Odyssey of Vision
If you had to describe your overall photographic vision in 25 words or less, what words would you choose?
First, thank you, Nathan, for the immense honour of asking me to be part of this series of eZine interviews with important and distinct photographers.
I would describe my photographic vision as the pursuance of an exquisite enlightenment with the practice of an insightful imagination.
Let me explain further: there is nothing greater in photography than that “whisper to a sigh” moment, when a beautifully challenging scene speaks to you and you feel this sense of wonderment befall you because you know you have captured something meaningful, something that is part of your photographic vision. I have defined my own philosophy of photography as “eclectic aesthetic fine art” (EAFA). I believe in capturing the complexity of beauty in the simplest of moments– focusing on a variety of multiple subjects and using creative methods such as long exposure photography to realize them.
Why do you prefer black and white photography, especially long exposure photography?
“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”
In many ways, Robert Frank’s notion of black and white being the colours of photography is a tried and true proclamation. There is something both essential and substantial about black and white photography, something attractive and transporting, something that seems to capture the mood of any subject or scene with such depth and timelessness. After I first viewed Michael Kenna’s photography– especially his legendary Japan (2003) and Hokkaido (2006) books– and Michael Levin’s cinematic Zebrato (2009), I became utterly enamoured with minimalist and natural abstract black and white photography.
For me, long exposure photography is an artistic choice. I tend to use it more often than not, especially for architecture and all types of landscape shots. I also love the patience it teaches me in light of my hectic life. I feel like I am deciphering a hidden code with this type of photography– as if there is this ethereal land that unveils itself over time.
Who are three of your favorite photographers, and, more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
Although it is very challenging to choose just three (even though I already named two artists that I truly admire), there are three photographers whose work has particularly left an indelible impression on me: Hengki Koentjoro, Vassilis Tangoulis, and Joel Tjintjelaar.
- Hengki Koentjoro is one of the greatest photographers of our time. His command of tonal ranges, his mastery of diverse subjects, and his ability to haunt you with beautiful scenery and profound simplicity is something to behold. I have never come across a photographer who is not only so uniform in vision but also so eclectic in approach with such ease and grace. He is a quintessential example of an EAFA artist.
- Vassilis Tangoulis is another one of my favourite photographers. His images evoke such a tangible harmony, one that leaves you wanting to sit by the sea and watch his imagination like a movie unfurl before you in the skies. His photos are rich in symbolism and serenity. There is also a powerful intellectualism that pervades every shot. His black and white photography, in particular, resonates with a vibrancy and a chemistry that seems to reveal hidden colours to the naked eye. I often turn to his impressive photographs of combined stillness and motion and panoramas– all of his work informing my own sense of balance and creativity.
- Joel Tjintjelaar is a prime example of the photographer as artist. One of the main reasons I delved into long exposure photography was because his vision as a photographer is an art form in itself. I have had the pleasure of shooting with Joel on a few occasions and I can tell you that he is a thoughtful photographer whose soul bleeds in black and white solely for his craft. Although seemingly and singularly focused on long exposure architectural and seascape photography, his reach extends well beyond intricate geometry and velvety surrealism. His artistic work has touched many photographers, and we are all better for it.
In many ways, each of these are testimonials for these artists. Although I admire all of them, and have learned from them and others, I tend to have an outlier’s mentality (as I am sure many photographers do), so it is only fitting that I believe that we, as photographers, all need to create our own path with our own vision and voice. I call this “oramagraphy” (Greek for “vision drawing” similar to photography as “light drawing”), a pursuit of personal vision in one’s evolution as a photographer, one that may lead to a prescient or avant-garde form of photography within the photography community.
What artistic influences, outside of photography, have had a significant influence on how you approach your photography (for example, painters, filmmakers, musicians, poets, etc.)?
For me, art, in all its forms, is like the “fifth dimension,” where there is a confluence of ideas and influences for every artist when they are creating new worlds seen and yet to be seen with their art. It is where every artist finds Promethean fire to fuel the beautiful mind. I wrote an article in 2009 for Y Sin Embargo— a Barcelona-based magazine created by Fernando Prats— entitled “Art is the Fifth Dimension,” which was a mini-treatise on art from a cultural and philosophical basis in the digital age. Here is a snippet:
Art is the fifth dimension. What do you think of this statement? Is it inventive or nonsensical? Is it pedantic or a platitude? Upon first blush, it may sound profound and perhaps poetic, but it is a point of reflection: the ability to take one or more ideas, theories and styles and unite them into a compatible whole, in praxis, is the coda of creativity. Once more, it is the facility to see and think about the world as if you were inside looking out of a penteract prism of imagination and creative promise. Art and seeing the world as an artist does, is precisely the point of this statement. You may or may not see this point, but we can agree that the above statement is ‘creative’. [ed. note: the entire article can be found here.]
Like many artists, my photography, in title or composition, is often infused with references and symbolism of varied influences, but I also always strive to make my art stand on its own. My work is influenced by many philosophical, psychological, and scientific theories and there are far too many influences from the art world to list in an interview. However, here are a chosen few that stand out for me at this moment:
Art: Mark Rothko and the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, El Greco, Picasso, and Gustav Klimt. All of these artists have taught me to see the world in a non-representational way, always inspiring and reminding me to hone my vision to explore novel and creative possibilities. Upon reviewing this list, some might wonder why I chose to include El Greco among abstract, impressionistic, and surrealist painters. The simple reason is because his work is widely acknowledged to be a precursor for both Expressionism and Cubism and it has had a definite influence in how I understand the progression of art. It’s nice to be a precursor to something monumental.
Music: Miles Davis and John Coltrane offer the ultimate post-processing music for me, but I also enjoy most types of jazz. I also like to listen to Mozart, Beethoven, and all things classical as background music whenever I am reading. I have been known to walk around with my camera while listening to U2, Jay-Z, The Black Keys, Jimi Hendrix, and anything else that strikes my fancy. I am as eclectic in my tastes of music as I am in my photography. Music just puts me in the right mood for photography. But I also enjoy the silence of being by myself without any distractions when I photograph.
Architecture: Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, and Daniel Libeskind are absolute visionaries. I would love to be able to travel the world just to study and photograph their masterpieces in unique ways. We are fortunate to have all of them represented here in Toronto. Their vision has informed my own in many ways, especially when I delve into abstract, architectural, or archistract photography (I have offered a functional definition of “archistract” on my website if any kind reader is interested in reading more about it). I cannot help but equate the chaotic harmonics of their designs with what I like to call “Euclidean Jazz”, a play on Goethe’s notion of architecture as “frozen music.”
“Music is liquid architecture; I call architecture frozen music. ”
– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, in a letter to Johann Peter Eckermann, Mar. 23, 1829 –
Literature & Poetry: Pablo Neruda is my favourite poet. He uses words as if he has become in tune with his own biorhythms. I also like W.H. Auden for his focus on the uniqueness of character in trying times. Other favorite writers and notable texts are: Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Haruki Murakami (IQ84), Gabriel Garcia Marquez ( One Hundred Years of Solitude), James Joyce (Ulysses), Christopher Hitchens (Letters To A Young Contrarian), Joseph Campbell (The Hero With A Thousand Faces), and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers). These writers create symphonies with many intricate movements through the rhythm of their prose. I also like the classics from Homer, Dante, Kafka, Mann, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and Proust. They have all taught me that words create a sensory experience within your imagination, one that can be translated to evoke powerful images and stories within your own photography.
Film: Ridley Scott, Theo Angelopoulos, Frederico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, the Wachowski Brothers, are all favourites of mine. I can easily be classified as a cinephile. I loved cinema before I loved photography; in fact, I seriously considered a career in cinematography a while back. I tend to like movies that evoke something beautiful and passionate about the world while staying true to the human condition and human equation. I also like typical guy films like The Matrix Trilogy, the first three Star Wars movies, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings.
What are your thoughts about trying to find the best gear possible versus working on making the best possible image with the gear you already have?
I have never believed that the best gear guarantees the best results. Some of my most treasured and popular photos have been taken with a point and shoot camera. It’s all about the photographer and their vision. If you require certain technical prerequisites for your photos, then I understand why you would want certain equipment. But I think most photographers are quite happy to push their current camera to its limits until it just falls apart in their hands because it can no longer keep up with their vision. But, then again, I love the toys of photography– but, that said, I have managed to avoid taking Oscar Wilde’s advice about yielding to temptation as the only way to get rid of it.
How would you define fine art? Is it just a label?
I would like to start my answer with a Socratic adage about the beginning of all wisdom: “I don’t know.” Although you have given others and me a monumental, perhaps unanswerable, task with this question, it is an important question that I think every artist should try to answer in one way or another. No one should be satisfied by such an agnostic answer nor should they be apathetic about trying to figure it out. Perhaps we need the second coming of Stieglitz to help us out!
I would like to attempt an answer by explaining a little about my writing process because it often helps me synthesize concepts and complex questions. When I write, I tend to think in aphorisms; I want to try to say in two sentences what others say in volumes. I believe in an economy of language as things tend to get lost in translation and often confused if there is too much information. Having said that, here is a pithy statement to start the conversation about defining “fine art”: “The indefinable is defined by the pursuit of personal principles shared by no one AND everyone at the same time.”
But is fine art such a tautological conundrum? Is it a self-reinforcing pretense of some profound truth? Is it a catch-all label for a certain style of photography? In many ways, the answer to all of these questions is “yes”. What I mean by this response is that we, with some common context, all may have different interpretations of what fine art is and what it is not. A definition of “fine art” needs to be flexible enough for some form of consensus but refined enough to distinguish it from other definitions in photography.
So, as a means of boldly venturing into a comprehensive operational definition after being inspired by your question, here is my humble attempt at a definition of “fine art” photography:
Fine art photography is a style or genre of photography that offers a harmonious composition of elements within a frame of reference whose content provides aesthetic, sensory, and sometimes surreal qualities that fulfill the authentic, creative, and personal vision of the photographer as artist while heightening the emotional and psychological response of the observer. It is an established but evolving discipline in photography whose essential condition is the ‘felt aesthetic’ (the feeling of being immersed in and inspired by something intellectually and imaginatively beautiful). This type of photography is often exemplified by but not limited to black and white compositions, various exposure lengths, and eclectic subjects (e.g., abstract, architecture, landscapes, nude portraits, etc.). It may also be interpreted by refined theories and concepts across disciplines (e.g., philosophy, psychology, literature, music, film, culture, semiotics, mathematics, science) and past and current trends in art, photography and technology in part or in whole. It is often defined in contrast to journalistic, documentary, and commercial photography. It adheres to quality standards in post-processing and printing as part of the creation of art. © John Kosmopoulos
As you will notice by my definition, I think that the discourse surrounding fine art and the practical realization of fine art requires both subjective and objective experiences. It may be viewed as both an artistic and scientific endeavour as you cannot separate the person from the social environment that shapes them as artists and their purposeful and meaningful acts of creation. It is perhaps a fine and applied arts definition. My main reason for offering such a definition is to simply provide greater dialogue on the subject from various photographers. Whether we agree with this definition or not, it pays homage to the past and present while leaving room for the future of fine art. When I read non-specific, open interpretations, and explanatory fictions about fine art or any concept, my immediate response is to ask “how is x different from y”? I think there are several necessary questions that we need to ask to determine if this or any other definition is workable to reaffirm, demystify, and challenge our notions of fine art:
1. Can a colour photo or a long exposure colour photo be considered fine art? For example, take any artist’s black and white photo that you consider to be fine art and ask yourself if you would define it the same way in colour. Also consider whether a strictly colour photography artist, whose work is similar to other black and white photographers in scope and quality, can be considered a fine art photographer.
2. Imagine if two photographers, both considered to be established fine art photographers, took the same photo of the same subject with the same composition expect one photographer used long exposure techniques, the other conventional or HDR techniques, but both decided to process their photos in multi-toned black and white. Would a conventional or high quality HDR black and white photo be considered fine art?
3. Is trying to evoke a “felt aesthetic”, an essential condition of fine art photography? The phrase “felt aesthethic” is something I have defined in my own definition of “fine art” photography” but is based on the Rothkoesque notions of the “aesthethic” and “felt content” as the sine qua non of art. The art world is replete with references to emotion and beauty as hallmarks of fine art. Keep in mind that the felt aesthetic of any photograph requires both technical qualities (e.g., composition, post-processing) and evocative qualities (e.g., beauty or emotional associations with beauty).
4. Does fine art have a history of being grounded in other influences like Zen philosophy for minimalist photography, geometry for abstract and architectural photography, neuropsychological principles of perception and sensation for long exposure photography, or a combination of influences or theories? Consider the idea that there is a certain level of sophistication in style, suggestion, and story in great works of painted and photographic fine art.
5. When viewing photography ask yourself this question: is this particular photo or body of photographic work an example of fine art photography based on your own learning about fine art, your own consumption of fine art, past and current examples of fine art, and your own clarity about fine art?
If the answer is “yes” to most if not all of these questions, then the definition may be considered relatively sound. There are more questions that we can ask, of course, but this is a starting point. In my estimations, it has to fulfill many if not all of the defined characteristics while avoiding some type of rule-governed formula for fine art. The first and second question tap into qualities of fine art photography, mainly black and white compositions, that most photographers associate with fine art. If you consider the works of the early fine art photographers like Alfred Steiglitz, Minor White, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, to name a few, the trends in black and white art of that period continue to this day in relation to fine art photography. However, a colour photo may technically be considered fine art if it meets certain quality standards. I don’t think colour photography can be dismissed so easily, given the history with other fine arts like painting (although my personal preference is black and white photography). However, a photograph may be defined as “fine art” by the photographer, become “popular by proxy” (it looks like other defined fine art), meet many of the criteria outlined in the definition, but lack the qualitative spark of the “felt aesthetic”. Would it be considered “fine art” as per the third question? I am not so sure. The photo does not have to make the angels cry but it does need to evoke something beautiful and elegant to the photography and non-photography community alike. The fourth question alludes to our genealogy of influences in our own photography. When I have read articles or interviews about fine art photography, the author inevitably refers to other influences across disciplines. In my opinion, this is unavoidable. No artist is an island when there is an ocean of islands that they have visited. The last question gets to the heart of subjective and objective aesthetic qualities in photography and relational frames of reference that may be common to all of us.
There is obviously some common denominator in our thinking about fine art as photographers. To that end, here is a “What is Fine Art?” experiment for your consideration:
Take 1000 random photographers of all skill levels and styles of photography and ask each one to take an artistic photo of a specific subject or multiple subjects using the same camera (when there are no other photographers in the experiment around), post-process the photo to their liking using their current post-processing software, and allow a multiple blind study with 3 or more judges (i.e., the photographers, judges, investigators, and data analysts remain blind to one another) separately determining which of the photos are to be considered “fine art” or “non-fine art”. The subjects determine their own definitions of the two categories. What would the outcome be in terms of agreement between the judges?
It would be a very interesting psychological experiment. You can also do the experiment with professional and non-professional judges, then compare the results and try to replicate the results in another experiment by your peers. There are many permutations that you can do with such a study. The scientist-practitioner in me some times comes out to play when I talk about art, but I think art has a place in the world on its own, in what I alluded to earlier as the “fifth dimension”. I am not sure if most photography award sites use such experiments versus collectively determining the awards. When all is said and done, I would think that the photos that are deemed to have some or all of the qualities I just described in my definition would be described as “fine art.” This is not to say that someone else’s definition would not meet those criteria, but I think there would be a high percentage of agreement between such definitions.
As a corollary to this question, I have been working on what I call the “FEEL principle of fine art photography” (Feels right – Exposed right – Esthetically right – Looks right) that predominantly taps into the right side or “artistic side” of the brain (thus the use of the word “right”) but also both sides of the brain. These factors come together as a gestalt of fine art. It takes into account the definition I provided earlier.
• F – “Feels right” refers to the overall feeling one gets from creating or viewing a photograph. This refers to the “felt aesthetic”. It is one of the reasons people stop and linger over certain art and not others. It “speaks” to them on a visceral and intuitive level. The photo has depth and impact. It is an emotionally rewarding experience as it provides a harmonious sensation and sensory experience based on the content and context of beautiful elements within the photograph.
• E – “Exposed Right” refers to more technical processes on how the photograph was captured and created. It refers to exposure lengths and creative photographic techniques (e.g., long exposure techniques, exposing to the right, intentional camera movement, etc.) along with post-processing techniques (e.g., Ansel Adams and Fred Archer’s Zone System of exposure and development) to obtain a creative result as part of the photographer’s overall vision. It also refers to confidently revealing yourself as a “fine art” photographer through new creative possibilities in photography and social media engagement in the wider art and photography community.
• E = “Esthetically Right” refers to broader concepts of capturing, creating and expressing beauty with your photography so that it stimulates an inspirational exploration of the emotional, intellectual and even spiritual depth of the art. The photography provides a visually rewarding experience. This also refers to a set of underlying values and inspired motivations where the “felt aesthetic” is the currency of the artist.
• L = “Looks Right” refers to photography based on elegant compositional choices (e.g., golden ratio) and quality standards (e.g., archival prints). This also refers to both objective and subjective impressions and discussions about the sophistication of the photography in relation to other works considered fine or beaux art, the primal intentions of the individual to create art (much like painters) through the medium of photography. I am not referring to “artsy” talk here but a thoughtful comparative analysis of influences and inspiration.
If a photographer’s compendium of work embodies the FEEL principle, then it may be considered part of a classification we call “fine art” or “art” photography. While this is still a working theory, I thought this interview was a good place to share it. In essence, there may be degrees, categories or a continuum of fine art that we have to consider, ones that meet most of the criteria in the definition and principle as a foundation rather than an umbrella label called “fine art”. I think the questions I posed get to the heart of such considerations. Photographers paint in pixels for the purpose of creating something inherently and deeply beautiful to the senses. After all, art is a value and not a goal.
If you had to come up with one very important lesson that you think every photographer needs to learn, what would it be?
There is this great quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson about authenticity that always resonates with me: “To photograph: it is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.” I have this quote on the home page of my website, in French, to always remind myself about this triad of creativity. This quote is why I often express that art is a “biopsychosocial” phenomenon (a term I have borrowed from the behaviour sciences), one that requires all elements of ourselves and our surroundings to come together.
There is also a Nietzschean proverb that I am quite fond of when it comes to my photography: “Become who you are.” It reminds me to always be faithful to myself in whatever I do. This is an important concept in photography and it is intimately tied to vision and the concept of oramagraphy that I described earlier. As I expressed in another interview at Canadian Photographers Online: originality has been done before, so stay true to who you want to be as an artist and refine your own personal vision.
What are your thoughts about the benefits of online sharing? Are there any particular social media or image sharing sites you prefer or do not prefer?
I am all for it. Without social media, I would not have met you and other great photographers. It is a great way to connect with an international photography community and create social networks that are meaningful. As for specific sites, I tend to use Google+, Facebook, 500px, Art Limited, Camerapixo, and Stark Magazine the most. Stark Magazine, in particular, is a great burgeoning website for photographers who promote the “Intelligent Eye” in their photography. I also curate an architecture group and exhibit there. I cannot recommend it enough. I also admire the work at Camerpixo a lot. I consider their magazine to be a go-to magazine for photographers. They featured me in the inaugural edition of their Black & White Magazine, and what a thrill that was!
What photographic cliché or common photography question, if any, irritates you the most?
I am not so much irritated as I am curious about the “why?” questions when the inevitable answer is “why not?” For example, “why are you shooting that building and not the monkey playing the piano?”; “Why are you taking a picture of that scene? It’s just a ____”; and “Why is that interesting to you?” Most of the time, it is a conversation starter about my passion and vision in photography.
If you were stranded on an island, and you could have one camera, one lens, one filter, one tripod, two books, and ten CDs, what would they be and why?
I would probably try to figure out a way to re-enact scenes from Life of Pi with all the equipment I had. In all seriousness, with the caveat that I would surely be rescued so that I could try to enjoy my “alone time”, I would choose the following:
Lens: The Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Wide Angle Zoom Lens. I use this lens 99% of the time when I am shooting architecture, land and seascapes, and long exposure photography. It is quite sharp and versatile. I would use it to refract light and make a fire and use it as a signal for incoming planes.
Filter: 10+ stop Formatt Hitech IRND Filter. I could also use it as a sunglass monocle.
Tripod: Any high-end Manfrotto tripod will do but it has to be light enough to use as a paddle, anchor, coconut cracker, or to harpoon some fish, and fight off any native wildlife.
Books: I have already listed some but I would use the books for the fire but I would save any pictures and things my daughter drew or my family wrote that were tucked inside them.
10 CDs: I would choose these for sentimental reasons and great memories.
1. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
2. Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced
3. Carl Orff – Carmina Burana
4. Finding Forrester OST – Music by Miles Davis, Bill Frisell, Ornette Coleman, Israel Kamakwiwo’ole.
5. The Verve – Urban Hymns
6. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
7. Led Zeppelin – Mothership
8. U2 – The Joshua Tree
9. Radiohead – OK Computer
10. Gladiator OST – Elysium
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
I had to really think about this question. I think my main goal is to continue refining my own techniques and expanding my own vision as a photographer. I hope to never stop growing as an artist. I have been truly humbled by the international awards, publications, galleries, and attention from other photographers. I would like to try my hand at more artistic and abstract type portraits along with infrared and minimalist landscape photography.
Is there any specific place that you would like to visit to take photos?
I love to travel. What I have enjoyed the most about my travels is getting to know great photographers personally and to share really great moments together. As for specific places I would like to go, I have this overwhelming wanderlust for Japan and Iceland. There is something so eternal about Japanese traditions and the topography of the land. It is a country rich in symbolism, innovation, and beauty. When I see photos, for example, Dr. Akira Takaue‘s take on the architecture in Japan, it not only makes me want to go there but also reinforces the notion that fine art photography can be realized with colour. As for Iceland, I would love to capture the fire and ice of that land in a unique way. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir, a famous Icelandic photographer, offers stunning portraits of herself against the backdrop of her homeland. I first discovered the otherworldly landscapes of Iceland through her photography. The country seems to offer endless paradisaical opportunities for the photographer. Although many photographers have ventured there, it still charms me to no end.
Is there anything else you wish to add?
I would like to end the interview the way I started it by thanking you for the opportunity to be a part of a collective of talented photographers offering their own wisdom on many interesting and important questions in photography. The photography community is better for it. The only thing that I ask in return is for you to one day offer your own take on these questions.
I would also like to dedicate these words to you, dear readers, as I hope that our paths will continue to cross– and to all the photographers that over the years I have learned from and who have inspired me to pursue my own photography with abandon.
And, finally, if the mood should strike you, write a haiku that describes your photography.
The light beckons me
Pure visions rise from the mist
Wisdom finds a home.
— John Kosmopoulos —
Spotlight on Three Images
All images on this page– unless otherwise noted– are protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without John Kosmopoulos‘ permission.
The text on this page is protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without John Kosmopoulos or Nathan Wirth‘s permission.