Sunday, January 29, 2017

Wowed By Nature

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The February 2017 issue of Lenswork opens with an editorial inspired by Brooks Jensen's encounter with a gallery owner in New York who was dismissive of landscape photography. Apparently there's even a pejorative acronym going around--ARAT--for "Another Rock, Another Tree."

I was thinking about that as I poked around among the rocks and trees along Lagunitas Creek. I thought of several possible explanations for the attitude of those gallery owners, but in the end I figure they are business people, and if they don't have a ready market or can't figure out how to create a taste for landscape photography, they are going to blame the artwork.

Interestingly, Brooks Jensen does much the same thing. Even though the gallery owner snubbed him and sniffed at Lenswork as being a ghetto of landscape photography, he nevertheless blames photographers for missing the mark. I imagine the dismissive gallery owner feeling a sense of satisfaction for inducing such self-flagellation.

"Cameras make wonderful copy machines," Jensen writes. "but if that's all they do, the resulting photographs may not rise to the level of art.... Art is something you make, not something you merely record." After delivering this scolding he writes that an artistic image is "unique," "wonderful," "insightful," and "inspiring."

However, even if the photograph possesses all of those attributes, the gallery owner who can't sell it is still going to dismiss it. All those qualities that make an image "art" are subjective. An image that moves you might not move the person standing next to you. A landscape image that connects you to an inner sense of what is simultaneously beautiful and sad about life might make the person standing next to you yawn. The image of a moment captured in time might suddenly bond you to the eternal stillness deep within your own being, while the person next to you looks at you like you're nuts.

In the editorial, Brooks does defend the aesthetic of landscape photography, writing, "It's not the rock nor the tree that are important, but the meaning, the expression, the connection that counts." This isn't the first time I've heard such sentiment, and I couldn't disagree more. The rock and the tree are crucial. If you're out there with the idea that the landscape and all the living beings, seen and unseen, that occupy it--all the movements of wind and water, of energy from the sun and nourishment from the soil--are unimportant, why bother? And if you are just copy machine who nevertheless makes the gallery owners go "Wow!" over you, are you an artist?

My wife was telling me about a middle-school student who is bereft over being rejected for admission to San Francisco's School of the Arts. I hope that student is able to remain true to her artistic self when she enters a high school full of people who yawn an art, or who turn away from art they can't make money on. Hopefully that student will find a few sympatico friends and even a grown-up or two who can help her keep that lamp lit and bring out her inner mounting flame.

When I look at the image at the top of this post, I see an exuberant chaos of life that nevertheless embodies a compositional order that I can only discover for myself, and which gives me profound joy. In all the years I've been publishing this blog, I have been trying to share my sense of being wowed by nature, and also to spark that recognition, that mysterious conjunction of outside and inside, that makes art out of rocks and trees--and thee.

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  1. John, I'm frequently awed by your nature pictures. The simplicity of some in a world of complexity, the attention to detail, the variety of your experience, and your ability to be there so often to record the images. I look forward to seeing each contribution.

    In the 80's when I was in the Photo Dept. part of the Art SF State U there was the sentiment that landscape was passe; after all, Ansel had already done that. It took me a couple of years after graduation to find myself again. I'm not in the business of selling my photos and really don't care what the gallery owners think. Photography is my escape & self satisfying outlet. What the critics think is not really at issue. Interesting that Brooks Jensen shares his editorial pages with Guy Tal, a landscape photographer.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Bruce. I appreciate it. I sympathize with folks trying to make a living with their art, and I'm glad I don't have to do that. It was kind of funny that the gallery owner even thought of Lenswork as a landscape photographer's magazine since they publish all kinds of stuff.


  2. Thank you for what you share....not only your art of seeing and capturing ...but sharing is art too.