I've no great desire to write about my art, nor am I confident that I can write about it. The fact is that I've been working alone, quietly for the past few years with very few people seeing this work. At the same time I feel that my pictures are unlike any I know. Because of this, I think it makes sense to indicate some general directions, put up some signposts for people who are just coming to my pictures. It's not in my nature to write long overarching arguments. These are short, random notes I’ve made about my pictures, photography, and aesthetics in general. At the moment nothing is organized, things are being revised, added to and subtracted from, there are lots of ideas I'm in the process of writing down.
Excerpt from an Artist Statement
...I've no reverence or nostalgia for what was called photography, nor for any uses it may have had. The pixels in a digital file have a greater resemblance to the mosaics in Ravenna than they do to a photograph by Eugene Atget.
I'm submitting eight small pictures that I initially took with either a low-resolution cell-phone or compact camera. Each picture was taken spontaneously but - perhaps paradoxically - was manipulated over time in my computer. Some of the pictures were printed, rephotographed and manipulated multiple times. I feel like I'm submitting a set of 'files' rather than a set of 'photographs', and in these files, in this mulch of pixels that were drawn and redrawn so to speak - there's a space to invent a new kind of picture.
The Tear in a few Pictures
I noticed that in the bread picture, the shower picture and the cat picture there’s a kind of tear or wound. In the first instance the tear is in the bread surface...in the second picture it’s a spot in the shower curtain where the water has been wiped away & C.’s eye is revealed...and lastly the wound is physically manifested in the cat's leg. I obviously had never planned for these marks to be present but I may have been unconsciously searching for them when I was editing out pictures from the shots I’d taken. Although I've no explanation for these marks...I can’t help but think of materiality and doubt in general. Thomas’ doubt and Christ’s wound in particular.
Aesthetics of Nihilism
It seems to me that if a nihilist is going to make a work of art he or she should be a virtuoso. In this way, just as the virtuoso’s skill might seem all-encompassing, his or her NO will seem all encompassing as well.
There were two dogs running in circles on an outcropped rock near a lake. I was mesmerized by how wild and free they seemed. I stood back and started taking pictures depicting the restless swirling energy of the dogs. My cell-phone camera zoomed in & out as I gradually refined the composition - I picked out the placement of the tree branches and the rock formation. Once in place these elements would give structure to the composition and serve as a foil to the dog’s whirling motion, the representation of which would be based on chance. If I was lucky I thought, the dogs might align themselves with the water, rock and tree branches to form an interesting composition.
The resulting picture seems to depict something timeless. Perhaps if one could travel back in time tens of thousands of years with a camera one might capture early dogs or wolves running in circles on a rock near water. The elemental forces of Earth and Water are depicted here - Wind and Fire are contained in the breathless dogs, the warm blood coursing through their veins. There’s something primal about the imagery.
Dogs are interesting subjects in that they’re the domestic animal par excellence. They’re the product of selective breeding by humans and this brings many thoughts to mind, particularly the interrelationship between domesticity and violence. There’s the original idea that ‘nature’ in the largest sense is violent, and civilization is it’s antidote with the tendency to reign in this wildness, domesticate, tame, and give shape & meaning to things. But there’s an inherent violence in this drive to domesticate as well - the idea in breeding that one animal might be born to serve another and the hierarchy that this implies. That one line may be selected to breed and another not. What kernel of violence, what wildness remains in such an animal, let alone the human?
There’s something paradoxical about the way I went about depicting the restless energy of the dogs. I think about how carefully I composed the scene - with the rock on the bottom, the branches coming out of the left side & top right corner and the lily pads dotted throughout the centre of the composition. The dog to the left of the scene seems to be pinned very neatly by the branch to the background which in itself seems not like a real lake but a wallpaper pattern inspired by Monet. Likewise the low resolution imagery with it’s soft contours and details seem an attempt to prettify. I can’t help but think that what I’ve done here is the product of a highly domesticating taste. There are countervailing effects however. It was important for me to not impose any order on the movement or placement of the dogs - what a perverse idea anyway! The other effect was to achieve a composition that was somehow wrong by traditional standards. The centre of the composition is more or less devoid of subject matter. One dog is obscured by a tree branch while the other dog is cropped out entirely except for his ears poking out in the bottom right corner. All the elements of the picture seem scattered to the edges - without the reference to ‘Dogs’ in the title the subject matter might not read at all.
I took numerous pictures of the scene as it unfolded...many depicted the dogs more clearly, described their movement better...but it was this picture that I was most captivated by. There is power in it's latency. This picture which seems to hang by a thread, which seems barely to exist causes me to reflect…to what extent can photography be seen as a taming/domesticating/limiting instrument? What measure of violence is contained therein?
Pictures with Nothing in the Center
I’ve come to see The Dogs, The Pool, and The Umbrella/Hand Railing as loosely related. In each I was interested in taking a picture with nothing in the centre of the composition. Perhaps a nihilistic tendency compelled me to leave a void in the middle of the pictures, a token of the image's ultimate meaninglessness. But then, there seems to exist a latent energy at the periphery of these pictures. A poetic metaphor occurs to me - that the margins might be full. One thinks of decadence, the way it might be described spatially...notions of extremity, distance, precarious connection and relations between centre and periphery.
In viewing my body of work as a whole one can see a concerted effort to deal with the centre of the frame. One could contrast the above pictures with the ones below - where the subject is depicted centrally.
Although depicted centrally, the subjects in each of these pictures do seem to point away from the centre. The Spider seems to refer to the shadow on the left. The Duck is drifting left and seems to merge with the pool's slide. The bread threatens to slip downward and blend with the perforated paper beneath it.
Perhaps a third way of treating the subject and it's centrality has been to conceal it as seen below.
My early photographic work (most of which has been destroyed) consisted largely of serial imagery. “Closed Door" is the only example on this website. It's by no means necessary, but perhaps useful to know a bit about Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics - particularly his notion of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships of words in sentence structure. Here's a diagram:
In this context, “Closed Door” might begin to reveal itself. In simple terms one could describe the 7 individual panels like this:
1.The Wall's painted Red, the carpet is Blue, the Hinge is Gold and the Door is open 120 degrees.
2.The Wall's painted Yellow, the carpet is Green, the Hinge is Copper and the Door is open 100 degrees.
3.The Wall's painted Blue, the carpet is Grey, the Hinge is Silver and the Door is open 80 degrees.
4.The Wall's painted Red, the carpet is Blue, the Hinge is Black and the Door is open 60 degrees.
5.The Wall's painted Yellow, the carpet is Grey, the Hinge is Brass and the Door is open 40 degrees.
6.The Wall's painted Blue, the carpet is Blue, the Hinge is Gold and the Door is open 20 degrees
7.The Wall's painted Yellow, the carpet is Blue, the Hinge is Gold and the Door is open 0 degrees
Depending on one's analysis of the pictures the description will be more or less nuanced.
The "Closed Door" images were staged in my apartment. For each picture the walls were painted, a different hinge was placed on the door and a different carpet was used. The idea here was to create a series of images that showed an event occurring in linear time (a door closing) while depicting the event in a non-linear way (the objects and therefore subject matter are changing). Both a narrative sequence and a typology of various forms is shown then. Technically the images could be arranged in the opposite order and depict a door opening. They could also be ordered at random so that the door would appear to be both opening and closing. In this sense each of the 7 panels is a unit in any of a set number of potential narratives. I liked that by confronting a physical object over and over - in this case the doorway to my bedroom - I could somehow make it disappear.
Aside from involving myself in a structuralist play of images & exploring the narrative implications of said images, I was generally interested in creating a picture of things in flux. I was thinking of Heraclitus and reading Ovid's "Metamorphoses" at the time. The philosopher Heraclitus insisted on the constancy of change in the universe and famously stated, "No man ever steps in the same River Twice". Likewise Ovid's "Metamorphoses" strings together 250 ancient myths and segues between each myth with the transformation of a character. The segues in "The Metamorphoses" are a device much like the hinge...the movement from story to story turning on a fulcrum.
On Cell Phones and Pictorialism Past & Present
A lot of my pictures were taken spontaneously with either my cell phone camera or a small compact camera. I would take photographs often and after a time I realized that I really enjoyed what the JPEG processor was doing in these cameras. There was a certain amount of detachment that one could have. The small sensors of these cameras were rather poor and to compensate the manufacturer had to rely heavily on the jpeg processor to pump up the quality of the images, but in doing so, a level of artifice was introduced (See Dogs Photo). This, combined with the large Depth of Field (DOF) gained from such a small sensor - created a very pictorial effect…ie. a very flat decorative image...with the drawback being that because of the small file size they would have to be displayed at a reduced scale. These effects are in any photo taken by a camera phone, but I noticed that there was never an acknowledgement of these file’s beauty. I’ve chosen to embrace these pitiful little files. They come with the benefit of a candidness, portability, large DOF, malleability and colour set that the early pictorialists didn’t have access to.
If you look at early pictorialist work, you tend to run into a lot of pictures with a shallow DOF. This had a couple effects - to blur out information and to create an emanating light effect. This route to the pictorial became such a cliche that later art photographers in the 1980’s-2000’s did a complete about-face. Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand, Thomas Struth, and Candida Hofer used a deep DOF to affect a pictorial flatness. Their pictures are teaming with information. Gursky’s "99 cent" picture is a good example - the labels on every food package in the store are legible whether they’re right in front of you or on the other side of the store. I know Jeff Wall had explicitly argued against shallow DOF. In a video interview for White Cube Gallery he explains how he wanted to ‘recreate the quality of eyesight’.
To explain very briefly - when we observe objects in space our eyes always focus on a point, but everywhere we’re not looking will be out of focus. When we look at a photo that has a large out of focus area, it’s as though the camera has already imposed one level of focus on the viewer. The viewer, when looking at the photo will add a second level of focus which in a way pushes further away from the natural way the eye falls on objects in space. And of course, this is what all these large scale photographs with infinite DOF do. They provide a kind of natural 1:1 viewing experience.
Up until now, large pictures like these have required large cameras , with oversize film that could be blown up to this scale. This in turn has shaped the types of photos we’ve seen produced. Either the pictures have been large staged tableau as in Wall & Demand, or if unstaged figures were to be depicted, they would have to be depicted at a scale wherein their individuality would be subordinated to larger patterns (Gursky), the easier to register with large format film cameras.
Back to the question of the pictorial and our means of achieving it’s necessary flatness. I’ve mentioned the earlier pictorialist use of shallow DOF, staging and manipulation of the negative. The later art photographers (whom I consider pictorialists) staged as well, however they used a deeper DOF, increased the scale of the images and were able to make more seamless and nuanced manipulations in post-production via computer software.
I think there may be a third route to the pictorial and it’s been right before my eyes, a bit pitiful - but with some advantages. First you have to discriminate between shallow DOF and low resolution. The out of focus areas in a picture with a shallow DOF represent a loss of pictorial information imposed by the lens. Low resolution however is a property of the sensor and not the lens. It is measured by the light gathering properties of the sensor itself. With a small, low resolution sensor I can get the best of both worlds - an allover pictorial flatness, with information from front to back, only the information will not be as precise. And I’ve come to see this as a kind of antidote to the illusion of precision and exactitude the later pictorialists trade in. The pixels themselves become like a kind of mulch that I can turn over in post - production. With a small camera I can both stage scenes and capture spontaneous scenes in a way that neither the early nor later pictorialists could do. And this has been a pleasant surprise to me, to somehow reconcile my love of the work of photographers as disparate as Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andreas Gursky.
It seems that much of the history of pictorialism is tied to imaging technology. The new possibilities for colour in digital art seem to take up the weight that large scale, high resolution tableau seemed once to hold.
Human Scale in Andreas Gursky & Hiroshige
When I look at Gursky’s work I’m always reminded of Hiroshige. In their mature works, the human figure is subordinated to larger landscape forms. These aren't human-centered pictures...they're about the natural patterns that people both form and are enveloped by.
The original photograph from which “Stairs” derives was taken in 2011. It depicts the side entrance of a house off of Main St. in Vancouver. I like the repetition & pattern of the hand railings…their allover quality gives the picture a flat pictorial design that I’m interested in. I worked on the picture for several months…paring the composition down in the computer but was never satisfied with the result. I put the picture away for a couple years and went back to work on it in early 2014. I didn’t think of the digital image as a photograph...simply a set of pixels that I could manipulate inside the computer in order to achieve an interesting picture. A guiding principal for me was to create a sense of order & clarity. If I could eliminate anything trivial…all of the little details that the camera’s clinical optics permit…then the picture might have the quality of thought.
The idea of going out into the world, finding a formal motif in the urban landscape and then paring down the motif in the studio has a rich history - particularly in the early paintings of Ellsworth Kelly - many of which were based on black & white photos he’d made. Like Kelly, I have an eye towards geometric form and am inclined to come upon it by chance. When I see it I photograph it. I however hold onto the motif and any narrative implications it might have. After making “Stairs” I became more aware of all the fences, railings and partitions around me...the extent to which humans are driven to demarcate space & mark territory. Everyone seems to be pissing, marking their spot, myself included. All this writing, can it be be anything but?
As the picture emerged I was thinking about Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s (1720-1778) etchings of imaginary prisons with their innumerable staircases and cells. It occurred to me that the cityscape may constitute just such a prison, in broad daylight no less. I thought too of Franz Kafka’s book “The Castle”. Within the first few pages of the book the main character is standing within short walking distance of a castle…Kafka then proceeds over 400 pages to describe how he never reaches the castle. I wanted to express something along these lines…the idea that one might be presented with a path but that one doesn’t have access to it…and even if one could access it there would be no way of knowing if such a path was the only one let alone the right one. The idea too of being stuck, paralyzed by a vision, unable to move...what use are stairs if you've no legs?
Degas & The Colour Snapshot
The aesthetic of the ‘colour snapshot’, was unwittingly discovered by Degas in the 1870's. At a time when the technology & decorum surrounding photography permitted neither colour, the depiction of movement, or arbitrary composition, Degas infused his pictures with all three. There's a direct link from Degas to William Eggleston’s Show at MOMA in 1976…with very little between. The writer Sebastian Smee has similar feelings - there's a great article here:
The left & right sides of the picture depict a couple different objects - a brown hand railing on the left and a blue umbrella jutting out of a red bucket containing other umbrellas on the right. Multicoloured ceramic wall tiles fill the left two thirds of the picture while the right third of the picture seems to indicate a transition to a different space with a green wall and white heating vent on the floor. Based on the angle of the hand railing on the left we can assume that there is either a flight of stairs or a ramp beneath although it’s not depicted here.
I think that what struck me in this scene was the way that both the hand railing on the left and the umbrella handle on the right called out to the hand simultaneously. The idea of simultaneous demands and a feeling of nausea that might attend those demands. In that state I imagine the feeling of the stairs dropping out from beneath your legs. The tiles in the center of the picture pulsate & stand in metonymically for both the pixelation of the picture, but also a sense of confusion, random thought, some feeling of the space between things.
The Duck-Rabbit diagram that both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jasper Johns used in their work. It’s a simple diagram - looked at one way it appears to be a duck, looked at another it appears to be a rabbit. It lays bare the tenuous relationship we have to the things we perceive, and how we perceive them. There are similarly ambiguous forms in my picture of a duck & small pool with slide. There’s a white highlight on the slide that I can’t help but read as a stand-in for the duck’s hidden beak. I never planned it that way, and in fact it took me several months to realize it was even there.
Patterns in Nature
The idea that there are underlying mathematical patterns repeated throughout nature at multiple scales, otherwise known as fractal geometry. Katsushika Hokusai is the greatest master here...four of his woodblocks are shown above. In each image patterns are repeated at multiple scales. In the first image the patterns of the wave's crest mimic the swirling flightpath of the birds as well as the bird's beaks and wings. In the second picture the birds in the sky can easily be mistaken for the furls of water the wave lifts into the air. In the third picture the smaller wave in the foreground mimics Mt. Fuji in the background. The fourth picture shows some mina birds whose wings mimic a plant's leaf.
In my own work there's a picture of a shoe in which the shoelaces mimic the bars on the store window. There's also the picture of the spider wherein the shadow of the plant stands in metonymically for the shadow of the spider. Likewise the pockets of air in the bread find resonance in the perforated doily beneath it. In the fourth picture the woman seated behind the fence wears a patterned shirt that blends with the fence behind her.
Implicit in all these works is the idea that there's an underlying logic to the way things look...and that this logic is not particular to any one object, rather it permeates. Interestingly too - all of the pictures on my website have been processed through software that at various points uses algorithm s based on fractal geometry.
As an aside - the way the air pockets in the bread mimic the pattern of the perforated doily brings to mind a topological diagram I once came across in an introductory guide to Mathematics from the 1960's. Below is a modern, animated version of the diagram.
Topology is concerned with the mapping of surfaces and treating said surfaces as geometrical objects. The diagram above illustrates a homeomorphism...or the way that two different objects (a donut and a coffee mug) with the same topological properties can morph seamlessly into each other. Theoretically a slice of bread with the right shape could be bent and stretched into a perforated doily.
A detail from Piero della Francesca’s “Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes”
There’s a detail in Piero della Francesca’s “The Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes” that I’ve been carrying around with me for some time. Here’s a brief description of the detail: Two warring soldiers on horseback are facing each other in very close proximity. The soldier on the left seems calm and composed. His eyelid is just a bit heavy, his lips are gently pursed & the rest of his face implies a focus but without any strain or exertion. He’s perfectly upright and his left hand is at his side, perhaps holding the reigns of his horse while his right arm is extended straight outward, the forearm slightly raised. In this hand a dagger is held - it’s just pierced the neck of the soldier on the right who’s been flung backwards at an extreme angle. The face of the dead/dying soldier seems relatively calm, his eyes seem as though they’re about to close, his mouth may be drawing his last breath
The way Piero depicts the figures in the scene is highly improbable and confounds our sense of narrative time and space. How is this so? Aside from the improbably solemn nature of the two figure’s expressions, the detail is riddled with spatial and temporal incongruities.
The soldier on the left seems to barely be holding the dagger so how could he possibly inflict a wound? The dagger is about 20 degrees out from the angle of the knuckles/grip. Whatforce could such a grip yield? This seems to be reinforced by the fact that the dagger has barely entered the soldier’s neck - just the tip of the blade seems to have entered the neck and the blood has only just begun to trickle out. The shallow entry of the dagger and the small amount of blood aren’t just indicator’s of a space, but also of an improbable time…they imply that the wound has just occurred - perhaps only a split second ago. But if this is so, how could the soldier have been thrown back at such an extreme angle in such a short time? And if the wound had occurred only a split second ago, wouldn’t there be some struggle indicated, some writhing at least? Instead the soldier is depicted as already dead or dying…it's as though some time has already elapsed. This scene seems straight forward but turns out to be paradoxical - and the rest of this huge fresco is filled with such details .
Of course we shouldn’t be surprised to find paradox in Piero as he was a geometrician as well as an artist. Mathematics, far from being a guarantor of certainty has always been used to describe paradox. It’s delightful to see Piero in the early1400’s - paring down forms to basic shapes - spheres, cones, cylinders…adjusting an angle here, an angle there to achieve these effects. In Piero things proceed according to a logic of time and space we can’t know on earth, and in this picture the violence that’s depicted is somehow displaced. This is the transcendental quality of Piero’s picture…the way a picture of violence is delivered from violence.
Piero and The Playground
The picture of a playground is the smallest picture I’ve done…It’s 5x7 inches and depicts three children playing. On the right a child is swinging and is depicted mid-air. In the middle another child stands behind the wooden swingset with it’s head out of view while inversely the third child’s head can be seen to the left on the red slide while it’s body is hidden. I love the way it looks as though the kid on the right has kicked the central kid’s head off and the head is rolling down the slide. The jpeg processor in my cell-phone evidently couldn’t distinguish the left child’s head from the background grass and coloured a portion of the grass with skin colour. I left this error in as I enjoyed the distorted look it gave to the child’s head. After I took the picture I immediately thought of two pictures - a scene from Piero della Francesca depivting the ‘Raising of Judas’ and Andreas Gursky’s 'Rhein II'.
A thought: That all the great paintings & photographs will be destroyed or deteriorate some day and exist only as digital files. From that point on a new kind of aesthetics would have to exist. I can imagine a refined aesthetic developing around the arrangement of pixels or their future equivalent. How would all the files derived from paintings and photographs hold up? What qualities would characterize the digital file from a painting and the digital file from a photographic print? What would characterize a beautiful or ugly file? What things that we take for granted now might become important indicators of quality? What would this quality look like? This all being a game to understand exactly what it is a photograph or painting actually looks like today.
The Flatness of Photographs
In Michael Fried’s book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” pg.189 ends with Fried and Thomas Demand standing in front of a Courbet painting depicting the sea - the two are admiring the painting’s brushwork. Demand laments, “That is what we cannot do.”
We have to see things differently...how magical the photograph’s flat, illusionistic surface would seem to Jan van Eyck in the early 1400’s. Think of any 14th century Italian painter that painted frescos…the limited role that brushwork would play in frescos that were meant to be seen from 15 feet below. Likewise, we don’t lament the lack of chisel marks in a highly polished classical marble…flatness and the inability to index time via physical mark making is neither good or bad. There's nothing to lament.
Photography and Ceramics
The relationship of ceramics to chemical photography in particular. Taking a photograph with film is not unlike making a pot on a spinning wheel. The exposed but undeveloped negative and the clay pot are both indexical to a moment or series of moments in time. The photographer develops his negatives in a completely light sealed space filled with cold chemical developer. The potter, acting as a kind of chemist, will devise a glaze and apply it to his pot before placing it in a Kiln…a hot space where there is an absence of darkness. Both mediums require a time of waiting. The photographer would wait for his negatives to dry and after exposing his negatives in the darkroom he would wait for the images to emerge in the trays of chemicals. The image arises like an apparition. The potter would wait for the pot to finish in the kiln. Base clay is transformed through fire. In this process the pot is ‘developed’ so to speak, complete with accidents. I’m sure that Barthes could find a punctum in a good pot. Just as there are photographs made with multiple exposures, some pots are fired repeatedly with different glazes. And then there are the surfaces of the things as well. The photograph’s flat surface would find a mate in the flat surface of porcelain.
I had a chance to see some 300 year old porcelain from the Royal Court of Hanover and I was disturbed by how contemporary it looked. The colour was lightfast and the piece was in perfect condition without any cracks. For this reason, the porcelain hadn’t seemed to age. And perhaps if I have any lamentation for photography it would be this inability to develop a beautiful patina. The notion that all photographic prints will one day be white monochromes - all the poetic metaphors associated with ghosting, fading…are of no interest to me. At least when a pot is dropped it can be glued back together again.
Art since 1970
It may be that all art created between 1970 and the present has been the product of a latent moment - one where we’re waiting for new technologies or attitudes to arise out of which new forms might emerge. Although we’ve come to refer to ourselves as postmodern - with all our sampling and hybrid forms - a simpler and less pretentious description might simply be to say that we’re eclectic. I’m reminded of the state architecture was in during the mid to late 1800’s. It was characterized as eclectic as well - until modern technologies emerged in the early part of the 20th century, ushering in a new age of architecture with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier etc…
To Quote Donald Judd in A long discussion not about master-pieces but why there are so few of them (1984), “The main implication in eclecticism, its poverty, is that there are only so many styles and periods and no more, one or several of which is chosen. Mysteriously, eclectic work always corresponds to what has already been done. But, instead of all the possibilities appearing only in Bannister Fletcher, they are infinite and what has been done has the proportion of stars to space.”….and after he quotes, “Tradition in art is to create, not to revive.” (Josef Albers)