Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Explaining Art

Rivet and stress fracture on an old Union Pacific caboose, Laramie, Wyoming.

I recently listened to Alain de Botton's wide-ranging TED Talk about what atheists can learn from religion.  His central theme was that even if you don't believe in God, there are a lot of good things in religion that all of us could benefit from -- educational techniques, the concept of the sermon, the importance of time, community, and the power of institutions.  Rather than having to take the whole pill, Alain asserts that secularists could adopt some of these characteristics of religions by themselves and benefit from them.  

He also talks about how religions handle art:
"The two really bad ideas that are hovering in the modern world that inhibit our capacity to draw strength from art: The first idea is that art should be for art's sake -- a ridiculous idea -- an idea that art should live in a hermetic bubble and should not try to do anything with this troubled world. I couldn't disagree more. The other thing that we believe is that art shouldn't explain itself, that artists shouldn't say what they're up to, because if they said it, it might destroy the spell and we might find it too easy. That's why a very common feeling when you're in a museum -- let's admit it -- is, "I don't know what this is about." But if we're serious people, we don't admit to that. But that feeling of puzzlement is structural to contemporary art."
 I look at a lot of photography on the web, in books, and at museums, and I have to admit that often I see photographs that I just don't get.  A lot of contemporary photography is that way for me--photographs of sterile suburban neighborhoods or images designed to look like snapshots.  My wife and I sometimes watch movies that we both acknowledge were "good," but then we go to the web reviews to try to figure out what they were really about.

Alain de Botton goes on to say...
"Now religions have a much saner attitude to art.They have no trouble telling us what art is about. Art is about two things in all the major faiths. Firstly, it's trying to remind you of what there is to love. And secondly, it's trying to remind you of what there is to fear and to hate. And that's what art is. Art is a visceral encounter with the most important ideas of your faith. So as you walk around a church, or a mosque or a cathedral, what you're trying to imbibe, what you're imbibing is, through your eyes, through your senses, truths that have otherwise come to you through your mind."
I attended a workshop last fall at the UW Art Museum in which we were asked to just study a single piece of art for 10 minutes and write down everything we could about it.  I was able to fill several pages with observations of a weird piece of sculpture that I otherwise would have spent 10 seconds looking at before moving on to the next one.  Maybe it's the same with photographs--I need to slow down before hitting the arrow to move to the next image.

I took the photograph above of a detail on an old caboose that used to be mothballed on the West Side of Laramie but now occupies the new railroad park near the historic train depot.  It was an intuitive composition for me--I didn't think explicitly about how to frame it as I made the image; it just felt right.  The image has been popular for me--I've sold a few in shows--and now it is part of the UW Art Museum's traveling exhibition.  But I have never given it a lot of thought.  What makes it appealing? (or is it?).  Is there something about the shapes and how they work together?  Or is it the color?  I don't think I'd like it as a black and white image.  Is there something about the pattern of rust flecks?  Does it matter that it's an old UP caboose--does the nostalgia of the railroad add to the image, or is it irrelevant?

What do you think?

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Towels and window in Kashgar, China -- on the old Silk Road.
(Click to make larger)

Thanks to everyone that came to my opening at Breadworks in Boulder.  It was great to see friends there and surprising to meet a bunch of people who I didn't know.  And thanks to Breadworks for serving a great meal--I ate way more gourmet pizza than I should have.  

I've been incredibly busy between teaching my regular classes and getting ready for the Breadworks show, and  haven't been posting here as much as I'd like.  I hope to get back into the routine in the next week, so watch for a new post inspired by a TED Talk I recently listened to on my IPOD while on the stationary bike trying to compensated for...well...pizza.

I sold a print at the opening of the image above.  It's always been a favorite of mine from Kashgar, which for me was one of the most interesting places that I visited while living in China.  It's changed a lot just since I was there, no thanks to the Chinese government, which seeks to dilute the troublesome Uighur population.  I feel lucky to have been there when I was, before large sections of the old city were bulldozed.  You can see more Kashgar photos on my flickr site.

And if you missed the Breadworks opening, stop by for lunch sometime -- my photos will be there until mid-February.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Opening at Breadworks Tomorrow!

The flyer that Breadworks distributed for my opening in Boulder, Friday, Jan 20, 6-9 p.m.
(click to make bigger)

I'm heading to Boulder this afternoon, despite the "damaging winds" that are gusting there this morning to 75 mph according to the Weather Underground.  I'm hanging my photos at Breadworks tonight in anticipation of the opening tomorrow night, Friday, January 20, from 6-9 p.m., at Breadworks in Boulder.  I hope to see some of my Boulder friends there, but have been warning then that Breadworks is charging $10 to get in.  My feelings won't be hurt if you don't want to pay to go to Breadworks!  You can look at the photos for free some other time.  But...if you do make it, thanks!  I'm looking forward to visiting.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Show at Breadworks in Boulder

Naan, Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, China (2006).

Beginning next Friday, I am showing photographs at Breadworks, a popular eatery in Boulder, Colorado.  The show will feature work from when I lived in China in 2005-06.  If you live in the Boulder area, I'd love to see you at the opening on Friday night, January 20, from 6-9 p.m. at Breadworks.  They are providing music and food!  If you would like to see more of my China images, you can view them on flickr, my website, and a blog that I wrote while living in Yunnan.

I'll post some more of the work I'll be showing in the next few days.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Small town ballet

Ballet students at photo studio, Laramie, Wyoming. May, 2008.
(click photos to make bigger)

Classes started this week at the University of Wyoming.  Since I teach a couple of them, I haven't posted a blog for a few days.  I just completed day one of class and am taking a breather from preparation to look back through older photos.  One of the long-running themes of my Wyoming photo collection is children's dance, since Bei, my daughter, has been participating in it since she was three-years-old.  In fact, when she was three I once had to perform with her in a father-daughter dance;  you can imagine.  

Here in Laramie, we're lucky to have a fantastic dance studio (The Laramie Dance Center), run by Kathy Vreeland, who is a master at corralling hundreds of little girls (and a few boys) into well-organized performances, against all odds.  Each May, her classes march over to one of the photo studios in town for a group photo, and later appear as if by magic on stage at the UW Arts and Sciences Auditorium, in costume and makeup, for themed dances.  It's a logistical feat, no less complex than withdrawing troops from Iraq, in my opinion.

I made the above image while waiting for my daughter's class to get their photo taken.  For me, it's a classic with the little girls in their tutus and the dad in overalls and cowboy boots.  The picture was featured a few years ago on the website of The Candid Frame, which podcasts photography interviews regularly. The interviews, by the way, are great if you are into photography and often so even if you aren't.  

Dancers, May 2008.

The Green Room, May 2009

Bei, makeup, May 2010.

Kathy Vreeland with rescued terrified dancer, May 2011.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Abandoned refinery in Laramie

Graffiti at the abandoned Standard/Midwest refinery in West Laramie.

The abandoned and decrepit Standard/Midwest refinery on the West Side of Laramie has always been an interesting place for photographers, graffiti artists, and assorted riff raff (I imagine).  This ruin has been here since it was abandoned about 20 years ago.  According to Laramie's newspaper, The Boomerang, the Laramie Rivers Conservation District is planning to clean up the "ugly and dangerous relic."  I don't really have any ground for arguing that the site isn't dangerous.  Apparently it was a yttrium processing facility at one time and the soils are contaminated, and there are certainly a lot of holes, broken concrete, and rebar throughout.  But ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, and I personally find the site quite appealing visually--it's one of the most interesting places to photograph in town, and quite a lot of fun to explore.  It's hard to say that the site shouldn't be cleaned up, but I'll be sad when it is, truth be told.

An abandoned building at the site.

Concrete ruins, with graffiti.

 More concrete, more graffiti.

A rose by any other name is an "ugly" and dangerous site.