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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

 

Author's Preface

I started this project about 7 years ago, visualizing it as a book — a traditional book. But the more I worked on the ideas and spent time thinking about these photographers and how they've inspired me, the more I became concerned that a book would only spread the legacy of these great artists and their lessons in proportion to the book's sales and distribution. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not the only alternative.

 

Books cost money to produce and money for the reader to purchase them. Fortunately, we live in an age of new possibilities — the age of the internet. So, after long and careful thought, I decided to try something different. Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of audios, downloadable by member of LensWork Online at no additional cost, and with commerce completely removed as a limit to global distribution. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love.

 

 

Introduction

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that creative insight happens in flashes of inspiration. True enough, it occasionally does. It is much more common, however, for creative insight to be the result of a new idea, often learned in the everyday and even mundane process of pursuing one's artistic life. I suppose I could say they come from workshops, from books, from lectures and seminars, even from experience — but workshops are taught by human beings, books are written by human beings, seminars and lectures are led by human beings, and even experience is something that is gathered and collected by people. It's a much more fair and accurate attribution to say that creative inspiration may come from a flash of insight, but more often comes to us as a result of our absorbing certain ideas, specific lessons, appliable techniques, and even experiences from other human beings who have preceded us down creative path.

If I am honest with myself, I would have to admit there are very few ideas about creative photography that I could claim are truly and uniquely my own. Instead, I've done what most of us do: I've listen and absorbed, adapted and modified from the myriad of ideas encountered to mold and shape a creative path from the combination we can assemble from our own insights and experience, heavily influenced by those we learn from others. The old maxim says that if we have seen farther than others is because we stood upon the shoulders of giants. In a more pragmatic sense perhaps this is simply a clever way of saying that we don't work or create in a vacuum. We assemble a working methodology that feeds us — not unlike picking and choosing from a Chinese menu.

I've been involved in photography over 50 years now. I've encountered countless ideas that I've adopted to my work that actually do work. I've also encountered ideas that I've adopted in my work which have not. Both are equally valid. What doesn't work for me, may be the perfect solution for you. That is to say, the same combination of ideas may fuel creativity in one person while stifling creativity in another. The ideas presented in this book are not a formula or some sort of recipe for creative success. This is simply not possible. Instead, gathered here are the most important ideas that have inspired me in the form of lessons I've learned from specific individuals — mostly from photographers whose work I admire, and in a few cases from others whose work has fueled my creativity in spite of the fact that their intentions had nothing to do with the creation of photographic artwork.

This is a book of ideas. It will not teach you how to make photographs, nor will it teach you how to think about photographs. This book is about my creative path. If these ideas were only applicable to me, they'd not be worth sharing. They are not nearly so limited. I'm sharing these ideas precisely because I've found them so useful and even ubiquitous that I hope by passing them along, just as those from whom I've learned did for me, that you, in turn, might find them useful in your creative path.

I know I've opened up a can of worms by introducing the term "useful" in a discussion about the creation of artwork. At heart, I am a pragmatist. Pragmatists tend not to find much benefit in loose ideas about creativity that don't actually improve my artwork. I've put a great deal of thought in the form of 50 years of retrospection in gathering this list individuals whose ideas have inspired me and pragmatically changed my work in the better. This is precisely what I mean by the slippery term useful — that is to say I can identify a dividing line in my work where my ideas about what I produce were changed as a result of incorporating creative wisdom of those who have inspired me.

It should be noted that many of these individuals had no intention of teaching a lesson to me, or often to anyone else. They simply explored their creative path through example of showing us the way — at least their way — which we now have the benefit of examining and test in our own work. In a few cases, the individuals discussed in this book knew perfectly well that they were teaching and intended, purposefully, to do so. In either case my gratitude to all of these individuals is enormous and my debt to repay them for what they have shared with me is only fractionally repaid in my sharing their ideas with you. On the shoulders of giants, indeed.

About Making Art

One of the most common stories I've encountered in interviewing hundreds of photographers for LensWork is the moment they became enraptured with photography and when they identify the moment there art career began. For many, it was that moment of seeing the first print emerge the developer tray, under the red lights, the magic of their vision becoming manifest. I've heard this moment described with such enthusiasm that I've often wished I shared it, but I must confess I never did. For me, that first moment when the image appeared was nothing more than a confirmation that the chemistry worked exactly as the chemists had predicted. I felt no thrill. Instead the magic of photography for me was when I began to understand how photographers knew where to point their camera. I remember with remarkable clarity heading out with my first camera to make my first purposeful artistic expressions — aimlessly wandering about my neighbor wondering what I should photograph, clueless as to the process of selecting what should go in the frame of my new mechanical device.

Frustrated, I asked my photography instructor for guidance and, thankfully he pointed me toward the library. I discovered the books of Wynn Bullock and Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston and Paul strand Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro and Walker Evans — and began, ever so slowly at first, to understand.

As in any pursuit worth mastering, clarity about the mysteries of photographic art came slowly. There followed a couple of decades of reading, experimenting, attending workshops, listening – recording – re-listening to countless lectures by photographers as they talked about their work, their methodologies, the creative process. Looking back, I cannot help but conclude that this was the real essence of my photographic education — not the mechanics of craft I assumed was the reason to attend a workshop, for example. Complexity is technology and machines were master with relative ease— not ease, but relative ease. Chemical formulas and fastidious processed is could be mastered with repetition and gentle guidance. Learning to see, learning to feel, learning to connect, were much more difficult — precisely because there are no formulas or recipes to follow. Instead, there are snippets, tidbits, hints, glimpses, anecdotes, suggestions, innuendo, morsels of wisdom, and very occasionally a wink of encouragement. Technology is still shortcuts; artmaking know is no shortcuts whatsoever.

Personally expressive artwork is well, personally expressive. My collection of inspirational lessons and anecdotes will, like definition be a personal selection. It would be silly for me to propose the ideas in this book will be universally applicable to your creative path. It would be equally silly to assume the lessons that inspired me would inspire only me. You must pick and choose the ones to learn from, just as I did, from all the encounters create the sum of my creative life.

Those Who Inspire

I've always felt that art is a conversation, one that transcends time, space, and geography. Many of the photographers in my list I have never met, and never will — unless, as Ansel Adams said, we meet up in the final wash (or in my updated version of his euphemism, we meet up in the maintenance tank). Others I've been privileged to know, study with, perhaps socialize with, or at least interview for LensWork. More from my own convenience them for any implicit content value, I've divided my list into photographers were no longer with us and those characterize as contemporaries — term I use with unwarranted looseness as some of these individuals I would be absurdly arrogant to characterize as my peers.

There is a larger division, however, which is considerably more important than a mere organizational structure for this book. I would go so far as to say that this is a way of organizing the very pursuit of photography throughout its history. At least, the following organization idea has provided considerable understanding about this incredibly plastic medium that can be bent and folded into so many different kinds of pursuits. For me, it is always been useful to divide photographers and their work into three distinct groups — the explorers, the storytellers, and the visionaries.

The Explorers

A camera is an incredibly useful excuse for exploring the world — and what an amazing world it is! We are all raised in our small corner of the world and, no matter where that is, tend to think of that place and our experiences as normal. Combining a camera with the adventure travel and we discover exactly how limited our perception of normal actually is.

For the explorers, a camera is primarily a means for sharing their adventures, their discovery, there eyesight with those of us who have not shared in those adventures. What characterizes the explorers as group is their passion for discovery and their ability to bring fresh points of view to subjects they photograph. In some cases, the Explorer discover something new — Bruce Barnbaum in the slit canyons are an example of this;  sometimes the Explorer's shows us something in a new way — Ansel Adams and Yosemite are example of this.

Explorers have one overriding invitation to us: Look at this!

Of course, structures of thought projected on the world run the risk of oversimplifying, and the division of photography in these three categories certainly does that to some degree. For example, I'm tempted to say that explores do not make commentary on the world but merely show it. At its root, that maybe a correct statement, but it's clearly simplistic. Ansel Adams' images of Yosemite encouraged is consider the to look at the wonderful things he photographed, but not entirely without commentary; he was a strong advocate for preservation natural beauty, and undeniable advocacy that is attached to his images but not their entirety. Nonetheless, and in spite of this simplistic approach, I still find it useful to think of explores as photographers primarily show rather than tell.

The Storytellers

Unlike the explorers, the role of the storyteller is very definitely to communicate something about the content that goes far beyond merely what it looks like. Sure, the FSA photographers showed us what the dust bowl look like, but they also told us a story of heartbreak and suffering in a way that literally changed a nation. Lewis Hines told the story of child labor that directly contributed to a fundamental change in society. Storytellers use their camera not merely to show but also to educate, motivate, and to promote wisdom and understanding.

One of the fundamental differences between the storytellers and the explorers has to do with the very nature of storytelling. Telling stories tends to require more than a single image — these photographers work in series or in projects. Telling stories generally requires communication beyond the merely visual; their stories often require words, sometimes written by the photographer themselves, sometimes in collaboration with others — professional writers, poets, or journalists. Whereas the explorers tend to create images for display on the wall — often large-scale, frequently as décor — the storytellers are more typically found in books and magazines, and now even in digital presentations. The requirements of multiple image presentation combined with text make the storytellers an uncomfortable bedfellow with a typical gallery-type presentation.

In addition, storytellers, at least on the surface, appear to share one other characteristic it appears to be missing from the explorers — a point of view. Storytellers present a message — a term now considered to be unsavory when discussing art, but definitely a characteristic that is common to all storytelling. Explorers tend to promote fiction that what we see is what was there, in reality in front of their cameras. This become a particularly hot issue in the age of Photoshop, so much so that I once saw a photographer displaying their wares at a street fair with a sign that indicated "what you see is what was actually in front of my camera." I chose not to entertain the philosophical discussion about whether or not he photographed only in a two-dimensional world, with a color gamut limited to Adobe RGB 1998. But let us not split hairs. The explorers unquestionably has the point of view, but I hope we can agree that the point of view is less obvious, less strident, less integral to their presentation than that of the storyteller.

Another consideration of note when discussing storytellers is the introduction of purposeful fiction. Although the two dimensionality of photography makes it, by definition, a fiction, there is a sort of credo amongst the explorers that their fiction is not supposed to stray too far from the depiction of reality. Black and white representations of our gloriously colored world are considered acceptable; removing a telephone pole from a pristine landscape is debatable; repositioning a mountain into a landscape on a different continent crosses a line that brings scorn and shame to the explorer photographer. Art Wolfe, for example, received quite vituperative criticism when he added a few more zebras picture of zebras. Had simply colorized them psychedelically and placed them floating among clouds, he would have received no criticism because his work would've been considered acceptable fiction.

Although storytelling is often confused with journalism, they are distinctly different, albeit somewhat overlapping pursuits. Fictionalized storytelling, I believe, has a role in photography — one that has been scantily explored. Perhaps Wright Morris is the best example of fictionalized storytelling in photography, perhaps not particularly surprising considering his considerable accomplishments as a novelist

Like the novelist or short story writer, storytelling in photography shares some of the same constructional elements. Often there is a beginning, middle, and end. Character development, dialog, background, plot, and even narrative can play a part in the affective presentation a storyteller's work. The resulting experience in viewing such a photographer's finished often leads to understanding, questions, and even debate. I once read in a Kodak brochure their definition of a good photograph; "A good photograph is one that makes the viewer so aware of the subject there are unaware of the print." This can easily be applied to the explorers that needs slight variation of the storytellers. The photographic storytelling is achieved a high level of accomplishment when the viewer becomes so aware story they are unaware of publication.

Storytellers have one overriding invitation: Understand this!

The Visionaries

The storytellers take a step away from strict photography by adding the element of text. The visionaries taken even further step away from photography by presenting us with images which are often not of this world. They come from the world of the creator's imagination. Visionaries don't show us what is but rather — in the words of Minor White — often show us what else it is, or could be. Cameras do not make visionary images, artists do. The world of visionary photography often makes the ardent Explorers uncomfortable — because visionaries use the same tools to make photographs that, to the mind of the explorers, are a perversion from version of cameras original intent. How else could you describe the use of a tool whose intention was to show us the world, in the hands of someone who shows us something that would never exist?

The storytellers extends the reach camera lens to include narrative, often in the form of text; the visionaries extends the reach of the camera lens to include the imagination, often borrowing from the techniques of the illustrator, painter, and world of graphic design. Montage imagery and works of imagination have been a part of photography since his earliest days — for example, Lewis Carroll, so-called "trick photography," and in more recent times work of Jerry Uelsmann. The advent of digital photography has geometrically expanded the possibilities of this kind of photographic image making, and precipitated the inevitable debates that come with such radical departures. It's far beyond the scope of this book to engage in that debate, but it is perfectly appropriate for me to include examples of how visionary photographers have inspired me and influenced my work, even though I tend not to create work that would be included in this category. The closest I get in my personal work (at least as of this writing) is a more traditional abstract, but some of the lessons I've learn from visionaries are among the most important influences — not just for my work but for countless numbers of photographers who engaging possibilities.

Visionaries have one overriding invitation: Imagine this!

Practical implications

The divisions of personally expressive photography into the Explorers, Storytellers, and the Visionaries has certain practical implications that I'll only briefly mentioned here. I find it incredibly useful to use this train of thought as I approach each of my photographic projects. Simply said, I asked what it is I am attempting to accomplish with each project, in light of these three categories. If I'm showing the world, I don the hat of the Explore and try to complete the project with a bit more objectivity, thoroughness, and perhaps straightforward directness. If the project tends to a  Storytelling, I immediately start thinking about text, message, even multimedia components. If the project comes from my imagination and leans toward that category of work I called Visionary I know one of my first task will be to create world in which this vision takes place. That is to say, context, and even philosophical background become indispensable components success that kind of work.

I've written elsewhere that I rarely know the destiny of a work while I'm out photograph. Most frequently, I simply react to the world as I see it. At some point in the process, however, a body of work starts to take shape. Sometimes this happens in a flash of insight, sometimes while reviewing my images on contact sheets or in my Lightroom database, sometimes I stumble across the phrase or an idea that becomes the seed for a potential project. In the very early phases of "working a project" I do find it useful to cast its lot in the realm of the project of an Explorer, a Storyteller, or a Visionary. Most times, the project is finished from that perspective, but I have had occasions where somewhere down the road I realized a misstep in this early phase and change the project from one perspective to another. This is, after all personally expressive art and we can do anything we wish — including jump tracks if we feel it's necessary. Said another way, the purpose of this Explorer/Storyteller/Visionary structure is not to box us in but to clarify our own thinking and hopefully contribute to the process so that our finished work is stronger because of our clarity of purpose.

A Word of Caution

In the following pages I discussed each of these individuals from a very narrow perspective — how their creative path has inspired me. The very nature of this discussion is that these are not biographies, but rather carefully excised abstracts of their creative path. All good photographers work in a variety of methods, with a variety of results, and are accomplished precisely because they are not controlled by the medium but rather control it. I have no doubt that I can considerably shuffled my list of photographers and make equally valid comments should they land in a different category. For example I'll discuss Huntington Witherill as Visionary, but in the course of his career he's made wonderful images that could also could be produced from the point of view of the Explorer. In fact, a good portion of his earlier career might be characterized as fairly traditional landscapes in the mode of the Explorer. Josef Koudelka I consider from, the point of view is of an Explorer, but for large portions of his work he might be even better considered a Storytellers. As I say, what follows is not intended to be a portrait photographer or any sort of biography of their career accomplishments, but rather glimpse of a tiny fraction of their creative process that, despite in spite of its possible insignificance considered the scope of their career, nonetheless is provided considerable inspiration and clarity in my own thinking about photography.

A final word about photographs

Because this is a book about photography and the creative process, it might seem odd that we've chosen not to include any photographs to illustrate each of the photographers discussed. There is a practical reason for not doing so: it would make the content burdensomely large to include a representative sample from each photographer, and would painfully insult them were we to include only one image of theirs as a representative sample. The much saner strategy is simply to acknowledge that any of these photographers' works can be seen extensive on the Internet, in their books, at your local library, in galleries, and wherever you can have access to their original prints. A quick Google search on any of these photographers will give you a wonderful place to start.