Eight ways to improve your “fine art” photography

Note: This article of mine was published on the Luminous Landscape photography website in May 2015.

Songs of Silence

Songs of Silence

Introduction

I am a San Francisco Bay Area-based fine art landscape photographer. I have been photographing landscapes for the last twenty years. Since 2009, I have exhibited my fine art photographs in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the venerable Center for Photographic Art, originally founded by Ansel Adams and at the Sunset Cultural Center in Carmel Valley, California. Since 2009, my fine art photographic prints have been widely collected.

Motivation

For many years, I have been a frequent reader of the Luminous Landscape website and benefited from its articles in numerous ways. I think it is my turn to give something back to the photographic community. With the advent of digital technologies, these days it is rather easy to capture a technically good photograph. There are numerous books and articles available on this subject. However, creating a photograph that is also a fine work of art is truly difficult. It has very much to do with one’s “vision.” However, when I look back at my last twenty years of photographic career, I see there are a few emerging themes that repeat itself in all of my favorite pieces of work. This article is an attempt to communicate these themes. A picture is worth a thousand words. Whenever possible, I have illustrated my theme with an accompanying photograph of mine.

1. Capture emotion, not landscape

 

cloud-melody

 

Cloud Melody, 2010, Gorman Hills, California

 

When I started photographing landscapes, I would go to dozens of gorgeous places and shoot the landscape from the most appealing angle. When lucky, I would get a very attractive photograph. But it would not carry any personal statement. I would just act like a composition machine, applying all the rules I had learned from various books and magazines. After years of practice, immersion in other great works of art, and many photography workshops with renowned fine art photographers, I slowly transformed. Now, I tend towards capturing emotion rather than documenting a piece of landscape. I believe this trait has made me a better artist and will do the same for you, too.

 

2. Meditate before clicking the shutter

 

dogwood-in-redwoods

Dogwoods in Redwoods, Yosemite Valley, 2008

 

It was a gloomy day in Yosemite. It had just rained a little. The dogwoods were in full bloom. I was wandering about near the Pohono Bridge in Yosemite valley, hoping to capture some good images. At that time, I was using a Toyo 4”x5” view camera. Those of us who still remember the view camera would know that the mere inconvenience of setting up the camera would slow you down. Following the advice of my photography teacher and mentor, Charles Cramer, I used to carry a “viewing frame” to help me compose better. It is a piece of mat board with a rectangular opening of 4:5 aspect ratio. These days I use a Digital SLR camera, but still carry the “viewing frame” everywhere I go. It helps me see the photograph in its finished form on the mat board before I even click the shutter. Now, I was holding my viewing frame at different angles when I suddenly saw this composition. It appeared to me as a symbol of hope among the darkness and despair. Had I not used the “viewing frame” I would have missed this composition in the clutter of the forest.

3. Take many variations of the subject

dogwoods-in-fog

Dogwoods in Fog, 2005, Yosemite Valley

It took me three years to take this photograph. I first photographed this dogwood tree in full bloom in 2003 at Yosemite Valley. The Merced river at the bottom of the frame, green trees in the background, and the blooming dogwoods tree caught my attention. I took several frames from different angles, but was still unhappy with the images. I went back to Yosemite Valley during the same time in 2004 and captured few more frames. Still, something was lacking. Finally, I captured this image in the spring of 2005. It was a foggy day. The hillside was suffused with this soft enveloping light that adds an inner glow to the landscape. I set up my Toyo view camera and looked at the inverted image on the ground glass under the dark focusing cloth. When I looked at this image, I had goose bumps all over my body. I knew this was something special, almost spiritual. Don’t give up until you capture the emotion in the landscape you are looking for.

4. Look for a metaphor

last-light

Last Light, Yosemite Valley, 2012

 

During the winter of 2012, I visited Yosemite Valley when I photographed this scene. What does this photograph mean to you?  On the surface, it is a photograph of falling sunset light on a piece of rock. But, be still. Listen to it. You will realize that it has deeper connotations. To me, it symbolizes the last light shining on the earth before the whole planet plunges into darkness.  Is it a sign of hope or sign of warning? The meaning depends on you and your world-view. But it is definitely more than a pretty sunset photograph of Yosemite. Always look for symbolism in your photograph that transcends the time and space and reveal an universal truth.

5. Bad light is good light

winter-storm

Winter Storm, Kings Canyon, 2012

I photographed this image in Kings Canyon National Park during a snow storm. I was hiking along a trail. Suddenly, it became dark and started snowing. Almost everybody hiking on the trail rushed to the comfort and safety of their car. However, from my years of experience in photographing landscapes, I knew these were the times when exquisite photographs are made. This is when landscapes are most expressive: transcending space and time, they become visual poetry and help us express our innermost feelings.

6. Don’t neglect your neighborhood

 

morning-sonata

Morning Sonata, Los Gatos, California, 2009

It was a foggy autumn morning. I came to drop my daughter at her elementary school. When I came back to my car, I noticed these colorful trees radiating through the fog. I started walking down the street, looking for the right tree that would express my feelings at that time. When I came across this tree, I knew I found what I have been looking for. Fortunately, I had the camera in my car. I spent the next hour photographing many different compositions of this tree. Sometimes, you don’t have to travel long distances to create expressive photographs. It is there right beside you. You have to just open your eyes and heart.

7. Immerse yourself in great art

One of the most effective ways to improve your fine art photography skill is to look at the work of the masters. I go to libraries to browse the photography section. I regularly visit fine art photography galleries like the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, and Weston Gallery and Photography West Gallery in Carmel Valley. Over the years, I have built a sizable collection of photography books by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, Paul Caponigro, Eliot Porter,  Imogen Cunnigham, Ernst Haas, Man Ray, Jerry Uelsman, Shinzo Maeda, Christopher Burkett, Joel Meyerowitz, John Sexton, and many others. I have also associated myself with Fine Art Photography organizations like the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel Valley. This immersion in great works of art inspires me, shows me direction, and emboldens me to experiment with new ideas.

8. Expand your horizons

homeless

Homeless, 2009, Photographic Montage

After years of photographing classic landscapes, I grew little bored with repeating myself. I was creating expressive photographs. My audience at the gallery was very appreciative of the works I was doing. But I needed to break new grounds. This is when I started experimenting with digital montages. I embarked upon taking a new series of photographs, titled “Strange Tales.” In these photographs, I narrate the story of the environmental destruction of our planet through the eyes of a Penguin. This photograph was selected in the annual juried exhibition at the Center of Photographic Art in 2009. My suggestion to you is this: Do not get trapped in a single line of work. When you mastered a specific style, created a loyal audience of your work, it is time to try something new. I can promise that it will enliven you.

 

About Arup Biswas

Arup Biswas has been photographing landscapes for the last twenty years. Since 2009, his fine art photographs have been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the venerable Center for Photographic Art juried exhibition and solo exhibition at the famous Sunset Cultural Center, both in Carmel Valley. Arup is represented by the Main Gallery in Redwood City, California. You can find the complete portfolio of Arup’s works at his website www.arupbiswas.com.  Arup would like to hear your comments regarding this article or any other topic at arup@arupbiswas.com. Arup holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India.

Dawn on the Coquille River – The story behind the photograph

Dawn on the Coquille River

We arrived at the house on the Oregon coast on the evening before Thanksgiving. After ten hours of driving we were all tired, looking for a place to rest. We would spend the next  four nights at this house. Our group consisted of Pampa, my wife, Riti, my teenage daughter, and our dear friends Joy and Priti. At first glance, the location looked quite ordinary. I was expecting a vibrant river just across the house. Instead I found a branch of the main river without much water. We were looking for a beach front house, but it was too late for the Thanksgiving event. All the good houses were unavailable. Then we found this house just across the Coquille river. “You’ll love this place,” the owner of the house assured us. But after arriving at the place, I was not impressed.

The next morning, I woke up to loud voices from downstairs. I came down from our bedroom upstairs. Priti shouted, “Arup-da, just step outside and take a look, how beautiful it is!” I grabbed my camera bag and tripod and stepped outside.

What I saw was undescribable. The quite ordinary place of the evening before had been transformed by the first light of the sun breaking through the dense mist hanging over the forest behind the river. Part of the river was reflecting warm golden light. I was looking for a vantage point to capture the scene from a low angle. I went down to the riverbank and started capturing the scene. Suddenly, I noticed this duck swimming across the river, making all these beautiful ripples on the water. I waited for the duck to be at the right position on the river and took the photograph. When I captured this shot, I knew I had captured something very special, almost spiritual. I had goosebumps all over my body. I thought even if I die now, I will not repent, because I have had the opportunity to experience the intense feeling of drinking the exquisite beauty from mother Nature’s fountain! I remembered having a similar experience when I captured my most favorite photograph, “Dogwoods in Fog”.

Afterwards, when I showed the photograph to Pampa, she would tell me, “This is the kind of photograph that brings tears to my eyes.” Instantly, I knew, I was successful in capturing a photograph that could appeal to a broad audience. To me, my work is successful when it can be enjoyed by a broad level of viewers with varied levels of appreciation. A great work of art, in my opinion, consists of many layers, offering something to everybody.

A 20″x30″ photograph of the “Dawn on the Coquille River” is on display at the Main Gallery along with nine of my other brand new photographs. The exhibition will be on display until October 14th.

Now that I have shared the story behind my most favorite photograph of this exhibition, I look forward to hearing your feedback!

 

Lack of Veracity or Artistic Freedom?

Photographers are a strange lot. They would complain if they detect any deviation from the original subject in the photograph. They criticized Edward Weston for placing a sea shell in one of his famous oceanscape photographs. They did not count one of the finest photographic legends, Jerry Uelsmann,  as a legitimate photographic artist. The reason? Jerry would not confine himself with a single exposure of photograph. He would use his creative ingenuity to explore an even deeper truth by making composites from many different negatives.

No one blames a novelist for departing  from the actual story the novel is based upon, or the painter to use the color palette of her choice, then why the photographer is judged   with so much rigidity? I believe the reasons are manifold. First, photography is perhaps one of the easiest crafts to learn. It takes a beginner pianist many years of practice to  perform even at an acceptable level. But, photography is different. One buys a camera, reads the user manual, clicks the shutter and he is a photographer. There is a joke prevalent in the art circle , “If you have a violin, you just have a violin, but if you have a camera, you are a photographer”.

Notice, that I said, photography is an easy craft to learn. I did not say photography is an easy art to learn. Most photographers are preoccupied with the craft of photography, only a few transcend to the art form. Majority of the above mentioned criticisms come from this former group of photographers, whose vision is limited by their narrow world-view. Ansel Adams used to say, it takes ten years of practice to forget about the equipment. The creation of art is possible only after that.

Moreover, photography is used for a variety of reasons. Photojournalists use photographs  to document a story. Naturalists photograph the world for scientific accuracy. In both these cases veracity is of utmost importance. But, in fine art photography, the artists expresses his vision through the lenses of his camera. Like any other artistic medium, he should be allowed to use his artistic freedom in the creation of his art. But, people forget this distinction and judge the fine art photography with the same standards.

Let’s take a look at the most famous photograph by Ansel Adams, Moonrise. A total of over thirteen hundred prints were sold of this photograph. Though this image was taken after sundown, there were enough light remaining. But, Ansel chose to make the sky completely dark by burning the sky  area. Did he compromise with veracity? I don’t think so. I think by deviating from the physical reality, he expressed his vision and revealed a much deeper truth, his feelings.

In my personal photographic practice, I mostly confine myself to selective dodging and burning techniques to lighten and darken selected parts of the image to make a compelling     photograph. Not because I fear the criticism, but I feel those adjustments are adequate to express my vision. But, there are situations where the photograph requires a special handling. I present my recently captured photograph “Spring in the air” as a case in point. After applying all the traditional methods I came up with the following version of the photograph.

The photograph did not represent the soft and tranquil feeling I had when I captured the photograph, It looked too harsh and was devoid of any emotion. I remembered a special technique called “Polaroid Transfer”, film photographers used. It was a complex process to transfer the image on an alternative surface such as textile. The result was a softer, yellowish rendition of the original image. I applied the digital “polaroid transfer” on my image. Following is the final version of the image.

This is much closer to the feeling I had when I captured the scene. Please let me know which version you like. Also, this photograph, along with another photograph of mine, is currently on display as part the ongoing show “Oceanscapes and other views of nature” at the Main gallery. The reception is Saturday, June 2nd, 6-8 pm. You are welcome to join me and other artists during the reception.

 

State of Photography Today

Homeless

“Out of every ten visitors to my gallery, nine claim to be photographers,” commented the owner of a nationally renowned art photography gallery in Carmel Valley. “None of them want to buy a photograph, they all come to see how the photograph was made, so that they can copy the work with their own digital camera,” she lamented.

It made me think hard about the state of photography today. With the advent of the digital camera, making a technically perfect photograph is within the reach of almost anyone. So why would anyone buy the photographs of another photographer? After a little introspection the answer became obvious. Photography is not only about technique. It is about the message. Photography is a medium by which an artist expresses himself to the broader world, just as a poet expresses herself through her poems. Millions of people know the English language, but how many T.S. Elliots are out there?

Secondly, making a fine print after capturing the photograph is still an art that requires years of training to master. It is true that with digital imaging, the process of making fine prints has become relatively less cumbersome than making prints using traditional darkroom methods like dye transfer or cibachrome printing. But at the same time, digital methods provide much finer controls, making the bar much higher. With finer control at his disposal, the print-maker is expected to make an even more expressive print than its darkroom counterpart. It still takes a very long time to make a print that would withstand the test of time. I put about a year of retouching work altogether on my “Dogwoods in Fog.”

Moreover, with the newer capabilities of the digital medium, many photographers have begun to take a new direction. What photographers are experiencing today is similar to what painters encountered when photography was invented. With the emergence of photographs that could capture landscapes in vivid detail, painters needed a different subject rather than documenting the natural landscape. That led to the birth of abstract painting. Similarly, photographers today are experimenting with various techniques, creating new realities from their imagination, transcending physical reality.

Let me take this opportunity to introduce one world renowned photographer who is pushing the envelope of fine art photography through constant exploration of the new medium. Loretta Lux, formerly a painter, now uses the digital camera and Photoshop like a painter’s canvas to create idealized images of children who are so perfect that they look spooky. But one is able to keep coming back to her photographs to discover the metaphors one layer at a time.

The photograph above is one of mine that belongs to this fantasy genre of photography. It is titled  “Homeless,” part of series named “Strange Tales of the Black Bird.” In this series, I explore the environmental destruction of our planet through various metaphors. In 2009, this photograph was selected in the prestigious juried exhibition at the venerable Center of Photographic Art in Carmel Valley.

I wonder if the new trend in digital photography will make traditional landscape photography obsolete. Personally, I do not think so. As long as people respond to blooming dogwoods suffused in a thin veil of mist, or find refuge in colorful hills reflecting light through dark clouds, they will keep the tradition alive. Ultimately, the people are the final judge, not the art critics. Fashions come and go, but beauty is forever.

So, how would one explain the observation by the Carmel gallery owner? I think it has to do with the pricing of the artwork. With fierce competition from local galleries, big art galleries are getting hurt, with their huge overhead cost and astronomical price tags. In these hard economic times, people are trying to save money in every way possible, and art is no exception.

Thanks for reading this. What do you think about this subject? Please let me know your comments.

Another Look

Celebration

 

When the artists of the Main Gallery decided that our next exhibition would be dedicated to displaying the artists’ old favorite pieces (ones that had not been displayed at the gallery for some time), I was in a dilemma. Which photographs should I choose for the show? Should I choose the more popular photographs that have some sale potential, or pick up the photographs that I personally like the most? This is a constant tension among all fine art artists. Artists create works of art because they feel a deep creative urge to express themselves. However, some pieces may become personal favorites. It takes time to form this emotional bondage. On my living room wall, I have a place for three large photographs to display. However, over the course of the last five years or so, I have displayed only a handful of photographs on that wall. These are the best of the best, my personal favorites. It does not matter whether these are my best selling photographs or not.

 

To select the photographs for the show, I decided to go through all of my prints. I stacked the prints against my studio wall and started short-listing. Finally, it came down to just four photographs that seemed pretty cohesive to a central theme. In each of these four photographs, color plays a central role. Color plays a significant role in my life, too. I live and breathe color. In spring time, when wildflowers decorate the landscapes with a myriad of hues and colors, I feel enchanted. In autumn, when the leaves turn yellow or orange, I start feeling the colors with my whole body. Using the color in a photograph that expresses a central theme is not easy, however. Painters have the liberty of selecting the color palette of their choice. We, the poor photographers, have to be satisfied with whatever color palette Mother Nature provides us. Painters start with an empty canvas and fill in the content with the color of their choice. Photographers start with a crowded canvas and make it meaningful through the process of selection and elimination.

 

After the photograph is captured, the color photographer toils to refine the image further, mostly by changing luminosity, color balance, and sometimes saturation. In this regard, crafting a fine color photograph is more challenging than crafting a fine black and white photograph. A color photograph is like a very complex symphony with hundreds of instruments. Every  instrument has to play harmoniously and in unison. If a single instrument is out-of-tune or louder than needed, it will ruin the symphony; the photograph.

 

But, I digress. Let us come back to the photographs for the show. The first one is titled “Enchanted Adobe.” I took this photograph in 1994, while visiting Santa Fe during Christmas time. I was wandering through downtown Santa Fe looking for subjects to photograph. Suddenly, the sky started changing color. The famous New Mexico sunset color filled the sky and the buildings in the most wonderful soft glow of pink. I was in front of a building with the Adobe style of architecture. Suffused in the soft pink light, the building started dancing with joy. I set up my tripod and had enough time to capture just one photograph. I never printed this photograph until now, because it proved to be very hard to print the soft pink glow, that was so apparent on the piece of the color transparency film. Hopefully, I have done the print some justice this time–you are the judge.

 

The second photograph is named “Poppy field and cloud.” I was visiting the Antelope valley   poppy preserve in southern California during the spring of 2007. We reached the preserve in the afternoon. Poppies were in full bloom. I parked my car, took out my heavy tripod and my large format film camera and started looking for a vantage point for taking a photograph. Suddenly, a beautiful cloud caught my attention. I immediately set up my tripod, opened my view camera, composed the image on the ground glass under the focusing cloth and tripped the shutter. The photograph contains a segment of the colorful poppy field, a lone human figure on the field, and the voluminous cumulus cloud in the sky. Does it signify an impending doom or a sign of hope? I will let you decide.

 

You all are cordially invited to the reception of the exhibition “Another Look”  this coming Saturday, March 24th, between 4 to 6 pm. If you can not make it to the reception, the show will be on display from March 21-April 22, Wed-Sun, 10 am – 3pm. Here is the link for the gallery for details. Thanks for your patience! Please leave your comments.

 

Why do I photograph?

Cloud Melody

Why do I photograph? For me the answer to this question evolved over the years. When I first started photography almost twenty years ago, it was simple. At that time, I would travel to all these scenic places and capture the landscapes so that it would look the prettiest. More often than not that would mean following the compositional formula that I learnt from popular photography books and magazines. When I were successful in my mission, I would produce a photograph that would resemble the one that I saw in one of the magazines. But, it would be a pretty photograph without any of my personal statement. I would act as a composition machine to capture the landscape with my camera and produce on the monitor or print.

But, something inside me kept saying that I need to push my envelope. I started  looking at the works of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Wynn Bullock and Paul Caponigro. I started reading about their works and  of the artistic inspiration that motivated them. I read about Minor White and his advice to other photographers: “When you approach something to photograph it, first be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence. Then don’t leave until you have captured its essence“. Finally, a photography workshop with the internationally acclaimed photographer and print maker Charles Cramer finally transformed me and pushed me into the fine art photography world.

These masters of photography taught me that photography is not about “decorative fragments of landscapes”,  but it is a medium of transferring the life experience of the artist to the audience.

I present the top photograph, “Cloud Melody ” as a case in point. Judy Windt from Menlo Park wrote to me about it – “I’m the one who just bought your photograph “Cloud Melody”. All summer and fall I miss the rain and the dark moist sky and your photo will let me have that feeling when I feel dry. I wrote about it to a friend:

…a vast undulating field that is gold somehow with either yellowed grass or yellow flowers, the light coming from the earth, and the sky above heavy and dense with blue-gray clouds that are about to be rain, the darkness above, the light below, the heaviness and the light all reversed, the weight of clouds giving me weight and ground, why I love rain and clouds, the weight of it bringing me quietly, powerfully, massively down.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Thanks for reading! Please leave your comments.

 

 

 

Welcome to my Blog

Dogwoods in Fog

 

This is my first post on my blog site. I thought I would share with you the story behind one of my most favorite photographs, “Dogwoods in Fog”. It took me three years to take this photograph. In the spring of 2002, I visited Yosemite valley. Dogwoods were in full bloom. While wandering around the valley in search of a good composition, I came to this location near the Merced river. The beautiful dogwoods bloom composed by these strong lines of the tree branches immediately caught my attention. I photographed several compositions with my 35 mm film camera I owned at that time. I made some prints, but was not happy with the smaller resolution of the 35 mm film. In that year, I acquired a 4″x5″ large format view camera. Over the course of the next two years, I would come back to the same location with my large format camera and capture several images. Finally, I was happy with my capture in 2004. The cloudy weather and the atmospheric mist added the right emotional content to my photograph. However, it would take me another six months of trial and error before I was able to transfer my feelings into the print. The emotional content is very important in whatever I photograph. In the words of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate poet from India, if my photograph can speak to the heart of a thirteen year old, I would feel more successful than if I were to be praised by an art critic.

This photograph has been admired by a wide variety of audience and has been collected by many individual art lovers. It was selected in the coveted annual exhibition at the Center for Photographic Art (founded by Ansel Adams), Carmel in 2011. The photograph is featured on the 2011 Juried Exhibition book published by the Center for Photographic Art.

Thanks for reading this! Please leave your comments or questions on this site.