Wednesday, December 28, 2011


After digging through over one-hundred years of family history, with forty-one of those years in the same house, I finally found a box of my own personal history.  This happens to almost everybody; our parents die and we’ve got to go through their stuff, and sometimes we find some of our own stuff in the process.

I came down from the dusty attic with a box and said to my 85 year-old aunt, “After three weeks of going through the family history, I’ve finally found some of my own.  Indulge me for a moment while I show you some pictures.”

“I guess this is important to you?” was her reply.

Silly me, I should be used to this by now, after all, I do have a history with this family.  Never mind, Auntie, I’ll look at it later, alone.

And I did.  I brought that box home with me.  I couldn’t bring everything, there just wasn’t enough space in the car, but I brought enough to get a good reintroduction of my early photography.  The box contained black and white prints mostly; prints made by me, in my old darkroom in the garage.  There were a few negatives, a few thirty-five millimeter transparencies, and some early photography awards.  My personal history and the roots of my own artistic development, all in a box no one cared about but me.  On the comfort of my own studio floor, without uninterested family members present, I examined the contents of that box (labeled ‘1974’) with the eyes of a mature artist with 37 years’ distance from his origins and came to a somewhat less-than-comfortable conclusion.

I thought I was better than I was.

My memories didn’t quite square with the evidence spread out on the floor around me.  Apparently I was not a genius.  I’d been a decent-enough young photographer but I certainly wasn’t the brilliant artist I thought I’d been.  Sure, sure, we all tend to inflate our resumes, obituaries and memories and maybe I’d indulged in some personal ego-stroking when thinking about my own artistic beginnings, but the view with today’s eyes is I was more adequate than brilliant, back then.

I’d like to think I’ve gotten better over the years, which may taint the perception of my early artist-self.  I do recall conversations with other photographers back in 1974 and we all were going to be brilliant when we ‘grew up.’  Well, as time has it, we grew up, but I’m the only one who stuck with it and attempted to attain the ‘brilliance’ we all thought we’d acquire.  Those other photographers from 1974 are now accountants, business-people, parents, employees, cubicle-monkeys and non-artists.  So maybe my ‘brilliance’ wasn’t in the art, but was merely sticking with the art?  It is also possible I am a fool, but at least I can claim to be a thoughtful and introspective fool, with his own personal art-history.  I can trace my foolishness back to its origins.  And I can see the roots of my own artistic development in those early works.  No, I didn’t drop from the womb as the instant, Salvador Dali-esque type genius I thought I was ---I had to work at it.  And I’m still at it, but now I can analyze where I was and compare it to where I am.  As they say in politics, I’m ‘making progress, moving forward.’

But how did I get here?

First, and most obviously, it was not the result of genius.  In the majority of my early works I saw no evidence of genius or brilliance, but there were a few images that showed ‘the spark,’ and I’ll get to those later.  The first and foremost thing I noticed when going through those early pictures was that I was a good technician.  I remember easily learning the ‘science’ part of photography and it shows.  Most of the prints have not faded in these past thirty-plus years in the uncontrolled environment of my parents’ house attic.  Fixing and washing was apparently done properly.  And most of the prints (mainly 8x10 inch and 5x7 inch B&W RC paper) are of normal contrast and exposure.  Technically my old prints are good, but science is easy to learn (if you try) and, to me, a lot of what went on in the darkroom was more like following a recipe than ‘making art.’  The ‘making art’ part for me was done in the camera, compositionally, and not in the darkroom (with a few notable exceptions).  When I look at the artistic attributes of my early work, it’s rather pedestrian.  It’s obvious I learned the ‘rule of thirds’ and other compositional stand-bys.  I learned how to ‘pan’ the camera correctly and my sports photos, while unremarkable, were in-focus and composed well-enough.  As a young, entrepreneurial sports photographer at my brother’s little league baseball games, I recall selling quite a few prints of ‘kids-in-action’ to their parents.  Although there’s nothing to indicate I had a future with Sports Illustrated, I did well enough.  I also learned early on to make do with what I had.  What I had, as a young sports photographer, was an Argus A-4 camera with a 44mm lens with a leaf-shutter that had to manually cocked for each exposure and a wonky film advance knob.  Certainly not the 600mm, motordrive kind of pictures we’re used to seeing in sports magazines today, but merely adequate (not too many pictures of center-fielders though).  Making do is something I learned early, and still have to do today.

My landscape photographs were as banal and unremarkable as the Texas landscape where I lived at the time.  As primarily a black and white photographer my early works showed no eye for light.  The recognition and exploitation of ‘good light’ was something I learned later ---much later.  A sensitivity to ‘good light’ wasn’t something I learned in college either; I learned it from a year-long assistant/apprenticeship with another photographer who did have an innate ability to find and use great natural light.  ‘Light’ for me was an acquired skill and I don’t see any evidence in my early works that I had any ‘natural’ perception when it came to light.

I found very few portraits, snapshots or ‘people pictures.’  I owe this to my life-long introversion and (somewhat) dislike of other people.  It was pretty cool to find 1970s era concert photos of rock bands like Yes, Supertramp and Jethro Tull.  Those were merely ‘adequate’ pictures as well, notable only by the fact that cameras haven’t been allowed in most rock concerts for a long time now. 

Compositionally I was ‘safe.’  Apparently I’d read, learned and followed the compositional ‘rules’ and I saw no ‘non-standard’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘risky’ composition in my early works at all.  I consider myself a ‘formalist’ to this day but I do try to ‘shoot outside the compositional box’ from time to time, although still it’s not natural for me.  When I look at these works now, I feel that at the time, if there were ‘rules’ to be followed (art-rules or photographic-technical) I followed them and exploited what was considered ‘safe’ but I really didn’t take any chances until much, much later.  I can now see that I was trying to fit a ‘standard’ and wasn’t confident enough to ‘break the rules.’

All in all I was a rather adequate photographer with above-average technical abilities for my youth.  This discovery was rather disappointing as I’d held my early photography in such high esteem ---until I saw it again. 

Not that ‘adequate’ is all that bad; I just thought I was better.  Cognitive-dissonance dictates that I must reject a ‘feeling’ that conflicts with a ‘fact.’  I’d ‘felt’ I was better, but the new ‘facts’ of those old prints laying on my studio floor tells me I must reject my warm, fuzzy feelings about my early artistry and pay attention to the ‘fact’ that I just wasn’t quite as good as I thought I was.

But among the boxes of unimpressively adequate photographs I did find some that showed ‘the spark.’ 

The pictures I found where I can reasonably construe there was a ‘spark of brilliance’ were the ones that I’d either ‘directed’ or used some darkroom-trickery.  The studio photos, the posed actors in the high school play, and the set-up shots were my best.  When I’d ‘imposed myself’ on the situation had resulted in the best photography.  I did better when I ‘took control’ or ‘directed’ than when I just showed up and took the shot.  I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently I was a much better ‘advertising’ shooter than ‘editorial.’  I found composite prints I’d made at the age of fifteen that were nearly as good as Jerry Uelsmann’s.   I’d built miniature sets in forced-perspective that I’d photographed for my high school newspaper that won awards.  My Kodalith high-contrast film experiments were successful.  Basically, what I found was my ‘straight’ photography was average while my ‘special effect’ or ‘set-up’ imagery was superior and showed ‘the spark.’ 

Interestingly, now that most of my work is digital, I don’t think like a photographer much anymore.  Back then, not thinking like a photographer (despite advanced use of darkroom techniques) provided me the means of making the best imagery.  When I was ‘one of the photographers’ my work was merely adequate, but when I set-up the shot, or directed the people in the picture, or printed two negatives on one piece of paper or built a set to be photographed, only then did my work contain the spark of what it’s become today.

I also kept at it, which helps as success is the result of not quitting.

Since I thought I was so much better than I really was indicates I had a healthy ego ---perhaps too healthy.  My Dad, whose recent death was the cause of this re-discovery of my own art-history, used to criticize me for ‘thinking too highly of myself.’  I tried (and failed) to explain to him, back in the day and more recently, that since he didn’t think that much of me, I had to do it myself.  I mean if you don’t think highly of yourself or your work (to a point, keep the ego in control) who will?  Perhaps it was my delusional sense of artistic self-worth that made me keep at it? 

And I’m glad I kept at it.  I’ve gotten better.  I have something to contribute.  I thought I was a genius but I wasn’t; I thought I was more talented, and I was wrong.  But here I am anyway.  And maybe in the end, hard work is no different from genius?  No, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was and I’m OK with that.  I do think I’ll keep those old pictures to myself ---I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s delusion.  And regarding that Ego thing, if I really did think too highly of myself and my work, do you think I’d of admitted it, written it down and shared it?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


I was asked to answer the ten questions below by the Angelica Gallery in Phoenix.  I thought I’d post it here too because these are the common questions artists often have difficulties articulating.  I don’t think my blog is read by very many, but I hope this is helpful, especially for young artists.
In an effort to have each of our artists connect with their audience we have designed 10 questions for each artist to complete if they wish.  This will help our efforts to encourage more artistic creation in all its unique forms while also encouraging more people to connect with art in general.   People need to feel connected to something to feel inspired to get involved in it and especially spend their money on it so this is another avenue we can make each artist more relatable to the public.  Thank you in advance for answering these questions in your own unique way.
1.       What would you say was the first thing or moment that got you inspired to start creating?

Very young.  As a kid my parents enrolled me in a lot of after-school art classes.  I wasn’t a very good painter or too good at drawing but I did learn all the fundamentals.  In the 7th grade I was introduced to photography and discovered that photography was the medium for me.  Photography is a blend of both art and science and I took to it.  I enjoyed both the creative time behind the camera and the scientific aspect of the darkroom.  I didn’t choose art, art chose me.
2.       What inspires and motivates you now?

Curiosity.  I’m interested in things I have not seen before so I’m motivated to push the limits of photography and digital art.  I’m also motivated by the classical surrealists and have closely studied the works and writings of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and others.  Today, as a result of the ‘digital revolution’ of photography I find more inspiration from the history of painting than photography.  Technology allows me to use photography in ways that go far beyond the traditional photograph.  The ‘photograph’ is no longer my final destination creatively.
3.       What do you feel or experience when you are creating?

Joy, discovery and a lot of hard work.
4.       Are there certain things or people that influence your creative flow or process?

Photographic influences are Pete Turner, Mitchell Funk, Jerry Uelsmann, Man Ray and the classic American Western photographers, f-64 group, etc.  From painting, influences are Dali, Magritte, Jacek Yerka, and Picasso.  Science-fiction literature is also an influence including authors such as Frank Herbert, Robert Charles Wilson and Robert J. Sawyer.  I like surrealist writers like Jeff Noon.  Another influence is progressive rock music.  This is the music that’s not heard much on the radio.  Just as I seek novelty and innovation visually, I appreciate musicians that continually push boundaries to create something truly new; musicians and bands such as Steve Hackett, 1970’s Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes, The Watch, Pendragon, Jadis, The Tangent, Marillion, Marc Dwane, Erik Wollo, Cairo, The Flower Kings, etc.  Freud and Jung are influential.  Those who don’t follow formula are my primary influences.  As diverse as this list is, all of it somehow gets into my brain, is processed, and comes out in my work.

5.       What is your favorite atmosphere or environment in which you like to create?

When photographing I prefer to work alone, both in the studio and on-location.  Also when working at the computer in my studio I prefer to be left alone, frequently for hours or days, and I require time for quiet contemplation.  I work out many concepts during that time between fading wakefulness and sleep.
6.       What would you say would be the one thing you would like someone to take with them when viewing your work, if anything?

The joy of discovery and the impetus to THINK.
7.       What other professions, interests, or hobbies do you have?

I ride motorcycles which brings me great joy and freedom.  Motorcycling exercises different parts of my brain, is physically demanding and serves to ‘reset’ my creative thinking.  I play classical guitar, not very well, but I work at it specifically because it’s HARD to do.  I’m also tangentially involved in paranormal research including UFology, Cryptozoology, ghost-hunting, psychic-functioning and remote-viewing.  Quantum physics interests me a lot.  
8.       Give an example of a difficulty you have had to overcome.

9.       Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully as a more recognized and collected artist and not living under a bridge!
10.   What advice would you give someone just wanting to start out with their art career?

Success is the result of not quitting.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

When is a photo not a photo?

How much digital manipulation does it take to change a photograph
into something that’s not a photograph?

The essay at the end of this one, Computer-Manipulated Imagery, is it Photography? was first published 14 years ago in LensWork Magazine.  It’s included here for reference if you want to read it.  My intent was to inspire a debate that would lead to some definitions in the new art-form of ‘digital art.’  But no one took up the challenge.  (Perhaps LensWork Magazine isn’t widely read?  Or maybe their readers weren’t up to the intellectual challenge?).  The essay was also included in my 2009 book, Photographic Memories, but as no one has yet contacted me with any definitions.  I don’t think my writings are widely read, so I don’t have much influence, but now in 2011 I feel it’s rather problematic not having any definitions of this new art form of Digital Art.

I can’t believe that no one, especially those exalted intellectuals at our finest Art Schools, hasn’t tackled the subject and tried to define Digital Art as something new and separate from photography, but I’ve never seen any evidence they’re even thinking about the question.  Maybe they’re too dumb, too afraid or just don’t care, but now, in the second decade of digital imaging we really need some answers to the question.  Here’s the question at its most basic, as I overheard it in a gallery recently:

“What the fuck is this?”

He’d responded positively to the imagery but was confused about the medium.  Like all art patrons he had an expectation.  We all expect paintings to look like, well, paintings.  We expect sculptures to be three-dimensional.  And we expect photographs to look ‘real.’  This poor guy is standing in the gallery and the piece he’s confused about is hanging on the wall, it’s essentially two-dimensional wall-art and he knows it’s not a sculpture.  It’s not on canvas and he sees no brushstrokes or anything to indicate it’s a painting.  The artwork is presented matted and framed under glass, like a photograph, but there are parts of the picture that, although photorealistic, clearly are not photographs.  He likes the imagery, the subject matter and its treatment, but as for the medium, the thing itself, he’s confused and asks, “What the fuck is this?”

It’s Digital Art, something new but still somewhat familiar.

Some digital art is a lot like photography.  Digital artists use photographs in innovative, non-photographic ways like cutting and pasting and recontextualizing the imagery.  ‘Photographs’ are no longer the end-goal of digital artist ‘photographers’ who don’t view the photograph as final expression, but rather, source material for new artworks that can only be realized digitally.

C’mon you brilliant gallerists, museum curators and art educators with your incredible authority, can’t you weigh in?  Fourteen years ago I asked the question and you’ve yet to make a statement.  Hey gang, I make the art and I try to define it, but no one gives a shit what the artist has to say, the public is waiting for you, with your art-authority, to say ‘this is what Digital Art is, and this is why it’s different from photography.’  Has the cat deconstructed your tongue?  Or, are you afraid to make a definitive, declarative statement because that would somehow put you ‘at risk?’ 

Why am I out on a limb, all by myself, saying, “This is digital art!  It’s not photography, it’s different, it’s like photography, but it’s not photography?”

By not defining what Digital Art is, digital artists are relegated to ghetto dwellers.  We have no place to show our works (except online, but online art galleries lack credibility).  Our works don’t look like photographs so the photography galleries don’t know what to make of us.  And we’re shunned by the other galleries for the same reasons as photographers were.

In my essay, Computer-Manipulated Imagery, is it Photography? I put forth a definition:  Any still image that owes its existence to digital generation or manipulation that could not be realized in any other way without the use of a computer is considered a cybergraph.  “Cybergraph” never caught on so let’s use the term “Digital Art.”  And I challenge all the ‘experts’ to come up with a better definition!  It’s way past time for you ‘experts’ to get off the bench and say something.  If you can’t come up with a better definition than what I’ve offered then co-opt it and then get on with the business of accepting, displaying and promoting Digital Art as a separate art form!

Read this essay from 1997 for more definitions…………………….

Computer-Manipulated Imagery
Is it Photography?
With digital-imaging it’s getting harder to even define
exactly what a photograph is.  This is an attempt to
define the new medium of digital.
(Originally published by LensWork Magazine, Fall 1997)

In the world of art there exists a collection of terms and classifications that are used to define, include, exclude, characterize, designate, identify, pigeonhole and otherwise grasp, or confuse, art and its many flavors.  Photography is but one sub-category of artistic expression.  Now, with the advent of the digital-imaging workstation within the studio and photo-lab, photography seems to be witnessing a revolution.  Computer-generation and manipulation of photographic imagery has been around since the 1960s.  By the 1970s a small market had developed for computer-generated imagery despite equipment that was bulky, slow, astronomically expensive and available only to a few.  In the 1980s the amount of computer-imagery grew tremendously as did the availability of good equipment at somewhat less than exorbitant prices.  By 1985, in photographic circles, digital imaging was the in trend despite a limited and confused marketplace.  Now, in the mid 1990s, if you believe the popular and trade press, film may be dead, and if you’re a photographer without a digital-imaging workstation on your desk you’re an archaic, outmoded and non-competitive dinosaur.  Is the digital revolution truly the evolution of photography, or is it something else?

Most digital imagery is not photography.  All art forms are branches of a single tree called Art and Cybergraphics[1] is a new limb growing from the branch called photography.  Currently this is a point of great confusion.  Photographers have embraced cybergraphics as their own, and, even though the majority of cyber-artists came to the medium from photography, sculptors, painters, illustrators and other artists have also embraced this new medium.  Artists who have come to cybergraphics from mediums other than photography have not really made a big deal of it; to them it’s just another medium.  Photographers, on the other hand, feel compelled to include cybergraphics as photography because the new medium shares some photographic characteristics.  Those photographic characteristics are specifically: image-capture and image-realization, or to put it in more common terms, input and output.  In general terms cybergraphic imagery is accomplished in three distinct steps: inputting of captured imagery (scanning), image-processing, and output.  Input or digitization of imagery converts pictures (often from photographic film, but not limited to) into digital information recognizable by the computer, the cyber-artist (photographer, painter, whoever) then uses the computer-tool to manipulate the imagery however they see fit, and finally the completed cybergraphic is output (often to film, but again not strictly limited to).  Because the usual process is commonly accomplished in a film-in, film-out fashion, photographers think it is photography.  It is not.

Cybergraphics cannot be construed as photography any more than painting or illustration can.  You’re probably thinking, ‘but I don’t construe painting as photography.’  Of course you don’t, that’s because your major point of consideration is the middle part of the process, which is the part that should be considered.  Think about this: some painters and illustrators use photographic reference.  They may photograph or appropriate photographic elements that they use as a foundation or starting point for their paintings or illustrations.  Often they “input” their photographic reference by actually tracing it onto their canvases or paper, or they may simply visually refer to it during the painting or drawing step.  Finally, especially in cases where the work is to be reproduced, the completed illustration or painting is often photographed (output) on film.  The resulting film images are often used in portfolios, used as marketing or advertising tools for the artist, or supplied to color-separators.  This too is a film-in, film-out process, yet photographers make no claim to it.  Regarding cybergraphics, it’s what happens in the middle, the creative act, between input and output, which defines the (new) medium.  All the different mediums of art can be defined by the processes and tools used to create the finished piece of artistic expression.  Painters primarily interact with paint, brushes and canvas; musicians with sound and musical instruments; dancers with the body and motion; sculptors with clay, metals, etc.  Photographers primarily interact with cameras, lenses, chemistry and film.  If you’re interacting primarily with a computer to bring forth your art, you are not a photographer; you’re something else, a cyberartist.

Process does determine the art form.  In the 1960s when the photomontage (not to be confused with collage which is an altogether different thing) was popularized, it was a new and non-realistic kind of photograph which caused critics to proclaim “It isn’t photography.”  To them the photomontage was not photography because it was non-representational and not “straight.”  They were mistaken.  Those photomontage images were produced through the photographer’s interaction with the pure photographic process.  Those images may have been created (and still are) by the non-traditional uses of the enlarger, slide-duplicator or chemistry, but the majority (if not all) of the equipment and supplies used to make those images came from the camera shop.  You may use a camera and you may be an accomplished photographer, but if a computer is required to make a specific image then the result is not a photograph, it’s a cybergraph.

Not included in cybergraphics is the simple retouching of photographs.  Retouching is an accepted form of traditional image-enhancement and has been since the inception of the photographic medium.  How much retouching is acceptable is still open to debate, even in the 1800s some heavily retouched and hand-tinted photographs were considered more art (painting) than photograph.  Regardless, the spotting brush and retouching pencil predates the computer.  Also not included in cybergraphics is the collage.  Although a collage may include photographic elements and may be rephotographed on film, they are neither photographs nor cybergraphs because the imagery is constructed through cutting and pasting.  This shouldn’t be a point of confusion anyway since the collage is already an accepted, distinct art form in and of itself.  Cutting and pasting done with a computer is a cybergraph only if the end result could not be accomplished without the computer.  Cinema and video are not included in cybergraphics because they are not still images, and they are already recognized as separate art forms.  Other digital imaging technologies, such as the MRI for example, are also not included since they are not construed as art or self-expression.  Maybe someday someone will make a MRI for purely aesthetic, self-expression reasons, and then it would be a cybergraph.

What is considered to be a cybergraph is simple and fairly obvious.  Any still image that owes its existence to digital generation or manipulation that could not be realized in any other way without the use of a computer is considered a cybergraph.  This includes computer-generated imagery and any other non-lens imagery which relies on software to exist.  Cybergraphics is actually pretty straightforward for the viewer who considers process as a component of artistic expression.  But beware, you can be fooled!  Things are not always as they seem.

Nothing is as it seems is a good maxim for the consideration of computer-manipulated imagery at this epoch of art, photography and technology.  Reality, representation, expression and Truth are at a crossroads due to technology.  Technology is an irresistible force which will not slow despite confusion, categorization, ethics, law, fear or anything else.  Despite technology or because of it, art will be made because it can be, in any way, shape or form, with any tool.  If this is confusing, don’t worry about it.  It will all be sorted out eventually, that much is inevitable and absolute.  The human animal categorizes everything, it’s our nature, and it’s how we understand things.  If art is a tree with many branches defining each distinct artistic medium, then we should welcome the new growth.  Cybergraphics is a new branch; it may have grown from the branch of photography, but it is something new.  It is not photography although it shares some of photography’s characteristics.  Once we understand that we’ve got something new here, cybergraphics will emerge as a new and distinct art form with its own beauty, pleasures and perils unto itself.  The silver image is not dead.  (It could even become more valuable.) Photography is not headed for extinction; it has witnessed a birth.

Postscript 2009
A dozen years later, in 2009, there is still no term that accurately describes the digitally-manipulated image.  I’ve come to use the term Photo/Digital.  It’s the most accurate and honest term I can think of that describes my Photos as Digitally altered.  Digital still lacks a historical reference point, but in time I’m sure it will become its own art-form with its own label   --maybe.

[1]There needs to be a name for this new art form, some term that describes it the way photo-graphy describes light-pictures.  Cybergraphics sounds pretty catchy, but it’s a made-up word.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dali & Dale

I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I will be exhibiting with Salvador Dali this weekend!  Dali is my favorite painter and has been hugely influential in my surrealist art.

The exhibition is at the Angelica Gallery, 3607 E. Campbell Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85018.  (602)373-8062  4-9pm Saturday June 25, 2011

The exhibition features “The Art of Rock & Roll,” limited-edition prints and sculptures by Salvador Dali and me.

This exhibition came about very quickly and unexpectedly.  I got an email from the gallery last Saturday, we discussed it on the phone Monday and Tuesday, and the artwork was delivered to the gallery yesterday.

I’m looking forward to (finally) exhibiting in an upscale gallery in Phoenix/Scottsdale and having my work displayed alongside Salvador Dali is a thrill and honor.  Big thanks to Carlos and Micah at The Angelica Gallery!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

All things being equal...

Sometimes I just wish I could paint.  There is very little technology involved and the learning curve isn’t very steep.  Hand a paintbrush to an eight-year old and the kid will pretty much know how to use it.  Sit the same kid down behind a computer running Adobe Photoshop and he will be lost.  When the machines work (and if you know how to use them) they aid in art production, but when the machines don’t work (and all machines eventually fail) they get in the way of the art and can prevent its production.  I rely on technology because I cannot paint.

A massive clusterfuck of a computer upgrade got me to thinking about this.  The upgrade eventually became a ‘downgrade’ when, in utter frustration, I told The Computer Geek to take his shit outta my studio and give me my money back.  I’m up and running with my old system ---which will eventually be upgraded (off the shelf, no more ‘custom’ crap for me) and ya know, it works just fine and I can do all my work with it.  It’s like I’d traded an old, but perfectly usable, paintbrush for a new model that fell apart, after it was delivered late.

Another thing that got me thinking about equipment is a question from my most recent gallery lecture.  I get this question all the time, it’s tiresome, but since I’m always asked I must answer, “What kind of camera, computer, and software do I use?”

When I reel off the answer:  a 12 megapixel SLR which is considered an ‘amateur camera,’ an old PC running an operating system that’s no longer supported and a version of Adobe Photoshop six upgrades behind the current one, I get looks of astonishment.  It seems that most of the questioners at the gallery lectures have ‘better’ (as in higher-res cameras, faster and newer computers, and the current version of Photoshop) equipment than I do.  Yet they’re the ones asking questions about my images.  I’m sure this thought goes through some of their minds too: I’ve got better equipment than ‘the artist’ yet he’s having an exhibition and I’m not.  Why is this?

The simple answer is ideas.

Anyone who wishes to spend the money can buy the latest, greatest digital camera, a speedy computer and a new version of Adobe Photoshop.  Anyone with the money can do this, anyone.  Equipment doesn’t make one special; in fact equipment is the equalizer.  If, equipment-wise, all things are equal, the next important factor to consider is the use of that equipment.  It’s easy to take a technically-correct picture with a digital camera.  Because the digital camera is now little more than a processor with a lens, that mini-computer in your hand will focus itself and determine the correct aperture-shutter combination.  If you’re too lazy to set up a tripod the digital camera’s internal image-stabilization will ensure a sharp image for you.  You don’t need a degree in photography to take a good picture, you don’t need to know jackshit; digital cameras are ‘smarter’ than many of the ‘photographers’ that use them.  Of course a deep working knowledge of photography does make one a better photographer, it’s just not all that necessary anymore with ‘smart’ cameras.

The darkroom was once a place that separated the pros from the amateurs and required specialized knowledge, but the darkroom has now been supplanted by the computer and Adobe Photoshop.  The darkroom had been a very personalized space with all sorts of variables like enlargers, timers, print washers, chemistry choices, paper choices and on and on.  Adobe Photoshop is a software application and is the same for everybody.  So, if you know your application, Photoshop, that’s all the ‘darkroom’ you need to know.  Although Adobe Photoshop is an application, not all users have the same degree of knowledge of the application.  And all the ‘photo’ stuff in Photoshop came from the chemical darkroom, so if one has a working knowledge of the darkroom the better off one will be in the ‘digital darkroom.’  Most ‘digital-only’ modern photographers have no idea that Photoshop’s ‘curves’ relates directly to the variables of exposure and development that photographers figured out, in the chemical darkroom, over fifty years ago.  Now only a deep working knowledge of the application is necessary ---and it takes a long time to learn.

So, with equipment being ‘the equalizer’ the ability to use that equipment becomes a factor, but it’s only a factor in regards to ‘technical quality.’  The thing that no one can buy, or learn, is ideas.  Ideas are the thing that separates Great Art from pretty pictures.  No equipment or software gives one ideas.  Great equipment does not lead directly to great pictures.  And just because you’ve got the top-of-the-line equipment does not mean you’ve got something to say with it.  Those with good ideas, and the desire to bring them to fruition, will do so regardless of equipment.

The ‘equipment question’ is the easy discussion.  We can talk about this or that piece of equipment and its use, and since we live in a ‘consumer society,’ we’re taught that we’re supposed to desire the latest, greatest hi-tech gadget.  We’re also living in highly anti-intellectual times here in America so discussing ideas can be ‘elitist’ compared to discussing ‘products.’

The second most common question I get at lectures, after the equipment question, is about creativity.  The question is usually phrased something like, “Where do you get your ideas?”  Or, “How do you come up with this stuff?”  This is a much more difficult discussion to have because it’s a thinking question instead of a buying a product question.  I’ve found if I try too hard to answer the creativity question, the discourse rapidly dwindles to bullshit so I qualify my answer with something like, “This is what works for me, I’ll describe it for you, and I hope it’s helpful, but it may be different for you.”

I’ve written about my methodology elsewhere  so I won’t repeat it here, but it’s ideas that are precious ---expensive hardware only seems precious because it has an actual monetary value.  I think truly creative people will find a way to express themselves regardless of technology.  Technology allows us to express ourselves in different ways ---consider the camera in visual arts; the electric guitar, amplifier, synthesizer and multi-track recording in music; or electric power tools in sculpture.  None of these things changed the artists’ original ideas, but they did change the way those ideas come to be expressed.  Photography allows us to work incredibly realistically, more so than even the most accomplished photo-realist painter.  The electrification of music allowed performances to be heard by larger audiences and multi-track recording allowed the lone listener, who missed the concert, to hear the music the way the musicians intended.  Eventually technology does change the aesthetic, but only by adding greater potentialities and not by replacing anything.  An easy example I can think of to illustrate this point is the use of the electronic synthesizer keyboard in music.  Certainly the synth has broadened the ‘tonal palette’ a player has at his fingertips, but he’s still got to have basic piano chops in order to play a keyboard-synthesizer.  It’s the difference between Tony Banks and the guy who played keyboards for Flock of Seagulls with one finger.  I think there’s a lot of ‘one finger photographers’ taking pictures and then polishing them up with Photoshop trickery.  Not a lot of original ideas there, but what comes out is still pretty.

Ideas are the foundation of art; equipment, technology or tools are just that, tools.  The tools you use do determine how the art looks but the ideas are the seed which all art comes from.  For me, coming to digital from photography, was a natural, and somewhat forced transition.  I use the word forced because digital revolutionized photography; in essence, I was forced to ‘go digital’ because I could no longer find many ‘traditional photographic supplies’ anymore.  But I’d of ‘gone digital’ anyway because the digitalization of photography expanded my expressive palette.  With digital imaging I could express more complex ideas than I could under the constraints of traditional photography.  Digital imaging also allowed me to work faster, and slower than I had in the past.  Things sped up for me because I no longer had to buy certain props that now could be computer-generated.  With a powerful computer, scanner and printer in my studio I no longer had to rely on outside services, with their inherent delays.  I could create some art very speedily.  I could also slow down because I didn’t have to finish a piece all at once.  If there was something I couldn’t resolve at the moment, I could save the image for completion at a later time, something I could never do with film.

Early on, working digitally, I used the computer to express ideas similar to what I’d previously brought forth using photographic techniques.  The main difference was the speed of production and not having to spend time in the darkroom making masks and other components I’d need optically.  Digital imaging didn’t change the way I made photographs, and it didn’t change the ideas that popped into my head.  What digital did do for me, after I learned more and more about the application, was it allowed me to explore some of the more complex ideas I couldn’t express purely photographically. 

Ideas, concept, and meaning (to an extent) come from the artist, not the artists’ tools.  You can have all the coolest gadgets in the world but if you don’t have ideas, you’ve got nowhere to start.  Get the equipment you need and get to work expressing your ideas.  As much time as you spend learning how to use those tools, spend an equal amount of time thinking.  Read art history; learn about your forebears in whatever style you work.  Study the creative concepts of others and take what works for you and add your own voice.  Don’t hobble yourself thinking, if I only had this or that piece of equipment then I could…  Take your ideas and figure out how to express them with what you have.  Push the technology to the passenger seat and drive the car yourself! 

Dale O’Dell
May 4, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A cigar, a chair and peace of mind

After a week in Eugene, Oregon for an exhibition I was grateful to be heading homewards and finally getting some photography done.  Normally when I’m shooting I’m pretty single-minded, I think about the photography and that’s about it.  This time I was distracted and my mind was occupied with other things.  The exhibition had gone well enough; they always seem to, with positive reviews and all that.  But this trip was expensive and I needed to sell at least three pieces to break-even.  Just three, not much, but I feared the gallery wouldn’t be up to the task.  That’s the trouble with non-profit spaces, their bills are paid by grant-funding and they don’t have the motivation to sell like commercial galleries do.  Not that the commercial galleries are that much better, really. 

Just before I’d left for Oregon I updated my computer workstation.  It was a major hardware and software upgrade.  I’d skipped six Photoshop upgrades and going from version 6.0 to CS5 (version 12) was a leap.  I’d also skipped two PC operating system upgrades and the change from Windows 2000 to Windows 7 was another big change.  I’d timed all this to be done before I left town, so when I returned I could get to work, but thanks to an aggressively unprofessional Computer Geek, there were still many things undone when I left town.  He was supposed to have it finished before I got home.

So with a pain-in-the-ass computer upgrade on my mind and the expense of my Oregon exhibition weighing heavily, I tried to get in the mindset for some photography.  The previous day had gone well enough.  I’d been photographing in the Prairie Creek Redwoods near Klamath, California and despite a light rain, was getting some good photos.  Now I was driving the Avenue of the Giants, in Humbolt County, trying to avoid the tourons and getting more forest imagery in the alternating rain and sun.

Since it was mid-April the local campground wasn’t too crowded, in fact it was nearly empty.  I got a shock at the self-service pay-station when the sign read: Campsites $35.00 per night.  Damn Man, thirty five bucks to sleep on the ground!  The ranger at the Visitor’s Center verified I’d not seen a typo; campsites were in fact, thirty-five bucks a night.  He looked like he expected me to yell at him because of the high fees, but I didn’t, it wasn’t his fault, he’s just an employee.  I do understand how things work here in America, the rich folk get tax cuts and the budget deficits are made up by cutting teachers’ pay, cutting forest rangers’ pay, and charging campers thirty-five bucks a night to sleep on the ground.  I understand all of us really do need to pitch in and help the rich.  I dutifully placed a twenty, ten and five dollar bill in the little yellow envelope and claimed campsite number 52 (one of only three occupied that night).  I left ‘evidence of occupation’ at my campsite in the form of my camp-chair.  Then I headed up the road to buy a sandwich and a Coke for lunch.  The second half of the sandwich would be my dinner which I planned to ‘enjoy’ later that evening in my camp chair while I smoked my last cigar.  That was the plan.

I spent the afternoon photographing and got some good material.   The rains stopped and the sun came out and the light was beautiful.  By day’s end I had gigabytes of new photos, was tired and ready for that half-sandwich, a telephone call home and then a relaxing evening sitting and smoking my last cigar and, if there was some rum left in the flask, a cocktail at the campsite. 

Cruising into the campground something was amiss.  My chair was gone.  Yes, in a campground with only three campsites occupied, some bastard had stolen my chair.  Shit!  My $35.00 a night fee to sleep on the ground had just become $50.00 with the loss of my chair.  Dammit!  I could have gotten a hotel room (with a chair in it) for just a few bucks more.  Now, the loss of a cheap $15.00 camp-chair isn’t really a big deal, after all I figured someday I’d return to a campsite to find it missing.  But I’d also held the thought, way back in my mind, that perhaps my chair would never be stolen.  Ah, but my lack of faith in humanity was reconfirmed, some son-of-a-bitch had swiped my chair.  Give people a chance and they will let you down.

So after a pissed-off rant about my stolen chair, I called home and got more bad news; the Computer Geek had finally showed up, a week late for the second time, and ‘fixed’ nothing.  He offered no excuses or explanation for his tardiness, was unable to fix the things he promised and didn’t install the other equipment.  What I thought I’d have done two weeks before I left town was now delayed until two weeks after I get home.  Let down again!

So in the span of an afternoon I had no dry place to sit and my computer back home was still in ‘paperweight’ mode.  Fan-fuckin’-tastic!  So much for ‘peace of mind’ knowing I could get to work when I got home.

Carefully placing my ass on the damp picnic table seat I prepared to ‘enjoy’ my half sandwich, which, at this point was merely ‘fuel for the body’ and not really a meal at all.  After that a cocktail with the sorry remnants of the little bit of rum left in the flask and one last cigar.

What a shitty end to an otherwise good day.  The unwanted confirmation of humanity’s failings weighed on my mind; a stolen chair, a ‘new’ computer at home that doesn’t work; more in-my-face proof that if you trust in humanity, humanity will let you down.  Computer Geeks always overstate their abilities and don’t give a damn if you’ve got deadlines or not.  And if you give someone a chance to steal, they will.

I didn’t enjoy my last cigar while drinking a weak rum and Coke and sitting on a damp picnic bench.  I didn’t get the peace of mind I’d hoped for when I made that call home.  All is normal on Planet Earth. 

The majority of human beings are nothing but monkeys with iPods and nuclear bombs.  No wonder they don’t ‘get’ my imagery.  Realism is just too much for most folks, surrealism is way too much.

April 19, 2011
Who freakin’ cares?  Nobody reads this stuff until I put it in a book and charge for it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Stock photography is fantastic for picture-users.  Photographs can now be obtained for a little as a dollar which enables anyone to acquire and use a cheap photo for just about anything.  We now live in a time where photos can be obtained for less than a pack of gum.

The stock photography business is totally shitty for photographers.  Photographs can now be obtained for a less than it cost to produce them.  Any photographer who thinks they can earn any significant income from stock in the 21st century is a fool.

The stock photography industry has been destroyed by corporatists and amateurs, aided and abetted by moron photographers with no business-sense and toothless ‘professional organizations,’ like ASMP.

Before the corporatization of stock photography, in the pre-internet days, the industry was run by and for photographers.  The quality of the work was much higher than it is now because stock pictures were outtakes from professional assignments.  Higher fees were charged as well, which reflected the cost of production of professional images, and clients’ rights were protected as well.  Now, mostly, images are royalty-free and can be used by anyone, at anytime, for anything.  Conceivably this could mean the exact same image can be used simultaneously by two clients in the same industry.  And the work is of much poorer quality now because any wanker with a digital camera can upload images to a microstock website.  The choices of shit stock photography is deep!

Look at the stock photography business model:  The seller gets the photos for free from photographers meaning the seller has no investment in production; all production costs are borne by the photographer.  Images are searched, stored and delivered electronically thereby requiring very little staffing.  The seller can sell (license) the image for as little or as much as they like.  And the seller can remit as much or as little as they like back to the photographer.  From the sellers’ side this is brilliant, from the photographers’ side it’s nothing but a way to work harder and earn less.  I’d venture a guess that if this business model was proposed to a Harvard Business student they’d think it was pretty cool so long as you don’t make the pictures.

The stock picture sellers play to stupid photographers egos; so many ‘photographers’ just want to be ‘published.’  So what?  You won’t get a credit-line because, if there even is one, it’ll go to the picture seller and not you, the actual photographer who shot the photo.  If you find the published photo you won’t be able to point to your name on the tearsheet.  Stock photographers are anonymous, so it’ll do nothing for your career.  And that dollar you got won’t even buy you a pack of gum.

So if you’re a moron who shoots a lot of photos that are meaningless and have no value, there’s a place for you in stock photography.  If you’re smart, and don’t want to devalue your work and still want to shoot ‘stock’ pictures, I suggest you photograph cattle, because that kind of ‘stock’ is certainly better than the alternative.