Once every now and then, we meet persons we have a distinct feeling will impact our lives in some way or another. This happened four years ago, when I first met Witold Flak. I was then a very green, keen photographer with a will to do something more than photography and no idea where to start. I had just failed my second qualification attempt and understandably wasn't in the best of moods. I had almost given up in my quest, resigned to the fact that photographers are just photographers, and they will never realise what a vast and beautiful world exists beyond it. Then Witold took the stand and started showing me the kind of pictures I thought I would never see. Images that didn't care about sharpness or technique, but that only cared about emotion. Witold's images are perfect in their beautiful imperfection - they portray life as it is, not as we see it in photographs. They are those kind of images that you get lost in, not caring about the details, because details are irrelevant - emotion is relevant. Witold Flak was one of those key persons who unknowingly gave me the will to persist.
When I got to know that Witold would be visiting the island once again this year, it was great news. I was curious to know how he had evolved, whether we would still see things similarly, or whether the world had changed him. What I discovered was a person that has evolved, but not changed. His work is slightly more controlled – quite probably the result of a more confident person behind the camera – but not lacking the emotion and mood that is his signature.
What I was even more curious about was a new name that would also be visiting the seminar. I saw Chiara Fersini's work on her website, but nothing prepared me for the actual encounter. Chiara started off as a painter, but, very much like Cindy Sherman, found the process to be too long - long enough to not be true to the original mood that engulfed her when she dreamt of the image. She moved to photography because it was the ideal medium for her - it would allow her to focus on the dream, rather than the process. Very much like Cindy Sherman, she is the protagonist of the majority of her work - how can I expect a model to express genuinely the mood and emotion that I am feeling? she would say. Her work is autobiographical, and that is where she differs greatly from Sherman, who portrays characters that are invented, that are not her. Chiara's work is not invented, it is dreamt.
Creating the photograph is for her the only way to get rid of the dream. Like a true artist, every piece of art is a piece of her – and it shows, or rather, it feels. Images are ripe with emotion, often something verging on the dark and sad, a sign that she is at her best when she needs to get rid of something – a common trait amongst artists. But in the sadness, we can see hope – a focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. In every artist there is an internal battle between the true self and the ideal, and the situation is quite ironic in itself. The artist will continuously search for that unification of self, where the truth is merged with the ideal, but the moment that happens there is no more need for art, and so the artist, given the choice, must choose between art or internal peace. This internal battle is one of the recurrent themes in Chiara’s work – something she is strongly aware of; a key driver of her art.
Putting Chiara and Witold in the same room, speaking after each other in alternation was a stroke of genius. Their styles are different, their characters are different, but somehow, somewhere in the ubiquity of art, they meet, they merge and agree. In their own ways, they are both artists. For them the camera is nothing more than a tool - it just happens to be the right tool for them. For them, photography - art - is a means of escape. It is a drug that hooks you because whenever you create a photograph you get that high that keeps you going, and as soon as you stop you're back to the place you need to escape from, and the only way is to create again.
Chiara and Witold are artists, although they might not readily admit it. They are the kind of artists we rarely see, because there just aren't that many of them around. They are two persons whom I know will impact my life, because they already have.
This article refers to an annual free seminar organised by the Malta Institute of Professional Photography in celebration of world photography day.
"Art is the elimination of the unnecessary"
~ Pablo Picasso, painter, and sculptor (1881-1973)
A short while ago, I was invited to attend a concert at our national theatre. It was an important anniversary performance by a local band club, and they pulled off all the stops for the occasion. A full blown choir was invited to join the performance, and they had a renowned local composer write a complete work which took up the bulk of the performance.
As they say, a structure is only as strong as its weakest link, and unfortunately the musical composition was what took the whole concert down in this case. I had an inkling about what I was about to hear, but I didn't fathom the extent of its gravity. As I settled into my seat, I read the programme, and in it was the composer's statement on his musical piece. As I read, I increasingly dreaded what was to come next. The composer stated (and here I paraphrase) that there are few pieces of intense musical complexity written purely for brass bands, ones which do not require a special arrangement or adaptation. This statement shocked me in numerous ways. I am no musical expert by any means, however I very much enjoy classical music, and particularly scores from films. Over the years I have heard a few pieces which although performed by orchestras, were written essentially for the brass sections of such. This point aside, the main statement which concerned me was the apparent belief that grandiosity is proven through complexity.
I believe this statement not only to be wrong, but also an insult to creativity. Over the years, I have come to fervently believe that the most difficult thing to achieve within any creative field is simplicity - be it a product, a piece of music or a work of visual art. Picasso said that the most difficult thing for an artist is to become a child once again. Children have no concept of complexity - they have nothing to prove to the world and to themselves, and that gives them the freedom to be nonconformists, to colour outside of the boundaries, if you will. It is when we start forcing them to stick to the boundaries society has created, that we kill creativity. This pressure to conform persists throughout our adult life, making it ever more difficult to think and act outside of the box which society has built around us. One of the sides of this box says that we need to continually prove ourselves, and written under it in bold is a rule that states that in order to do this, we need to show others that we are capable of doing things they can't, with as much fanfare as possible. This means that if you're good enough, you need to make stuff that is complex; and in order for others to see how good you are, you need to make sure it feels, tastes, smells, sounds and appears complex. In reality, it is this mentality that is completely destroying not only contemporary art, in all it's shapes and forms, but also society itself. Our need to prove ourselves and do great things, together with the need to shine in the eyes of our peers is driving us towards a world where complexity is king - where no one is really able to understand what anyone else does, because the message is buried under countless cryptic layers. The fact is that we are all missing the point - big time. Really and truly, the great people who will forever be remembered in history are those who were able to do exactly the opposite - genius is when one is able to hide unimaginable complexity under a veil of sheer simplicity.
One of the persons who has managed to do this in recent history is Steve Jobs. He has reinvented products which nobody had been able to make successful before him, just because he believed in simplicity. The simplicity of his products does not make them any less complex than the labyrinths that are his rivals' - if anything, one would usually need to add more underlying complexity to make the surface simpler - it just makes them better, easier to use, intuitive and, at the bottom line, best sellers; because everyone understands them. In one of his interviews, he said, "we make progress by eliminating things; by removing the superfluous." This process of elimination was a fixation for him. He would spend hours, days, months, mulling over each detail of each project, trying to make things simpler. The extent to which he achieved this was such that in one occasion, an illiterate child in the midst of a rural farm in Colombia was able to use one of the most recent and more complex products within seconds of getting hold of it, and with no instruction at all. That is nirvana.
This whole concept just hit home while I was sitting in the audience, listening to what sounded very much like the hour long agony of a dying cat. I felt for the poor performers, who did their utmost to make the best out of what sounded like a bunch of randomly dissonant and completely unintuitive notes. It was incredibly difficult to perform, but the fact is that the bravura of the band and choir had already been proven before the disaster began. In fact, prior to this, the John Powell piece "Hymn to the Fallen" was performed. It is a fantastically beautiful piece, ripe with emotion, very easily delivering the message it was designed to carry. Listening to this piece carefully, one will notice the intense complexity of the music, however once you take a step back and take it in as a whole, it just merges together seamlessly - and as happens with everything that is great, it 'just works'.
Experiencing the contrast between something into which a great effort has been placed to "remove the superfluous" and present something which achieves its goal in the simplest fashion, and something else which is rough, unpolished and intentionally complex was an eye opener for me. I have always been an advocate of simplicity, but this just put everything into perspective. It made me realise just to what extent the approach we take affects the results we produce and the repercussions it has on the consumers of our creations.
This approach strongly applies also to the visual arts, and particularly photography. The distinguishing fact of photography compared to other visual arts is that the medium, in this case the camera, is undiscriminating in what it captures. It will not distinguish between strong and weak compositional elements. With most other artistic media, the artist has full control from the onset as to what to include in to the artwork - it is a bottom up approach - start with nothing and build from there. Photography is the exact opposite. Photographers start with everything - their entire surroundings - and have to eliminate from there. This obviously requires a particular skill, not to mention the fact that the photograph is usually seen, composed and captured within a very short period of time.
While this might appear as being a problem, or at least a nuisance, I realised that as photographers we might even be at a slight advantage over artists using other media. Most people who create things, be it consumer products or art, admittedly go through a specific cyclic process of creation whereby something is first built from the ground up and then revisited multiple times to remove the superfluous and simplify until the final product has reached the required simplicity. Photography allows us to very quickly reach (depending on the type of photography being undertaken) a good point within the final stage. Our surroundings immediately offer us the maximum complexity, and as such we do not need to do anything to build that. The first stage is all around us, and as photographers all we need to do is simplify from that point onwards. Granted, this next stage is also the most difficult part, and of course, it is also the part which most tend to overlook or ignore.
Simplification begins in our mind, or maybe our subconscious. We all perceive our surroundings in different ways. Good photographers have a natural tendency to isolate the important from the irrelevant - to capture that part of reality which on its own consists of a lean slice of context; enough to be complete on its own but without any excess which would create superfluous distractions, diminishing the overall experience of the pure image in its most perfect form. Of course, all this talent would be useless without the necessary technical knowledge needed to translate vision to capture. Technique is important but should never take precedence over the photographer's eye. Too much focus on technique tends to create cold, lifeless images - not to mention the fact that it makes the process of photographic capture cumbersome and long; often long enough to lose the all important "decisive moment". Technique should eventually become an instinctive part of photography - because way too often does technique tend to take over the creation of a photograph, when it should rather become a slave to creativity; a tool merely used to translate vision to capture.
I am a firm believer that the end justifies the means within the creative process. We have a myriad of tools at our disposal, starting with a variety of cameras and lenses, all the way to advanced post processing tools and printing material. All these form part of the creative process, and all are in their own way tools for simplification. Sometimes it is not possible to eliminate all the superfluous within the camera. We should never put limits on ourselves and on the lengths to go in order to create the best possible result from our creative vision. After all, who created the rules saying "we should not do this", or "we should not remove that"? Such rules are not only artificial, but also limiting, and thus damaging to our creative potential. This damage commences very early in our lives, when as children we are riddled with rules such as "colour within the lines". Society has got a particular obsession with conformity - from birth we are constantly being forced into boxes, conforming to the standards of society. We are cut down to size to fit into a social standard, and what’s left on the cutting floor is creativity and potential.
Picasso was a leading figure of 20th century art. Most of the modern art movements span off from his work. He had a strong belief that great artists need to get rid of the baggage accumulated through years of conformity and rediscover their childish freedom and naïveté. His exact words were, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” This journey of self discovery is one which every artist needs to go through. It is not only long but sometimes also painful. We need to open ourselves to our environment and surroundings in order to rediscover ourselves in depth. This means shedding the defenses built over the years and making ourselves vulnerable. It is a necessary step to connect our inner selves to the world, because only then can we completely experience our surroundings. By creating this connection between our inner self and the rest of the world, we can better understand and experience the beauty of it all, and translate that to what eventually will become our art. Some artists tend to skip this important step, usually resulting in cold, mechanical and often complex work. Their work does not connect us to the emotional intensity which one should experience when in the presence of art, because most likely they fail to experience it themselves. We need to realise that in order to transfer the beauty and simplicity of anything, first and foremost we need to connect with it ourselves, experiencing the same emotions we are trying to convey. We cannot keep ourselves closed and protected, because those who live in glass houses might enjoy the view but will never smell the fresh air.
The dead and the living. The ever-the-same and the ever-changing. The static and the dynamic. Most battles are fought to fend off intruders, invaders into what is thought to be someone else's space. It has always been so, and this battle is no different. This time, it's not man against man, but man against earth. Because this place is not ours. It belongs to itself, and mankind has used it and abused it since the day some bright spark lit the first fire. I will not go into the controversy of what we've done wrong or right - that is not my intention. My focus is on the fact that this conflict does exist, and in which ways we can look at it.
The premise is this - it is a battle we're never going to win. If we look at what man "creates", we see the static, the dead. I see a building today - same building tomorrow. By comparison, I see a blade of grass today - it's a flower tomorrow. Nature is alive, dynamic and ever-changing. It is self-sustaining and self-healing, and this is it's greatest weapon. We might not realise it, but we are just a speck in the history of the universe. A little bit like a flu or an itch we might have throughout our lifetime.
This thought fascinates me. From our point of view, nature's healing process is irritating. We build, it destroys, we create, it disintegrates. If we look at it from the opposing point of view, however, it very much resembles the actions of parasites and antibodies. We destroy, it heals. As they say, it's all a matter of relativity. What we see and what we believe depends entirely on our point of view. What we see as decomposition from our point of view is recomposition from nature's point of view.
I have always felt close to nature, and decay has always fascinated me. It has a visceral attractiveness - a stunning elegance under a veil of harshness. Since the day I grabbed a camera in hand I found myself photographing things that are falling apart. I find it interesting to observe and beautiful to look at.
The "Recomposition" series is an ongoing effort to document and interpret the beauty of decay in all its shapes and forms. As with all of my work, it is a collaborative effort - I will not stop at documentation, but rather use what I see as my starting point, building on it until I have uncovered the beauty I see in it for everyone else to enjoy.
The “observer effect” is a well known term used in several fields of study, including most notably physics and psychology. The basic concept refers to changes that the act of observation will trigger on the phenomenon being observed. In order to observe a subject, some form of interaction has to occur, and that interaction, even if minimal, will affect the state of the observed in some form or another.
My view is that within the field of photography, this effect is ever present in various forms, and can be explored at various levels. The most common examples include the change in attitude within people upon the realisation that a camera is being pointed towards them. Roland Barthes refers to it as the “act of posing” in Camera Lucida - the process where the subjects transform themselves into an image of themselves in advance of being photographed.
Throughout history, photographers have been trying to exploit this effect from one end, and eliminating it from another. This is clearly visible just by analysing the two styles of street photography - some photographers will use short lenses to become part of the action and clearly make their presence noted, while others will use longer lenses in order to avoid as much as possible any interference with the event being photographed.
The concept becomes even more interesting when analysed from different points of view, in different situations, and through the entire photographic process. Ansel Adams mentioned that there are three entities in each photograph - the subject, the photographer and the viewer. Each of these entities may be affected in one way or another by the act of photography. The subject may be affected by the consciousness of being photographed, or possibly even by the sheer presence of the photographer (a theory certainly worth exploring). The photographer is affected by the voyeuristic act, as is the viewer.
Any photographer will state that their attitude towards a subject changes dramatically during the act of photography. In fact, the entire perception of reality takes a different shape during that split second. Something is triggered, maybe it is the that primitive hunting instinct that is re-awakened. All the photographer cares about, at the moment reality becomes that restricted bounding box that is the viewfinder, is to capture the prey and lock them forever into the box. Or as Cartier-Bresson put it, "I'm not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks."
This duality between photography and its primitive counterpart is all too evident even through the most basic of photographic terms - aim, shoot, capture... Photographers are on a hunt for images, and as a hunter are purely focussed on the final goal, on the best timing and placement of the shot. The observation of a potential subject - and indeed reality in its entirety - is a totally different matter when seen through the camera's viewfinder. Some photographers will state that after a while, the "shooting mode" will also start permeating into "real life" and photographers will start looking at their surroundings as though there was a camera permanently attached to their eye. "One doesn't stop seeing. One doesn't stop framing. It doesn't turn off and turn on. It's on all the time," says Annie Leibovitz. In reality the change is still marked, although it becomes foggier with time. The fact remains that the photographer, the interpretation of the subject and reality itself change through the act of observation through a viewfinder.
When looking into the process of photographing conscious subjects, namely humans for the sake of this argument, the entire play of observation, self-consciousness and interaction - or the lack of it - provides a myriad of possibilities for analysis. We can compare different portraiture styles, for example, ranging from 'life captures', to carefully engineered portraits, and all the grey areas in between. It is interesting to compare, within each variety, the effect the photographer has on the subject, and eventually on the final photograph. For example, in Richard Avedon's 'the family' - a series of portraits of the rich and powerful in America - the photographer had no verbal contact with his subjects; only a very strong visual communication and the resulting enhancement of the subject's self-consciousness. The result is a total destruction of the subjects' confidence and power for those few minutes in the photographer's studio, which can be clearly observed in the final product.
One further point of view to be considered is how the subject of a photograph changes through a viewer's observation of the photograph. The act of photography has already changed the subject through decontextualisation, however this change is only complete when interpreted by the viewer.
Viewers observing a photograph will merge the 'truth' - if there ever was one - with their limited point of view, their baggage of experience, emotions, opinions and biases - together with a knowledge of the context within which the photograph was taken and the temporal difference - into their own interpretation of the image. What a viewer sees when observing a photograph inevitably differs somewhat from what the photographer saw at the time the image was captured, and is most certainly not a reflection of the truth. Observation brings interpretation, which in turn brings change.
In the end, individuals will manipulate reality in whichever way suits them best - both consciously and unconsciously. Photographers have the luxury of manipulating the image permanently. They will inevitably add a piece of themselves to the image, capture it and present the result to viewers, who will manipulate the image transitorily and personally, through the addition of a part of their own self into the mix.
The bottom line is that the entire photographic process is affected by observation, consciousness and self-consciousness. In the end, it is difficult to understand whether there is any truth left - although that is also dependent on one's definition of absolute truth, and whether such thing exists at all.