Archives For process

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.

Stop Making Art

May 29, 2016 — Leave a comment

hockney-pearblossom-highway

In the recently published Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, 36 artists offer their insights and advice on becoming and being an artist. It’s a terrific book and I recommend it to any artist regardless of what stage they’re at in their career. From my first reading, one artist—Stephanie Syjuco—stood out with what she had to say. So, I thought to share with you some of her most memorable words. The following quotation is from her open letter that begins “Dear Art Student / Recent Grad / Young Artist / Prospective Artist / Colleague.” This entreaty is Syjuco’s very first point:

1. STOP MAKING ‘ART’ AND START MAKING YOUR WORK.
This is at the top of the list for a reason—namely, because it’s so easy to make things that look like art, act like art, get sold like art, yet in the end aren’t really art, but are phantoms, mere commodities or quantifiable, digestible sound bites. And unfortunately, you’ll be encouraged to do this. In general, these are the things that art schools and the art world push you to make because they’re legible and can be spoken of in ways that make sense to everyone: collectors and curators alike. This ‘art’ has the correct visual markers and can slip easily into exhibitions and catalogue entries. At first, it seems really exciting to play this game, and it could get you a lot of mileage if you play it right, but in the end, these are really boring things that don’t have a lot of depth to them. Try to resist this approach, because it’s unsatisfying in the long run. Be prepared to be unpopular, unclassifiable and perhaps even out-of-date in terms of what others (and this includes the market) desire of your art. You’re in this for the long haul and in the end it’s you who has to live with what you produce as your work.

In a footnote, Syjuco adds:

Interestingly, you’ll get double points if you ‘represent’ a certain gender/ethnic group/nationality/class background. I’m not saying that these aren’t valid and urgent topics to tackle in your work. I’m just warning you to be wary about how you’re being asked to ‘perform’ this subjectivity within the art world, because it’s not as much about you as you think, but about you as an idea that serves an accepted function of discourse. And I’m not sure that’s what you really had in mind when you set out to make the work.

I think the whole thing is insightful but this line is so good it bears repeating: Be wary about how you’re being asked to ‘perform’ this subjectivity within the art world, because it’s not as much about you as you think, but about you as an idea that serves an accepted function of discourse.

Artists, too often and too easily, fall into believing the (flattering) self-image of  being against-the-grain free thinkers. The reality is that the art world—like any social system—has a definite grain, a seductive one at that. It’s littered with narrow-mindedness and bias. And like any system, these thought processes, and the institutions that support them, reinforce the status quo in that world with all kinds of reward structures.

Exhausting it may be, but it’s our job to question everything—ourselves and our institutions, some of which may be near and dear to our hearts and personal histories. They may even be giving us a pat on the back, or even a buck or two, from time to time.

So, as Stephanie Syjuco says, be careful. Be wary. Stop making ‘art’—phantoms, commodities, sound bites—and start making your work.


Quotations from Stephanie Syjuco, from the book Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, published by Phaedon.

Image: pearlblossom Highway #2, David Hockney

 

Portrait_Joseph_Rodick_1946_30yo_who_can_be_trusted

Joseph (who can be trusted?) / © 2016 Frank Rodick

 

I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?
– Samuel Beckett, from Malone Dies

There’s music in everything, even defeat.
– 
Charles Bukowski

•••

For a long time I didn’t think I’d ever make pictures of my father. He didn’t mark my life like my mother. Also, I was angry. So perhaps I was punishing him—even posthumously—by not making the effort. But I was angry with my mother too and that hadn’t stopped me from making her portraits.

I’m not exactly sure what changed. Resignation maybe.

•••

As with my mother, I began the first five of these six images using old photographs I found in my parents’ archives. The original photos, small black and white things, show Joseph Rodick at different ages. They start all the way back to a child of three standing next to a teddy bear perched on a chair. About that picture, I remember my father saying it must have been taken in a photography studio because the teddy bear wasn’t his.

•••

The text in these five images are taken from my father’s words during the last days of his life. Those days were awful: hospital beds, tubes, mindfucking drugs —the indignities of an elderly life’s end, unhappily too common. Intubated, he couldn’t speak. So he wrote things down. Some stuff was illegible, some banal (I have a green notebook falling apart but still useful. I would like it here. Put a rubber band around it.), a few things cryptic. My father was proud of his usually beautiful handwriting, but by then his veiny hands shook so much all he could eke out was a scrawl. I kept those pages and photographed them, so the words you see in the images (and referenced in the titles) are rendered directly from his own hand.

•••

A difficult person to know, my father. (Yes, I know, everyone is. But not equally so.) For one thing he didn’t trust anyone, ever. I know he didn’t trust me because he told me so. That was just one more sad thing because, especially towards the end, he didn’t have much of anyone else.

Where did that mistrust come from? Maybe from his life through to early adulthood, full of hardship: poverty, war, sickness. An older sister who wrote her little brother Joe letters he’d keep always, but who died at 34 from tuberculosis. A year in a sanitorium, at age seventeen, for TB himself. No one visited me, not once, he told someone—not me—sixty years later.

•••

Of course, the elder sibling of mistrust is fear. And my father feared. Again, that austere early life couldn’t have helped. His father supporting a family of five on the wages of a sailor and then as a chauffeur. The Great Depression. And then the War, my father at home in England (ineligible for combat because of diseased lungs), alone with his mother who, he said once, had a nervous breakdown from the bombing. And then later, life with his bride Frances, my mother. He loved her but she was a troubled woman, fighting and consorting with her own, more violent, torments. When she’d explode and splinter, he’d take shelter, locking the door behind him and leaving the rest of us to find cover on our own.

Sometimes, when I look at his eyes in these portraits I imagine them peeping through a cellar keyhole, checking to see if the hurricane has passed.

•••

Joseph Rodick wanted to be an artist. He drew all the time, everywhere, and not badly for someone unschooled. He’d flip over the paper placemat in a restaurant and draw people with a ballpoint pen: that was his ritual. But all that fear (the abyss of poverty never far away) made a career in the arts daunting if not impossible. Instead he became a book seller. Life as a small merchant wasn’t easy but it was more sensible and secure.

He also lacked that much underrated quality of artists: ruthlessness. You need it if you want to make such a self-centred pursuit, one with long odds against success, into your life’s obsession.

When he saw me muddling my way into an art career—and it was he who introduced me to photography—my father was pointedly indifferent at best. In what felt like a taunt, all he’d say about my work was, how many pictures have you sold? Other people said he was jealous—the schooled son who didn’t know poverty or war or sickness chasing the father’s dream. In any case, I responded to what I felt as meanness and rejection with sullen expressions of meanness and rejection of my own.

Ah, families.

Continue Reading…

 

Frank Rodick, Parade in Petticoat Lane

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

 

Nancy Brokaw is an independent critic and writer living in Philadelphia. She is currently a senior lecturer at the University of the Arts, where she teaches Critical Issues in Contemporary Photography, and is a senior contributing editor of The Photo Review.The following dialogue was originally posted on her blog Image World and is posted with her kind permission. If you don’t yet know Image World, give it a visit.

Nancy Brokaw: I always ask photographers of a certain age about the switch from analog to digital. You started with analog—although you were never working straight—and have made the switch, quite elegantly, to digital. How do you experience that now? Given my interest in the march of modernity, I’m particularly curious to understand what’s lost—the price that all this technology exacts.

Frank Rodick: Digital allows for a measure of flexibility and precision that was impossible with analog. Burning and dodging in the darkroom, for example, was a crude affair compared to what you can do with Photoshop.

Of course, the traditional darkroom was more hands-on—literally. But darkroom work still involved plenty of mediating elements, factors that existed between what my hands did and the printed image. It’s just that these mediating elements were based mainly on chemistry rather than digital code. For example, anyone who’s worked in the darkroom with stuff like iron toner knows how seemingly capricious a compound like that can be, how it interacts with things like water quality, for example, and what that can mean for the resultant print.

But, to your question, what have we lost?

Speed and tempo are big issues. The darkroom forced you to move slower, to consider the images for longer. With digital, you’re tempted to bounce back and forth, make rapid changes, and you’re not forced to live with particular images for a longer period of time. You don’t have to be as patient and there’s a lot to be gained with patience, a lot you can discover.

And there is an issue with digital’s power—all that nuance and flexibility and choice. But more choice isn’t always good. The darkroom imposed limitations that made you hone in on what you were looking for, instead of futzing about looking for something perfect or better. I’ve seen students get overwhelmed and lose their way with all the choices digital gives them. It’s one of the reasons that, for example, I’ll usually make a set of choices beforehand about, say, the colour palette I’ll be using. And then try to use those hues to the max. I’m not religious about it—I’ll deviate from the original plan when I think it’s called for—but it helps me keep focused on moving towards what’s most important. I think most working artists know that limitations—self-imposed or not—can really work to your ultimate advantage.

Then there’s luck. Traditional photography was full of luck and that could be beautiful. It’s not only that luck can give you beautiful things, but also that it can bring you something that really connects to a part of you that didn’t even know was there. And then you can build on that. Our conscious minds can be, well, so unimaginative. In digital work you can become painfully deliberate. “That doesn’t look quite right; I’ll change it.” But maybe that funky weird way it looked in the first place was better—and maybe you would have realized that if you’d been forced to live with it a little longer.

And on maybe a more pedestrian note, I personally found it very exciting to work in the dark. It gave the whole enterprise a kind of mystical, adventurous feel. It didn’t hurt to have Philip Glass playing in the background either.

I do think that there are ways of re-integrating these elements back into digital photography, so it’s not like they’re necessarily lost irrevocably. But I have to be a lot more conscious of process, a lot more deliberate about that to make it happen.

Brokaw: Let me put my cards on the table. I think a lot about what I call the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon. If we’re to believe the Home section of the New York Times, every other Brooklyn household has a chicken coop out back. A restaurant just opened here in Philadelphia, in one of our hipster precincts, where diners have a full view of the butcher who preps their meat. My neighbors—professional women all—have a sewing circle, and me? I want to learn how to make cheese. That’s by the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon—all those homemade gherkins! And I’m oddly touched by this phenomenon, oddly because it’s very clearly a choice reserved for very privileged people. Still, it moves me because it seems like a pale attempt to reclaim something that we think we’ve lost, but may never have had. It suggests an alienation, but not from our labor. From our very lives.

And I can’t help but see this sense of alienation as the by-product of the hyper-connected, virtual world that pulls us into its vortex and, in turn, all that pickle-making as a yearning for the tactile. In the photography world, this response manifests in the revival of once-revolutionary techniques (daguerreotypes, tintypes, etc.)—that now look pre-modern. I do fret about what it means that we’re all tethered to these devices that stand between us and experience.

Rodick: What you’re saying makes sense. And like I said, analog photography is more hands-on, so it fits into what you’re saying. You’re literally handling your materials more, smelling them even, than when you’re working digitally.

But on the other hand I’m starting to see how my own experience might contrast with yours. Because when I work digitally I do feel that I’m still working with things that have physicality—as though I’m “painting with pixels,” although painting might not be a very good term. Moving pixels around anyway, changing their properties. I know that’s not the same stuff as oils or acrylics and that Continue Reading…

After Wikipedia, what I got when I googled “self-esteem” is a site called Psych Central. Here’s their opener on the subject:

Have you wondered about what self-esteem is and how to get more of it? Do you think your self-esteem is low? Do you know how to tell? Do you know what to do about it?

We’ve been gnawing on this bone for a long time. Publishers have churned out mountains of books on self-esteem. It’s made careers, and filled thousands of hours of therapy and television—a slew of anxieties and adorations around the holy grail of liking ourselves better.

But for all the wringing of hands, money spent, the talking and toil, the search has flopped. People aren’t wiser or happier for it. Except for maybe the advice peddlers. At least they’re richer.

But what about artists? That’s a vocation where getting your self-esteem pummeled is pretty well the norm. When you’re not being ignored completely, rejection notices arrive in steady parades. Aside from those, the attention you do get—unless you’re a commercial success—often takes a peculiar form: rancorous questions and insinuations about the utility, if not very point, of what you’re doing. And speaking of money, unless you chose your parents wisely or you’re a star (just room for a few of those), there’s the matter of never having enough of it.

With all that to navigate—and look forward to—wouldn’t at least a small injection of self-esteem be helpful for artists? Instead of long days and nights of self- and other-inflicted beatings, mightn’t a shot of I’m-okay-and-maybe-sometimes-even-a-little-bit-better-than-that be just the thing to spur artists on? Wouldn’t liking ourselves more help us push out a few more words, verses, pictures, or notes?

Continue Reading…

List.100BestBooks

In that time before smartphones, I kept this raggedy scrap of paper in my wallet. It was a list called “The best 100 books of fiction”—put together by Oxford, if I remember correctly. I kept it handy in case I found myself passing a second hand bookstore where I could pick up some reading that was both entertaining and wholesome, and dirt cheap besides. Continue Reading…