Getting Schooled

"Schools" of art are very confusing. Go to any museum and you'll find works by a variety of artists all categorized together under headings indicating time or technique: modern; early 18th century; cubism; Greek and Roman; watercolors. Not only are these categories confusing, they miss the point. Good artists don’t set out to do a particular style. Instead, they set out to communicate an idea. The best method to communicate that idea is a function of the idea. Putting the emphasis on the process misses the point of the individual idea. Rather than seeing a single artist’s multiple methods for exploring an idea, we see a variety of artists who happened to use the same process approach for their various ideas. That often can obscure the usefulness of the approach.

Collections map of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although nearly all my process inspiration comes from painting and sculpture, I try always to keep the influences abstract. Painters and sculptors work on a single idea for a long time, with drafts, trials, errors, plans, and corrections.  Photographers don’t have any such luxury. Instead, photography as a creative process is an act of recognition and not creation. My mind is full of visual ideas, but the act of making an image can only occur when the world presents to me a moment, a scene, an alignment of events which matches one of those ideas and allows me to see. Alex Majoli puts it succinctly: 

“I think my interest gets sparked when I recognize a memory. That is when I take a picture.”

Leica & Magnum - Portrait of Alex Majoli.

Likewise, my creative process works backward from that of “traditional” artists: instead of setting out with a particular approach or style in mind, I react to the scene in the way that both makes the most sense and is possible to execute. Filling my mind with approaches and concepts that are successful processes in painting or sculpture increases the likelihood I’ll be better able to match memory and moment. But it’s only during the development of the image that I discover what memory I was capturing. 

Art is a humanist venture. Each individual solves problems in ways similar to any other human. And that’s where the schools of art become applied education: seeing how one artist solved the problem of a particular expression is useful to anyone else with a similar idea. 

Here are three examples where I believe that painting helped me to capture the memory I recognized. I chose these examples because they are all fleeting moments. The spontaneity of the scene better illustrates the importance of having conceptual solutions at the ready. Unlike a studio shoot, where one may thoughtfully and consciously take advantage of techniques to structure an image, street and documentary photography are better illustrations of what's deeply in the mind because there’s no time to think—only to recognize the memory and capture it. 

Cubism in fashion designer DarylK's Brooklyn row home. Whereas sculpture is by nature three dimensional, sketches, paintings, and photographs are not. Cubism is useful for overcoming the limitations of a two-dimensional medium by simultaneously showing multiple views. 

Surrealism. Surrealism was an attempt to bring the dreamworld into a reality. It's often marked by humor and unlikeliness. This image has multi-layered surrealism. In the foreground is Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.  (In addition to his surrealist works, Duchamp designed the first surrealist exhibition— Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme.) The work is sandwiched between two layers of glass. Through it, and beyond through the window, is a bride and her bachelors in the courtyard of the museum.

Duchamp's work originally did not have broken glass. It was damaged in transit and shattered. To add another surrealist layer to it all, I had the image printed on a sheet of glass. Because of the broken glass in the image, it looks like my image is shattered as well. 

Chiaroscuro in Istanbul. The technique is marked by the use of strong tonal contrasts. Upon developing images I made in Istanbul, I was surprised at how often I used chiaroscuro to illustrate my perceptions of the dual nature of the Turks. You can read more about that: here.