Tuesday, June 30, 2009

While You Wait...

I worked for fifteen years with the same improvisational theater company. Let's plug them, shall we?

Impulse Theater in Denver, Colorado. Lower level of the Wynkoop Brewing Company.

My very first link....proud...proud...proud.

On the television series, "Whose Line is it Anyway?", they would call an audience member down, give them a microphone, and have them produce vocal sound effects for the scene taking place. I did that, professionally, for almost 2,500 performances. Enough self-promotion and shameless linking - this is all just background.

In the foreground is the fact that I performed with over 100 of the most talented people I know I will ever meet. At any given time, there were 15 to 20 working cast members. Every three or four years, after the cast had gotten wickedly experienced and felt the itch, a great number of them (always better than half) would leave the show within about the same two month period.

We called it The Exodus.

After every Exodus, we would bring in a new group of actors, train them in the show format and general improvisation, and turn them loose on the unsuspecting public. The audiences always changed with the actors. Relying on word-of-mouth advertising for almost our entire history, the words would simply start flowing from a new set of mouths whenever the new wave of actors would begin performing. The Exodus always happened before the slower summer season and, by the next fall, the crowd was right back where it used to be, mathematically. But a good percentage of the regulars had moved on, to be replaced by new regulars. It happened just that way four or five times during my tenure. We'll get to why I stayed as long as I did in another post.

Do you remember Andrew Dice Clay? A standup comedian of no mean skill, with a few impersonations in his bag - but he will always be remembered for The Diceman, a raunchy poet with misogynistic leanings who scorched the clubs and began playing full arenas during the height of his run. For years, the Diceman would play to packed houses.

At first, the attacks on his character by every politically correct celebrity and group on the list were a welcome boost to his gate and popularity. Eventually, either because The Diceman got old or Andrew got older, the criticism stopped sounding like applause and began sounding like, well, criticism.

So Andrew Dice Clay, not to be confused with Diceman, made a move to get away from the image that had earned him so much notoriety. But he never really got away from Diceman. In fact, he is attempting a comeback with the material and the character.

I am having a sale, today. Read one message, get the second message free.

The first message, from Impulse Theater, is that if you work on your craft and are expressing yourself to the best of your abilities, your audience will always be out there, waiting for you. This doesn't mean you don't tweet and get the Facebook and MySpace pages, because that is one of the ways it is done, these days. This message is for those who, like me, wondered if there would ever be an audience for their Art. There is, and enough marketing and creative barnstorming can get them for you.

The second message comes from Diceman, and it is a warning: Make sure you are who you want to be, as an artist, when your audience finds you. Once they do, right or wrong, they will define you by what brought them to the show.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Getting the shot you want

Yousuf Karsh had two minutes...maybe three.

Standing in antechamber of the Canadian Parliament, Karsh set up his view camera and waited for his subject, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

This was during World War II, of course - the Blitz. The German Luftwaffe was bombing London nightly, battering the people and buildings in an attempt to soften them, either so they would not fight so hard against the Nazi plan to rule all of Europe, or possibly in advance of a future invasion.

One of the reasons, some even say a defining one, that the invasion of England never happened, was the portrait of Winston Churchill, as recorded by Yousuf Karsh and published worldwide, including the cover of Life magazine. In it, Churchill is depicted as a stern and formidable man. Karsh, himself, entitled the shot "The Roaring Lion".

Portraiture is the Art of photographing the human heart for those who cannot stand the sight of blood. Karsh was one of the best practitioners to ever expose film. Despite an established reputation and several great shots to his credit, however, Churchill was not very cooperative. When he finished his speech to the Canadians, he walked out of the chamber and into the room, no doubt wondering which member of his staff he was going to give hell to for setting up this photo opportunity in the middle of his very important journey.

At that moment, Karsh had a shot of a stern looking man - a man who was clearly not very happy. It was almost perfect, except that Karsh could see the subtle difference between taking a shot that defined the man and a shot of a man who didn't really care to have his picture taken.

When you look at the shot, notice that there is no cigar in Churchill's mouth. A well-known aficionado, there are more shots of Churchill with a cigar than there are without. What Karsh did in the two minutes (maybe three) that he had, was to take the shot he had been given and, with a simple act, create the shot he wanted.

Without warning or permission, Karsh walked up to Churchill, reached up, and took his cigar out of his mouth. Or so the story goes - he might have just asked Churchill to lose the cigar, but I doubt it, since that might have caused him to lose Churchill. Churchill put his hand on his hip, deepend his furrowed scowl and leaned forward toward the upstart photographer. Clearly, this was something you did not do to Winston Churchill.


There are less savory examples of photographers changing things around in their photos to get the shot they wanted. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of capturing "the decisive moment" is rumored to have set up and rehearsed a shot or two. And no self-respecting mother is ever going to admit that their toddler's laughter was more the result of the squeaky toys in the studio then their own presence.

The point is that Londoners, huddled in basements and subway stations, saw that photo and saw themselves - a part of their very character that the bombings had all but wiped out of them, and they found a new resolve. Despite Hitler's considerable propaganda machine, there never was such a shot of him for the German people. Let's face it, in a dog fight, are you going to bet on the bulldog or the dachsund?

If you know what you want to express, and you have the power to change something - anything - to make that expression more effective while remaining true to the subject matter, I'm not going to call the creativity cops on you for doing so.

The Perfect Piece of Art

First, we need to introduce the Equation. I capitalize it because it is important to me. I am writing about it because I truly feel it should become important to you.

A = I + C

Art equals Intention plus Craft. To create a work of Art, you must have a reason for creating it and exercise your technique pitch perfect, in order to execute your intention on the audience.

Having spent many years in both theater, where the audience is measured in dozens or hundreds of anonymous viewers at a sitting, and photography, where it is a more one-to-one relationship, I cannot speak to which is the more difficult audience. I sense that they each have their advantages and disadvantages, and this makes them a wash, for practical purposes.

But I am out of theater, now, and dedicated to my education and practice of photography, so I will use photography as an example. The goal of any artist, lately, has been to create a solid body of work - something that will stand the proverbial test of time and continue expressing for them long after they have died and, thus, lost the ability to express "live".

This goal has never really worked for me. Being only one artist, I won't presume that mine is the majority case. That's fine. I also know I am not alone and I seek to help whoever I can, even if that isn't everyone. I have never been able to bring myself to build a portfolio, in the classic sense of the exercise. I think it's because I haven't settled on a specific genre or subject matter that inspires me more than the others.

There is an answer, of course. There is always an answer. In my case, it may be as simple as building more than one portfolio. I could have one portfolio for my nudes, another for landscapes, and yet another for my macro work or my night photography (something I am just getting into). I could do this - so why haven't I?

I used to think that either I was just dumb and lazy about my work, or that I didn't wish to pigeon-hole myself. I have evidence to support either claim. It has been several months, while searching for a new job, since I have taken my own camera out of my bag. The need for survival is valid, but should never become an excuse not to do the things that make you thrive, especially since I have the camera, lenses, and software, already, so all I have to invest is my time. For the second option, the pigeon-holing, I only need look as far as Uncle Ansel, who is "known" to the general public for his shots of Yosemite but, as anyone who has scratched the surface one more time can tell you, took some beautiful portraits and still life shots that are lesser known.

You write what you know. You shoot what you know. Your characters always come from something within yourself, whether you like it or not. This basic artistic truth spans every genre and medium. The problem is that I have lived a very general life. I like it that way. I always knew, I think, that I would never "grow up to be" something, choosing to grow as old as time would allow me and, in that time, be as many different things as I could be.

So we return to the Equation, and its assignment to me - and to you, if you have experienced the same starts and stops as I have. In the same way that "life is what happens while you are making other plans", I prefer to think that a "body of work" is what I will accumulate while I am looking for one photograph.

That's it, one shot. The perfect shot. And I will keep changing subject matter and pointing my camera in all directions for the rest of my life, because the perfect shot doesn't have to be of a specific subject matter. It doesn't even have to be of whatever subject I take the most shots of.

The perfect shot is the one where what I intended to make a viewer think or feel, when they looked at it, is exactly what every single person who looks at the perfect shot thinks or feels. It cannot be questioned, but it also can't just beat you over the head with itself. That is where the craft comes in. So I will bundle up, tonight, and stand on top of a parking garage, taking long exposures of headlights and taillights tracing paths over some flyway named for a superior court judge I had never heard of, looking for the perfect shot.

It's a system that only leaves one real itch - since Art is subjective, and what my work says will always be left to the opinions of people I cannot control - is it possible I have already taken what everyone else will revere, someday, as my perfect shot?


Friday, June 26, 2009

The Keeper of Knowledge and Record

Before the fall, when they wrote it on the wall,
when there wasn't even any Hollywood;
they heard the call and they wrote it on the wall,
for you and me and we understood."

- Steely Dan, The Caves of Altamira.

Who were they, 17,000 years ago, who took charcoal and clay from the world around them and painted the walls inside the caves in what is now the Cantabria region of Spain? Maybe they were hunters, showing the story of their great expeditions to bring food to their people. They also could have been agricultural people, telling stories of the animals around them. Perhaps it was a training wall, where young hunters were advised how the hunt for the next day would be carried out.

An outside possibility is that they were animistic primitives, who did not teach of the creatures on the walls of Altamira, but worshiped them, instead.

There are negative images of hands, drawn by placing the hand on the wall and covering it with the clay, then pulling away. These could be totems, trophies, or even signatures of the small group of artists permitted to place their hands on the walls.

Whatever the answers, today the bison and goats drawn at Altamira are Art.

The same can be said for the treasures of ancient pharoahs we see displayed in our museums. They might have served a religious purpose. More likely, overshadowing their significance as art was their plain statement of power and status - look at me and all my golden things.

Still, from such works of old art, we are able to see the face of King Tut. From their beautiful hieroglyphs, we can listen to a story told in an imagined voice.

We live in a world full of people who consider typing a word into a box and hitting a button "searching the Internet". Remember Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Gopher? I do, and I am truly not that old, yet.

So it isn't surprising that this is the same world where we hang the Madonna of the Rocks in the Louvre and admire it's beauty, but forget that it was, originally, created to teach a bible story to an illiterate public.

Never move so fast, in Art, that you get caught up in its aesthetics, and forget that Art has only been judged on its beauty for less than one percent of its existence. It is this very forgetting, that Art is the great Teacher and Keeper of Records, that has made the arts the first casualty of choice in our underfunded education system for the last forty years.

We have transformed our ancestral survival skills into modern day money pits and an obsession with looking like the version of ourselves that could hunt a bison on foot with nothing but a sharp stone on a stick - without maintaining the actual ability to do the things our ancestors had to do.


From the generation that has been trained to merely look like they are learning from Art shall come the generation that will be trained to simply look like they are learning at all. That generation is already here. I know it.

I Googled them this morning.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Close Enough

Robert Capa was a war photographer, although there is some speculation over whether or not he would have liked that title. He covered human conflict from the beginning of the last century until the earliest days of Vietnam (when it was still French Indochina).

One of his most repeated quotes is "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

I wonder whether I will ever be quoted. If so, I accept that at least one of my quotes will be made ironic by circumstances beyond my control. For Capa, this is the one. One morning, in French Indochina, Capa took a shot of soldiers making their way through a rice paddy, switched out his film, and took a few steps forward...

...onto a land mine.

Yeah. Ouch.

Despite that irony, Capa's words are still relevant to practicing photographers of all genres, ages, and levels of experience or fame. Moving up on a subject, using your zoom lens or your legs, simplifies the shot and ensures that the viewer can see what you are shooting at and, more importantly, very little else. The further you are from your subject, the more chance that something distracting can creep into the frame.

It's a simple premise, to take this from the physical to the emotional. There are two different meanings for the word "close", after all. There is the physical closeness that Capa spoke of, and the emotional proximity that a photographer should also have. If you are not passionate about what you photograph, your viewer never can be.

And that passion is neuter. It doesn't have to be the rainbows and hugs search for Beauty. Some of the best Pulitzer prize-winning shots or collections have been of subjects the photographer, and most right-thinking individuals, passionately hated or disapproved of. That's fine. It doesn't matter what flavor of passion you practice, only that you practice it. Take shots of anything that makes you think, and there will be viewers out there who will think when they look at your results.

There is no evidence that Capa ever considered this other meaning of closeness. But he probably thought about it, if only after he had seen his words in print the first time. And his example gives us the barometer we need to be certain we are doing it right.

Physically, the frame is a fixed space. It is relatively easy to tell when you are too far out or too close to the subject of your shot. Just look around the edges and keep moving until what you want to say is all you see. That's what Capa was talking about.

Here is what Capa means, on the emotional level. How can you tell when you are "close enough" to your subject matter, emotionally, to do the subject real justice? Look through your viewfinder. Concentrate. You may be close enough, physically, to reach out and touch your subject, but are you close enough, emotionally, for your subject to look back at you?

Put in terms of Capa's death, can you take another step forward, figuratively or literally, knowing that you might hear that click that isn't your shutter button? Or do you feel safe?

If you feel safe, you're not close enough.

Being an Artist...whether you like it or not!

Whenever I am asked the purposeful question "What is Art?", or its partner "What is an Artist?", I like to tell people about a quote from, arguably, one of the greatest writers who ever lived.

I never actually give them the quote. Instead, I turn the conversation around and ask them to tell me, if they can, who that writer might be. I get Shakespeare a lot, as he is the easy answer. Every once in a while, I will get a writer I have never heard of or someone will toss out someone exotic, like Castaneda or Keats. It doesn't matter...they will always be "wrong".

In spoken conversations, it is always hard to defend this trick question. Now that I am writing about it, however, you can scroll up and see what I am talking about. I said "one of the greatest writers..." You inserted the word "published" in there. I didn't.

Here's the trick. Less than one percent of all the people who call themselves writers have ever made a living from writing, alone. Writing is one part of the equation, but publication is a completely different beast. In order to be published, you should be a good writer, but it is more important to come along at the right time, or find an editor or publisher who thinks you have. If you have gained some degree of celebrity outside of publishing, it is quite possible for you to become a published writer without really being very interesting or verbally ingenious at all.

The irony is not lost on me. This is a free blog. These days, anyone can be a published writer. Even with this new power the internet has given us, however, the odds are...

...that the best writer out there; the person who turns the best phrases, creates the most human characters or masters plot contortion, was never, has never, or might never be a published writer at all.

Sure, it's sad to imagine what we all may be missing. But the separation of the artist from their ability to get seen as an artist is, actually, not as much a set of shackles as you might think. Have you ever had car trouble - the kind where you could swear your buggy was on its last wheels? You took it to the shop and, after a day or two, came back to find everything fixed? The mechanic might try to explain what they did to you, and you may or may not understand what they are saying. It doesn't matter because the car didn't work, and now it works.

Would you engage in a little hyperbole with me, and refer to that grease-stained savior as "the Michelangelo of Auto Mechanics" or some other artistic comparison? Of course, in that moment of gratitude for your surviving wheels, you would. And no one would think you silly or tell you that they actually think the way that mechanic treats the transmission is "pedestrian" or "lacks originality".

The truth is there are 7 billion artists walking this rock. I am not saying that with granola crumbling out of my mouth all over my tie-dyed shirt. This isn't the way I hope it is. It's a simple truth. Like all simple truths we, as a society, never see it until someone simply comes along and says it. A relative handful of us recognize the artist within us, either because our art isn't one of the accepted forms of artistic expression or because we haven't sold that photograph to National Geographic, yet.

This is what we should seek to change, one artist at a time. Who's with me?