November 6, 2018

Working from Photographs (Part II)

        The most common way I use photographs is as research and reference, to check on the proportion of a head here, the shape of a leaf there, the curve of a shoulder, the pattern of a tile roof…  But sometimes I have a photograph that I want to turn directly into a block print, either because I really love the photograph, or because it is the direct inspiration for a block print idea.  My first point is that, unlike the photos I use just for reference, I use only my own photos for direct copying.  You can reread a previous post about Elizabeth Catlett’s use of a photo, where I discuss some of the issues involved in adapting someone else’s work.  What I want to discuss today are the aesthetic issues of transforming a photograph into a relief block print.
        Issue 1. In most cases I’m turning color into black and white.  So, black will probably be black, and white will probably be white, but what about all those other in-between colors?  Often their fate is determined not by their absolute value, but by how they compare to the colors around them.  A red flower against a yellow wall will be rendered as black, while the same red flower would be rendered as white if it were in front of a dark-leafed shrub.  Or take the case of the Eiffel Tower, where in fact the entire structure is painted the same color, but I’ve rendered some parts black and some parts white depending on their background, as suggested by my photograph.  The tricky part was the transition.
        Issue 2. I am not attempting photographic levels of detail in my block prints, so lots of a photograph’s details will need to be simplified.  The judgement is always which elements are essential and which are the bits that won’t be missed.  If there are ten of something, perhaps the image will be just as clear - or even clearer - with only six.  On the other hand, perhaps ten is an integral element, without which it just wouldn’t be right!  For my Boston Sand & Gravel Co., I’ve eliminated some of the structures in the foreground, and some of the words and signs.  Backgrounds especially can usually be simplified or even eliminated, and textures can often be simplified.  The ultimate goal is not to be faithful to the photo, but to make a good block print, which brings us to…
        Issue 3. I may be copying a photo, but that doesn’t mean I’m under any obligation to stick with elements I don’t want.  I get Artistic License to rearrange things, eliminate things, add things in, crop or expand, move things around or adjust their relative proportions, and so on.  Sometimes I leave everything pretty much just as the photo shows, as in the Stairway at the top, but other times I wield the artistic license and change things up.  In one of the pieces I carved during my last show, I worked from a photo I had taken back in 2000 in New York’s Chinatown.  You can see that my piece clearly copies the photo, but I did switch around some of the vegetables.  In the upper right I replaced some middling brown roots with pure black eggplants, and in the lower right I switched out some greens that were very similar to their neighbors for some nice dark spinach for greater variety.  I also changed a few prices, also for variety, and shifted the whole angle very slightly so that the vegetables showed their length a little more recognizably, instead of just their round ends.
        These Cormorants show some other types of editing from the original photo.  First, my piece is cropped in on just one area in the lower center of the photo.  I also cut some of the pilings right out, and moved others in from other parts of the photo.  And I added in two more cormorants lifted from other photos, because they weren’t present in this one.  Again, the goal is to make an appealing block print of cormorants, not to reproduce exactly a snapshot that in this case is not even a particularly good one. 
        So yes, I use photographs for many of my pieces, and find them very helpful indeed.  I also love taking photographs wherever I go, and you can revisit a previous post about how even if I never happen to use a photo directly for a block print, I think the practice helps keep the creative juices flowing.

[Pictures: Stairway in the Garden, wood block print by AEGN, 1998, photo by AEGN, 1995;
Eiffel Tower, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015, photo by AEGN, 2001;
February 15, 1999 - Boston Sand & Gravel, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999, photo by AEGN, 1999;
Market, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018, photo by AEGN, 2000;
Cormorants at the Old Pier, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011, photo by AEGN, 2001.]

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