Between the Bridges

Between the Bridges – by Rocky Berlier ©2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The History Of Photography

I revel in the joy of being a student of history. I think I learn more about a subject by digging into the back story of a subject than a thousand classes or instructors could ever teach.

I find it so enormously useful to understand the giants who shaped this art into what it is today. It gives such a rich depth and color to the art.

I love this shot by Gertrude Kasebier of showgirl Eveyln Nesbit from 1902. It has a timelessness about it as well as a classical painting look and feel. Hard to believe that this was taken 95 years ago. It could easily be from the portfolio of a contemporary photographer today. The softness of tone and light is extraordinary.

Recently I purchased a book by National Geographic called The Book of Photographytext by Anne H. Hoy. This has got to be one of the most comprehensive books I have ever read on the subject of the history of photography!

What an amazing compilation of photos and historic research. I highly recommend it to anyone who desires to go beyond simple point-n-click photography. I’m almost embarrassed by how cheaply I purchased this gem of a book. It retails for $40 but I paid a paltry $3 for it (new!) from a dealer on It’s both joyful and sad to find such a bargain. On one had, you get the deal of the century for one of the best books ever written on the subject and, on the other hand, it is a sad SAD testimony to how devalued history has become in our popular culture today.

I think what I like most about studying the history of a subject is how it gives a context that you simply cannot get otherwise. It’s like knowing a dirty little secret to how a process, style or technique evolved. When you know these little secrets, it both inspires and opens your consciousness to explore your art with new eyes.

~ Warmest regards, Rocky

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My Portfolio IS Me

Well, I just got back from PhotoshopWorld 2007 in Las Vegas. I love going to this conference and EXPO every year but honestly, it’s just getting harder and harder to find a workshop or class that truly gets me “fired-up” as in previous years. Granted, I know more now than I did then, however, it seems as if many of the classes are simply the same information being repeated over and over again. Consequently, when I come across a class or instructor that really inspires me, it is a rarity of which to take note. Such was the case with Chris Orwig’s two workshops on building an online portfolio.

It felt like everything he said was aimed specifically at me. It was just what I needed to hear at this particular moment in time. He thinks about creative things in a philosophically “big picture” way that I do as well.

I did pick up the odd technique tidbit here and there from other instructors at the conference (which should, hopefully, prove useful for me later this year), however, Chris’ workshops were light years beyond the mundane, process-oriented, cookbook-recipe-type work flows of other Photoshop classes.

Most notably, when he speaks of the ‘whys’ of building a portfolio, it resonated deep within me. What is a portfolio? Who’s portfolio is it? This little exercise (which is actually a monumental life process) is essentially about defining who we are! I can tell you from personal experience that there is nothing in this life that is more illusive than getting clarity and insight about this profound little question of, “Who am I?”

There is, of course, a double edged sword that comes with defining anything. The moment we define that thing is the moment when we change it forever. That’s pretty intimidating! Now suddenly it has boundaries and limitations that just moments before were wide open with possibilities and potentials.

There is an innate freedom that comes with being undefined as a person as well. You can make of yourself and your life what you want. The question then becomes, “well, what do you want?” Finding the answer to this can be just as formidable as “who am I” because knowing what you want is a component part of knowing who you are. So, we never get very far from that original quest. There's a quote from someone I can't remember that goes something like, “Those who never set goals, end up exactly where they planned.” Or something like that.

I’ve been fond of saying through the years that it is fundamental to our quest of self-discovery to learn as much as we can about each other. When I know who you are then I get just a tiny bit closer to knowing who I am as well. I consider that one of my personal pearls of wisdom. We don’t come to planet Earth alone and it’s virtually impossible to exist here without interacting with others. It is through our ability to compare our lives against each other’s that we truly learn about who we are as individuals.

The whole premise of art presumes a culture of people. People communing, interacting, loving, hating, wondering, learning, imagining. Without them, where is the audience? Art (and photography in particular) is a substantial way to reveal “the other” and in turn reveal ourselves. We see people living their life in one manner or another. Glamorous or glamor-less. At work or at play. In sadness or in bliss. Expressive and expressionless. The human equation is a great mystery to unravel... and so are we.

Our entire character is built upon a guidance system within that is created by our likes and dislikes in life. These preferences are the “cookie-cutters” for the pattern of choices we make and ultimately the personality we become. They are like the compass that points our ship in the right direction.

The moment you make a commitment to a path is the moment when all that freedom of indecision becomes focused through an aperture of decision. It's like the shutter release of a camera. The moment is right and the choice is made. Everything becomes filtered through the lens of “our choices.” However, if we rotate this notion around and look at it from another angle, you just might see that having a “plan” can actually provide an even greater freedom than would be immediately apparent.

Where there was once unfathomable disorder and chaos, there is now order and structure. A plan, a choice, a path. When there is a plan, things become easier simply because you are able to eliminate distractions which pull you away from the intended goal. A plan is the pattern-recognition part of our brain telling us what makes sense in a world of chaos. Chris mentioned a quote from Igor Stravinski that goes, “All art presupposes a work of selection.” [my emphasis]

The word “selection” here means being selective as in “editing.” The process of editing one’s artwork is similar to the process of choosing a path in life. It is a process which not only defines art but a person’s life as well. The filter in this case is our own vision of who we are and what we want to project to the world. Ironically, what we see in a work of art is also revealing something of ourselves.

Thanks Chris for providing much to think about.

~ Warmest regards, Rocky

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Well-Spring Of Art

Talking with artist friends this week, we had some very deep and satisfying discussion about the need for artists to explore and commune with other artists regarding their differing philosophies. It’s not so much about “comparing notes” (so to speak) but to cultivate a habit where one might solidify their own perspective of the world. Why is this so important?

An artist sees the world (as we ALL do) from the inside-out. We all project our sense of order and structure onto the world around us. How much more important is this for the artist? The one who spends their life in a continual effort to express creatively what they see, sense, feel and believe of this world and the universe? However, from where do they draw upon this creative well-spring? What is its source? Personally, I believe that the philosophical structure within (all of us) becomes the “cookie-cutter” matrix for the sense we make of the world as we “project it” outside of ourselves. Thus, it becomes the headwaters for our creativity itself.

Art is a nuance driven form of expression. It is one of subjective interpretations as well as deeper and deeper levels of initiation. The more one pays attention to an art-form, the more one develops a sensitivity, a deeper understanding and an “eye” for the otherwise “too subtle to see” world of this particular form of expression. Each form has it’s own universe; has it’s own heroes and heroines; it’s own super-stars and legends. Each also has it’s own landmarks & masterpieces; watersheds & pivotal moments in its history that forever changed the art-form.

Photography is certainly no different. There was a time when photography was not considered an “art” at all. Thanks to the efforts of famous photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, the place that photography enjoys among the other arts today is forever ensconced for future generations.

However, through all the historical evolution and pictorial documentary of photography, the the true back-story is about the philosophies of the artists themselves that gave shape to what we know of the art-form today. Belief in principles and intellectual constructs that gave the art a substantial structure and framework that novices enjoy today without the slightest comprehension of the powerful struggles that took place in the distant past. Not wars of bloodshed but of philosophies and beliefs of where the art should go next.

When photographers like Man Ray (1890-1976) appeared on the scene and took darkroom techniques like solarization to a higher level, the philosophy behind this was based on Dadaism which attempted to reject the oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society. Movements such as Dadaism and surrealism also influenced artists like Dali and Picasso.

Photographer, Edward Weston (1886-1958), began looking for the deeper forms within the human form. Ansel Adams (1902-1984) went in search of a greater expression beyond the human form. The Great Depression shaped the philosophy that influenced the poignant work of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Heroes all.

The point I am struggling to make here, is that the personal philosophy (both its strengths and weaknesses) is the inner framework that guides the “pattern recognition” of our brains to see what we see and the ways that we see it.

I am rather disgusted at the lack of depth to those calling themselves artists today. Pretty much “anything goes” and that, in itself, is a philosophy... or perhaps, an anti-philosophy. Few these days even think below the surface of the immediacy of first impressions or ever allow time (or take the time) to savor a work of art beyond its initial impact. How sad.

Few ask questions beyond “Do I like it?” and a positive or negative response. It’s all become very “fast food” oriented and “sound-bite” encapsulated. It’s either a “Wow!” or “Next!” Quick assessments and little if any time to fully process what the artist was trying to say beyond the first blush. What’s worse is the fewer and fewer numbers of viewers and critics who even KNOW how to look beyond the first layer. This is all born out of the times we live-in and has crafted our collective philosophies regarding art and how we see it. But can’t you just hear the almost tangible plaintive cry of “More, please!” from the hearts and minds of society? “We want MORE!” I believe that desired “more” is what lies in the layers below the surface.

Once someone has truly taken a earnest initial step into any art-form, there begins an initiation process to devour the next layer and level of meaning. To get BEHIND the veil of the superficial and explore the uncharted territory of meaning. The secret behind the secret. For me, this is the artist’s philosophy. It shapes the their mind; which guides their eyes, hands, body & soul and ultimately leads them to a profound masterwork.

So, here I quietly sit, pondering these thoughts. Wondering if anyone really knows or cares about such things. Hoping that even a handful do. I offer without reservation to all artists or would-be artists in any regard; FIND a philosophy about ART! Introspect and THINK beyond the emotional sensibilities. Beyond your knee-jerk response to a viewing of art. Beyond the surface of symbols and brush-strokes to the core of the artist themselves. To the nuances of meaning and the heart of their philosophy. You won't be disappointed.
~ Warmest regards, Rocky

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Is Using Photoshop “Cheating?”

Hi all,
Well, I thought I'd jump in with my first post to this blog by launching into a RANT about something which continually crops up among photographers these days. Namely, "is the use of Photoshop in photography cheating?"

I can't tell you how many discussions I've had with photographers of all levels on this topic over the past 7 years. It seems as though it will probably continue for years to come as well. Especially, given how much easier the program (and others like it) are becoming for the end-user as well as how many beginners come on-board "the good ship Photoshop" each day.

For people who are savvy about the techniques and methods of photo-control, this question is moot. "Of course, it's NOT cheating!" most would exclaim! However, on the other side of the debate some feel it diminishes the "purity" or convolutes an otherwise straight-forward process of capturing what the eyes see. One member of my club recently even called it "an unfair advantage" of those who use Photoshop over those who don't! Perhaps this is true, however, one could also say that someone has an "unfair advantage" because they have over thirty-years of photographic experience or because they have a more expensive camera and lenses too. However, how do we separate what we know (of our tools) from who we are as artists?

Said another way, women who wear makeup seem to have an "unfair advantage" over those who don't... and those who know more about cosmetics (such as which colors look best with certain skin tones) have an "unfair advantage" over those women who don't. However, isn't this really all about the level of knowledge that one would have if they simply took the patience and persistence to explore? Certainly, life (in general) isn't fair, so, why would photography be any different?

So, does this imply that people who know more about a subject should refrain from using that knowledge because there are others present who don't? How does one do that? Is there a specific level where certain usage of image enhancement is "acceptable", whereas, another level where it has "crossed a line?" How do we determine where this line IS? Also, is Photoshop the only offending program that would be off-limits? How about other software that can "correct" or "enhance" an image? Most cameras these days come with software that can do rudimentary "enhancements" and some can do down-right aggressive manipulations. Should all the camera settings that affect an image be turned-off as well? Is this really maintaining the "purity" of photography or simply a form of censorship which is limiting the creative range? If we collectively agree to this limitation for the sake of purity, does it really keep the art pure or is it, perhaps, a way of "dumbing-down" the process or lowering the standards for the sake of those less knowledgable of their tools?

This also carries an implication that just because Photoshop was used, somehow good photographic skills were completely absent, abandoned or replaced by its use. Personally, this implication offends me. I DO use Photoshop, but to "enhance" my images not "fix" them! I truly hope that a viewer of my work can see a good shot beyond any post-processing I may have done. I believe that with a well developed eye, one can always see the great shot... even through all the techniques used. Then again, perhaps, this too requires an initiation to a deeper level of photography.

Last year I went through a class project that was a tribute to the surrealist René Magritte where I used only "in-camera" techniques to create illusions similar to ones he painted. This was a great exercise, if for nothing else, to show me that I can achieve "in-camera" results that could otherwise be composited in Photoshop. However, compositing isn't the ONLY reason one might use Photoshop.

Here's a set-up I used for one image based on the painting called "Son of Man" by Magritte. The metal boom is holding the hat by a nylon thread and the wooden boom (ala, duct-taped to a tripod) is holding the apple by a thin black thread.

And the final shot:

If you look closely, you can see the black thread in front of the hat but it's virtually invisible in the shot. This set-up literally took weeks in the planning and DAYS in the making. Some might think this was a complete waste of time considering the final shot. God knows, I could have spent even MORE time getting the highlights not to be blown-out or used PS to "fix" numerous things. However, I learned more through doing this exercise than a hundred classes and lectures. I also did several other shots for this project that took an equal amount of time and effort to create (including, building a small room out of foam-board to recreate the apple in a room image as in -"The Listening Room"- from Magritte).

I did use PS to add my signature and a negative crop (the black edges). This web version was also sharpened and Saved for Web through PS. I'm not saying this is a "great" image, just that I DO take my time and contemplate on doing as much as I can "in-camera" before taking a shot. Even for spontaneous shots. I'm always thinking of the Rule of Thirds and trying to find the most interesting angle and composition I can.

Generally, when it comes to art, I take the golfer's philosophy that "I am only competing with myself." My primary focus is simply to take better shots than my last ones.

Every time I take a shot of something that looks very interesting to my eye but the shot comes out bad, I know that I failed to capture what I really saw. After the shot, there are often very simple things that can be done to get the image closer to what I saw with my eyes. Sometimes it's a simple matter of pushing a slider for a better exposure or white balance to reveal what I saw. Other times, it may take a more aggressive or complex process such as bracketing the shot (taking several exposures of the same shot) to composite the complete range of tone and color that I saw with my naked eye. Is this a lie? OR is it using every bit of knowledge I have in a greater attempt at telling the truth?

At the currently level of photographic technology, it is impossible for us to capture what we see with our eyes. Just try shooting someone against a bright background and see what you get without the use of a flash or post-processing technique. With the naked eye, you can see all the color and detail in both the foreground and background, however, the camera-sensor (or film) cannot. In order to put on paper what you actually saw with your eyes, you HAVE to use some kind of photographic technique to widen the dynamic range of the image. This dynamic range limitation has been a frustration of photographers since the very dawn of it's discovery. Photoshop (and other programs like it) offer MANY ways to address this very issue as well as numerous others.

It is truly my objective that when a viewer sees my work that they aren't thinking about the techniques I may have used or how skilled in Photoshop I may be, but rather, how much they like the image. Then again, I also know that getting "what I see" into a photo takes more than just clicking the shutter.

If you take a shot and it doesn't truly look like what you saw with your naked eye BUT it IS a very interesting and artistic shot, is this a "cheat" as well? Or is it just a photographer being "creative?" How about high-key or low-key shots that are just using f/stop and shutter speed to achieve this look? Isn't this a "lie" compared to what was actually seen with the naked eye?

An interesting editorial appears in September's Popular Photography magazine on this very subject (by John Owens). It's titled "Look Ma! No Photoshop!" and it talks at length about how photography has ALWAYS (since it's inception) been "lying" about what it captures.

To prove his point, Owens goes on to show an example of the current "in-camera" work of photographer, Anssi Ranki who shows a particular penchant for surrealistic Dali-esque bending and twisting of people and objects while never touching them with Photoshop (all of it done "in-camera"). Pretty impressive work and very clever method of making it happen (long exposures using "moving" masks).

The conclusion one might make from this is that Photoshop seems to have tugged at a few loose threads in the fabric of photography's presumed fidelity of capturing reality. However, artists all know that capturing pure reality isn't always the goal! The objectives and goals of a photographic artist are, at the very least, subjective and, at the most, simulations of visual reality.

What photographers like Ranki show us is that not only can we do things "in-camera" that are similar to what can be achieved in Photoshop but that they can literally be indistinguishable from each other as well. So too is the work of famous photographer, Jerry Uelsmann, a very well-known and recognizable surrealist photographer (I'm a major fan of surrealism both in photography and art). He does ALL his work in the darkroom and not a lick of Photoshop work on any of it. When you look at his images, this seems virtually impossible!!! Talk about "the dying art" of darkroom skills! Wow! Ironically, his wife Maggie Taylor uses Photoshop exclusively with her work. What an interesting couple!

~ Warmest regards, Rocky