By way of introduction
For me, the print is the photograph. It doesn’t pretend to be the subject it depicts, but is a surreal abstract artistic creation.
From the first, 60-some years ago, my direction was to admit the photograph; not pretend it is something other than what it is.
Let it be a photograph, with all the inherent photographic qualities, and let it have the qualities of good art- form, line, mass, texture.
I work mostly in black and white; using colour only when the subject demands it.
The photograph doesn’t need to be amplified, enhanced, dramatized or made spectacular. Those are fads, and will fade, soon to be replaced by other fads. You won’t see any of that in my portfolio. A photograph can show the world in greater detail and subtlety than any other medium. The strength of photographs is in their accurate representation of reality and the vision of the photographer combined with surreal abstraction of that reality. The farther the photograph strays from accurate representation, the weaker its statement, as its strength is in the sizzle between the real and the surreal. It’s a subtle thing. I believe that if those photographers who follow the fads were to make prints of the work, they would see how horrible are the results.
This has nothing to do with the saleability of the image.
My prints are extremely beautiful objects. That’s the way I make them. They will add a touch of elegance to any room.
In 1968 I went to work with Berenice Abbott in Maine, USA, arguably the finest silver print maker of the twentieth century. I made prints for two of her shows, for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and for the Smithsonian in Washington.
The quality of the prints made by Fine Art America (http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/lionelf-stevenson.html) will be very good. My prints are normally 20 inches wide. I can recommend prints up to 40 inches wide. I would be careful ordering anything larger than that, except for the erratics, which will go up to 60 inches very nicely, and were designed for larger sizes.
I’ve been helped by many people in my career and growth as a photographer, and I send my thanks to them all wherever they may be.
Many of the images on Fine Art America and on Camera Art Limited (www.cameraart.ca)were made originally on film and digitized. The images are more to my liking, are even more permanent than silver prints, and the colour prints are especially much more permanent than chromogenic colour prints.
My first picture, at age 8, was a landscape - our farm in New Glasgow, seen from a pasture, taken with my Kodak Baby Brownie Special. It is an impression, a dreamlike creation. I don’t remember seeing a landscape photograph before that time.
I grew up in Saint John, N.B., I took art lessons at the New Brunswick Museum with Janet Melrose, and dabbled in photography for a few years.
The next stimulus to photograph came when my Aunt Eleanor’s sister Ethel came to live with us. She was a wonderful lady, had been a missionary to China for all her adult life. Travelling to China in 1938, she had bought a Voightlander twin lens reflex camera in Germany for $150.00. That was a lot of money then. That was long before television, computers and digital photography. She allowed me to use her camera, and I started to take some serious pictures. The one I remember most was a panorama of Saint John from a height near our house, and showing the hospital and the streets all along City Row. There was a man on our street who had a darkroom, and made B&W prints. There was hardly any colour work being done. I saw his closet darkroom, but never saw the process.
From the time of my early photographs, I understood that the photograph could contain all the richness of form and structure of great painting, and moreover, could render a realistic subject at the same time.
I trained as a draftsman in high school, and was good at it. After graduating from HS, I returned to PEI for the summer, and in the fall moved, in 1956, at age 16, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where I had a sister. I boarded with friends of my family.
I worked at Eaton’s department store briefly, and then got a job at H.G. Acres, a huge engineering company. There I met a Swiss engineer, Armin Sauter, who was an amateur photographer. It was with him that I first learned to process film and make prints.
I bought my first 35mm camera, a Samoca.
It has always amazed me that a machine such as a camera can be used to create images with emotional content. Anyone can take a picture, but honing ones personal vision and technical skill to a fine edge to consistently produce images with emotional content, is very special. It is attained only after much work, study and practice.
I decided I wanted to become an architect. In 1958, I returned to P.E.I. to go to school. However, photography took over, and became my life. I joined the Charlottetown Camera Club to get access to their darkroom, which was in the Y.M.C.A. building. All the members were shooting slides, and I had it all to myself. My father was working at Bruce Stewart & Co. He was a machinist. We travelled together from New Glasgow to town every day. Claude MacKay was a machinist there in the daytime, and the Guardian photographer by night. I visited at Bruce Stewart’s, and we talked a lot about photography. I read everything I could find in P.E.I. on the subject of photography. I first saw photographs by Atget and Berenice Abbott then, perhaps in a magazine or a library book.
I decided in 1959 that I had to go to Toronto to learn more. Rollie Taylor of Taylor’s Jewelry referred me to Leigh Warren, an Islander who was the photographer at the Royal Ontario Museum. I visited him often, and he was a great help. I worked for photofinishers, and then for commercial photographers, all the while improving my skills and photographing on the street in my spare time. The most influential of the commercial photographers was Bert Bell.
In 1965, I went to work for the Attorney Generals Laboratory, the Ontario crime lab. I was doing very technical work at first, photographing documents with UV and IR techniques to reveal alterations, etc. There I met my good friend Lorne Blunt. He was a forensic photographer at the top of his field, and also a very artistic photographer in his spare time. We are friends to this day.
The subject, (the referent), of my photographs is the stimulus that causes me to look closely and see the potential for an expressive photograph. In this way, I am pure artist, and not a recorder or collector of things or of images.
Sometimes a subject has attracted my eye and I made a beautiful photograph. Then, later, I returned to the subject and it didn’t inspire me at all. Making the photograph depends on an aesthetic moment.
The artist creates images of the visible world free from the imperfections by which it is flawed in reality.
My early years in photography were spent refining my vision and technique. Setting high standards for myself, I obsessively studied and experimented with the photographic process. This involved learning how the materials and equipment worked, learning how the camera and materials “see”, and then making the camera and materials see the way I see.
To see the way I see is not easy to understand, given that I was working in black & white, (or monochrome), a way in which no one normally sees.
I methodically trained my eye to see and my mind to accurately remember grey tones and colours, to look at a scene and visualize it as a black & white print, and then adjust the process to get my vision on paper. Thank you Ansel Adams! In the beginning, I’d make a sketch with the tones marked in, much like a classic painting technique. When I began using a new film or paper, I’d spend months testing it and calibrating it to my way of seeing. With colour, I’d shoot tests and alter the process until I got the colour rendition I wanted.
Working in colour, I learned to accurately remember colours, so I could reproduce those colours in the darkroom. It was never enough to send my work to a lab. It was always disappointing, and colour processes are much less flexible than black and white. Both processes are less flexible than digital printing.
When I had a print made at a lab, it just didn’t seem right to my eye. It was only later, when I could control the whole process that I could be satisfied with the result. None of those prints are as satisfying as my colour inkjet prints are now. The colour neg or slide is an intermediate step & only good if they allow me to get the print I want.
Everyone sees the world uniquely. My left eye sees differently from my right. My method has a common factor- my eye. I see the scene with my eye, with it’s particular rendition of the light, and when I make the print, it’s the same eye that evaluates whether the image is as I saw it, regardless of the printing method.
Given the limitations of the medium, and the silver print, I succeeded in getting the materials to do my bidding. The silver print is the main print medium for B&W photography. It is a coating on paper of gelatine containing silver salts, usually silver bromide, that is converted to metallic silver by development.
Today I use digital technology to make my prints. They are more permanent than silver prints, and I have finer control of the results. Fine control is what makes the print art.
When I used a large camera on a tripod, I could study every part of the image, eliminate nonessentials and make the image hold together as a complete visual experience. After doing this a few thousand times, and training my eye to feel images, I was able to perform the required actions, assess the image and make the adjustments and the exposure very quickly. Those view camera images were very purposeful and that quality has carried over into all my images. Then I was able to use hand held cameras quickly and efficiently. With hand held cameras, there is no time to think about the image. Things develop and change very quickly. Thought is too slow. The response must be intuitive. The value and aesthetics of the image must be recognized without analysis, and the exposure made almost instinctively. I don’t think when photographing, at least not in a linear way. Each image is a whole thought or concept. It says something, but is nonverbal.
I was also training my powers of observation, counting things, the number of window panes in buildings, the number of birds in a flock.
A major milestone on the path to mastery of photography is to achieve a print that perfectly fulfills one’s vision at the time of photographing.
Gatineau is the print that was that milestone for me. Working in Ottawa, I photographed on weekends with an 8x10 camera, often in the Gatineau hills. This print is exactly what I envisioned when I first came upon this stream.
Having achieved this, I knew that I could photograph anything, and achieve what I wanted with the medium. I had to decide what I wanted to photograph, and decided against presenting negative aspects of the world in favour of what is affirmative, positive, uplifting and beautiful.
I have had the good fortune to study with two masters of photography. I worked with Bert Bell in Toronto.
You probably have never heard of him. He doesn’t make it onto anybody’s list of photographers because he’s above the view of most. However, any advertising agency knows him. He was my principal teacher in commercial photography.
I can’t believe my luck! To have worked with two masters of photography, Berenice Abbott and Bert Bell, and to be exposed to Atget, arguably the greatest photographer who ever lived, by his greatest exponent
In all of photography, two figures stand out,
Eugène Atget and Berenice Abbott.
My teacher in art photography was Berenice Abbott.
She was the dean of American photography and the finest silver print maker of the 20th century. She bought 1800 negatives and 2,000 prints of the work of Eugene Atget in Paris and brought it to America. He is the father of modern photography. She preserved it, promoted it, and now it’s in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was a great service to photography, as she spent a large part of her career promoting Atget.
In 1968 I was living in Toronto. I had an exhibit At Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown that year. My friend Lorne travelled here to see the show. On his way back to Toronto, he dropped in to visit Berenice Abbott in Maine.
He said that Berenice was looking for a printer to make prints for two major shows at the MOMA and the Smithsonian in Washington.
I remembered many of her images of New York and of science from a time when I had been voraciously reading everything available in the field of photography. She couldn’t work in the darkroom for health reasons.
Recognizing a great opportunity, I set off for Maine, arriving at the beginning of November.
Berenice’s house, a converted Wells Fargo stagecoach stop, was situated on the bank of the Piscataquis River, and the Appalachian Trail passed the edge of her property.
Her house was filled with American antiques and was beautifully decorated, by herself, in an American country style. Her library was filled with first editions of major works of literature, and many books on art and photography. Many of them were signed and gifts of the authors. On her walls were many photographs, mostly her personal collection of Atgets. The Atget collection had been sold to the MOMA a few years previously. She also had numerous paintings, given to her by famous artists, who were friends from life in Paris in the ‘20s.
There were stacks of her prints and negatives, and a file full of
Atget prints and negatives. Seeing them was an education in itself.
For the first few weeks, while I was making the best prints I could, and I had been printing for some very good commercial photographers in Toronto for five years, nothing satisfied her. I was a good printer, and I couldn’t understand what she was trying to do. It was very frustrating for both of us. I came to the point that I was either going to leave, or I was going to accept everything she said as gospel. I decided to stay. When I first made a print that she was happy with, we celebrated. Then the work went better. I learned an entirely new way of working with the materials. I opened up, forgot about rules and learned to respond to the image and the luminous qualities that had to be coaxed out of the paper with very fine adjustments of exposure and processing. Her approach was completely flexible and artistic, while mine was more technical and methodical. I simply had to put aside my opinions, understand and accept that she knew much more than I did, and absorb her knowledge without analysis.
Every evening when we sat down to dinner our conversation would be about photography, or the state of the world, or the lessons of history. She had seen a lot with her photographic eyes which didn’t miss details, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. Generally, it was a case of her correcting my misconceptions, errorÀs of perception, and prejudices. It was a complete education. She spoke often of Atget, and was always marvelling at his achievement in photography. I would have learned much more if I had known what questions to ask.
She was a patient and loving teacher. When I performed her work well, and was a good student, she was very sweet and kind. On the other hand, she took the task of my education very seriously. It was very zen-like; between master and pupil. The goal was the transmission of knowledge, which is not an easy task.
I made many memorable photographs of my own while there.
Berenice had many visitors, including John Szarkowski, the foremost writer on photography of the century, photography curator for the MOMA, as well as other museum people, and some of her many friends from Boston or New York. They were very knowledgeable about photography. Usually they were very good cooks, and we had many good meals. I was always welcomed at these gatherings. Conversations at the dinner table were, for me, highly educational.x
During my stay with Berenice I made many prints. They were mostly large prints, 20 x 24 inches, and I usually made three of each. I could print three negatives on a good day. Printing portraits of James Joyce, Cocteau and Djuna Barnes, I learned about the artists in Paris in the ‘20’s. The prints were archivally processed and gold toned. Coating the silver in the print with gold is very expensive, but makes the image much more permanent. Making prints of a photographers negatives is the best way to know the work. By the end of February, the work was all but complete and I returned to Canada.
It took the next three years to assimilate what I had learned in Maine. I had adopted something of her strength of vision, and I feel that I was extremely fortunate to have been exposed to this master photographer; that I was the one to receive the line of teaching that was passed from Atget to Berenice. This is not technical information, but visual and sensitivity training. I have great love and respect for her.
There are levels of art and craftsmanship beyond what we know.
I can’t believe my luck! To have worked with two masters of photography, Berenice and Bert Bell, and to be exposed to Atget, arguably the greatest photographer who ever lived, by his greatest exponent.
Photographs are magic! Imagine, a way that reality can record itself! It is so wonderful that it is hard to grasp, hard to not be drawn in and lose yourself in this magic mirror, this curl in existence, this drawing with light.
Magic because it carries the past forward, mirror because you see yourself in it. However, it is very easy to take photographs for granted.
“Photography is wonderful, but we must not say so”. -Berenice Abbott
We are far past the magic of being able to record reality. The real magic of photography is rather its ability to express the feelings and vision of the photographer.
A photographer like Berenice doesn’t concern herself with expression in photographs. She knows it!’s there no matter what she does, and she concerns herself only with rendering the subject in its clearest form as she sees it. The expression looks after itself. I work with this same approach. I don’t consider expression when I’m photographing.
The electrifying movement, between the surface of the print, the pictorial depth of the image and the subject bring the work to life, and can make a sheet of paper sing.
The Viewing Experience
“Photography, more than any other medium, falls prey to confusion over the nature of the viewing experience, over the relationship of subject matter to image. We forget all too easily that the subject matter in a photograph is experienced by the viewer only at second hand, thus ensuring it to be a vicarious experience exclusively.
What the viewer really encounters when looking at a photograph is a two-dimensional sheet of paper, the surface of which is marked by shapes and tones that function as signs and symbols. This is the viewer’s actual experience.
The ambiguity between the vicarious and the actual experience creates a tension in the viewer that gives photography its unusual quality as an artist’s medium, that lends to photography its mystery. Often enough, the more the photograph appears to function as a mirror, the more the mystery deepens. It is at this point, too, that a photographer’s style may be at its most elusive sensed, but indescribable."
The goal of fine photographers is to discover themselves and the world and to make strong statements about the world.
You photograph with what you are, with your being, which changes and grows with life experience and education.
What critics write about art is not what art is about. What it is about is what it means to you, how it makes you feel, and not what it makes you think. It’s personal, like music.
Your feelings are correct. You may make mistakes in your thoughts or opinions, but your feelings are correct. They are yours, no matter what someone else may feel or think.
The sensation is one of feeling with your eyes. It is not a case of thinking about it. You could say that you train your intuition, the power that we have to know things without reasoning.
A baby can recognize a human face immediately after it’s born. It has knowledge of things that has nothing to do with words. It uses intuition. For us, words drown out our finer perceptions. We need to quiet ourselves, and just look. The perception will happen and have its effect.
What can you say about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? The music makes you feel something. It’s different for each listener. It’s your experience, your pleasure. It’s personal. Music is the most abstract art. It is itself; it doesn’t need thought to experience it. You may hear someone talk about it, but that is not your experience. Different works evoke different feelings.
What do you feel when you look at a painting? Do you feel uplifted or elated? You won’t feel depressed by looking at a Botticelli, but you may when you look at a Francis Bacon work.
Often we can’t look at art because the voices in our heads are too busy. Then it is better to come back at a time when the voices are quieter, and just sit and spend some time with the work, not to study it, but just to let it into our consciousness. Feel its presence. The work is more rewarding on the second visit.
“The pressure to appreciate is the great enemy of actual enjoyment. Most people don’t know what they like because they feel obligated to like so many different things. They feel they’re supposed to be overwhelmed, so instead of looking, they spent their time thinking up something to say, something intelligent, or at least clever.” -Robert Hellenga
I think most people who visit galleries try to understand art with their intellect, the thinking part of their brain. The work is not to be understood with the intellect, but by the intuitive faculty. Efforts to awaken this intuitive center will succeed if the work is viewed without being verbalized.
Looking at photographs, most people want to see pictures of things, like a collector. What sets a great photograph apart from a snapshot is not the subject of the photograph, but the combination of subject and the coherent expression of the photographer.
Most people want to understand the photograph. Photography is related to sculpture, in that photographs show light falling on three dimensional subjects. Photographs are surreal in that they refer to another reality.
Often, people have looked at an image of mine, and asked, “what is it?” I ask them what they think it is, and they come up with all kinds of things. When they insist on knowing, I tell them what the subject is, and all the magic of their imagination is gone, and they are not interested in it any more. They can no longer see the photograph, but only the referent.
It’s never the photographers purpose to reproduce the world, but to make some statement about the world.
What I want you to see in my photographs is the photographs themselves, and experience the pleasure of beautiful ièmages.
I want to point you to this aspect of photography, as it’s the most difficult aspect to see. The subject of the photograph tends to grab one’s attention and draw one in.
We all know what photographs are, we all take pictures, but we now need to think about them in a different way.
“I spent two hours with Botticelli’s Primavera today.”
We need to spend more time if we want to get more from the work.
When I lived in Ottawa, I went to the National Gallery many times to visit a painting by Gustave Courbet. I would just sit and be with it, because it spoke to me, not in words, but in spirit, in its presence.
Each of my images is a communication with me, and also a communication with yourself. The photograph is a mirror, reflecting you and also me.
When one works in black & white, it is so abstract that the aesthetic content; form, mass, line, texture and tone are more evident. Color is a great distraction in an image and amplifies the visual gloss. “Visual gloss” is a view of the subject without any interference from the surface of the print; going right into the visual space without seeing the actual photograph. We do the same with our visual field; we see with our mind, not with our eyes. It’s very difficult to develop a sensitivity to the expression in photographs when working in color.
The difference between photographs as art, and the kind you see at the photofinishers every day is in what the photographer brings to the photograph. The artistic photographer has studied art, and has practiced and honed his skill at recognizing when all the desired elements of the photograph come together.
Today, when so many interest groups are vying for our attention and we are constantly subjected to their manipulation of our opinion, it’s very difficult to be sensitive to one’s native perceptions.
Spend some time with each image. Allow it to remind you of things from your experience. Come back again.
When you remember my work later, pay attention to what it is you remember of it. If there is an image that you remember, it’s because that image spoke to you. The images speak in a nonverbal language, a language that can’t be spoken, but is understood by some faculty in us. When I made the image, I understood the message. I can’t put it into words, of course. Nonetheless, it’s there. You’ll probably only know later that you got it.
Normally, it is not the photograph that we see, but the “subject” of the photograph, its referent. Each photograph states, “This has existed”. Most viewers miss the art in photographs because they get absorbed in the referent.
What you get out of a visit to a museum or an exhibit or a work of art, or a book, or a piece of music, depends completely on what you bring to it. A person who has wide experience in the arts will get more out of it than a first time visitor. However, either will have to approach in the same way if he/she is to enjoy and be enriched by the experience. Each can bring an open mind, and a sense of wonder.
For many years you’ve been using your eyes for practical purposes, (such as to keep from running into walls). To appreciate art, you must learn to use your eyes to feel the qualities of the work. Your experience of life, and your knowledge form a foundation for feeling with your eyes.
The photograph contains the expression of the photographer as well as the subject depicted, (the referent). If the photographer gets lost in the subject, or in the image, he doesn’t develop as an artist. Getting lost in the subject means being so taken by the subject that you can’t see the photograph. Getting lost in the iImage means being so captivated by the image that you don’t see the photograph. The photograph is the sheet of paper which you are viewing.
With digital photography, the final result is most often not a print, but an image in an electronic medium, either digital photo frame, computer, or digital projection. The resulting image is subject to the color rendition of the device. Each device has a different rendition. The image is never exactly what the photographer intended, nor is it a new object.
For the photographer who wants to make a final piece of art that is exactly what he wants it to be, the print is the only answer. The print is a new object, and, when made by the photographer, is exactly what was intended.
The introduction of Photoshop led to the creation of impossible referents: a cat standing on its tail, juggling mice and goldfish while balancing a snake on its nose, for instance. Manipulation of the image, although entertaining, has destroyed a lot of the credibility of photographs as records of actual events, which is the great strength of photography.
There is also a style at present among insensitive photographers to tweak the color of their work to make it spectacular, straining the credulity of viewers, and weakening photography’s strongest value, the accurate representation of reality.
With some digital cameras, the photographer can have the choice of the color renditions of films, with their characteristic highlight and shadow compression of values. These characteristics are a fault in imaging. Great photographers have always invented methods of overcoming this fault in film imaging. Digital imaging has never had this fault. Digital imaging at its best is vastly superior to film imaging. It baffles me that someone would want to step backward.
Before digital photography, the process demanded more dedication on the part of the photographer. With digital, the technical quality is so good that anyone can make images of excellent technical quality. However, the art of photography is as difficult as it ever was, and artistic photography is just as rare as it ever has been. Digital photography has meant the creation of astronomical numbers of bad photographs, and more picture takers than ever are getting lost in the subject or the image.
I’m more and more convinced that my work is in a class by itself. 99% of the work I see is about things- the subject. My work has always been about the print- about the new object that is created.
The subject is important in that it is the stimulus to push the button in the first place. However, as someone said, Szarkowski or Borcoman or Minor White, - at the moment of exposure, a new object is created.
Ron Soloman at NFB used to say, “Who has seen the photograph?”
Very few ever see the photograph. There is something called a “gloss”; it is a conviction of reality so convincing that we don’t see the medium conveying that illusion. Think of glossy paper. We don’t see the surface, but go right into the image.
Many live in a gloss of life; live but don’t see themselves living.
I used to think that photographs could change people. However, over many years, I realized that people bring the same consciousness to photographs as they bring to reality. A few will see, the rest needn’t bother.
Photography is there to enjoy.
Visit my Fine Art America site:
and my personal website:
Thanks for reading.
This bit was written by Wilson Hicks in 1953 in Aperture. Woe! Woe! for good photography.
(The) public is inundated today by a vast flood of images which, as Lewis Mumford says in his Art and Technics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), has “undermined old habits of careful evaluation and selection.” There is being waged, he reminds us, a horrific battle of man and machine from which the machine has emerged so far as the victor: witness the images mass-produced by still, movie, and television cameras and mass-repeated by the printing press. I say “witness the images,” but you dare not do that. For, as Mr. Mumford says, if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks.
Mr. Mumford asks, (in 1952), whether being surrounded by a superabundance of images makes us more picture-minded, and answers no; we develop an “abysmal apathy” because “what we look at habitually, we overlook.” Moreover, he says, picture users, to get attention, resort to sensationalism—”make sensation seem more important than meaning”— and the shockers so prevalent today cause quieter, and better, pictures to suffer. Still further, the image producers have created a ghost-world, Mr. Mumford says, in which we lead a derivative, secondhand life in addition to our real life. This apparitional world is set and peopled with the artificial and the phoney (note many so-called news pictures). Thus in various ways are the sign and symbol of photography devaluated.
Now if the points I have stated above are sound, and I believe they are, the photographer’s audience is poorly fitted for its job, and what a problem we have on our hands of educating or re-educating it! We can, of course, take heart from one ostensible fact: There is a segment of that audience which is as great as the greatest photography it sees. The problem really is, then, to enlarge the elite group. I say again that I know of no surer way to achieve such an end than by enhancing the quality of the camera’s product and refining the manner of its presentation.The internet has also reinforced the supremacy of the strong singular image, with so much competing for attention. It must be difficult to make quiet, considered images stick nowadays.
I always said I want my photographs to whisper. Whereas a lot of photographs shout to get attention. Now there are big eight, seven-foot photographs—that’s shouting. A little print you have to come up to—’Say what? Tell me?’ It’s a whole different experience.