Picking through the layers of Time
From time to time, a photographer will come to me and ask this question:
‘How do I get better at my photography?’
Depending on where they are at, my reply is this:
‘Go away and study Art History. Do an Art History course and then you will understand where you fit into the wider pantheon of your medium, and of the visual arts in general.’
This happened last week. A very talented photographer, who had finally realised her passion lay in architectural photography, wanted to know what she could do to improve the quality of her work. My advice? ‘Read books on architecture; read books on architecture by architects; and above all, study Art History. Then you will understand the significance of a Doric or an Ionic column. When you next come to a building, you will see it in context, and have an informed line of approach. If you are working for an architect, they will see your awareness instantly, and probably use you more and more. You see, you will speak their language. You will be inside the circle.’
Who knows? She may well follow my advice. Most don’t. It is worth noting that may of the Greats of our medium had, or have, Fine Art degrees. I have yet to hear of one who regretted the time put into better informing their practice.
People often walk into my gallery, look at the work on display and ask me one of two questions, the first being: ‘Has this image been Photoshopped?’
In spite of wanting to shout out: ‘Of course it has been through #@%^**g Photoshop!’ I choose to see that what they are really asking is whether I have placed Sky A on Landscape B. If that is indeed the question, then my response is, ‘No, it’s a personal choice, and I choose not to do that. I am happy to leave that compositing approach to people like John Paul Caponigro, or Jerry Uelsmann’.
The other question is this: ‘Is this a painting or a photograph?’
‘Well…’ I reply, ‘…it began life as a photograph yes, but it looks like a painting’.
Then we usually have a great discussion. ‘You know,’ I will say, ‘…the great English artist, David Hockney, has this to say; “in the beginning photography left painting. Now it is returning to it.” These days we can do anything we can possibly imagine in pre-and post-production. We just need to have an ethos and reason for doing so.’
When I first came to live in the Hokianga region of Northland, where my father had been born, I really didn’t know what I would find, so I allowed myself to photograph intuitively, and study whatever I found to work out what was going on. In the time that I have been here I have found that my ancestry here stretches back over 1000 years, to the arrival of the great Polynesian explorer Kupe. I began to ask myself how I could reference that in my images, how I could convey that sense of my forbears looking over my shoulder?
That led to thinking about the ancestors who arrived here in the 91th Century, on a one-way trip from Europe, and what they must have felt when they first arrived. Fear? Hope? Resignation? Mystery? I will never really know. However, that began to inform my work and consequently my approach.
I began to reflect upon the fact that the layers were not just genealogical but that in a way the artist in me also stood at the pointed end of layers of art historical archaeology. What must it have been for the first painters in Aotearoa/New Zealand, arriving in an alien land, carrying only what they knew, trained in the art schools of Europe in the Romantic tradition popular at the time as they were. What did they make of a radically different landscape, and how could they use tools perfect for the limited dynamic range of Europe, in a place where the light is brighter, harsher and so much higher in contrast?
I started to research. Along the way I found that until approximately 1860, almost all the pigments they used were organic, derived from plants or animals, and that it was only after that time it was discovered how to synthesise them chemically. Of necessity, that would have given them a very restricted palette.
One morning, while staying at the other end of the harbour, I arose early and went outside. The mist that rolls down the harbour was entangled with the trees and dunes along the edge of the beach. In the distance two small figures were taking an early walk along the beach. The land at which I was looking was my family land, my father had lived there, as had my grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather.
I was looking at layers of genealogy, both my own and the history of my medium.
The problem defined the response, as all meaningful art should do.
This article appeared in the December-January 2017 issue of f11 Magazine for Photographers and Afficionados.
A portfolio of my older work published in f11 as a part of the September 2012 issue (pp. 36-60) can be found here.