Monet and the Light
I’ve been taking an ongoing workshop at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Massachusetts, Atelier, lead by Meg Birnbaum who is terrific. Among other things, we’re asked to think about our work from a variety of new perspectives, a task which is very helpful. One of those is called “conversation with an artist.” Simply put, you choose an artist of interest and present your work in relation to that artist’s work and think about how that artist may have influenced you. In 1978 I had a chance to visit an exhibition of the works of Claude Monet, one of the founders of the Impressionism,, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I have always known that this experience and his work deeply influenced me, but didn’t think about how and why. I simply liked it. Impressionist works are really about, in my view, the impression the scene leaves on you, more than about creating a representation of the scene. I never really explored the history of impressionism and the relationship between the artists and the landscapes with which they worked, however. This exercise gave me a chance to do so and the results were very interesting. If you click on the link over Monet’s name above, you’ll go to wonderful web site that offers an in-depth look at his work as well as some background. But do come back!
It can be difficult for us to understand the state of art in the 1800’s. It was a different world. Monet’s generation though was blessed by having available to them new technology. No, not digital….oil paint in a tube. That of course is something we take for granted now, but such was not always the case. We are used to the common sight of seeing a painter with easel, canvas and paints working in front of an appropriate scene, outside. Before Monet’s generation that was very difficult to do because the paints had to be mixed in quantity from scratch, a messy and time-consuming business. If you’ve seen pictures of Mathew Brady’s field darkroom, it was essentially a covered wagon. The same would be necessary to paint in the field. So they didn’t. Incredible as it seems, most landscape art was created in studio, the artist referring to notes and sketches. Monet and his colleagues worked “in open air.”
This revolutionary technique allowed them to make note of, and be influenced by, something photographers take for granted. We are not creating an image of an object but rather how the light strikes an object. Monet did some many paintings of various lily pads because he wanted to see how light, time of day, weather, etc. changed the scene. Of course, such changes are not at all trivial. Any object at mid-day outdoors may look radically different at sunset, or on a cloudy day. The painter and the photographer use this difference more than the gesture or physical presence of the scene, to achieve the desired result. Monet saw the light.
What Impressionists are known for however, I think, is more their refusal to get lost in details. They tried to capture the “essence” of a scene. They used broad colorful brush strokes and tolerated intense color contrasts. This of course lead to their being ostracized by the powers that be in the French art community of the time. Most of them experienced significant poverty, though ultimately, their work began to catch on. After all these years, I still like it. With apologies to Monet then, I went back and looked at some of my favorite images over the last five or six years. The results were interesting. I’ll share a few of them here.
This image, taken at sunrise is from Ocean City, New Jersey. This abandoned pier is famous among photographers for obvious reasons. Alas, it is also gone, courtesy of supper storm Sandy. (Technical note: very little post production corrections were made on these images. I typically set a black point, white point and applied a bit of contrast. That’s it. That is all that was necessary, an interesting lesson.)
From a little bit further south, Cape May at sunset. (Thank goodness, I hate getting up for a sunrise shoot, particularly during the summer!)
This is a “swipe”, a technique I learned from Tony Sweet. The camera is set to have as low shutter speed and one moves the camera while the shutter is open. As you can guess, this fails repeatedly, so you’ll need to take many images to get what you want.
All of these images, and the two below, have something in common. I had planted the tripod (in all cases but the one directly above) and did not move as I watched the light change over the course of between 10 minutes and two hours. I took an image every minute or two. I never knew if the last one was going to be the best one, until the inspiring light was gone, and things turned either all black or all blue. Once those images, between 20 and 100 are loaded into the computer, I then have a record of how the light evolved over time. Like Monet, we’re able to study how the light interacts with the object.
From Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. This was taken, amazingly, at mid-day. It is surprising what can happen if you wait. These images though also all required a long shutter speed. One does that to smooth out water, or to achieve a sense of movement in the sky. You’re left though with the essence of the image, not the details, at least in most cases.
This final image is of Roanoke Sound off Manteo, North Carolina, after a storm. Is photography objective, or subjective? Does it in fact matter? Of course it does if you’re engaged in photojournalism, but beyond that, I’m not so sure. Some artists believe that we should never look back, lest we be influenced by those who came before. I actually don’t think that’s possible. On the contrary, I think, as with most history, we learn a great deal.