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The first camera I got was when I was 17, a gift from my parents for high school graduation. My mother was a strong influence. She was a photographer when she was in her 20s and early 30s when I was a kid. She shot black and white work in our Brooklyn neighborhood and kept a darkroom in the basement. I grew up with these unique images on our kitchen wall: an old man taking a mid day nap slumped over in his chair, graffiti on a storefront gate, a dead sparrow on the concrete sidewalk, the elevated train tracks all within a few blocks of where I grew up.
We've been around for 200,000 years and photography is a technology that's less than 200 years old. We've had pictographs, we've had paintings, we've had all types of expression but they are not exact ‘light capturings.' Photography is about capturing light in order to document something. Photographers can document the exact moment in a split second. It's very powerful. It revolutionized human communication and understanding. I'm interested in the challenge of using a documentary medium to document what lies beyond our sight and senses. I actually approach photography like a painter but a painter of invisible things, of the essential, in the first meaning of that word.
Most of what I do comes out of a real-life situation. But as opposed to documenting perceived reality I'm attempting to document something imperceptible, emotional. The colors, the subject, the composition, are not changed, they are simply re-interpreted and documented emotionally and metaphysically as opposed to physically. I'm trying to express a reality that we don't ordinarily perceive with our senses. So, it's not intellectual, but it leads to the question of meaning. Ultimately, I believe that there is no absolute meaning in the universe. That said, meaning can be very useful nonetheless. Through communication and connection with the audience and with myself, I find my own meaning: it makes me feel less alone. I think that the togetherness and connection that can be created through art is the antidote for this kind of existential loneliness.
I studied classical music at NYU, but I'm not just a composer of music; in the photography, each frame is also a “composition”. “Compose” is a verb used both literally, in the visual arts, and figuratively, in music, but in both instances composing is about creating balance and communication among the parts of a piece, whether it's played or exhibited.
For me, the musical impulse is about expressing in music what is very difficult to express with words. Form is an illusion that we experience on a physical level and is very subjective. With music I have been trying to find that unheard and unseen connection among all things. So, I'm trying to get the listener to hear the pulse of the universe, the creative power, that energy that binds all things and transcends form. It's that kind of grand goal.
I'm taking objects and form and using techniques and tools like movement and light to break down the obvious form of things into something that's not as obvious. The physical elements of a picture remain distinct but also dissolve into each other. So to me, even though it's abstract work, it's just as real as so-called “realism”. It's an expression of reality; it's just a different reality than we usually see.
In many ways, I favor very common themes so that I can assume the challenge of reinterpreting them. The Moon series is an example of that. The moon has certain associations; people think of reflection, beauty, mystery, emotional attachment. I wanted to expose a different side of the moon. The moon was created in a violent collision, from a huge chunk torn from the earth, and is barren. It has no atmosphere, it's cold, it spins through space at thousands of miles per hour. It is pock-marked with craters, bombarded by asteroids—it is a very violent place with a violent history and a violent persona. I wanted to capture this dark side of the moon, not just the poetic, reflective side of the moon.
Actually, most of the time, the subject chooses me. Because of where I am. I'll be in front of the cherry blossoms, as I was with the Sakura series, and I'll think, I need to capture this in the way that I see it. I'm taking advantage of where I happen to be, geographically. In fact, travel is one of the things I love best. I got into photography more seriously because of travel and my love of nature. It was a vehicle to experience all that, but it later became a way to represent my ideas.
Typically if you look at art photography, it's black-and-white, partly because a lot of great artists consider that medium reflective, mysterious, timeless, but I have no interest in that: We perceive things through color because that's how they appear to us—literally on a vibrational level, at wavelength frequencies. Humans can see a very limited light spectrum, so I use the spectrum we can perceive and manipulate and play with that to express my ideas. Black and white would be too limiting.
Well, I can tell you what I don't do. What I don't do is pretty much everything that I learned in school. I don't use focus traditionally. I use focus to not focus, but it's not just about things being out of focus. It's not arbitrary or binary, in or out of focus. It involves a very specific level of out-of-focus. I don't use automatic settings. Because I'm painting with light I have to very carefully control how much light I'm using: If there's too much, it's messy; if there's too little, there's not enough data in the picture.
In combination with those two things I move the camera and my body, ranging from moving several feet to only centimeters, subtle adjustments of hands and wrists. The camera lens, that's my paintbrush. I have to control what I'm doing physically to get what I want on the canvas.
I also hardly ever use the viewfinder. At first I'll look through to frame the shot, to see what kind of space I have to work with, but after that I'm not really looking through the lens. I'm visualizing the space and using that small canvas, calibrating and recalibrating.
It was building up and had culminated in image 08-05, which focused on a tree. To make that image, I was standing in front of this beautiful tree in the light and a slight breeze and I was going to shoot it like I would shoot any other beautiful tree, but this time something different happened when I raised the camera to shoot it: I was overcome by an emotional feeling. To me, every part of this tree felt completely interconnected on a very fundamental level. I was using film at that point so I started to move the camera to capture this connection and then, a few days later, when I developed the film, I was astonished by the image because it matched what I felt to what I saw and what I was doing with the camera. That opened up a new avenue to me. Since then I don't think I've taken an in-focus picture!
Because the photography was capturing only this very thin layer of reality and, for me, the least important part of reality, I had begun to wonder if it was just a waste of time. But I had a love of the camera and for photography. It allowed me to focus and concentrate. I loved the meditative aspect and it was through that that ideas began to express themselves. I was able to use photography to document reality and realistic form and I wanted to use it to push through the obvious perception into something more transcendent. I began to ask myself: How do I use photography to penetrate deeper into a truer essence of things?
No, for me, the photography, and music, is about expressing a different reality. As opposed to an obvious melody or harmony, my music is very complex and layered, which expresses a multitude of things happening at the same time. That's what my photography is also trying to express. There is never only a single thing happening at any given moment, but, for the sake of survival, our brains don't focus on many things at once. Evolution hard-wired our brains to filter out distractions that aren't useful to us in that moment.
Exactly. So if there is so much to listen to, what do you focus on? The idea in my work is not to focus on anything; I want people to just experience it instead. I'm not necessarily trying to get the audience or listener to experience it all, all at once—most of the time, I'm not able to either—but it's all there. I'm constantly trying to unhide what is usually hidden.