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What Makes a Picture?

September 20, 2009
From the forthcoming book Moonmilk by Ryan McGinley

From the forthcoming book Moonmilk by Ryan McGinley

The “gee-whiz” factor of our college’s new photography facilities have settled down and now students are left with what all artists face. What to do? Making art is certainly aided by a good place to create and some support from your peers but, ultimately, art making is a personal endeavor. In an effort to ease the way, I’ve been showing work to all my classes that has been, or can be, made in the local environs of Western Mass.

Some of the pictures from Moonmilk, the book the above photo is taken from, could have been created in the Howe Caverns in nearby upstate New York. To photograph nudes wandering through the heavily touristed caves must have required some serious negotiations on the part of photographer Ryan McGinley. I remember photographing at a military fortress which had been turned into a state park in Maine with a class led by Joyce Tenneson. About twenty of us were gathered around some male and female models near a row of gun turrets along an underground corridor. We had watchers posted at each end warning us when tourists or guards were coming. When the park rangers finally busted us, I thought they were going to arrest us for obscenity and indecent exposure. Fortunately, it was the early 80’s.

In 2009, when it is prohibited to photograph on almost any property deemed private, like a shopping mall, or public, like a subway, photographers have new challenges to deal with before they can even make an exposure. This overall attitude of “NO!” is balanced by the fact that almost every human being is walking around with a camera (mostly in cell phones) and the official paranoia usually doesn’t kick in until security people see a tripod or a (D)SLR.

Photograph the Specifics > Transcend the Generic > Reach for the Universal

There is an answer to the question of what to photograph. I’m throwing out the old rule of forcing students out of their comfort zone to take risks. Young artists need to get comfortable with who they are, where they live, what they do. This is life, and it can offer beautiful pictures. So, get comfortable and get personal! I’m not talking about kicking back and hanging out. I still want students to face some fear. I’m asking students to pay attention, to stay awake, to see themselves with clarity and to cultivate a visual consciousness. Let your camera be the excuse for living more creatively. Let it be your fantasy machine, your memory box, and most importantly, a tool for experiencing your daily life moment by moment.

I’m asking students to photograph their outer and inner worlds. I don’t want to see pet portraits. I want to be surprised. I want to be impressed. I want to celebrate what they celebrate and love what they love.

Here’s the rub. Art must transcend the prosaic, or, at the least, celebrate the everyday with undeniable abandon. Let vision take over.

Joe's Mushroom by Frank Ward

Joe's Mushroom by Frank Ward

My neighbor, Joe, dropped by last week with his latest find. I grabbed this picture before he went off and sold the sulphur mushroom for $50.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 21, 2009 2:55 pm

    The choice of what to photograph requires intuitive logic, vision and a willingness to “get closer.”

    The pianist Frederic Rzewski wrote a magnificent hour long piano work “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” It is based on a Chilean song by Sergio Ortega. The piece is totally concerned with the variations on the theme of the song. The piece is always moving, always in transition; not until the end does he embrace the total entity that has been the theme and repeat it multiple times in several different modes, mostly rhapsodic. It is an extraordinary piece and I am told brought him great acceptance in the classical world, because he wrote in the most traditional sense of piano music. And he never stopped until there was nowhere else to go.

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