Ben:For the benefit of Outback readers, I want to say that Jim Collum and I have been in contact about these pictures over the last week, narrowing a larger group of pictures down to the ten for this conversation, so we're used to communicating, and we'll start right in on the pictures.
Ben: And I'd like to start with a question.
Ben: How much, or how little, was the idea of abstraction on your mind, either while you were taking the pictures or when you were choosing the larger group from which we picked these?
Jim: When taking the images, there was an idea of abstraction in mind.
I walk with the camera, and look. Sometimes I see different shapes, textures, colors, light that seem to play back and forth....But there’s no real formula for what..here's just something about it that draws my attention, then the camera…
Jim: Usually, there's a decision when I take the picture as to whether it's Black and White, or color.. But after viewing it, that can change.
Ben: For work that came into being as you just described the process, there are two things that are, immediately, considerably impressive about the pictures here…
Ben: Color, tonality, values...These are topics we should hold in reserve. They'll be more useful when we talk about how to make these pictures stronger, in the printing, and how to make subsequent pictures stronger yet.
Ben: For there are two things I think should be talked about right away, straight off the bat, things about your understanding and use of the craft of photography here, for it’s in part your craftsmanship, your handling of your materials and instrument, that’s making these pictures as strong as they are.
Ben: First, in these pictures (and in many others in the larger groups) the film plane is either parallel to the principle plane of the subject--the rock face, the wall--or almost parallel to it.
Ben: This is something the most sophisticated, the best photographers in this form knew about and practiced: Edward Weston with those close ups of the beach, Point Lobos; Brett Weston; Paul Strand in the early 1920s; Aaron Siskind...Were you aware that you were doing it? Was it conscious?
Jim:I started photography with a view camera.. and began by looking at the image, rather than through the viewfinder. It's a habit that's carried through all formats..
Jim: When I do this, there seems to be a flattening of the three dimensions into the two dimensional plane of the ground glass. So, yes.. I guess it was conscious.
Jim: But not as an artifact, just the way I've learned to use a camera
Ben: Now I've used view cameras only rarely, so I'm not sure I know what I'm talking about here, but I suspect that the Westons, etc. used their view camera's swings and tilts in part to get that flatness, bring the film plane and the subject as close to parallel as they could. Does this sound right to you, square with your memory of those pictures, e.g. Brett Weston's?
Jim: Yes. Usually there's a narrow depth of field, so you use some of the movements to get that flatness, and retain the focus. It's a little more difficult with a 35mm camera.
Ben: With pictures like yours here that also approach abstraction--in many parts of them, closely approximate the conditions of abstraction...
Ben: There's a pictorial (as opposed to a technical) reason for this flatness, and that's to turn the subject--which is, in life, receding from the camera--to appear to be stretched across the surface of the picture...
Ben: This is important for any photography, of course. In every good photograph there's a tension between, on the one hand, imagery as something that creates surface pattern, and, on the other, all the imagery that together—all the imagery of rocks and cracks between them and water and seaweed and whatever which, in your pictures, creates the impression of the totality of the subject—and of a subject which seems to have real volume, to be in a real, three-dimensional, deep space.
Ben: But in pictures like these, the pattern on the surface part is more important...Because abstraction is a use of the means of description (line, tone, shape, texture) not to describe something real in the world (e.g. these rocks) but to describe only themselves. And when the space is too deep, too "realistic," that part of it tends to get lost, because photography is so "realistic" to begin with.
Ben: By "that part of it," I mean: the patterns, the shapes, the lines, the tones, on the surface, seen and enjoyed just for themselves.
Jim: I've noticed in trying to evaluate my photography, that I tend to do this "flattening" even if I’m not examining the abstract aspect of the image.
Jim: In some cases, it has hindered the attempt at capturing the depth of an image.
Ben: It can. But it doesn't have to. There are photographers who are well-known for achieving both the depth of an image and the sense of shapes on a flat surface. I can give you a few names later, But right now I'd like to stay with your pictures and show you a few things.
Ben: But we shouldn’t dwell too long on any one of them, in part because I still haven't told you the second immediately impressive thing about this set.
Jim: (Rain & lightning starting.. foul weather alert.)
Ben: First, let's look at "Garappa Beach at Dawn," the picture with the rocks coming down to the water & sand, and the sea weed making those two dark curves against the pink -- sand is it? At the foot of the rock.
Jim: Yes.. sand
Jim: It was early morning, sun just coming over the horizon.. still a lot of magenta in the sky.
Jim: The water, light, sand, kelp, rocks all seemed to be moving in an arc to the right.
Ben: Yes. Now, this picture has much deeper space than many of the others. Look, for example, at... "Rock Formations 13, 17, and 4." These are much flatter and as a consequence that tension between deep space and surface is much stronger, the surface, with its patterns and shapes, lines, etc., holds its own much better than in Seaweed at Dawn.
Jim: When I looked at the images selected from the group, Seaweed seemed to stand out as not quite belonging with the rest. The relationships between the rest seemed more apparent to me.
Ben: That's one reason I wanted to talk about it. There should be one picture here that 1) shows how delicate the balance is, 2) makes one thing that the balance hinges on as plain and clear as possible, and 3) shows how things can go quite out of whack, when that one thing isn't quite right. For mind you, we're talking about isn't "quite" right.
Ben: If the bottom of the camera had been thrust a little bit forward...If the camera had been tilted down just a little less...If the sand, seaweed, water had flattened out just a little...Those two strands of seaweed would have been more like lines...
Jim: Funny.... "Seaweed" was one of those border images.. I liked it, but not nearly as strong as the others.
Ben: That’s interesting, because when you and I were considering which ten pictures to use for this tutorial—I never told you this, but it’s true—I kept wanting to reject "Seaweed," myself, but I kept putting it back on the list. Ben: Your finding it weaker than the others might mean that your interest in abstraction carried over from the shooting to your first review of the results. But I wonder if the temptation to make a "deep space" picture when you were shooting, and to include this picture in the first rough cut of some 30 pictures for the tutorial and my not being able to reject the picture all don’t have something to did with that claw-like formation of rock coming toward the seaweed...Almost like an animal, some monster, threatening that small, fragile thing on the beach: And it’s so dark, and brutal, against that delicate pink, those graceful curves…There’s something difficult to resist in that. The eye is really drawn to it.
Ben: And this brings us to the second impressive thing about the pictures.
Ben: "Rock Formation #s 4, 13, and 17"—Let’s just call them #4, #13, etc. from now on--are of one piece, and Seaweed of another, also because #4, etc. too, they're pictures of something. But it’s a different thing. They’re pictures, first, of shapes.
Ben: For example, #4 is a picture of that shallow "U" shaped curve against those other pieces of rock, more like a row of vertical shapes.
Jim: And of the curve coming from the top, as well as through the center
Ben: Right, and #13 is of that central truncated oval...and #17 is of, essentially, a tower, but "tower" isn’t right…Let's say a vertical panel made up of three horizontal bands.
Ben: Now this is interesting...Good abstract painters and draftsmen know that an abstract painting or drawing has to be both an abstraction and a picture of something. Very few photographers know this. But you know it.
Ben: Now The errors with Seaweed keep that picture from being a picture of something. For example, #4 and #13 have their main subject--in abstract terms, their main shape--pretty much in the center and defined by all the material around it. The most vivid thing in Seaweed is the bright triangular spot of pink near the center, so it, really, occupies that position, the position of the central abstract subject, but it's neither big enough nor framed rightly enough to be the subject...But if we look back at the Rock Formations…
Ben: Especially at #13 and #17…
Jim: The verticals…
Jim: I don't usually see the verticals. In fact..#17 was a horizontal.. that just didn't seem to work.. something off balance…
Ben: So maybe you're more of a vertical picture maker than you knew? Anyway, the main subject of #13 has anthropomorphic elements. It could look like a corpse in a shroud, or a mummy case...
Jim: Yes... #13 gave me the impression of a someone with their arms crossed over their chest
Ben: Exactly. And #17 like someone's abdomen, with the top band showing where the shirt's been pulled up to...Not exactly like this, but close...All the lower part like skin, the upper part like drapery...
Ben: And still, they're just rocks. And still, they're tending toward the abstract.
Ben: By the way, with "Seaweed," had you swiveled to the right, in toward the rocks--if there’d been room--and crouched a little, and made a vertical frame, who knows but that you couldn't have made the same kind of 1) plain description, 2) semi-abstraction, with 3) the same kind of story of "Like and Not Like Something Else" with that claw coming down at that Seaweed, with the bright sand the alternative to whatever we feel (menace? evil?) in the claw-like rock.
Jim: The rock was important…The end of the seaweed as well. In the moment, the curve of the sand/water in alignment with the seaweed.
Ben: It was just a matter of not having found the right place to stand. Which is why I think it's important to articulate some of these visual principles: so that with subsequent subject matter you (any photographer) has other things to try, some very concrete and specific parameters to work with, rather than just intuition, feeling.
Ben: Nonetheless, "feeling,"--i.e., a direct, perhaps not highly articulated relationship between you and the subject and pictures--took you right to the money in many of these pictures.
Jim: That's a lot of what I'm working at figuring out... What catches my eye, seems to be intuition.. but not something I can put my finger on.
Ben: As the very good San Francisco photographer Henry Wessel, Jr., once said to me: "I like it best when the eye leads the mind. But sometimes I know that I must let my mind lead my eye." Every photographer has moments, days, even long periods, when the eye and the intuition aren’t strong, won’t cooperate, and the mind must take over.
Ben: Another impressive thing here: The structures of the frames, the compositions, are so varied! Which means you weren't working with a pre-conceived notion of form.
Jim: Hmmm. Hadn't thought of that.. I always figured that there's an infinite number of ways objects/light, etc interact with each other in a given instant... To repeat seems kinda slim, not to mention kind of boring.
Ben: You'd be surprised how often it happens. Photographers find formulas for taking this, that and the other kind of picture, landscape...It may be slim and boring but it's also safe.
Jim: Most of my interest has been in areas that don't have a lot of attention... Spectacular vistas don't attract me as much as the more intimate relationship with an object does. I like to be close enough to touch, interact, feel, know.
Ben: Good, because now I think it would be important to talk about surface as surface, the surface of these prints, what they're eventually to be like, which is, as I think (hope?) you'll see, an extension of what you just said about "intimate relationship" "touch, interact, feel, know"
Ben: I should think the object of the prints would be to create that relationship at all levels.
Jim: The tendency is to print these large. Very large
Ben: Yes, absolutely. Because what I meant by "all levels" is the level of fact (the rocks), the level of their metaphoric poetry—So yes, very large. But why do you think so? If you're there already, there’s no need for me to tell you.
Jim: There's an involvement with the image.. the form, texture, that becomes more compelling when the images are seen very large.
Ben: How large are you thinking?
Ben: Is there any other way to think?
Jim: 4or 5 feet across. (There's a limitation to the technology that prohibits me from having my cake and eating it too.) What's also compelling to me is the texture/detail obtained in this work. In my mind, this series screams for a 4x5" negative (or a 4x5" scanning back).
Ben: Not necessarily. There might be something gained from blowing the 35mm matrix up that large.
Jim: What size were you thinking of?
Ben: 4x6 feet sounds like a good place to start, larger maybe after a while...
Jim: I can enlarge to 42" by whatever height.
Ben: Here's why huge prints from 35mm might be better than 4x5.
Ben: There are at least 3 things going on in the best of these pictures...1) The description (rock etc.) 2) The allusions (body with folded arms, etc.) 3) And the surface shapes and patterns.
Ben: Mind you, I said "at least" 3 things. But there’s a fourth, which we haven’t talked about yet.
Ben: And that is: All the activity on the surfaces of those rocks. The various textures, tones, colors, tints, shades, lines, shadows...All still very small on my monitor...That detail is bound to be very small even at 11x14 inches, or 16x20...
Ben: And even at 16x20 the "man with folded arms" might overwhelm the "semiabstract" nature of the picture.
Ben: The larger you get, the more you will, I think, overwhelm the immediately perceivable aspects of the picture, i.e., the description, the allusions (the "metaphors")…
Ben: The larger the prints, the closer you will get to a) making the shapes and patterns be as strong to the eye as possible, and b) start all that activity in the rocks themselves, those small details, start them into action as purely visual aspects on , of, the surface of the print...
Ben: And making them that large from such a small "negative" will start to emphasize things like where the depth of field holds things in focus and where the focus breaks down...there definition is sharp and where it's fuzzy…Where detail is sharp and precise, where detail breaks down into color, pattern, even fuzziness…
Ben: And all these areas, so small in smaller prints, but finally) so large in the really big prints…All these areas will become visual (as opposed, say, to results of technique), and they'll start to imply a much richer surface than before...
Ben: Another effect is that, when the prints are so huge, the viewer will be disoriented. There won't be a comfortable place where he can stand to see everything at once...
Ben: Let him step back to see the rocks as rocks and he'll immediately miss the sensation of all that visual activity, all those purely visual incidents, that he saw closer (i.e. from 2 feet)...
Jim: Yes, I follow all this. It’s an interesting direction.. I've always seemed to be married to the limitations of the film/media of the original.. when the grain starts showing, I stop enlarging. As a result, these digital images have been limited to a size of about 20x24.
Ben: What I’ve learned from master photographers and printers I’ve talked to is that the important thing is to print what's on the negative. Take what's on the negative to the extreme point of visibility.
Ben: That old rule, burn in the highlights and dodge the shadows, is all wrong. It’s sort of like, "Don’t talk about politics or religion at dinner parties." Well, yes, if you want to be just like everyone else, the homogenized guest who says nothing individual and whom nobody remembers the next morning. That’s what most prints are whose photographers are dominated by technical "rules".
Ben: But if you want to be true to yourself, express exactly what you did do, think, see, feel when you were out there making pictures, you take that raw digital information and you print it to maximum visibility. Highlights as bright as you can make them, the shadows as black—that is, where there really isn’t anything in them, and, very often, even when there is. With these pictures, I’d seek the size where where the detail breaks down and go past it to see what happens.
Ben: We’re animals, after all. So we respond to the physical world like animals, with all our senses. We’re never conscious of all that we’re seeing, and of what it’s making us feel. Your eye, your body, was reacting to all the stimuli in your subjects, down to the tiny cracks and indentations, shadows, and highlights, etc. on those rock faces, and all that turns up in the raw digital information in the frame.
Ben: Where the image breaks down, it has something to do with where your perceptions, out on the beach, became general, or woke something up in you, but briefly…
Ben: So print everything just as it is, and make it very, very much what it is, and you'll see.
Ben: So with the spectator, with these pictures. Small though they are, we can more or less feel all we've been talking about. But at any size between the thumbnail here and the right size, which might be huge, you've got the wrong size, wrong because it can't put everything that's on the "negative" into play, into visual play.
Ben: So the object of making one or two prints from this series is to find the size. That’s really the first thing to do, if you’re trying to assess these pictures, figure out where they’re going to take you, where you want to take them: you’ve got to SEE what’s really on the "negative" and see what it can do at the level of absolutely utmost and most intense visibility.
Ben: For pictures like this, print size comes first. Then comes the looking.
Ben: And one of the things to start looking at right away is color. Maybe--this is one of my reservations about the pictures, but I wouldn't say anything definite until I see the prints...
Ben: Maybe the chromatic variation isn't enough. Maybe, chromatically, these pictures are too monochromatic, without enough variation in the tints and values and tones...In 2 words, chromatically monotonous. Especially at the largest size.
Ben: What will that tell you? That the next time you’re out shooting, you should make a closer examination of those rocks etc. for the ones that have more colors.
Ben: Same goes for lines, and other small details...
Ben: After all, making a successful abstract or semi-abstract painting, that's hours and hours of work...Sometimes days, sometimes weeks. It’s the same for successful abstract or semi-abstract photographs.… The painter goes over the canvas again and again and again, paints things in, paints them out, paints other things in…
Ben: The photographer’s version of this is to go to the subject, make the pictures, come back, make those huge prints, look at them, see why they don’t work, go back to the subject, make new pictures…Didn’t work from two feet away? What about from 2 inches away? Didn’t work with these colors? What about with these? Etc. Go back, make the huge prints…..It might take months of this for one successful photographs.
Ben: And this makes me wonder: Maybe you should be poking that camera right up against the rocks? Finding in small the same kinds of things you're finding large, here, and then, when they're photographed, blowing them up large?
Ben: Edward Weston, Brett Weston, they knew something about going in almost so close that even when clearly described the thing was difficult to name...It was hard to see just what it was even before they did things to the print...
Jim: Yes..I remember some of Brett's prints.. Ice? Glass? you could never really be sure what they were.
Ben: Exactly. But you're always sure it's something, and it always does remind you of something....Ice, glass: there, something hard, something brittle: he and his father, no matter how abstract they got, always held that connection to the solid world, the connection you were talking about above...
Ben: What was your word? The "intimacy..."? Or was it "intimate"? One or the other.
Ben: Which reminds me: I said we should talk briefly about pictures, but we've spent all this time on three, four pictures. But a) the excellences of the others are obvious now, yes? And, b) what we've been saying about these four applies quickly to the others, yes?
Jim: Yes. But the mural seems a little different..A bit more depth to it.. not the flatness that the others show. There's not the depth there that seaweed has.
Ben: This is a layered picture. Two flat planes, one layered over the other. Each drawing the other in such a way that the whole picture is of something much richer, more complex, more complicated, than either of them by itself. It does flatten out...
Jim: Yes.. I can see the flattening..There was still a quality that was different. I can see the two layers.
Ben: So that's how this picture works. And it, too, approaches abstraction because of the whole third layer that's created, the network of lines (solid things and shadows).
Ben: The New Leaf Alley picture, that's got its problems because of all that black, and because photographs don't have real surfaces. Photographers can never do with black what painters can, never. It's a really dangerous area.
Ben: Another general thing: The danger in these rocks is the danger of the picturesque (broken, irregular forms, lots of chiaroscuro). Which is another good reason to see what happens if you blow them up big. Blowing them up into abstraction will tend to counteract the picturesque. But then a lot will depend on what kind of detail is on each of those individual rocks...And this will in part be a matter of color, tint, tone, line, little lines...
Ben: And this will guide the subsequent shooting, and perhaps even lead to your photographing from two, three inches away: disorient our sense of scale as well as everything else...
Ben: The success, in fact, might depend on how well the pictures disorient the viewer...Right?
Jim: Yes... I usually get close..But there's still a distance. Images that I cant' figure out without really studying them have caught my eye.
Ben: Close or far it isn't the point, the point, with this...With any kind of subject matter, is finding the right place to stand so that the photograph disorients the viewer from the subject...
Jim: I've never gone out with that purpose (well.. as one of the purposes)
and these images are still distinguishable as rock faces (at this size)
Ben: Right. So one question is the print size. Photographs aren't about reality. They're about the world they create. One difficult thing about them, though, is that the imagery looks so much like reality, so the photographer has to work hard to disorient the viewer from the subject as he, the viewer, knows it in reality, and bring him into the subject as it's re-created by the photographed and, in fact, transformed into something else, called a picture.
Ben: It's like an exchange that is supposed to have taken place between Picasso and someone at one of his exhibitions. "Mr Picasso, this is a disgrace. You call it "Fish and Plate." But look at it. That doesn't look like a fish!. That's not a fish on a plate!" "Of course not," said Picasso. "It's a painting."
Jim: And some of my preconceptions about what a photograph should be…But this gives me some ideas for the next outing to Garapatta or Pebble Beach,
as well as some experiments with the images in this tutorial (the printer will give me 42" height by whatever width... )
Jim: All this sounds like a good place to start.
Next times at the beaches, try a few pictures from extremely close up, just out of curiosity.
It's an interesting adventure, this three way dialogue now between you, subject, and print, all informing each other.
Jim: The results won't be electronically available.. They'll require more physical interaction.
Ben: Well we did talk once before about your sending me a few big prints in a mailing tube.
Jim: Is there a specific one you'd like to see more than others?
Ben: Two. #4 and #17...For color's sake, and tone, and everything, actually, everything. I think they cover the range.
Ben: So, you'll work forward along some of these lines, and, when you can, send me a few large prints, and in the mean time we'll exchange a few short emails and discuss when, etc. for a follow up Outback session?
Jim: Good. That gives me work both in the field and with printing.
Ben: I look forward to our next contact.
Jim: Thanks for your time and comments.. it has been a learning experience
Ben: You're more than welcome. For me too, a learning experience. I feel we did explore this subject, abstraction, size of prints, pretty well.
Jim: That's a hard call to make sometime.. when to stop enlarging.. when to start enlarging.
Ben: I know. But the only way to know is to go too far. You'll never know if you always stop before you'd tried everything.
Jim: OK. Good night.
Ben: Good night.