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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

An Explorer from the Past

Frederick Evans — Art Beyond the Image

Like Eugene Atgét, I doubt Frederick Evans would've considered himself a "fine art photographer." I doubt the distinction even existed in his time. He was a photographer and only retrospectively do we consider his work in the category of fine art. Evans' work became important to me for thoroughly unexpected reasons. In a workshop, I had seen Bruce Barnbaum's images of cathedrals in England. I found them breathtaking and wanted to learn more. Barnbaum explained that one of his inspirations for the body of work was the work of Frederick Evans — in particular his wonderful image Sea of Steps. Later, I was in Chicago on business, and inquired at the Chicago Art Institute if they had any Frederick Evans originals. They did, and allowed me access to see them. In those days, one could simply make an appointment to view original work: you'd be assigned a table and a box of prints would appear from the vaults that you could examine at leisure without supervision. I spent hours looking through the box of Frederick Evans' original prints, amazed at his subtle tones and beautiful sense of light. To be honest, I thought Barnbaum's photographs were better. One would expect that, considering the relatively primitive materials Evans had at his disposal, and the considerable advances— particularly gelatin silver technologies — that Barnbaum used to make his magnificent images.

The lesson from Frederick Evans was less about his imagery than it was about his method of presentation. His images were created in the days before white bevel-cut overmats had become the one and only codified, gallery-approved methodology for the presentation and preservation of photographs. Evans' prints were glued to illustrator board which was then lavishly embellished with pen-and-ink in the forms of decorative lines and fleur de lis — sumptuously surrounding his pasted-down prints. At first I scoffed at the primitive, naive treatment. As the afternoon wore on however, the more I looked the more I began to appreciate the decorative elements he, or perhaps some assistant, added to his images. Our modern sensibilities tend to consider the mat board as a mere blank; a buffer zone between the photographic print and the rest of the world. The mat board isolates the photograph for viewing, but isn't considered part of the artwork. This was clearly not the case with Frederick Evans. The extraordinary drawings that accompanied his photographs on the mat board were clearly intended to be part of the artwork. That is to say, the drawings were not mere buffer zone, but rather set the mood and context in which the images were intended to be seen. Placing an overmat on top of Evans' images to cover the pen-and-ink drawings would have significantly changed the visual experience. From that moment I began to think about the context in which my photographs were seen. Rather than present them against mere white backgrounds, I began to experiment with elements that might be considered the kind of thing one would see in book design and layout. The potential for backgrounds and the introduction of other graphic elements has really come to fruition in my handmade, hand-sewn chapbooks. A photograph plopped in the middle of a plain, white page now looks to me to be dated, simplistic, even a bit lazy on the part of the designer/framer/photographer.

I suppose the way I think about this now is that I no longer feel compelled to separate my photographs from the rest of life by isolating them in a neutral mat board presentation. Evans integrated graphic design and photography in a way that I found liberating. Of course, it's also an aesthetic minefield in which bad graphic design can degrade a wonderful photograph. But couldn't we also say that bad choreography could destroy a wonderful song in a musical? Should we therefore eliminate all choreography because it runs the risk of degrading the music? Evans challenged me to think outside the normal parameters of what had been defined as fine art photography. I suddenly realized that beyond the set of photographic skills I was working so hard to develop, I needed also to pay attention to non-photographic skills like layout and design, typography, general aesthetics that could enhance my photographs when used with the same sort of sensitivity with which I tried to photograph.

I wouldn't be surprised to discover that I imply far too lofty motives to Evans' fleur de lis. Perhaps he just drew lines around his photographs because he was bored one rainy afternoon. We don't know. But, I mentioned in a previous essay that I view art as a conversation that transcends space and time. Evans' presentation said something to me which started a thought process in my own work that is, to some degree, my response to Evans' decorations. I can think of no better example to illustrate the idea that artmaking is an ongoing conversation between us, the generations that preceded us and, we must admit, the possibility for that conversation to continue with our work long after we are gone.