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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Contemporary Explorer

Christopher Burkett — Technology and Our Own Aging Process

Christopher Burke has been an inspiration to me for a very long time. In fact, I find his work and career an inspiration for two completely different reasons. Let me begin with what I should characterize as a left-handed compliment.

For some 30 years now, Burkett has been one of the world's premier color printers. Of that, there is no doubt. His stunning, large-scale Cibachrome prints are simply unparalleled in their technical accomplishment. I've known Chris since before he began doing his color work, when he was a somewhat undistinguished black-and-white photographer.

For reasons of which I'm not sure I've ever discussed with him, he abandoned black-and-white photography fairly early in his career and began pursuing color landscape as his almost exclusive mode of expression. A consummate technician with a keen eye for the smallest details of craftsmanship that improve a photograph, Burkett pursued color printing with a vigor and enthusiasm that is a testament to his single-minded pursuit of excellence. That pursuit of excellence is manifest in his work in the expression of exquisite detail. 8 x 10 cameras capture more detail, so he uses them almost exclusively. Cibachrome makes the sharpest images, so he uses that almost exclusively. He's become the world's foremost authority on the use of fuzzy mask techniques to increase edge sharpness with projection printing, an exacting technique that most photographers find overwhelmingly complex and fussy. Burkett not only uses it, but seems to delight in the process. The results speak for themselves — his large-scale Cibachrome photographs are simply breathtaking and unique.

All of this is to Burkett's credit. However, I remember what for me became an incredibly important conversation with him sometime after he had achieved an extraordinary amount of accomplishment and fame. I could not help but look at Burkett's images with caution. I find many of his compositions to be competent, but not captivating. What has always been captivating in his work has been his technical accomplishment and the exquisite physicality of his prints. In spite of his gallery and I might add financial success with this work, I always found his photographs a bit worrisome. Stripped of their technical excellence, they seemed considerably less noteworthy. Competent yes, but extraordinary? To my eye, perhaps not. I could not but admire his success, but success in photography founded on technical excellence alone is likely to be fleeting given the nature of photography and its history of technological evolution. I mentioned this to Chris in conversation, cautioning him that at some point photography's progress as a technology, it would improve in perhaps unpredictable ways leaving his work without its signature uniqueness in its technical excellence. I made these comments long before the advent of digital photography, Photoshop manipulation, and digital printing. I asked Chris the core question: what will become of your unique bragging rights once the technology evolves and every one can make large-scale colored images that are as sharp and detailed as yours? Indeed, to a very large degree, my concerns have come true. There is no doubt that Cibachrome is still a fabulous material that has unique properties that are denied to digital printing, but the large-scale color image with exquisite, even microscopically sharp detail, is now something that is not the exclusive purview of Burkett's craft. From an historical point of view, Burkett's images still are unique for their time, but they are not in the least unique today and find themselves now having to stand on his artistic and expressive merit alone. Time will tell whether or not his images succeed on that level.

So, the first inspiration from Christopher Burkett was simply this: the pursuit of excellence in craft is important and should not be ignored, but ultimately such excellence in craft is nothing more than a servant to artistic content. As a young photographer so heavily influenced by the emphasis on craft from the West Coast school and in particular Ansel Adams, it was a wonderful lesson for me to observe in Christopher Burkett the risk of overemphasizing craft above content. Not that Burkett does that, and certainly I have no doubt he would protest such a characterization of his work. I'm not saying that his work lacks content but rather that the lesson learned from him was the caution to avoid that with my own work.

The second inspiration from Burkett came as an offhand comment that struck me like a thunderbolt. We were discussing print prices and I had asked him what, to my mind, was a rather straightforward marketing question. Why do you charge so much for prints that are infinitely reproducible and that you could afford to sell for a lot less? I had expected some marketing rationale that would express some business philosophy that led him to his pricing structure. Instead, he simply said, "My eyesight will deteriorate through the normal process of aging to the point where I will no longer be able to make images with the critical decisions that I use today."

Chris is a deeply religious man and perhaps because of this understands his own mortality better than most. It's not just that his materials and techniques may, with the passage of time, become obsolete, but he himself will become so through the normal processes of aging. As obvious as this is, it had never occurred to me, in the flush of my youth, that I was a finite resource in the creation of my artwork. As I say, his advice struck me profoundly. I had always thought of my artmaking as something that I was pursuing as some future and distant accomplishment. The undeniable reality of his observation was such that it inspired me to a more immediate pursuit of completion. I began thinking about finishing work now. I realized that artmaking was the process of life and that waiting for a time of future maturity was tantamount to abandoning my art life entirely.

There's more to this than meets the eye. In a funny way, this also significantly changed my ideas about editioning, numbering, and limited editions. Thinking about my photographic career as an unfolding during the course of my life, this longer view inspired me to the idea that each completion of a project, or each rendition of a photograph, is nothing more than a statement of my aesthetic sensibilities at that moment. Knowing that those judgments might change as I age and mature, I began to realize that artmaking is an unfolding process rather than a series of simultaneous completions. Think of it this way: today we tend to think of Rembrandt as a painter who created a body of work, but that is a compression of time. Obviously, there was the work Rembrandt completed in his 20s, the work he completed in his 30s, his 40s, his 50s, his 60s, etc. Each phase of his career was subtly different and studied and understood by those who are Rembrandt specialists. For the rest of us, with the perspective of centuries, we may not see such subtleties, but in fact we live such subtleties in the creation of our own work. This led me to the idea of editions, similar to those used in book publishing, where the possibility of revisions and improvements in time are not only possible, but accounted for in such practicalities as edition numbering. I was led to pursue a similar approach with my artwork, in no small part because of Christopher Burkett's comment about his aging eyesight.

I should mention one more part of Christopher Burkett's career that I do find inspiring, to some degree. I mentioned that Chris is a particularly religious man, and his entire approached to artmaking is based in his faith. In his own words, his photography is his attempt to show the glory of God in the details of nature. His work is done in service to that higher spirit and he produces it with the true sense of humility and servitude. Whether or not that comes through to viewers is immaterial to his creative process. It is tangible and real to him. Indeed, his life is an example of "Do not speak unless spoken through." I may not share his faith, but I do admire his humility and commitment that makes his art life a manifestation of his faith.