I recently watched a ted talk by Tom Wujek: 3 Ways the Brain Creates Meaning. I searched out this talk because of something one of my MFA instructors, Chris Archer, said during my January residency, “you can’t make meaning.” If an artist, can’t make meaning, where does it come from? Wujek explains that the brain creates mental models of the world based on “moments of discovery.” He further describes that when a person looks at an image their eyes dart around it looking to make sense of it and “the act of engaging and looking at the image creates the meaning.”
Twice this month, I’ve run into the notion of ‘the act of seeing.’ As I am searching create an art practice that is not dominated by commercial habits, I want to start by exploring the universalities of how we see. Perhaps if I start with how our brains process imagery, I can then work backwards from that to evolve my art practice.
For the last 18 months I’ve been on an intellectual journey…and I’m still on it. A few years back, I noticed that photographing same-sex couples and same-sex weddings sometimes required a different approach than straight weddings. I was intrigued that despite the wealth of continuing education for photographers, there wasn’t a single resource for photographers on working with same-sex couples. So I did some research, looking for the most prominent authority of same-sex weddings and I ended up on the phone with Kathryn Hamm, president of GayWeddings.com. I told her my thoughts and experience and she said, “there isn’t a resource, well then we have to make one.”
18 months later, Kathryn and I have written the that resource… twice. The first book, Capturing Love: The Art of Lesbian and Gay Wedding Photography we self-published in Jan. of 2013. Five short months after the book was released, we signed a deal with Amphoto to expand the book, double the content and re-release under the title: The New Art of Capturing Love: The Essential Guide to Lesbian and Gay Wedding Photography (on-sale date May 6, 2014).
A photographer becoming an author is a journey in and of itself…but the real journey for me has been as an artist who wants to be the best possible photographer for all of my clients. My artwork is informed by, and a reaction to, my understanding of the world around me. Well it turns out my understanding of the world has been through a heteronormative filter and I didn’t know that. To remove (or at least diffuse) that filter has been a process of identifying assumptions and conversations about differences. Many times I have found myself outside of my comfort zone and outside of my realm of expertise. But something amazing has come from this hard journey… Trying to better understand same-sex couples, so I can better photograph them has helped me re-think my process for better serving all couples.
My couples portraits in the past have operated under the assumption of a “binary and uncomplicated sense of identity” (Amy Ryken). This is why, when I photographed same-sex couples I could see something “off” in the photos but I didn’t know what or why. My experience and world-view was suddenly highlighted. Thanks to thought leaders, like Kathryn Hamm, Amy Ryken and others, now I can use this more complex understanding of identity to better understand all of my clients and capture more authentic and meaningful portraits.
On my list of projects is to photograph my maple grove through all four season. I also have on my list to photograph my honey bees. Then it hit me, maybe this is one project and sugar is the common theme.
Our maple trees and our honey bees are just amazing in so many ways.
First the trees, we have quite a few sugar maples, but 3 of them are somewhere in the range of 200 years old. Imagine the stories they could tell. For any of you who have visited my studio, you know I live in a hollow. Our hollow must have been carved out by a glacier some tens of thousands of year ago. Now we have about .5 mile of flat ground sandwiched by two hill and a lovely year round brook in the middle.
I don’t know how those maple saplings made it way back, but they now tower about 150 feet in the air. In the late winter, when it is freezing over night, but above freezing during the day, the deep tap root draws sugar in the form of sap up from the ground, through the trunk and into it’s branches. That is when we tap the trees and steal some of their sweet sap and spend many cold nights boiling it down to delicious syrup. The trees don’t mind the taps, I imagine they may mind gravity more and they pull hundreds of gallons of sap up hundreds of feet. As soon as the weather is consistently above freezing, the sap stops running. And the trees convert that sugar, slowly into leaves. In the Spring, the leaves open with a burst of green. It’s like it happens overnight. When Summer comes to an end, the leaves turn bight orange, then brown and then blanket the ground. The quantity of leaves is rather astonishing and a clever way to self mulch and return that sugar to the earth. So that, in a nut shell is the story I hope to tell over the next 12 or so months.
And then there are the bees. Right now, it is about 15 degrees out (not bad for Feb.), but inside our little uninsulated, bee hives it is about 80 degrees. The bees gather together in a cluster, with the queen in the center, they detach their wings and use the same muscles they use to fly…to shiver. Their shivering keeps the hive warm enough for them to survive. That is why they gather all that pollen and nectar all summer long, literally working themselves to death, so the hive can survive the long cold winter. Again it’s all about the sugar.
Here are the very first few working images of this long-form story.
During my MFA residency the idea of habit and comfort was discussed a lot and really resonated with me. I have been taking photos which I am comfortable taking and I’m trying to reach beyond that. One classmate described it as working against “muscle memory” to take a photo in a different way.
I have tasked myself with practicing taking different photos. In fact, I’m practicing the opposite of my “muscle memory.” I usually photograph faces, so I’ve been working on photographing feet instead. I’m finding my kids feet most entertaining as they seem to show a lot of personality. Love to hear what other think!
Under the advise of my mentor (Amber David Tourlentes) I am reading Susan Sontag’s notes of camp. I find this article very interesting in part because I use the adjective “campy” without ever thinking about it as an unconjugated noun, “camp” which carries a whole different meaning to me.
Sontag begins by saying, “Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.” I can use campy as a descriptor but actually defining it is a lot more challenging. In part because “camp” is a sensibility. Something that is “campy” is naive, child-like innocence or even pastoral.
A dictionary definition of camp, only defines it as sleeping in a tent or cabin in the country. Sontag’s notes on camp are far more interesting than the dictionary. Sontag gives numerous examples of “camp” as an aesthetic. Camp does seem to be connected to rural life, by both Sontag and Merriam-Webster. But as Sontag describes: “Nothing in nature can be campy . . . Rural Camp is still man-made, and most campy objects are urban. (Yet, they often have a serenity — or a naiveté — which is the equivalent of pastoral. A great deal of Camp suggests Empson’s phrase, “urban pastoral.”)”
Now I bring this all back to my work, because some of my photographs can be campy. Often I am on the lookout for what feels campy (like a couple laying on their stomach’s next to each other in the grass). I guard against campy because what I think it means is cheesy and inauthentic. But how can I truly dismiss something that I struggle to define. Sontag’s writing is incredibly helpful (and entertaining) in thinking through this word I use and yet can’t describe.
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