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May 19, 2004

Images and Words: More Explorations of Commercial vs Personal Photography


It's nice and convenient to lock oneself in a cocoon and think pure artistic thoughts when pursuing photography, but for all my meanderings on this blog about art and photography, I've tried to actively confront the contradictions of photography as a commercial venture as well as an artistic one...and the reality that there's more uncomfortable overlap than one might realize.

Lately it's been hard to think much about art...when you're shooting corporate events, there ain't much art, and even with my personal work with dancers, there's the consideration of how to market even the basic candid images to parents accustomed to more straightforward (I'm being diplomatic here) portraits of their ballerinas. Then there's my studio lighting class, which is providing excellent practical knowledge of tricky lighting situations, but it's hard to get excited about lighting spoons and glass and digital clocks.

Sean Kernan is a Connecticut based commercial and fine arts photographer with a superb web site that explores these questions of commercial work vs personal artistry -- through images and thoughtful essays and interviews -- and he does so in a much more lyrical and gracefully exploratory manner than I could ever attempt. Roughly half the galleries on his site showcase his commercial work, and the other half showcases personal galleries on images of books, trees, artfully fragmented portraits, and prison images.

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Sean Kernan image, from Prison series

Kernan definitely has a smart way with light, and not only is he good at using it, he's terrific in talking about how he uses it. He has one of the best collections of essays and interviews on any personal website that I've read. As I struggle to come to grips with what my final project will be for my studio lighting class, here's an excerpt from a long interview with PDN regarding the difficulty of shooting still lifes that hit home with me:

PDN: What is the most difficult challenge you face in lighting still lifes?

Kernan: The hardest thing is when there is just no content. I guess I'm a fantasist, I also write, I write fiction, and I love to pull stories out of myself. It makes photography easier for me when there is some hint of a little story that I can start with. In the end you want someone to look at your photograph and have a story available to them--a story they can follow.

Lighting is part of the narrative. It's this: there is the story and then there is the language that you choose to tell it in; you can blurt it out or you can tell it in a crafted way where things are revealed if you want them to be revealed. Lighting is, I think, the vernacular, it's the syntax and the poetry of the story you're telling--it's how we tell the story."

Some of the commercial galleries -- especially the more recent images -- are definitely worth looking through as well. The Secret Books gallery is the most well known -- I've seen excerpts in magazines, along with the text from Borges -- but the portraits and prison images are interesting as well.

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Sean Kernan image, from the Secret Books series

As I said, the interviews and essays are as much fun to wade through, if not more so, especially when you get a philosophical guy like John Paul Caponigro doing the interviewing of an equally literate Kernan. Here is an interesting exchange regarding the merits of photography as an art form relative to other disciplines:

Kernan: "...I confess I'm one of those who thinks photography is a bit too easy, a secondary art form that is sometimes practiced by primary artists, like your father. Perhaps long and hard are good for one's work because they demand that one pay greater attention, and so one sees more possibilities.

I keep thinking about what we talked about, the matter of art work being difficult. We talked about the time work takes, and I think we agree that time is not the only factor. If it were, we'd see macramè in museums. With some of the "instantaneous" art forms-photography, Zen calligraphy, some poetry - the time is invested in the practice, and the execution looks simple and quick.

This leads to the thought about the time that it takes to really apprehend a work. Photography is like a skyrocket, the novel is like a candle. Photography and poetry hit with a strong, nearly instantaneous impression, and they do their work in memory for a long time after we walk away from the work. But a longer form--particularly the novel - feeds it's line into your being for a week, a month, like a long thin wire that cuts a new channel through you and strings you together in some new way. Its Aha! versus Hmmmm ... and I wouldn't want to choose between them."

Caponigro: Isn't that the crux of the matter we've been discussing? The process or the mode fosters a specific kind of perception. It is tempting to attach the words "the process" to the materials and the physical aspects of work, and they are important and interesting, still I feel it's even more interesting and rewarding to look at "the process" as engaging in a discipline or specific mode of perception and becoming aware of the resulting psychological effects that activity nurtures. In this respect the various artistic disciplines are not as different as they would seem."

There's so much more that I could excerpt (and perhaps I'll sneak in more in future posts), but even if you don't care for Kernan's mix of commerce and art photography, he is eloquent and measured and, for someone exploring such lofty ideas, pleasingly down to earth and not full of himself. I enjoy visiting his site for inspiration when wrangling with the art-commerce dichotomy myself.

Kernan makes his love of books clear throughout his site...writing them and photographing them. I wonder what he would make of Victor Schrager's large format, selective focus explorations of books (which I first encountered in the issue of Blind Spot I wrote about last month)...simple and evocative explorations of color and form that alternately embrace and blur away the texture and weight of books in the frame.

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Victor Schrager image

Final note: Thanks to April Gertler of nymphoto for dropping by the site and commenting...it's always great to hear from the photographers directly! I'll try to check out that show if I can make to NYC soon, though it sounds like it may be wrapping up soon...

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