Archives For photographic art

Don’t revise too much or it turns into patchwork.

— W.G. Sebald, paraphrased by Richard Skinner from notes taken during a workshop with the great writer.

About five years ago I worked on this picture, as usual using Photoshop. I thought it was going well. So I kept working on it for quite a while—anybody who knows me also knows it takes me a long time to complete an image. In fact, I wound up spending months on it. I still have the image—as a psd file tucked away somewhere on a hard drive—but you’ll never see it and no one else will either. That’s because, at some indiscernible and undramatic point, I managed to fuck it up.

How did I go wrong? As the existentialists say, a big part of the problem was freedom. Or, put another way: choices, choices, choices. When it comes to photography, another name for limitless possibilities is Photoshop. You can do practically anything with the digital juggernaut.

And I came close to doing just that. I took the image (for clarity, let’s call it ScrewedUpPicture no. 1, though it’s hardly my first) which had some promise, and I poked it, tweaked it, cajoled it, added to it, cleaned up this thing and that, removed something I thought defective, made it a little more complex here and there and elsewhere too—all to the point that somewhere, somehow, it reached an invisible tipping point where the image no longer worked. Through my well-intentioned efforts (the road to hell being paved with these), ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 had become a hodge podge of stuff, the sum of which was mysteriously yet mightily less than they were individually. ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 had lost something fundamental, including the indefinable energy that attracted me to it in the early stages. Whatever promise the image had for saying something that interested me deeply—that was gone too. I didn’t care about the picture anymore. So I ditched it, which was the probably the first good decision I’d made in at least a month.

On one level I could blame Photoshop. All those tools. A candy shop with Baby Ruths, Pop Rocks, Toblerones, Jawbreakers, Twizzlers, and Tootsie Rolls, and that’s just the first shelf: what kid wouldn’t eat himself comatose with those temptations?  So many ways to improve the image. So many ways to add layers, literally and metaphorically, to a picture. In the stone age of darkrooms, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, have tried to do what I did; the limited and infuriating (and wonderful) magic of chemicals, paper, tray tilting, water variance, humidity, and the bazillion other variables that perpetually reconfigured themselves in combinations and permutations, (sometimes leaving me in a fetal tuck of despair, other times astonishing me with their beauty) wouldn’t have allowed it. That’s no guarantee that ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 would’ve become SublimePicture no. 1 but the path would have been different, that’s for sure.

(I am not lauding the good old days of the darkroom. Traditional photography had its pluses as well as its many minuses and drawbacks. Photoshop photography can do the hitherto undreamed, but ultimately it’s a different medium despite sharing some superficially descriptive language.)

Of course, the real problem was me. I forgot to respect the power of ones’s tools—reminder # 1 being: nobody’s making you use them all. I didn’t use the power of time and distance—looking back, I was excited and in such a rush to make a great picture that I didn’t pull myself back from the hunt, meaning: put the thing away, wait a while and look again with fresh, less invested, eyes. Instead of paying attention to the process, I let my ego get invested in the result. And, dutifully following the work ethic I was brought up with, I thought working more and more on ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 would make it better and better, when what I was really doing was burying it a few spoonfuls of dirt at a time. To really mix my metaphors, I did what my friend Dimitri calls “overcook the image.” (To this day, when I show Dimitri works-in-progress, he’ll sometimes end his feedback, which I cherish, by saying “And don’t overcook it, Frank.” Bless his heart—may you have such good friends with keen eyes.)

So, here are a few takeaways from the saga of ScrewedUpPicture no. 1. Some might seem pretty basic and they certainly overlap but they’re here as reminders for me that I happily share with you.

  • Don’t think that adding/subtracting/changing is necessarily an improvement.
  • Beware the perils of perfectionism. Not only is that often the road to ruin but some so-called “imperfections” are decidedly beautiful if we take the time and effort to look at them.
  • Make every decision an aesthetic decision. That means you don’t do something simply because you can. Watch that you don’t shift into automaton mode, which can be easier with Photoshop because it’s a whole lot quicker and more repeatable than what we did in the darkroom age. (Conversely, making every decision an aesthetic decision also means  you don’t avoid doing because you haven’t adequately mastered your medium—in that case, you need to do what we all must, which is go back and work on craft.)
  • Pain and effort, including near-death experiences, in creating your work do not count in its final value. This is not grade school where a kindly teacher may goose your grade for Herculean effort. You can grind and slave and spit blood on the carpet and your work can still turn out like shite, though your Trickster Ego will try convincing you that such a cosmic injustice cannot be. And beware the Trickster Ego— he (it feels right to make him masculine) is no match in the long run for the Universe’s indifference to our pain.
  • Keep many versions of your images-in-progress. Photoshop is perfect for this and hard drive space is cheap. Version #3 may turn out to be a whole lot better than Version #34 and you’ll be glad you can go back easily and work from there.
  • Label (intelligibly) your versions as well as your layers so you’ll have some idea what the heck it was that you were doing in case you want to do it again sometime. Make notes directly in the file if it helps.
  • Limits, including those self-imposed, can be great things. If you’re stuck, think about that.
  • Let your work sit. Put it away for a while and come back to it. It’s amazing how a picture that looked like it might place you in the company of Michelangelo looks kind of, well, bleh after a few days or weeks. Conversely, it’s a good sign when an image retains or gains power in your eyes after a cooling off period.
  • Find yourself a cadre of people you trust and who have good eyes—people whose opinion you value and who are honest enough to tell you that, no, your sweat does not smell like honey. Show them your works-in-progress and don’t just ask for feedback, listen to it. If they tell you that, no, this image doesn’t work, ask them why, listening quietly, taking notes perhaps, and resisting the all-too-human temptation to insult their shoes or tell them their new baby is ugly.
  • And remember—don’t overcook it, Frank.
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Many thanks to Emese Krunák-Hajagos for doing this interview and giving me permission to repost. The interview was originally posted by artoronto.ca in April 2015. 

Emese Krunák-Hajagos (EKH): Your show Everything Will Be Forgotten is about the past, your mother and your child-self.  Why did you decide to dedicate a whole exhibition to that theme?

Frank Rodick (FR): It’s because that’s my most recent work and I’ve never shown it in Canada. I did this work – in particular the portraits of my mother – in response to my mother’s death in 2010. What compelled me most were her life, her death and our relationship. As for the self-portraits – and there are self-portraits of myself as both an adult and as a child – they followed, I suppose, because of this reflective frame of mind. The death of a parent – especially one’s last surviving parent – is a seminal event for most people and it gets you thinking, more and perhaps differently, about your own life. Fates cooperated because I found a lot of old photographs and documents in family archives.

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97532, no. 1 (death of Frances Rodick)
© Frank Rodick, 2011

EKH: In Parade in Petticoat Lane your young mother seems to be walking down Memory Lane with a small wicker basket in her hand. She could be in any old European city but the blind musician hints at an American one. Why did you choose those elements for this photomontage?

FR: This image is based on an old photograph taken by my father in 1952. My parents really were in London’s Petticoat Lane according to what’s written on the back of the photograph. It’s a great picture, the best photo my father – an amateur photographer – ever did. All the figures are in the original photograph: my mother, the woman behind her, the veteran with medals and the chained monkey on his shoulder, and the blind musician. It’s really brilliant on its own. What I did was transform

…when it comes to knowing the world, knowing each other, knowing ourselves, we’re all far more blind than we are sighted.

the image, push and pull it into the shape I wanted it to have. So I injected formal elements like the colours (the original is black and white), the over- and underlaid textures. I scratched over the monkey. I exaggerated and de-emphasized things like facial features: eyes, the shapes of mouths. The little changes – that when you put them all together can mean a radical changing of the overall image – are a version of what R Crumb called cheating – little things you do to push the image in the direction you want.

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Parade in Petticoat Lane (my mother holds her basket)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

When I look at it I feel like the image is a fantastic harvest of humanity as well as part of my mother’s story. There are these tragic characters: the veteran, the blind trumpet player, and that sad chained monkey looking down. The monkey is my favourite; he slays me with his pathos. There’s the woman behind my mother who towers above her with this knowing, ominous look directly at the viewer. And there’s my mother, also looking into the camera, with what’s to me an almost mystified look, a deer in the headlights. For me, it speaks to her anxieties about life and her future – that the world would be too much for her, that its unyielding, violent reality would overtake and crush her. It’s like an apocalypse of the everyday, a sad and dark carnival.

EKH: All the images are touched up and aged. They look even older than their historical time would insist, almost daguerreotype like. Why?

FR: My intention in manipulating the images isn’t to make them look more aged. What I’m trying to do is make the image represent something more real to me, not less. More real as an expression of something passed through my subjective self. I often quote Céline, who is maybe my favourite twentieth century writer. Céline said he wanted to create hallucinations that were more real than everyday life and carry the reader to a deeper and more compelling subjective and personal reality. I get that completely.

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Portrait, Frances Rodick (red pearls)
© Frank Rodick, 2012

EKH: Your mother was truly beautiful but in many of her portraits her face is destroyed. It reminds me of the damage that sometimes resulted when the glass plate photographers used got dirt stuck on it or some acid ran on it. It looks like something similar happened to the photos of your mother’s face. The image appears cut or eroded by acids or smashed by some dirt and these attacks wiped off her identity (Portrait, Frances Rodick series). What did you intend to express with this method?

FR: There are a number of things going on simultaneously here for me. What I do is I just start trying a lot of things and seeing what they look like, and those things that appeal to me visually, well, I work with those some more.

©Frank Rodick, 2012 Archival pigment print 100 H x 81 W cm / 40 x 32 in

Portrait, Frances Rodick (stone-blind)
© Frank Rodick, 2012

When I look at the obfuscations on my mother’s face I see different things. There’s the damage of Alzheimer’s disease, which is something my mother lived with longer than any human should: well over 15 years. That’s a disease is a personality destroyer. There’s the damage caused by not only her experiences but also the way I think she internalized some of those experiences, how she processed her hardships and also the hardships of others, in particular, the personal consequences of anti-Semitism,which, of course, found its ultimate expression in the Nazi extermination. There’s also the obfuscation caused by my

I just make pictures. I make pictures to flesh out my personal obsessions and ruminations, to amuse myself, to have something to do that doesn’t bore me and doesn’t feel like a waste of time, to do something rather than nothing, sometimes to share something of myself with others, sometimes to scratch a nasty itch. What other people choose to do with the things I make isn’t up to me.

own perceptions and memories, which “get in the way,” carry their own blockages and blind alleys, and prevent me from knowing her, just as they get in the way of anyone knowing anyone else. That obfuscation runs two ways – it runs from my own self to my mother, just as it ran from my mother out into the world. I mean, really, when it comes to knowing the world, knowing each other, knowing ourselves, we’re all far more blind than we are sighted. That’s the reality that I see. Another point about the markings over my mother’s face: I think they’re an expression of my anger, which, sadly, is a tendency I share with my mother, although our respective angers expressed themselves differently and in different directions.

Portrait, Frances Rodick (you must console me)
© Frank Rodick, 2012

EKH: The other day we ran to each other at Starbucks and you mentioned that your work is currently on display at the Baltic Biennale of Photography in Kaliningrad and there is “trouble” around it. It touched a nerve of a politician who wants to remove your pieces, as he finds your depiction of your mother in that way “disrespectful”. I don’t think it has anything to do with your mother. It is a very expressive montage that addresses suffering. Death is one thing, suffering is another. Middle Europeans know suffering too well, its stages, the distortions it can make to their faces. People may relate to your works there in many different levels. There is a layered meaning in them, and a very strong one. I am sure people in Kaliningrad who go and see your photographs appreciate them more than you can imagine. Art is a political act there. Are you aware of the possibilities of different interpretations of your work? How do you feel about it?

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Portrait, Frances Rodick (from left to right: Sex; disposal; time)
© Frank Rodick, 2012
Installation view from the Baltic Biennale of Photography in Kaliningrad, April 2015.
Photo: Dmitry Kuryshev. Courtesy of the artist.

FR: The problem in Kaliningrad has to do with politics and religion. Of course, I totally accept that there will be different interpretations of my work. Subjectivity’s inherent to the whole thing. I’ve always said that the longer view of the creative act winds up being a fusion between three elements: the artist, the artwork, and the audience that interprets the work. That fusion

I don’t see my view as dark. It’s the world that’s dark. Not always, but when it is, and when it slams into you and yours, it’s transformative. I often think other people spend an awful lot of time and energy kidding themselves about the world, about other people, and about themselves. Sometimes I wonder how they live with that, especially when a crack in the carapace starts opening up.

is dynamic, largely because of the changing audience, and the changing experience of the audience. No problem there at all. In fact, I can find it very exciting when I hear interpretations of my work that I didn’t expect. When I showed my early work, Liquid City, in Latin America, the Argentines would often interpret it in light of their own recent history. They’d talk about the similarities between the blurred, anonymous figures in Liquid City and their own tragic Desaparecidos, those people murdered anonymously en masse in Argentina’s Dirty War. Obviously, that wasn’t my intention in creating the work, but that doesn’t mean the interpretation wasn’t insightful, interesting, or ultimately valid. It was all of those things, and those people did me the generous honour of taking the time to place my work closely next to their own intimate experiences.

What I object to is careless, lazy, cynical, or pig-headed interpretation. That is, you have people who can barely be bothered to look, never mind think or feel, before they start talking about the work. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it.

I just make pictures. I make pictures to flesh out my personal obsessions and ruminations, to amuse myself, to have something to do that doesn’t bore me and doesn’t feel like a waste of time, to do something rather than nothing, sometimes to share something of myself with others, sometimes to scratch a nasty itch. What other people choose to do with the things I make isn’t up to me.

EKH: Your childhood, grotto like, images are very disturbing. They all pose a young boy’s body without limbs, mutilated (Everything Will Be Forgotten, self-portrait as child series). Why? Didn’t you have a happy childhood?

FR: There were times I remember as happy. When a person suffers greatly, that suffering is often visited upon their children in some way. Perhaps not every single time, but usually – it depends a great deal on how the parent deals with their own suffering. And when there’s a background of historical trauma, this pain carries a cross-generational quality that can take generations to burn itself out.

I’ll tell you something I’m grateful for. Whatever the suffering I endured, I at least had some of the resources – whether they be external or internal – to try to make something out of that suffering that, I hope, isn’t destructive. My mother didn’t have the resources I had.

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L: Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 1.2)
R: Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 2.1)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

EKH: There is so much pain and suffering in your photographs. As Nancy Brokaw said in her essay about your work, Sex, Death and Videotape, “I take one look and ask Do I really want these images lodged in my brain? Once you’ve crossed over into the mysteries of life and death, can you get a return ticket?” Why is your view so dark? How can you live with your images?

FR: I don’t see my view as dark. It’s the world that’s dark. Not always, but when it is, and when it slams into you and yours, it’s transformative. I often think other people spend an awful lot of time and energy kidding themselves about the world, about other people, and about themselves. Sometimes I wonder how they live with that, especially when a crack in the carapace starts opening up. There are times when one gets a little more closely acquainted with reality’s cudgel and, after that, I’m sure the world’s never quite the same place. That’s the part where there’s no return ticket.

Mostly, I live with my images just fine — better than I live with the world around me if you really want to know. As for the pictures, here’s what I think and don’t think. I don’t think they’re the result of compromise, or other people’s opinions. They’re not hand-me-downs, pleas for acceptance, or chips in a game where I’m trying to get ahead. They’re not propped up with a wink and a smile. They feel like they’re mine. And in this world, how many things feel like they actually belong to you? There’s comfort there.

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Three Studies for a Mouth (Explorations in statecraft, love, and the passing of woes)
© Frank Rodick, 2010

www.frankrodick.com

 

Liquid City, Unitled no. 123, Frank Rodick

Liquid City: Untitled, no. 123
© Frank Rodick, 1999

 

…what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does…. 

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

— Charles Bukowski, from a 1986 letter to his publisher and benefactor, John Martin.

Read the entire letter, and some comments, here.