In a recent blog post, I introduced some of my latest images, which include working with some brand new broken mirror shards. Over the years, the process of generating new and interesting shapes of these mirror fragments has evolved. My first attempt involved bending an 8′ plexiglass mirror back on itself until it exploded, dangerously blasting reflective projectiles across the studio in a thunderous CRACK. Since then, however, I’ve developed a much more elegant technique that is not only safer, but produces gorgeous fragments.
Without further ado, the refined process of creating interesting mirror shards:
Large plexiglass mirror
One large, nicely shaped, preferably round rock
Someone to direct the model/truck driver
One extremely handsome assistant to record the event on his iPhone
A hat and gloves- if it happens to be 20 degrees in the middle of winter.
The Juniper Workshops promote an interdisciplinary approach, encouraging students “to go beyond simply capturing pretty images. Our students learn to go deeper into their subjects to produce a body of work that expresses more than just surface imagery. As we push students to go beyond the expected image they learn not only the craft of photography, but how to see deeper into their subjects.”
Situated in the heart of Tuscany, the Florence workshops are comprised of four complementary workshops. The structure is a little bit different than what I’m used to, specifically that I’ll be teaching alongside three other instructors, including Paul Taggart, Regina Saisi, and my dear friend Ben Long. Although we will each have our own specific workshop, class time will be spent with all four of us. There will also be presentations, exercises and critiques that will involve the entire student body, providing the opportunity to mingle with students from the other classes. Ben and I have taught together in the past, including at the Oklahoma Arts Institute Workshops, as well as through the award winning online instructional video library, lynda.com. I think working alongside one another and teaching in this format will be an exciting and effective way to push students to the next level in their work, and I’m really looking forward to it!
That may sound crazy, but consider this: Our vision is often limited by our expectation of what we think we should see instead of what is actually in front of us. Our brains guide our vision and while that guidance allows us to move quickly through a complex visual world, the brain’s interference can be a real hindrance to the process of photography. The fact that we see what we expect to see can inevitably leave us feeling like we’re making the same image over and over. The fix for that is to learn to see the world differently.
In this workshop we will learn that what you photograph is not as important as how you photograph it. Through exercises, assignments, and discussions, you will learn to use your camera as a tool to discover new ways of looking at and experiencing the world around you. Instead of thinking about what makes the best shot and being in control, we will learn to develop an intuitive visual approach in our work, trusting in our eyes to guide us through shooting. Working in a supportive environment, we will emphasize process is over product, while encouraging playfulness, and exploring the idea of mistakes as pathways to discovery. This class is suitable for all levels, though a working knowledge of your digital camera is important.
From the Juniper website: “Juniper Workshops offers unique photography workshops with an emphasis on adventure around the world. Like any workshop, we will help students find the best photos, but we believe that good photo instruction requires something more. Because the best photographs tell stories, we push our students to go beyond simply capturing pretty images. Our students learn to go deeper into their subjects to produce a body of work that expresses more than just surface imagery. As we push students to go beyond the expected image they learn not only the craft of photography, but how to see deeper into their subjects.”
My new images are different, or at least they are to me. Okay, so now I have been photographing in mirrors for a few decades. In the beginning there were lots of new discoveries and fewer and fewer as time goes on. This makes sense because I see much of my job now as a more nuanced one of refining and pushing. Recently, in the beginning of 2016, I have seen a shift in my work and by my standards – a rather major one. Yes I am using the same mirrors I have always used and using them to reform the human body and to use shapes of broken shards to exaggerate gestures and forms. Nothing new there.
What is totally new, however, is my appreciation of the edges – sharp and angular or round and curved.
Now I am not just breaking the shards but gouging them, digging into them with screwdrivers, utility knives and using paint to selectively bring bits of color into the marks. The result gives them a visceral quality – distressed and marred. Because the focus is on the shape of the shards, the edges and textures, they flatten the space. This flattened space results in the body appearing as if broken into flat planes.
These broken planes are disconnected from each other so the figure appears to be put together from disparate pieces. Their loose, often imprecise construction makes me think of marionettes, or dolls. The figures appear less individuated because the emphasis now is not on particular individual features, but more on shapes. The images are still dark and disturbing, as most of my images are but more removed from the form of the human body.
The way the shape of the mirrors relate to each other is similar to Hannah Höck‘s photomontages. An artist from the German Expressionist era, Höck would collage together different elements, torn or cut out magazines, photographs and drawings. The shape of these elements created a similar flat sense of space that my mirror planes do. Figures in her work are often redefined through the edges of the paper and images she uses. The effect is often twisted, almost comical in it’s bizarreness, but disturbing to the point of being haunting, and this new mirror work seems to echo that strange emotional quality.
photomontage by Hannah Höch
I’ve also found the figures in the latest mirror images to appear in odd, uncomfortable and perhaps unnatural gestures. Although there may be nothing particularly twisted about the bodies themselves, the way the mirror shards reshape and redefine the body’s extremities make these gestures seem rigid and stiff, and jarring, reminding me of the way the figure is depicted in the work of Egon Schiele, or Oskar Kokoschka. Their drawings and paintings of the human form are immediately recognizable for their simple yet exaggerated linear quality. The figures are often twisted, sometimes to the point of being grotesque, and frequently have elongated, disproportionate limbs and/or features. Since the latest mirror work focuses on the shape of the mirrors, the arms, legs, torso and even heads of the figures are forcibly redefined into these rigid shapes, echoing the taut oddness of Schiele or Kokoschka’s figures.
Much of the figure in my latest mirror images becomes similarly flat and simplified, often breaking the body into flat planes. This effect gives them the same gaunt, stark, and desolate appearance as seen in both Schiele and Kokoschka’s work.
Since I have taken more liberty with defacing the mirror surfaces, the “hatching” effect has become louder, and is visually similar to Käthe Kollowitz‘s mark making. Through the expression of her mark making there is an element of tragedy in her work, one of desperation and despair. The figures in this latest mirror work exhibit a similar quality of despair, reflecting more of an internal, psychological state rather than representing actual, physical beings.
To be influenced is to engage so deeply with a piece, with a work of art, that it becomes part of you, infecting your point of view, challenging values or just becoming a catalyst for opening yourself to greater experiences. Francis Bacon, the 20th-century British painter, one of my most personally treasured artists, was heavily influenced and inspired by the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and had a reproduction of his “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” hanging in his studio when he made his “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X”. Not only was he influenced by the elements in the composition, such as the throne, the robes, and the posture of the Pope but also by the Pope’s facial expression and gestures. The darkness implied in Velázquez’s Pope has been transformed into articulated agony in Bacon’s version. There is no subtle anguish but, instead, loud and clearly expressed emotional torture. Through his engagement and encounter with Velázquez’s painting, Bacon created a portrait of Pope Innocent X that is undeniably his own. His powerful ability to communicate emotion through his application of paint, his choice of colors, and his way of making marks on the canvas leaves no doubt that this painting was made by Francis Bacon. While clearly influenced by Velázquez, the result is, without question, original.
I find that many young artists are concerned with being “original,” as if this is the defining test for being a “real” artist, without really understanding what “original” actually means. Original works are not innovations or subjects that have not been used before. It is not that simple. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe addressed the complexity of originality when he said, “The most original authors of today are original not because they create something new but because they are capable of saying such things as if they had never been said before.”
The first time I saw any quantity of Bacon’s work was in 1989 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. I was immediately struck by the passion of his expressions. Even the paint itself was screaming with intensity. The raw, honest texture of these emotions startled me, confronted me, and ultimately pushed me. He put into his paintings feelings I thought I was surely the only one to experience. Through his work, I found connection to the deepest parts of myself, beyond the scope of mere words. By the time I had finished viewing the exhibition, Bacon’s work had become a part of me, incorporated into my psyche. Jeanette Winterson expressed this perfectly when she stated, “True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.” (Art Objects:Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage, 1996) Bacon inspired and dared me to push myself in my own work, as far as I could go, and then to keep going.
I didn’t see the depth of this influence until five years later when I made “Untitled #5978,” an image clearly informed by Bacon’s work. The resemblance to a number of his paintings depicting a scream was unintentional, the result of a long, intuitive exploration, yet it was such an exciting moment for me when I saw this effect. In “Untitled #5078,” the reﬂection of the lower jaw is prominent on the surface of the water and makes the mouth look like it is double-hinged. The head above the water does not show because it is night and there is no light on it. The scream is coming from so deep in the figure’s gut that her jaw appears to be blown wide apart. The body is twisted in just the perfect way to maximize the force of the scream. The scream is not in anger at something but rather the expression of psychic agony, a release. Bacon’s scream in “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (c. 1944) articulates similar primal raw intensity. In both Bacon’s painting and my photograph, the scream represents pure expression and emotion; there does not appear to be any cognitive activity within. These forms are a mass of muscle, gut, neck, and, of course, an ear and a mouth with a full set of teeth. Without a frontal cortex, both figures lack the ability to think, allowing their reactions to be unrestrained by the power of reason.
Did Bacon’s paintings inform my work? Did his images give form to (or animate) my own feelings? Yes, there is no doubt. After I had experienced his images, my awareness of my self was heightened, and I was enlightened to powerful yet previously undefined feelings and thoughts. Bacon’s paintings dared me to be honest with myself in a raw and real way. This is one of the greatest functions of art – to express complex emotion that cannot be conveyed in a linear or verbal way. Bacon’s work affected me deeply, and it would eventually have a profound impact on my work as well. I discovered “Untitled #5978” through my own exploration, and I was able to see it because of the way Bacon’s work had become a part of my psyche. It was not an attempt to copy but rather was an encounter – the result of an intuitive process – as all of my images are. My debt to Bacon is undeniable as is my admiration. The compelling passion of his paintings pushed me in my own process to be daring and to reach as deep within myself as possible, as he did.
So, if being “original” is not to be the ﬁrst to do something, yet if being heavily influenced by other artworks does not preclude originality, then what does it mean to be original?
The word “original” is deﬁned as “Of or pertaining to the origin, beginning, or earliest stage of something; source of something; from which something arises The wonderful paradox of originality is that it is at once something unique and individual (“the earliest stage”) while at the same time it is connected with the source. How can something derive from a “source” and simultaneously be unique? The fascinating paradox of originality makes sense in the context of Carl Jung’s ideas of the collective unconscious. If we think of the “source” as the collective unconscious, then the word “original” refers to an encounter with the deepest parts of our humanity – the pool of collective symbols, archetypes, knowledge, and wisdom that is accessible to all humanity. The most profound connections we can make with ourselves and with others is through this “source” in which we encounter the very core of our own humanity and which is shared with every other human being.
It takes quite a bit to bring me to my knees these days, but the Metropolitan Opera‘s production of Lulu did just that.
Patricia, my wife, read a review in the NY Times raving about this season’s Met Opera production of “Lulu” by Berg. She immediately got us tickets for the Met broadcast at a local cinema. Reading the synopsis I couldn’t get past the small type at the top of the page that announced that the opera went on for FOUR hours! As soon as the curtain was lifted, however, I was mesmerized to see a stage filled with heavy ink drawings and projections immediately recalling the intense and demanding style of German Expressionism, an anti-realism style characterized by extreme distortions “to show an inner emotional reality rather than what is on the surface”. Large cut out hands and cylinders with crudely drawn features like oversized paper bag masks appeared incongruous and out of place. Yet these seemingly silly props were thin veneers covering the angst and foreboding that filled the set. Paper cut outs of Lulu’s intimate parts taped onto her clothes made her seem even more raw and naked than if she was actually without clothes. The fracturing nature of cubism and the sophisticated decorative approach of art deco were overladen with the weight and complexity of German Expressionism.
There was so much happening on the stage- intense projections, bizarre music, and of course the actions of the actors and singers. As if that was not enough, a mannequin-like figure on the side of the stage seemingly played the piano. Conjuring the seedy, dark and edgy cabarets in 1930’s Germany, this character interpreted and mimed the actions on the stage, often amplifying the intensely psychological qualities.
The visuals got me. Immediately and fully. The music, the strange “twelve tone technique,” which I know nothing about except that musicians cringe when it is mentioned, was indeed strange but interfaced perfectly with the eerie stage set. To cap off the entire experience, Marlis Petersen has perfected her role to the point where she seems to inhabit Lulu’s complex and grim psyche. Through her voice we could viscerally experience her fights, loves, deceptions, and despairs.
I enjoyed opera before this experience, but now I am hooked. At least for really excellent opera, such as those produced by the Met. Lulu stayed with me on a conscious level, but she also penetrated my psyche. I know this because my work immediately changed.
I had another binge shoot in January, six weeks after seeing Lulu, with Carl. We started off playing with different ideas and new directions. The resulting work recalls the strange reinterpretation of gestures, emotions and figures reminiscent of German Expressionism.
Redefining the body using the shape of mirror shards is not new for me; I have been doing it for years…
but this time feels different, and not only due to the inclusion of color. Perhaps it is coming from the impact of the breaking and shattering I experienced occurring on the set, in the music, and throughout the story of Lulu.
In any case, I find myself once again inadvertently bearing the influence of one of my art heroes – Kathe Kollowitz.
I have always been a fan of Kathe Kollowitz, a German artist working in the first part of the 20th century. Her work speaks of the tragedy of war and of the human condition. She would often divide the planes of the face into extreme geometric forms, transforming the external expression into a reflection of innermost concerns.
I’m still exploring this new work, and have been really drawn to it’s emotional and geometric qualities. The shapes of the mirror shards flatten the body, but within their reflections there is dimension and form, which is defined even further by the color. The texture of the particular mirrors I’ve been using also lends itself to the German Expressionist style, with scrapes and scratches that echo the dark, dense, and inky quality of the movement’s mark making. Woking with one model instead of two seems to emphasis the deconstruction of the form, while the reconstruction is incomplete, marred, or extremely distorted.
I was so immersed and so captivated by the production of Lulu, so affected by the power of its expression, that it influenced my own work. To be influenced is to engage so deeply with a piece, with a work of art, that it becomes part of you, infecting your point of view, challenging values or just becoming a catalyst for opening yourself to greater experiences. Lulu did just that, and has since elevated my exploration working with the same materials and subject for over 30 years.
With the workshop season drawing to a close, I found myself inspired to photograph and eager to get back to my own work. The pool is currently unavailable (details soon….), but my heart is with the mirrors for the time being anyway.
I’ve been playing with a different palette in the studio this time, and in just the last few weeks have already had some excellent shoots and exciting developments. Although it hasn’t been quite as intense as “binge shooting“, I have my hands full with the editing process and new images to work with. I’m looking forward to sharing more soon, but in the meantime here is one of the latest:
When I’m photographing with the mirrors, I typically shoot at least two models at a time, either combining them into a single figure or looking for an interesting relationship between the two. In Untitled #12-01-15-39, I was only working with one model- Cory, of course- and experimenting with different light and color in preparation for another upcoming shoot. This image was somewhat of a surprise- I just love the color gradation on the body, and how it blends with the background in just the right area’s. The “contrapposto” (which sounds like something you order at Grano Emporio) of the figure feels classical, reminding me of the ancient Greek sculpture Kritios Boy. It also brought to mind Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, which I always rush to see when I’m visiting the Louvre. I would love to hear any thoughts!
The limited edition of Reflections comes in a clamshell box and includes a signed and editioned print of Untitled #7146, approx. 9″x12″. The original price for Reflections L.E. is $500, but is now available for $200.
Last week’s Interdisciplinary Retreat with the MFA program at the Maine Media Workshops & College was so intense, so completely chock full of enlightening discourse and insightful discussions, that my brain hurts from thinking so hard. I’m not sure I’ve been able to actually think ever since… I fear I may have sprained my brain.
It was, in short, a fantastic time.
For three and a half days, experts from a variety of fields gathered to critique the work of MMW+C students, offering feedback from a diverse range of disciplines including photography, filmmaking, writing, and painting. Each student received a nearly hour long crit, with incredibly engaging and profound conversations arising from the many different points of view on hand. Beginning at 8:30 or 9am, every day was so full that our lunch and dinner hours grew progressively shorter and shorter, although the food was- as always- utterly fabulous.
The students work this year was particularly compelling, and they all received critiques with openness and eagerness. Having worked with many of the students in the past, I loved reconnecting with everyone and was impressed by how much their work had improved. Carol Eisenberg, who I’ve been mentoring for some time, exhibited tremendous evolution in her images. Since we primarily meet over Facetime/Skype/etc, it was wonderful to see her images printed and hung on the wall.
Another student, Joe Mullan, had been a student of mine through the mentorship program offered by the MMW+C, and is graduating with his MFA degree this fall. During his thesis defense, I made a comment which inspired him to stand up for himself and question me in return. When I responded by saying that in all the time we’ve worked together he’d never spoken to me that way, the whole place erupted in laughter, and we all agreed that it was a sure sign that he is ready to graduate.
Anna LaBenz, a student whose work I critiqued two years prior, presented work that had considerably improved. My goal in offering feedback is to look at the images and express what is and isn’t working, and how I “read” the photograph from an objective standpoint, never to intentionally offend or hurt anyone. Anna found the critique I gave her years ago to be somewhat severe, however, and it motivated her to progress. This year, she stated that she was “really glad Connie is here, because two years ago she gave me a harsh critique, and I said to myself ‘I’m gonna show that woman'”! I replied by saying “You just did”, and everyone cheered and roared as an almost celebration of how far she had truly come.
It was wonderful to be working with the Maine Media Workshops again, as it always is. Over so many years, I have developed a sincere fondness for the school, it’s supportive environment, and the goodwill displayed by the faculty and staff towards the students. Everyone is enabled to go beyond what they think they are capable of and it is extremely rewarding for me to be a part of. The opportunity to work alongside the other visiting faculty was truly an illuminating experience, and all of the students presented innovative, highly sophisticated work. Bestor Cram, executive producer and creative director of Northern Light Productions who was the other visiting artist, summed up the experience beautifully:
“This years MFA retreat experience for me as a visiting faculty member was a powerful reminder of the capacity for art to be transformative. I am impressed by the culture you — the faculty and students — have created that supports the growth of individual creativity as a discipline that emerges from a determined pursuit of self realization, and a recognition that boundaries are to be crossed.”
Many thanks to MMW+C for all of their support and hospitality, and CONGRATULATIONS to Joe Mullan and Rob Skeoch on graduating with their MFA degrees- you both worked extremely hard and have earned it!
I’ll be heading up to Maine next week for another visit to the Maine Media Workshops & College for a 5 day Interdisciplinary Retreat with the MFA program. This intensive program offers students the opportunity to be critiqued by experts in a variety of fields and disciplines, including photography, filmmaking, writing, and even history.
Getting feedback from others is a valuable asset to the creative process. It can help us to see our work with fresh eyes, reveal potential directions, and understand our work more objectively. When the feedback is from artists working outside our field, it can offer unique insights from an entirely different perspective. The point of view from someone working in a different medium can inform and elevate our work, opening doors we would otherwise not recognize or know existed.
Working alongside everyone at the MMW+C MFA retreats is an exhilarating experience and opens my mind to new approaches. It is a wonderful opportunity not only for the MFA students, but for the artists and professionals working with them, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it again. The folks at MMW+C recently covered the upcoming retreat in their E-Newsletter, which I thought I’d share here on the blog.
See you in Maine!
Next week, our MFA students will return to Rockport for the second of two annual retreats. It’s always thrilling for us to see how their projects evolve after months of synthesizing feedback from mentors, instructors, and peers. Equally exciting is the addition of this term’s guest faculty members, fine art photographer Connie Imboden and documentary cinematographer Bestor Cram. Both bring rich and divergent skill sets to share with this cohort of artists, who represent a similarly diverse range of talents and interests. Bringing these photographers, filmmakers, and multimedia artists together for a week of intense learning is a catalyst for fresh creative insight, and it’s something our students often credit for pushing their work to the next level.
Led by our core MFA faculty members who work with candidates throughout the year, our retreats always feature a new pair of guest faculty members to provide fresh professional perspective on both photography and filmmaking. These interdisciplinary conversations are often some of the most powerful elements of the retreat. Connie, for example, explained how much she appreciates a filmmaker’s perspective of photography. “I love hearing from a filmmaker’s point of view about composition in a still image because they think about it differently than still photographers,” Connie explained. “Their concerns with time, movement, and what happens next are reflected in their attention to composition.”
Bestor added that when it comes to filmmaking, bringing in different perspectives is also just a sign of the times, since technology has opened filmmaking to a wide variety of new participants. “Filmmakers today are musicians, rock climbers, graphic artists, skate boarders, painters, linguists, photographers, soldiers, writers, divers, cooks, teachers – the list is endless,” he said. “What has happened is a uniting of many interests into the common goal of visual storytelling.”
Connie and Bestor are representative of the caliber of talent that lead our MFA retreats, a key component to this three-year, low-residency program. Like them, our core faculty members and mentors are accomplished professionals and internationally recognized luminaries active in their artistic practices. With students working independently and guided from afar for much of the year, face time with these master artists takes on a heightened significance and results in creatively powerful days for the students.
MFA candidate Anna LaBenz is a photographer who had specialized in self-portraits and landscapes before seeking out our program. Since then, she has branched out to sound scape, prints-on-fabric installations, and unconventional book forms. “For years I fought my instinctual impulses because they did not fit with the work I saw being made by my peers,” Anna said. “After starting the program my mentor advised me to go out and respond to the world around me, to let my camera show the way. My work has evolved from prints on a wall to beautiful installations that feel like compartments of memory.” Anna said working with high-caliber artists from different disciplines has not only pushed her to try new things, but has also given her work more spark and breadth. “Having artists from different genres working together creates an inspirational, exciting, and creative environment,” Anna said. “It breaks down the barriers that different genres can put up around themselves, allowing for greater exploration.”
Connie also noted that just as photographers can benefit from a filmmaker’s critique, the reverse is also true. “For me, the challenge of critiquing a film can be exciting in seeing how my own visual sensitivities translate to a different medium, and how we each have the opportunity to transcend the limitations of our different disciplines to broaden our outlooks,” she explained.
That is the spirit behind the retreat, Bestor says, to broaden horizons and push artists into new frontiers that are now more open for exploration than ever before. “Our world is no longer linear but involves often interactive non-linear storytelling, bringing our audience into our storytelling space to participate, not just consume,” he said. “We never stop cooking with new recipes. We are hungry for more than food. And we are starved for new ways to prepare it.”
My annual trip up to Rockport to teach at the Maine Media Workshops always feels like coming home.I have many special memories, such as being served lobster by Arnold Newman – who was in line before me and, picking up his lobster, turned to me and gallantly offered it.A thrill I still hold dear.The first workshop I ever taught at the MMW I had a great teaching assistant named Elizabeth Greenberg, who is now the vice president for academic affairs and a dear friend. Yes, I have been teaching there a long time.
This year, my week teaching in Maine FLEW by! We work extremely hard for a solid week, but we also know how to have a good time….
Our frequent visits to Graffam’s shack proved that their famous lobster roll was just as I remembered it – PHENOMENAL.
The karaoke tradition at Cuzzy’s on Thursday night was as raucous as ever.Our song this year was Blowin’ in the Wind – and if I do say so myself, we nailed it. And the Friday night slide show, a celebration featuring the work from all the workshops running that week, was very impressive.I felt quite proud of our class and walked around campus the next day all puffed up!
…were remarkable as ever! I am always amazed to find that teaching a workshop at MMW every year centering around photographing the nude can consistently yield images that are surprising and new. It just goes to show that it’s truly not what you photograph, but how you photograph that is of value! The students were dedicated, devoted to making their imagery the best it could be, and open to trying a different approach.Willing to leave their “safe place” behind with the daily assignments I gave them, they pushed themselves and me.In other words, they were the best students a teacher can ask for!
One thing that was new this year was being interviewed by the folks at the Maine Media Workshops, who did a fantastic job putting together a brief bio video on yours truly. It highlights my work and features me rambling on about creative process, exploration, intuition, and all that good stuff. Despite shooting it at the end of an exhausting week of teaching, I could not be happier with the result!
I always feel like I can never thank the folks at MMW enough for all the hard work, generous support, and wonderful hosting they provide every year. I am forever grateful and look forward to the Workshops every year, and so from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU!
And of course – a very special thank you to my dedicated students in 2015 – Carol Chu, Sanja Matonickin, Peter S., and Heather Velez! I have been just as eager to share the excellent work you did as I am to share my own, and I hope to see more of your images in the future!