Thoughts on Content - Or "Where is the meat?"

After decades of image making, I sometimes wonder how well my work is communicating. I ask myself “Is there content that transcends the surface?”

Defining this elusive content might be a slippery slope. Over thinking could destroy the delicate balance. But if I don’t think about it, content might not be present.

From my personal experience one benefit of art is that it pushes the viewer to have an elevated experience of reality. And this experience should last. On the 10th or 100th viewing, the piece should elicit a strong response - although maybe not always the same response.

These artistic encounters tap into primal forces and the viewer feels more alive - more excited about life’s possibilities. A window is opened and spirit moves away from the self. It may not always be a comfortable encounter, but the artwork I am drawn to has an elevated link to the human experience. The human spirit is triggered by an artwork’s “content.”

I must dutifully distinguish between "content" and "subject" here (sorry I was a professor). Subject can be described specifically - "man sitting on chair in the woods" for example. This subject is central to the image, but it is only a tiny part of the "content" which is much more mysterious.

Many artist will tell you that art making is an aphrodisiac. Yes, it can be a difficult and painful process, but when it is working it is addictive. There is a sense of power, and perhaps even a sense of immortality. This is because you are making something others (and sometimes many others) can respond to on some deeply felt level. The creative process is siren song, for the viewer and the maker.

Hopefully, euphoric sensation is not the only outcome. Perhaps there is more - a kick in our collective psyches to push ourselves further. But how does the "kick" get into an inanimate object? - - - What alchemy is this?

My life and my art making are intertwined. If my life is not always full of possibilities, well then my art can be. This art making endeavor can be a self fulfilling prophesy, meaning that what I want to see is what I will see and what I will “get.”

Experiencing nature is a core part of my life. In the 1990’s I realized that when I walked in the woods I was drawn to certain vistas that mirrored my personal emotional state of mind. If I was grieving, then perhaps I was drawn to a tree branch bent to the ground by ice and snow.

Still Standing, Walden Woods (Collection of the Boston Athenaeum)

Back in the studio when I pieced “Still Standing” (above) together I had choices. The subject matter evolved as I placed the separate photo frames one against another. Was I portraying defeat, conflict, hope, or unease? - or only what happened to exist when I was pressing the shutter. I found that what I projected with my mind was central to the “content” I wished to communicate. I was the conductor of that mood or content. (this is true of all art making).

At the time I was working on this piece I had just lost my working career for the second time, family members had abandoned me, I was care taking an aging parent. I was alone. But I was still pushing through. This was a very private condition but also a universal one. Had I expressed it? What was my point? Or was I simply a conduit of feelings? Does direct contact with Nature spark and define my feelings? Can it guide and comfort me?

One of my favorite lines from Henry David Thoreau’s journals is “Now I am Ice, now I am sorrel.”

What does Thoreau mean? In his philosophy of self and nature, Thoreau sees his essence, his being reflected back in the stuff of nature. His soul and thoughts could be "ice", or they could be "sorrel" (sorrel is a common herb/plant that can found in the woods - perhaps Thoreau was hungry for soup…)

The longer entry is: “Our thoughts and sentiments answer to the revolution of the seasons, as two cog-wheels fit into each other. We are conversant with only one point of contact at a time, from which we receive a prompting and impulse and instantly pass into a new season or point of contact. A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thought which have their language in nature. Now I am ice, now I am sorrel. Each experience reduces itself to a mood of the mind.” Thoreau’s Journal, June, 1857.

When I am photographing I have a certain time frame (an hour perhaps) to contemplate a particular place. Looking through the camera lens or digital display gives me a "point of contact" which is multiplied by perhaps 100 -200 points/shots. The process focuses my mind on what I am experiencing. Everything else (daily concerns, etc.) is pushed away through this process, and the dance begins.

In this dance I am allowing the intrinsic content of time and place enter my mind, my emotions, my memory, my DNA. I am trusting that a process of fusion will happen - if I stay open to it. So in some ways I am a content stealer. I don’t create the content. It comes to me, and I capture it. I am a hunter, waiting for my prey.

Fall Promises (Fruitlands)

Later, when I am piecing the collage together I have a second chance to experience this reality, and I have the power (and learned techniques) to imbue the photo fact with the emotions intrinsic to the scene (ice, sorrel) mixed with my mood maneuvers (foggy, sharp, assured, hopeful, desperate...). In my collages, transitions from photo frame to photo frame creates a tension and a rhythm. This is the particular language I choose to employ.

My intention is not to disturb the viewer with a “distorted” composite, but to make he or she intrigued enough to enter. I am acutely aware that I am working with thin layers of arrested existence. Although I often piece the information in a continuous and comfortable manner, what I am really hoping to do is slip and tumble through the cracks - like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I wish to find a parallel universe based on my actual experience, and I invite the viewer to fall with me - into the lure of the vortex.

Deep Pond (Beebe Woods)