The soul of the machine
by Paul Smart
July 08, 2010 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
There's a growing movement that purports that we're fast approaching an age when machines usurp mankind's intelligence. Thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil and others in the emerging fields of Transhumanism and Posthumanism talk about ways in which we're moving beyond all we know, as well as the bodies in which we live.

Thought of all this wasn't the first thing that entered my mind, recently, when I first witnessed an image by commercial photographer Moishe Katvan, a part-time resident of Catskill, that I found online. Titled The French Sisters, it was a great photo of two older ladies in a field of rolled hay bales, the skies darkening over distant mountains behind them. When I saw Katvan and his wife Rivka at an art opening a while later, I asked about their trip to France and was told that the piece had been stitched together using two models in a studio, props and Photoshopped imagery taken in the Hudson Valley. On closer inspection, I recognized the view - itself a melange of locations.

Then I thought of Kurzweil - as well as a host of other enterprising career photographers I knew in the area who are also working strange wonders with their field's new digital means - from the stitching wonders of Vincent Bilotta, who makes 360-degree roomscapes of 260-degree photo landscapes, to the inside/outside assemblages of Saugerties-based Allen Bryan, the in-camera focus manipulations of Susan Wides and the new iPhone work being created by Palenville's Dan Burkholder. Had these artists started exploring their new ways with landscape prior to the advent of the new technologies, or was their approach to what's around us start changing with the coming of the Digital Age? Furthermore, was there anything to the fact that they all lived so close to the famous Catskill Mountain cloves and Romantic landscapes that had spurred so much of our thoughts about Nature in art up to this point?

"I gotta tell you, I'm always thrown by any reference to 'your present form,' since any form I might embrace seems to be in perpetual flux," noted Burkholder, who lectures on his new genre - working with the iPhone and its apps - at the Center for Photography at Woodstock this Friday night, July 9. But then he talked about how his interest was always interpretation, with the technical form of photography always on the defensive, given its reputation for being a documentary form.

"That message - that the ease of creating a photo somehow diminishes its value - has plagued our medium for all of its short 185 years of existence," Burkholder noted in an e-mail this week. "I'm currently enjoying iPhone photography, where I find the creative flow to be the most natural and exciting that I've experienced in years. There is no longer a gap between image capture and image enhancement; I can shoot in the field and immediately start working on the image, often dancing from app to app to steer the content, composition, color, contrast and texture to its final destination. And yes, there is creative discovery during that process; but that's really no different than decades ago, when I'd work a silver gelatin print with techniques that included diffusion, bleaching, masking, compositing et cetera."

Bryan, who is currently showing works from his great "Comforts of Home" series at the Smithsonian Institution in our nation's capital, meanwhile notes how his levels of manipulation of landscape rose as the result of a series of events: First was his wish to refind a moment of beauty that he saw once, where light was reflecting from an otherwise-mundane garage: something that he wished he'd captured in film. Second was his growing mastery of the Adobe Photoshop techniques whereby one can enhance elements in a photo, even to the point of replacement and restructuring. Last was his growing blindness and another wish to start relating to the landscapes to which he has always been drawn in new ways.

"'Comforts of Home' came about as I searched in recent years for connections between my early, quickly taken photographs of oddities and ironic juxtapositions and the slower, contemplative landscape work that followed. I realized I could go beyond merely taking photographs as a way of editing and refining my vision of the world," he has written of his own relationship with landscape. "Having less than ten degrees of visual field, I see things differently than most people. I see the world in discrete sections. There is no periphery on the left, on the right, up or down...Using digital tools I am able to reexamine and reorganize my photographic life, creating pictures that question comfortable reality. The places in these pictures are figments constructed from slide and digital images, varied light sources and lenses, altered perspectives and depth of field. These are pictures of a world that isn't as real as it looks at first glance - that isn't quite the world we see around us. And perhaps not incidentally, the working process of combining many images into one has seemed to lead naturally into a panoramic format: wider than I can see."

Finally, Katvan spoke about how his work as a commercial photographer has always opened him up to the use of any technique to get the effects for which his clients are paying, and the use of digital means started to open up his means of doing so. Along the way, he said, he found new means of working with images that he'd always enjoyed taking of key places he loved, yet that spoke to something beyond himself. He started archiving such places and now is bringing such backgrounds into his work more and more regularly.

He noted how landscapes such as the Catskills have a "classic" quality to them that, as with their earlier uses in the Hudson River School paintings of Thomas Cole, Asher Durand and Frederic Church, they speak to more elements than the one-of-a-kind places such as the Grand Canyon or the Rockies of Bierstadt and Ansel Adams. We sideline into memories of the great panoramic landscape shots that Kodak used to put up in New York's Grand Central Terminal, where people and props were set into grand places, establishing a sense of greatness and demonstrating the shared aspects of a national caring for our environment. Now, we can bring landscapes into the home in similar ways and once again show ourselves the importance that our surroundings play in our daily and idealized lives.

Apart from our talk, I realize that my earlier thoughts about Kurzweil and Post-Humanistic anything were unfounded. Somehow, the technology of photography, and its new ways with landscape imagery as demonstrated in all the local work that I was seeing, had more to do with the rehumanizing of the world that we inhabit than the opposite. By freeing landscapes from their singular settings, they were becoming - as our earliest painters intended - elements of transcendence, as well as beacons of needed effort right here on the Earth that we inhabit.

As for the placement of all these talents, we never even asked those questions, in the end. Suffice it to appreciate what Katvan said for all his peers: "We're in a tremendous period; there's something happening," he noted, about to lose cell-service connection as he entered the legendary Kaaterskill Clove of Cole, Durand and Church fame. "We are not yet where we're going yet, but that's the exciting part. We're in the transition."

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