Deluxe Black Heart

23 08 2010

Thousands of hearts once beat in these rooms on the south side of Lansing, Michigan. Some gave out here. Some were stopped by force. It was a place where many in their loneliness and despair heard their hearts beating over the buzz, squeals, chatter and swoosh of the traffic on the interstate just outside the door.

A view of the Deluxe Inn, © Michael Maurer Smith 2010

In its last days, the place was called the Deluxe Inn, but it was not Deluxe—that throwback name from a bygone era of big, over-chromed Olds, Chevys and Buicks.  From its beginning this was cheap place and over the years it had devolved through various owners and chains. Its last claim to respectability was when it bore the sign of a Motel 6. In the end it was just another “no tell motel,” a cheap and convenient spot for hooker’s and a place to score whatever substance might promise a quick escape from reality. It became a place of murders, fights, prostitution, break ups, breakdowns, and suicides.

Deluxe Inn, detail, © Michael Maurer Smith 2010

Finally, the self-selected good citizens; the police, city council and the very structure itself got tired of it all and said, “enough. It’s over.”

The Inn was boarded up and slated for demolition and the Ingham county Land Bank, which now held the property, decided to give the place a special send-off. They decided Lansing need an infusion of Art. So 20 or so graffiti artists were invited to paint what would be the Deluxe Inn’s death mask—its final makeover.

I found the graffiti interesting, but not unlike the graffiti found in almost any city. It was mostly predictable repetitions of common themes and characters. However, there was a difference. The graffiti here was done as a kind of funeral service. It was sanctioned and encouraged. It was not an act of defiance but rather one of homage and respect.

As I explored the grounds, I realized that no single photograph of these graffiti paintings would capture what I was feeling. Each door had been bolted shut from the outside as if to keep the ghosts in their respective rooms. It was eerie.

I began taking pictures of details, of what were like paintings within paintings with no clear idea of what I might do with them. Then I came upon a door with the painting of a heart. This black heart with its cracked paint had a powerful impact on me—I immediately thought of the many hearts that once beat in these rooms and I felt as if these rooms were now tombs—that I was walking in a kind of archaeological dig.

The result is Deluxe_Heart_001. This photomontage captures some of what I felt that day. There are more to come.

Deluxe_Heart_001, © Michael Maurer Smith 2010

© Michael Maurer Smith 2010


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

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

More Than Meets the Eye

18 04 2010

Where to now? © 2009 Michael Maurer Smith


“The final strength in really great photographs is that they suggest more than just what they show literally.”
Robert Adams (Art in the 21st Century – PBS season 4)    

“If it doesn’t have ambiguity don’t bother to take it. I love that aspect of photography, the mendacity of photography.”
Sally Mann (Art in the 21st Century – PBS season 2)    

Simplicity and clarity are difficult to achieve. Leave out too much and the picture fails. Include too much and it becomes confused. Picasso is to have said that “art is a lie that tells the truth.” I agree.    

How do you achieve truthfulness and clarity in your work? What is truthfulness and clarity in Art?   

NOTE: The photograph shown in this post, “Where to now?” has not been altered in any way except for the compression of depth that comes with using a telephoto lens.

Picturing Luck

17 04 2010

plastic wrapped firebricks © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Luck, as the saying goes, is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. It also feeds on a good diet of, “what ifs and why nots?

I saw this gift-wrapped beauty—it’s a beauty to my eyes anyway—on one of my recent photo hunts. I often visit a junk heap used by university art students as a source of materials and inspiration for their sculptures, assemblages and paintings. It is a place that offers the ready eye and mind much challenge, opportunity and delight.

On this particular visit I struggled to discern something new and interesting in the visual chaos when by chance I noticed sunlight glinting on some firebricks wrapped in plastic. I instantly knew I had found my subject du jour.

How about you? Do you have a special place you can go where you will always find visual challenge, opportunity and delight—a place that will make you say “why not” and “what if?” If not I encourage you to find one and be prepared for the opportunities it offers.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith