Monday, March 31, 2008

Artist's Talk with a 2015 update

Below is a transcript of the talk I gave last Saturday (. "Through Australian Eyes" exhibition is still up and continues for a few more days through to 4th April.

The first time I got paid for getting my hands dirty in the arts was in 1974 as the assistant technical manager for the Perth Entertainment Centre. It is an 8000 seat, state of the art touring house that opened in ‘74. My main area of responsibility was the lighting department and our pride and joy was a second generation computer controlled lighting system. The MMS (Modular Memory System) was the size of your grandmother’s kitchen table with so many buttons and wheels that you needed a street directory to get around it.

But it revolutionized the theatrical lighting industry. The sequences and the effects you could create with this toy left the old manual systems languishing in the dark ages.

The last time I got my hands dirty on a lighting board was in the mid 90’s with a control system called The Tempest. As is the case with computers it was the size of a brief case with 2 keypads, 2 wheels and 10 times the capacity of the MMS.

The reason I mention this in a talk about photography is 2 fold. The first is that photography and lighting design are two sides of the one coin with photography having the added advantage of a permanent record. For all photographers to some extent are lighting designers even if it is just waiting for the “right” light for that landscape shot. The second is about acceptance, expectations and application.

Unlike the photography community which seems to be turning itself inside out over the issue, the entertainment industry welcomed the computer with open arms. To such an extent that today a rock ‘n roll performance without a high end light show is doomed to box office oblivion. A group like Who with their trademark sound and light spectacular have spawned concept bands that faithfully recreate their shows. The Who may no longer be, but their clones are still out there touring the audio visual phenomenon they pioneered.

But it is not only rock ‘n roll, straight theatre has also embraced the power of the computer. I recall during the 1984 Festival of Perth working for the Louisville Theatre Company on their production of “Sisters in my House”. A highly dramatic piece about murder and mayhem that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Shakespeare’s repertoire. The original stateside production had a computerized lighting design. The Perth theatre where the production was shown had an old analogue lighting control system. To recreate the lighting design required 3 people working in a space designed for one to manipulate the levers of the manual system. We almost did it, but not quite, a couple of bits of the show had to be re-choreographed and about 20 lighting queues went out the window. The physical limitations of the equipment precluded the full realization of the vision.

To my mind the camera is one of the greatest inventions of all time, up there with the wheel and harnessing fire, especially where the visual arts are concerned. Not so much for what it can do in its own right, which is pretty amazing, but for its liberation of the rest of the arts. From cubism to abstract expressionism, from Dada to pop art they all owe their genesis to the camera. All the art isms of the 20th Century, the new, the exciting and the revolutionary ways of seeing and recording ourselves and how we fit into this world wouldn’t have happened were it not for the black box, the magnesium flash and the person the cloth over their head.

Now 150 years later another visual revolution is taking place, digital photography is part of it but in the main it is computer manipulation. Computer programs like Photoshop are doing for photography what photography did for art in general and painting in particular. And just like the 1860’s the old school are fighting a rearguard action. The specifics have changed but, oh my, the arguments sound the same.

Back then it was “There is no skill involved; it’s just slap dash daubings.” Well those slap dash daubers, like Monet and Cezanne are household names a century and a half later, their detractors are who?

Today it’s “There is no skill involved; it’s just the application of filters.” When I was painting, pride of place on my studio work table was a large jar of brushes. There must have been 50 or 60 of them of varying types and styles. Fan brushes to make soft and dreamy edges, hogs hair brushes for the big broad strokes, fine point sables for the delicate lines even steel knives for the flat thick swathes of colour or to scrape the paint off. Heck I even turned them round and used the wrong end or used a piece of rag or my fingers to get the look I wanted. On my computer I have a range of similar tools which are grouped together and called filters. And the only really discernable difference I see between them is with the computer ones I don’t have to spend an hour and half cleaning up after using them.

The computer’s major influence today is how the photograph print is made. Historically photography has been pretty much a what you see is what you get process. True you can mess about with shutter controls and focus but what ends up on the negative or in the memory is a rendering of the object in front of the lens.

Whereas when you paint a picture, you start with an idea and as you are pushing the paint around on the canvas there comes a time, if the picture is going to be any good, when the painting starts to push back. The same holds true for sculpture, and it is a magical moment. The art work takes on a life of its own and starts to impose its personality into the process. When this happens it becomes a collaborative process between the painter and the painting and often what started as a barn becomes a lighthouse. It doesn’t always happen, there is enough bad art around to underscore that point, but when it does happen a work of art sees the light of day.

It is because of this difference that historically photography has been seen as the poor relation within the arts. A photograph is the rendering of an object whereas a painting or a sculpture is the object. It is a subtle distinction but with profound ramifications.

Now the object captured by the camera is recorded digitally and displayed as pixels. And the pixel when viewed on a monitor is a little square of light which the photographer can push about like the painter pushes their paint about. Using the tools, the filters provided by the software those little squares of light can be adjusted however the photographer sees fit. And consequently like the painting the photograph can have the opportunity to push back, should the photographer allow it to happen. Drawing with light, today, with the aid of a computer has become painting with light.

It is true that the computer can be viewed as an enlarger with a whole lot more bells and whistles. But it is more, the breaking down of the image into its component parts, its brush stokes, its pixels is where it comes into its own. Working with these little squares of light individually, in groups or globally allows the photographer to create a conversation with the initial capture which can lead to some amazing places.

For me this has meant that I have become a lot looser when shooting, more intuitive, more within the moment a lot less concerned with the mechanics. When looking through the view finder I am looking for patterns. My default ISO has become 800 and if I was to use a Flash again I would need to get out the manual. For, I am not so much interested in capturing a scene as getting an impression, a glimpse of its personality that can be rendered 2 dimensionally.

I also often leave my captures for weeks or months before opening them to work on them. I want to come to them with fresh eyes when the details of their conception are a blur. Some of my best pieces have come from captures that were over a year old. I often have to work a piece 3 or 4 times before it comes to life. My favourite tool on the computer is the undo button for my work is mostly trial and error. What happens if I do this?....... MMMM not a lot, Ok how about this? Another favoured tool is the rotate canvas, flipping the image either horizontally or vertically enables me to see it with fresh eyes whilst I am working on it which allows me to discover and explore its secrets.

What the camera captures is an initial sketch much like the initial sketch the painter blocks out on their canvas to form the basis of their composition. What the photographer/artist does with that sketch is what makes the art work. As Ansell Adams said so many years ago, “The negative is the musical score, the print is the performance” and with the assistance of a computer, what a performance that can be.

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