Thursday, March 10, 2011

Imogen and I

Imogen Cunningham (1883~1976) was an American photographer mainly known for portraits and nudes in both Pictorialist and Group f/64 photographic styles. I found out from many sources that she was a pioneer who broke traditions and taboos in photography, and began to take outdoor nude pictures of men, children, and family in the early 1900s. Her earlier photography looks quite contemporary and inspires me to push my limitations. I have followed Cunningham’s footprints while creating hundreds of images in studio, on the street, and on location. It was a great journey that linked me artistically and psychologically to this master photographer who once lived in San Francisco. I reviewed more than 950 works of hers and experimentally emulated Two Sisters (1928), Martha Graham (1931), Hand Weaving with Hand (1945), Woman in a Polish Restaurant (1961), Self-Portrait (1968), and My Label (1973) in studio, on the street, and on location. To experience one of the most difficult shootings in Cunningham’s photography, I also traveled to a forest for my self-nudes and chose the place, lights, poses, frames, focus, and exposures referring to her works (Self-Portraits, 1906). I took all these pictures in her later photographic style, f/64, to show great detail in every part of the images. When my shooting was almost done, however, I felt connected to and inspired by her through the work that I did and felt a sense of emptiness because she was not there. I wished I could see her and listen to her in person, but there was no way to overcome the huge gap of time between us as she passed away thirty years ago. It was somewhere on Geary Street, where Cunningham used to go for shooting, where an idea came to my mind; I pretended that I was with her when she was taking her self-portraits, mainly her shadow images, and recreated those images by adding my shadows next to hers as shown above (Imogen and I on Tree Stump). Even though she never knew me, I could feel more affiliation with her during this experiment in my studio, a closed space. Pretending Cunningham and I met, I projected self-shadow portraits of hers onto a large screen in the studio, and added the shadows from my body using a tungsten lamp. I was acting in front of the screen like a friend of hers while the camera recorded my poses in self-timer mode.
Cunningham began to photograph in 1901 at the age of 18 with her first 4x5 view camera. However, until she met Alfred Stieglitz on her way back home from two years of studying in Germany, she had not been active in taking pictures. Her professional career in photography actually began in 1910 when she opened her own studio in Seattle. In her early stage of photography, from 1910 to 1917, she explored in the Pictorial photographic style and used to invite her family and friends to her studio, dress them up in costumes, and take pictures. She married Roi Partridge, a printmaker, in Seattle and tried a groundbreaking concept in her photography, outdoor male nudes, with her husband as a model. At that time, the male nude genre still was not commonly experimented with or accepted in photography. Her outdoor male nude photographs, received a lot of criticisms from people and she hid the negative plates of the pictures for about fifty years because she was hurt. After she moved to San Francisco in 1917 following her husband’s teaching job at Mills College, she refined her photographic style from soft-focus, a Pictorialist’s tradition, to Straight Photography, influenced by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who led the tradition on the West Coast at that time. Later on, she officially joined Group f/64 and their annual exhibitions in 1932. Her photographs of Martha Graham, a famous dancer, were published in Vanity Fair, a leading fashion magazine, and surprised people by their humble and natural look. When she photographed famous people from Hollywood, fashion, and arts, she liked to photograph them in everyday settings. Such style and intentions in photography made her a unique and leading photographer at that time. I think that photographers gradually develop their own photographic styles and creative choices. Imogen Cunningham also experienced both huge photographic traditions in the past, Pictorial and Straight Photography, worked for both fine art and commercial photography, and created both literal and surreal images. Studying her photography and life, I think I can get some ideas and directions for my own work. She was a courageous and creative photographer who encourages me to challenge myself.

All rights reserved © 2011, Gabe Sheen, San Francisco, CA, USA

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Confessions of Self (2010)

My project, The Confessions of Self, is about my wrongdoings that I have wrought throughout my life. Since I introduced this work in the art market, I have received a common question from viewers; what is my psychology of the work, a self-condemnation or a justification? Of course, my intention was to reveal my faults through art to get spiritual freedom from my long-term regrets. To me, however, this question is about my ideas of life, not merely of the work itself. Studying modern philosophy, I have realized that the question might be answered by some philosophical ideas; existentialist humanism and postmodernist anti-humanism. Their ideas are not only contrasting with one another, but also working together to question how I should engage in my life. Both ideas give me some moral relief as well. In these schools, I am particularly interested in Simone de Beauvoir (1908~1986) as Sartrean humanist and Jacques Lacan (1901~1981) as an anti-humanist student of Sigmund Freud (1856~1939).

De Beauvoir, as an influential feminist in history, might accuse me of mistreating women (Image: Abortion, 2010). As one of the most faithful Sartreans, however, she warns me about Bad Faith. If I pretend that I am a Being-in-Itself, which has neither a conscious nor freedom to choose, I have in the Sartrean term, Bad Faith. For de Beauvoir, Bad Faith is rather an illusion because it eventually leads us to disengage in life making excuses; the life in which I do not engage is meaningless to me. De Beauvoir suggests some examples of Bad Faith such as the nihilist, cynic, humorist, adventurer, and spirit of seriousness. [de Beauvoir 1] Sometimes, I felt like a nihilist; my life was meaningless. I used to think like a cynic or humorist; why I should live if I eventually have to die? Also, I struggled to conquer something, like an adventurer, without meaningful purposes. Like illusions in a mirror, my thesis works reflect Bad Faith of my past life. However, if I condemn myself too much, de Beauvoir might count me as the sprit of seriousness that believes the world is readymade and the rules should not be broken. For the Sartrean, moral law is also regarded as Bad Faith because it makes excuses for disengaging in life. In fact, the ideas of existentialist humanism encourage me to be free to choose my own life, build a strong conscious to engage in the life, and never regret the result as long as I respect the same freedom of others. 

In the meantime, Lacan advises me on this problem in some different ways from de Beauvoir. He opposes the humanist recommendation; the conscious Ego should triumph over the unconscious Id. [Lacan 2] As an anti-humanist student of Freud, Lacan believes that the conscious Ego is imaginary, which is falsely reproduced by expectations of society; therefore it must die. What does this idea tell me about? Like other postmodernist thinkers, Lacan rejects the modern subject who knows, who controls, who is transparent to itself, who is distinct from its object, and who is the origin. This conception of human beings, which was developed by the Enlightenment humanists, defines me as a knowing subject, whose major characteristics are rational intellect and individual uniqueness. According to Lacan, however, all these modern notions of the Ego are simplistic illusions; the conscious Ego is not an original self, but mimicry of other sources in a parodic circle. He advises me, that by rejecting these illusions I can better engage the ambiguity of life; in a sense, the wrongdoings represented in my thesis work might also be illusions. Lacan and the postmodern anti-humanist never judge whether I was morally right or wrong; instead, they encourage me NOT to conceal the deep inside the mystery of my life. I understand from the ideas that, as an artist, revealing the otherness in me – in Freudian terms, the unconscious Id – through my art will be one of the best engagements in the mystery of life. To me, the Freudian idea of displacement runs parallel to the Lacan’s advice; a manifested desire through my conscious Ego has been displaced from somewhere else. Although I should not justify the faults I have made in the past, this idea implies my conscious Ego alone is not guilty. By abandoning the imaginary Ego, however, Lacan says that I can be freer to engage in life.

Bridging the key ideas of modernism and postmodernism, Martin Heidegger (1889~1976) redefined art as strife between the world and the earth. [Heidegger 3] Although I never intended such a conflict in my art, I see that an enduring tension in my life shows itself, particularly in my thesis work; no matter if people like it or not, the world tries to reveal a culture or meaning of my life; at the same time, the earth is hiding the mystery of materiality or nature of my life. This strife in my art would be better defined by de Beauvoir’s notion of ambiguity of life; I am subject, yet object for others; I am taking action, yet being interpreted by others. De Beauvoir, therefore, speaks to me more about my fundamental ideas of life, rather than of art; those wrongdoings I have made throughout life were a failure of reciprocity in social relations with others; I should have respected more freedom of others. Unlike de Beauvoir, Lacan speaks to me more about my ideas of art with his notion of mystery of life. I should not have empowered my imaginary Ego in order to allow my unconscious Id to reveal more its mystery through my art. Both thinkers do not conflict on my problem of my life and art. To lessen my suffering as human being, they are cooperating to encourage me to be fully free to choose and engage deeper in the ambiguity and the mystery of life. For the question from viewers, I would like to leave it unanswered, like Charles Ives (1874~1954) did in his atonal music The Unanswered Question (1906), so that my art will drift from one interpretation to another as an ambiguous language of life.


1.    Melchert, Norman. The Great Conversation. New York: Oxford Press. 2007: pp.685-688. Print
2.    Kearney, Richard. The Wake of Imagination. Hutchinson. London. 1988: p.257
3.    Heidegger, Martin. Article: The Origin of the Work of Art. 1960: p.167.

All rights reserved © 2010~2011, Gabe Sheen, San Francisco, CA, USA

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Artistic Choices in Photography

As a fine art photographer, I have pursued establishing my own art style by experimenting with many artistic choices in photography. My work, Last Summer of Wrath (2009), which was exhibited in a group show at the Gallery Amalia last year, is a good example of these experiments. I made a lens assembly myself by cutting plastic lenses and putting them together with a flexible tube. This homemade lens provided exaggerated blurriness around sweet spots (clearly focused areas) and made the images distorted and painterly. Until I obtained some satisfactory images, however, I had to struggle with the handcrafting over and over again. By taking pictures through the homemade lens, I could successfully transform the objects into the exact representations of my burning emotions in the hot summer days. In his book, “The Origin of the Work of Art (1960),“ Martin Heidegger (1889~1976) stated that art has two realms, “world” and “earth,” which inherently conflict with one another. Unlike many other manmade things, art holds its own small “world” of human history and culture that artists intend to create. He argued, however, that the “earth,” which roughly refers to objects and materials used in art, tends to resist changing into a new “world” in an artwork. Therefore, to express their intentions satisfactorily, artists should consider how to balance the “world” and “earth” in their own arts. In this regard, I think that an established style of an individual artist can be redefined as a crossroad of the two conflicting essences of art. For example, Jackson Pollock (1912~1956) could find the crossroad where his “world” and “earth” meet by dripping paints on unstretched canvas. This practice, so-called Action Painting, became his established style of abstract art. In the history of art, some crossroads formed influential art movements in which many artists got involved. Minimalism, represented by the well-known phrase, “Less is more,” seeks for ways to minimize the strife between the “world” and “earth” in order to maximize messages. The conflict is essential in art; agreeing with this idea of Heidegger, I think that the levels of the conflicts must be artists’ own crossroads as their artistic choices.

In the beginning of the history of photography, people believed that unlike other genres of art, photographic images were determined more by the equipment and chemical process, and less by human touch. For a long time, this belief prevented photography from being regarded as one possible art form. People thought that photography had fundamental limitations of artistic expression due to its machine nature. It seemed that the notable thingness of photographic equipment and process triumphed over the possibility of a new kind of visual art. To overcome this common prejudice, many master photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz (1864~1946) and the photo-secessionists, dedicated their lifelong efforts to make photography recognized as a fine art. Instead of ignoring its earthy aspect, they attempted to broaden the artistic choices of photography by manipulating and developing the photosensitive imaging processes. In fact, one major stream throughout the 150 years of photographic history has been to provide more creative and flexible tools for photographers, so that they are able to have a variety of artistic choices. Photographic equipment has been developed from the fixed pinhole obscura with primitive film to multifunctional cameras with digital image sensors. The materials and processes also have been diversified into numerously different mediums from traditional darkrooms to digital printing labs. Particularly in fine art photography, both traditional and modern processes still coexist. Moreover, like my experience, sometimes artists experiment with making equipment and process themselves to find their own unique styles of art. Although my homemade lens worked well for the particular work, it does not mean that I have found an ultimate style of my visual art. For artists including me, I think that establishing their own styles of artwork is a long-term journey, maybe lifetime effort, as is the journey of defining identity throughout one’s life.

All rights reserved © 2011, Gabe Sheen, San Francisco, California, The United States of America