Friday, December 14, 2007

Winter Light

The Hanukkah candles burned bright at our house this week, with as many as four menorahs at time. The neighborhood is alight with festive bulbs. And last night -- for the first time after nearly 10 days of ice and rain and fog and gloom -- I saw the moon.

All of this got me thinking about winter light. The sun is not up when we put kids on the buses in the morning, and I exercise in the cold at dawn. The first few minutes are brutal, but the light is extraordinary -- pink and yellow, deep shadows, reflections off tiny ice crystals of frost.

The night winter light simply doesn't exist. Street lights barely make a dent in the shadows. The small crescent moon was bright in comparison to the deep winter dark.

The ice storms in Oklahoma -- just a few hundred miles southeast of us in St. Louis -- reminded me of the devastating ice storms here last year. Actually there were two, about five weeks apart, that knocked out our electricity for seven days each. One was in December, the next in January. The darkest times of the year.
The times of Winter Light.

I was in the midst of working on the White Series when we lost electric the second time. Alone in the 36-degree house at midnight, the kids were farmed out to warmer places and I was trying to keep the dogs and cat and fish and tortoise warm and the water pipes from freezing. I was also bored. I used the last of the D batteries in the portable radio-TV to watch Boston Legal and some moronic reports on the local late news about what I was supposed to do if I didn't have electricity! I tried reading by candle light, but the dark was so deep the light didn't extend very far. And candles flicker -- duh! -- which changes the light and makes it hard for me to read.

I watched the candles instead. The quality of the light and the blackness of the dark were stunning. There was no ambient light. No moon. No streetlights. No TV glow. No stove pilot light. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were empty so there weren't even flashlights beaming about.

Just the small glow of two candles on my kitchen table producing a flicker of winter light. It was too much to resist. That I found my equipment amazed me. I kept fogging up the viewfinder with my breath, but the results were good: White, Variation #11.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Picking Up a Pencil

Do photographers need to know how to draw?

Well, yeah! If they want to be artists they do.

That was just part of the conversation last night among a few Women's Caucus for Art board members. A watercolorist and a fiber artist were bemoaning the lack of art education among art students, who seem to be told it's ok to use computer graphics instead of picking up a pencil.

OK, I know it sounds a like a bunch of old women complaining about the kids. (Yes, that's true, but we are really COOL old women!) Don't jump to any conclusions! Each of us at the table uses all the tools at her disposal, including computers. I have some Photoshop actions that I consider family!

No, the real issue, it seems, is that students aren't being taught to truly look at an object. Older artists learned to "see" by drawing the object. Over and over and over. Some of us are gifted. Some (hand raised) struggled through it. But we learned. We learned composition, then dynamics of light, then color theory. THEN we were able to use our skills to communicate our vision and craft an unique style. We old women could be wrong, but we just don't think we would approach our art the same way without that background in drawing.

Which brings me back to photography. Since it's my primary medium, I'm a little sensitive about it.

I've had other artists say to my face that photographers aren't "real" artists because all we do is press a button. I know photographers who diminish themselves with the same description. Maybe they are right. Maybe they aren't artists.

Some photographers are. What's the difference?

It's like the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. There are lots of people with cameras. Some are very expensive and some are cheap. Doesn't matter. Point the lens and open the shutter, take what you get, move on to the next activity. That's a snapshot. Doesn't matter if you're shooting the kid's birthday party or set up an 8x10 view camera to capture the sunset. It's still a snapshot. A pretty picture.

A photograph is a piece of art that is well thought out and communicates. It's not random, it's not happenstance, it's not Lucky. It was created.

Artists who use cameras know what they are going to shoot before they do it. Some of us make sketches or word maps of the image before we shoot. I don't share my sketchbook with other people, but it's invaluable to me to get work that's in my head onto the photographic paper. An added benefit of sketching the subject before I shoot it is the abiltiy to slow down the creation process. What are other people missing because they shoot and go? What else is there. What isn't there? What is hidden in plain sight?

Sure, I spend lots of time shooting subjects I didn't envision first. That's part of the joy of this medium. An artist photographer can go anywhere and produce work that is fresh. One of the reasons artist-photographers can always find interesting subjects to shoot is that they have learned to see differently -- and most of the time it's because they first learned to draw.