Archive for category: Artistic Tendencies

Handling Hotel Bathroom Origami

03 May 2009
May 3, 2009

I have just returned from the GEL Conference in New York—a fantastic opportunity to listen, meet, and interact with many wonderful and fascinating minds. Remind me to tell you about the game Werewolf: a parlor game on the surface, but one filled with intrigue and issues of trust and paranoia. But I digress.

The purpose of today’s post is to introduce you to a new series of photographs I’ve been taking over the last few years. Of course, you know that I’ve recently gotten back to my love of photography. So, today I’d like to publicly present my ongoing series: Hotel Bathroom Origami.

Why would any one want someone else to touch the toilet and tissue paper and the towels in our hotel bathroom? A rhetorical question as it seems to be more and more the norm as I travel around the world. Every time I arrive at my hotel destination, my first stop is usually the bathroom for a pit stop. But with the Swine Flu consuming us (or at least our germaphobe tendencies), who wants anyone handling anything we touch to our noses and unmentionables? To say nothing of wasting paper just for the sake of presentation. Really!

Werewolf has nothing on the scary paranoiac (yet oddly beautiful) Hotel Bathroom Origami.

On Creating a New Stock Photo

25 Apr 2009
April 25, 2009
New York Stock Exchange

Commentary at the New York Stock Exchange

On a trip last week to New York for a series of meetings I suddenly discovered the New York Stock Exchange was located directly on the path between my hotel and meeting site. This “discovery” was hard to miss with a huge American flag draped across the front of the building and tourists holding up their cameras for a similar photo op (even at this early morning hour).

My time in Washington has trained me to look for initial signs of heightened security camouflaged as benign architectural flourishes. Bronze-colored “stones” subtly blocked would-be terrorists’ attempts to ram the front of the building. From there my senses noticed more overt measures: guard dogs sniffing along the front of the façade, stockbrokers showing their IDs to uniformed security, and the older gentleman, nicely dressed, loudly maligning the virtues of the new Obama Administration.

While tourist-photographers tended to document the huge flag, I, always looking to make a statement, went for the more ironic version of this snapshot. (The next day there was a new pic to take. Reports that advertising budgets are drying up must surely be premature.)

On Forming a More Perfect Union: Art and Discourse Chat

22 Feb 2009
February 22, 2009
Trees with Mormon Temple

Trees with Mormon Temple, 2009, ©Jeff Gates. Click on image for larger view. Yesterday, as I was driving the DC Beltway I suddenly saw the spires of the Mormon Temple above the leafless branches of Rock Creek Park. With no other man-made structures around, these steeples have always reminded me of the Morlocks’ towers rising above the growth of 802,701 A.D. in George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

I’d always wanted to make a photo that evoked this feeling. And this clear winter day was a perfect time to do so. Bringing the image back to my computer I wanted to enhance the primeval feeling of the woods with the distant man-made construction. I created a slight vignette around the center of the image and reduced the color in the woods, reminiscent of 19th century photographs. I left a bit of color in the center branches at the foot of the tree to draw your eye in.

My latest hobby is photography, which is pretty ironic since I used to teach the subject and considered myself a fine art photographer a few years back. Using that word to describe my interest isn’t really too much of a stretch. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation” and Word Net says it means “a spare time activity.” The word amateur has come to mean “less than professional.” But its original meaning was “lover of.” All aptly describe photography’s place in my life these days.

With a full-time job and a fuller-time family, it’s hard to fit in much more except for the occasional couch potato TV and Netflix sessions. Yet, the enjoyment I get from not only taking the photographs, but the post-visualization of the final image (that is, the after-the-fact manipulation of the photo to elicit just the right feeling) is worth my less-than-ample free time. And, more over, getting it out there –posting it on the Net and connecting with viewers– actually gets back to my original interest in photography. I love both making images and talking about them. I really enjoy the interaction.

When I was a teenager I had pen pals all over the world. From Japan to Czechoslovakia I looked forward to hearing about other people’s lives. In 1992 I had a one person exhibition of my work at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Every day I’d go over to the museum and listen to people comment to their friends as they looked at my photographs. And every once in a while I’d reveal myself, engaging them as they talked. I was never the stereotypical artiste, sequestered in his studio, unable and uninterested in engaging the public. Back when I was teaching art and photography many students would often take on this stereotype as their own: “my art should speak for itself: if you don’t get it it’s not my job to clue you in.” This always shocked me for I always felt just the opposite. I wanted to share and talk about what I was doing. And the best part was when a viewer would interpret my work in a way I’d never thought of.

In 1988 I founded ArtFBI (Artists for a Better Image) to study stereotypes of artists in contemporary culture. I wanted to see how this old artist paradigm would mesh within the burgeoning post-modern one. Sherrie Levine shocked the art world in 1979 with her series After Walker Evans, a direct reproduction of photographer Walker Evan’s work with her name as the artist. It was no longer just about the sanctity of the art object. It was about the discourse generated by the process of making art and its function in society. Flickr and other social media platforms like Twitter are updated versions of my younger interests. (And, in searching out online examples of Levine’s work to show you I came upon this Flickr photograph of Kristina Gibbs’ reproduction of Sherri Levine’s reproduction of Walker Evan‘s photograph.)

I’ve been happily involved in this process for most of my life. In 1996 I wrote about New Roles for Artists in the Information Age. Back then I was a teacher. But now my day job at the Smithsonian American Art Museum has evolved to fit my interests perfectly. A good part of my work –actually it’s written into my performance plan– is to search the Net for interesting ways to place our artworks into new contexts and connect with new audiences.

While many of us at the Smithsonian have been working behind-the-social-media scenes for quite a while, suddenly it’s exploded into a flurry of activity. A few weeks back we invited a number of Net digerati to take part in Smithsonian 2.0, a discussion about moving all the Smithsonian’s interesting “stuff” out of our nation’s attic and onto as many networks as we can. This week the American Art Museum is devoting an entire day with all its staff to discuss this. Our aim: to get it out “there” for pleasure, discussion, and for you to use as you see fit. This is no small task for a museum complex born and, in many ways, still in the 19th century.

So, it’s not surprising that I’m using what little free time I have to continue doing what I’ve been doing for years: constructing images about our lives and introducing myself to you to engage in some chat.

Maybe this is more than just a hobby.

A Presidential Portrait in Cupcakes

14 Feb 2009
February 14, 2009
Obama Lincoln Portrait

Portrait of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln in Cupcakes Click image for larger view.

Fridays are supposed to be light days with anticipation of the upcoming weekend filling workers heads worldwide. Yesterday, was anything but as our anticipation was redirected to the cupcake portraits being constructed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, my home-away-from-home every weekday. Zilly Rosen and her group had prepared 5900 vanilla cupcakes and were carefully placing them in just the right places to reveal a duo portrait of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln –a combo St. Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day homage (that’s the word we use in art museums for this kind of thing).

The process was being broadcast live over the Net with thousands remotely watching. (As the portrait nears completion today you can still view it live.) I got the chance to see it first hand as the faces slowly were revealed. When you looked at the work directly it was hard to see Obama’s and Lincoln’s faces. However, looking through my camera viewfinder, the smaller image reduced the size of the “pixel/cupcakes” and the images became crystal clear.

The family’s heading out later today to see the final portrait and, at about 5 pm EST, we’ll all get to sample a bit of Presidential history. Ummm, cupcakes. My ten year old can’t wait.

Update: I have uploaded my best photographs of the installation and “de-installation” (i.e. eating) of this Presidential portrait to my flickr photostream.

Anatomy of a Photograph

08 Feb 2009
February 8, 2009
Portraits taken at Obama's Inauguration

Details from some of my Inaugural portraits

As I began to look at the photographs I shot during the Inauguration I realized how many portraits of people I had taken that day: from soldiers and police who were doing traffic control (and other more subtle national security tasks) to the many different citizens who came to celebrate and sell their souvenirs. As I said initially, this was a very different Inauguration than the last two I attended. Few protesters, it was more celebratory than either of the last two Bush events.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time thinking about the best camera to take on these urban photo safaris. In 2001 I dusted off my Pentax 6×7 to shoot medium format “real” film at Bush’s first Inaugural. This had been my go-to camera during the 1990s. Medium format gave me great detail for large prints and I loved the quality. But that January 20th I realized this would be the last time I would ever used this camera –too few shots per roll and, weighing in at almost four pounds, it was heavy as hell. This was not well-suited for the type of urban documentary photography I was interested in and my back was no longer willing to carry it around. It became a burden to take pictures. I needed to make an adjustment just as digital cameras were coming into their own.

In 2005 I brought my first digicam, the tiny Pentax Optio S5. Oooh, it was light and its featherweight brought the fun back for me. But the measly optical zoom (3X) didn’t allow me to get close to some of the action at Bush’s second Inauguration. So I began looking for something closer to my dream combo: a lightweight camera with a massive zoom. The winner was the Panasonic TZ3 (and now its successor the TZ5). It was a bit heavier than my S5 but not by much and it had a 10X optical zoom (the longest zoom on the lightest camera around). It didn’t have processional settings like the Nikon P5000 or the Canon G9 so I wouldn’t have the most control over the images I took but I figured I could do what I needed in post-production using Photoshop.

So this year it was me and my TZ3 welcoming our new President on the National Mall. When you’re taking impromptu street portraits you don’t have a lot of time to contemplate your camera settings. You point and you shoot. I asked people if I could take their photograph. Sometimes I’d just be able to get one shot off before my subject moved on. That’s street photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. I was in a maelstrom of people moving in all directions. Getting someone to stand still for a minute wasn’t easy.

As I looked at my images on the computer later that evening I started to form opinions about what I had taken. Going in without a strict notion of what I wanted to take (how could I, not knowing what to expect), I relied on my internal photographic senses on the street. However, now I had the time to make decisions about the final images. And I realized that some would require a shallow depth-of-field to separate the subjects of my photos from their background. Unlike my formative photographic years when I could do that by as I was taking the photography using a wide aperture, I was going to have to recreate this via Photoshop. And to do it right was going to entail a multi-stepped process.

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Mary A, His Wife; Bonnie Jean, Their Daughter

11 May 2008
May 11, 2008
Mary A, His Wife

Reminiscent of another photograph. Click photo for larger image.

Recently, a friend from out of town came to visit. She wanted to go to Arlington Cemetery to visit her father’s grave and she invited us to go with her. As I stood looking over the rows and rows of tombstones by her father’s grave I turned around and saw a familiar sight.
Looking around I discovered it isn’t only wives who can be buried next to their military husbands, but husbands of military wives, daughters, sons, grandchildren and even stepchildren.

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