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JACK LONG: LIQUID SCULPTURES

Jack Long is a fantastic photographic artist who resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  His talent http://www.jacklongphoto.com/ clearly speaks for itself and furthermore, his work is NOT sculpture.  He photographs splashing liquids and the result is pure art.  How does he do it?  Read on …

“While it is generally clear that they are looking at a photograph of a dimensional "still" object, the assumption has been made often that this is somehow an actual solid object and not liquids. I do consider that a success on my part as an artist, and perhaps illusionist.”

MICHAEL: Hey Jack, Your work is spectacular. You call it "Splash Photography" and it's obvious that you're capturing the dynamics of liquids. However, I'm sure there's even deeper meaning for you since you do it all the time. What is that?

JACK: Michael, thanks so much for the opportunity to share. I have referred to my work in a couple of ways. I have referred to it as "Fluid Suspensions," in that what is being seen is essentially the suspension of liquid in mid air for a very brief time and captured through high speed flash photography. I have more recently been calling it "Liquid Sculpture." The work, being three dimensional shapes in space began to become more sculptural in nature and appearance. One of my most recent projects actually played on this idea with the use of solid pedestals and room environments. I felt at first that maybe it was a bit too contrived, but it has been very well received lately. I guess I do have a decent sense of irony after all. The concept came in part from comments by some who saw the work and thought that it was perhaps actually solid, rather than liquid, such as glass or wax, etc.

The term "Splash" comes from the more common use in advertising when a solid object splashes into a liquid, such as a ice cube into a glass, or when liquids are directed and deflected from a solid object such as a beverage bottle. These techniques are still being used extensively in still and video advertising. I have even produced some nice examples with my own unique twist. Lately, computer generated images can create very convincing splashes. So “Splash” could be considered a larger genre of photography in which I reside, but with my work the "splash" generally occurs right after the exposure is made.

MICHAEL: So, to be very clear, your work is NOT sculpture.  They’re photographs of things that actually splashing in liquid?

JACK: The one thing I stand by with my work is that it is created in one single exposure, without the aid of digital composition programs like Photoshop. Although it has been called into question, I stand by the fact that I am not composing the images from individual elements, like some cheesy, flower or butterfly etc. I'd rather do the work ahead of time than to spend hours staring at pixels on a monitor.

As a photographic artist, this has become something of an obsession. I am always considering new ways to suspend and capture liquids in new and above all as aesthetically pleasing result possible. It's not enough to make cool shapes, but with my photographic experience, to make them as well lighted and composed as possible, after all, I am truly trying to create art here and I want it to be as strong as possible when I print a 30 x 40. My hope is to engage the viewer not just through the how? but the WOW!

MICHAEL: And is there any meaning behind the images?

JACK: As far as the deeper meaning goes, when I realized that I was creating something never done before as photographic art, I knew I was onto something worth further exploration. My artistic influences come from surrealism and impressionism, so this work fell right into my comfort zone. If I hadn't actually made the work I do believe that I would be a fan. Through experimentation with various mechanical and later electronic devices, I have discovered what is possible with turning water into fantastical formations. I often combine numerous events to create a single composition, all carefully controlled, within the physics of what it will actually allow me to do. My life- long interest and aptitude in things mechanical plays a large part in my ability to construct an produce the work. Since I work almost exclusively alone, I rely on automation, mechanically and electronically where possible. This gives me repeatability and the ability to make minor adjustments, although no two are ever alike.

The early responses were very positive and continued to reinforce my drive to create and refine the work. There are always the negative comments that are bound to occur, when I can, I interact to try to get a better understanding of their criticism. It does cause me to step back and view the work as objectively as possible. My goal is to grab as many eyeballs as possible and to share what I feel is some really cool imagery.

MICHAEL: Your work is basically a symbol of how photography has exploded in contemporary art these past few years. It's right up there with every other genre at the international art fairs where your work should be. What do you think about how photography has evolved?

JACK: I honestly had to read that twice and take some time to consider my response. First off, Thanks again. That compliment is pretty huge. While my present work is rather new to the art world, for the last few years, I have been pretty focused on making the work the best that I can make it.

I appreciate that you see in the work the quality and dedication that I have worked so hard to create. As far as actually being in a large art fair, well there are many circumstances that would have to fall in line before that could happen, besides paying my own way in. I am of course working to get the work in front of the influential as much as possible.

As far as opinion on the evolution of photography, let’s just say in the early years, I built many a rudimentary darkroom in apartments, to full color wet process printing in my last home. In my last move, I converted to digital, through the acquisition of a film scanner, my first computers and the holy grail: Photoshop. Back in 1980, when a college instructor predicted that film would be gone in ten years, my first reaction was to begin hoarding film. It did not happen that fast, but it did happen and I have no desire to go back. There’s a retro "analog" movement happening, along with "alternography," etc. but it holds no interest to me.

Essentially the capture and processing is now almost exclusively digital. The craft of lighting and composition has yet to be replaced by a computer program. With CGI, it's getting amazingly close.  Personally, my work is remarkably aided by digital capture. The immediacy of viewing an image seconds after capture allows a spontaneity that would not be possible with film. The cost alone would be prohibitive, although I have considered twin capture with film, it's just not really necessary to complicate my process any further.

My work process is to capture into a laptop, view the image, make adjustments and make another within minutes. This is indispensable with the effects that I am trying to achieve. From just a work flow stand point, digital has been a paradigm shift of enormous proportion. Sure, it has had its incredible downfalls, the loss of a cf card, the failure of a hard drive, the loss of hours of work when the computer crashes, all very disheartening. When it works it's marvelous, when it doesn't, stress. We've moved from mixing noxious chemicals to having to learn obnoxious computer software and hardware.

MICHAEL: So photography has really changed, huh?

JACK: The basics of photographic art remain unchanged in my mind. Great light, flawless composition and image quality still and should always reign supreme. 

MICHAEL: Unless they read our chat here, most people will only see your work and won't see all of the flashing, splashing, rearranging, rebooting and everything else that's part of your process.  So, what's all of the hard work for?  What do you want people to experience or see in the work? What's the take away?

JACK: I have been considering the answers to these questions for a long time and with an increased sense of urgency lately. All of the work for me is primal, in that as an artist, the need to create art is deep within me. If not for the present concentration on liquids, I would surely be creating other artistic imagery, as I had well before this adventure began.

Before this work, there were my beverages and other studio studies as well as a great for love of all things natural, whether landscape or macro-floral. I have done that work rather well, but I tended to jump around and had no real focus to the work until recently.

The discovery of what I could do with liquids turned that ever present desire into a full-fledged obsession. I am always thinking or doing something to advance the work. I think that is no different than any other artist who has found their focus and jumped in full bore.

On a more personal note, at about the same time I discovered the base technique, I had gone through two major surgeries and a clinical trial for Stage IV cancer. The mean life expectancy for anyone in my situation was clinically 12-18 months. I have been very fortunate that there were many things in my favor, but there are no assurances that the next scan won't show the return of the beast. I try not to make IT the primary motivation, but I cannot deny that it contributes to some sense of urgency. I also have no idea if I would have approached the work any differently had I not been through that experience. Our legacy is what we leave behind, the impressions of friends and relatives. The creations we make, whether artist or plumber. Three and a half years cancer free.

As far as what I would like the viewer of the work to "experience," well I believe it would be what any artist would want; the recognition that what they have done has touched someone in a deep and wondrous way. That observing the work leaves them with a sense of wonder, amazement and a smile. I would like for them to want that experience to last in a way that
they would give something of themselves to obtain and collect the work. Cash works.

MICHAEL: I understand.  Believe me.

JACK: The issue with my work is that unlike looking at a painting, or sculpture, photographic art can be deceptive. What I mean by that is in this day of digital manipulation, certain assumptions cannot be avoided as to whether the work was produced in the camera, on a computer or some combination. While it is generally clear that they are looking at a photograph of a dimensional "still" object, the assumption has been made often that this is somehow an actual solid object and not liquids. I do consider that a success on my part as an artist, and perhaps illusionist. There does have to be some form of explanation of what they are seeing and a hint perhaps as to how, without giving too much away. I have been shooting more in process video lately in case it is needed in a bio/interview capacity. In a recent critique session, it was suggested that pulling back the curtain to show some process would bring a greater appreciation. I haven't made anything public, just making sure I have it, just in case. When shown in conjunction of a major show, it could be a very good companion piece.

MICHAEL: I asked that because it's clear to me that your work has a depth, precision and meaning that go deeper than mere striving for excellence.  I think this is why it's so important for artists to talk about their work and process rather than let critics or scholars define it ... which is fine, but your voice is most important.  You're an inspiration and I'm glad to be chatting with you.  When did first become aware of yourself as an artist?  What happened?

JACK:  I may not have identified myself as an "artist" at an early age. I did recognize that I had an aptitude when it came to being able to draw what I saw with relative accuracy. I wasn't that good, but I did enjoy drawing as a young person. I never really took it seriously as a child in that my upbringing was rather blue collar and I did not know of anyone who was a full-time, professional artist. I was drawn to the camera in my early teens and when I got my first job, it was one of my first major purchases. I began to shoot almost everything. Starting with a blank slate, I was not encumbered by rules or even what was good or bad, it was all a glorious exploration. The fact that I was not a strong student in school and I had no ambition to go to college, I decided to "blow off" my senior year of high school and take every art class offered, except crafts.

In the first days of classes, my instructor was speaking to a fellow student, telling her that she was free to do "anything she wanted." My ears immediately perked up. This was a college board program where select students could earn college credits for work done throughout the year. I asked the teacher if I could be a part of the program. I was told that it was generally reserved for students that took art classes in their junior year as well and were familiar to the instructor. I spent my junior year taking carpentry, electronics, auto repair and chemistry. The art teacher gave me a trial period and proving myself, I was allowed to participate in the program. Drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, I gave it all a full on press. Of course, I was still making photographs. My best friend's father was a professional photographer, so my friend and I would go on photographic excursions. I was hooked completely, engulfed in being an artist. To say that I had an arrogant streak in me would be an understatement. I was insufferable. For once in my life, I had something that I was good at and my ego far outpaced my skills. The more I would profess my abilities, the more I also felt I had to work to prove and improve. Needless to say, I did not earn the credits, I had some items stolen and come assessment time, the work was not strong enough.

Right after graduation, my friend and I went to a two-week introduction course to commercial photography through Winona School of Photography. There I was, immersed in the world of photography in a way I had never experienced before. One of the instructors there was the dean of Graphic Arts at the Technical School in Milwaukee, which was 80 miles from my home. He gave me a catalog, and I determined that I was going to go to that school to learn to be a photographer. I found that I was an average student at best, but I was determined to graduate and get a job in the field. It was a two-year program and did not involve the academic rigor or expense of a four-year college. Milwaukee was a very strong graphic arts city with the amount of printers located there in part because of the proximity of the paper industry to the north. There were many photography jobs available at the time and soon I settled into my career as a professional photographer. That was when my real education began.

I learned that what I thought of my skills was not the same as reality, but I was doggedly determined to succeed. Photography was not my only interest. So when I had a chance, I went back to school and taking one night classes per semester, I gradually accumulated enough credits to obtain a second degree in commercial art. Graphic design, typography, drawing and something I had played with in my youth, Airbrush Illustration. The evening instructor was awesome, supportive and also a very accomplished illustrator. I had a new love. Sometime later, he recommended me to work part-time at his place of employment. I gained valuable skills there. I even considered becoming an illustrator. I did some free lance work with reasonable success. However, being tied to a drawing board was too constraining for my hyper tendencies and stayed on my path of establishing my own business in photography. I already saw that computer programs were beginning to eliminate the airbrush color illustrator as a profession. Nearly twenty-five years later, a lot of ups and downs and well, here I am.

MICHAEL: Have you ever felt that you should be in New York or Los Angeles?

JACK: Well, I have a photographer friend here in town who from the beginning has said that I belong in the "big leagues." He's rather adamant about that. He tells me not to waste my time with the Milwaukee market and little group shows, etc. I've been doing my research of New York Photography galleries and connecting to them where I can. I have also "connected" to as many top level photography gurus in the New York area as well as curators and gallerists. So sure, if someone in New York or Los Angeles wants me in their upscale gallery, I'd put in the work required to create an awesome show.

MICHAEL: Given that, what do you think about the art world/art market and how they function?  Living artists are struggling while deceased Picasso and Warhol are still raking in millions.

JACK: I have read some rather disparaging essays on the art market today; not that I do a lot of reading. The problem is that Picasso and Warhol or their estates aren't making the money, it's the investor types who have dominated the market. The buyers only buy if they think the value will go up. I sure wish I could have bought the first Mapplethorpe I saw. I'd still like to see a thriving middle market for great art that is affordable to serious buyers and allows artists to do their work. There are very few full-time artists, and especially full-time art photographers. Most have their day jobs in order to pay the bills. That certainly tends to take away from creation time. On line art sites are full of "artists" practically giving their work away, just so they can say it sold. Artists have to value their work higher than the cost of a decent framing job. I won't sell on these sites because prices are just too depressed.

MICHAEL: So what’s an artist to do?  You could just quit, No?

JACK: I have and always will make art for myself. I don't create with the intention of getting rich or I'll quit. I did not even know that what I was already making was going to make such an impact. I was having a great time making cool images. If others like the work enough to pay what it's worth, bonus! It has only been of late that I have taken the view that it may well be worth the effort to see how well it does sell and for how much. There are many ways to exhibit and sell. I was once in a rental gallery, I probably sold enough to cover expenses, but not much more than that. There are also local and regional art fairs that an artist can participate in. I did that one year, with a completely different body of work. I believe that it isn't "art" until it's exhibited in some way - unlike Vivian Mayer, who shot all the time and stashed it all away, not to be seen until long after she passed. Almost everyone likes to know that their work has value and can be appreciated. In this world and the U.S. specifically, it's a commercial/capitalist system, so that's the format in which we operate. If it doesn't sell, then I'll move onto something else, but quit, no I don't think so.

MICHAEL: It isn't art until it's exhibited in some way.  That has never occurred to me.  Is that like the whole tree that falls in the forest analogy?

JACK: That's just my opinion. Others may not think that way. Art in my opinion is meant to be shared; whether it’s a song, a play or a painting. We artists as creators derive a deep-seated need to create and for most of us, a desire to share our creations. The art observer, again regardless of media, has a deeply human desire to observe beauty. It could be natural or man-made. We all know the satisfaction of seeing our favorite performer or performance. The entertainment industry has billions of dollars of art and artists. Not everyone can win a Grammy or an Oscar, but we can play in our local pub or community theater. Visual art may have distinct differences, but I believe that the desire to create and consume art is fundamentally the same. Sure, if it's not exhibited, it may still be art for the one who makes it, but to not share it is neglecting an important part of the process. It is not complete.  The tree makes a sound, sure, so does the river, the waterfall and the many creatures who inhabit the forest. It all exists, but the appreciation for it is a purely human experience.

MICHAEL: You said earlier that you spend most of your time working alone Is this necessary for you to create?  How does time spent alone affect your dynamics with people when you're not working?   JACK: Yes, most artists work alone. There are necessary exceptions such as installations or obvious collaborations. The Dali portrait by Philippe Hallsman comes to mind of a studio photograph where assistants were required. Some assume that I work with assistants because of the complexity, but I build the sets in order to be worked alone. Also, like many artists, I was a bit of a loner as a child. Not an overly gregarious child, not much of an athlete. It has perhaps shaped my character and how I am perceived.

It isn't necessarily necessary, but I prefer the freedom of being able to do my work without depending upon the presence or assistance of others. I suppose that is why I don't photograph people as much because of all of the coordination of schedules required. Both my wife and I are not the social butterfly types. We have each other and the pets of course. Not having had children kept us out of certain social venues, I suppose. Some people are much more the social types, we are content. I do have a certain communication gap with others outside of the realm of photography and art or other common interests. Unlike my neighbors, I don't hunt or fish, etc. and chatting up sports stats?  Not so much.

MICHAEL: That’s music to my ears. I think much of society remains suspicious of contemporary art and artists.  There's this hesitation to even explore and certainly not to embrace art.  I have my own theory and you may or may not agree, but what might this be about?

JACK: I hadn't really considered it. It may be a more American thing. The dominance of conservatism and all things macho? I think that in some European countries, art is not only a strong part of their history, but they have a greater appreciation for current art and artists. There is more government support art than in America by far.

MICHAEL: When you're actually creating in your studio, how does inspiration flow through you?  Is the process emotional, intellectual, spiritual?  What's the impetus for creating the work that you do?

JACK: To be honest, when I'm actually working, it is mostly technical. There are so many things that have to happen together, that I am concentrating a great deal on the efficient operation and synchronicity. I have already conceived what the general "look" will be. When I am in full production, there is a pattern of steps that must be taken between each
exposure. That is not to say that there aren't intellectual or emotional elements involved. I am constantly checking results and making adjustments. When I see that things are looking as good as I had hoped, there is a great amount of satisfaction. I get fully involved in the process and keeping that level of concentration for a sustained period is almost Zen-like. It's not until I shut down the process, that I can review results and decide where to make more substantial changes or feel that I
have completed the series.

My drive to make the work is in knowing that I am making art that no one has ever made or even seen before. The satisfaction of having something totally my own, that has captured the eyes and imaginations of the many who have taken the time to write to me and about my creations is pretty huge. I knew early on that I had "something," but I had no idea it could be this well received.

MICHAEL: Finally Jack, you know, what is the point of all of this?  Isn't art really only for highly-cultured and super-wealthy people?  I mean, art is not saving the world or curing cancer or ending homelessness.  Isn't this all just a bunch of bullcrap?

JACK: It's been awesome chatting. I hope we stay in touch and I appreciate your advocacy on behalf of contemporary artists. Lending a voice to the chorus is a very good thing. As far as the BS goes, there's plenty of it to go around, no matter what path we choose.

MICHAEL: Thanks Jack!

Check out Jack’s awesome work at http://www.jacklongphoto.com/



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