Artist's Statement

Aldo Leopold Wilderness

Autumn Grasses, near Aldo Leopold Vista, NM

I am a 21st Century luminist. I'm a photographer who loves the wild places of the Earth, which as much as says that I admire Ansel Adams, but I admire Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, too.

More than an accidental affinity connects photography to the Hudson River School. Photography began at the height of the luminist tradition. The American Luminists were all about light and the fleeting instant. So has photography been -- necessarily so. Its utter dependence on light and its attention to the way world is for some small fraction of a second have been built into the medium from its beginning. The photographic negative has always been an abstraction of the subject before the camera, the print even more so. Optics, chemistry, and nimble darkroom shadow-play introduce both unavoidable and intentional levels of abstraction and opportunities for interpretation. Digital photography introduces similar unavoidable abstraction and far greater opportunities for interpretation. I most often regard the information in a scanned negative or in an original digital capture as a sketch in an impressionist's notebook: as a study, as unfinished notes ready to be re-presented in a more intentional work.

Digital images can be trusted exactly as far as the photographer can be trusted. In the present age, photography is like writing: you either believe the photographer or you don't. Now more than ever, the process must not be mistaken for a guarantor of authenticity. Lying is easier than ever. For photographers of nature, the more difficult and rewarding task remains the same as it has always been: developing the aesthetic discipline and the technical skill to produce images which reflect our perceptions of our subjects. Digital tools give us the ability to get more of it right; with that ability comes an obligation to do so.

Do not lie. Do not say that the world is some way that it is not. Do not say that you responded to the fall of light or to some aspect of the world in a way that you did not. Do not let the limits of optical glass, of chemical reactions, of solid state detectors dictate what you say about what you experience. Do not let photographic convention or a received photographic aesthetic keep you from telling as best you can what you saw, what you felt. It is no longer enough to say that the camera could not record this or that; its failures can be set right. Set them right. It is no longer enough to apologize for a failed work by observing that people respond to a flat, printed image differently from the way they respond in the presence of the subject itself. We have no sound, no smell, no feel of the thin western air to rely upon. We have light, only light and memory with which to work. Do as Degas did, as Cassatt did, as Church, Cole, Cropsey and Turner did: find a resonance that will take your audience there. Take them there. Mention the subject; evoke a response. Put viewers in your footprints; then put them in your mind. Let the silence of the medium be the stillness between your heartbeats.

Not long ago, every photographer was, perforce, a photo-realist. Now, suddenly, our images are as nimble as words, exactly as much at our command as a pencil mark or a brush stroke is. "Photographer" has become as generic a term as "painter" -- these words say something about what tools might be found in the daypack but much less about what work they might be used to create. How our finished works use the raw data our cameras record is a choice as basic and as unavoidable as where to stand, what lens to select, on what to focus. We can be photo-realists or impressionists or cubists. We can be 21st Century luminists.

David Cortner
December 2004

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