Art 597.01W Art Writing on Gender and Identity Issues

Blog posts for the Summer I 2015 class.

A lot of growth can happen in a few weeks ...

Aside from the abomination of a literature review I just turned in and the anemic rough draft of a research paper I’m about to send off to join it, I’ve largely learned to trust my writing abilities over past four weeks of this course. Being forced to write on a daily basis for the first time in nearly 15 years has been a great experience overall. Not since I was an intern at a daily newspaper have I had such a demand put on my writing abilities.

I learned a lot about writing (most of what I know about it) from Bettye Craddock at Kilgore College. Bettye is a legend, and I am not using that term loosely. The mountain of journalism awards Kilgore College racked up in her 30-plus year career is astounding. So even though I have never primarily been a writer, I have a solid background educationally.

I had never shed the feeling that I was not a particularly good writer.

Despite becoming a competent writer over the years, I had never shed the feeling that I was not a particularly good writer. It’s because when I started, I wasn’t. Even at Kilgore College, my emphasis was on newspaper design and editorial duties. When I moved into newspapers, I was a page designer first and a copy editor second. Over the years, however, I believe the basic lessons I’ve learned combined with my continued love of reading have helped me become a stronger writer. It is this class that has helped me realize it might be time to push myself out of writing blog entires and to look at other horizons.

I think with much more structure about things, much like I do with journalistic writing. I try to consider where paragraphs are going, and how I’m moving things forward. I try to consider more strongly how things would sound if I had never seen something, experienced something or if I had no other knowledge of something being described.

I also feel better about my ability to assess and discuss art in general. I have felt relatively competent in interpreting and discussing photography for a while now, but have not felt close to the same when it comes to work in other media. This class forced me to overcome my reluctance to broach the subject of discussing sculpture, painting and other art. In turn, it helps me remember discussing photography is also more than discussing the content of the image.

Overall, I have become more confident and willing to embrace my abilities as a writer. I look forward to turning my newly refined critical eye on my own work in order to better understand it, and also to be able to better discuss it.

Confronting the changing self

(NOTE: Here’s something possibly unexpected from an art blog: A sports entry. There are plenty of big and important news stories out there, but this one had me thinking about identity. Dodging the sexual assault trial/acquittal for sake of keeping the assignment on track.)

Kobe Bryant, by Keith Allison via Flickr.

Kobe Bryant, by Keith Allison via Flickr.

As the National Basketball Association’s free agency period reaches a frenzy and players are signing new contracts left and right, teams who fared poorly last year are especially hoping to land a difference-maker in the open market. Unaccustomed to this bottom-feeder madness are the Los Angeles Lakers and their surefire Hall of Famer, Kobe Bryant.

Bryant’s career stands out as among the best of his generation. He has won five championships, is third all-time in regular season scoring, is among the top scoring players of all time and his astonishing 81-point game of 2006 is likely the closest any modern NBA player could hope to get to Wilt Chamberlain’s storied 100-point outburst. However, at 36, he is an old man for his sport. He has yet to fully recover from a catastrophic injury in 2013, and his team is in shambles. Even if he has returned to form as a player, his recovery remains an unproven quantity until he proves he can still play, and his infamous intense attitude is proving to be detrimental to attracting free agents to join him. Essentially, Bryant is on the edge of an identity crisis.

He is not likely ever to score like he used to, and he is almost certainly not going to prove to be the unstoppable force of his prime again. What does a player do when he is not what he used to be, but can’t bring himself to retire yet? It is time for Bryant to consider what his identity not only as a basketball player is, but as a person.

To end his career the way he wants to (by winning a sixth championship), Bryant must alter his view of himself. He must realize that everything can’t run through him anymore, and that he will have to share responsibilities and attention. He must realize that it is unlikely he’ll be able to maintain the torrid pace and intensity of even a few years ago. However, this is all anathema to what he was before. He became a great player through his intensity and willpower to overcome any and all obstacles placed in front of him. He cleared his own path to victory.

Even artists must consider altering what might be a core tenet to find a successful path. Whether it be garnering the attention of curators, or cracking the puzzle to creating truly meaningful and great work, one might find it takes doing something previously thought unacceptable. And before the cries of “I won’t sell out!” begin, it should be noted this isn’t always negative – often those limitations are based in flawed pride or ignorance. Honest self-assessment is a must. There is more than one path to fulfillment.

Social media a fundamental need of artists

To be blunt, anyone in a creative or business venture (read: art is business) who doesn’t embrace social media is a fool. Social media is not only a vital tool for artists looking to promote work, but also for connecting with collaborators, for problem solving and even for creating art itself.

Facebook is foremost in social media, and is also rife with ways to self-promote, be promoted, chat with other artists and to discover new art. An artist can promote art via a personal profile, or through a business page. Artists can meet each other through profiles, groups or even through comments on posts from mutual friends and mutually followed personalities and pages. Event pages can be used to promote gallery openings, or to find them. Following museum and gallery pages can help keep up with exhibitions, talks and other events.

Twitter may not be as profitable as Facebook, but it is also quite popular. Methods of socializing are similar, just usually more stripped down. However, the brevity of posts and of most interactions can help increase the volume. Retweets can rapidly raise awareness, as can crafty use of hashtags, as marked by the # symbol. Several artists, galleries, curators and others Tweet about a variety of art-related topics.

In addition to  Facebook and Twitter are apps and networks such as Instagram. If one’s response to Instagram involves not wanting to see pictures of people’s lunch, it is an out-of-touch and dismissive answer. While many posts do contain selfies, food and other fluff, they also promote artists, openings and are a useful way to share work. The posts can be shared between other social networks, and the hashtag is a useful tool for finding related posts and for helping others find work through common interests. Tumblr, Pinterest and other networks serve similar purposes, and should also be used or at least considered in creating a social media strategy.

Not only is social media useful for promotion, discovery and community, but it has been used as a means of creating art itself. Several performance pieces have been based around interactions on social media, and groups such as Improv Everywhere use it to help trigger their crowd-fueled performances. Richard Prince has notably used screen shots of Instagram as actual art pieces, garnering thousands of dollars in sales and large amounts of anger over intellectual property issues.

Social media is a leading source of interaction, news, promotion and has been largely active for a little more than a decade now. Though many still like to attach “fad” to the concept, it seems like the concept has staying power and will be sticking around in one form or another. It is probably time for “social media,” much like “new media,” to drop its trendy moniker and just be considered “media” along with broadcast and print.

When it comes to social media, artists need to log on interact, or log out of a meaningful career.

Jamie Maldonado on
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Facebook
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Our Artistic Neighbors

They know what's up ...

They know what's up ...

Community means worlds of difference as an artist – or really in any creative endeavor. While some like to boast of not being aware of other artists, a majority of others will benefit in myriad ways from not only looking at art, but by being involved with other artists.

I find I enjoy having artists around. Not only do I appreciate the interaction, but also the input, fresh eyes, different perspectives and support. Sometimes it’s easy to get tunnel vision as an artist, or to fall in love with a piece and not be able to judge it correctly. This is when other knowledgable eyes and minds come in to play.

Even in just the medium of photography, the groundwork of history is laden with community. Photo League, Group f/64, The Camera Club of New York and many other groups were immensely influential to photography. Fellow students and professors have communicated with each other since the beginning of organized photography education, influencing numerous careers and the overall direction of photographic art.

Arnold Newman was friends with or came to know numerous other artists through his career, deeply influencing his body of work. Henri Cartier-Bresson was involved with Surrealist artist, and considered himself not a photojournalist, but a surrealist. Inspection of his compositions reveal the influence. Edward Weston associated with many other artists, no doubt influencing his work.

One fear or downside I’ve noticed is that sometimes fellow artists can be less accepting of different work, or perhaps it becomes too easy to play in the same sandbox. Sometimes it can be stifling if someone is too acerbic, or deflating if another has greater success while one struggles. However, I find these instances rare and not to be justification for cutting off important input.

Universities communities have influence on photographers and other artists. One of many examples is Rochester Institute of Technology’s class of 1956, bolstering Pete Turner, Bruce Davidson and Jerry Uelsmann. The distinctive styles of the three also help enforce the idea that drastically different styles can exist within a community. Texas A&M University - Commerce also has a long history of strong ties in its photography community.

Groups are alive and well in modern day photography. Strobist.com, FStoppers, Luminous Landscape, Photo.net, and many other web-based communities help promote creative thought, help with problem solving and help shed light on other artists. Flickr, 500px, Instagram and Facebook also promote community interactions among other photographers and artists.

While it is not always possible to have an in-person interaction with a fellow artist, some kind of sense of community is available for those who seek it. It can help an artist at a dead end find a direction, or an input can move work forward.

On Bruce, Cailtyn, and changing views

People get cosmetic alterations for attention, but they don’t generally remove sex organs.

I have not kept up with the Kardashians. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of anything they’ve ever had on TV. However, when I was watching it, I couldn’t help but notice how detached and disinterested Bruce Jenner was. He even seemed to dress like he stopped caring about his appearance around the time he won Olympic Gold. At the time, I mistook this as a former athlete who was unable to move past his glory days. Now I see that he was likely so detached because he was living a lie. Now that he is Caitlyn, it seems that a mixture of things has transpired.

It was easy to think at first that the transformation was a publicity stunt. Everything about that family is so manufactured - even the fame. How a gaggle of talentless people can get a lot of plastic surgery and then get famous is beyond me. Bruce was the only one with an ounce of actual talent. People get cosmetic alterations for attention, but they don’t generally remove sex organs. So the idea that Bruce became Caitlyn for press is a little absurd, provided Bruce did not completely lose his mind. So in the end, I believe people who think the did it for attention are mostly just expressing an existing viewpoint.

Among the many voices responding to the change are those also just expressing existing viewpoints. To these people, the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner merely confirms whatever they believed already. If gender reassignment was a hideous thing to someone before, this butchering of a man just confirmed it. If it is a modern miracle that allows a person to feel like who he or she is inside, then this was a beautiful transformation. Those not in this camp are the most important in this discussion.

Those who were less aware of issues faced by Bruce/Caitlyn, or who had the situation humanized by a familiar figure are those who profit most from seeing this occur, and they stand to gain the most by discussing it. Maybe someone was on the fence or held shallow and poorly researched views, or some who just “saw the light.” Regardless, it is these people who will help the conversation move in one direction of the other.

I think largely, the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner has moved the discussion regarding transgendered people toward tolerance, even if it might run in the family to soak up attention. If nothing else, it seems that Cailtyn is much happier and interested than Bruce seemed to be. And really, isn’t that what matters most?

When do views ruin art?

Lorde by Ryan McGinley. Yes, I cringed when I found out he shot this. But I like it.

Lorde by Ryan McGinley. Yes, I cringed when I found out he shot this. But I like it.

I cringe every time I like a Ryan McGinley photo, and it happens a lot. It mostly has to do with an interview I read around 2011, where he and Harmony Korine took a jab at the sentimentality and cliché nature of Adams’ work.  (Here is a nice continuation of that thought.) I found this to be ignorant, offensive and hypocritical, especially considering the sometimes sickening amount of sentimentality running from McGinley’s oeuvre.

I still haven’t pinned down how I feel about McGinley as a photographer, though I find I like more of his work than I dislike. I even follow him on Instagram. But the attitude I caught in that exchange was enough to color my opinion of him, probably until he takes it back at some point. (I am really bad about holding grudges.)

At some point the artist must be removed from the art, at least to a degree. Even if Adolf Hitler’s art was worthy of legend, it would have to be forever stained by his legacy. But really, how much more extreme can you get than a Hitler analogy? Thankfully, Hitler is largely considered a middling artist, so the debate isn’t terribly difficult.

Extremes aside, even though I might have problems with some of an artist’s personal views, it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate his or her art. I’m a firm believer in not living in an echo chamber of beliefs, and something innocent enough should be forgivable. However, this does become much trickier when social issues become involved.

I guess in the case of strongly disagreeing on social issues, I have to consider it on a case-by-case basis. I’m sure I like the art of an anti-semite, a homophobe, racist, etc. I guess in general, it depends on how much it’s reflected in the art, how strongly the artist states the opinion, and if they actually do something about it (like support legislation for something I’m vehemently against, for example).

But even in the case of someone like Hitler producing great art – it would still be great art. It might ring hollow of it’s supposed to be about peace or love,  but if the appreciation is based in technique, it would still have to be considered technique. In that case, I personally just “opt out.”

It’s another silly comparison, but I did the same with Duck Dynasty. It was a surprisingly funny and fun show I enjoyed when I happened to see it on TV. I had guessed at least some of them had unfavorable views, but they never surfaced on the show, so I accepted it. However, when the views continuously came to light, the fun went away. I couldn’t accept the show in the same way anymore, as everything was colored by the hateful opinions. It doesn’t mean that the show is any different than it was before, it’s just no longer something I’m interested in spending time with.

However, disliking Ansel Adams isn't as bad a transgression as bigotry, so I’ll still cringe next time I like a McGinley photo, but I’ll still enjoy it.

Ensconse yourself in art

Artists need to be like George Costanza and velvet: They should want to ensconce themselves in it. Every opportunity art can be viewed should be taken, and created if need be. An artist who does not view art is not being clever and original, but is dooming themselves to having to reinvent the wheel and remain hopelessly lost and clueless.

Even “bad” art is an opportunity to learn. If it is just something that one might consider “too abstract,” then confronting the art is a great way to understand it. It doesn’t mean it has to be liked, but it can be understood. And as the saying goes, “understanding can only be reached through confrontation.” If it truly is abominable art, then at least it can help hone the ability to tell what that might be.

Busy schedules can be a major deterrent for viewing art, and though art is best viewed in person, it can at least be viewed in some capacity online. A great wealth of resources exist for this. Artists’ websites are full of examples of work and often artist statements. Videos exist of all varieties of art, from photography to performance. Documentaries are available about art, artists, history and beyond. Entire websites are based around a certain medium, or even factions within a medium (commercial photography, art photography, landscape photography and so on). Books are plentiful and powerful resources, especially proving useful for photographers, provided the reproduction is satisfactory.

One of the best things an artist can do is attend gallery openings. Not only can one usually meet the featured artist or artists, but other networking opportunities exist. In addition to social possibilities, it is often easier to gain an understanding for the work if the artist is present, and especially a lecture is scheduled.

Regardless of schedule or location, it is possible to see art consistently, whether it be in person, online or in the form of a publication or video. Viewing art is one of the most important things an artist can do, even beyond formative years such as when one is getting an education.

And unlike living a life in velvet excess, constantly viewing art is socially acceptable.

Bex Finch - Sleepwalker

Bex Finch - From Sleepwalker.

Bex Finch - From Sleepwalker.

Photographer Bex Finch is perhaps best known for beginning the popular Instagram hashtag “fromwhereistand.” The now ubiquitous images of feet shot from above by mobile phone cameras have proven to be a surprisingly enduring way of recording time, place and other details. It is the loss of all of these that inspired her most powerful work, however. “Sleepwalker” documents and explores the erosion of memory experienced by Finch’s father, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease shortly before his 60th birthday.

The photographs are presented on Finch’s website in two parts. The first set of photographs are a series of self-portraits, and the second part is a set of portraits of her father. A statement is presented as a third part of the series. It explains her father’s diagnosis and the reason she decided to take the photographs. She explains her approach to the portraits of her father, and how she hoped to present them in a straightforward and plain way. Finch said she sought catharsis through the self-portraits, depicting a lost person unaware of her surroundings. This is her personification of Alzheimer’s.

While the statement is brief, on-point, and captures her big ideal well, it could use elaboration and and context. Did anything serve as a photographic inspiration? Why did Finch choose to photograph self -portraits? Why did she not photograph herself together with her father? Does she intend for this to be a complete set of photos? Some kind of update on her father’s condition might also help. It would also be nice to know if she did any research on memory, or what other approaches she might have considered in arriving on this path.

Overall, the photographs and presentation are strong, and the statement gets to the core of the work. However, Finch has revealed more important details of the work in interviews elsewhere online, and it would be nice to see that added to her statement for those who might not see them otherwise.

Bexfinch.com – Sleepwalker

 

Fotofest 2010

Though individual images don’t particularly stand out much, the first time I went to Fotofest in Houston was a revelation for me. I had never seen such a sprawling and diverse collection of photography in my life, and the various ways in which the work was presented helped me discover the many ways which work can be viewed.

Viewing photos in galleries was nothing new to me, but viewing them in warehouses, large hotel lobbies and other seemingly unlikely places was a great experience for me. Seeing how the art commanded and complimented spaces made me think about presentation in ways I never had before.

In addition to the interesting locations that are part of the Fotofest Biennial, I also took note of the interesting and very different work. A video installation of someone driving would have been laughable to me until I saw it in person among other art, but I really thought about how it worked for the first time. The photographs washed in ear wax were not only way out there for me, but I also noticed the relevance to the subject matter.

I finally embraced the large print when viewing several large pieces. I was amused and intrigued by photographs of an adult Spencer Elden, better known as the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Seeing the huge images in the warehouse space made a deep impression on me. Another image that made a distinct impression on me was William Eggleston’s untitled image known as “The Red Room.” The red was so intense, and I understood something new about color I could not yet explain.

Just seeing photography marketed so broadly helped me realize how large of an audience I could hope to try to reach, and it showed me the depth of the voice I could have as a photographer. Social issues could be addressed in innovative and interesting ways, the limits of taste and accepted expression could be pushed and ignored.

Thinking back on this makes me excited to experience the biennial again next year. The subsequent years haven't had the same impact on me as the first time, but I'm hoping that's also a sign of growth on my behalf. Regardless, I always hope to be pleasantly surprised.

On a side note: I noticed how much I wish I had taken notes and maybe wish I had taken iPhone photos of this experience. I'll have to keep that in mind for the future. Even the 2010 Fotofest website doesn't really seem to offer as much detail as I would like.

More: http://www.fotofest.org/biennial2010/exhibitions/

An idiot shouting out of a truck

Determined not to let another nice sunset go to waste, I decided to have fun and just snap pictures with no real agenda. I drove out to a dirt road near a somewhat busy intersection with a roommate and freestyled while taking mental notes of possible future locations for my main body of graduate work. My friend was dressed in long sleeves and loose fitting (but colorful) clothing, and she was striking a semi-humorous pose when I heard what I have become quite accustomed to hearing when photographing women: A catcall. I generally tend to ignore these remarks but the next truck full of loud idiots froze me.

I always want for a witty comeback when I hear a doofus yelling from a speeding vehicle.

“Why don’t you take your clothes off, it would be a prettier picture!”

While I was amused that this guy managed a complete sentence in perfect southern drawl whilst literally hanging out of the passenger seat of a truck making a quick turn,  I was aghast at the juvenile and blatant nature of the comment. I’m used to whistles and shouts for even the most innocent images involving women (and sometimes teenagers posing for senior portraits), but it’s still rare that someone actually goes to the extra-lowly “TAKE IT OFF!” territory.

While I can ignore and not dignify the idiotic remarks, I also have the convenience of them not actually being aimed at me, nor do I have to think about how it was my body being objectified or leered over. I notice often that the victim of the catcalls are somewhat disturbed, and at first I hoped to be able make things better by proceeding as if nothing happened at all. However, I can see how it’s often asking much more of her than it is of me.

I believe it speaks a lot about the hyper sexualized depictions of females and the effects a layer of semi-anonymity and distance can have on people. The fact that this man felt entitled to share his opinion because she was voluntarily being photographed makes me wonder what people sign up for when they agree to be in images. If I were photographing a man, it’s highly unlikely a woman would have said the same thing (unless maybe he was shirtless and we were attempting to be strongly sexually appealing). I also am aware that women get catcalled just for being in public. It certainly makes me even more acutely aware of the exploitative nature of portraiture.

I always want for a witty comeback when I hear a doofus yelling from a speeding vehicle, and often want to throw the middle finger or shout an remark. But I honestly don’t know if I’ll find a different approach to these situations. It does make me extra conscious of the subject matter of my photography, and it gives me material to play off of in my work. It’s helped me decide to directly confront the gender dynamic questions I’ve encountered in critiques of my work.

But I’m also still hoping that next time I’ll think of something cool to say.

On Race, gender, choice, and Compassion

Watching the Rachel Dolezal saga unfold is a bizarre juxtaposition to the recent emergence of Caitlyn Jenner. While I’m sure some on the conservative side of the debate are frothing at the mouth over this news, I can’t make myself believe Dlolezal is in the same boat as someone who is transgender. At the same time, I can’t quite laugh at or pity her. But that’s a road I’m not prepared or equipped to take, so I’ll leave you with this.

I am largely disturbed by the fraudulent nature of Dolezal’s activities. Listening to an interview with her on NBC News revealed to me either a dogged liar or someone in serious denial, bordering on mental illness. The news about her art career is equally troubling. I agree that it seems she is identifying as a race as a matter of convenience. People of other races can advocate for other races already. (Bill Clinton was the “first black president.”)

There do exist those whose racial I identities can be somewhat plastic, and those people are of mixed races – like myself. Though I have a Hispanic name and Hispanic heritage, I often find myself to be racially neutral. I guess I’m somewhat “white,” and usually slip under the radar as caucasian, but find myself more defined by my impoverished childhood than anything. I’ve drawn the ire of Hispanics for not being able to speak Spanish or being “Hispanic enough,” and I find myself as a mild outsider among white people. While I can declare myself as Hispanic at my convenience, I find it to be different than when Dolezal declares herself to be African-American. At least I AM Hispanic.

But what do I know? I honestly don’t fully grasp the Caitlyn Jenner case. I am too much of a “make the most of what you have” person to understand how going through an expensive and lengthy operation to change my physical self is the right solution. But here’s the difference (I say) between how I feel and being a bigot: I don’t hate Caitlyn Jenner. I don’t think she’s necessarily wrong. I don’t think I’m an expert. I understand that there are things I don’t understand. If that truly makes her happy, then that’s wonderful. Then that’s what she and all people in her situation need to do. Anyone’s understanding should not be the prerequisite for the happiness and freedom of others, especially when that freedom doesn’t hurt anyone else.

While Dolezal’s case may not be like Jenner’s, one thing remains the same: It is not our job to judge her or belittle her. She should not be the latest in a parade of people publicly shamed so everyone else can distract from personal shortcomings.  It is most likely Dolezal has a mental illness, and mental illness is something our country is good at horrifically mishandling. She deserves patience, understanding and what seems like a lot of help.

Depiction of men and women in art

It seems that we are increasingly driven to create an unobtainable image.

I’m well aware of art history, but I will be the first to admit I am no art historian. That said, my impressions of men and women in art tend to bring to mind a number of basic stereotypes.
Men are often depicted in heroic, aggressive warrior stances. They tend to be well-muscled and angular. All manner of classic art reminds me of this, and it lives on in advertising, movies and other mass media.
The “powerful man” is not the only image out there, though. It is countered by the work of artists like Egon Scheile, whose men (often himself) were grotesque and elongated. They tended to appear to be horribly vulnerable and sickly.
Much like the stereotypical male that comes to mind, the stereotypical female seemed to be created centuries ago. Interestingly enough, she has also seen the most change. While women are still often portrayed with Contrapposto posing, their body types have drastically changed in recent years. Waists have slimmed considerably, and hips and breasts have varied wildly – but usually stay unobtainable.
While people have always been idealized in art (I remember one professor at SFA, perhaps apocryphally, talking about men making love to the statue of Venus de Milo), it seems that we are increasingly driven to create an unobtainable image. I find it even stranger that we still chase after this even when we’ve realized how fake and harmful this ideal is.
Of course, the physical portrayal of men and women in art is only one aspect of depiction. I most classically think of men as heroes in most art, and women as objects of beauty. This often falls into the trap of “women in peril being rescued by men.”
However, there are artists defying these stereotypes, and they are growing in numbers. One I have been researching more lately is Catherine Opie. Unfortunately, my schedule has kept me from digging too deeply into a great book on her work I checked out from the university library … but I’m getting there.
Ultimately, while stereotypical portrayals of men and women exist in art, there are many depictions that defy expectations. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with the way people are portrayed, but it does mean a good variety exists and the possibility for more accurate and open representation exists.

Rineke Dijkstra

An easy answer to a lot of questions about exploring identity photographically for me tends to be Cindy Sherman, especially since I am neck-deep in a self-portrait series. However, one photographer who has lately had me interested in questions about identity and the ideas associated with it is Rineke Dijkstra.
After years of avoiding expensive prices, I got a good tip on nabbing the Guggenheim retrospective at a reasonable price, and finally jumped on it. I am so glad I did. I am equally interested in the writing in the book as I am in the photography. Reading about the beginning of her beach portraits was a great insight into someone having an artistic breakthrough.
In short, Dijkstra was injured in an accident and spent a lot of time in bed, where she watched Twin Peaks (a current semi-obsession of mine) and pondered identity. Following the time in bed, she had a lengthy and grueling rehabilitation involving exhausting work in a swimming pool. One day, she set up a camera to take a self-portrait following her rehab work, at a point where she was too tired to pose.
The shot that resulted was not one I had seen until reading the book. but features her standing and looking obviously exhausted while covering her face. No traditional posing was involved, and it was clear how she felt when she took the image. Encouraged by the result, she set out to take portraits while forgoing conventional posing.
When a staged photo is essentially unposed, it can help reveal aspects of the sitter’s personality. It can also have the effect of showing the effects of media and social conditions when people do pose even when not instructed to. Dijkstra’s work also revealed the effects of social attitudes through clothing and styling. Some countries wore what seemed like timeless swimsuits, while others (the U.S.) wore garish swimsuits with makeup and intentionally styled hair.
The simple device of a straightforward portrait of someone “just” standing there revealed more than I have been able to through my highly stylized and constructed tableaux-style images. One approach is not better than the other, but the revelations of Dijkstra’s work help me think about what to look for, and gives me insight to how another artist found her voice.

More: http://www.popphoto.com/how-to/2008/12/conversation-rineke-dijkstra
http://artblart.com/tag/rineke-dijkstra-self-portrait/

Self Portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 19, 19911991

Identity - Deep and wide

I find it stunning to think of how deep identity reaches.

To me, identity is the sum of my existence. It is my taste in music, my taste in art, and my preference for certain foods. It is my mannerisms, my beliefs, my decisions and various quirks and idiosyncrasies I am not even aware of. I find it stunning to think of how deep identity reaches. It’s even more remarkable to find how it influences everything about my life, even beyond my perception.

I see it every time I take a photo, and find it reveals something I never particularly thought about myself. I look back on my life and I see the influence of my self-image on decisions. In fact, I find I discover more about myself in hindsight than when consciously thinking about myself.

Though I consider almost anything about myself as part of my identity, there are aspects of my life and personality I consider more important than others. It is likely this opinion about myself is also reflective of my identity as much as the components of the opinion.

My recent self-portrait work has been revelatory and has led me to consider the true reach of identity, and how it applies to those around me.  It has also helped me consider the identities of others, and what those pieces of a whole mean to them, and how all of this mixes together as a whole. It's interesting and frightening to think how intersecting perceptions and identities can raise someone up or destroy them.

I like to think my identity is a collection of things I’m mostly in control of, but it also is influenced by where I am, when I was born and the circumstances I’ve lived through. I don’t know what I would be if I were born elsewhere, or had a more difficult childhood. I don’t know who I would be if I were rich, or even if I had not gotten or quit a certain job at any point in my life.

It is that consideration that I try to remember as I empathize with others, and try to understand them. I find empathy important not only to my creation of art, but I also find it important in life.

 

The anxiety of choice

In all forms of creativity – and truly in many aspects of my life – I tend to have bouts of what has been called “Choice anxiety.” In short, I'm overwhelmed by options, immobilizing my ability to make a decision. It’s especially a problem I have with art. If I'm put on the spot or start to demand something of myself,  I creatively freeze before I can complete a thought or proceed othwerise. In my case, it also stumps me when ordering food and picking what I should watch on Netflix.

While being indecisive about ordering food isn’t a terrible hindrance in life, the same anxiety has been a serious issue when it comes to my graduate work. Being unable to decide what direction to go with photography is not only frustrating, but also creates serious issues when trying to pursue and M.F.A. Though I’m making some progress with this, it’s still something I would like to improve on.

I like to think it’s an overactive imagination and wealth of curiosity that creates the issue. With so many options and ideas, I just can’t figure out what to do with myself. I think this might be a part of it, but I also know another element is anxiety about making the wrong decision. I know this is certainly an issue with art. Being wrong or failing is difficult, and avoiding it is highly desirable.

And so, the worst words anyone can say to me are, “do anything you want.”

The video above actually sums up the basic idea nicely (except I'm not so jaded against capitalism). I’m not crippled in life, but I see the influence of this anxiety through many aspects of my existence.

One method of coping with this is to give myself early deadlines, or merely just to procrastinate until something has to be done. The pressure can create less time to think about what to do, and it can create the urgency to do it despite any misgivings. The procrastination route tends to be more destructive than helpful in the end, but the early deadline approach can be quite useful.

Just like I’ve found a few adventurous moments of trying certain food to create a future reference helps when ordering food, I’ve begun to understand what helps me create art. I’ve begun to realize I won’t be trapped with decisions, or won’t be inferior if I fail. I realized the world won’t end if others aren’t happy with my decisions, or if I make decisions I regret after all.

In writing, as it is with art – and life – it pays to just keep moving ahead while not worrying so much.

Everything adds up

Fewer assignments in school were more exciting to me than being allowed to write freely. I strongly preferred to write brief fictional stories, often based on whatever novel I was into at the time. By sixth grade, I had become an avid reader, even tackling Tom Clancy techno-thrillers. I’m sure I missed a lot of adult references, but I still got the gist and loved being immersed in these high-stakes and exciting worlds. By eighth grade, I had been through honors reading (it was actually awful) and I had English teachers trying to get me to submit work to magazines.

... Despite all the training I’ve had, I still can’t get past a page or two of fiction

Though high school gave fewer and fewer opportunities for creative writing, I still entertained myself in free time with a multitude of short stories. By the time I was a journalism major in college, however, I began to lose track of these little stories. And now, despite all the training I’ve had, I still can’t get past a page or two of fiction. I have, however, learned a lot from it.

For example, I can open a non-fiction story with a nice piece of drama. A little narrative goes a long way in journalistic writing, and the same holds for many other forms. Anecdotal leads for feature stories were one of my strongest points as a budding writer during my newspaper career. I could never have built the drama as well if I had not spent all my youth immersed in books and fiction. In addition, it is a great device to humanize situations and people, creating an easier path to empathy.

Now that I am exploring the craft of art writing, I am finding the ability to build a narrative continues to be useful, in addition to many things I’ve learned as a reporter and copy editor. From anecdotal leads to concise language, the rules of writing seem to be far more universal than I had ever expected. I am excited at the prospect of learning how to tell a story about a photograph, especially one I did not make myself. I'm also excited because this will enhance my abilities to understand art.

I still haven't written the Great American Novel yet, but I figure everything I have learned so far will be another item in the tool chest. If everything I have learned so far contributes to the next thing, I am excited to see what writing about art can contribute down the road.


The interesction ...

I was about three when a woman first encouraged my art habit.

My first drawing.

My first drawing.

My dad was resting his feet on a coffee table while watching television, and I was making childish scribbles on a notepad. I still have a faint recollection of deciding to draw a picture of my dad’s feet. Perhaps this is a false memory, but it feels accurate. If memory proves correct, I did this without much consideration. It was just something I felt like doing. At some point – probably at the “look at what I’ve done – phase, my parents took note of my youthful art, and noticed what they considered to be a rendering of my dad’s feet at a level well beyond my age. Whether or not they were correct (judge for yourself at right), I took note of the uproar, and the placement of the image in my dad’s prized Bible. (This fact would lead to its near-perfect preservation all these years later.)

After the success of my first piece of “art,” I remember my grandmother especially encouraging me to draw more. I remember this throughout my childhood. I rarely stopped drawing. I would fill boxes with images of space shuttles, whatever toy/cartoon combination I was most into at the moment and much more. Until her death when I was ten, my grandmother continued ceaselessly to cheer me on.

My father died exactly half a year after my drawing, and my mom joined my grandmother in encouraging my artistic pursuits. Mom had in particular dabbled in art through her life, and a few small paintings of hers impress me even to this day. She also took to making little renderings of comic strip panels to include in notes she would package in my lunches once I began school. This little glimmer of light created a fascination with the image, and its communicative capabilities. As I got older, I became involved in making these notes for my younger brother. I kept trying to one-up myself and create a fascinating storyline, one small frame at a time.

These images might have been silly and were probably horribly drawn in comparison to my mom’s, but the creative storm they brewed deeply influenced me.

Being raised by two women, I had no concept of things like women being inferior in any way. Perhaps men could often lift more weight or hit harder, but the notion a woman does not have the mental capacity to accomplish anything a man would did not exist in my upbringing. My lack of social life probably contributed greatly to this, as I was rarely around boys that were not my brothers. That’s not to say I was oblivious to the many awful ways women can be treated by society, especially by men. I was just mostly insulated from it.

As years of drawing finally turned into an interest in photography, and then finally an interest in portrait photography, I encountered the problems of being a male making photographs of women. While I feel like this is another entry entirely – and truly, it is the focus of my photography this summer – I believe I’m at a particularly unusual and interesting place. I’ve joked often that I’m basically a woman, meaning that I don’t ascribe to many concepts of “manliness,“ nor do I often find many ways to relate to men beyond a mild interest in certain sports. I feel supremely more comfortable around women. I’m sure this has something to do with my heterosexuality, but I strongly believe it has more to do with the fact that I was raised by women and influenced by women at every turn in my life.

This class arrives at a perfect time in my study of this topic, and in my consideration of this daunting issue looming over my work and career as a photographer. I look forward to learning more, and I especially look forward to asking and hopefully finding answers through the lens.

 

(Almost) everyone hates Richard Prince

Right now, it seems everyone hates Richard Prince, and – like the cliché – he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Missy Suicide - real name Selena Mooney – co-founder of Suicide Girls, a website for alternative pinup models and their fans, is also laughing all the way to the bank, albeit with a smaller paycheck.

Prince, known as an appropriation artist, printed essentially large-scale screen shots of various images from Suicide Girls’ Instagram account (along with several other Instagram images) and put them on display at Gagosian Gallery in New York City, selling pieces for up to $90,000.

A comparison of Richard Prince's piece, and what Suicide Girls is selling. (Via https://i-d.vice.com/en_us)

A comparison of Richard Prince's piece, and what Suicide Girls is selling. (Via https://i-d.vice.com/en_us)

In the furor that followed online, Prince was eviscerated by angry commenters, bloggers, columnists and more for being a “rip-off artist.”

This is not the first time Prince has been a part of a heated copyright debate. The Supreme Court recently ruled in his favor in another case involving an appropriated image.

“If I italicized ‘Moby-Dick,’ then would it be my book? I don’t know. But I don’t think so,” photographer Jim Krantz – whose photographs of cowboys for Marlboro advertising were the basis of some of Prince’s most famous work – told the New York Times in 2007.

While Krantz, a successful commercial photographer, might not feel a $90,000 sting as much as a Suicide Girl, he is not alone in questioning if Prince should be allowed to rephotograph, reprint and reuse his way to fame and riches.

Since the legal route seems to be dicey, Mooney and others have decided to take advantage of the attention, make a statement and maybe make a few dollars at the same time.

Suicide Girls announced they would sell nearly identical replicas of Prince’s work on their website for $90 each.

“’I’m just bummed that his art is out of reach for people like me and the people portrayed in the art he is selling,” Mooney said on the announcement.

Though reaction to the move by Mooney and others to re-sell the images themselves, Prince could have recourse to sue the subjects for selling their own images.

Prince has repeatedly been quoted as saying he doesn’t care about copyright, and it seems likely nothing new will come of this case. However, that won’t stop the disdain of the artists from which his works are appropriated and it won't stop the disdain of many others. It is likely to continue until curators and art buyers agree with the public that Prince is more of thief than royal.

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams by Arnold Newman.

Ansel Adams by Arnold Newman.

Ansel Adams is known to some as much for his technique as he is for his actual photographs. I can understand why this is the case for some, considering the perfection he demanded from his prints, and especially in considering the work he put into teaching and promoting his techniques. Though some balk at the idea of valuing precision so highly, I take inspiration from his desire to produce the best possible image.

The easy part of this inspiration comes from such simple concepts as making sure detail remains in shadows and highlights, and this is certainly good. However, it was Adams' unwavering demand to accomplish what he saw in his mind's eye that helps him stand out among the photographers who have influenced me.

The way Adams patterned his Zone System and therefore his concept of images after musical scales helped me visual photography in a different way. His endless test printing, measuring and refining of technique helps inspire me to go the extra mile.  His talk of "previsualizing" the image still helps me understand what I want to accomplish and learn how to achieve it.

Reading about Adams' breakthrough with Monolith, the Face of Half Dome helped me understand I was not just trying to document what something looks like, but that I also want to record how something feels.

I have had the fortune of learning from and working for O. Rufus Lovett, longtime Kilgore College photography instructor, who was able to attend and then teach at two Ansel Adams workshops before Adams' death. Through well-kept handouts and recollections, I have been able to glean some insight into Adams and at least learn several things in merely second-hand fashion. It seems silly, but I do truly appreciate the close ties in my education.

Though I am increasingly influenced by more contemporary photographers, the groundwork of my photographic education and mindset are firmly planted in the ideas and work of Ansel Adams.

Jeff Wall - The Destroyed Room

The Destroyed Room, 1978. Jeff Wall.

The Destroyed Room, 1978. Jeff Wall.

Despite a cursory knowledge of Jeff Wall's work, I never paid close enough attention to it until about a year ago when I began to truly embrace tableaux-style work. I've always had a thing for the 1970s "New Color" era, so it is of no surprise I found his work interesting. However, it was in researching it further – especially upon reading his plentiful writing – that I became truly inspired and impressed by his work.

To see "The Destroyed Room" in print does it little justice. Made to be viewed as a large, backlit transparency, it is properly viewed only in a gallery setting. I have not had the fortune of doing this, but I do have the fortune of possessing a strong imagination, and I recognize the advertising light boxes from which Wall took partial inspiration from.

It took a few viewings and a few readings for the image to truly impact me. It was the historic context and an image of its original display (in a window, visible to sidewalk traffic) that I realized its impact. Not only was this a clever and complexly conceived image, but it was placed in a relevant environment where it could startle viewers.

To me, this image has it all: Immediate impact, followed by substance as the viewer explores it, bold placement, relevant presentation in all regards (the references of the light box to advertising and to Dan Flavin's work), and it is somehow original even though it is inspired by a Delacroix painting.

"The Destroyed Room" not only inspires me with its intended message about violence, but also with the amount of work and insight that went into making the image and then presenting it. It's a mighty high bar, but one I find it useful to try to jump toward in my own growth as an artist.

More: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2007/jeffwall/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkVSEVlqYUw