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The Art is the Process of Making the Image

Arnold Kastenbaum, "Light at Middlebury College", Toned Gelatin Silver Print, 16”x20”
Arnold Kastenbaum, "Light at Middlebury College", Toned Gelatin Silver Print, 16”x20”

Photography is as special a medium as music is. Can you tell me who your favorite band is? I can’t. There are just too many sounds and different styles that I love, and picking my favorite would be an impossible task. The same is true with photography. Ever since the 1840s, when photographic processes were improved and simplified, thereby making it affordable to the masses for the first time, photographers have used it to find their voices.

When I think of portraits, I think of Edward Curtis’s work with the Native Americans; reportage, I think of Mathew Brady’s Civil War images and W. Eugene Smith’s work in the Japanese fishing village of Minimata; for still life, I think of Irving Penn; and fashion, I think of Richard Avedon. We have the opportunity to enjoy the vastly different and unique visual experiences from whatever perspective the artist chooses.

The nine photographers in ArtsWestchester’s 2020 Lawrence Salley Photography Award online exhibition capture a wide range of subjects, perspectives and techniques. For instance, contrary to popular notion, digital photography has not made it easier to capture outstanding images. Yes, you can capture snapshots more easily, but the photographs in this exhibition are not just snapshots – there is effort, thought process, patience and discipline needed in order to capture something outstanding. Nor are the photographs in this exhibition all digital. Some of the artists represented in the show, such as Howard Goodman and Arnold Kastenbaum, who is this year’s Lawrence Salley Photography Award winner, are using the traditional capture and printing methods of film and darkrooms, which require a great deal of effort.

There isn’t much visual consistency among the nine exhibiting photographers, except that they are all working with a box that has a lens attached to it and are pointing it in the way their heart tells them to. For instance, the works of Kastenbaum, Goodman, and Joseph Squillante remind me of painters who happen to be working in the medium of photography, Tom Atwood’s work is as unique as his subjects, and John Verner has a strong sense of color and the street. 

     Point being, put nine photographers in a room with one subject to photograph and you will get nine distinctly different images. How can this be? We all see differently, even if we are not aware of it. From my own experiences, I get a sensation that is hard to describe whenever all of the elements that I look for come together in one moment. I look for the convergence of color, light, composition and timing. These are my gods. And they are shy and elusive. It takes a thousand hours of looking to find them. This is the discipline part of the medium of photography. 

     Like anything, professionals make this stuff look easy. But it ain’t. It takes a lot of drive, personal time, expense and just plain hard work to create images like the ones on view in this exhibition. And that is why it is so important to support these fine artists. They are doing this work without any kind of return guaranteed, and that takes a lot of guts.

     There is one important thing to remember: the art isn’t just the final image. The art is the process of making the image. The photographer’s timing, planning, dedication and execution.

     Backstage is not what you think. There are no cast parties after the show. It takes a tremendous effort to create a body of photographic work. The darkroom requires endless patience to remake a print that may not yet be what was envisioned, requiring a redo. Street photography comes with obstacles, such as crowds, traffic and police. You have to persevere. I have a singular focus when working; I only want to get the image I came for, and I will do anything to get it. I suspect that the artists represented in this show know all too well about this. They have done the hard work and have put themselves out there. Now we are the lucky ones who get to enjoy it.

A version of this article first appeared in the May issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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