Sunday, May 31, 2009

Portfolio Photography

This weeks Designs For Good adventure finds me doing portfolio shots for a local sculptor. It's true that anyone can take a decent picture these days, but portfolio shots are a category of photography that take a bit more equipment than your typical point-and-shoot with built in flash.
In the case of portfolio shots - a picture is worth a thousand... dollars, more or less. Excellent photography sets the artist apart, and can be the pass key to entering and even winning competitions.

My Circular Obsessions series will get national recognition through Sculpture Pursuit magazine based on photography alone.

A lot of artists simply cannot afford to pay a professional photographer who may charge several hundred dollars just to shoot one sculpture. I belong to the Society of Minnesota Sculptors and I offered my photography expertise for our members. A few have taken me up on my offer. It can take 6-10 hours to do a good job on a work of art.

OK, maybe I'm just slow. But getting to know the work, and playing with the studio lighting takes time as does all the post processing touch ups. Maybe I'm just picky or just like to play.
Early in my artistic life I hired a professional photographer on two occasions. In both cases I got a great exposure, but no feeling. The images were lackluster and lacked atmosphere.

It's not too hard to get a good exposure, but it takes time to build an atmosphere, yielding as sense of drama. You can take it too far though. I was tempted to put blue-green gels on the lights to accent the waves for the first picture above. After all it is bronze with a green patina, and a little blue cast would make the bronze more water-like. That is half of the challenge though. You can' t pull out all the tricks in the bag. You have to stay true to the object if the image is to represent what someone may want to buy, yet you need to make them want to buy it. Just a little tricky.

A few of each shot will go into portfolios and many will be posted on the web, helping to promote the artist's career. Helping the society's members helps me build a portfolio also. Shooting artwork is challenging and fun. Sometimes there is a single best shot that describes the feel of the work. Finding that shot could be the difference between selling a piece and having it passed over by a jury for a show.

These two works were a bit challenging for different reasons. The bottom image is an artist's interpretation of the Indian Goddess Kali. The top shot is of a woman riding out a wave on a beach. It isn't easy getting the angle right so the waves look wave-like, the smile is caught, the background doesn't interfere, and there isn't an inopportune shadow. Just moving this shot one step to the right and it looks like the subject's neck is hanging over a guillotine. Needless to say, not what the artist had in mind.

It is fun to play with the images as in the one to the left, and the artist may even like your playing around, but that is what it is - the photographer playing around and having fun.

This is where portfolio shots start to mutate into graphic design. This image could be used on the artist literature or website as a very graphic element to draw a viewer in, but it is obviously not representational.

Maybe I should start a photographic series of my interpretations of artist's interpretations of something else. Maybe I'll call it Adaptive Interpretations.

Or... maybe for now I'll keep my open invitation to our sculpture society for doing more of their pieces, as long as it remains fun.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Creativity & Collaboration

In the post Why Designs For Good I discussed some motivational factors for giving my work or the proceeds from sales to nonprofit organizations. I stated that this act of giving is in no way selfless or some sort of bleeding heart liberal indulgence. Today's post is an example of receiving far more in return through the act of giving, and being open to 'outside' influences in your creative life.

Just the opposite of that openness is my Circular Obsessions series was a truly obsessively driven singular pursuit of realizing an inner vision by minimizing outside influences. This inner vision came with a set of very restricting standards the sum of which is hard to explain, but I'll list a few for discussion sake.
  • Color was fairly restricted
  • Almost all surfaces had to have unique texturing
  • The disparate media types had to have a seamless integrated look
  • Each piece in the series had to have at least two glass styles: cast glass, kilnworked glass or torchworked
There were many other criteria which I had little control over. Things just either looked and felt right or they didn't. The object 'resonated' or it didn't. When working with/through this inner vision thing you can't talk yourself into a compromise. If it isn't right it just isn't right, and no amount of rationalization will work to change that.

And what I mean by criteria which I had little control over will need to be a subject of another post. For now, just ask yourself.. what is my favorite color, and do you know why? Or why do some people like abstracts and others do not? Suffice it to say that on some very fundamental level we do not control our preferences for certain types of sensation, and my posit - as it pertains to my inner vision thingee - is that it was more in control of me than I in control of its driving aesthetic preferences.

At times I would obsess for a month over how to best hide a seam between two components. In extreme cases it may take over six months to get a glass component both structurally sound and aesthetically 'correct', with many failures along the way.

Working under these conditions is a sort of aesthetic tyranny, which you accept as the process of creation, but it can become oppressive as it seeks an end result which seems continually out of reach.

Needless to say, in this mindset outside influences such as: will it sell; what gallery will show it; or even the basic financial concern of the cost of production versus potential of return are not in consideration. All of which serves to illustrate the somewhat irrational aspects of the inner vision thing.

After completing the Circular Obsessions odyssey I turned my sculpture studio into a photography studio and really didn't have a plan for glass into the future, until I was invited to teach kilnformed glass at Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center (CAFAC), and then some odd things started to happen.

This inner vision thing relentlessly pursued its end and thereby eliminated whole sets of creative potential. Even within the glass area I was restricted to a certain look which eliminated almost everything else in glass except 'the look'.

When I opened myself to 'give' my time to CAFAC the whole world of glass opened back up to me. In short order I found Powder Painting, created an extensive array of art glass tiles which I will be marketing, and most recently have begun experiments in enameling.

This is a copper foil lotus flower I recently prototyped as a small part of a collaborative sculpture which will help illustrate CAFAC's multi media emphasis. It is an example of how glass and metal can be integrated into a single work of art, and what students can learn at the Fire Arts Center.

Being primarily a glass artist I struggled for many weeks trying to make glass flowers, and they always looked.... well like glass flowers. They didn't fit the overall feel of the sculpture which is a collection of found objects mostly of metal.

The final lotus flowers could have multiple layers of petals where the lower layers of petals are only slightly enameled showing mostly copper, and thereby integrating into the largely metal sculpture.

OK, maybe I was just ripe for doing new things after completing Circular Obsessions, and maybe I just needed to get out more instead of being all wrapped up in the inner vision thingee.

That's true, but it was the opening up and the giving away in powerful combination which has totally changed how I now approach my work, and who I am as a creative person. I can see now that collaboration will be a key factor in setting directions, and collaboration will provide a rich open field of creative adventures which will far outstripped what I could have imagined before.

Giving my work away will open doors and provide advantages not available to the lone wolf artist I was. And again, nothing is really being given away. Materials must be paid for from the proceeds, and there are obviuos returns in the form of marketing and publicity.

My goal is to maximize the proceeds so that significant funds are generated for a nonprofit, and as discussed in other posts, that is not a simple process. To that end I will be contacting organizations like the Craft Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) for their assistance and advice, and potentially to organize an event for the sale of Circular Obsessions to benefit CERF.

One last note... Enameling is very expensive, especially on a large scale. A large panel of 30x40 inches may take several hundred dollars of enamel powder. So, being a glass artist and having just discovered Powder Painting for myself.... hmmm, can I enamel with my glass powders which are far cheaper than those wee little jars of enamels? Can I make 30x40 enamel panels with Bullseye glass?

Sure.. why not... stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Macro Manipulations

As with any of my projects there are usually multiple stages of design and iterations within each stage. The photography stage wasn't too difficult. A macro lens with good studio flashes permitted a small aperture of f32, yielding a decent depth of field (DOF). Since my subject was held flat with a piece of glass DOF was not as critical and difficult to maintain as 3D subjects. I might go back to the studio to use a single side flash to bring out the texture of the scales on the wing.

For now, I'm satisfied with the images and have progressed onto abstracting them using Photoshop, Lightroom, and other plugins. The detailing, color gradations and hue and tonal variations are critical since the final prints will be 20x30 in size. I'm going for a Chuck Close Meets Impressionism style where at a distance things look somewhat normal, but you are drawn into the image with an ever deepening realization of the detail.

You have to imagine the image at left being 20x30 inches and the 3rd image down being what you see when you walk up close.... Chuck :)

Having the DOF just right accounts for much of the detailing. You can see every scale on the wing, pieces of dust, dirt and hairs, and collectively these produce the texture, hue and tonal gradations that hold your interest. If the images were not sharply focused the detailing would be lost and the gradations and textures would become large uninteresting patches with few color shifts.

I put these images and other butterflies on my site where you can use a Zoom tool (similar to MapQuest) letting you zoom in and out of the images.

I will most likely go through several iterations of composition and design styles, but that is not the hard part. Nor should the printing be difficult if the final images are fantastic.

The challenge will be to see if certain unknown judges will still consider this photography? I would like to use the final images as part of a grant competition in photography. This is a highly subjective and almost philosophical question. What do you think? Are these photographs?

To be honest, I really can't tell you, and anyone that does have a qualified answer is simply working from a particular aesthetic or technical context. That is, judging from a certain frame of reference. The question is as nebulous as what is art, what is fine art, and when does craft become art?

Is the first image a photograph that is just colored funny and the last one is not because it is too abstracted? Are very grainy black and white images not photography because the grain (an aesthetic quality) is not realistic? Many people don't believe photography is art and maybe that is the rub of these photographs.

What do you think? Are these art?

Along with my lifelong predisposition to dislike self promotion is my dislike of labels in the arts. Regretfully, the reality is that labels and who is labeling does indeed matter, and can profoundly affect you and how you approach your work... if you let it.

My answer to all of that is Designs For Good where I simply make stuff, sell it for enough profit to pay for materials, and forward the proceeds to a good cause. That is a simple model to avoid a lot of the distractions the art world imposes on its participants.

However, even with that there are many practical concerns and questions like how can I maximize the proceeds, or, if you want grant money you have to play by the rules, their rules.

Backing up 10,000 feet. All of the above is really about values - what and how, we and other cultures, value certain activities and objects. Values and categories are closely intertwined.

For now, this post must come to an end, leaving the discussion of values for another time or better just left to philosophers.

You might think it would be simple just to give stuff away. But not really. Not if you want more of a result than just throwing all your money off of the tallest building in town.

I value my time/work more than that.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Macro Lepidoptera

As mentioned I have been working on the initial phases of several projects for Designs for Good and have taken the first steps on a new effect. But I’ll digress with some back-story first.

I have been attracted to butterflies since childhood. Some of the boys in the neighborhood would spend an afternoon catching them at our ball field on hot summer afternoons when we weren’t playing baseball. The ball field had a small wooded area over the homerun fence, and it was there we would sit for hours on end waiting to see those dashing flights of color.

We posted ourselves apart so that we could visually survey our several acre hunting ground and waited in the heat; waiting for one of us to scream Monarch! Tiger! or on rare occasion Zebra! Then we would be off at break-neck speed, leaping over gullies, dodging trees and brush, and squeezing through fences holes while swinging our nets to catch the prize.

That continued for several years and we amassed a collection of several hundred specimens. We learned about relaxing jars, killing jars, and how to properly prepare and mount the winged wonders. Our parish priest was a stogie-loving man and saved his Marsh Wheeling cigar boxes for us to store our prizes. My father worked at the HJ Heinz factory and (for whatever reason) he was able to obtain carbon tetrachloride to use in our killing jars. Today it is known for its adverse health effects. That was apparent to us young boys because it killed the insects in seconds once in the jar.

I’m old enough now that those times seem like someone else’s life. My color fixation today is focused mostly on glass and photography, but I have never forgotten my first color addiction. In my wanderlust years well over 30 years ago I found myself walking the tobacco lined back roads of Kentucky, and was struck by the large number of road-kill butterflies on the roadside. I collected the samples and put them in a jar with mothballs for preservation. The shots here are from those samples.

I used my Nikon 2DXs with a Nikor 105mm macro lens to capture these shots. Two studio flashes were used on either side for even lighting and the camera was mounted directly over the subject on a tripod. Little else was done to the images except a little ‘clarity’ and contrast added in Adobe’s Lightroom.

For my
new project I’ll start with a clean set of macro images from a properly maintained collection without the dust and tears of my roadside collection. Then the fun will begin as I run the images though whatever strikes my fancy in my image-editing arsenal. The end product will be highly abstracted (as if macro wasn’t abstract enough) images ready for art prints.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to purchase Nikon’s on-lens wireless macro flash unit (R1), and this is the project for that. So now I can look like those CSI guys on TV.

I’m also tempted to rent a Nikon D3x for the project since I’ll then have a 24MP file to work with. My intention is to print these images poster size and larger, and will likely crop each images during final composition. This will leave me at least 12-18 MP to work with.

Now for the Designs for Good part of this.

The art prints will be sold and the profits will benefit a good cause. I haven’t identified a target organization yet because that will be the easy part and there are a lot of steps to complete first.

Dr. Richard Vogt of the University of South Carolina has graciously consented to allow me access to the Richard B. Dominic collection housed in the McKissick Museum. Information regarding this collection can be found at

Now I have access to a collection and the technical and artistic aspects are mostly under control. I will need to focus on the business and marketing aspects of the project. Large art prints are expensive to produce, especially if I’m driven aesthetically to print on media such as cloth, vinyl or canvas. Ideally, a pre-production funding source should be secured.

I’ll be applying for several grants. This year the Minnesota State Arts Board is offering an Artist Initiative Grant in photography. The grants range from two to six thousand dollars. That’s a nice chunk of change which would help with equipment, travel, and production costs. I’ll look into other grants as well.

It’s time to start the process of finding Designs for Good sponsors. To be realistic I’ll have to accomplish a few projects on my own before any company or organization will consider a limited stipend. But it’s time to start that process.

Getting the prints in front of the public shouldn’t be a major hurdle, but the main idea is to raise money for charity, not to show art prints. I’m exploring options and have a grandiose idea of showing them at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (I seldom aim low). The MIA has a program designed for local artists and I’m hoping to fit into that program. The idea is to create a significant pool of money for a cause. The prints are merely an opportunity for patrons of a major institution to contribute and receive a very unique ‘gift’ in return.

Galleries seem hit or miss to me and are not my preferred approach. Various web-based marketing opportunities are also an option. At this point however I’m very optimistic that a museum or art center will be open to the idea.

So, there you go. Along with the CAFAC effort this starts the second Designs for Good project.