Thoughts about an MFA degree

A couple of years after retirement, I decided in 2013 to take my art practice to the next level by undertaking the two-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. I began the program in the fall of 2014 and completed it in September 2016, at the time of this post, hot off the editing floor! I thought that I would make some notes about the degree and understanding more about what my work is all about, starting with this post.

In a nutshell: I spent two years trying to figure out what my work was really about. What that means is immersing yourself in theories of structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, affect, gender and queer theories, the body in art, montage, modernism, post-modernism, the role of galleries, anthropology (in my case), the fluidity of meanings between artwork and viewer, and so on. In short, a bewildering array of ideas at first, that could inform my art practice. As a result, I think that the MFA degree is about at least three things: figuring out what you want to say, finding a way to say it, and shrinking the gap between what you think your work says and what it actually says, to yourself and anyone who cares to take a look. It is also just as much about building up your ability to work through a problem and learning to engage in self-criticism without self-flagellation.

In a way, the MFA forced me to find ways of describing the material I had already made and was in the process of making. How I edited and put it together to create something that was coherent became an on-going, and agonizing, process of feeling continually that what I was saying and what I was making were quite wide apart. And not just wide apart, but lacking cohesion. Thinking that I simply wasn’t cut out to be an artist after all – nothing was working, the struggle was just too painful- it was at the point where the pain was at its most unrelenting, that a thought would appear, seemingly from nowhere. Like a drop that finally overwhelms a crack to become a flood, a tentative solution was enough to go on to produce a body of work. Making art is partly about confronting this pain and not letting go until something happens. You can’t stop believing in what you’re trying to do.

A collateral benefit, and one not to be underestimated, is that you get practice in showing your work in a gallery setting, with all the issues that implies, and submitting to critiques from instructors and colleagues. And what that means is learning to still the ego and to look at one’s work more critically – that is to say, in a thoughtful way. Why is this working? Why is that not working? What is the work saying versus what it is I am trying to say? The combination of one’s own reflection, putting the work out there, writing about it and it’s connection to art, and hearing the responses of others are what helps shrink the gap between intention and execution.

I knew that my art making would be different at the end of two years, but of course I thought it would be close to what I had set out in my application essay. I had originally wanted to explore sequencing photographs in the form of a photobook. And then a photobook would become the thesis project. What happened was that I wound up focusing on the fragment as the basic unit in my art. I didn’t expect moreover to consider memory, transitions and the city as well. And I didn’t think I would shift my practice from the still photograph to photomontage and then to the moving and sound image as a video artist. In effect, I had taken the photobook and the sequence and added concepts from montage, time, motion and sound that partnered ideas I was exploring about transition, loss and memory.

It was a big risk, but thought that MFA would be the best place to make these leaps. I believed that I would figure out how to make art worthy of a graduate program and meet my own desire to make art that would express what I wanted to say. It was a challenge and exhausting. Learning a new medium, on top of an already demanding academic load, is not for the faint of heart I can assure you. But, you have to be true to yourself and go where your ideas take you. Otherwise, why bother?

Elsewhere

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The urban landscape is vast and ever-changing. While I am physically in a city, I’m photographing the fact of a city and not the locale as its own identity. What this means is that although I am a resident (or a potential newcomer), the issues of space and time and a human presence remain the same in whichever place I find myself. I can photograph this particular city and focus on those things that make it unique, or I can focus instead on what urban spaces mean, modified by locale.

While artistic excitement varies according to the stimulation an environment can bring (say an old lived-in city with a wide variety of architectural styles and cultures vs new towns with a personality yet to develop) choosing to photograph in this way means that cities which have more or fewer visual treasures to them can only help deepen a process of artistic discovery. Indeed, I would argue that urban areas that are seemingly devoid of much interest (i.e., with corporate architecture of the blah school or relatively new developments where time has yet to varnish or indeed tarnish the veneer) can force a search beyond the obvious photographic language of texture and detail to one of mood, light and traces. The New Topographics photographers I think were not only interested in making social commentary but also in the formal qualities of urban spaces, their suburban outcrops and how people interacted with their environment, oftentimes by implication rather than directly.

In the city in which I live currently, sprawl is enormous and of high density, be it of homes or office buildings. Excavation and construction are furious, noisy and constant. I see these developments as objects and as process. There is a poetry there in the actions of those men and women who actually do the digging and building. The confrontation of machine and land in the hands of skilled trades brings back memories of childhood playgrounds and sandboxes. These actions and memories suggest something else. Bachelard, in the Poetics of Space, argues that home is where you dream. Home is a place of constancy and memory. It is probably fair to say that generally developers and city planners want homes and offices built quickly and are unafraid to use the most generic of designs. A financial elite builds cathedrals of commerce designed to showcase success and power and above all longevity by using costly design and building materials. The combination of these behaviors forms a background of change and adaptation and memory. Against this backdrop, the ubiquitous handheld communication device has become ‘home’, a kind of permanent ‘elsewhere’, an oasis or perhaps a destination.

Two photobooks: ‘The Present’ and ‘She dances on Jackson’

Of those photobooks I acquired in 2013, Paul Graham’s The Present and Vanessa Winship’s She Dances on Jackson captured my attention the most. The former presents images in colour and the latter in black and white. Both books share exceptional print and design quality and the images themselves have enormous appeal. Both photographers are mature artists, having exhibited and published for some time.

As I have stated in earlier posts, I share a belief with them that everything I need to make an image can be found ‘out there’. Graham himself has stated on occasion that the art world has ignored to an important degree this kind of photography in favour of the conceptual and staged; that is, motifs derived from within the artist as opposed to finding motifs from the world itself. I speak now of questions of degree after all since the inspiration for art inevitably is a mix of the two, and style is a question perhaps of which of the two an artist tends to use more often. What is interesting is when one approach is applied to the other. And for this Graham’s work, in my view, through the formal means of diptychs and triptychs as an expression of time, I think combines the conceptual with the discovered. I have returned to Graham’s book frequently and my pleasure in doing so has only deepened.

Graham uses the diptych to explore an action or gesture that a camera in the hands of a Winogrand or Cartier-Bresson would capture in one image only. In Graham’s world, small differences yield significant changes in meaning. By playing with a motif he uses a diptych to show changes in a scene: the left panel where the primary motif is on one event that changes (sometimes altogether as a result of a happy accident – a tribute to the photographer’s mantra ‘f/8 and be there’) in the second panel. Through selective focus, a scene where a motif was dominant recedes and is replaced by another. Barthes in La Chambre Claire has explored the idea of photographs as memory and death in that what is photographed has already disappeared the moment the shutter closes. There is an extraordinary wistfulness about the images in The Present and while they are rich with colour and sharpness, one has the sense that we leave no trace behind, but for the recording of an instant by a photographer with his camera. So the conceptual foreground I feel is that of the temporary and accidental, much like most of life itself. This is a theme that is of great interest to me in my own work.

When I first was exposed to the work of Eadweard Muybridge and David Hockney, both of whom considered time as the primary element in their photography, one from the point of view of documenting sequences of motion and the other through collage as a viewer spends time traversing an image, I came to appreciate the diptych (and its logical descendant, the collage) as the kind of photography that spoke most to me. Artists of course have explored the story-telling potential of multiple images going back to wall paintings, 30,000 years ago. Diptychs and polyptychs were the mainstay of religious and Northern European art in the early Renaissance, the study of which merely re-affirmed for me the beauty of this art form.

Unlike Graham’s work which uses the abundant street life of New York City sidewalks, Winship’s world is solitary and contemplative, even if it too is of the street. Her photographs of people are direct and in which the subject is quite aware of the photographer and her camera. (In my view, there is a sameness to a kind of street portraiture that arises from the natural inhibition of one stranger to be photographed by another. I would argue that there is a whole sub-genre of street photography that consists of the same look you get when someone with a camera asks a stranger to pose. This look was formalized initially by Thomas Ruff in the 1980s as one of the students of Bernd and Hilla Becher in what is now known as the Dusseldorf School.)

In Winship’s hands however, I get the feeling of an important psychological distance expressed in the eyes and face in spite of the physically short distance between subject and camera. Winship’s portraits deal explicitly with the obviousness of the exchange between strangers. I find these portraits disquieting. Juxtaposed with land- and cityscapes, the book gives off airiness and claustrophobia, the same feeling I get from the novels of Thomas Hardy.
The beautifully crafted black and white images speak of freedom circumscribed. The foreground then is of isolation and solitariness and as a whole the book is poetic in its impact. Aided by exquisite reproductions, high quality paper, sewn binding and linen covers one is left with the impression of stateliness and quiet, colour would simply not have worked here.

Pointing in photography

Picking up on the Atget theme from my previous post, I refer to the idea of the photographer as ‘pointer’from the article written by John Szarkowski in his introduction to The Art of Atget (Vol. 1, Old France, pages 10-11), the incredible series of four volumes the Museum of Modern Art published in 1981. Here’s the quote that has been part of my frame of reference ever since:

“To note the similarity between photography and pointing seems to me useful. Surely the best of photographers have been first of all pointers—men and women whose work says: I call your attention to this pyramid, face, battlefield, pattern of nature, ephemeral juxtaposition.
But it is also clear that the simile has its flaws, which become obvious if we consider the different ways in which the photographer and the hypothetical pointer work. The formal nature of pointing (if the notion is admissible) deals with the center of an undefined field. The finger points to (of course) a point, or to a spot not much larger: to the eyes of the accused, or a cloud in the sky, or a finial or cartouche on a curious building, or the running pickpocket—without describing the limits of the context in which that spot should be considered. An art of pointing would be a conceptual art, for the subject of the work would be defined in intellectual or psychic terms, not by an objective physical record. The pointing finger identifies that conceptual center on which the mind’s eye focuses—a clear patch of the visual field that one might cover with a silver dollar held at arm’s length—outside of which a progressive vagueness extends to the periphery of our vision.
The photographer’s procedure (and his problem) is different, for whether he means to or not he will make a picture of sorts: a discrete object with categorical edges.”

Making a photobook, Pt. 4: Understanding one’s images (part 1)

In essence,the question I face is: How do I organize my images in a coherent manner? Is there a theoretical model that I can use to guide my decision-making? What is the art of sequencing images?

The Contact Sheet
I think there are two levels here: what to photograph and understanding and thus presenting the images taken. Either way, the answer to these questions lies within the photographer / image-maker. To understand the meaning of a single image by an artist, one should look at his or hers other images. Too often, we select our ‘best’ pictures (and thereby potentially reference images we’ve seen or think will be thought of as ‘good’) rather than focus on the contact sheet (and its equivalent in Lightroom).

Placing one’s images in context becomes a critical issue in the discourse about a work. A contact sheet is useful because it shows your responses to the world in time. An idea evolves while you are out photographing. You make choices about what to frame and freeze and these choices form the content of the contact sheet. The subsequent contact sheet can then be reviewed and assumptions about what you are photographing revisited. Merely accepting the obvious and not paying attention to the underlying messages the contact sheet is saying could deny an opportunity to set challenges for one’s work. What is/are the idea(s) the images are showing? What is the cumulative effect of the images? Is there a visual language emerging or being reinforced? When you go out to photograph, you take a lot in during that time but not all of it can be digested at once. You are however, making subliminal notes and these notes are what emerges in looking at one’s contact sheets.

Examining a series of contact sheets then (easy to do in Lightroom where images can be organized by date taken) will tell the story or, more likely, tell many stories. Each story or rather, idea, represents the issues that matter for you. All the while, one must fight the temptation to judge the work against what you think others may think of it. One must be true to oneself and in so doing, discover what is important. More importantly, this kind of honest examination – which will take time to reveal itself and understand – sets the stage for image-making that matters and ultimately can act as a guide in the sequencing of images for a photobook.

I am currently up to my knees in the muck and struggling. Images that I thought were of little interest have become important. They may or may not remain that way but for now I am discovering what my image-making is all about. I don’t think this is a process that can be rushed. Just when I think I’ve got it, I get a new insight. Arranging and re-arranging potential sequences yields new ideas. At some point, the ideas emerging from this iterative process should begin to gel and then my work is what it is. At the end, it is my work and no one else’s (not forgetting of course that the ideas of others are part of your way of looking at the world too).

The master theoretician of the photographic sequence is Nathan Lyons. His books have had enormous influence on the photobook as well as on how galleries organize their exhibitions. I had the good fortune to attend one of his workshops a few years ago. Some of the ideas presented here come from the notes I made to myself and paraphrases of what I heard at that time. What struck a cord for me was to stop worrying about making photographs and focus more on what kind of image I want to make. The key is to understand where the elements in an image are juxtaposed that afford meaning. Consequently, the contact sheet is the ideal tool to discover these meanings. In the end, it’s about being sensitive to why you stop to photograph; not the what, but the why.