What’s in a Name?

Heavy morning fog on the Potomac River adds mystery to this otherwise peaceful water scene.
“Bridge to NoWhere” –Heavy morning fog on the Potomac River adds mystery to this otherwise peaceful water scene.

I want to share something that you may take for granted, or perhaps never even thought about, and that is “..where do art titles come from?”

As art lovers, we’re accustomed to seeing titles on artworks. Titles are a convenient way to refer to a particular painting or photograph. So instead of saying “that photograph by Gurski of the Rhine River that someone bought for $4,200,000” we simply know it as “Rhine II.”

Photography lends itself very well to titling of images using nominal or geographic descriptors. That’s the tradition of photography. Whether it’s Weston’s “Pepper” series or any number of Ansel Adams’ titles (“Half Dome,” “Snake River”), or even Gurski’s “Rhine II.”  The title of the image often reveals the name of the subject itself, no question about it, just call it what it is.

I find such an objective approach to titling photographs a bit lacking. When I stand before a scene in the field,  I try to think about the concept I want to communicate, the story the scene is telling me. It is this story that I want the title to describe and not so much the physical entity in the picture. The title I give to a finished photograph often reflects the story that struck me at the time of capture. In fact, I often write the “working title” on the field log I keep for every picture I take.

For me, it’s important to title my photographs this way. It helps me recall how I felt when I discovered the scene, and it helps me know how I want to interpret the picture to extend and clarify that feeling.

“Bridge to NoWhere” is a good example.  This historic bridge over the Potomac River completely disappeared into the heavy fog on this particular morning. The far end of the bridge and the far river bank had completely lost all identity, at least in this story. In reality, I knew where the bridge went, but a title such as “Point of Rocks Bridge over the Potomac River” wouldn’t have communicated the mysterious nature of events that I saw when under the darkcloth.

Every artist has their own way of titling their artworks, and none of them are wrong. I have to admit, though, that when I see a piece of art titled “Untitled,” …well, I just don’t get that. Regardless, whatever the artist has named a particular scene, don’t let it keep you from dreaming up your own story. It’s your fantasy, so write it however you want!

Why I never talk about my “photo gear”

A nostalgic scene from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia
“One Morning at Liberty Furnace”–A nostalgic scene from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia

As an art photographer, I’m continually amazed that so many of my peers think that everyone else must be as enamored with photographic equipment as they themselves must be. Why else would they make it certain that I know what f stop, shutter speed, ISO, camera model, and lens they used to take a particular picture?

Maybe they think my knowing this information will be critically helpful when I show up at the same vantage point, and same time of day, and even the same day of the year and under the same lighting conditions, just so I can replicate that very same picture. I can’t think of another reason why someone else would want me to know this information.

Or maybe their web gallery software assumes they want to communicate all the EXIF  data, and there’s no way to turn it off. EXIF data are all those pieces of crap technical information the camera (largely digital cameras) embeds into the picture file where it remains forever. Photo sharing sites like Flickr, Pbase, and others don’t make it easy to make EXIF data invisible to viewers. But it can be done, and they probably should make it easier.

Or, maybe they have nothing else to say about the picture, but they think they have to say SOMETHING….

I’ve written before about the importance of storytelling in art and especially in photographic art. Whether we, as artists, write a narrative that helps viewers see the same story as us or if we choose not to tell our story, the story is still there. Sometimes, the title we give an image is the story. Sometimes the story is meant to be ambiguous, so the less said the better.

The problem I have with overt disclosure of EXIF data is that I find it very distracting. It may be because when I look at an art photograph, my mind wants to  swim among the neurons on my creative, subjective right brain. Then BANG, I notice that the picture was taken with a Canon Mark XXXI with 10-500mm lens at f64 and 1/10,000 sec, and the mood is destroyed. EXIF data excites the objective left brain which competes for attention with it’s right side. Too often the left brain wins.

If you are among those who think that disclosing all that sexy EXIF data is important to anyone besides your camera, you should reconsider that thinking. It can turn people from enjoying the image on its artistic merits to, in some cases, objective revulsion.

So if all you have to say about an image you created is contained in the EXIF data, perhaps it’s time you began saying nothing at all.









Who likes art, anyway?

Sunrise Over the Nez Perce, Yellowstone NP  (Copyright J Riley Stewart)

I admit I’m as a newborn when it comes to knowing about art and artists. I’m not professionally trained in the arts. I can’t draw a straight line. And for most of my adult life, I lived in the left-brained, analytical world of science. But I now see that art has always been a large part of my life. I just didn’t know it. Perhaps it’s the same with you.

If someone were to ask me 35 years ago if I liked art, I would have said “no.” Loving art wasn’t a macho thing in the 80s. I didn’t really know what art was unless someone told me something was “art.”  I hadn’t the exposure to art required to have an opinion about it one way or the other.

It turns out I was in the majority.  It’s commonly thought that only 25% of Americans claim to like “art.” And about half of those actually buy or collect significant art pieces.  I wonder if that’s really true, that only 1 in 4 of us “like” art.

Thirty-five years ago I was art stupid. When I later saw Michaelangelo’s “David” in real life I was awestruck. But this didn’t make me an art lover. When I saw the “Mona Lisa;” again, awestruck. But that didn’t make me an art lover either. When I saw an original Ansel Adams’s “Moon Over Half Dome?”…. Again, awestruck; again, not a convert.

I know now that I remained art stupid through all these experiences (and many more), but something was changing in my mind and heart. I began respecting the emotions that art could evoke in me, if I just gave it a chance. Each of these experiences added just a bit of knowledge to my personal art appreciation toolkit, but not enough to know what to do with these bits. I just knew that I enjoyed the individual experiences beyond words.

Creation and love of art is a uniquely human attribute. Something in our DNA compels us to consciously create and love art.  This is not speculation or hyperbole: study after study has shown the value of art in our human lives. Some even believe that art isn’t merely a luxury as others claim; that art is, in fact, necessary to healthy, happy human lives. Why else would our earliest ancestors spend valuable time drawing on the walls instead of gathering food if they weren’t compelled to? Why do hospital patients heal faster when they have art as part of their treatment?

If art is such a universally valuable thing in our lives, why do so many discredit that value? Perhaps one explanation involves motivations developed in us as youngsters. From our earliest days we are encouraged to develop skills that can lead to a commercially viable trade or profession. Being an artist is not known as one of those promising enterprises, is it? When we think of “artist” we tend to attach adjectives such as “starving” or “quirky” to it.

We can’t truly appreciate art (or anything else for that matter) until we know something about it. At some point in my past something clicked in me that made me want to experience again those feelings I felt when I saw “Mona Lisa” and “Half Dome.” I remembered pouring over pictures of those marvelous landscapes by Thomas Moran and Bierstadt even as a kid, lost in the fantasy of it all.  I eventually was drawn to photography and fine prints, and developed a voracious appetite for photography’s history, its heroes, its processes, and its masterpieces. Ask me today if I’m an art-lover and I would say “absolutely.” I’m a convert.

Here’s a challenge:  Make a New Year’s Resolution to learn more about how art can add value to your own life. Visit local galleries and art museums. Talk to artists about their work (they love to talk about their passion, by the way). Check out photography and other art books from your local library. Subscribe or follow art sites on Facebook or Pinterest. And if you see something you love, buy the damn thing before someone else does. Live with it and you’ll find it will soon become part of you.

Don’t fight the natural inclination to embrace art. To do so only violates what’s in your DNA. And who needs that stress?

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