierra, Big Sur, Zion and Bryce Canyon.

The first survey covered the California Deserts.  And the results are in.  But before presenting them I’d like to give you an opportunity to weigh in on the second survey – the incomparable Eastern Sierra.  We were there in early June which is summer in the Owens Valley but still spring up in the mountains.  There are six photographs to choose from and the survey will only take a couple of minutes.  So click the link below and share your opinion.

Select the Best Eastern Sierra Photograph of 2012

OK, now let’s turn to the results of the California Deserts survey.  There were four photographs, two from Death Valley and two from Joshua Tree.

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Taking Your Photography to the Next Level

January 13th, 2013

“Did you manipulate your photograph?”  “Did you use a filter?”  “Do you use a Mac?” “Do you crop your images?” “I’ll have a nicer day than you; I’m not shooting a Canon.”  Yes, someone actually said that to me at Bridal Vale Falls in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon in response to my cheery, “Have a nice day.”  I guess when you take the entire population of photographers you will always find those that are prejudiced and closed minded just like any other population.  They think they are right and anyone that disagrees with them is wrong.  It’s that simple.

The current issue of Lenswork magazine, the premier journal for black and white photography, has an article by guest contributor Jim Kasson titled “Previsualization in the Digital Age.”  I couldn’t wait to read it.  In my workshops and lectures I’ve always advocated that an artist interprets reality and communicates that interpretation through her or his art.  In landscape photography I’ve encouraged our workshop attendees to leave their camera gear in the car until they connect with a location and only then set up their cameras to try to capture what is is they are experiencing.  Previsualization, the anticipation of what the finished work will look like, is a big part of communicating what you are feeling.

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Ansel Adams – The Making of 40 Photographs: El Capitan, Winter Sunrise

September 3rd, 2012

I’ve heard it said that many photographers believe there are no more photographs in Yosemite, that all the great ones have been taken.  And it’s true that the prime locations have been photographed again and again, sometimes with 50 or even 100 photographers all vying for their three square feet of ground in which to set up their tripods. 

It would appear the assumption is that if a particular location is photographed too many times, becomes too popular, it becomes a cliché.  I’ve succumbed to that point of view in the past.  There seems to be the faintest whiff of, “I’m too good to photograph something so common.  I’m able to find what no one else has never seen.”  I know; I kind of felt that way.

El Capitan, Winter Sunrise
Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams had something to say about that in connection with this photograph.

“A viewer once asked me about the values: ‘Don’t you think the trees are rather dark?’  Black and white photography gives us opportunity for value interpretation and control.  In this instance, were the trees lighter in value, the glow of the light on the cliff would, for me, be far less expressive.  Exposing for higher forest values  would have weakened the separation of the far brighter cliff and cloud values.  However, other photographers might well make quite different images.  I would not like anyone to think I believe this image to be the only one possible, but it fulfills my visualization at the time of exposure.  In an overpowering area such as Yosemite Valley it is difficult for anyone not to make photographs that appear derivative of past work.  The subjects are definite and recognizable, and the viewpoints are limited.  It is therefore all the more imperative to strive for individual and strong visualization.”

Adams’ comment gets to the heart, mind and soul of the artist.  There are two key concepts in his statement that, for me, define art.  The first is ‘interpretation. ’Black and white photography gives us opportunity for value Interpretation and control.”  I take from this that our photographs are interpretations of the subject.  After all, art is interpretation.  And, as artists, it is through interpretation that we share with our viewers our vision of the world.  We don’t document reality; we interpret or possibly even create reality.

The other concept that catches my attention is ‘individual … visualization.’  Adams speaks of his ‘visualization’ all the time.  And the reason we enjoy his photographs so much is because of his strong visualizations.  When he tripped the shutter he knew what effect he wanted to create with the image.  He knew what he wanted to convey in terms of what he was feeling and he knew how to do it, especially when he developed and refined the Zone System.

And it was his interpretations and visualizations that took a location that had been photographed time after time by many other photographers and turned it into something uniquely and identifiably his.

So stand on the bridge in Zion or line up to photograph Delicate Arch in Arches or join the throng at tunnel view in Yosemite.  You can make your photograph unique through your own strong vision and interpretation.


This is a continuing series based on my reading of Ansel Adams’ wonderful book, “Examples – The Making of 40 Photographs.”  It is exciting to read of his attitudes towards making photographs, the decisions he made and the techniques he employed and apply them to the issues that confront us today as digital landscape photographers.  I think those of us who ‘Photoshop’ our images for the sake of achieving our visualization can feel a comradeship with the master.  The question, “Did you manipulate that photograph?” will never go away as long as our medium is the camera.  Adams was also confronted with the same question.  For those of use that believe that the purpose of making a landscape photograph is to share with our audience our response to and our connection with the subject, the work is not done when we press the shutter, it’s just beginning.  And we can delight in photographing the cliché locations, time and time again, because we are creating our own individual statement, not creating ‘derivatives’ of others’ works.


If you enjoy these posts please feel free to share them on Facebook or Twitter, or email them to your friends.  And we would really enjoy hearing from you.  Join the conversation –  leave a comment.

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To see more of my photographs click here.

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The Same Ol’ Question

June 18th, 2012

Every time I do a show I get asked multiple times if my photographs are manipulated.  My answer is always, ‘Yes, of course.’  The hidden expectation is that photographs are supposed to be accurate depictions of the scene that is photographed.  This expectation is not new.  And any photographer that seeks to make art rather than documentation must face this question.

Take Ansel Adams for instance….

ansel_adams_winter_sunrise

The above iconic Ansel Adams photograph is titled Winter Sunrise.  It is of Mt Whitney and Lone Pine Peak above the Alabama Hills with Adams’ characteristic dramatic lighting.

There’s an interesting excerpt regarding this photograph from his book, “Examples, The Making of 40 Photographs.”

“The enterprising youth of the Lone Pine High School had climbed the rocky slopes of the Alabama Hills and whitewashed a huge white L P for the world to see.  It is a hideous and insulting scar on one of the great vista of our land, and shows in every photograph made of the area.  I ruthlessly removed what I could of the L P from the negative (in the left-hand hill), and have always spotted out any remaining trace in the print.  I have been criticized by some for doing this, but I am not enough of a purist to perpetuate the scar and thereby destroy – for me, at least – the extraordinary beauty and perfection of this scene.”

It seems the debate raged in Adams’ day and continues today.  I guess you know where I stand.  Oh, and for those ‘purists’ that revere Adams, if they only knew.

Winking smile

Go ahead.  Express yourself in your photographs.

Join me on an upcoming workshop.  Click here for more details.

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2012 Joshua Tree Annual Fine Art Festival

March 31st, 2012

The 2012 Joshua Tree Fine Art Festival is coming up next weekend.  The dates are Friday, April 6 to Sunday, April 8.  I’m excited to be returning and catching up with old friends.  This is the first art festival I ever did and so returning is like a homecoming.  The festival is at the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms, CA.  The hours are 9:00 to 5:00.  Come on out and see some great art.

I’ll be showing some old favorites along with some new photographs I’m very excited about.  As far as the old favorites go I’m planning on showing Virgin River and the Watchman from Zion National Park.

virgin_river_watchman_sunset

This has proved to be my most popular photograph and has won awards.  It was captured on Thanksgiving day back in 2008.  I was in Zion with my wife and daughter for the Thanksgiving weekend.  I slipped out for this sunset and caught a beauty.  Beginners luck!  I’ve returned many times but never with light this good.  (By the way, to get a better view of the photographs you can enlarge them by clicking on them.)

To go along with the Watchman is another photograph taken that same weekend along the Riverside Walk to the Gateway to the Narrows.  When my family is with me we always do this walk.  It’s our favorite – for obvious reasons.

Riverside_Walk_2008

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Taking Your Photography to the Next Level – Fine Art

January 13th, 2012

In the previous post in this series I presented the idea that calendar art is a worthy first goal for serious photographers.  (Read Taking Your Photography to the Next Level.)  And aside from the fact that the subject matter of calendar art may be fairly run of the mill, the technical and aesthetic qualities are generally excellent.

In that post I ended with this thought:

Calendar art is about the subject of the photograph.  The photographer is transparent.  In fine art photography the influence of the artist becomes more apparent.

 

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