Welcome to the 7th of our 12 weeks of Artful Summer!
Art Idea #7
A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words!
What you might have been doing this week if you had lived 40,000 years ago
Many of the oldest Western cave paintings are found in Southern France and Northern Spain. It’s a “karst” (leaky limestone) region similar to Florida and The Yucatan here in North America. Probably the most famous, beautiful, and dramatic paintings are in the Lascaux cave. They’ve been dated to about 16,000 years ago. The paintings in the Chauvet cave have been dated to 30-32,000 years ago. Like all works of art on earth, these paintings were made by human beings. There is a red stencil painting of a hand in the Maltravieso cave in Cáceres, Spain that has been dated to older than 64,000 years ago. While our Homo sapiens species may have existed 100,000 years ago, I haven’t heard of Homo sapiens culture before 30 or 40,000 years ago. The hand in the Maltravieso cave is believed to have been painted not by a human being, but by Homo neanderthalensis.
It’s always surprising to me that the dating on these ancient cave paintings is often done by a single lab. You’d think that nailing down the dates of the dawn of human culture and creativity would take on a bit more urgency and that there would be more push for multiple verifications of the age of these paintings. For now, we’re left with sketchy numbers. As a ballpark, I’ll say that our species might be 100,000 years old, and the preserved samples of our expression (painting) are about 40,000 years old.
The earliest signs of weaving are about 20,000 years old. But weavings weren’t kept in the shelter of a cave the way cave painting was. Much could be lost to time.
If you had been alive this week 40,000 years ago… well, it wouldn’t be “July”. Our current calendar, the Gregorian Calendar, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The month of “July” was named after Julius Caesar in 44 BCE.
There wasn’t a “July” 40,000 years ago. But there was the astronomical event of Solstice. It’s reasonable to imagine that early humans paid attention to such things.
If you’d been around in early summer 40,000 years ago, you might be painting. But weaving was probably a lot more useful, so maybe you’d be a Fiber Artist.
Painting and Fiber Art are 10’s of thousands of years old. They are the earliest traces of human life, existence, and creativity we have. By contrast, the very earliest photographs we have are just approaching their 200th birthdays. Film, in a modern sense, is less than 150 years old. The earliest digital cameras are 40-50 years old. The first phone camera is about 20 years old. The iPhone is 14 years old.
Photography is the combination of that 150-or-so-year-old film, with the camera. The camera is much older than film. The camera is over 1,000 years old. But for most of that thousand years, it was a dark box that you looked in to see the world. If you ever saw the 2003 Colin Firth-Scarlett Johansson film Girl with a Pearl Earring, you might recall a scene where workers bring a Camera Obscura into Vermeer’s studio. She asks him if the box tells him what to paint, and he says, “it helps.”
As you’ve made your way through college, maybe had some jobs, and thought about your career, you may have encountered a bit of attitude from peeps in authority. All that “you are young, inexperienced, naive, and not worth much” stuff.
I guess old people just feel better if they can give young people attitude.
It turns out, this doesn’t just happen to people, it also happens to Art Movements. Back when Painting was most of what art was, painting wasn’t eager to allow new media in the club. When photography arrived on the scene people said it wasn’t art.
Perhaps to prove that it was art, or for other creative reasons, early photographers often explored “painterly techniques” that sought to impart attributes associated with painting in their photographs.
I think photography really exploded in its own right when people like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston founded Group f64 in the San Francisco Bay Area about 90 years ago. Of all those painterly effects they sort of said,
f-that, we don’t want to be painting! We want Photography to be Photography!
The Art of Being Yourself
That’s a great lesson for Photography, for Art, and really, for each of us.
It can’t be all about you 100% of the time. We do need to consider the needs and values of family, friends, workplaces, and more. But it’s also true that you can spend a lot of time and energy trying to be what someone else wants you to be. Generally, that doesn’t work out that well.
As much as possible, being yourself, or striving to figure out what that is, is the most authentic, and most satisfying thing you can do.
For photography, giving up on trying to be painting, and discovering what it meant to be photography, was a liberating moment. A moment that exploded with possibilities.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with painterly effects in photography. Some artists use them today and they can be compelling. But moving past what someone else thinks you should be, and discovering what you can uniquely be, is empowering.
Headshots & Environmental Portraits
For our 1st week of photography, let’s start with something fairly straightforward, but definitely useful: Headshots & Environmental Portraits. These are 2 different types of images that are great to have for your:
- Other Social Media
- Electronic Applications
- When you’re speaking somewhere
A headshot is exactly what it sounds like – a picture of your head! 😀 These are very useful. If you give a talk somewhere — and I encourage you, especially graduating seniors, to look for these kinds of opportunities, they’re all over! — they may use a photo of you on their website and/or printed material. In both cases, your image might only be 1″ tall or so. With such a tiny image, if the photo of you is any wider than just your head, your face will only be a couple of pixels. A headshot is the perfect thing to have for applications like this, for social media etc.
Think in career terms. Take an image of yourself that presents you in the best light. If your career is Tattoo Artist, that’s one look to think about and cultivate. Most of you are looking at more traditional careers than that and more traditional images (even if “boring” 😛 ) will serve you well. Try to take a great picture. If you’ve got a real camera, awesome! Most of you probably don’t. That’s fine. Try to take a good phone picture.
One thing that really ruins a headshot is a busy background. They’re distracting! There are 2 ways that professional photographers solve this. The first is a portrait background in a photo studio. This can be a gigantic roll of colored paper or a painted canvas background. In both cases, it’s clean and minimal and lets all the attention be on you.
The other solution in professional photography is Shallow Depth of Field or Background Blur. By blurring the background, you soften all that distraction and, again, let your face shine through. Background Blur is also known as Bokeh. Until recently you couldn’t do this with a phone because to get it you need physically large and expensive “glass” (lenses). Higher-end phones today have Fokeh (“fake bokeh”). Fokeh is achieved not through large glass, but through computational photography. Phone cameras optically suck compared to “real” cameras. However, the computational photography in phones blows away the crude computation in the best cameras from Sony, Canon, Nikon, et al.
If your phone has Fokeh, give it a try. Results can range all the way from lame to awesome! If your phone doesn’t, no worries. Look for a very simple, neutral background. It’s unlikely that you’ll have photography lights, but use house lamps, utility lights, whatever you’ve got to add a bit of light. Outdoors, shade is usually a good way to avoid harsh shadows.
Please don’t just flip through your phone photos and turn in the crappiest photo of yourself you can find. Take some time and create an image you’d actually want to use on your Resume, Website, LinkedIn, Speaker Posters, etc.
As I’ve said, Headshots are great for use in small places. It has to be tight on you or I won’t see anything. Still, other than “Hi, I’m human!” a headshot doesn’t tell us that much about you. Something that can tell us a lot about you is an Environmental Portrait. Once again, what this term means is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a portrait of you in your environment. Perhaps something like:
- Construction Management – hard hat @ job site
- Nursing – stethoscope & uniform
- Marine Biology – mud boots, camera, notebook, stomping around in wetlands
- CECS – could be monitors with code, but could also be you “coworking” at a Starbucks with coffee & laptop – this could also be a good image for a Graphic Designer, etc
- Fashion Merchandising – doing Fashion Merchandising! Working in a window, on a mannequin, etc
- Dance – you, maybe in leotard & tights, or “yoga clothes” in a dance studio
- Business – could be a computer again, or information on posters – put on a suit and try to take your picture somewhere fancier than your bedroom. Or, in the age of Pandemic & Zoom – maybe it’s you photographed off a monitor in a Zoom meeting. You could use the “grid view”, but only show bits of the speakers around you, focus on your awesome professional presence.
Think professional! There are all kinds of great Environmental Portraits to create. Turning again to our Tattoo Artist, you in a shop with a client’s arm could be a fantastic image. But, again, most of you are heading toward more traditional professions than that. Do an Internet Image Search, for example: “Environmental Portrait Biologist”, and see how people who do what you do present themselves.
I hope that our ideas & activities every week of summer are ultimately useful in your life and career. Some weeks that usefulness might be a bit abstract. This week, it’s right on the nose! I hope you take great pictures and that you use them! Use them on your LinkedIn profile. If you don’t have a LinkedIn yet, make one today! Maybe connect with some of your classmates! You are always welcome to connect with me if you’d like to.
- Take a great Headshot
- Create a great Environmental Portrait
- Post them on your blog
- You don’t have to write anything this week, just take great pictures!
- Name your blog Post: Week 7 – Art Activity – Headshots & Environmental Portraits
Our artists this week are Nan Goldin and Annie Leibovitz. Leibovitz is a hugely successful portrait photographer. Her work is somewhere in the space of Environmental Portraits. Her subjects tend not to be business people, but celebrities. Her images, sometimes complex, sometimes simple, try to foreground her subject’s persona.
Nan Goldin also makes pictures of people in their environments. One big difference however is that Leibovitz’ images are “manufactured”. She sets up lights and makes a formal, even if casual, portrait. Goldin’s images are not manufactured. They exist in more of a Documentary space. Goldin’s images are among the most intimate, vulnerable, and perhaps honest images I have experienced. Being “manufactured” doesn’t necessarily make a photograph bad. Leibovitz creates remarkable and powerful images. Just as I hope you will this week.
- Describe Annie Leibovitz’ work.
- Describe Nan Goldin’s work.
- Add a photo of your favorite Annie Leibovitz photograph to your post. Describe it. Why is it your favorite? What about it speaks to you? Describe the connection you feel to the person or persons in the image.
- Add a photo of your favorite Nan Goldin photograph to your post. Describe it. Why is it your favorite? What about it speaks to you? Describe the connection you feel to the person or persons in the image.
- Discuss the differences between Annie Leibovitz’ “manufactured” portraits, and Nan Goldin’s “documentary” portraits. Is one more honest? More authentic? Does it matter? Why? Or why not?
- If you were going to hire someone to photograph your environmental portrait for you, who would you choose, Annie Leibovitz, or Nan Goldin? Why?
- Name your blog post: Week 7 – Artist – Nan Goldin & Annie Leibovitz
Have a good week!
Be safe, be well, and have fun!
LMK if I can help with anything. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or LMK if you’d like to meetup on Zoom anytime.