Summer Film, part 1

Wow, it’s been well over a month since I’ve posted anything. I’ll say a few words and then post the first set of film photos from my summer.

I didn’t like a lot of the pictures I took this summer. I started the summer with grand ambition of using the huge amount of free time I’d have to not only take pictures, but take great pictures. Meaningful pictures.

That ended up not being the case. I started out summer with some hiking and some picture taking, got some stuff I liked decently, and had an idea for a project I wanted to work on all summer. I wanted to develop a series over the entire summer and come out with one really solid personal project. However, what ended up happening is that after working 40 hours a week at a horribly monotonous job, all I wanted to do was nothing. The awful mental filter of “I don’t know if I can take pictures that are good enough right now for xxxxxxxx reason” set in, and going out to take pictures always got pushed to tomorrow, next weekend, and so on.

I had an incredible vacation, a road trip across the country with my family to a lot of really stunningly beautiful places in the west. This was nice because it sort of kicked me back into the basic image making mentality: there was no way I was going to make any good conceptual work in the American west in the two weeks I was there, so I just tried to make good images.

The images turned out decently well, but didn’t mean anything. My frustrations in trying to make them mean something have more or less prevented me from finishing editing them and posting them. I would think “these images are fairly nice, but they aren’t so nice that they can “stand” without a concept” and put off posting them. I’ve been picking at editing them now and then, and they’ll be up soon.

The 35mm camera I’ve used since high school (and was actually my dad’s camera that ended up in my hands through a mildly interesting story) has had a mis-aligned mirror since I started using it, and the pictures rarely turned out in good focus. It was repaired about halfway through summer and I bought a 96 exposure pack of cheap film to test it and just to shoot and have fun. 35mm doesn’t lend itself to the type of work I like to do anyway, so I used it to take informal, fun pictures. Pictures of my friends. Of the places I went. Of the things I thought were neat.

I want to switch to film as much as possible for personal work, and I may make a more extensive post detailing the reasons why I like shooting film, but for now enjoy these images. They’ve been selected out of the 72 pictures I had developed, edited and spotted, and I’ll post them in two batches.

 

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Facebook and Fractured Personality

note: on pieces of writing posted on this blog from now on I’ll be focusing on brainstorming, drafting, and revising several times before posting to make posts slightly more coherent. I’d previously written posts in one sitting without much structural revision and had gotten comments that some of the posts were rambling and hard to follow. I hope you like the new form!

Goodbye Facebook
A few days ago I deactivated my Facebook account. I opened my Facebook account in February of 2008 and I’ve used it steadily since. It has followed me through the period of the most rapid and dramatic social change of my life, from middle school through high school and then my first year of college. In the past six and a half years of using Facebook, there were things that bothered me, but I’ve always used it, and I haven’t really been able to consider it from an outside perspective until now. Up until a few days ago, it’s been a constant presence in my life. One that, despite its faults, I was unwilling to rid myself of.

In the news recently has been a story that Facebook was conducting research earlier in the year in which they altered what kind of stories showed up in users’ news feeds, displaying either stories that were generally more upbeat or downbeat in tone, in order to see if this had any bearing on the tone of the things the user posted. I find the concept that Facebook would perform research on their user base without their informed consent troubling, and that was initially why I decided to take some time off from Facebook. However, it was the conversations, thoughts and experiences which arose from this decision which cemented my desire to get away for an extended period, if not permanently.

In the spring semester of my freshman year of college, I noticed that I was using Facebook fairly often. I would post something funny about my life every day or two, keep up conversations over the messenger, and reflexively grab at my phone to read about my friends’ lives when I had a lull in my day. Some of my friends took notice that I was posting or on the messenger a lot and would joke with me about it. I sort of dialed it back not wanting to become too wrapped up in this online mentality. I considered quitting cold turkey, but decided that the ability to keep up passively with others’ lives and passively update others about mine was ultimately a good thing and I should focus on moderating usage as not to be consumed by it. I started using Facebook less over time and everything was going well. I still used Facebook, but I felt less eaten up by it.

The recent news of the research Facebook did struck a nasty chord with me, however. Additionally, I was also becoming less interested in what was on Facebook: all my college friends were removed from that explosive amount of social contact that is college, so everyone was either posting about how bored they were or not posting anything. I decided that from then until the start of school would be a good time to take a step back from this service and see if I could “kick the habit” in response to the unease and apprehension of the news of the study.

Quitting & Withdrawal
I posted that I’d be leaving Facebook, left the post up for the remainder of the day, and deactivated my account. However, seeing what came up on the deactivation page, my apprehensions only grew:

deacticate

The fact that they included this in their deactivation screen was troubling to me in and of itself because it felt like they were begging me to stay (why does Facebook care if I continue using its free services?), but the wording of the message is severely twisted the more I thought about it. “Your friends will no longer be able to keep in touch with you. Here are pictures of the friends you’ll be losing.”

On its face, it just seemed like a stark lie. One person in that line-up is one of my closest friends who I talk to almost every day, see several times a week, and certainly will not “miss me” or “not be able to communicate with me”. However, there is also some truth in what Facebook is saying. One unfortunate and grimly timed indication of this is that within a few hours of deactivating my account one of my friends’ father died. I don’t see this friend that often, and we aren’t so close that I received a text or a someone let me personally know, but I was talking to a mutual friend of ours and it came up. They had posted about it on Facebook to let everyone know without having to send out thousands of messages, and I had missed it. While I was saddened by this news, I couldn’t help but put it in light of withdrawing from Facebook. There are things that happen on Facebook, are announced or said or posted on Facebook that happen entirely outside of day to day life: it’s become more than an extension of what happens, and a social sphere unto itself.

While it seems easy to call Facebook a representation of one’s life and a method of communicating with friends en masse, that doesn’t seem entirely accurate to me. Someone’s Facebook page (and their broader online presence) is ultimately more than a reflection of themselves. The act of curation and public display is an act of creation, so someone’s Facebook page is a personality and essence which draws material from their life, but is ultimately separate from it. Viewing other people’s curated and constructed page influences how I think about them since it’s so hard to separate that thing which they’ve created from their actual life and personality. Knowing that what I do and what I think can be funneled into this online presence which affects how people perceive me has gradual but likely massive effect on my personality, and has led to the evaporation of private mental space, or the ability to simply think about and do things for myself and not wondering if this is something I should broadcast, something I should add to my online personal likeness.

Digital Bodies
digital

Although I’m not taking the step of permanently deleting my Facebook page (which I hear you almost have to hire a lawyer to do), I was reading about the process and read that it’s generally a good idea to download an archive of your data. I was interested to see what this looked like, and after downloading the almost 300mb file I opened it to see the above screen. A starkly, simply laid out page with just about everything I’d ever posted to Facebook.

What was most interesting for me to read was the messages. According to the file size of the message archive, I’ve generated over 12,000 printed pages of messages sent and received through Facebook, since it’s been my primary instant messaging client for some time. Looking through mundane messages exchanged in the past, as well as all the wall posts, old photos, and just generally antiquated things I’ve posted online, what I realized is that Facebook is incredibly skilled at getting you to think that it’s a clear conduit of information. It seems that Facebook wants you to think that you’re floating along in the same stream of time as real life, and just as you witness things happen and then disappear in real life, the same thing happens on Facebook: things come and go in your “News Feed” and you see and then forget about things from your friends’ “Timelines”. Facebook doesn’t seem to be geared towards profile building, where you are able to see things your friends have set up and intended to be absorbed at once, they’re geared towards the experience of the real time, to make your friends’ events and thoughts and posts come and go just like experiences do in real life. Facebook seems to want your friends’ profiles and online personalities to be almost as vivid as they are in real life, and Facebook itself is simply an impartial platform allowing all of this to happen, rather than controlling the delivery to be as effective as possible.

So, being able to look back at almost everything at once, seeing everything I’ve ever posted to Facebook outside the context of the UI, it was easier to understand the fallacy of the “real time” of Facebook. Everything is there and continues to be. Everything has worked towards an online persona that I’ve meticulously and subconsciously built up, and as I looked at this white screen that was the sum of my usage of Facebook, I was faced with the uncomfortable question of, how much of this was actually me posting online, and how much did I turn into the things that I tried to make myself because I thought it would look good on this “representation” of who I “was”?

I think my primary issues with Facebook and other services like Twitter or Instagram are passive communication, content delivery, and the illusion of real time. As opposed to something like Skype, these services don’t connect you directly to your friends (serving as, say, an evolution of talking face to face and being in the same technological lineage as the telegraph, phone, email, texting, etc.) Facebook is a new communication model which allows you to broadcast things to your friends or your followers all at once. and since there needs to be some form of organization. Thus, Facebook is in control of how content (the content being, basically, your friends’ lives) is shown to you, and they’re ultimately trying to refine the process to be as interesting and engaging as possible. Thus, Facebook has some control over your socialization and how you take in and think about people. And it’s done all in real time as to not allude to the contrivance of the whole process: it’s simply a part of life.

Ultimately, I think we are what we spend our time and energy on, so it’s not a stretch for me to imagine that many people give very little energy or thought to their facebook page and don’t ultimately let it affect them that much, which I think is especially the case with older folks who didn’t grow up with the reality of the internet. What I hope to accomplish with this writing is to encourage some critical thought on the principles of Facebook and, furthermore, the nature of social media, creating an online persona for yourself, and what that ultimately means. My aim isn’t to disparage social media or say that everyone should quit, I don’t even exactly have proof that Facebook has malicious intent or ever will: I’m simply terrified of the idea of a service which revolves around displaying what my friends try to be, and ultimately causes me to do the same.

Life Integration
The day after I deactivated my Facebook account, I was about to drive home from work and wanted to listen to music on Spotify, a service which I paid $10 a month for, and had for almost two years. I usually just signed in with my Facebook credentials, which makes sense because it shares the music you listen to (which, side note, is yet another way I passively tried to make an identity for myself: by being somewhat conscious of what music Facebook said I listened to). Regardless, I figured the Facebook login wouldn’t work since I deactivated my account,  so I waited until I got home, figured out what email was associated with the account, and logged back in with that.

Hours later, I got a text from a friend that said “your Facebook is back: it reactivated because you logged into Spotify and it’s sharing the music you’re listening to.” Despite it being possible to turn off the sharing feature, I found out (after some reading into the topic) that it was impossible to “unhook” your Spotify account from your Facebook account: despite paying for the service, I needed an activated Facebook to use it. I cancelled my Spotify account and am looking for a new music streaming service now, but this was another instance which was deeply disquieting to me.

spotify

Thinking back to the screen displayed when I tried to deactivate my account, the tying in with other services, the near impossibility of thoroughly deleting your Facebook account, it’s very clear that Facebook wants to attract new users and hold onto their current users as tightly as possible. This is accomplished by integrating with a variety of aspects of your life, being an attractive and non intrusive software which you simply use, being well designed and easy to use, but they have one thing which is a bigger draw than everything else: all your friends use it.

The message is clear on the screen displayed when trying to leave Facebook: “This is a party, this is a gathering, and all of your friends are already here. You’ve already allowed Facebook to integrate with your life, and if you leave, you’re leaving the party. Why would you want to do that? What harm are we possibly doing? You’re just seeing what your friends are up to.” It feels important to say that Facebook is a publicly traded, for-profit corporation that doesn’t charge or even nudge its users to spend money to use their services, and they’re wielding and offering something that is so incredibly precious to the human experience: Friends. Socialization. People caring about what you do and say and think.

I’m not a luddite, and I hold no illusions that we’re not moving towards a society in which how you handle your affairs and what you post on the internet will be vitally important to remaining part of the vital edge of society. Businesses, artists, writers, manufacturers, it doesn’t seem to matter. Whatever old model of self promotion and advancement by word of mouth and print media existed before no longer does: people of the future will thrive or fail by their ability to reach out to others by the medium of the internet, and as the internet grows up with my generation, we’re working out the kinks of what that means. The questions I submit right now is, How will you consume the content that you consume? How will you connect with people? And, most pertinent to everything I’ve just said, will you allow a company to control how you connect to your friends, how you promote and think about yourself? What is ultimately more important: Who you are, or how you look online?

My Life
It’s also worth stating that Facebook played off of some of the more negative aspects of my personality specifically, and this is part of the reason I’d wanted to deactivate it for a long time. While these are things I struggle with, I certainly imagine that others may have similar tendencies.

The vast amount of information people would post and the opportunity to chat one on one with people encouraged my awful habit of over thinking things which ought not be over thought, like social dynamics. In high school especially I felt that if I thought hard enough about something, I could figure out what to do in a social situation, or what someone was thinking or feeling, just by what people said.

The persistent nature of the information on Facebook also fed into my compulsive tendency to dwell in the past. For better or worse, I’ll often consider things in the past and compare them to my present circumstances. While this sometimes encourages positive growth, it has also led to discontent and frustration in some aspects of my life.

Finally, the ability to broadcast my thoughts and the things I was doing and even, later on, my photography, simply stroked my already large ego. When you post something to Facebook, it feels like you’ve got an audience of everyone you know, and, as stated before, it makes that tendency to try to create and maintain an image for yourself so much stronger. My life is not the sum total of the things that I post on Facebook, and it seems far more logical to actually truly connect to people and have their opinions stem from that rather than trying to infer what people will think of me based on how they read what I post.

I think it’s important to end this post by saying that these, ultimately, are my experiences with Facebook and again, it’s up to each person to decide how they should use a service. It’s not my place to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, only to present my own experiences and things I find to be good, with a gentle encouragement to think critically about the pertinent aspects of one’s life. I’ll be taking a long hiatus from Facebook, and I hope it sticks.

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I don’t believe in the internet

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Ironically enough, that is a snapchat screenshot and it’s a silly little thing I did one early spring afternoon while I was at VCU. I was walking down the sidewalk and saw some trees and thought “this is a nice feeling, I’ll take a picture and have fun with it. I’ll say something absurd like ‘I don’t believe in the internet’.”

When I went to VCU, I slowly became aware of this very recent movement (in art history terms) called “internet art”. I won’t spend time or words explaining the work or the artists that do it, and I hope by the end of the this post you’ll understand why. I’ll simply say that it is work which primarily engages the ideas surrounding our internet obsessed, image saturated, instant information culture. It is important work in contemporary culture and thought, and I hate almost all of it. I am done trying to argue against its worth as art, and I’m growing far more comfortable in the idea that even if work is good or important, I don’t need to like it. I am, however, believing more every day that it’s far more gratifying to simply think about and do things which I find more substantive.

So, the internet.

I can’t even tell you at this point why I labeled a picture of trees as such, but the phrase “i don’t believe in the internet” stuck with me. It seems absurd at first blush. It feels so matter of fact, similar to how atheists will say “I don’t believe in a god.” As I thought about it more, though, it seemed to gain at least a shred of sanity in the face of the absurdity of the statement. The internet almost feels like a deity, especially if you subscribe to the whole “the medium is the message” argument. What is said or done on the internet is basically irrelevant to the fact that we have a conduit of information, a simulacra of our friends, masses of anonymous individuals which serve as an echo chamber for any opinion possible, usually in our pockets at all times. The medium being the message, the internet is the god of globalization, of unceasing connection and the slow evaporation of privacy and substance. The internet is the god of post-modernism, the god of faces buried in phones.

So I sort of playfully adopted it, trying to be dead faced serious about it when I mentioned it. It ended up being sort of a “fake it til you make it” situation because it’s ended up helping me clarify my feelings about internet art, my feelings about the internet, and especially how it relates to my own work.

Two Kingdoms

On a practical level, of course I use the internet. I’m using it right now. I’m having a conversation with a friend on iMessage. I’m listening to streamed music. I have Facebook open in another tab. Maybe in another world in which the internet simply ceased to exist, where we just collectively decided to flip the off switch, people would be shocked and then things would go back to normal, albeit internet free. But I don’t exist in that world, and completely ditching the internet after using it for over ten years at this point would be a toss-up with “cutting off a leg” in terms of functional impairment. In fact, seeing as a lot of necessary aspects of things like college (grades, financial information, class announcements/email, materials) is run through the web, a strict no-internet policy would reduce me to almost grade school “he said she said” ridiculousness of “hey I can’t use the internet, it’s a thing, could you check my school email for me?”

I can’t even quite bring myself to cut my tethers from social media, either. I’ll keep up with a forum or two pertaining to my interests for entertainment and use Facebook as a method of passively updating others on my life and keeping updated on others, and communicating with friends. However, I’ve more or less decided to try and let the wave of social media pass me; I don’t keep an Instagram, I let my Tumblr die, I’d tried multiple times years ago to get with Twitter but it never stuck: My sincere intent is to let Facebook remain the extent of my social media and let whatever other ‘new thing’ happens float on without me.

“I don’t believe in the internet” isn’t a statement of protest or anger or upheaval, it is simply a statement of what I care about, or in this case, what I don’t care about. Many atheists will say “it’s not that I necessarily inflammatorily seek to destroy other people’s beliefs, I just couldn’t be bothered to spend my time thinking about a god because I don’t believe such a thing could exist.”

I’m going to sort of appropriate a concept from Christianity to help explain this, and that’s the two kingdoms idea. In the New Testament, Paul, one of the most important early thinkers in the Christian church (handful of years after Jesus early) advises the followers of Jesus to whom he is writing to not conform to this world, but rather seek the tenets of the Kingdom of God while still functioning in this world. Living in an internet world, what does it mean for me to have chosen to focus on things more substantive?

Belief, Art, and Photography

This was originally the post about why I haven’t really been posting photographs, and I’ll get to that! This phrase just popped into my head as a good thing to help understand the thoughts underlying the reason why you haven’t seen a new photograph of mine on this blog, or if you’ve really been looking for them, really anywhere for the past two months. Because it had “believe” in it, though, I figured I’d first address some of the religious undertone, because in some sense, the experience I strive to achieve in my own art making process is a sacred one. I feel that if I were to make art which strayed from the path of trying to explore the full space of the most sacred and righteous aspects of the human experience, I’d just be wasting my time. In other words, trying to make work which explores the depravity/brokenness of human existence feels infinitely worthless beside trying to find Beauty and Truth and fulfill that nagging spiritual longing I think all humans have.

I believe that that is an important part of understanding why I haven’t posted pictures, and you can believe that or not.

Here is the simplest way of stating why I haven’t posted photographs: It feels like I’m muddying the significance of my work by posting it online.

In the past I’ve basically posted photos online for feedback. I’d post the photos to critique forums, I’d post them to Facebook to share them with my friends seeking praise. I started posting them on this blog to ruminate on technical aspects in order to refine technical craft, then I pondered over ideological points to refine conceptual craft. Then I suddenly realized that the experience of taking photographs, the significance and the joy and the reverence that that brought me would never, ever begin to be expressed through a photograph on a computer screen. I didn’t let this bother me for a while, but then it go to the point where it even felt useless to make photographs with the end product of the internet.

I don’t want to place mental stock in the internet- I don’t want to try to build up a reputation as an outstanding landscape photographer among strangers on online forums because I know that those small digital photographs on their small digital screens will never represent more than a “wow that’s neat” and an “internet nod of approval” before moving on to something else. I don’t want that for my photographs because it’s my sincere intent that every photograph I take be a representation of a small piece of something I cherish, something I aspire to understand and love to spend time with. In short, I take photographs of things that I love, and posting them online feels like robbing them of potential significance which could be expressed in a physical medium in favor of trying to garner some insignificant internet presence.

Which brings me to this photograph:

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This is a print I had made for a friend. I’ve been waiting to see her to give it to her, and it’s been sitting on my desk face up. Not to be vain, but there have been several times where I simply stop what I’m doing to look at it and appreciate it. The photograph, besides being a picture of an incredibly beautiful place taken on a very joyous family trip, is just a well made photograph. I edited it meticulously such that everything was just so, everything is sharp and tonally exactly where I want it to be. By being printed, it became a beautiful object. Between being charged with nice memories and being a well crafted thing, it is simply something that I’m proud of, something that I love in a small way, something I feel is a part of me. It would bring me joy to be able to share this, to have money to print and make more photographs like this. If I could invite everyone that I would want to see my photographs into my living room, and they could all look at them and say “I understand and accept you, how you see and feel about the world, and I am so happy that you’ve shared this piece of me with you.” Then we could sit around and talk and laugh and share stories about the things we’ve done and what we think about and feel. Then maybe we could all eat some home cooked food and laugh some more.

That would just be damn fantastic. That has got to be the best way possible to share my photographs, and what would I be doing if I didn’t do everything possible to work towards that end? Editing photos is hard. It’s time consuming and mentally taxing to try to slowly and gently nudge a photograph into striking formal order. Why should I spend that effort towards an end product that I know for a fact will be disappointing? Tumblr reblogs don’t make me happy, Facebook likes don’t make me happy, upvotes on Reddit don’t make me happy. Two things pertaining to photography which absolutely make me happy are being out and making exposures, and working hard on creating a finely crafted, physical, finished object.

Prints are beautiful and exciting things. Photo books are lovely to sit down and read and enjoy. Working the dark room will never stop feeling like arcane magic and I grin from ear to ear, still, when things are going great in there. The internet does little to nothing to excite me. It’s not the franchise of art I choose to like. It’s not the final destination for my photographs. It’s not a satisfying stand-in for face to face interaction. It’s a sinking ship in light of the Beauty and Truth which is out there to seek, and I choose not to think about it, not to let myself be swept away by it, and engage it as little as possible. I don’t believe in the internet.

Hello: My summer so far

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two months since I’ve written anything and longer still since I’ve posted photos. Don’t mistake this for not having made photographs, believe me, I certainly have been. I’ve just been feeling a bit more, reserved, I suppose. I came home with high hopes for making outstanding work. I was burned out mentally from school, and I was looking forward to a summer of working a job, building back up my cash flow and working on photography and just feeling all around good and productive.

The first two weeks of summer break were spent doing basically nothing and sitting around the house. I was waiting for paperwork and screening to clear to start a new job, so I felt somewhat justified in not exerting myself too much, figuring I’d be starting work within a few days (which I thought for the entire two weeks). To make matters worse, I had about $20 to my name, so buying gas to go out and photograph wasn’t exactly a possibility, and there was nothing I felt like photographing within walking distance, at least nothing that wouldn’t feel like a chore to go out and do. So I sat.

A few days before my job started, my dad took pity on me and gave me some money to gas up my car. I used this to go out and hike, simply wanting to make some nice images. I was sort of kicking around the idea of putting together one really nice print portfolio of photos from the summer, or at the very least having a digital set of no more than 20 or so images which would be picked from multiple shoots and represent outstanding work. This was in an effort to move towards more curated and focused work, contrasting my earlier days of trying to suck out as many “passable” shots as possible from every outing. So one shoot passed which I didn’t even edit photos from, and on the second shoot I went on towards the end, I got a decent idea for a photo series.

Now, this is the first time I’ve had a conceptual idea of something that I wanted to express in the context of a series. I think I talked about, way back in the pictures I did of a building going up, wanting to force myself to express something within a series, but not having anything to say. It felt good to find something abstract that I felt was worth trying to capture, and since I was at the very end of a shoot I didn’t have much of a chance to work with the idea, but it excited me. I believe I actually went out the next day or the day after, expressly to shoot images within this idea.

The resultant working series was OK. Although I tried to approach the series in a manner similar to any other material I would shoot, essentially trying to make “pretty” photos that still fit my general idea, I tried some things which I didn’t normally do including shooting artificial things in a natural setting, staging natural objects, including text alongside photographs (appropriated text, not rambling like these posts) and repeating formal/compositional elements through several photographs. While the photo series is a bit scattered, unfocused, muddled, and formally lacking to a certain degree, it was a good experience for me to sort of take these first, wading steps into the tools by which a photographer builds a narrative within a photo series. Just like I’ll sometimes try out a new process in Photoshop with unexpected results, it felt like I was making decisions which nudged the content of the photo series this way or that. These first, stumbling steps are the first towards more confident and bold ones in any medium or practice.

The series I first put together was a far cry from expressing the grace of the ideas that I was working with (which is to be expected, good series take time). Between the critique I sought and my own limited intuition on conceptual nuance in photography, I knew my work was lacking, so I showed it to a few friends and quietly let it sort of drop off my radar. I had planned on working it all summer, but I quickly got busy with commercial photo work and my job, then my family traveled, and I’ve gotten back and lost my taste for the project. I may pick it up at a later date, but without an assignment really compelling me to continue working on it, I have other more compelling things holding my interest at the moment.

On the note of commercial photography work, I did the photography for my old high school’s graduation shortly thereafter. Event photography is something that’s a bit harder to practice, and I haven’t done it professionally for over a year, so I felt a bit rusty. On the bright side, even looking at the photos before editing them, I could tell that two years (I had worked the same event my junior year) of basic improvement in how to make a photograph and better equipment had made a world of difference. The resulting set of photos felt more formally unified, more focused, and all around a better product that I was quite proud of. I went a bit overboard on editing, and with 150 or so photos to edit in the three days before my family left for vacation, in addition to a full time job, I was quite swamped. But once I saw how nice event photos could look with a but of color balancing and dodging and burning in photoshop, I felt like I had to give that level of care to every single photo. I think I’ll need to streamline the process in the future, though…

After that, my family and I traveled out west. It was nice to spend time with them; it felt strangely like a much different dynamic after having been gone for a year and yet entirely the same thing as high school. We stayed at a friend’s cabin in Arizona, camped at the Grand Canyon (where I hiked alone below the rim, an incredible experience), camped at Mesa Verde, then went on to my aunt and uncle’s house in Boulder, CO, and my father, brother and me camped for two nights in Maroon Bells, near Aspen, CO, while my mom stayed back in Boulder with her sisters.

It was an incredible trip to be sure, and it was nice to see the country again while fully ensconced in a photographic mindset. My family has been on two similar trips out west, but being a lot younger then, photography was only a small amusement among many, many other interests and activities for me. Also, although I didn’t make it out to California and Ansel Adams’ stomping ground in the Sierra Nevada range, it’s easy for me to understand how landscape photography sort of got its start in the American west. The natural beauty out there is simply on a different scale than in the east. I got back here and I appreciated the intimate, wet, loud forests. There are bugs and running water and gnats and full deciduous trees blowing in the wind here; the forest is a rich, lush place and the mountains are old and round and beautiful. I love it here. But the Rockies are immense, so tall that they seem almost to loom above you. The Grand Canyon simply seems to be the face of another planet, for a geologic formation on such a scale must surely not exist on Earth. The desert is quiet, it’s dry, it’s contemplative and angular and contrasty. The smell of a pine forest is nuanced and enticing. This is a continent of immense beauty, one region incomparable to the other for fear of missing something so beautifully unique by focusing too closely on any given part of the country.

Needless to say, I took a great deal of photographs, and I’m working on editing them. It is my hope to self publish a print portfolio of sorts when I have access to personal printing in the fall. Stay posted for details on that, as I’ll certainly be posting photos of that on its completion and I may post the photographs from the trip online though I haven’t decided on that yet. I’ll talk more about why I haven’t posted photographs despite making them in a later post: I was going to do it in this one, but it ended up being more of an update and I didn’t want to cram photo philosophy into this one on top of that.

This means that I even have two ideas for posts lined up! So stay tuned. I haven’t gone anywhere, and I’m certainly still making photographs and trying my best to stay on some straight and narrow paths!

Be well, internet.

Art School, Year One

I’m writing this a few days away from being done with one year of art school, and done with Virginia Commonwealth University’s infamous Art Foundation program, AFO. I’m generally of the philosophy that anything worth doing is worth reflecting on, so I’d like to talk a bit about my experience in this program and how I’ve changed over the past eight months. It’s been a whirlwind, and I’m left with that bittersweet feeling that the days in the beginning of the year are simultaneously so close and yet a short lifetime away. Here’s some of what I learned.

Art Foundation, and Nick Seitz in August

The first year in the art school is spent in a program called Art Foundation, which consists of 12 studio credits in four studios: space, surface, time, and drawing. Additionally, there’s a five week class each semester which are brief inquiries into any department of the student’s choosing, and six lecture credits which comprise an overview of western art.

I came into the school a bit nervous about AFO, as I know many students do. The reality of taking a semester studio in drawing loomed over me spring semester, I had never sculpted anything in my life, so space studio seemed a bit daunting, and I was so fixed on photography that I felt like surface and time were just distractions in addition to the fear of drawing and space. I spent most of my summer studying the old masters of photography, and I’d sort of ensconced myself in old ways of thinking. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I had no idea what it meant to do in response to contemporary thought, let alone what contemporary art thought even was. I just wanted to get into Photo and do whatever that entailed and graduate and become a fine art photographer. The details of that were lost on me. Not that I have the details now, but I at least now have a bit of an idea of how to find myself. Of course, more on that later.

I guess the easiest way to do this is to talk about some concepts I’ve learned, year 1.

The lines between mediums have really started breaking apart

One thing that I sort of scoffed at when I came into AFO is that some number north of 80% of people switch their intended majors before completing AFO. It’s the sort of program that generally self-sorts people in a hurry, which is great. For people that “did art” in high school but have no idea where to take that, by exposing them to a variety of thought and material practice, they generally have a good idea by the end of it what department would suit what interests them. Some people come in thinking they know what department to go into but discover that they may actually be better suited to study in a different department. Some people realize they don’t want to do art school, which is totally fine. AFO is clarifying: what you want to do in art, or if you even want to do art in an academic setting, are questions which are a lot easier to answer after a year in AFO.

All that said, I didn’t think for a second I’d do anything but photography coming in. I’d be in that stubborn 20%. And, well, I suppose I was, as I’m going into the photography department next year, albeit with a minor in Craft & Material Study. But AFO made me realize how easy it is to switch up, and how much contemporary art is guided not by mastery of one medium but a propensity for expressing ideas in whatever medium is best suited to the task.

This speaks to something which I’ve gradually learned over the year: although it may be simple to think of, say, the Photography and Film department as “art you make with a camera”, the department titles (at least the BFA degree departments) kind of serve as those cartoon-y wooden building fronts which stand in for the abstract concepts and approaches to art which are harder to give a name to. For example, the things studied in the photo department may be better described as art which is concerned with image creation and the representation of the world in images, whereas the Craft & Material Study department (which is split into the concentrations of wood, glass, metal, fibers and ceramics) would be concerned with object creation and craftsmanship of practice in creating fine and original objects.

My decision to study in the Craft & Material Studies department is the result of a shifting focus of mine from photography as an act of detachment and representation to an act of attachment and creation. When I came into school I was interested solely in the formal landscape, which is fancy art-talk for “taking really really pretty pictures of nature”. Yes, ok, very good. However, paraphrasing the words of one of my favorite photographers, Ed Burtynsky, I was born about a hundred two years too late for the formal landscape to be all that interesting as far as art practices go. Between a project class in the Sculpture department first semester, the Crafts department second semester, space studio, and I even got a bit of it from drawing, I realized I ultimately was interested in the creation of image objects, and generally finding some neat intersection between representation and creation.

So, I’d really like to study wood (which entails furniture design) and perhaps glass, as well as getting my BFA in photography. What kind of work I’ll make, what it’ll look like, I have no idea, but throughout this year I’ve gained a much more insightful voice into my own interests, feelings, and inclination of what I’d like to do in my own art practice.

Art school, like anything, is as hard as you want to be

I don’t know if people come into art school with this attitude, but I generally feel that there’s a prejudice against art students that we’re going to school for our hobby, and we simply frolic about, gaily making art and laughing about how carefree we are.

I’ll say it now, the curriculum of art school has been hard as hell, but it’s been a hell of a lot of fun. And there’s definitely a balance to that- there have been times when art has gotten way too serious for me and I hate the idea of art, and there can definitely be the tendency to just be too loose and nonchalant and not treat it with a bit of reverence it’s due. As far as a college experience goes, it’s been an interesting one.

I got into a conversation with Will a couple of weeks ago, it basically started by him asking “I wonder what it’s like to have a normal college experience…”

I’ll generally get a good amount of sleep each night, despite working until 4 or 5 a few more times than I can remember. The feeling of shuffling back to my dorm in the bleary eyed hours of the morning on desolate streets with my portfolio and drawing supplies is not an unfamiliar one. There have been stretches of the semester where it feels like literally every hour of every day is, by necessity, filled with studio work with class work and actual class time crammed into the cracks in between. “Collapsing into bed” time gets pushed back later and later, coffee becomes life blood, and the residual momentum was actually at a certain point making me physically uncomfortable when I wasn’t doing something productive.

A lot of this work was made for myself by virtue of wanting to do something to a high level of excellence, and it’s more or less worked. I had straight A’s last semester, and I may pull the same feat this semester (although if I do it’ll be by the skin of my teeth in two classes). Will and I talked about how strange it must be to be in an academic course where, if you only have lecture or lab classes, you can only learn material so well. Of course additional time could be spent reading about your field and keeping up with current research, but at a certain point, you just have an inescapable amount of free time. At the beginning of the semester, I had a space project that between the idea and my own partial incompetence, I probably worked 30-40 hours on in a week and a half. Just one project for a class which comprised 3 of my 16 credits this semester. I just, that was the idea I had, and I had to do it. First semester, I walked 28 miles in 10 1/2 hours for a project. I built a small house in five weeks from materials I salvaged. I shot and edited a TV intro by myself which was copying a professionally made one. I made a six minute documentary about my clothes. These are the ideas I had, and I dug into them, and I shouldered that work simply because that’s the idea I had and I wanted to do it.

I didn’t have much of a social life, sure. I occasionally drove myself crazy with work I made for myself, yeah. But I count myself as blessed for having a passion and having something that I feel like I can absolutely throw myself at full steam. It’s been fun, definitely. But fun in a sort of, wipe the sweat/tears/blood/charcoal dust off your brow, shake the sleep out of your eyes, and look around at your classmates in part shock and part silly joy over the absurdity and difficulty and fun of the energy you spent making this “art”. Which leads me to a good point.

Art is whatever the hell it wants to be, and that’s a beautiful thing

The conversation of “what is art” gets boring really, really fast in art school. The fact is that, there are no more definitions of art to challenge any more. The wall between common objects (what has historically been the antithesis of art) and art was first broken through in the early 20th century, Warhol and Duchamp picked it open enough for people to squirm their way through in the 50s and 60s, and then in the 70s and through the present day a vast number of artists have neatly dismantled every bit of that wall and we now have an art world in which there are no formal distinctions between what is and isn’t art. That is to say, there exists no set of criteria by which you can formally (information that can only be obtained by the sensory experience immediate to the object) determine if something is art, or not art.

I spent a lot of time being bothered by this fact. In art school and in a lot of contemporary practices, people are making art which I do not care for at all. From where I stand, there seems to be this art that’s made that only serves to show how clever the artist is. Or there’s art that’s made to be irreverent for the sake of being irreverent. Or there’s art that brings up the brokenness of society only for the sake of bringing it up, to bring new material forms to sadness and isolation, to the end of demonstrating the insightfulness of the artist.

All this art really, really bothered me for a lot of time and I spent a lot of time reading, and thinking, and writing, and reading more and thinking more and writing more and trying to figure out a way that art could be “better”. Could be more like the art I love, the art that improve my day, and makes me feel good, and connected to world and to people and to myself and just, makes me a better person.

The process of letting go of this frustration revolves basically around letting go of the awful temptation to feel that I’m always right about everything, which is basically what this boils down to even if I don’t, of course, think that.

Fortunately, the world does not revolve around me, and the world does not consist solely of people exactly like me. The freedom of art to be whatever it wants is equatable to the boundlessness of human diversity, and the uniqueness of each human experience is something worth celebrating. Anything can be done and be called art, and be considered as a cultural production worth giving special and attention and consideration to, and that’s cool. It brings prestige to people, it gives people a forum to express themselves and feel a part of something and feel better for having made art. Now, of course, being edified by the process of making and/or consuming art, and making “good” art are two completely separate things.

Making “good art” is a weird thing

The justification for a lot of good art, if the artist had to answer the question “why did you do this?” is usually “because I wanted to.”

It seems like to be a decent contemporary artist, you need to do this weird thing where you start out doing something freely or thinking some way because you enjoy it and it makes you happy. Then you need to beat the joy out of the action with long nights working, you have to study and burden yourself with the history of things, and take this weight of the world on your shoulders. You have to master the technical aspects of your medium: you need to connect your hand, mind, and eye in a perfect observational-reflexive arc, you need to be able to solve theoretical material problems in space with ease, you need to be able to visualize a photograph and intuitively work through the technical steps of creating it. You need to be so perfect at everything that art is a chore, that it’s painful because of how much you’ve practiced.

And then you need to ignore everything you’ve learned, and  break some rules, and do some stuff differently, and just be willing to let yourself do something because it makes you happy. To find something that makes you joyful and throw this technical excellence at it, and know what outcome your actions and choices will have, and allow your passion to have a material manifestation. That is my understanding of what it means to make excellent art.

However, just because anything can be art doesn’t mean that it’s effortless to make good art. If there’s some kind of art you do that makes you happy, then by all means you should do that and pursue that, but it’s hard to reach some status of making “good artwork” without jumping through what can almost be thought of as silly academic hoops to someone that isn’t, well, jumping through them themselves.

To a certain extent, there’s always been an academic divide in art. Throughout history there have been masters within mediums, and up until the 20th century or so, it has been easy to visually distinguish what is good art. You can look at most famous paintings (basically) between the renaissance and the middle of the 19th century and say “Yes, of course, these are masters of their craft”.

However, as art has gotten increasingly cerebral, sometimes it takes a versing in art history and astute “art goggles” (basically, an ability to read artwork and understand connotations) to say “Yes, of course this artist is a master of their craft” even if the piece of artwork looks incredibly simple, and the craft may simply be thinking and arriving at the inspiration to do something a certain way, and understanding what thoughts, feelings and experiences any given decision will elicit in the viewer.

This is all speaking to the effect of what is “received” as good art. I believe that the art making process is a significantly different thing.

Art became the most important thing in my life this year

There’s sort of an elephant in the room of art school, and that’s that we’re all scared as hell that we’ll be unemployed after school. I personally fear the day, if it ever comes, where I’m in my mid 20s with some job I don’t want, cursing student loan payments and thinking to myself “Why did I think it was a good idea to go to art school, I don’t know how to do anything practical.”

In a conversation of unexpected and somewhat biting insight, my friend Will and I were talking to our RA who’s an engineering major who was telling us about some lab he was working on that seemed to have very practical and positive implications. Will turned to me after our RA had left and said “Wow, I kind of wish we were doing something that helped people instead of something which just inflates our already massive egos.”

Although Will was speaking of the ego in the most negative connotation possible, when taken literally, an ego is one’s sense of self importance, self respect, and identity, which isn’t inherently a bad thing.

One thing I ask myself as frequently as is appropriate without making myself too sad is “If you’re not here for a job per se, what are you here for?”

One nice summary of what I believe real art to be is written by a professor of religion, art, and visual culture named J Sage Elwell, who writes in a critical essay,”[the genuine work of art is] thus experienced as the sacred, and like a private chapel nestled in a dark wood, art offers sanctuary from this life not by directly transforming the world itself, but by enabling the transformation of the self.” The “inflation of the ego” art provides can be thought of as the fortification of your own identity. A way to escape or to transcend the homogenizing and entropic forces of the world. If things are crumbling into drivel, then at least by the process of making art, the attune artist is able to escape that, even momentarily.

I’ve told several people that my landscape photography is the closest thing I have to a religious experience. While I love the community of religion, while I find sermons intellectually engaging and comforting, and hymns are beautiful in their own right, I’ve never been a very spiritual person in the sense of being moved in some way by typical worship services. However, when I am alone in nature with a camera, with nothing but my own thoughts and the vastness, the precision, the wildness and the persistence of something that I am a small, small part of: that moves me farther off the face of this world and into spiritual realms more than any worship service I’ve ever been in. Art is how I reach at and experience some sense of God.

Art is also how I sort of reach into and connect with myself. When I go and draw I like to joke and tell people that I’m going to “move charcoal around in order to like myself”, and that does have some truth. I love to work hard on things, and I love to have time alone to do something difficult and think and work and feel like I’m making something. Art is a method of being wholly present in my own mind, and being happy there.

Finally, art is a fantastic community in its own right and connects people to each other. As mentioned before, art walks a sort of public/ private line where each artist has their own road to walk down, their own personal journey of what “does it” for them in terms of making meaningful artwork, but artwork is created inherently to be shared, and the process of sharing that is a very cool thing. To be able to gather around and have each person say “Here’s a piece of myself that I’ve brought to show you all” is just, it’s nice. To build up a community where everyone is connecting simultaneously to themselves and to each other is just nice. There’s no more fitting word for it; it feels warm and it feels meaningful and it simply feels good.

In my freshman year of college, in a vast university far away from home and people who were so familiar to me, away from my family, in a setting and a world and mentalities so far away from what I’d known for my entire childhood, art was something to grab on to. It’s a process by which I am able to suss out the things significant and beautiful and meaningful and True to me. In the future, it may not always be the most important thing to me, but  for now it’s been a process by which I’ve been able to turn the vast stores of restless energy of my adolescence into a positive force.

So, if I don’t have a specific job or field I’m looking to rise to the top of, I guess in a cheesy way of saying it, I’m going to college to figure out to be happy and to grab the raw essence and meaning out of anything life throws at me. Of course there are jobs which would love to have a BFA in photography (or even the MFA I want to get…), and I’m far too hard of a worker to starve even if I weren’t working a job which I specifically went to school for. It’s a little bit harder to say exactly what you want to do ~employment wise~ after you answer “I’m studying art”, but I’m fairly confident that I’ll be able to find my way wherever life and my interests and takes me. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the ride immensely.

 

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The photographs for this piece were taken between 6:40 am and 2:30 pm on Saturday, April 12th over a walked distance of 16 miles. They are presented in the chronological order they were taken.

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Exhausting my words

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These are all images I made on March 10th and 12th over spring break, in the mountains nearby home. These images spring from some of the things I’ve been thinking and feeling, though I’m not keen on trying to figure out exactly what they mean to me, here in a public venue. In fact, the whole process of writing alongside images for this blog has produced some interesting patterns and currently I’m more interested in examining that phenomenon. And I’ll post pictures alongside my words because they hopefully break up my mundane yammering/public personal therapy session.

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I’ll feel a great deal of accomplishment when I have some piece that I can stand behind and be content with solely just looking at it. When I don’t feel like I need to talk about it or write about it or analyze it. It’s not like I spend a lot of energy trying to justify my pieces, it’s just that I feel like analysis is necessary when considering work that I’ve made, and when considering the thought processes that surround the work being made. I believe that answering the questions of “What am I thinking and feeling, what are the thoughts and opinions and what I’ve been reading that cause a particular set of images to come into existence?” are important to the creative process. But why do I specifically feel the need to answer these questions in a public manner?

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Back in the summer when I had disposable money and time, I would buy and read photo books of the old masters of photography, in particular Ansel Adams. He had one book I just loved- Examples: The Making of 40 photographs. It was published right before he died and contained 40 of his more well known images along with a page or two of writing along with each photo, detailing the process by which the photo was made technically, a bit about the logistics surrounding the photo, and a bit of creative philosophy sprinkled in. This book was just so fascinating to me, all the details of how a photo was made. This blog was actually started in that line of thought- as a forum for thoughts on my own photos and general photographic ramblings.

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When I got to school, I found this blog was sort of a natural outlet for writing about the projects I was working on. It started as just describing what I was doing and talking a bit about what was going on surrounding it, but I realized that this venue for analysis was a beneficial one in digesting and documenting my work from classes. This practice leached into my personal work, and it’s gotten to the point where it almost seems lazy to post images without writing: why post work (especially practice work) if I’m not going to ruminate on its significance?

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Basically I went through three stages of thought this year in regards to my personal work, all of which can be followed on, and were probably stratified by, this blog: After I decided that my work from high school and before college was boring, I figured I needed some really esoteric concept to shoot and tried to think my way to that point and got really frustrated and made mediocre work and got more frustrated and read a lot. Then realizing how futile this was, I sort of returned to the practice of just practicing and making images and that was pretty alright. More recently, I’ve come around to a point where I think I’m onto something that means something, I mean to say at least, these mean a lot more to me than “I’m just making pictures of nature”, but I’m really, really hesitant to talk about it.

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In the never-ending search for “Truth” whatever it may be, I’ve been reading (I figure books are good places to start looking for such a thing). I’ve been reading these two critics and the thought surrounding their work: Arthur Danto and Donald Kuspit. I won’t go into specifics about their ideas for a variety of reasons which can likely be inferred when I’m done writing, but I suppose the easiest way to start is that I’m most of the way through Kuspit’s 2005 book The End of Art. 

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It’s a pretty bleak sounding title to say the least, but I don’t really see the book as dire. Again, not going to go into specifics of Kuspit’s criticism for reasons, but when I try to talk about these ideas, it hasn’t exactly gone well. From two close friends I talk to about such things, I’ve been accused of just whining about something I don’t have much experience in (contemporary art), and one of my friends even took it as a personal affront and was pretty upset with how I cast the whole thing. The way in which I was phrasing how I talked about these ideas made it seem like I unilaterally hated contemporary art, that there was nothing worthwhile being made, and I was starting to figure out “the work” that “needed” to be made.

That’s not a particularly productive mindset to be in, especially when I not only find myself in the contemporary period, I’m not even a graduated BFA artist in the contemporary period yet.

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I read criticism, aesthetic theory, I read about contemporary artists and old masters I both do and don’t like. I try to look at as much art as possible, and  I write personally regarding these topics more than I write publicly. I do this all in hopes of gaining as astute an understanding as possible of why I like what I like and why I dislike what I dislike, and furthermore how my taste and intuition fit into art history and contemporary society. Having an understanding of the theoretical structure which surrounds a field is important to me, because I feel that it grants insight into the thoughts and motivations of artists and artistic movements, which in turn allows for more clarity in personal practice.

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So I have this well read and well researched criticism from an artist writing about how Duchamp and Warhol framed contemporary thought from a critic who was in his 20s when Duchamp and Warhol were turning aesthetic theory on its head. And what’s more, the critic is putting beautiful, insightful words to hunches, notions, intuitions I have about what art is capable of, and why I don’t like the contemporary work I don’t like. Very cool! I read this because it’s exciting, because it helps reveal a picture of what I want my work to do: for myself, for the viewer, and if I’m so blessed, for society.

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However I suppose I run into difficulty when I try to talk about this picture I have for my work, because I enter the territory of overconfidence, of cockiness, of “I have it figured out”. This is not a good place to make artwork from. In my search for insight, I am too quick to think that I stumbled upon answers and share them with people not necessarily for a chance to hear feedback and have a discussion, but hoping that people will simply say “Wow, you’re so right!” Again, not a good place to be.

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So I guess right now I’m looking for a middle ground. My friend Will says to me, good work should be able to stand on its own. I wrote 5,200 words for 20 pieces for my departmental portfolio, and he said this was excessive and absurd. I said that I felt like I needed that many words to talk about the significance each piece had to me. I suppose every piece will always be significant to me, but I suppose talking about them to such length borders on blathering. Ideally, in true formalist fashion, everything that’s necessary to comprehend and appreciate a piece would be present within the piece itself.  But there’s the rub: all the thought and aesthetic theory demands a vessel to be poured into, a medium to gain material form.

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This is all to say, I need to keep making work. The style of critique which we’ve learned in school is to try and ascertain the artist’s motive in making a piece, what they’re trying to express. Then figure out what decisions they made to that end, and then to decide whether they worked towards or against that end, and then what further actions can be done or what actions undone. Without work, I’m becoming more of an art critic than an artist, because I have an idea of what ideal artwork is without making many strides towards creating it. There’s nothing wrong with art criticism, but it’s a self defeating cause to try and understand theory and then talk about it alongside artwork which does nothing or little towards the end one is trying to accomplish.

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What is this all to say?

I suppose I’m tired of trying to come up with a grand picture of what artwork should be, or what’s wrong with contemporary art or thought, or what I ultimately want my artwork to be like. Will was joking with me that my life is a steady march of grand revelations, that at every turn of a page I find some new epiphany of how everything is. I guess to a certain extent, my mind works this way. I am constantly in search of trying “figure everything out”, but I simultaneously believe this is impossible, but it doesn’t stop me from trying. It feels lazy, it feels defeatist to say “well guess I’ll just be along for the ride without actively trying to figure out what will make me better at what I do”.

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I suppose to a certain degree I need to squirrel away my views, my vision, my drive, and my opinion of my own work. I have to take criticism, ideas, reading, feedback, experience, I have to take that all back to a room which only I have the key to to build this idea of what my artwork should be. Sharing this, flaunting this, what does that serve? I’m seeking only a pat on the head, affirmation. I suppose the only affirmation that’s healthy to seek is affirmation for artwork, and not for my ability to think about my work or others’.

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So I’m not inclined to talk about what these images mean to me. Not because they mean nothing, in fact they are the most recent set of images I feel like I’ve poured everything I have to give to them into. But I feel to write what they mean would degrade their meaning for me. I don’t choose to withhold the meaning and the thought driving them for fear of being wrong. In fact, I’m not even exactly sure it’s possible to be wrong in art any more. I withhold the meaning and let the images stand alone for fear of giving weight to the idea that it’s possible to get art “right”.

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My, have things been busy

Just a quick update since I haven’t written in a few weeks: I’ve been extremely busy as of late. That’s the long and the short of it.

I’ve been out to do landscape photography three times since the last posting of images, and I’d love to share these but I’d really like to take time and share them right. I’ve been reading a fair amount of art criticism that’s had a great deal of influence on my work. I’d like to sort of process that with writing and illuminate the text with the work I’ve been doing, and that will take a fair amount of time that I need to block off and just do. But of course, this entails finishing editing all the images I’ve made. Despite being on spring break I still have a fair amount of work (mostly job related) that needs to be done. But I will get to it! Promise.

Until then: be well, readers.

Wings in the Style of Mel Bochner

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I’m sorry I haven’t posted in forever, I’ve been stupid busy and stressed over this project among others. It’s also something I’ve been extremely excited to turn into writing because I’ve spent a lot of idle time thinking about how much I hate this project and the aspects of my personality which brought it to light, if that makes sense. Well, of course, hate is a strong word, but this project was executed so inefficiently that I cannot help but bemoan all the poor decisions I made which led to a massive amount of frustration and work which could’ve been avoided.

For a detailed account of all the work and the process that went into these, refer to this album.

Wings in the style of an artist of our choosing

That was the assignment. Fairly straightforward. I picked Mel Bochner, a very cool conceptual artist who, among other work, created pieces of arbitrary measurements on painted canvas or in gallery installations. I wanted to make simple wing objects criss-crossed in this measurement style, and for some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to make these out of wood.

Material Decision making

My material language at this point is basically cardboard and wood. We got a brief demo in my sculpture project class last semester about working with foam and wire mesh, but I’ve basically only worked three dimensions in paper (insubstantial for this project) ceramics (not even close to useful or available for this project) cardboard (eh, little too flimsy for my taste) and wood (ooh, that works…)

It never even entered my mind to make this in anything besides cardboard or wood and that was my undoing. I mentioned to my studio professor that I wanted to work in wood and he suggested chalkboard paint and that was that. There as no further discussion about materials or the line style, all decisions from that point forward were informed by that final vision for this project.

It was an incredibly poor decision which led to far, far more work than would’ve been necessary.

The point at which I realized this mistake was during a conversation with Will:

“yeah, if I had to do this project again I probably wouldn’t have worked in wood..”

“Wait, you didn’t have to work in wood?”

“No”

“Why didn’t you work in foam? Why didn’t you work in cardboard? Why didn’t you work in literally anything besides wood?”

I wanted something substantial, something that was solid and geometric. Wood seemed like a good choice, but foam had never even been considered. This would’ve been the far superior choice for ease of working with, but again, it had never been considered and I’ve never worked with it, thus I found it difficult to make expectations about how to work in this medium. Wood is simple to me because I’m no expert with it, but I at least have an idea of methods to manipulate it, the limits and capabilities of it, and thus I can solve theoretical problems with it since I have a theoretical understanding of how it works. Thus, it made sense to start with what I wanted to make and then pick the medium and then develop the structure of the piece.

I think that from this project, I’ve learned sort of a backwards, or perhaps top-down is a better way of saying it, approach to problem solving: start with the problem and then cascade out a variety of materials and methods with which it can be solved, and weigh the pros and cons of working with each one. This will allow an economical, efficient, and refined finished product rather than something which is burdened with the difficulties of a certain medium where another medium may have been a better choice. What I lacked in this project was asking myself the questions of “what about working with wood will make this difficult? Can I accomplish a similar effect with a different medium?”

Stubbornness

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I think that this project brought out both some of my better and worse qualities. First of all, it was a lot of work, but I got it done more or less satisfactorily. However, it also is an example of a time when I dove in without knowing the full extent of the work that would be necessary to complete the project. Furthermore, I had unrealistic expectations about the ease of this project and my ability to be precise with very “estimated” tools and working practices.

Because the wood shop was only open for very limited hours in light of the amount of work I was trying to do, I had to do a large amount of the work for this project with hand tools. Without going into technical details (again, there’s a whole album of pictures with commentary above if you’re interested) I essentially thought I could create a fairly refined product by cutting most of the project with a hand saw. This was not the case, and the majority of this project’s time (~8 hours in the wood shop shaping the wood and then 10-20 hours spackling and sanding repeatedly) was dealing with the incredibly uneven sides which resulted from the inaccuracy of hand-cutting. In fact, when I brought the wings when they were freshly glued into the wood shop asking the shop tech how to progress, he basically said “Ahhh, you uh, you might just want to bite the bullet and figure out how to work the uneven sides into your concept, because these are going to be incredibly hard to get back to true.”

Bothered by the possibility of having to change course midway, I decided to just get to work. I think the most frustrating aspect about this whole project was the idea that I had an idea, and I picked  a poor way to accomplish the idea, and it took more work than I could’ve imagined, and it only turned out in the same ballpark as the original idea, but I probably could’ve anticipated that if I had more experience in 3D, if I thought about it more, or if I had simply talked to someone about the idea I was having and what materials would be good to work in. Instead I charged directly into the project, made more work for myself than was necessary, and didn’t even get exactly what I wanted.

Work, work, work

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I think the most frustrating piece of criticism I’ve ever received was from a friend who looked at this and said “it doesn’t look like you put as much time into it as you did”. This speaks to a lack of craftsmanship, a lack of efficient thought, and a lack of familiarity with the medium in which I was working. Gaining the first, I could’ve made more refinement and worked cleaner in the time I had. Gaining the second, I would’ve made different decisions about the materiality of this project. Gaining the third, I again would’ve chosen to work in a different medium, knowing that the level of refinement I wanted would be difficult in the medium of wood, paint, and chalk.

I’m willing to do a lot of work for a project, sure. I’m willing to put a lot of time and sometimes a lot of money into my work. The frustrating thing is when I do this and it doesn’t pay off. But, this project is behind me, I’ve learned a lot, and it was nice to simply finish it. They may not be perfect, but it is a nice substantial thing that I was able to conceive and do, even if it could’ve been done better.

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Escape

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Landscape photography is one context in which I can engage the world in a way that doesn’t have to make sense to anyone except myself. In the same way that I use words to clarify and organize my thoughts into words, photography has become the visual language and the process by which my thoughts are simultaneously organized and quieted. I suppose the crucial question then becomes, why share my work? If I’m making images primarily as my own escape from needing to live in and up to other people’s expectations, why not simply rest on the the satisfaction of making images which physically fulfill my own internal vision? In a word, I think the answer is validation.

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I don’t think any mentally functioning person wants to walk this world alone. We are social creatures, our evolution and very nature has dictated that we function and think in the context of other people; I don’t think that anyone truly, sincerely thinks “I don’t want the love, attention, understanding or company of any person, anywhere, for the rest of my life.”

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That said, I suppose right now I mostly draw off personal experience and feelings to make work. It’s not the most artistically interesting thing to do, but as I’ve said repeatedly in recent posts, I’m not going to let that bother me for the time being. The reason I make work currently is to connect with the world, to share and receive positive feedback as a way of feeling “what you’re seeing and how you’re seeing it is normal, it’s good, I appreciate you and these images you’ve made.”

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I started in photography with the simple mindset of making increasingly compelling images from the landscape, but as I practiced and studied more I found this process by which I was connecting first to myself, secondly to my subject matter, and the whole time I was simply enjoying the process of observing and connecting to the world on my own terms. I think the biggest thing that’s bothered me about contemporary photo work is that it seemed like a lot of stuff that I don’t want to do, and in many ways runs directly opposite to what I love about photography.

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It seemed like to make work that looked like contemporary work I was seeing, I would need to get wrapped up in all these things that normally just bothered me. Problems that needed solving (with something other than a camera, perhaps) and feelings I didn’t have, and present this in sort of a detached, documentary way so that people could consider on their own objective terms the relationships and issues in the world. So much of the work I looked at first semester was centered around some social issue and tinted with personal experience and then the photographer took ten steps back and tried to approach it as an outsider. That’s not what I decided to become a photographer to do.

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I am a photographer because it’s an escape, bordering on a solution, to the problems in my life. I grew up thinking that if I thought hard enough about any problem, I could solve it. Interpersonal, institutional, professional, occupational, artistic. If I put my mind to something I could come up with the objective best actions for me to move forward. This helped me somewhat to become a better person, but there’s two places in which it’s somewhat severely screwed me up. First of all, in interpersonal relationships it’s led to a bad habit of over thinking, anxiety, and poor decisions. Secondly, especially when I came to college, I realized that any given broad social issue, lifestyle choice, cultural identity, anything that two or more people do is going to have an entire spectrum of opinions, and most of the stops on that spectrum are going to have what I’d consider rational, normal people making reasoned and considered arguments about it. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to generally see both sides of any argument. But I found out when my world and social exposure expanded massively moving from the Mennonite enclaves of Harrisonburg to one of the largest and most diverse colleges in the United States, it’s incredibly hard to get a sense of direction when anything you choose to consider is a shade of gray.

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I felt like trendy contemporary fine art documentary photography was basically saying to me “Consider complex and multi-faceted problems and very difficult social issues and then make art, make photographs of them.” Concept, concept, concept. Issues and struggles and melancholy and banality and consumerism and internet culture and isolation. Make work in these contexts. Making mere images, ignoring ‘concepts’, is boring, it’s sentimental, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s not art. My current photography practice is an attempt to get out and observe, be affected by what I see, organize and make visible the things I see and the things I’m feeling. When I started out I would think “I need to go out close to sunset and hope I can make some pretty pictures with that light.” Now I can take my camera out, walk down the street or drive out to the country and simply enjoy the process of observing. I make work in the context of the places I feel small, where I feel peaceful. Where I don’t have to think about all the problems myself and the world has; I can simply be, notice something that I haven’t noticed before, and make images thereof and share them in hopes that someone benefits from looking at this personal offering of something that made me feel some small bit of peace, interest, and stillness. That’s where I am right now, this is the concept on which I make photographs.

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