Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Makers and Takers

If you were sitting in the audience at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery the evening of April 7, you would have appreciated many portions of the panel discussion entitled “Female Photographers. Is There a Voice?” The evening was moderated by Brenda Massie, the Director of the gallery.

At one point Michael David Murphy, Program Manager of Atlanta Celebrates Photography and one of the five panelists, commented, “I like thinking about who takes pictures and who makes pictures, and is there a difference.” He was pointing out that some of the artists’ work represented in the Hagedorn’s current Spring Group Show exhibit on the surrounding walls demonstrates varying degrees of hand crafting or post-processing rather than a straightforward display of what was recorded by the camera.


Neither Michael nor others involved in the discussion made any judgment of the relative merits of taking versus making – just that there were differences in approach. But the delineation between making and taking brings on some interesting observations.


Before we go much further into this exploration, think for a minute about whether you, as a photographer, believe that you are a Taker or a Maker. Do you usually represent what is normally thought of as reality, or do you put a twist or two on what the camera sensor provides to you before you put your print on the wall? For the sake of this thought process, you might consider yourself a Taker if the images you display are largely as they were captured by the camera; what you show is what you got. Call yourself a Maker however if darkroom machinations, digital or otherwise, have a significant role in allowing you to express your vision.


After the Make or Take discussion at Hagedorn, it was instructive to reflect on the prologue that Brenda Massie presented prior to the panel discussion. She showed a concise but well assembled slide show of work by noted female photographers from Gertrude Käsebier to the contemporary era. In hindsight many of the examples might be considered to be on the Take side of things. Many of you would agree, for example, that Margaret Bourke White was predominately a Taker. In other words she was primarily an observer rather than commentator.


What about Diane Arbus: Maker or Taker? Her representation of her subjects was unadorned and perhaps, to some, too realistic. But Arbus showed us a highly selected version of the reality of the New York City streets. Reality, yes, but one that tweaks the discomfort nerve in our brains. She indeed was a documentarian, but one who chose her subject matter to makes us feel something we don’t usually sense. In this aspect she was a Maker of the first degree.


While we certainly could assign a Make or Take label to each of the photographers that Brenda showed, let’s instead fast-forward another 24 hours to April 8 and the opening of Still Life at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in its new West Side location. While all the images in the exhibition were Takes when they first came out of the camera, by the time they were 

presented on the wall they were definitely Makes, but to varying amounts.

High Dive
Copyright Julie Blackmon, 2010
A casual glance at Julie Blackmon’s new work, a continuation of her well-known Domestic Vacations, gives the impression that these charming snippets of domesticity are happy captures of the innocent foibles of young children doing what children do in kitchens and back yards. By the second glance however you see the picnic table is set with bowls of fruit that look suspiciously like something you saw in Art Appreciation when you studied the Dutch Masters. Likewise the positioning of the kids and grownups in the scenes seems somehow just a little too perfect. You begin to have suspicions that these are not necessarily candid shots, although many certainly have the feel of what real life feels like.

Your suspicions would have been confirmed if you were at Ms. Blackmon’s artist's talk the next morning at SCAD. Co-sponsored by Jennifer Schwartz and SCAD, and introduced by Amy Miller of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, the talk was an enlightening tour through one woman’s journey from stay-at-home mom to internationally acclaimed artist. Ms. Blackmon likes nothing more than to travel the streets of her Springfield Missouri home seeking intriguing backdrops for her tableaux of Middle America motherhood. What we see in Julie Blackmon’s images is not a document, but perhaps near-historical fiction. The Make can appear subtle at times but it is always there.


Ms. Blackmon told us, “I’m trying to tell the truth about my life, but in a fictional way.” To tell this truth, she carefully selects location, point of view, and lighting. However her use of these cinematic tools has a soft touch on her images that blurs the gap between story and reality. Photoshop is certainly in her tool chest as well. We heard that it “is a technological aid that allows me to tell the story I want to tell...I couldn't do what I want to do without Photoshop.”


Returning to the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, you have only to glance sideways from Julie Blackmon’s pieces to see Make in one of its most extreme implementations. While Ms. Blackmon takes what is basically a believable scene and lightly amplifies it, Maggie Taylor starts with bits and pieces of both vintage and current photographs and assembles them into a fantasy that is  believable only if you have followed the rabbit down the hole. Ms. Taylor  graced Atlanta with her work during last year’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography extravaganza. It was a real treat to see her work so soon again, this time on the walls of the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.


Swamp Dwellers
Copyright Maggie Taylor, 2010
The juxtaposition of the work of Julie Blackmon and Maggie Taylor illustrates that the characteristic we have termed Make is a continuum. There are many stopping points between Ms. Taylor’s wildly imaginative scenes and Ms. Blackmon’s believable, minimally adapted narratives. Both artists are storytellers extraordinaire and both are highly skilled practitioners of today’s digital tools for making photographic art.

Just so you don’t think that you have to be a Photoshop Queen to achieve highly narrative, high-order photographic art, just flip the pages of this blog back to December 11 of last year. Dorothy O’Connor’s Crocheting the Ocean tableau is every bit as fanciful as one of Maggie Taylor’s images, yet not a pixel was harmed in the process of making the photograph. Ms. Taylor told us in October that her images are composed of as many as 60 Photoshop layers that take weeks to assemble. Likewise Dorothy’s scenes are constructed from hundreds of bits of flotsam and jetsam that take weeks of hammer, nails, and glue to come together to make the final story that is captured on film in a mere 30th of a second.


There will be those of you who think that these recent art pieces are an indication that contemporary photography has gone excessively down the Make route. Perhaps you yearn for the good old days where real men just took pictures rather than made them. If you are as much as a purist as you think you are, then you certainly took the trip up to the Booth Museum in Cartersville last September for the Ansel Adams exhibit there. You might have parked yourself in front of the massive Monolith. The Face of Half Dome print, marveling at the incredible detail and the unquestioned realism before your eyes. Now here is a Taken photograph if you’ve ever seen one.


Now be honest, do you really think that those black skies in Monolith existed naturally? Then you missed reading Adams’ book "Examples. The Making of 40 Photographs." The discussion on Monolith says,

“I saw the photograph as a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distant sharp white peak against a dark sky. The only way I could represent this adequately was to use my deep red Wratten No. 29 filter, hoping it would produce the effect I visualized.”
Adams was not pre-visualizing reality. He mind’s eye was seeing a revised version of nature that expressed his artistic intent.

Surely you have seen the ubiquitous Adams quotation, “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” Certainly Ansel Adams created some of the most exquisite photographs ever to be pulled from the developing tray. But as Wikipedia says, “Ansel Adams elevated dodging and burning to an art form.” His prints are the summation of world-class artistic vision, an uncanny understanding of the technology, and hours and hours of darkroom toil. In short, Ansel Adams’ classic work was made, not simply taken. For a more extensive discussion of the making of Monolith, go here.


At least Edward Weston took, rather than made, his photographs, right? Most of his classic images were first printed as contact prints. Therefore he did not have Adams’ penchant for playing God with the print in the darkroom by using creative dodging and burning. Weston printed what the negative gave him. But how did he get the negative? Consider the image that some consider the absolute pinnacle of photographic art: Weston’s Nautilus, made the same year as Monolith. In his Daybooks, Weston told of the challenges in finding an appropriate background for photographing Nautilus.

“I wore myself out trying every conceivable texture and tone for the grounds: Glass, tin, cardboard, –wool, velvet, even my rubber rain coat!”
He ended up putting the shell on top of a barrel.

Weston worked with low sensitivity film and small apertures, necessitating exposures as long as 4 1/2 hours. His journal says that he worked with the shell under different lighting conditions for days to achieve a negative that met his standards of clarity and luminosity. Finally, at long last he had his negative. Given the above description, many of you would probably say that he made the sumptuous Nautilus image, rather than took it. Even Weston was a Maker.


By the way, I intentionally did not include the Monolith and Nautilus images themselves into this article. You already know both of these images well enough to visualize them in detail in your mind's eye any time of the day or night. You do indeed know them that well, don't you?


Philip Gross and S. L. Shapiro, in their book “The Tao of Photography. Seeing Beyond Seeing,” make the Maker point quite clearly.

“A quick consideration of some of the factors a photographer can vary to create countless images of the same subject illustrate the constructive nature of photographs: composition, lighting, lenses, filters, f-stop, shutter speed, film type, and speed, processing. All these factors contribute to the meaning of the final print. Although the constructive nature of photographs is most evident when the artist indulges in digital editing…traditional photography is no less constructive.”
The term “reconstructing reality” is used by Gross and Shapiro to highlight the fact that no matter how much we as photographers intend to portray reality as it appears to be, we all use our own choices to construct our art, and these choices yield a reality that is alternate to what is really there. This unavoidable reconstruction however gives us an enormous dose of freedom in communicating our intent to our viewers. Even if you consider yourself a photojournalist or street photographer who intends to report only what you see, the Make sneaks in around the edges.

So, are you a Taker or a Maker? If you can’t decide, just recall what Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”


Text other than direct quotations copyright 2011 by Richard Ediger. All images are published within the author’s understanding of the Fair Use policies of their source.

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