Art – What is Art?

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I often get asked how I would define “art”. What is art as far as I see it? Of course, it is an almost impossible task to write what art is in an absolute sense. Much sharper intellectuals than me have tried to define what art is. Nevertheless, I should still be able say something about how I understand the word and look upon art.

For me, what is and what isn’t art, isn’t a clearly defined line, though. There are no unconditional criteria. For me, art certainly does not involve an elitist understanding. An artist does not have to have an art education for the work to be called art, he or she does not have to express herself or himself within the classical art genres—or, on the other hand, having to be part of the avant-garde scene. There are no limitations for subjects art can deal with, the work does not have to be manifested into a physical object; and it certainly does not have to hang in galleries. Street art and street performers can be doing art just as much as a traditional trained painter or musician can.

Art surely isn’t something defined by a selected few connoisseurs or experts, by those who partake in the contemporary dialogue or discourse about art. Anyone have the right to define art as they want to, even if they don’t have an art education, even if they don’t understand the latest trends in art.

Maybe it’s easier to say something about what art is not, rather than what it is. However, at the bottom of it all lays a capability to touch our emotional sensations. For me, art also needs to challenge conventional thoughts. After all, creativity, which is where art originates from, means bringing into life, or bringing something new into existence. Art that repeats whatever already is isn’t art any longer. Vincent van Gogh was a groundbreaking artist, but if everybody afterwards imitated his style, that work by his successors would not be art any longer, no matter how good it might have been, on a technical level.

This much said about the non-repetitiveness of art, I want to add that, although art constantly changes and develops, just because something has come out of fashion, doesn’t mean it isn’t art any longer. Some time ago I came across some very interesting thoughts by the blogger Melissa in her post Perspective, in which she writes about her discomfort when looking at art from artists who have been taught at art schools and how they think about art: “They have been taught that they must participate in the conversation where it was when they came on the scene. They must not paint, because painting is dead. Had they all been born a few decades sooner, they would have been able to join the conversation at an earlier point. Say, before painting had been declared dead. According to this line of thought, all painting that happens today is derivative.” Of course, at least to my understanding, art is not limited to the latest fashion or the latest anti-whatever-was-before.

On a more basic level, art deals with human experiences. It says something about what it is to be human, not scientifically and factually, but in a way that allows us to interpret the artistic expression. As the photographer and artist, Carlos Jurado, once expressed it: “Art allow us to expand the dimensions of our everyday life.”

Art enlighten us, again not through scientific or factual means, but by touching our emotions and make us reflect about who we are as human beings with all what that encompasses. “True art is an epiphany, an enlightening spark dancing in the perceived gap between ourselves and everything else.” That is what Duane Preble writes in a foreword to the book Tao of Photography.

In her post Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge: Challenger’s Choice (Architecture) Sally W. Donatello wrote that “art is meant to illicit doubt, dialogue, emotions, joy, thought and uncertainty; it is meant to provoke in calming and unsettling ways and everything in between those reactions. It is the artist’s responsibility to give us something to consider, to digest, to ponder, to query.” I wholeheartedly agree with her statement.

So what is really art, then? As I opened this post saying, it is a difficult question to answer. I know it when I see it, but defining it eludes me. I sometimes see glimpses of it in others’ work. Limiting myself to photography, I know that great art is about compassion when I see W. Eugene Smith’s photograph Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, Minimata, 1972. I know great art is about reverence and humility in the presence of great things when I see Ansel Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm. I know great art is about optimism and endurance when I see Paul Strand’s work in the Hebrides—and I know it is about pessimism when I see Robert Capa’s photograph of the falling Spanish soldier. I know it is about the human search for spirituality when I look at the work of Linda Connor. I know it is about the loneliness of life when I look at the work of André Kertész. I know is it is about revelation when I look at the work of Josef Sudek and I know it is about the obscurity and the confusion of life when I look at the photographs of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand.

In short, great art is never about the art work but seems to be about life, and possibly not, generally, the small things in life. The best artists appear to be engaged in the great dialog of life—the dialog that is usually the field-of-play for philosophers and theologians, for mystics or even political scientists. The great artists don’t seem to be asking questions about technique or the craftsmanship, but are asking the same kinds of questions that were asked by philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Freud—the same questions asked by the poets Aeschylus, Dante, Goethe, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain. What is man? Who am I? What is good? Why is there evil? How should we treat one another? Why don’t we? Why does suffering exist?

I have a Norwegian friend, Morten Løberg, who is a photographer also working with photo as art. On his web site, he has stated that during his 40 years as a photographer he has heard two good definitions of what art is. The first one stems from the then director Ole Henrik Moe at the museum of Høvikodden in Oslo, when he opened the Association of Fine Photographer’s anniversary exhibition in 1979: «A photograph is art when it shows a slice of reality seen through a personal temperament.» The other originates from the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo, Jan Brockmann: «Art brings the viewer to new insights and understanding, or to the brink of this.»

Those two points of view complement each other. And together they bring an understanding to the term art and what it stands for, that for me, is as close to a definition as it is possible to arrive at. So maybe I can extrapolate from those to quotes something like this: Art brings the viewer new insights seen through a personal temperament.

Have you any thoughts about what art is?

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Challenged in Naples

Last week I had the pleasure of being challenged—photographically. Life can always surprise us with challenges, sometimes more than we can handle, but this one was completely of my own choice. I wanted go be challenged and I was happy being challenged, despite the struggle and despite the frustration and despite the feeling of failure that I had to fight all the time.

Why challenged? I attended a photo workshop with the Swedish photographer Anders Petersen. It took place in Naples, Italy. Petersen pushed all of us beyond and out of our comfort zone. And when we started to become comfortable with the original challenges, he pushed us even more. As I have written many times in this blog, growth and creative development is all about stepping out of the box, pushing oneself—or being pushed out of the comfort zone.

What you are afraid of photographing is exactly what you should photograph, according to Petersen. Close and very personal.

Anders Petersen is one of the most important European photographers alive today; he has shaken up the world of photography since his debut with raw and intimate photographs of late night guests in a Hamburg bar in the 1960s. Today, he is 77 and still going strong. His images are as provocative and intense as they have always been.

One of his mantras, which he talked about during the workshop, was for the photographer to be like an animal. Attack and be hungry—but in a gentle way. It’s OK to feel intimidated when approaching strangers, say on the street, we all do, also Petersen, but we still have to do it and when we do, we need to take control and not let the person we photograph be in charge. It’s our responsibility to create images that are the best that can be made.

Being able to photograph like an animal all comes down to being able to connect—connect as a person with the whole of yourself. Don’t do it for the sake of the photograph, but be genuine interested in the person. Be curious about the person—and be completely open about why you want to capture a person’s image. Photography is about communication, also the process leading up to a final image.

After the week in Naples, I was completely wringed up, we all were, I believe. But what an experience, what a lovely way to immerge completely in photography—and only think and do photography.

The photos here are but a few I took during the workshop with Anders Petersen.

On a different note, let me remind you of the possibility to receive my Sidewars, monthly thoughts and ideas about photography and creativity. Sign up and I will send it to your email once every month.

LET ME INSPIRE YOU. RECEIVE NUGGETS AND NEW IDEA FOR YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY:

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Finding a New Path

Summer time is time for re-evaluation. At least for me. During summer, life slows down, the daily pace becomes more agreeable and I get more time to ponder about changes or new moves I want to pursue over the next year or so. This summer: Social media.

My use of social media is something I continually assess. In fact, I find it more and more exasperating and time consuming—like most users, I believe—when the reality is that I am constantly running against time in my everyday life. Something needed to be done, and that’s what I have been pondering about during this summer.

The remedy is simple enough: Spent less time on social. And spend the time I am on social more wisely. Make priorities as to what I do and how I do it. That includes my blogging.

Blogging has been tremendously enriching. I have gotten new friends, not only in cyberspace but also in the real world. I have loved the contact I have had with you and all the others I have meet on my blog and other blogs. The regular exchanges and dialogues have given me a lot. Nevertheless, the reality is that it has been hard to muster the energy lately, as you may have noticed. The inspiration that I used to have for the blog simply isn’t there any more. If nothing else, that’s ironic when I actually intend to write about creativity.

I know what this looks like, so let me make it clear here and now that I am not stopping my blogging. There is too much about it that I appreciate too much. But I am going to downscale my activity. I simply needed to make some changes in order to find the inspiration again and feel like I can contribute to all of you who have followed me through the years.

The changes I am about to do, has already gotten me keyed up again. I think the result will be both exciting and better despite less frequent posts. First, I will indeed write less regular posts, going from one every week to posting twice a month. My goal is quality before quantity. I want to focus even more on the creative process and how we may spur creativity in ourselves. With less posts I will have more time for research, hoping I will not only turn my stack around but rather find new ways to induce inspiration.

What more is, and this is the second part of the changes, which I am quite excited about; in addition to my blog, I will also offer subscriptions to Sideways, my new monthly email ponderings about photography. Sideways will all be about photography, bringing thoughts, nuggets and ideas about how you can develop yourself as a photographer, improve your vision and bring your photography to the next level. Let me say up front; I’m not going to write about technique or cameras. If this sounds interesting, use the button just underneath to sign up. I’ll give you my eBook “10 Great Tips” for free when you do.

Both the blog and Sideways will be about creativity and finding inspiration, but the latter will only focus on photography whereas the former will be more general. As I said, I am excited for the changes and hope this will transpire to you and other readers.

LET ME INSPIRE YOU. RECEIVE NUGGETS AND NEW IDEA FOR YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY:

Back from Summer

Summer is on its final last stanza—for us on the northern hemisphere, that is. Days are already significantly shorter; at the longitude I am and today, 3 hours and 17 minutes compare to summer solstice.

Once again, we have had a summer out of the ordinary (and hopefully it won’t be the new ordinary). Like last summer, travel restrictions were imposed as we, as in the world, are still fighting covid-19. In fact, the numbers of infected are once again on the rise many a place.

Nevertheless, some travel has been possible this summer, albeit somewhat limited. I for one, were lucky enough to make it to Iceland before the numbers exploded there. (And yes, I am aware that opening up for travellers have been one of the reasons for the present increase of covid-19 on Iceland).

The main reason for me to go to Iceland was finally to be able to meet up with my love one. We live on different continents, and before Iceland, we didn’t see each other since the beginning of February—last year. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine how it was to be able touch, talk, spend time together and just be with each other again, after the prolonged separation.

Thus, I didn’t go to Iceland primarily to photograph or to experience the country. It was simply the one country that would accept both us coming for a visit. Of course once being there, we did experience as much as possible of what Iceland has to offer, and me being a photographer, of course had to capture images from our travel to this island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

These are some of the photos I captured. This post also represents a return to my blogging, and now I look forward getting in touch with you all again.

A Bit of Normalcy

Last week I had a touch of what some normalcy tastes like. I did my first travel since the world locked down one and a half years ago. Of course, it wasn’t totally back to the good old days. Still, on airports and when flying one has to wear a mask – and when arriving to a country there were covid-19 controls.

Nevertheless, I could travel! Which almost felt a little strange but most of all joyous. Just sitting back and feel the airplane taking off for a new destination was exhilarating, despite the pestilence of having to wear a mask. And then arriving. Touching down in a new place!

Nevertheless, for me the absolute best was finally being able to meet my love one after one and a half years of forced separation. In fact, that’s why Iceland became our first travel destination since the lockdown. It’s one of the only countries that would accept us both, without quarantine as long as you are vaccinated.

I have been to Iceland before, but it was back in the 1980’s, so it’s been a few years. Of course, generally the landscape doesn’t changed much over a few decades, although Iceland is one of few countries in which landscape changes do happen every so often, whenever a volcano erupts. In fact, this year saw a new eruption just south of the capital Reykjavik. Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted in March. After the first eruption, it’s been more of a low flowing river of lava, covering the valley of Fagradal and slowly moving towards the sea.

On the photo, I am overlooking Fagradalsfjall with the crater to the right. Not every day is it possible to see glowing lava, but it’s steadily creating new land. Nevertheless, it was a impressive experience to view.

I will get back with more photos from my trip to Iceland. However, I first need to edit and process the photos I captured. For now, though, I will take the rest of July off from blogging, but I’ll be back in August. Enjoy the summer (or winter if you are in the southern hemisphere). See you again in August.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Start with the Box!

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I often state that as creatives or artists—in whatever medium you are working—we should more often break the rules, not feel confined to conformed understanding; or as it is often expressed: be thinking outside of the box. At the same time, I acknowledge that those rules or all that which comes with traditional craftsmanship is there to help us learn and develop. It can be seen as accumulated wisdom (collected over centuries or even millenniums by artists before us) functioning as guidelines more than rules. Only when it starts to limit our creativity is all that accumulated knowledge becoming a limitation.

What I am trying to say is this: Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.

We need to learn the basics of our craft. If you understand the traditional craftsmanship, that is—when speaking about photography—the technical aspect of handling the camera, understanding composition, having thorough knowledge about light’s influence on a photo, and being familiar with the visual language of photography; only then do you achieve full freedom to express your intentions with a photograph.

Some believe learning the traditional craftsmanship will limit their artistic voice. However, I do not agree to that perception. As I see it, knowing will only make you freer—as long as you do not let those old rules confine your creativity. It can actually—and most likely will—become a resource for expressing your artistic intent.

Yet, the result may well be an unliberated or constricted photographer, if he or she in a mechanical fashion attempt to reproduce a rigid, pre-established vision and in so doing is averting the possibility of seeing the unexpected—which I have just written enthusiastically about in various posts last week. This kind of restricted awareness can indeed impoverish a photographer’s vision and art. As Philippe L. Gross writes in his book Tao of Photography; “Imprisoned by the discriminatory mind, the photographer with constricted awareness is unable to appreciate the boundless visual richness of the world that lies beyond the filters and projections imposed by mental constructs. Only when the photographer can become free of the discriminatory mind can creative, unconstructed seeing occur.”

It may seem at first that Gross believes the box—to use this expression—is actually constricting the photographer. However, that is not his conclusion. The point—and my point, too—is not to throw this box of traditional understanding away, but use it as well as thinking beyond what the box contains. Thinking outside the box only becomes possible when you have a box in the first place.

In his book, Gross does not use expressions such as a box and thinking outside of the box, but uses the term Little Understanding for the traditional craftsmanship and Great Understanding for being open to the world—both inside and outside—and having an unconstructed awareness. Philippe Gross makes a point that to develop our true artistic voice we need both.

He writes; “General speaking, Little Understanding in camerawork represents the frame of mind that concentrates on techniques, sets goals, applies photographic rules, arranges a scene to fit a desired outcome, and attempts to gain control over the subject. Great Understanding, on the other hand, corresponds to the photographer’s ability to respond holistically and spontaneously to a scene without overtly interfering with the subject. Ultimately, the liberated photographer is a companion of both forms of understanding: to develop one’s artistic ability demands first fully knowing and then transcending techniques—seeing, feeling, and responding holistically to a photographic scene.”

In other words, mastery of the craft’s skill does not mean rejecting the thinking outside of the box. It simple means freedom from the belief that traditional craftsmanship is a reliable, necessary, and, not the least, an exclusive guide to artistry. The creative and free artist can make use of the box without being entangled by it.

I will not conceal the fact that photographers are biased about this, particularly when it comes to compositional rules. In The Essence of Photography Bruce Barnbaum writes that in his book he does “not discuss any rules for good composition. I avoid them because there are none. Every composition is unique, and following some concocted formula will not guarantee a good photograph. There are no formulas; there are no rules of composition. I strongly urge all photographers, beginning or experienced, to avoid any instruction that claims there are—it’s bogus.”

Not surprisingly after what I have written so far, I do not agree with Barnbaum (still, I do recommend the book; it is a very personal and insightful book about his photographic approach. I only disagree with him on this point). Well, there are no rules as such—of course. Nevertheless, painters for centuries and photographers for almost two have built upon each other an understanding of what works and what normally does not work in order to create a balanced composition that is best read by the eyes’ movements. Of course, that may not be your intention—which is just fine. But these ageless compositional rules—which I would rather regard as guidelines, because no one has to follow them, indeed—can be very helpful for particular beginners who try to come to grasp with creating a photo that somehow works compositionally. And of course, any time those guidelines can be broken, as I have always been encouraging.

However, and here I am in total agreement with Bruce Barnbaum, he writes: “You have to be flexible at all times, and you have to work with the situation you’re in, even if it’s not the one you wanted.” Yes, and I would like to add; use all of yourself in the process, whatever you have in the box and whatever you can find outside of it.

Seeing Beyond

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                 Do you see the iguana?

The way we human beings have developed our seeing, that is to objectify and label everything around us, is unfortunately restricting us more than it is aiding us when we photograph. Because – as I wrote in my post Photographically Seeing a couple of weeks ago – the way our eyes see and the way the camera sees is quite different, we almost need to unlearn our regular way of seeing. Instead of for instance identifying a horse as a “HORSE”, that is a horse as an idea or a label, we need to pause our usual scanning with the eyes and rather discover the uniqueness of that particular horse. Objectifying is perfect for daily survival so that we can respond quickly to new situations occurring around us all the time, but not when you want to photograph beyond the obvious.

We will improve greatly as photographers if we can make ourselves see beyond the labels we have wired our brains to register. What instead of a dead, crooked and fallen trunk we can see an iguana climbing over it? Or see – and photograph – the most beautiful landscape in some clothes piled up on a drawer? What I am talking about is being imaginative and changing our usual perspective. When we were kids we had no problems seeing other realities in the world around us, seeing beyond the labels, we as grown-ups are so stuck with. We all delighted doing it when we were kids, pretending to see or seeing things invisible to others. Socialization, adaptation and communication, however, introduced a different agenda and began to mould perceptual conformity. Our reconstructing skills or imaginations – being able to see beyond the labels – were lost.

Open our minds beyond labels and beyond the obvious can open a whole new world for our photography. Derek Doeffinger, a photograph who has written a dozen books about photography, for instance, suggests that «instead of seeing the horseness of a horse, you might see it as a landscape – the prairie of its back rising into a mountainous neck. Or you may see it as a temple supported with four slender columns.»

Developing our receptiveness is a most effective way to avoid photographic clichés. When asked what he looks for in photographing, Michael Smith replied: «I am not looking for anything. I am just looking – trying to have a full an experience as possible. The point is to have a full experience –the photograph is just a bonus.»

In many ways I am talking about training the capacity to discover new ways of apprehending the world. Are you ready to see beyond seeing? Take a look at the photo beneath. How many different animals or other objects can you see in those rocks? .

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