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STEVE SCHLACKMAN: FOTOFILOSOPHY

Steve Schlackman is a photographic artist who I met online through art dealer Emmanuel Fremin.  He captures really cool images  www.fotofilosophy.com that have sort of a hip, urban vibe regardless of their nature.  What’s Steve’s inspiration?  Check out our cool chat and find out…

MICHAEL: First of all Steve, as a photographic artist, it must be somewhat frustrating that everyone and their grandmother has a camera on their cell phone and they're snapping photos of everything in sight while thinking, they too, can create works of art. No?

STEVE: I actually think it is great that people are able to document their lives and capture the world around them. Even those people who are not avid photographers will eventually, just by sheer number of photos taken, create some amazing images. And having cell phones snapping away during critical time-sensitive events, like bombings or accidents, provide us with images that we would never have otherwise had available. On the other hand, we do end up with a lot of mediocrity and an overabundance of photos where there should be more selectivity. One advantage of the film days is that photography wasn't free. Even with cheap Instamatic cameras, you only had 24 or 36 images on a roll and the developing costs limited your ability to take thousands of pictures on your vacation. People had to be more selective. I mean, how many pictures of the Eiffel Tower do we really need? I still shoot that way out of sheer habit. During my Cuba shoot, I spent eight days there and shot only a few hundred pictures. Maybe that just comes from experience as I can see how an image will end up and if it isn't right in my head, I don't shoot it.

My big concern however is the audience knowledge as to what makes an amazing image. People are exposed to an overwhelming amount of mediocre work, which ends up affecting their perception of quality. And the decimation of art classes in public schools over the couple of decades hasn't helped. It ends up lowering the demand for good photographs and well-trained photographers. So many people don't see the difference between the camera as a utilitarian instrument which captures friends out on the town and photography as an art form. My hope is that this will swing back the other way, in the same way that people in their 20s are happy listening to music through their tiny computer speakers, but teenagers are starting to embrace albums again. In the end, despite the downsides, I would much rather have everyone taking pictures than not.

MICHAEL: I keep hearing that Cuba is a stunning place unlike any other place on earth.  What was your experience?  Why did you go?

STEVE: It was definitely interesting and unique. I was there following a couple of friends who were shooting a guerilla-style documentary about a family of Santeria percussionists. It's a long term project. The first part was done five years earlier and will continue on for another decade or so. I followed along to take stills and created my own version of the project which I call, “La Clave,” which is the beat underlying all Cuban music. You can find the synopsis at http://www.fotofilosophy.com/projects/la-clave-photographs-of-cuba/ if you want to read more about it.

So, we stayed mostly in Havana, as we were always working, following these musicians around, hanging out and basically living like non-tourists. We had access to places tourists would never go which is exactly what I look for when creating this type of work. It allowed me to see things that are normally hidden. One really interesting aspect of that was seeing a country that is supposed to be all equal, having a clear second class. The black population lived in far worse conditions than the whites. Those impoverished areas were the places we frequented most. Also, the country as whole, but particularly the poorer areas, are missing basic things that we take for granted like iPods or internet access. Fidel Castro limits electronics and the web. At the same time, there are lots of foreigners in the more touristy areas, because most countries have no problem with them going there. It is a major destination for immersive Spanish lessons, apparently. There was one other really strange thing and something that took me a couple of days to figure out. You know there is something odd, but you just can’t your finger on it?  There is no advertising, no billboards, or any other product placements, other than a few propaganda posters. Except for one company; small quick markets are everywhere and each store has an ice cream freezer with “Nestle” (the food company) emblazoned on it. But the most interesting experience I had was at a Santeria ceremony to welcome new tenants into an apartment. The entire neighborhood came out for a street party. The percussionists from the documentary played the beats for each Lukumi spirit, chosen by the tenants, calling them to bless the home. It was an amazing experience. And the people were among the nicest and friendliest I have met anywhere. I would love to go back and follow up on the project.

MICHAEL: Isn't it amazing how photography has become so accepted now in contemporary art? A few years ago, I didn't see a whole lot of it and now, I would say it makes up about a third of all of the art that I see at the big international art fairs. What do you think is happening?

STEVE: I could write a book on this topic, but I'll try to keep it short. I think there is a lot more diversity in art being shown in general. Maybe it’s the digital age allowing for more possibilities or maybe it’s the ease with which certain types of art can be created. With that, you will also see much more mediocrity. For the audience, what is good art becomes more confusing. People are investing and want pieces to hold their value and the environment makes that more difficult. Photography on the other hand is a bit more innately accessible. People feel they can understand a photograph better.  As I mentioned before, that doesn't mean they are correct, it just means they feel they have a better handle on it.

Add to that the fact that photographs are not one-of-a-kind pieces, but limited editions, so the price is often less per image, but with multiple editions, the profit can still be pretty good. Then, of course, digital has made photography more readily available. I used to carry three cameras, each with a different ISO film. Then I would develop the film myself in various ways, using different emulsions which were all very time consuming. But now I can do that digitally with equivalent quality. Also, it’s a lot easier now to produce large photographic pieces than it was years ago. For “Vision of the World” at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery this month and for Art Hamptons, all the images I am showing are 36" x 24" and I am printing them at home. Not only is it easier, but I have so much more control. I get exactly what I want and once printed large, if I see something small that bothers me, I can reprint. That is much harder to do if you are paying large sums to have someone else print the images.

Plus, black and white printing technology is far superior than before. B&W often had metamerism or color casts because printers did not have enough grey scale inks to make a true black and white image. All of which makes for better photographs and the overall business of photography more profitable for the galleries. So you see much more of it.

MICHAEL: Many photographic artists I interview have strong opinions about Photoshop and editing photos. What about you? To Photoshop or not? Also, film or digital?

STEVE: I am a big fan of Photoshop and I exclusively shoot digital now. I know there are purists out there, but this is art. When I look through the lens, I see an image that I want to show the world which doesn't always look exactly like what I see in my head. Photoshop makes it easier to achieve the vision, whether it is simple color changes or moving a tree branch out of the way, I don't have a problem. Sometimes the manipulation may go too far, but then it is still the vision of the photographer and at the very worst, we call it a digitally-enhanced photograph or something like that. However, if it is news or true documentary, then there should be some integrity to the story. I would not appreciate adding something that exaggerates a real life situation without acknowledging that fact.

As far as digital, the technology is very good right now and getting better. It affords me the flexibility to get the shot I want. I shoot RAW so I don't need to be as concerned with white balance and lighting as much. I can fix it in Photoshop. I brought a film camera with me to Cuba, but I never used it. Going from low light to bright sunshine, in and out of homes and cars, I am just happier with digital. And now that I am almost exclusively using the Fuji X-Pro1, I am even more content. The sensor is amazing as is the low light performance. There are no weird patterns in the dark areas. I don't even own a flash for it.

The problems I do have with Photoshop and others like it, mostly revolve around overuse or bad technique. I see what are supposed to be subtle enhancements become dominant. Sharpening is a typical example.  If it’s set too high, it will take smooth gradations and turn them into harsh patterns and edges with halos. That's too much. Sharpening is not the tool that’s supposed to be used to make an out of focus image appear to be in focus. Although I am really interested in playing with the new Photoshop CC shake filter, which at least from images I have seen online, may do a good job at refocusing in some instances. HDR photography is another good example. That technique is meant to extend the dynamic range so that it is closer to what your eye sees. And what the eye sees is a real image. But so much HDR is overdone, making it look unrealistic, surreal, more like a painting than a photograph. And again, if that is what you are going for, then fine, but I think most people are just overdoing it.

MICHAEL: I see you live in Miami which is one of my favorite places in the world. It's unlike any place in America. What do you like about it? And does Miami's art community thrive year round or just during Art Basel?

STEVE: Miami is a great city. But I’ve spent most of my life in NYC, so I am a bit jaded. In NYC, you can do something art related every night, museums, galleries, classes, whatever. Miami isn't like that. The scene is definitely improving, but it still needs some time to come into its own. And it will. We have the Design District and Wynwood, which are really hot areas right now. Once a month, there is the Art Walk in Wynwood which is super fun. All the galleries are open until 11 pm and there are usually food trucks and other entertainment like caged robot battles. Food, art and robots; What else do you need?  Unfortunately, there isn't a consistent evening art situation which makes it harder for those in the working world. And there is very little photography here comparatively. As we were just discussing, photography is picking up, which you certainly see in Art Basel, Art Miami, Red Dot and all the surrounding shows that week. But the galleries aren't catching on as much. Not sure why that is. There is a new photography gallery opening on the 27th called CU-1, and it has a bit of a buzz because it is primarily a photography gallery.

I am always surprised that artists and photographers don't play the snowbird game; sublet their studios/apartments and head to Miami for the winter. That would really add some spark. The one thing I do miss though is having a good photography school. I went to the International Center for Photography night classes for about 4 years and there were just so many amazing photographers everywhere. You learn so much in those situations. Great teachers like Mary Ellen Mark, and the lecture series with people like Sebastiao Salgado, one of my favorite photographers.  It would be nice to have resources like that here. But that's purely wishful thinking on my part and nothing I expect nor fault Miami for. Everyone is allowed their little dreams; that's mine.

MICHAEL: Despite the main subjects in your work, I notice that light and how you use it is really the star feature. Thoughts?

STEVE: Huge deal for me. And another reason why I love Photoshop. I am always looking for the right light, although I don't even notice it anymore. It’s kind of a habit. I hate flash and avoid it at all costs, except maybe as a fill flash. It's something I got from looking at the old master painters, another great asset of being in Manhattan. I don't paint at all, but I had friends who were very good and we would go to the various exhibits. I would pepper them with questions. We would discuss the details of Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Also Van Gogh and the whole romantic landscape group like Joseph Turner and Friedrich, also more modern painters like Hopper. I was always fascinated as to how those artists could create light from nothing, unlike photographs where we are catching light. But the light sensors can tend to muddy things, especially B&W. This multipoint focus also has some effect on normalizing light in a way that doesn't always work out well. In camera, I use spot focus. I find that it helps a bit. And of course with Photoshop I can recreate the light as I saw it in my head. The painters had an influence on that. I spent an hour today on an image just painting in light, by using local contract, dodging and burning, little parts at a time. Takes a while but it’s very important. The DJ series I am working on is all about light, late nights in dark clubs at the DJ booths. It's my first all color project and so far, has been a real challenge.

MICHAEL: Even if some of your subjects aren't urban, I still detect a hip, urban edge to your work. Is this something you're seeking in the images?

STEVE: I think that happened naturally over time and now it is not something I look for. It just happens, just part of my training. I have lived in urban environments for most of my life. Certainly since I began to take photography seriously. So I went out every day, trying to shoot something, honing my craft. The experience became more urban automatically. Also, as I mentioned, I was always talking with people about the shots, getting critiques and people tended to like my urban work much better. So, I unconsciously started gravitating toward taking those kinds of images since they got the most praise. Then, as I got more proficient, it became pretty important to me that I have a style. I wanted people to recognize, as much as possible, that these were my photos. Especially when they were from different projects, I wanted them to go together.

I remember reviewing portfolio images and trying to find ways of putting disparate images together. I mean, let’s say you head out to some trip, event or whatever for a day or two. You'll never get enough great images for it to be something whole. I end up with maybe 6 or 7 good ones, which ended up as 2 or 3 I might actually keep. So you end up with a series of images from different places, times, events etc., and you try to put them together into a cohesive theme. You find ways of categorizing them into blocks of 15 images or so images to make a portfolio. And so naturally, the urban style ended up dominant. I have so many images that were outside my normal style that I discarded over the years. That is really hard to do by the way, to let go of a good image. I have some really great stuff that I just never show. Maybe it’s all the years I spent in marketing, but having images fit into a "brand" is second nature. It's one of the reasons I started on the DJ project. I wanted to try something different. But even there, my style is a bit ingrained now so it shows through. I like that.

MICHAEL: I know you're also an attorney, but I'm more curious about your artistic background. Do you come from an artistic family? How did you become an artist?

STEVE: There really wasn't much art in my family. My dad was a graphic designer, but he stopped much of that to open an advertising agency when I was very young. I did spend a lot of time at the office watching the artists work, but it was a very utilitarian experience. I didn't really become enamored with art until I was much older. In college, I took art history and loved it. So I went to Paris for a three month art history program which was amazing and changed the way I looked at art in general. Looking at Napoleon's Coronation by David in all its full size glory for the first time was breathtaking. Going to the Louvre everyday was just an overwhelming experience. But I never picked up a brush, which is a regret I have. But it was then that I started to take a lot of photos. But it was all amateur stuff, nothing truly interesting. Then, years later, I went to see an exhibition at the United Nations by Salgado, part of a series for UNICEF. I was very humbled by that work.  It made me realize how mediocre my photos really were. I decided that it was really pointless to spend my time taking photos unless I really tried to understanding the art of photography and improve my skill. I figured if I wasn't striving to be as good as Salgado, then why bother? I mean, the photos could be mediocre if my goal was to improve in a serious way because each photo would be better and eventually I could be proud of the work. I am still trying to reach the Salgado level. I still experiment and tinker and I often go back to older shots and change the look a bit, as I get better or more knowledgeable about certain techniques. Most people might not even notice those changes, but I figure Salgado would, so I better make them.

MICHAEL: Wow, that's cool. You know, so many people don't understand contemporary art as we're discussing it now. Is there any real point in trying to explain it to people?

STEVE: I think it is always a good idea to try. The problem is whether the teacher can make it compelling and interesting. I have seen too many dry educators who can turn people off of whatever subject they are teaching. But there are more endemic problems. As a society, we have pushed art education to the back-burner, so kids aren't getting the art education they need to understand contemporary art. To understand today’s gallery works, you have to work your way through from Old Masters to Modern to really grasp it. Contemporary works are often complicated and even with some training, they are still hard to grasp. I have a lot of training and I still can’t easily understand contemporary works without some guidance or discussion.

Contemporary works don't have the visual technique of the more traditional art like Impressionism. You may not be amazed when you see three light blue blocks on a canvas of dark blue. Also, the work is often socially driven, a counter to what is going on in society at the time or a counter to traditional artists' techniques and you need to understand the prevailing aesthetics of the era to see it in its context, not from the perspective of today's aesthetics. The Bauhaus movement is a good example of that. So without that kind of background knowledge, there is no real way to get the artists message across to people.

Then you have the situation where even the explanations of the works are themselves abstract, with various critics having different explanations of what the work means. So there are no real answers. You also get this "I can do that, so what the big deal?" attitude, which I hear people say about artists like Mondrian. Take someone like Rothko. He painted bright color lines or swaths of color over other colors. His work was supposed to invoke this spiritual, intimate feeling, I think. I can't even be sure I am remembering that correctly, so you see the problem right there.

With all that, you have to add the fact that the works, for most people, are only seen in books. People don't have access to the real works in most geographic locations. New York has everything, but even in Miami which is a fairly large city, some of that work is unavailable. And to really understand Rothko, you need to see it because they are meant to be large, enveloping and inviting and he had a brush technique of applying paint that you can't see in a book. I remember the first time I saw Jasper John's American Flag at the MOMA. You don't realize that the oil is thinly applied and underneath are all these newspaper articles; the canvas is not a white canvas, but newspaper. And it is very large. You can stand in front of it, reading the headlines through the paint. This is probably true of all paintings, going all the way back to Da Vinci, but it is often critical to understanding contemporary art. This is unlike photography which can be grasped in book format. There is no texture.  So, it is always good to try to discuss contemporary art and maybe we can hook people into getting interested. And if people understand the obstacles, then they can address them and hopefully make a greater impact.

MICHAEL: Thanks Steve. This has been great. Love your work.

STEVE: Awesome.  Thank you for having me and for the compliment!

Check Steve out at http://www.fotofilosophy.com/



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