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ART BEYOND THE LENS
By Sarah Gardner
Focal PressCopyright © 2012 Sarah Gardner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBack to Art
An artist's journey
As a child I showed a great fondness for drawing, painting, and craft activities. So it was no real surprise to my parents that I turned out to be quite a creative individual. Every school project was neatly thought through and presented, every art project respectfully undertaken.
My family supported me with enthusiasm. My parents never once questioned my decision to study art, nor did they ever discuss career aspirations with me; instead they simply let me fulfill my desire to immerse myself in my art. My grandparents bought me my first artist's easel while my parents supplied me with paints and pastels. My father was also instrumental, in supporting my photographic studies, by loaning me his Olympus OM40 single-lens reflex (SLR) camera.
Although I studied photography at school, it was very basic, and unfortunately there is little that I remember about the experience. It wasn't until I reached college at age 18 that I really embraced photography. It was there that I first started to progress and move away from conventional photographic practice. Probably because I was an art student as opposed to a photography student, my teachers granted me more creative freedom to experiment rather than hone technical skills. Interested in darkroom processing, I looked to Man Ray's solarization techniques for inspiration. I recall layering negatives together and partially exposing multiple images. It's clear, looking back, that these early experiments gave me my first taste for creative developing and processing. My early photographic work was unfortunately short lived, as my time in the darkroom was limited by my course structure. Once at the university, I was not given the opportunity to return to the darkroom. Eventually my creative photography ceased altogether, and it wasn't until just four years ago that I rediscovered this lost passion.
A question of art
After college I secured a much sought after place at the Nottingham Trent University studying fine art. I was confident that I would continue to ride the waves of success that had initially secured me a privileged space on their degree program. I'd accomplished top grades, recognition, and distinctions for my artwork while at college. However, the transition to the university was fraught with change and challenge. Being an art student at school was very different from being an art student at the university. It was no longer acceptable to just be competent in my technique as a painter; I had to justify my intentions. My strengths became my weaknesses, and for the first time in my life I was required to look inwardly for my motivation, rationalization, and inspiration. My work as a painter had to mature, evolve, and become justifiable. My style changed significantly from detailed life paintings to larger abstract works of art.
Even today my photographic art originates from conceptual ideas that manifest themselves from within. I'm personally invested in my photography, and I draw my intentions from my need to communicate that investment. There is so much more to my creative photography than just the act of taking, and processing, a photograph.
Painters who influenced my style
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I've never considered myself to be much of an authority when it comes to art history. Furthermore, whether the work of those artists who provided inspiration did so intentionally or not is neither here nor there. It's what I took from experiencing their work that is of fundamental importance.
For various reasons, like most of us I'm drawn to different styles, concepts, and ideas, some of which are conventional and others that are more obscure and personal. Either way, it's my likes and dislikes that have helped me to define my preferences. My likes, become my taste, and my tastes define my style.
The Paris-based Impressionists are perhaps my favorite of all painters: Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. From thick chunky surfaces, beautiful tones, and pigments, to rendered skies and brushwork, the Impressionists were among some of the first painters who introduced a physical element to their painting technique, which brought more to their work than just a pictorial quality.
Just as I had done with my earlier photographic darkroom experiments, these painters had gone beyond the boundaries of pictorial composition—they were taking painting to a new level. From the super sized to the super white, from Monet's lily ponds to the super huge canvases of abstract painter Mark Rothco and minimalist painter Robert Ryman, these painters went beyond the boundaries of their two-dimensional surfaces. Their huge canvases created mood with an emotional edge, their hues conveyed atmosphere, and their rendered surfaces created a dynamic tactile presence.
Minimalism: Hidden in the absence of detail
Although there were many artists who inspired me and formed part of my degree studies, there were definitely a couple who continued to influence me beyond my time at the university.
In 1993 I visited the Tate Gallery in London to see a one-man show by American artist Robert Ryman, a minimalist painter who at the time I knew very little about. After seeing Robert Ryman's exhibition, I became a big fan and went on to discover the work of Canadian artist Agnes Martin. I connected with Ryman's white palette and use of rendered canvases. I regarded Martin's use, and creation of space, to be simplistic and brilliant. Both artists exhibited installations of small, framed whitewashed art pieces that hung together, creating walls of unity between their art and their method of presentation. Together, these two painters influenced a creative shift within my own work at a time when I was still only in my first year at the university. The impact from the discovery of the minimalist art movement remained with me right through to graduation.
Painting with a digital canvas
In 1994 I graduated with a bachelor of arts honors degree in fine art. My paintbrushes were soon stored away in favor of a career in marketing. I spent nine years working my way up the corporate ladder, during which time I was fortunate enough to work with some of England's leading creative agencies. I worked on several marketing campaigns that received industry recognition and learned a great deal about the power of imagery in advertising.
By 2003 I decided to take a career break and start a family. The arrival of my daughter was the start of a new chapter in my life. I had no idea at the time that she'd become my muse and provide the grounding and redirection that would ultimately lead me full circle back to my love of photography.
The moment came several years later, in 2007, when, I recall, a friend had booked a portrait session for her baby daughter. When she showed me the resulting photographs, I decided to take up the challenge of photographing my own children. Little did I know the magnitude of this challenge and just how far it would take me.
Although I had studied photography briefly at college, I never considered my skills as a photographer very strong. I had the preconception that professional photographers held technical knowledge in the highest regard, above creativity. I didn't share this mind-set and knew I would always put creative vision before technical ability. But I was keen to have a go, and before I knew it I was trialing my way through digital SRLs and purchased my first, semiprofessional camera—a Canon D40.
Digital photography proved to have a steep learning curve! I can honestly say that I wasn't initially impressed. I was used to working with film, and although that had been many years before, I found digital images in comparison to be lacking in clarity, sharpness, and depth. Convinced I was operating my new camera correctly, I sought Internet forums through which I could find some much-needed advice. I started connecting with like-minded photographers from all around the world. I was relieved to discover I wasn't alone and shared the same frustrations that many other new photographers were experiencing. I can't praise enough those who were willing to share, provide insight, and offer genuine support. I conversed daily with photographers-some professional, others keen amateurs. Together we shared our work, ideas, and concepts, and I learned a great deal in a short space of time. But I was still frustrated in the knowledge that I was standing at the forefront of the latest technology with so much still a mystery.
Film, on the other hand, had never presented so many frustrations; in retrospect it had seemed unquestionably simpler. Although my experience processing film had been limited, for the majority of the time I had succumbed to the convenience of sending my rolls of 35mm film to a lab for development. But suddenly digital photography changed all that. I could now extract and process my own images directly on my desktop. Suddenly it meant that I was in control, of not just my image capture but the entire creative process.
Digital processing was like nothing I had experienced before. There were no rules, no rights and wrongs, no direction. In desperate need to gain some insight, I sought out tutorials, books, and more advice. It was within these early days, while hunting for direction, that I stumbled across photographers who used additional digital processing techniques-textures!
I was intrigued with the rough blurs, scratches, and soft grain of digital textures, which allowed photographers to inject another layer of creativity into their work. The concept behind processing with textures took me back to my earlier days in the college darkroom overlaying negatives together. I started collecting free digital textures and would play for hours on my computer. I would work through tutorials, exploring new ways of producing results. The more I learned, the more I started to feel myself pulling away from these methods, opting instead to use those that I had discovered for myself. I started to identify a more personal way of working, one that was perhaps more intuitive than the methods suggested in the structured tutorials I had previously undertaken; I started to forge my own working style.
Gaining confidence to work intuitively
I was highly motivated to learn all I could about digital photography and processing. I have worked relentlessly over the past few years to master my techniques of processing with textures. I have learned a lot, and I've disregarded even more. It has never been my aim to become an expert on Photoshop; my only intention has been to become competent at processing my images to a standard that was personally satisfying. Breaking away and becoming confident enough to work intuitively was as much about listening to my own aspirations as it was about not allowing myself to be swept along by popular consensus.
Chapter TwoA Working Style
I would definitely describe myself as a visual person. I obtain a greater understanding of the world around me, and practically most things, if I can see them. I'm an introvert with a mind brimming full of ideas and concepts, which, for the most part, I lack the time to instigate. I'm a romantic and a spiritualist and believe in life's opportunities. I can easily withdraw from the busy world around me and lose myself for hours in only the company of my hobbies. Although I'm a creative individual, I regard myself as an artist foremost. Being creative is, by definition, to create. Yet it's through my photographic textured work that I purposefully produce art. Being an artist differs from being creative through its intent. Because art, by definition, should, through the deliberate arrangement of items, address both an emotional and an intellectual response.
How textures bring nostalgia and emotion to my work
I work intuitively, layering up textures uniquely. I'm adding my own identity to the surface of my images by branding them and making them my own. Textures add a surface veil; they seal, between their layers, the idea that time has moved on.
When I paint, I love nothing more than rendering the surface of my canvases, cutting through thick paint with a brush or palette knife. It's the same when processing with digital textures, albeit less physical. I'm manipulating surface qualities that go beyond the pictorial content of my photographic composition. The results may be aesthetic and pleasing, but for me they're also incredibly emotional. It's my intention that my work no longer looks crafted from a digital age, but instead takes on the appearance of aged and treasured pieces of fine art. Whether traditional or contemporary, I'm extending the "story," deepening the narrative, and giving strength to my work's silent voice.
Excerpted from ART BEYOND THE LENS by Sarah Gardner Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Gardner. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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