One of the best things about VI is hanging out and collaborating with three very talented, creative artists (oh, and by the by: none of the three consider themselves to be “artists”). I’ve been thinking about creativity a lot recently, because my very good friend Daniel has asked me to work on a podcast with him that delves into the question of where an individual’s creativity comes from.
This question has prompted me to think about the definition of creativity. I watched a couple of TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson, who has a lot to say about creativity and the abysmal track record of the education system regarding same. He in fact titled his first talk “Do schools kill creativity?“; it is the most watched TED talk ever. Many of us have experienced during childhood the subtle and not so subtle comments from teachers and family about our creative efforts (“must colour within the lines”, anyone? “Oh, you’ve coloured the sky all wrong”, anyone? etc etc). Is it any wonder many people who pursue creative endeavours do not self-identify as artists? Their poor artistic souls have been crushed at an early age; they received the message that at best they can only be dabblers/hobbyists, not artists.
Sir Ken has defined creativity as “a process, not an event” on the one hand and “putting your imagination to work” on the other hand. I really like the quote about creativity being a process, because the embodiment of my own creativity is process-driven. I am still working on my own definition of creativity; at the moment I have “creativity is a license to experiment and explore”. I believe that it is or at least can largely be a risk-free license; everyone can be creative, try stuff out, fail, pick themselves up and try again without having to subject themselves to any judgement. The stakes only get higher when livelihood depends on being “creative”; I think you have to be extraordinarily courageous to take that pressure on.
Something I love about creativity is that there is no entrance exam or standard for entry to get creative. If you think you aren’t “creative enough” or “can’t do it” – throw out those books that are telling you how to be creative. Just bloody do something, anything. No matter how anxious you feel, do anything that interests you and don’t start off worrying that you don’t know how to do “it”, or aren’t doing “it” correctly. Just have some worry-free fun. You never have to show it to anyone. I can guarantee a couple of things about what will happen. The first is that whatever you do will very likely fall short of your expectations. My advice is to give up your expectations; instead simply consider what you would do different the next time (and make sure there is a next time). Soon you will experience the joy of losing yourself to the process of making “it”, and will likely feel the urge to make “it” again even better. Over time you’ll find that thing you made six months ago that you thought was so incredible and you got really excited about might start to look very simple and perhaps even “amateurish” to you. Because one of the other great things about indulging your creativity is that each thing you do builds on the last thing you did and if you keep creating on a consistent basis the progress in the meaningfulness, complexity and depth of what you make will be astounding. So give in to your creativity, and before long it will be a compulsive act that you can’t imagine living without.
The larger, deeper question is where does one’s creativity come from. I find that to be one of those scary questions (“what is my life’s purpose?” is another). I always think I should be mulling over and journalling about these deeper questions, but am truthfully always too scared to do it. I do think that creativity is innate; after all, no one taught us to crawl, or walk, or talk, or learn what our world is like by putting icky things in our mouth. We used our curiosity and creativity to do that, unfettered by “helpful advice” because we had no idea what the squawking from the parental units meant. But how our creativity ultimately develops into something we access once we are more mature is I believe a more individual thing that arises because of a specific trigger. My friend Daniel believes it comes from the dark side of the individual; I’m inclined to agree because that thesis is consistent with the scariness of the question. Or at least, I think my own creativity was born of darkness because I really, really don’t want to figure out the source of it (but I will some time soon). Leave a comment below and tell us how you define creativity and if you’re braver than I am, where you think your creativity comes from.
This is my third – and last – quote calendar. I’ve set aside my practice in the past two years’ editions of stating a profession or vocation with the name of each person quoted. Labels can be such damnable things!
January: Bill Brandt (1904 – 1983) “It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. [They] must have and keep in [themselves] something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveler who enters a strange country.” [from “Camera in London”, Focal Press (London), p. 14]
February: Walker Evans (1903 – 1975) “Concern yourself not with the question whether the medium, photography, is art. The question is dated and absurd to begin with. You are art or not; whatever you produce is or isn’t. And don’t think about that either; just do, act.” [from “Random Notes and Suggestions for Photographers”, c. 1966]
March: Mary Gaitskill (b. 1954) “I don’t especially feel pressured as a writer by the presence of images. I guess this is because I’m a very visual person and tend to express ideas and feelings with images, sometimes kooky images. The thing I dislike about a lot of images, say, online or otherwise present in culture, is that they tend to be flat and unimaginative, yet they have a strong visceral impact — and because they’re so omnipresent people expect to be ‘talked to’ in that language and it seems like they aren’t as open to a more individual vision. It even seems scary and weird to them maybe. But maybe that’s always been true. I don’t know.” [from Aperture 217, Winter 2014, p.42]
April: Sally Mann (b. 1951) “Because I am still a girl when it comes to developing film. There is nothing better than the thrill of holding a great negative, wet with fixer, up to the light. And, here’s the important thing: it doesn’t even have to be a great negative. You get the same thrill with any negative; with art, as someone once said, most of what you have to do is show up. The hardest part is setting the camera on the tripod, or making the decision to bring the camera out of the car, or just raising the camera to your face, believing, by those actions, that whatever you find before you, whatever you find there, is going to be good.” [from “Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs”]
May: Adam Philips (b. 1954) “It could be one of art’s jobs to make us feel that more life is worth having… A sane art would be one that always offers us the promise of more life.” [from a March 2005 ITV “Southbank” feature on artists and madness – https://bit.ly/37pp76w, 11:00, 12:29]
June: Jerry Uelsmann (b. 1934) “My creative process begins when I get out with the camera and interact with the world. A camera is truly a license to explore. There are no uninteresting things. There are just uninterested people. For me to walk around the block where I live could take five minutes. But when I have a camera, it could take five hours. You just engage in the world differently. If you can get to a point where you respond emotionally, not intellectually, with your camera there’s a whole world to encounter. There’s a lot of source material once you have the freedom of not having to complete an image at the camera.” [from “Shutterbug” interview, September 2007]
July: Sydney Smith (1771 – 1845) “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.” [from Lecture XIX : On the Conduct of the Understanding, Part II]
August: Paul Tillich (1886 – 1965) “The riddle of the present is the deepest of all the riddles of time.” [from “The Eternal Now”, Charles Scribner & Son, 1963, p. 110]
September: Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) “You put your camera around your neck in the morning, along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you. The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” [from “Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life, 1978, p. vii]
October: Arthur Danto (1924 – 2013) “The still [photograph] must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.” [from “Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Stills”, Rizzoli, 1990]
November: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879) “What is focus and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus…” [from letter to Sir John Herschel, December 1864].
December: Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959) “As a photographer you enlarge or emphasize a certain moment, making it another reality. For instance the portraits I made of women after giving birth: the reality of this experience is about the whole atmosphere, which is very emotional. In the photograph, you can scrutinize all the details, which makes it a bit harsh: you can see things you normally would not pay so much attention to.” [as quoted in Sarah Douglas, “Rineke Dijkstra: the gap between intention and effect”, Flash Art, October 2003]
Let me start with an apology in advance: I’m rusty, very, very, very rusty at blogging. So this may be a rough read, folks.
Here are a couple of action shots of VI editing and sequencing the images for our upcoming 2019.1 edition of “Call and Response”. From left to right, you see Francis, Mike, Kim and our videographer extraordinaire, Robert.
The organizing idea behind this year’s collaboration was “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. I admit, it was my idea. Perhaps I first should have confirmed the dictionary definition of flattery:
excessive or insincere praise, given especially to further one’s own interests
Whoops! Uh, that wasn’t what I meant (insert favourite embarrassment emoji here).
The idea was to explore what we’ve learned from each other’s visions. And in true VI fashion no one adhered strictly to a concept of precise visual imitation of the other members’ prior images. This is the primary reason why I love this group – we all colour outside the lines and make the collaborative assignment our own. And I learn a hell-of-a-lot from seeing how the others do this.
I can say personally that I found the exercise to be very enriching as I gained deeper understanding of Kim’s, Francis’ and Mike’s work. It also caused me to understand my own imagery more deeply as I worked on making images “in the style of” each of the other members. I use the term “in the style of” very loosely here; for example, when Mike saw the images I’d made keeping his work in mind he freely admitted that while he liked what I’d done, he didn’t see the connection to his own work. Oh, oh (another embarrassment emoji required).
Here are Mike, Francis and Kim working on part of the sequencing for 2019.1; notice the hands on physical prints. It’s very satisfying to touch, feel, move, ponder, move, have someone else move what you just moved (ok, that’s not necessarily satisfying every time), step back to look, look at each other, shrug, keep working.
We all think this is our best effort yet; or at least it will be the weightiest zine of the series as Francis pointed out. We have a twist coming with this issue – reader participation! Can you tell the authentic Mike Zastre image from the imitation image, the authentic Kim image from imitation etc etc? Perhaps it will turn into a contest.
Arrival time for this latest baby? Sometime in the new year, a little bundle of joy to blow away those post-holiday blues.
If you are at all interested in the intersection of art and photography, you must go. To see the show.
That is: Cindy Sherman at the Vancouver Art Gallery (until March 8, 2020). This is the same show that was at the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this year, for which a helpful Guardian review was written.
I’ve seen Sherman’s work in books, watched her images being displayed and mentioned in TV documentaries among and beside that of other artists, read praises and vilifications (both confusing) from the writings of the art-crit crowd. And therefore I was hoping to be surprised to see her work on gallery walls, especially as it seemed to me that this was the intended form for the work.
And I am simply beyond surprised. The work is stunning, and the sheer range of image making, let alone the inventiveness and art-theory-meta that is going on, makes for a very rich experience. Those keen on the technical side of printing will be pleased, too, in seeing not only the earlier silver-gelatin work, and some of the C-prints, but also the more recent dye-sublimation prints with their remarkably intense vivid hues.
I have been working to establish a family memorial garden on my grandparents’ old farm land, and after several years of preparation it has recently become reality. I’ve also just completed a first draft of the family story that will eventually be displayed onsite. So, with the garden project and its complex bundle of meanings top of mind, it was a profound coincidence to come upon two deeply moving and meaningful exhibits in Ottawa last week.
The first exhibit was at the Canadian Photography Institute (in the National Gallery of Canada). “Hanran: 20th Century Japanese Photography” follows socio-political life and change in Japan during the Shōwa-era (1926–89). The timeline of this era was bookended by two earthquakes, with interim events of equally earth-shattering magnitude. For art history and photography enthusiasts, Hanran also presented a fascinating story of how photography as an artform evolved in Japan over the 60-year period. (Watch a brief video of curator Eriko Kimura here)
The second exhibit was “Sites of Memory: Legacies of the Japanese Canadian Internment” at the Carleton University Art Gallery. It’s a collaboration of three Japanese Canadian artists – Norman Takeuchi (Ottawa), Emma Nishimura (Toronto) and Cindy Mochizuki (Vancouver). I learned of this exhibit through Nishimura’s website which I think I found through a CBC article. Her packaged memories — stories told through the generations and wrapped in images of old family photographs — were most compelling, particularly with my family memorial garden as mental backdrop.
The photographs, video and sculptural art were all very powerful but the back stories added an important dimension for me. In the case of Hanran, all of the images were brought to life with the Japanese perspective on socio-political events of the time. For Sites of Memory, it was family stories reconstructed through the art of Japanese Canadian descendants (i.e. sansei and yonsei).
Walking through these two exhibits, I felt like I was walking with my own grandmother’s ghost looking over one shoulder to the country she left and the life she would never know. Then, looking over her other shoulder to the path she and grandfather followed half a world away – with bundles of collected family memories being carried alongside life-colliding events.
Just as we were preparing to leave the Sites of Memory exhibit, my eyes were drawn to a Takao Tanabe (b. 1926) watercolour, titled “Banff” (1953). The painting was a gallery collection, and not part of the exhibit. But Tanabe’s work and the accompanying statement by Laura Modokoro conveyed a sentiment that beautifully summed up my combined personal experience of the exhibits and family garden project:
… The contrast between light and dark, between broad strokes and fine lines, speaks to a world of contradictions…. The tendency to focus on wartime injustices means that it is easy to forget the rich dynamism that has characterized the community from the nineteenth century to the present. Tanabe’s work, which expresses myriad influences, is a reminder that internment is only one aspect of the Japanese Canadian experience. To limit our perspectives to this aspect alone is to do further injustice to a complex and very human history, tinged with blemishes and beauty both. Laura Modokoro
Of the many unexpected pleasures and discoveries from my July trip to Aurora NY, one occurred as the result of a lake-cruise chat with a fellow student also at the Wells College book-arts summer institute. She started to talk about J.J. Lankes (1884-1960) of whom I had not the foggiest notion. He was an American visual artist who lived and worked in Virginia, New York State, and North Carolina. For some years in the 1930s he was a faculty member of Wells College and his wood engravings can still be seen in the hallways of Morgan Hall (where many of this summer’s courses were located). He and Robert Frost were good friends.
What enchanted me about the boat conversation, however, was the fellow-student’s description of Lankes’ book entitled “A Woodcut Manual”. Published in 1932 it was very well regarded, but bad luck in the form of the Great Depression not only affected sales but also his ability to survive as an artist. The University of Tampa Press issued a lovely reprint of the book in 2006 with additional essays and images by Lankes, and in October I managed to get my hands on a copy. The “Manual” is a joy to read, the character of Lankes streaming through his text in a way that is full of charm and yet never garrulous. I experienced many moments of LOL, and this seems to be what my fellow student told me to expect.
Although he was addressing those making woodcuts and wood engravings and otherwise interested in the medium, much of what Lankes had to say seems apropos for those with an interest in the creative life, those who hope to thrive in such a life. The rest of this month’s post consists of snippets from his writing.
From “Creativity and the Machine Age”: As I see it, creative effort is about the only justification of existence; although some people say it is for the making of angels. The degree in which an institution increases or reduces the opportunities for those creative efforts determines its importance to life. The development of the machine itself has induced a tremendous amount of such effort, but the power and glory of creation has gone to the machine-makers; to the rest of the world the opportunities have been curtailed when not utterly deprived. To preserve the psychic balance, other means to exercise the creative faculties must be found.
From “A Woodcut Manual” (“Other Subjects”): It is up to every artist to divine and define art after his own concepts. There is the talk against literary and associative content; of introversion and extroversion—the subjective as opposed to the objective—the inlook against the outlook; conservatism against modernism; the emotional against the intellectual, and so on. Nothing comes of the talk, for the people who make the big talk are not the artists.
From “A Woodcut Manual” (“Editions”): It is a great pity because a thing is beautiful, or at least meant to represent art, that it has to be rigidly restricted in production in order to sell it. For myself I would not be bothered by the knowledge that a picture in my possession which gives me aesthetic satisfaction is one of two copies or one of a million. But that is a state of mind not to be encouraged in the buying public.
From “The Creative Impulse”: You will find that the person who is not giving vent to his urge to make things is an uncomfortable person to live with. On the other hand, many artists are hard to live with too—but for another reason. Their creative impulses are abnormal and they cannot brook even normal interferences. I have wondered why some hobbies, such as button and match book collecting, are creative. It must be that the items in such collections furnish the excuse for getting a little order out of chaos—organizing them. That is what the artist does; he organizes too—lives, masses, tones, colors, sounds, forms, words.
From “Creativity and the Machine Age”: For the city dweller there are all the modern institutions that will later be superseded by more effective methods. The laundry, pool and lunch rooms, all the varying apparatus catering to modern needs. If the filling station with its glaringly colored pumps had been an institution of the Middle Ages, what a romantic subject it would have been. Imagine a woodcut by Dürer of one with its accessories—an attendant swishing a rag over the windshield, while another feeds in the gas. It would be wonderful. Today the filling station is the most ubiquitous object on the landscape. Someday it will be only an historical fact—a past phase of a social institution. It will be preserved for the future because, before it disappears it will have served as subject matter for the artist. Now is the time to capture it in its greatest glory.
It was a month of significant passings in the world of photography. First news of Robert Frank (+ September 9), then news of Fred Herzog (+ September 9, too). There were other photographers who departed in the month, people who made images at the edges of my vision, such as John Cohen (+ September 16) who was just in Göttingen in August to prepare a book with Gerhard Steidl; and Peter Lindbergh (+ September 3) who helped create the “supermodel” esthetic. When I visited Portland OR a few weeks ago together with GH, we went to the Blue Sky gallery and amongst other things saw a corner set aside as a homage to Frank (part of this seen in the picture above). He was there for the gallery’s opening in the 1980s. In his hand is written the injunction, “And keep yours eyes open …” – always good advice, and one he constantly gave to anyone with authentic aspirations.
So the giant tree falling in the forest is Frank’s, and it is even harder for me to grasp that “The Americans” was first published around 60 years ago. There is a wonderful farewell published by photography critic A.D. Coleman that begins to touch on Frank’s complexity as a photographer, as an artist, as a human being. I’m sure there is a manuscript of a biography of Frank resting in someone’s desk drawer (if that sort of thing is done anymore!) and my hope is it will be a competent piece rather than hagiography. I’m deducing reports of his curmudgeonly persona would most likely go along with attempts at the time to place him onto some sort of plinth.
All this has led me to wonder how much of Frank’s work has influenced our culture’s way seeing the world. We have sometimes heard around us a person say, apropos of the scene in front of them, that it looks like “a Monet”, or “a Turner”, or someone’s figure being “Rubenesque”, or the illumination being “Rembrandt light”. It’s a testament to the power of those artists that we now see something of the world that we hadn’t seen before or grasped before they revealed it to us. It is harder to hear the same being said of the great photographers, and partly that might be because so many have worked in black-and-white — one might refer to a photographic print as being like “Ansel Adams”, but I’ve yet to heard that spoken about a vista when standing in the wilderness. (This might, of course, speak more about the kind of company I keep.)
What I suspect – and this is only a hypothesis – is that Frank’s work in “The Americans” was was an attempt to show how uncommonly strange the world really could appear when rendered as a sequence of black-and-white photogravures in book form, when shorn of a self-satisfied benevolence. There is a lyric shimmer present in that book as well as in his later books (let alone his films). It is hard work to keep one’s eyes open, especially when you’re resolutely not told what to see.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
All of us in our group have been busy with the various things we do, and we’ll next meet later in the month. For my part, I managed to squeeze in a towards-the-end-of-July week at the Wells Book Arts Summer Institute to learn a bit more about typecasting on Monotype machines. The course was not held on the Wells College campus as other summer-institute courses but instead at the letterfoundry of Michael and Winifred Bixler in Skaneateles NY. A pleasure each day was looking through volumes that Winifred would pull out, all of which she and Michael either cast the type or did text composition or both. In the pic for this posting is the title page from one of the limited-edition volumes for which they cast the type (here the face is Monotype Perpetua).The Bixlers have been involved in the bookwork of many top-drawer photographers and visual artists (Paul Caponigro, Minor White, Barry Moser, etc). The printed picture is a Robert Frank image printed as photogravure (hand gravure, I believe).
One of the treasures on my bookshelf is “The Printed Picture” by Richard Benson who was another character from the US Northeast. The book was published in 2008 by the NY Museum of Modern Art and was a revelation to me when I read it nearly ten years ago. I first learned of the title through an interview with Brooks Jensen published in LensWork, and that got across to me Benson’s dynamic and crusty character. Not only was he an innovative printer, but he was also a talented photographer, darkroom worker, and incessantly inventive human being. No wonder he got a MacArthur Foundation fellowship back in the 1980s. Nor was he shy of the rough-and-tumble of the world as he was dean of the Yale School of Art from 1996 to 2006 (which may impress those who know something about usual academic food chains). My shock was very real when I learned of his death not from an obit but from the NYTimes Magazine’s yearly roundup in January 2018 of important passings in 2017.
So I was over-the-moon to encounter an odd little website containing just over seven hours of talks he gave at MoMA to a small group of people in the galleries devoted to the “The Printed Picture” exhibition (2008/2009). His friend Alan Chasonoff had suggested that Benson have an opportunity to simply talk and talk until he got everything out of his system, to do so without concern for his audience, and where Chasonoff would arrange to have all this captured on video. If one sets aside some of the occasional infelicities with the way the cameras were aimed (and one simply has got to do this) then the whole result is wonderful. I learned more about why half-tones on letterpress could not get any better than they did; why photo-offset lithography took off; enough about collotypes to realize I will want to think twice before attempting that process; about the wonderful skill of wood engravers who created reproductions of photographs by hand using just a burin; and much, much, much else besides. Amongst his many other gifts, he was also a wonderful educator and an entertaining speaker. For me it was a glorious way to spend 7+ hours, and I recommend you dip into these talks as you can and as you wish.
Making progress, we are.
One big challenge with our current work for the next issue is the nature of the response (as in “Call and Response”). In the second round it was my turn to make images in a manner rhyming (so to speak) with Kim’s images. However, that response needed to be informed by my memory of Kim’s work, our conversations, the meetings we’ve had in her home, what I know of her connections in our community, etc. etc. That is, the response covers a much, much larger window of time than has been our practice for previous issues. My secret hope was that by insisting on having Kim in this current round I could depend upon the fullness of a Victoria spring — foliage, flowers and all — to put a little wind in my sails. It didn’t work out that way, and that is all to the best. I do not have a green thumb (the last thing I grew from seeds must have been radishes in grade school), nor do I have a green eye. I envy those with a green eye.
I wonder how much great art doesn’t get made because we insist on seeing the way we think we see? My friend Gerry keeps feeding me books of essays by Robert Adams, From the title essay in his collection, “Beauty in Photography”, Adams writes:
The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope. This is not to say that he is unconcerned with the truth.
Part of what has made these current rounds so challenging and so exciting is that they have forced me to get away from what I think I see, to get away from what seem to be my own “indisputable facts”, to use a lot more “intuition” and a helluva lot more “hope”. All of this is me trying make sense of the way Francis sees, the way Kim sees — and, coming up, the way Paul sees — and to do so in a way that is not incoherent. It all feels a stretch, and that’s a good thing.
I learned a new word today, one from linguistics: calque. One of my ideas for this month’s blog post was to be about photographic equivalents of an Ohrwurm – that’s German for a tune you cannot get out of your head. Turns out the English “earworm” is a direct translation and borrowing of the meaning of this German word. That is, “earworm” is known as a calque. Yet the levels of meta go even further as “calque” is itself a direct borrowing of the French word calque which means “to trace” or “copy exactly” (thanks Google Translate!). But… I was in the airport (YYJ to YYC) when this whole idea just got out of hand. It’s one thing to write as a way of learning what you think, and it’s quite another to cut one’s way through the word hoard with such a slim idea in your head to begin with.
Then again, imitation has been on my mind these past few months. We’re now in the midst of work for “Call and Response 2019.1” and this time around we have chosen to use each other directly for inspiration. At the start of the year each of us secreted into an envelope a half-dozen or so images we believe are typical of our own individual photographic style. (None of us have shown to the others what we’ve placed in that envelope.) So there is one envelope in each of our homes, and our task each round is to create a set of images based on the typical photographic style of another member. Indeed! After all three rounds we will trot out what we placed into our envelopes, and there will then be four sets of images for us all (16 sets in total). That will be a most interesting gathering!
I drew Francis for the first round, and for the life of me I cannot remember how everyone else is matched up. Oh boy… it is a good thing that I’ve had several months for this first round! His imagemaking is so inventive, the control of colour and contrast so precise, and his compositional eye so clear that I had to make the decision to avoid imitation or mimicry. Instead I’ve been walking around, looking at the world about me with Tri-X in an Olympus XA, and wondering “What would Francis see in that?”. The liberating thing is the fun of just looking, even stopping suddenly on the street after a double-take and having an excuse to walk back, making a few exposures using the energy of “What if?”. I’m now very, very curious about what will appear on the contact sheets after I develop the film (four rolls so far, maybe a fifth will be in the can).