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"Outback Portfolio Tutorial #1"

featuring a portfolio by Don Cohen
Part 1: The Portfolio
The full portfolio photos can be found here.

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Part 2: Artists Statement
Don Cohen, MD
I am a physician (Ophthalmology) living in North Carolina, and acquired an interest in photography about 30 years ago. I primarily did nature-oriented photography using a Canon FTb, shooting mainly Kodachrome slides. After a few years, my career and a growing family dominated my time, and photography was limited to children, vacations, etc. My active involvement with photography was quite dormant for several decades. Starting a little over 2 years ago, my fascination with computers converged with my previous interest in photography as I discovered the world of digital photography. I went through the Nikon Coolpix line (900s, 950, 990) and moved up to a Canon D30 system last Christmas.
I do not look at myself as either a photographer or an artist, but do have a fairly intense, unexplained desire to take pictures and produce (hopefully) beautiful images of the world around us. I am still oriented toward nature photography, which is clearly reflected in my website, although I remain open to expanding into different areas of photography. As I have pursued this passion, I have really had no clear idea of where I was heading with it, but only that I wanted to learn as much as I could and improve what I could produce photographically. I have no real background or formal training as such in photography, but basically have been 'flying by the seat of my pants.' And my life-long scientific mindset has generally shown little proclivity toward 'artistic' endeavors. So I'm entering this dialogue with some real trepidation, but hope I can learn something through the experience, and will try to contribute what I can.

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Part 3: Ben Lifson's initial Comment
The parts of Don Cohen’s statement that most interests me, after his "passion," (which is the most important thing of all, it’s what keeps us working, carries us through), are his "intense but unexplained" need to "produce...beautiful images of the world around us," his openness "to expanding into different areas of photography," his desire "to learn as much" as he can.
Among the things I hope to discuss are ways to understand that need, and to pinpoint the strengths of Dr. Cohen’s photography, in order to bring that expansion about, and to promote that learning.
This is at least as important as discussing the individual pictures--perhaps more important.
The strengths of Dr. Cohen's photography so far are indicated by the rock-formation and landscape photographs. The former show a sensibility to, and an ability to express forms in inanimate nature that suggest, or correspond to forms in life. They also start a visual language of line, contour, mass and value--a development of these visual elements that is independent of, and goes beyond their function as descriptive elements in the picture. In other words, they do more than just delineate and define the subject. The canyon views, on the other hand, begin a dramatic visual language--drama depending on contention, even conflict, among the several parts of the picture. In both of these ways, the rock study and the two views tell more than one story. Seeing and expressing more than one thing in a scene is a characteristic common to many strong pictures, and it would be important for this photographer to pursue his ability in this field.
But I am curious about how Dr. Cohen organizes his time for photography, and about how he defines his subject matter--in particular, "nature". Both the expansion and the learning depend on sustained work and frequent, indeed daily practice, and the subjects of this portfolio are not those we see around us every day. They require special trips, the budgeting of time...I'd be interested to know what natural subjects he photographs that are right around him in North Carolina, things he can photograph every day...For one of my interests is to explore ways we, as photographers, can find subject matter that will enable us to sustain the effort by photographing frequently, and by daily practice--Expanding one’s sense of subject matter is often the key for example, nature and animals are all around us. How do we re-orient ourselves to photographing what’s at hand, so we can keep at it every day? And what other subjects, related or not, might any photographer find who has a full, demanding, and busy life, with little time to work, but with a passion for photography and a need to express photographically his/her responses to the world around us in images that he/she also wants to be beautiful? And how to find those subjects.
The wild animal and bird pictures here confuse me, as indeed do all such photographs in this style. So I would be particularly interested in talking about them with Dr. Cohen. Thinking about them in preparation for this tutorial, I've discovered a number of points that relate to my confusion, and so I'd like to share them here:
In the long tradition of bird and animal imagery, not just in photography but in pictures generally, including the movies, wild animals, and birds generally, are rarely the main subjects of whole works. There’s a great parrot in a famous portrait by Rubens, another in a famous nude by Courbet, another in a famous portrait by Manet...But they’re secondary to the human subjects. Delacroix’s North African hunting paintings have great lions, but they’re always as part of a human, social scene, as are the many kinds of wild animals in 16th and 17th century European hunting prints. Birds in nature are even rarer. One finds them largely in decorative art, on the sides of Chinese vases, with floral imagery, or in medieval tapestries, as incidental details in a human scene. One possible explanation for this is that we have little and infrequent experience of wild animals, and rarely observe birds in nature up close: we don’t know these subjects in the same way that we know, say, the apples and oranges, dishes, glassware and silverware of still life paintings. For example, every Annunciation has a dove, which tells us "This is the Virgin Mary, and this is the Angel Gabriel, come to tell her that she will give birth to Our Lord." But people have kept doves in cages for centuries, the painter could paint them from life without their flying away. The best bird photograph I know is by Henri Cartier-Bresson. It shows the painter Henri Matisse, drawing doves. He holds one in his hand–it is in focus, and represented realistically. On a cage in the foreground sit three more doves–out of focus, represented in the terms of a rough sketch, as though they had already been transformed by Matisse into a drawing, and no longer existed as live animals. Yet most of us are not so lucky as to have a great painter like Matisse, drawing birds, as our subject. Also, the beautiful bird books of the past, like Audubon’s "Birds of America," show their subjects whole, against a plain white background. If the photographer wants to show the whole bird, and not just a portion of it against the blue sky, as in the eagle picture here, he/she must take the background into account. We all learn from models. But it occurs to me that most of the wild animal and bird in nature pictures we're familiar with, the ones we see today, are outside the tradition of pictures generally, they give us little to go on. So where do we look for models? What, in fact, are the visual terms of wild animal and bird pictures, the successful ones, within the long tradition of picture making? And what do we do if we can't find this out? How do we come up with our own terms, our own visual language for this subject, based on the strength of our photography generally. How, in short, do we photograph these subjects? This depends, I think, on the photographer’s relationship to the subject, to photography, to the world. Another reason for starting this tutorial close to those parts of Dr. Cohen’s statement I quoted, and with the visual terms of his photographs.
Part 4: Dialog between the Artist and Ben Lifson
4a: Chat tutorial session between Ben and Don
The chat session was recorded and can be found here.

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4b: Don's comment about this tutorial session

"Before I do that, though, I'd like to express my appreciation to you, Ben, for your generosity in sharing your time and talents. The session lasted 3 hours, and would have gone longer, if (ironically enough) I didn't have to cut it short due to my schedule (early morning surgery the next day). Well beyond the 'call of duty,' that's for sure.

Uwe did ask me to be up-front and honest, and I will honor that request. Ben's perceptions could well be quite different, but I will just relate my experience, in the hopes of learning from it. I guess I have 3 main points/suggestions:

1. The format of the chat was less of a dialogue than I was anticipating. My expectations might have been in error, and this might be the preferred format for your purposes, but it was different from what I expected. It seemed that my input was not really necessary for the Tutorial to proceed. I felt more like an observer than a participant, and at least for my temperament, this makes for a less effective learning environment.

2. Also along the lines of format, it was often difficult to know when a pause in the chat meant a response was being waited for, or a fresh comment was being prepared. Some mechanism (similar to saying "over" on a walkie-talkie) needs to be used so each knows when a reply is being requested, or if they just need to patiently wait for the next segment.

3. The content was oriented towards "art" to a much greater degree than I was prepared for, with less emphasis on the "photography" component. Certainly I understand that these areas overlap, and that it is the "art" that is Ben's passion. But as one with a modest background in photography, and virtually no background in art, I found it difficult to relate Ben's comments to my understanding of photography. Some of the metaphors and imagery used in analyzing the photos seemed so far removed from the subject matter that I had trouble relating them to my experience in photography. Perhaps I think too concretely, but I was asked to be open and up-front in these comments. And I do consider myself reasonably intelligent, and was able to follow what was being said; but there seemed to be so little overlap between our worlds (in terms of how we perceive the world around us and interact with it), that true communication was problematic.

I'm concerned that this may come across as being primarily negative, but I did find the experience provided me a fascinating opportunity to see some of the inner-workings of a mind quite different from mine, for which I am grateful. And I was able to glean a couple of basic concepts that I will keep in mind as I continue to improve my photography. But I do think that you both need to give some thought to how you might structure things a bit differently in future Tutorials, to make them the most useful to the widest number of photographers. And it might also need to be modified according to the interests and background of the individual whose Portfolio is being studied, as well as the subject matter of the Portfolio.

Thank you both for this unique educational opportunity."


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4c: Second Tutorial Session
Don and Ben had a second tutorial session and you can read the transscript here.


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