Impressionism, which was the start of modern art, could not directly originate from its more Romantic and Baroque predecessors or those from the Dutch Golden Age. Impressionism was a result of the advent of photography that questioned the objectives of painting as a representational form of art. Cubism could not directly originate from their Expressionist and Fauvist predecessors, and so forth. Before the impressionist movement became a fact, several artists came together in Paris saloons, night after night, to discuss art, to oppose against traditional artistic points of views, to oppose against the objective of art and to oppose against traditional techniques. They opposed against the mental patterns and existing models in painting and art. They broke down art and the painting medium into its smallest components and rebuilt it into something completely new by linking those facts, techniques, observations and other attributes together into a concept that didn’t exist before: impressionism.
Or a more concrete example, Picasso is widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of the past century. He became the artist with his stature because he continuously reinvented his artistic concepts. First starting with the representational works of his early period, followed by the blue and rose periods, to then suddenly distort the shapes in his African period, inspired by African masks. This eventually lead to his famous Cubist period. The artistic concepts, the model, behind the works of his blue and rose periods are fundamentally different from the works of his African and Cubist periods. The African and Cubist periods works could never be the result of a refinement of the preceding periods. It could only be the result of a destruction of his earlier concepts in favor of something new. He used lines, color, and shape in completely different ways in his African and Cubist periods, triggered by the central question: Why make paintings if photography can capture reality so much better and more accurately? Picasso’s answer was Cubism because he left all traditional views on what art should be and what painting should be.
And now we have to ask ourselves a similar question. Why make artistic photographs if its goal is recording reality? Or, why make fine art landscapes or architecture the way we make them now? Or still life or portraiture? Why even use objects at all? Some of those questions have been answered by artists like Stieglitz and Steichen who established a movement called pictorialism. There were some brilliant photographers and photographs ever after like Ansel Adams who broke down photography in its smallest components, and built it up again with new techniques and a visual expression that did justice to photography as a medium and as an art form. Irving Penn gave a new interpretation to portrait photography and especially fashion photography. Artists like Alexey Titarenko and Michael Kenna, used a fundamental component of photography, time, in different ways than usual, by using long exposures that resulted in different visual concepts.
This is also what needs to be done if you want to succeed in (fine-art) photography: continuously breaking down of your own successful concepts and trying to rebuild it with something completely new based on the same elements but integrated and synthesized in a different way. It will lead to a deconstruction of your own success by trying to refine your own concepts and visual expressions. By destructing and deconstructing your concepts you reconstruct success because you’re giving way to progress.
I have been trying this myself in my own photography without being aware of these “Boydian principles”. It was a very intuitive process, but the mistake I made is to cling to my proven concepts for too long. I became the victim of my own, relative, success and thought that by refining and tweaking my concepts, I could be the victor again. But that didn’t happen, it simply wasn’t enough to work within the same mental pattern and only improve on elements within my concept. I was looking inward and talking to myself. I contributed to changing my artistic environment, and while my environment adapted and kept changing, I didn’t allow myself to be changed. I stuck with my concept that has proven to be successful and should continue to be successful, or so I thought. I stood still.
Now I’m trying to give way to progress again by deconstructing my proven concepts. I’ve tried to do that with my architectural photographs, but I am aware that it is not enough because whether I wanted it or not, I continued referring to the old concept. To the old mental model I had of an architectural photograph, but with some tweaking. Comparing my latest architectural photographs with the ones from a few years ago, and in return comparing those with the ones a few years before that, the discerning eye will see that there are recurring elements and principles, but sometimes technically better executed, sometimes using science to the photograph’s advantage, or sometimes just incorporating style elements from art movements into my photo or simply inverting the way shadows behave. It is a different interpretation of the same mental model. But it’s still the same model. That’s no destruction of a model, it’s just an affirmation of it. The mental pattern is architecture and light and shadows and how they create depth. It’s ingrained in my mind and I can never change it unless I radically leave it.
That’s what I try to do now by shooting still life. I started with emulating the great still life work from artists like Mapplethorpe and Weston. That’s nice as a way to get started and learn to appreciate the beauty of a masterful still life. How to proceed and create my own visual style with still life and not just emulations? So I started studying the still life paintings from the Dutch masters like Adriaen Coorte and Willem Claesz Heda. Also the Spanish masters like Zurbaran and Cotan, by not only studying their work but also by reading books, essays, and articles on why they painted what they painted. I deconstructed their work into key elements. Recurring principles. Now I try to connect them and reconstruct a visual style, my visual style, within the context of modern day’s environment. Within the context of digital photography and bound by my technical and artistic toolkit. This is liberating since I don’t have a distinctive personal visual style in still life yet, and therefore I cannot be stuck within my own mental pattern. But if I succeed remains the question, at least I’m aware of the process I’m following to construct a new model.
This deconstruction of older mental patterns can perhaps be amplified by using other technology. The photography projects I have in mind for next year, for example, will largely be done with a 4×5 Large Format camera, not so much because analog photography is better than digital photography, I think that’s an elitist statement, but because I believe it will force me to change specific patterns, routines, that have crept into the way I approach photographic subjects. With Large Format, I need to look at an image on the ground glass, upside-down. That’s already a disturbance of the mental models in my head. Focusing the camera with a Large Format camera happens in a different way too. And I can go on for a while giving more practical examples. The idea is to ‘find new inspiration’, or more accurately: to break down mental patterns and models that I’m continuously trying to refine but at some point won’t evolve anymore. And then to construct a new model, by changing routines, disciplines, subject matter or even camera gear, that can contribute to triggering ideas for a successful new model.
On a related note: I’m not going completely analog, but I chose to make it partly analog up to the phase of developing the negative, but after scanning the negatives I will use my digital workflow to process the photos. I will report on my experiences with the Large Format camera in articles here on this website.
To get back to still life: based on what I have now as a preliminary mental concept of still life, I could develop another model for portraiture. Another genre I’m working on. Perhaps these new concepts, these new mental patterns, can serve as an external model for the moment I’m going back to architecture so I can base my architectural photographs on that external model to come up with something that’s really ‘new’.
The point is to change mental patterns, to see things literally in a different light by deconstructing them and try to use the deconstructed elements in a different situation and combination, and if a change of tools and technology that you’re used to use, can help with that, then even better. The result of a change of technology is already that my workflow will become a hybrid workflow instead of a strictly digital or analog workflow. And that may seem an insignificant change, but it can force you to see things differently. Perhaps it will result in new artistic creations again. Fine-tuning of the existing models we are using, will simply be not sufficient.
- One of the best books on what still life is with very interesting analyses based on paintings from the masters of still life painting: Norman Bryson – Looking at the Overlooked
- I can highly recommend the eBook From Basics to Fine-art, that I co-wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou and goes into the artistic aspects of photography (and is on sale now for Black Friday/Cyber Monday)