Questioning the Ideal

When I looked back at my photographs from 2014 the urban ones didn't seem as cynical as I thought they might be.  On reflection, I think it's just less overt.    

My Vancouver photographs seem motivated by the contradiction between an idealized version of Vancouver and the reality on the ground (which is perhaps a clever turn of phrase given how that idealized vision incorporates towering condos). 

Looking at the photographs (yet) again, I concluded that even the ones appearing to be a straight-up representations of an idealized Vancouver are still questioning that ideal in some way.  Consider this photograph:

Dwelling, Vancouver, 2014

It’s a view of an attractive townhouse entrance.  But my interest lies in the contrast with the tower sitting above it.  The towers are striking, but their scale is alienating when experienced from the ground.  The homes in the sky are financially out of reach for most people.

The questioning appears in other ways.  Vancouver, like most Canadian cities, is very young.  Yet, there are signs of decay and neglect.  Rather than acquiring character buildings simply wear out.  They are disposable.   

Shrouded, Vancouver, 2013

Claymore Parking, Vancouver, 2013

Steps, Vancouver, 2014

There’s more to be written about the Vancouver photographs in future posts.  But I want to touch on how the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs also question ideals.  

The prairies are often imagined as a pastoral ideal.  In practice, the it's criss-crossed by a grid of roads.  I can just as easily see it as a vast food manufacturing operation.  I think of the Prairie Modern photographs as both representing and questioning the ideal.

Power Pole, Alberta, 2005

The Prairie Waters photographs question an ideal in a different way.  People might not consider the shallow lakes in central Alberta beautiful.  Certainly they don't attract visitors the way the Rocky Mountain parks do!  But mud can be beautiful if you look at it in the right way.  So, they question the ideal of conventional beauty.

While I may be questioning an ideal, ambiguity arises because there is also genuine affection.  I unabashedly love the open spaces of the prairies.  Vancouver may be flawed, but it’s an easy city to love. Green stains on concrete can be seen as verdant or decrepit.  I'll write more on this ambiguity in a future post.

Concept and Intuition, Part 3: Urban Photographs

In Part 2, I discussed the role of concept when photographing the prairies.  In this post I’ll continue by discussing it in the context of my urban photographs.

I started photographing the city with the loose idea of producing a prairie trilogy: natural, rural and urban.  At the time I was obsessed with creating photographs that were abstract and minimal without resorting to extreme cropping.  There were some successes:  

Backside, Edmonton, 2006

Alley Shadow, Edmonton, 2006

There were also lots of photographs of walls with various things on them.  I found these less satisfying.  It seemed to me I was trying to impose a minimalist ideal on an environment that was frequently chaotic.    

With the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs I drew inspiration from abstract painting.  I likened the natural photographs to abstract expressionism and the rural ones to color field painting.  I began to think cubism might be an appropriate reference for urban environments.  I made a few tentative efforts to produce cubist photographs, but the results were disappointing.    

Eventually, I gave up my preconceptions and just started photographing what appealed to me.  I photographed sporadically.  Looking at photographs from that period, there are many inspired by a minimalist aesthetic.  But there were others embracing more complexity.  I seemed to be developing a new grammar for photographing the city.

Mall Entrance, Edmonton, 2007

Eventually, I gained confidence in this new grammar and began photographing more frequently.  There was only concept in a broad sense.  I was trying to make honest photographs of Edmonton while staying true to the way I see.   

When I moved to Vancouver, I carried on in much the same way.  I was invigorated by having a new city to explore.  From the beginning the Vancouver photographs seem more complex and sophisticated.  

Convention Centre, Vancouver, 2012

Growth, Vancouver, 2013

Without doing so consciously, I was now making photographs that realized the cubist ideal I imagined many years before!

My approach to the urban photographs has been pretty consistent.  I pick a direction (if I’m walking out the door) or a neighbourhood (if I’m driving) and see what I find.  I try to vary the locations.  Sometimes I re-visit and other times I seek out something new.  I avoid back-to-back visits to the same place.

I have no specific agenda, but themes emerge.

For example, in Edmonton there are what I think of the ‘blank spaces’.  These are certainly informed by the minimalist aesthetic, but they are also seem true to the character of the city.   

Industrial Facade, Edmonton, 2012

There are also photographs of things protruding from the landscape. 

Protruding, Edmonton, 2008

There are photographs of malls.

Southgate Mall, Edmonton, 2007

None of these themes make an appearance in the Vancouver photographs.  Surfaces in Vancouver are covered in growth.  There are malls in Vancouver, but they are not as integral to the character of the city.  In downtown Vancouver, nothing breaks the horizon because you rarely see the horizon - it’s obscured by towers or mountains.  

The Vancouver photographs have their own themes emerging.  The city is trying to transform itself into an idealized and often exclusionary version of itself.  There is a strong demarcation between the west side and east side of Vancouver.  There are contrasts and contradictions to explore.

Chaotic, Vancouver, 2013

Behind, Vancouver, 2014

Between 4852 and 4864, Vancouver, 2013

I’m trying to nurture these themes while leaving room for others to emerge.  I’ve become more attentive to the politics of development.  I’ve read a little history on different neighbourhoods.  I’m doing research and formulating concepts to feed back into intuition.      

This series of posts on concept and intuition was motivated by the Vancouver photographs.  I'm looking back to learn from those experiences.  I hope to better understand what’s emerging and explore how I can re-enforce it conceptually without clobbering the flow.  

Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Prairie Waters
Part 2: Prairie Modern

Concept and Intuition, Part 2: Prairie Modern

In Part 1, I proposed a model for the roles of concept and intuition and discussed how it played out in the Prairie Waters project.  In Part 2, I’m going to examine the Prairie Modern project.

It could, and perhaps should, be called Roads and Horizons.  It’s two projects that I banged together after the fact when I put this site together.  I felt neither project was strong enough to stand on its own and they are closely related.  

The roads came first.  I was driving along the highway connecting Edmonton and Calgary taking pictures in my head.  It occurred to me I should make an effort to take some of those photographs with a camera.

I went on excursions to photograph around roads.  I started by focusing on overpasses, but the results weren’t satisfying.  One winter morning I was wandering along a ditch overlooking the highway.  Rather than looking out into the surrounding fields away from the road - a more conventional point of view - I was looking back onto the road.  

Pair, Alberta, 2005

Pair, Alberta, 2005

Roads are often framed as a visual pathway leading into a scene.  The view from side appealed to me because it shows the road slicing through the landscape.

I included objects in and around the roads as integral parts of the composition.  I was interested in drawing attention to mundane details often excluded from the frame.

Farmhouse, Alberta, 2005

Later I began simplifying the scenes into horizontal lines.  This was in part a response to observing how completely these landscapes have been transformed and groomed by people.  It's like the landscape has been machined into this simpler form.  

After Gursky, Alberta, 2005

I also stumbled upon the idea of framing scenes to include the top of the road as the foreground. 

Cracked, Alberta, 2005

Pond, Alberta, 2005

Such variations seem informed by both concept and intuition.  

Driving through the prairie provided ample time to consider concepts, perhaps to the point where I was getting in the way of myself.  

I was seeking more abstract images.  I imagined photographs with a few, simple bands of colour like a Rothko painting.  That contrasted elegantly with the Prairie Waters photographs which I likened to abstract expressionist paintings.  But that search became frustrating because roads are usually a messier affair.  My pursuit of an idealized landscape could blind me to the one in front of me.  Or perhaps I just needed to be more committed to finding those simplified landscapes.  At the time, I felt I was driving into a cul-de-sac.     

One evening, I was driving to an area where I planned to spend a few days photographing roads.  I had gotten a late start, so as twilight arrived I was mostly focused on reaching my destination.  I came upon a pile of grain.  It seemed like a pyramid.  Even though it wasn’t a road I felt compelled to stop and photograph it.

Prairie Pyramid, Alberta, 2005

I liked the idea of that photograph so much I abandoned the roads and spent the next several days making photographs of smallish things on the horizon.  This was one of them.

Tractor, Alberta, 2005

I sought more like this and found a few adhering to the strict format:

Canola Power, Alberta, 2005

Herd of Deer, Alberta, 2006

But again, they were difficult to find and I became frustrated.  It’s an interesting concept, but one that requires more patience.  I was very pleased with the deer.  I wanted some cattle and horses.  Rather than hoping to come upon such a scene by chance (as I did with the deer) I could have improved my chances by working with farmers.    

I made other photographs that were similar, but less stringent in their constraints, more informed by intuition.   

Prairie Sundial, Alberta, 2005

A Touch of Green, Alberta, 2005

When pulled together, the resulting portfolio reflects this series of partially developed threads.  I might have benefited from giving intuition freer reign.  For example, just photographing the roads as I found them without concern for a high degree of abstraction.  The Prairie Waters photographs were never as abstract as I imagined them anyway!  Alternatively, I might have benefited from stronger conceptually imposed constraints.  For instance, I could have photographed from the tops of roads, but always using the same focal length and placing the far edge of the road on the ⅓ line.  Or I might have continued to work on the ‘things on the horizon’ project to slowly accumulate more.  Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from trying any or all of these approaches in the future. 

There was certainly a lot of toing and froing between concept and intuition.  It generated interesting sub-themes and variations.  I might have achieved greater impact by more cohesively developing fewer ideas.  Or I could have generated more variation with a less constrained approach.  I wonder how it comes comes across in the Prairie Modern portfolio?  Let me know in the comments.    

Six Bins, Alberta, 2005

Concept and Intuition, Part 1: Prairie Waters

Human endeavours such as works of art, scientific discoveries and product innovations rarely proceed in a straight line.  The final outcome depends on a mix of skill, intellect, intuition, luck, research and analysis.  I see concept in photography arising from the to-ing and fro-ing of intellect and intuition.  

Some concepts arrive in a moment of inspiration.  Photographs motivated by that concept might be brilliant or dull.  The concept evolves or dies.  Something different might emerge from the attempt.

Alternatively, concept can emerge from photographs taken without specific purpose.  The conscious mind becomes aware of patterns observed through intuition.  Having noticed these patterns, a concept may be formed through focused consideration.  It is then further refined by intuition. 

Bringing the conscious mind to play is fraught with peril.  Intuition speaks softly and is easily crushed by over-thinking.  But concept plays a role in putting intuition in the path of opportunity.  A concept might be as broad as carrying a camera during daily activity.  Or it might be more planned, like an excursion to photograph peak colour in the fall.    

In part 1, of what I envision as a three part series, I'm going to discuss the role of concept and intuition in the Prairie Waters photographs.  

The project was sparked by this photograph of Cooking Lake. 

At the Edge, Cooking Lake, 2004

I had photographed Cooking Lake for several years.  Despite not looking radically different, this photograph contained several revelations.  It integrated land and sky into a cohesive composition.  It was more abstract and ambiguous.  It was distilled to just mud, water and sky.  It was epic and completely unremarkable at the same time.

With these concepts in mind, I scoured maps seeking other prairie lakes with similar characteristics.  I found Beaverhill Lake and Bittern Lake.   The following photographs are from my first visits to those lakes.       

Alien Forms, Beaverhill Lake, 2004

Angles, Bittern Lake, 2004

Inspired by the early the results I returned to photograph the lakes again.  I was amazed how different they could be from visit to visit.   Changes in weather, seasons and water levels revealed different moods.  I committed to visiting often to discover these moods.  Sometimes the conditions were unremarkable but I always enjoyed my visits.

Stained, Bittern Lake, 2004

Sacred Circle, Cooking Lake, 2004

Eruption, Beaverhill Lake, 2004

The onset of winter brought even more radical transformations.  

Crack In the Ice, Cooking Lake, 2004

Right, Cooking Lake, 2004

When I was at a location intuition took over.  The more surprised I was the more viscerally I responded.  To avoid pre-conceptions and trying to repeat past successes, I made a rule not to visit the same location twice in a row.  I chose my destination randomly or on a hunch. 

So, in the case of Prairie Waters a single photograph inspired a concept.  That concept guided research.  The resulting photographs motivated further exploration and a deep engagement with the concept and places.

In Part 2, I discuss the role of concept and intuition in the Prairie Modern project.

Last Light, Bittern Lake, 2004


Sometimes my photographs capture an idealized version of Vancouver imagined by developers and urban planners.  Initially, these photographs seemed more accidental than most because my inclination is to seek out grittier environments.  But seeing how they provide context and contrast made me more ‘open-minded’.  

Groomed, Vancouver, 2013

Dwelling, Vancouver, 2014

They complement the photographs of abandoned areas surrounded by condo curtains.

Between, Vancouver, 2012

Discussing Concept

Mark Hobson and I have been talking out loud about concept on his blog.  He's done the heavy lifting and I've chipped in some comments.  Recommended reading, in four parts:

narrative and concept, pt. 1 - is a picture worth a thousand words? 
narrative and concept, pt. 2
narrative and concept - get over it
getting (to) the point

From my comment on the last post:

Some points I take away from the last couple of posts: too many academics have over-emphasized concept at the expense of other values; the artist’s concepts may have little or no impact on the viewer’s response; it’s immaterial whether concept drives the photographs or the concept is an after-the-fact rationalization and don’t worry about concept if it gets in the way of making photographs. I’d agree with all that.

As I said at the outset, my interests in discussing concept are self-serving. I think I’m getting to the heart of it. I’m considering how I might use concept to make better art. Overthinking sucks the life out of pictures, so there’s a balance to be struck. But appropriate thinking might put one in the path of different opportunities.

Vair's Manor, West End, Vancouver, 2015

The Concept Continuum

We can perhaps think of the role of concept in art on a continuum.  

At one end of the spectrum we have art about art where concept is king.  An example is Marcel Duchamp's readymades.  As a Canadian the snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm) is especially appealing.  From Moma Learning:

To make In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp selected a snow shovel, hung it from the ceiling of his studio, and called it art. . His readymades—mass-produced, functional objects he designated as art—challenged many accepted assumptions and traditions, namely that art should reflect an artist’s skills, or even be handcrafted by the artist. Duchamp asserted that an artist could create simply by making choices.

Such self-referential work spirals in upon itself until there's nothing left.  It's not like you can make a practice of sticking shovels in an art gallery.  Otherwise, art schools would only need to teach students how to find the nearest Canadian Tire.  That doesn't stop some members of academia from trying to find ever more obscure and convoluted ways to make clever statements mostly appreciated by those in the know.  But I digress.   

A little further along the continuum we have photographs of photographs.  Richard Prince is well known for his Cowboy photographs.  

Richard Prince came to the attention of the art world in the 1980s for appropriating the Marlboro Man advertisements into his own photographs. When he started appropriating images he was working at Time-Life in the tear-sheet department. “At the end of the day, all I was left with was the advertising images, and it became my subject.” He would rephotograph the advertisementsand then crop them to remove the text and most references to the cigarettes they were selling. Eventually one of his Cowboy photographs would become the first photo sold for more than $1 million. In 2007 he reset the record price for a photograph by selling “Untitled (Cowboy)” for $3,401,000 at an auction.
— James Franco

From this article.


This kind of work where concept is king doesn't appeal to me that much.  But further along the continuum we find ourselves visiting artists such as the recently deceased Lewis Baltz.  From a tribute by Gerry Badger:

Baltz was a leading figure in the field of what has come to be called ‘conceptual’ photography.’ Indeed, he was actually the Professor of Conceptual Photography at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. But the term ‘conceptual’ photography, like ‘documentary’ photography, can be difficult to define, and is a complex beast; not quite a school, not quite a defined approach.

But then Lewis belonged to no school, and in his hands, the conceptual approach certainly was both complex and meaningful, unlike so much contemporary photography that pretends to have a concept where in fact it has little, and is merely a regurgitating of formulaic strategies that lack either intelligence or soul.
— Gerry Badger

Baltz is best know for works such as The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California.  There's a great deal of over-wrought writing about this work, but Tyler Green does a good job summarizing it here.  From that article:

New Industrial Parks, which Baltz shot in 1974 with a 35mm camera and the help of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, is one of the masterworks of the 1970s. Baltz’s project made our ugly, under-considered treatment of the land into something uncomfortably beautiful, an apt metaphor for the way bad Western land-use policies served as an effective economic engine.
New Industrial Parks gracefully engages with many of the most important art-making threads of its time: conceptualism, the marriage of conceptualism to photography, geometric abstraction, minimalism and artists’ intense engagement with the then-nascent American environmental movement.

Baltz's work appeals to me because concepts are - at the very least - balanced by the aesthetic properties of the photographs.  These photographs can be deeply appreciated without reference to concept or their place in art history.*  They are beautifully crafted images.  They invoke a visceral response.  The aesthetic properties and concepts support each other. 

Duchamp's shovel by comparison, is a bit of a one-trick pony.  It's about the concept.  There is a 'right answer' as to how one is intended to interpret the shovel.  Prince's photographs are similar.  We're meant to marvel at the cleverness of the idea rather than his ability to assemble light and form in interesting ways.   

Many  excellent photographs lie further along the continuum where concept plays a lesser role. Ones where concept is more emergent or implicit.  I appreciate these photographs equally well.  

But I can't help but admire photographs like those from Lewis Baltz that sit comfortably at the balancing point of the continuum.  They are photographs that have a strong conceptual foundation while still being excellent photographs independent from conceptual reference.  

* Perhaps assuming one appreciates photographs of the vernacular.