Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lessons From Christoph Neimann on Netflix Series "Abstract: The Art of Design"

There's a new documentary series on Netflix called Abstract: The Art of Design, and each episode features a different artist. I just watched the very first episode, which features illustrator Christoph Neimann, who is best known for illustrating the cover of about two dozen issues of New Yorker

It's a really great documentary that has a lot of nuggets of wisdom for every artist, including photographers. It's really well produced and edited. The show is highly entertaining. If you have a Netflix account you need to watch it. I'm looking forward to seeing the remaining episodes.

There were three things that stood out to me as obvious lessons that can apply directly to photography. This will sound cliche, but follow Christoph's advice and your art will improve, I have no doubts about that.

One thing that Christoph talked about was finding the right balance between realism and abstract. For example, if you want to communicate the idea of love with a symbol, you could use a heart. For that heart you could go really far abstract and use one red square Lego brick, but that's not going to convey your message well because the audience isn't going to understand your meaning. On the other hand you could go really literal and show an actual bloody human heart, but that's just gross and the audience is still going to miss your point. But in-between the really abstract and really realistic is the heart symbol ♥ that perfectly communicates your message.
I Heart Alley - Ogden, Utah
Besides illustrating a heart shape, I included I Heart Alley in this article because it demonstrates the balance between abstract and realism to speaks something to the viewer. The message is that alleyways--the spaces behind buildings that many people never see, or if they do see they have prejudged as ugly--are actually full of beauty if you keep an open mind. I love to capture these places because there is bound to be something interesting that most people overlooked, if they looked at all.

I could have done a more documentary style composition to show you more generically what an alley looks like. While this might have communicated something to the viewer about alleyways, the message of there being missed beauty that I love to find would have been missed in the realistic approach. I could have also done a more abstract approach and made a double-exposure with an ally photographed inside a heart-shaped bottle. This might have communicated my message, but people might think that it's more commentary on the heart than the scene (or, more specifically, my feelings about the scene). Instead I found an in-between solution that strongly communicated my message without being too real or too abstract.

When you are composing your photographs try to find that just-right balance between realism and abstract that most strongly conveys your message. If you are unsure what exactly it is that you are trying to communicate through your images--well, you've got to figure that out first. If you don't know what your photograph is about your audience will be even less sure. Once you know the message, then you can go about finding the strongest way to say it through your camera.

Another point that Christoph makes is that artists need to practice every day. Athletes practice daily, not only to maintain their skills but to improve on them, and so too should artists.
The Wonder of Film Photography - South Weber, Utah
One way that Christoph practices his art is to take one shape and come up with as many different drawings as he can think of that incorporate that one shape. The photographic equivalent to this might be to take one object and photograph it in as many different ways as you can think of.

I try to use my camera daily. That doesn't always happen because there's only so much time in a day and only so much of myself to go around, and life happens. When a day or two goes by and I haven't had a chance to photograph anything, and today's not looking good either, I force myself to create a photograph. I make it a priority.

If I have really limited time to create a photograph and I'm at home and can't go anywhere, I'll capture a still-life using some faux wood tiles, natural window light and (usually) some photography gear (for example, The Wonder of Film Photography above). It doesn't take much time to get everything set up, and in 10 or 15 minutes I can have a completely finished photograph start-to-finish. This is a good way to get that much-needed photographic exercise in when time is very limited. The more you do the better you will become, so it's important to push yourself to photograph more.

Towards the end of the episode Christoph said, "Be a much more ruthless editor, and a much more careless artist." That really struck me and has been bouncing around inside my head ever since I heard it.
Light Streaming Over Antelope Island - Antelope Island State Park, Utah
Being a careless artist means that you've given yourself permission to experiment, to fail, to approach the subject in an unconventional way, to be dramatic, stupid, whimsical, ignore the rules, etc. You want to allow yourself as much creative freedom as possible. You want your approach to be loose and not rigid. Change things up often. Don't worry about what others might think. Be positive.

Being a ruthless editor means being ultra-critical of your own photographs. Carefully examine your images for flaws and mistakes. Consider what could have made them stronger. Trash all of the ones that aren't good. Only display the ones that are great. Be cold. Be harsh. For example, I've been told that Light Streaming Over Antelope Island should be hanging in an art gallery somewhere, but a close inspection reveals several obvious flaws that I have noticed. I think that there are similar yet better photographs out there.

You have to be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You have to have a different approach when you are wearing your artist hat than when wearing your editor hat. With one you need to be very personal, and the other very impersonal. In this way you'll infuse your art with yourself, yet not allow your bias towards your own art to blind you. It's easy to think that your own work is better than it actually is because you know what went into creating it. Strangers don't have this bias, so they recognize it as being good or bad more easily. They'll see the flaws that you overlooked or made excuses for. Try to minimize your bias towards your own art as much as you possibly can.

There were plenty of other great tidbits throughout the episode. Even if you have no interest in illustration, there is so much that can be applied across all art genres that I believe you will find it to be valuable. Again, the documentary series is called Abstract: The Art of Design and you can find it on Netflix.

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