Monday, August 8, 2011

James Murray: Seeing in the Moment

 James Murray walks through the world with his eyes wide open, seeing light, color, pattern, and mystery.  His photos take the breath away.  For someone with such a distinct and clear visual message, he is pretty handy with spoken language too.  I know James as an inspiring colleague and as a photographer to emulate.  Come to MLK Library in September to see a showing of James' work in the Library's fourth floor gallery; it's not to be missed.  If you can't wait, visit his blog, Saguaro Wanderings and his primary photography website.

tp: I was taking a look at the photographs on your blog and I’m drawn to the textures and colors and moods that you capture. Can you talk about your creative process for photographing patterns?

JM: One of my driving motivations when seeking subjects is to capture an aspect of which reveals a bit more than initially seems apparent, in order to evoke surprise and a sense of discovery from the viewer.
My philosophy has long been than most of us pass through life taking precious little genuine notice of our surroundings -- the richness of detail, the myriad of facets inherent in the physical environment in which we’re immersed from cradle to grave. Pausing to really examine the sophistication of both the organic and inorganic background to our daily lives can reveal surprising beauties and breathtaking awareness.
The first consideration regarding textures is, “what time of day am I shooting?” I prefer the “seeing” available during the hours of early morning or late afternoon, when the Sun floods the scene with light arriving at low, sharp angles. The rays brushing across subjects at acute angles frequently bring out a startling amount of surface texture not so apparent during the relatively flat light of midday. The complexities and richness of these revealed details often serve as a key element of surprise to the viewer, thus providing an extra layer of interest to my subjects.
An additional consideration which arises from choosing to photograph early or late in the day is the overall tonal quality of the light at such times. Generally the light will be more golden hued in the fresh mornings, and redder towards sunset; photographic imagery awash with such tones certainly evokes emotional responses quite different from high-noon scenes which tend to be comparatively biased toward blues.
Naturally my choices in all of these cases are frequently driven by my own mood as I set out with my camera .

tp: Many of your photographs reveal a mystery for the viewer to hold in awe or try to solve. What are your ideas around mystery?

JM: As a child I experienced mystery in different ways: there was the terror and horror of space aliens invading Earth and trolls, ogres and Billy Goat Gruff – never encountered any of them, but I feared the possibilities.

Then there were other unknowns that not only piqued my curiosity but also served to nurture a healthy imagination: How did dinosaurs really behave and what did they look like when alive? The first humans – how did they live and what were their surroundings like? What was it like to be in Pompeii on its last day? What are other galaxies like? How do cells work? Does the Sun make sound? Subjects along these lines (and many others) lead me to appreciate and deeply enjoy the essence of not quite knowing – because it allows room for creative speculation.

Thus my relationship to mystery gradually transformed from childhood resistance into adult inquiry, and the epiphany that the more we know the more mystery remains to be plumbed.
Much of my photography is informed by my own delight in the experience of the Ah Ha! moment -- that instant when recognition clicks into sharp awareness. These are of course intensely personal realizations, being steeped in the observer’s own background.

Whether the viewer suddenly finds a clear and specific “message”, or instead is moved to consider the composition as having hidden meanings, makes no difference: what counts that the image establishes an emotional/spiritual connection – subtle or overt. A sense of mystery, when present, allows an active interaction to take place between the inanimate print and the sentient observer. Such is the holy grail of any artist’s work, I believe.

tp: What kind of mode do you go into—how do you feel--- when photographing a concept or idea you are passionate about?

JM: This question goes to the heart of what for me is an interesting aspect of my artistic process – that being a co-extant duality to my approach.
The vast majority of my imagery is the result of extemporaneous encounters with my surroundings as I wander by, camera in hand. Often I set out with a general notion of what I am seeking on any given exploration: perhaps my muse for the moment leans towards macro subject matter such as rust, textured surfaces, organic translucence (leaves are a favorite), and the like. Consequently I am usually operating with an agenda – albeit a flexible one – and so go forth properly equipped (macro lens, monopod or tripod) and channel my attention more acutely to what is beneath my feet, on the fa├žades of walls, plant life bathed in combinations of shadow and direct lighting, etc.

Here I must emphasize the fruits of being open-minded to whatever visual choreography the universe offers up in the face of my own intent; many of my favorite images come from those “ah ha!” unexpected revelations (if you like) when something catches my eye a bit beyond the scope of my momentary “plan” . . . and when peering through the lens I suddenly know “I really have something here!” Or,“so this is what I was seeking!” A visceral, childlike thrill comes at such times – and such photographic encounters are the primary fuel which keeps my artistic pilot light not only on but often glowing brightly . . . I feel an eagerness to pursue more such imagery as a result.

A smaller volume of my work falls into the domain of premeditated constructions, usually taking the form of still-life subjects. For much of my journey in photography I lacked a degree of confidence (and thus comfortableness) in this milieu; in recent years however I’ve expanded my horizons considerably in this form. Unexpectedly (for me), one outcome is that I find myself directing increasing energy into formulating thematic possibilities requiring a great deal more forethought than does my normal shoot-it-as-you-find-it methodology.
These deliberate efforts can still take me by surprise and reveal ways of seeing that were in a spiritual or emotional sense just beyond my peripheral vision. Perhaps the best example of this in my portfolio is Eggs #3834 (Version II). I had sat on the idea of randomly arranging a group of plain eggs on a white plate, with perhaps all but one peeled (or vice-versa). My original goal was to use quite subtle differences in the texture of the eggs’ surfaces to provide a reward for the viewers who choose to linger long enough over such an apparently mundane subject to discover the surprise. Not all is necessarily as it seems, even in an ostensibly homogenous setting. Yet the joke was on me! When gathering up my subjects I noticed that my mom was preparing brunch using brown eggs . . . thus an entirely new way of visualizing the original idea was hatched!
Eggs #3834 (Version II) 
 Details: July 4, 2009; Canon 20D; f/11 @ 1/800 sec; -2/3 EV; ISO 100; Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS @ 41mm.  ©2010, 2011 James W. Murray, all rights reserved.

The act of abrupt emotional recalibration - a significant shift in my way of seeing, was thrilling in no small part because I felt this would be a far more engaging portrait. Such a sharp change in the script was – and often is – the source of unexpected relief: attempting to manifest in perfectionist precision a physical photograph which has endured a lengthy mental gestation usually carries considerable stress. Spontaneously altering the vision provides instant permission to let go of hardened mental criteria.

tp: Can you tell us about a photography project that you’ve felt strongly connected to?

JM: A couple of years ago my brother Eric asked me to photograph him and his band-mate Aaron for use in publicizing upcoming appearances by their band Pegasus. I chose the Rosicrucian Museum as the shoot venue; a single image was selected and found its way to the entertainment section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Spending the afternoon with my brother entrusting me with creating an image to represent something deeply important to him was very cool. To see a creation of my own published was very gratifying. (An aside here: one of the best images I’ve ever created came out of this: after we finished the formal shoot we grabbed dinner at the burrito eatery Iguanas just off of campus. As we ate the late afternoon sun was streaming in and flooding a very long, highly textured wall in the joint . . . Iguana Room #1971 resulted. After seeing the photograph posted on my blog Eric called me and remarked , “Yet again I understand why you spent so much time photographing a wall.”
Iguana Room 1971  
Details: December 6, 2008; Canon 20D; f/6.3 @ 1/60 sec; ± 0 EV; ISO 200; Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS @ 30mm   ©2010, 2011 James W. Murray, all rights reserved.

Several years ago I was asked to record an intimate memorial service at a private home, held to honor the passing of my wife’s brother who’d died several years prior. As you might imagine it was a deeply emotional gathering, and it was my task to find a balance between photographing meaningfully while not interfering with the vulnerable emotions at hand. It went well, and it was deeply moving to be a part of that process.
Recently I was asked to photograph a Buddhist meditation group, also for publicity. The whole notion of injecting a camera (complete with flash) into a meditative atmosphere provokes an incongruous mixture of emotion – my fervent desire was to be as respectful an unobtrusive as possible. It was a real honor to be entrusted with such a sacred event.

tp: What is your background in photography?

JM: I actually got into photography very much against my will!

When signing up for classes in my high school freshman year I interpreted Graphic Arts and Printing to mean a class on calligraphy. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that printing presses, silk-screening and, yes, darkroom work was the real plan.

The photography bit began after the Christmas vacation break, and I made some effort to get out of having to take it, to no avail. Up to this point I’d never given any consideration to photography as a subject of interest. I had some limited curiosity as to how photographs emerged from those tiny 35mm film canisters without being badly wrinkled and creased (really!) . . . the entire concept of negatives leading to prints via enlargement was utterly beyond my knowledge.

I quietly seethed in class for the first day or two, until it came to pass that the teacher – Mr. Dawson – led the entire group of us into the darkroom with its odd lighting, peculiar and utterly unique smells wafting up from stainless steel trays, and those odd hulking machines, the enlargers, arrayed like silent sentinels in the darker recesses of the room. I remained bored and unimpressed as Mr. Dawson put a negative in the enlarger and then shone light through it onto a sheet of ostensibly plain white paper . . . putting the still blank white paper into the first of the fluid-filled trays didn’t do much for me either.

Somewhere between 45 and 60 seconds later, however, I experienced my first Miracle: up from the mystery of nothingness suddenly emerged a black-and-white image onto the surface of what had been an unremarkable and wet sheet of paper. It was a profound epiphany, and far and away the best magic trick I’d ever witnessed. From that very instant I was helplessly smitten, in love with, and hooked by photography.
That freshman High School photography class is the only one I’ve ever taken for credit; I’ve enrolled in two others simply for darkroom access; otherwise I’ve been self-taught through books, museum visits, and a great deal of shooting.

tp: What advice do you give to novice photographers?

JM: The photographic universe has undergone a profound transformation since I first started: dark rooms and wet processing has been replaced by bright monitors and pixel manipulation.

While digital photography has the upside of providing instant feedback (no more waiting breathlessly for your prints to come back from the lab in order to see how well those shots of vacation places you’ll never visit again came out), it also imposes far greater challenges, in my opinion, for the novice to understand how to take the raw material of a so-so “negative” and transform it into a powerful, compelling image. This is entirely due to the general complexity of photo processing software. Having a solid proficiency in these applications is central to gaining the rewards of creating results which go beyond ordinary snap-shots. The learning curve can be substantial and a bit daunting.

Nonetheless, photography is a beautiful and richly rewarding hobby, and the gratification felt by the act of creating something uniquely seen by you, the photographer (yes, even if it’s the billionth picture of the Golden Gate Bridge or Half Dome) must be experienced to be truly appreciated and understood. Experiencing deeply internal pleasure of this type is well worth paying the price of time and energy to acquire the necessary skills to realize the fruits of your efforts.

Thus my advice is really quite simple (despite appearing long):
  • Learn how to use your camera fully – experiment! The more you master your equipment the more control you have in getting the results you seek.
  • Learn as much as you can about controlling exposure using f/stops and shutter speed; do not exclusively rely on your camera’s Auto mode.
  • Study composition – learn the basic rules – then learn how and when to break them!
  • Enroll in at least two or three photo classes, emphasizing how to process the images produced by your camera.
  • Learn a photo processing program well. Adobe Photoshop is the untouchable Gold Standard but is complex and expensive; Adobe Lightroom is an excellent alternative (I use both).
  • Visit as many museums, art galleries, craft festivals and websites as you can; exposure to others’ work is a legitimate and informative path by which you will find your own variations and vision.
  • Remember there is NO perfect camera; equipment helps but the critical element is the human (Tiger Wood’s golf clubs wouldn’t help me in the least!)
  • Shoot, shoot, shoot, and keep on shooting! Have fun, enjoy the creative process, and take great pleasure when the occasional photo is really sweet.
Lastly, and most important: believe in yourself and your vision.

There was only one Ansel Adams, one Edward Weston, one Diane Arbus . . . and one you. I wasted three decades under the self-imposed belief that if I couldn’t attain the statue of such artistic giants I couldn’t be considered talented in my own right. I’m busy making up for lost time now, and having tremendous pleasure doing so!

In the end, all that counts is that your own creative vision brings YOU pleasure.

tp: Thank you James, it warms my heart to read your words; what a clear picture you give us of your experience, evolution, and objectives as a photographer. I am, as always, inspired!