Travels to the Edge

The Selective Eye by Jeannine Cook

As I watched an episode of Art Wolfe's Travels to the Edge on public television, I was constantly reminded of the parallels between his criteria as a photographer and those of an artist, especially an artist working plein air. When you arrive somewhere and you are hoping to create images of beauty, impact and meaning, you almost have to listen to your inner voice to help decide when and where to position yourself to record such possible images. Frequently there is not much time to waste - the scene changes, the mist lifts, the light alters, people or animals move away - and the image has evaporated.

With time and experience, you can learn to analyse time and light situations to help you find the perfect contre-jour lighting for a scene or the ideal position from which to see dawn break over a landscape you want to record, for instance. It is basically a question of being really observant. Of course, photography is considerably faster than painting or drawing. Nonetheless, it is sometimes surprising how much information one can quickly record as an artist if one is excited enough about a scene to want to capture it properly. Many artists use a camera as an aide-memoire too, but personally I find that the two-dimensionality of the recorded image, with its frequent paucity of detail, is not very helpful then to record another two-dimensional painted or drawn image. (There are also those indefinable extra dimensions you experience - of sounds, scents, feel - that somehow all filter into artwork created in situ, and are often absent from art created from photographs.) Nonetheless, however you create art, you still need to be able to choose your vantage point from which to record an image. Often, it needs to be a quick, almost visceral decision.

Composition, light, colour - they can all underpin what you want to say - as a photographer or as a painter or draughtsman. Nonetheless, experience also teaches one that you can start out trying to record a scene, urban, rural or whatever, and within short order, the artwork itself has taken over, and the image starts to dictate its own progress. You are recording the passing of time, in essence, especially if you are working from life. There is another ingredient in image-making: that of the artist's frame of mind that prevails when one is photographing, drawing or painting. How one feels, something one is thinking of, a phrase in one's head at the time, music, rustling leaves or birdsong heard at the time, the weather one is experiencing - they all influence the art being created. Consciously or unconsciously, each of us is a form of barometer, and our art shows our "weather", in the choice of scene, the way it is depicted and its implicit messages.

Each of us also has an innate predilection for certain types of scenes to which we respond and will want to use to create art. Our individualism is important and we all need to believe in our own eye and approach. Nonetheless, it does not hurt to have a knowledge of great master works, paintings, drawings, photographs... They inform our choices too. After all, as Picasso remarked, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." So as an artist or photographer scouts for possible images to record, that background knowledge is part of the sixth sense that each of us needs to start the act of creating art.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon , Picasso, 1907,(Image courtesy of  MOMA, NYC)

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon , Picasso, 1907,(Image courtesy of  MOMA, NYC)