Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Monday, November 7, 2011

On Personal Growth and Learning

"Don't ever take an art class. It will ruin you."

These words were spoken to me over thirty-five years ago by a gentleman who had just purchased one of my paintings. Obviously, the statement stuck in my head. Why have I remembered this comment after all these years?

I think the first part of the answer is the sheer surprise I experienced at the comment. At the time my greatest desire was to get into one of the established art schools and here was a person who loved my work enough to spend money on it telling me to do exactly the opposite. I recall asking him why he would say that and his response was something along the lines of "they will make you just like everyone else. It will destroy your originality."

Ah! Even then I could see the sense in the statement. I've since followed that dictum and never have attended an art class of any kind, not even one on photography. Another question remains however: how is one to advance as an artist without the guidance of peers (or superiors) in some form? In my case, having a deep, inherent curiousity provides a natural drive to educate myself about those things that interest me - which is pretty much everything. In the case of the arts, I avail myself of all the information that exists on the internet, in our public libraries and magazine publications. There is an enormous amount of information within reach out there if one is willing to commit the time to search it out and then really study it.

Note that I did not refer to this process as 'work'. If the act of applying yourself to study and learning seems like work, it is strong evidence of a lack of passion for what you are doing. For me, this is not work. Rather, it is more like breathing, something I am driven to do. My wife will occasionally chastise me for bringing along some bit of technical reading material when we go on a vacation trip as she says I should take the opportunity to relax. What I've had to explain on more than one occasion over the years is that burying myself in that sort of research is how I relax! Learning really is like breathing to me, especially so when it is a subject in which I have a fervent interest. I can actually get a bit fidgety if I can't get to a bit of research on something that has lit a fire in me.

The technical aspects of photography aside, one of the most important resources available to us is the work of those artists we admire. I can spend literal hours poring over the work of the likes of Stieglitz and Steichen and others. I was browsing through a rather dingy, dusty, unkempt, dark rabbit hole of a bookstore recently and found gold in the form of two out-of-print books - The National Museum of Art Calloway Edition of 1983 'Alfred Stieglitz' and 'A Life in Photography', Edward Steichen's autobiography. Bookstore nirvana! The opportunity to study the work of these masters in such high quality printings at my leisure is invaluable. I do not limit myself to the masters of photography either. I began my art career as a painter, after all. I have a beautiful copy of Andrew Wyeth's autobiography as well and have many hours invested in this one book. It is from Wyeth that I learned something of the importance of what is included in an image and what is left out. Wyeth's work opened the door for me to a whole new consideration of how to approach composition and the contribution texture can make to an image.

I have many ideas from Wyeth's tempera paintings that I want to incorporate into my photography, but this is not easily done. The two mediums have fundamental differences in material and process that I have as yet been unable to bridge successfully. The excitement lies in continuing to try! Another example of a painter that has had a strong influence on me, especially in my early in my studies, is Maxfield Parrish. Parrish's landscape paintings, his main focus in his later years, are a wonder to me. His exceptional mastery of the ancient master's technique of glazing with oil paints (think Rembrandt) represents the high point of the technique and it is brought to its full modern potential in his landscapes. I have one photograph where the Parrish influence is clearly evident, 'Dream Swing'.

(click on image to enlarge)    Dream Swing
It seems to me that the influence of Stieglitz and Steichen on my recent work is fairly obvious. The current Cityscape series of limited edition architectural prints do not seek to copy their work, but to incorporate some of their ideas within modern subjects. Here I am trying to expand on certain aspects of the Photo Secessionists style by minimizing the softening effects of that period and blend it with the sharper, highly detailed and graphic nature of the silver gelatin prints from the '30's. The results are really intriguing and have received very strong positive reactions from viewers. The resulting images are unique in both look and subject, but deeply rooted in the the previous accomplishments of my silent mentors.

(click on image to enlarge)   The Morgan in Winter
For people like me, the process never stops, nor do we want it to. It isn't just some holistic sort of self-improvement thing. Rather, it is a basic function of our character, the desire to understand the world and universe around us. In that process we usually do improve ourselves, if for no other reason than we operate from a greater and more accurate understanding of our environment. The sheer scope of the unknown assures us, happily I might add, that we cannot possibly run out of things to learn! In this way, that delicious, childlike sense of wonder and awe can last a lifetime!