The Artist’s Choice

19 07 2010

I recently heard of an artist who was asked why he painted abstract (non-representational) paintings. He answered “it is because I want to make something entirely new.” I share his sentiment. Painting in the abstract usually results in something not seen before—a new creation.

Metatopograph 01_2010, acrylic on canvas, 10" x 16", by Michael Maurer Smith

Conversely, painting in a representational manner forces cognitive dissonance upon the artist—the conflict and interplay of the impulses of creative expression and the demands of story-telling and narrative.  Of course painting abstractly is the representation of feelings and values and is therefore as “realistic” and “representational” as any other form of painting.

However, it is the representational artist who must resort to using those techniques necessary to render “appearances” that are recognizable as things, such as a dog, a tree, or a mountain. This results in a picture that unavoidably becomes a story about something other than itself. It divides the attention of the artist, and the viewer, between that which is represented or suggested, and the actuality of the painting as its own subject and meaning.

Of course the wholly abstract picture—without a hint of representation and realism—is also more than it appears. It is unavoidably a commentary on past and current aesthetic theory and a response to the culture in which it was created. Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, for example, are both genres of abstract art which position themselves in the story of art history.

Art, and specifically painting, is inclusive of both the abstract and representational. It cannot be otherwise since all painting is to some degree abstract. Rendering the illusion of the observed world on a flat surface requires selectivity/abstraction—what to include and what to leave out. Likewise, it requires the use of perspective which demands recording size relationships in a manner that fools the eye into believing what it sees. We know the rails of the railroad track do not actually converge in the distance but they must in a picture, if it is to be convincing and appear realistic.

The issue is not whether the wholly abstract painting is a more pure form of painting. It is one of purpose. If the artist wants the meaning of her or his painting to inhere in itself and its making, then a decidedly abstract approach will better accomplish this. However, if the artist wants to tell a story using visual aid (painting) then he or she must communicate using culturally shared symbols and shapes—realistic appearing images germane to the story being presented—images that the intended audience will recognize.

What it comes down to is the choice of the artist to be a creator of new expressions and forms or an interpreter and story teller. Each approach is valid and valuable and no artist is exclusively one or the other. It’s more of where an artist falls on the continuum.

I prefer to paint as an abstractionist because the act of painting—the process and journey—is one of total expressive freedom and discovery. I like the feeling of aliveness and excitement as I face a blank canvas without knowing where the journey will take me.


The Humanitarian Photographer

12 06 2010

There is a genre of photography known as “humanitarian photojournalism.” It seems a laudable practice and most of the photographers who do it are dedicated to the causes and organizations they photograph for. However, it is also a commercial practice, and where money changes hands expectations and obligations are present and they will shade the results.

I have recently been listening to podcast interviews (Depth of Field with Matt Brandon) with some of the most accomplished humanitarian photographers. They all tell compelling stories. They talk about what they pack for their trips and the difficulties and unexpected encounters in their travel. They tell about what gear works, what doesn’t and why. They give tips on lighting and how to work with the native populations and conditions—all of which is fascinating and useful to other photographers. Likewise, they all speak of the real needs and suffering of their subjects from around the world.

But missing in most of this discussion is a larger perspective—one in which bigger questions are raised and wrestled with.

Every one of these photographers claim it is a privilege for them to inform the rest of the world about what’s really going on in places like the Sudan, Haiti, Afghanistan and the Amazon rain forest. So they report on the work being done by the major Non Governmental Organizations and many relief agencies—their clients and employers. And they do it well because they are professionals.

The result is yet more images in a media saturated world—images targeted at people living far from the source of those images—affluent, well educated, socially committed readers of magazines and buyers of photo books and joiners of groups dedicated to helping causes—the pool from which the NGOs and relief organizations seek their support. So the humanitarian photograph must be compelling though not repellent. It must not tip the balance politically, culturally or aesthetically in any way that might offend the targeted potential donor.

It is this need for balance that pushes the humanitarian photojournalist more and more into the realms of marketing, advertising and public relations. And to the extent humanitarian photography is a business both the photographer and those who hire him or her have a vested interest in the continuation of their subject’s abject conditions.

It is notable that many of the humanitarian photojournalists routinely leave their own countries (mostly developed nations) to travel on paid assignment to remote locations, there to record and report on their subject’s pain, poverty and suffering. But surely pain, poverty and suffering exist in the photographer’s own home country and community? There is plenty of it here in the United States and it probably exists in places like France, Canada, Germany, Britain and Australia too! Surely it must be more environmentally, morally and economically defensible to address the problems of pain, poverty and suffering at home before trying to right the wrongs in places thousands and thousands of miles away.

Humanitarian photographers should ask themselves how much what they do is really done in service of humanity—really makes a difference—and how much of it is done to expiate guilt (theirs and that of their clients) for being able to live a life of privilege and choice not enjoyed by those they photograph.

The people devastated by the earthquake in Haiti, and those left impoverished if not homeless and demoralized by Katrina and more recently by the incompetence of British Petroleum in the Gulf are not now flying to Santa Fe, Palm Beach or Shaker Heights to photograph the plight of the wealthy—are they?

What are your thoughts?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Boundless Pollution

8 06 2010

Our Demand © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith


Our unbridled thirst for oil made this disaster all but inevitable. When will we realize that we are petroleum addicts?  

(NOTE: this post also appears on

The New Magazine Photographer

1 06 2010

I recently listened to an excellent interview with noted photographer Nevada Wier on Matt Brandon’s podcast Depth of Field. In that interview Ms. Wier asserted that magazines are no longer as important as they once were as a proving ground for the aspiring professional photographer.

Magazines were in ascendance from the 1930’s through the 1950s having reached their peak in the 1960’s and 70’s. But with the arrival of television and now the Internet, the magazine lost its prominence. And with the rising costs of production, printing and distribution more and more print publications have failed, are failing, or are migrating to the web.

However, Ms. Wier may need to reconsider the importance of magazine work for the photographer. As the iPad, Kindle, Nook and similar electronic tablets and readers gain popularity people are actually reading full-length books on these devices, and asking for more. And what they are reading is often illustrated with photographs—still photograph and photo essays. In fact more than 30% of the books sold this last year by Amazon, were for its Kindle reader! This is significant because these electronic books and periodicals are not free. The reader must purchase the book or pay for a subscription to the periodical. And this means an economic model may be emerging that will make it possible to  pay for photography, illustration, reporting and writing at rates that are fair and reasonable and thereby make it possible for the photographer (artist) to make a decent living. If this occurs, it will mean that magazines (online) may again become an important starting point, proving ground and source of income for the professional photographer. I sure hope this happens and soon.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Seeing Your Painting

26 05 2010

When I’m painting what I’m doing isn’t always apparent to me. In fact it may be years or even decades before I recognize what I’ve really painted. Even then I’m not sure. I suspect this is so for most painters.   

Peach Tree Morning 1, 24" x 24", Michael Maurer Smith


I am now 60 and have been painting since I was a boy. My formal art education came during the early seventies, just after my discharge from the Marine Corps. My goal had always been to be artist.   

As an Art Education major, I took classes in ceramics, jewelry, painting, drawing, printmaking, teaching methodology and art history. For my teaching minor I chose psychology. In fact it became my second major.  Later I would do my Masters degree in Graphic Design. The result was a good grounding in Art, Design and the Social Sciences, seasoned by my previous experiences in the Marine Corps.   

Now I look at the work I’ve done over the past 30 years and often see things in it for the first time.   

My principal mediums are painting and photography. I find them to be complimentary. Photography lets me capture and express what I see while painting lets me manifest that which I feel and see in my mind’s eye. Both practices sharpen my awareness and observational skill.   

The painter constructs, the photographer discloses. Susan Sontag   

In my paintings it is apparent I have the sensibility of the landscapist even though I rarely paint naturalistic interpretations. This is by choice. I draw proficiently and I can paint form convincingly. I simply prefer to paint what are commonly called “abstracts.” Photography satisfies my needs for representation, replication and documentation.   

The very physicality of paint and its handling requires the artist to be active and participatory—to manifest the image from inside themselves into a real object outside themselves, something that other people can see. Photography by comparison is a more passive activity. It depends on things outside the photographer that can be photographed—appropriated for the purposes of expression and interpretation.   

My painting is sometimes like writing a note—the quick reminder of something I’ve seen or felt. Sometimes it flows as a stream of consciousness—intuitive, compelled and direct. At other times it is measured, controlled and calculated. Yet almost always the sense of landscape is apparent. The geometric forms allude to the imposition of human concepts of order and culture. The colors suggest atmosphere and temperature and the amorphous shapes and textures suggest continents, valleys, mountains, boulders or forests. The overlapping and juxtaposition of forms creates the sense of space, movement and time.   

I want my pictures to be things. I want them to be made up of marks that are physically and individually self-sufficient. Howard Hodgkin   

I did not set out to be a painter of landscapes—abstract landscapes of my inner visions—metatopographs (a term I coined). I became one by listening to my inner voice and what my paintings asked me to do.   

What does your artwork tell you? What do you discover when you look at the work you’ve done over the past year, decade or several decades? What does it ask you to do?   

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Big Name, Big Art

10 05 2010

If you only paint little paintings can you become a big name artist? 

In the Art magazines and online, it is impossible to appreciate the actual scale of a painting. This is a hindrance and a boon. Two identically sized photographs of different paintings, appearing side-by-side on the same page, can be of two paintings that are immensely different in actual size and scale. One might be 8 feet by 8 feet square and the other 4 by 4 inches. So it is that on the printed page there is a kind of aesthetic parity that is not possible in actuality. However, in the gallery one discovers that most of the paintings by big name artists are big. 

Making It Big © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith


Some big name artists—like Susan Rothenberg, Jasper Johns or David Hockney sometimes work small. Hockney, has recently been drawing on an iPad. But, in the main, the big namers tend to work much larger than easel size. Some go gargantuan like Julie Mehretu with her recent mural for Goldman Sachs. It measures eighty feet long and twenty three feet high! It was allegedly commissioned for more than 5 million dollars. That’s real big! 

During the Renaissance easel painting became popular. As the merchant class grew there was an increased demand for modest sized paintings to adorn the walls of less than palace-sized dwellings. 

One sees something similar today in places like Santa Fe, where hundreds of galleries sell art ranging in quality from la tourista to middling to sublime—art made by relative unknowns as well as some of the biggest names in the Art world. Most of it is at sizes small enough to fit in a Prius, Bimmer (proper slang for a BMW) or the overhead luggage compartment of a 777. However, the high end galleries do show big works by big name artists. 

Ok, but what does all this say about the quality of the work? And does it matter? 

Let’s say I have a doodle by Cy Twombly. Something he did on a notepad while taking a phone call—does it have a comparable aesthetic and collectible value as one of his big canvases? Should it? If the photograph of Cy’s doodle is published next to photograph of one of his really big canvases in one of the Art magazines, but without dimensions given, will a qualitative aesthetic difference be discernable? 

It seems that making big art has much less to do with aesthetics and quality and more to do with marketing, self-assertion, ego and impact. It says, “if I have the time, space and money to paint big I must be an important and serious artist and if you can afford to buy my big art you must be an important collector.” And so the cycle is established—the artist paints big paintings to attract the big monied collectors who will buy the big art in order to assert their taste and power and as an investment. And thus big reputations are made. 

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Photojournalism: Truth and Titillation

9 05 2010

Photography of the effects and carnage of war, natural disaster and criminal behavior began with the invention of photography itself. Then as now the commonly given explanation for photographing the hideous, heinous and horrible was that, “showing the public such things may prevent them from happening again.”

After more than 150 years of photography—of millions of photographs showing humans shredded, burned, drilled by bullets, eviscerated, or hacked to pieces, we must now acknowledge that murder, genocide, slaughter and natural disaster continue undeterred by the witness of photographers and photojournalists.

Words may reveal the mind of the victim or the perpetrator and thereby teach us something, but never the photograph. It can only re-present that which was visible. You will not get blood on your fingers by dragging them across the photograph of a dead soldier or accident victim. You will not hear the victim’s dying screams or last words. You will not smell the stench of the body’s decay. Still photographs remain still—odorless artifacts.

Most of the photographs of war and suffering are made to sell—not just to teach, witness, document or chastise. The photojournalists who make these pictures expect to be paid for taking the risk. And the news agencies expect to be paid for the use of the images.

Such photography panders to the viewer/reader’s anxiety and need to feel safe. It is expected they will find comfort in knowing they have been spared the horror shown in the photograph. But is this real journalism? Does it truly educate and serve any noble or practical purpose? Or does it principally titillate, stir fear and fan prejudice?

Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. This picture helped turn American sentiment against the Vietnam War and hasten its end. However, it has done little to prevent America’s involvement in subsequent wars. Likewise, the highly publicized photographs of the My Lai massacre, of more than 347 unarmed men, women and children, by U.S. troops, on 16 March 1968, has done little to prevent subsequent mass murders and genocides from happening around the world.

Photojournalism’s demonstrated failure to prevent or end wars, genocides and disaster makes it cynical if not immoral for photojournalists, news agencies and publishers to continue profiting from the photography of people’s suffering, pain and tragedy—photographs that are sold and peddled as a commodity to be consumed like coffee at breakfast. Is this what it means to be civilized? Is this being informed or simply inflamed? Who really benefits?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith