The idea is to communicate. To reveal something new in what we see around us every day, a kernel of truth, an essence, a distillation, an idea. To make a spark that could ignite a mind. To me, sharing an idea is like sharing a meal. There is an intimacy and conviviality that comes with sharing. I revel in it as I would a great bottle of wine.
What to communicate? What I discover. Not what I know, but what I learn as I create. The reson I create is to learn as I work. I never know what the outcome will be when I start. The process is discovery and seeking the truth. But you can never know the truth. You can only collect a few facts, and the more you collect, the closer you come to the truth.
I am often asked to define or categorize my work, and it isn't easy. Is it photography? Computer art? Drawing? Printmaking? Fiction? Storytelling? Why so hard to define? Well, I start with photography, and mix in drawing, collage, montage, computers, and words. If the idea is to communicate, the end justifies the means. I will use any tool I can find.
Most of my work is best classified as photopainting. It usually begins as a photograph or three that are combined on a computer, and then I paint on them digitally, adding elements, removing elements, changing colors and textures, and doing the kind of things traditional painters do with brushes.
How computers help artists communicate
Everybody knows that computer can be used to drastically alter an image, and this knowledge has had a wonderful side benefit. Nobody asks me "How did you do that?" anymore.
Back in the old days, viewers often had trouble getting to the meaning of an image because they were too wrapped up in asking how it was done. Now they know it's computer magic and they don't waste time on the "how" but can get right down to the "why".
Some folks wonder if you can make art with a computer. For that matter some folks are still not sure if you can make art with a camera. The answer is "of course you can." Let's take a semantic journey into the definition of art.
Artists have always used technology to help them communicate. Tieing horse hair to the end of a stick was a massive technological advance over finger painting. Once upon a time it was not uncommon to see a jazz album with these words on the liner notes "No damn synthesizers." Thankfully that debate is over.
When it comes to art made on a computer it is important to understand that there is a big difference between computer generated art and computer aided art. My work is generated by a human, not a computer. I use a computer as a tool in the same way as a musician uses an electric guitar.
People who ask "is it art?" are asking the wrong question. The proper question is "is it good art?" Anything man-made can be called art if the creator or the audience wishes. An example: I was sick in bed for a week once. From my apartment window on the second floor I noticed the mailman walked the same route every day. In fact, he walked exactly the same route. The same number of steps, the same efficient, graceful turn around planters, hydrants, and other obstacles. After a few days it was obvious that I was watching a dancer. His choreography was precise, elegant, and a pleasure to watch. At the end of the week I greeted him on the stoop and asked if he was a dancer. He looked at me funny, pointed at the patch on his shoulder, and said "I ain't a dancer. I'm a mailman." And so he was.
But what if he had said "Yes! I do this dance every day. I've worked out the choreography over the years and I very much consider myself a dancer. This is my art." Who could argue with him? By defining something as art, so it is. It is a question of intent.
Another example. Let's say a sculptor carves a human form on its hands and knees. It is imbued with questions about humanity, subservience, evolution, and even sexuality. Viewers are moved.
Then one day the artist's studio is robbed and the sculpture is stolen. Weeks later it is fenced in a second-hand store where it is bought by a couple who put it in their living room and use it as a coffee table and hassock. Now what is this thing? A work of art or a piece of furniture? Clearly the owners see it as a piece of furniture. But if you visit their house and are moved my this beautiful magazine holder, feel free to call it art. So art is not defined by the artist. The observer can also define art. But the observer cannot look at a work of art and declare it is not art if the artist declares it is.
So let's not confuse art with good art. Aesthetics is a whole 'nother matter. Quality is debatable. But the question "is it art?" is not. The question is "is it good art?"
That is debatable, and there is no definitive answer. Like obscenity, quality is in the eye of the beholder. The experts and critics think they are arbiters of taste, and they certainly have a lot to add to the debate, but they cannot define quality for all. Only for themselves and people who think similarly to them.
There is one criteria most people can agree upon. In order to be a good artist you must first be a good craftsman. You must master your tools and techniques. Long before Picasso went out to redefine the way we think abstractly of painting and shape, he produced superb realistic paintings that could only have been produced by a master craftsman. This was not paint by the numbers.
Other criteria people value in varying degrees: Beauty, originality, creativity, selectivity, intelligence, and the ability to communicate and provoke thought.
Because most of my images start with photographs, some people think of me as a photographer. If that helps, it's OK with me. But you need a broad definition of photography.
Back in the early 1960s, when I first got serious about photography, there were two types of photographers, the purists and the croppers. The purists worked only in black and white and they believed that pictures were made in the eye and in the camera, and the print must be made with minimal intervention. To prove that the composition was artful they filed out the edges in the negative holders so they could print black borders around the image showing they had not cropped.
The croppers thought it was OK to improve the composition by cropping, and worked hard at dodging and burning to lighten and darken parts of the print to emphasize, deemphasize, and move the eye around.
Then came Jerry N. Uelsmann, who might be called a surrealist in the sense that he developed techniques to combine images seamlessly and created poetic and haunting black and white images. Others followed, combining photography with painting, sculpture, collage, and filed out the edges of the medium.
The latest development is Adobe Photoshop, a powerful computer program that allows artists unprecedented freedom and creativity. I was a student of Uelsmann in the late 1960s, and I was one of the first to explore digital imaging in the early 1970s. I now do all my work on an Apple Macintosh with Photoshop. I begin with digitized images from a camera and then, with the computer, I collage and montage, paint and draw on the image with a computer, and create the colors and compositions I want. A technique I am fond of involves reinforcing a composition by reducing the number of colors and details by using a technique that creates large impressionistic brushstrokes. I am especially fond of telling stories with words alongside my images.
As yet I do not use found images clipped from magazines, newspapers, or ads. There are many fine artists who do, and I love the work of many of them, but I simply prefer to take the blame for what you see.
The widespread use of Photoshop has established it as a medium unto itself alongside drawing, painting, sculpture, dance, etc. It has also altered photography permanently. We can never be sure what level of alteration has been applied to a photograph. Some of the purists mourn the loss of the accuracy of photography. But the truth is, photography has never been reality.
I once got the following email from a young photographer accompanying some lovely photos of tulips. Teetering dangerously close to the dictum of the purists, he wrote: "I want people to see what my eye has seen without any manipulation. Why not just show what your eye has seen?"
Here was my reply: "Your tulips are beautiful, but are they exactly what your eye has seen? Are they really reality? The fact is that the very act of taking a photo is manipulating reality. And this is good! It gives you the chance to show me what you want me to see.
"First of all, you choose what is in or out of the photo. You are leaving out the vast majority of the world and selecting only a sliver. Changing lenses is manipulation because you change the size of the sliver. Just as importantly, you are compressing three dimensions to two. Doing this creates relationships between objects in the foreground and background that may not exist in reality.
"By changing f-stops you can choose what is in or out of focus creating emphasis that may not exist in reality. By changing shutter speeds you can add or prevent blur. Why not use flash to illuminate the shadows? Why not use a polarizing filter to darken the sky and make the clouds pop? Why not kneel down or stand on a chair to leave out something distracting in the background? Why not pull that weed in the background before you shoot? Why not crop out that tree in the darkroom? Why not change the mood by lightening or darkening parts of the image with dodging and burning in the darkroom? And while you're at it, why not add a hummingbird like the one you saw there last week? Why not add a little troll hiding in the weeds like the one you dreamed about last night? In other words, all photographs are fiction. It's just a matter of degrees."
To me, editing photos is just like editing words. How much better would Shakespeare have been with a word processor? For me, it is all about communication, and I will do all I can to share an idea. If that means pulling the weed, standing on a ladder, using a filter, pumping up the saturation in Photoshop, or adding the troll, I will do it if it helps me communicate.