The question, “What do you like to photograph?” always gives me pause. If I say “the world” it sounds pretentious. If I list my favorite subjects (geology, plants, people, landscapes, scrap metal, water, ice and clouds, architecture and archaeology) it sounds like a random collection. I have too many subjects. I know. My formal training, by the way, is in literature and languages, and I spent 22 years as a jazz pianist. So this tendency to take in the outside world in large gulps includes much more besides photography.
But if I can’t limit myself to one or two themes, I still can find some common threads in all my work, and these are mostly on the order of form. My autodidactic education in photography has led me to assimilate certain formal principles, which I discover empirically in my work: namely, linear movement, perspective (foreground/background), gradients, contrast, volume (or virtual volume), and rhetorical tendencies such as irony, incongruity (which abound in the visible world), and metaphor (things that suggest something else, on a different order of existence). When photographing people, all of these formal principles come into play to imply elements outside the still frame: movement, the passage of time, interactions of various sorts, desire and eroticism.
No one taught me to use these principles, but I’ve found that the photographs I love the most use them, so I adopted them.
These are the tools we have in still photography to capture a moving, 3-dimensional, interacting, growing, changing world. The great masters of our medium developed them over the past century, based on those of painting and drawing, but transcending them. I’ve learned from these masters, and I continue to explore, as the effective formal principles of one generation become the “classical” ones of the next, challenging us to break with convention and establish new ones. This is what I hope to do, too.
LANDSCAPES Landscapes constitute such an overly clichéd tradition in both painting and photography, one wonders how to say anything new. The short answer is to find landscapes that are unusual. But it’s also a matter of how one looks at them, when one looks at them, and how one presents them. Perspective can be a major factor: high, low, wide. Also time of day and lighting, especially the “magic hours” close to sunrise and sunset, and atmospherics, such as heavy moisture and fog. Also framing (see the irregular frame of the cave exit at Surprise Cave in Ha Long Bay), reflections (see Lake Josephine in Glacier National Park), graphics (see Lake Jenny in the Grand Tetons), silhouettes (see Fort Hancock Silhouette).
In short there are many factors that can remove landscapes from the ordinary, the expected and the well-trod.
Then there’s the question of whether the subject-place is creating a composition or whether the image is evoking the place. I tend to side with the former, allowing the photograph to evoke a state of mind or a place slightly beyond reality that nourishes the imagination. So I can be accused of “pictorialism” in the turn-of-the-20th-Century sense of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession, and yes, this is at the opposite pole from documentary photography. But whereas the pictorialism of Stieglitz’s day consciously imitated painting and etching, and we should certainly be informed by painting, we can also take the lead to discover things that have not yet appeared in paintings.
There are also landscapes in the Geologicals, Botanicals, Ice-Water-Clouds, and Architecture-Archaeology bodies of work.
BOTANICALS Plant forms have always fascinated artists. Karl Blossfeldt famously inventoried hundreds of plant (and animal) forms, which inspired other artists and designers, especially those of the Art nouveau movement. And of course, flowers provide an inexhaustible subject matter for beauty. But there is much more to plant forms: I look for metaphor (see Banyan Trees, Hosta Life Cycle), profusion and complexity (see Pagoda Tree, Empire of Illusion, Zürich Botanical Garden), transformation (see Ice Fingers), and poignancy (see Lotus), but I take the photograph first, reflexively before I figure out the category it belongs to, and I discover the things that interest me inductively, after the fact.