From Kandinsky foreward, abstraction has been a liberating tool available to painters. Many photographers saw the possibilities but it’s a much harder tool for them to use. A photograph tends to look like whatever is in front of the lens and that is, inevitably, reality. It’s possible to bend and shape that reality but it’s not easy.
And photographs are expected to look like photographs. Robert Frank is considered by many to be the most important photographer who ever lived because his photos looked like photos that it was considered to be a radical break with the past. By including the glare and missed focus he left no doubt what a photograph looks like.
Of course, he was making pictures at about the same time that painting was moving towards an admission that a painting is nothing more than an arrangement of colors on a two dimensional surface. The timing is no coincidence. Both attitudes are different expressions of the same truth.
In recent years, my ambitions have run the direction of abstraction. I’d never break completely from the world; it’s much too rich in source material to entirely leave behind. But I want to make the ordinary unfamiliar, something like Edward Weston did with rocks and vegetables. (There’s digital manipulation, of course, but I have many qualms about computers and I don’t want them playing a role in my art.)
More than one person has told me that my pictures look like a painting, or have used the word “painterly” to describe them. It’s a description I’m happy to hear. Art is an illusion and I’m quite comfortable with the illusion that my pictures are made of brushstrokes. Photographers like Bill Jacobson and Uta Barth are two more photographers whose work is explicitly painterly and I’d be quite happy to have drinks with them.
Of course, being “painterly” doesn’t narrow things down much. Some of my stuff looks like color field painting; others bring Agnes Martin to mind. But each of them contains recognizable fragments of the real world. They make the photos familiar, a part of our existence, not simply an exercise in theory.
Lately, though, I find myself yearning for a more direct expression of the world. I believe that the human face is probably the most interesting subject in any art form. And I find myself obsessed with Robert Bergman’s book, “A Kind Of Rapture.” I think my next destination lies in portraiture.
I worry about shooting in too many styles. Most big-time artists work in a single, recognizable style. A Garry Winogrand picture can be spotted from across the room as a Winogrand. But however much I worry, and however much intent plays a role in my art, instinct comes first. I have to shoot what my heart tells me to shoot; I don’t know any other way to work.