Something to Say About Photographic Narratives

So, should visual artists try to explain their creations, or just let them speak for themselves?

Recently I read an article by Neal Rantoul, who writes for Luminous Landscape. The title of the article was “A Disturbing Trend.”

What did he find ‘disturbing?” That young photographers today typically include written narratives along with their photographs. He made other points, but this is the one I want to talk about today.

He blames this trend to narrate photographic images on what’s being taught in MFA courses, and finds it inferior to when he was an emerging art photographer. In his day, photographers would exhibit single photographs on a wall or in portfolios or books–usually titled but nothing more–and let the images “speak for themselves.” Rantoul believes that the old way was better, because each viewer of an image could study the image without interference and develop his/her own interpretation, and thus realize a more fulfilling experience.

I don’t have an MFA (that’s a Master of Fine Arts degree). In fact, I have no formal schooling in photography or the arts at all. But that doesn’t mean I have no opinions about what makes a photograph engaging, interesting, and moving.

On this matter, I agree with the youngsters. When I can, I like to include at least an inkling of the backstory or concept behind each of my photographs. I do this not to inflict my artistic intent on anyone, but only to help explain why I thought it was important to make the picture in the first place.

Just Enough Dirt
“Just Enough Dirt” -It doesn’t take a lot to flourish for these side-walk plants along a street in Warrenton, Fauquier County.

There’s a consistent reason why I choose to make a photograph. It’s because I want to remember the subject or moment–or more importantly a question or idea that strikes me upon experiencing the subject or moment. The questioning and remembering is a huge part of why I’m a photographer in the first place.

Anyone can make a picture of a tree, whether a photographer, painter, or illustrator.  And we may or may not enjoy it. That’s entirely up to each of us. But I think most people will better appreciate and remember the picture when the artist communicates their intent. Sometimes, even often, that intent can be communicated in the title alone, and that’s okay.

Left unsaid, I sometimes wonder why a picture was made in the first place, or even if the artist had any purpose at all in making the picture. And if I find myself wondering why a picture was made, then that means I’m not engaging the picture but instead I’m engaging the artist, and I’ll probably not remember either. The experience is far too fleeting to remember.

I appreciate it when other artists provide a short narrative about why they made a picture; I’m truly interested. An interesting title or narrative starts my mental process of engaging with the picture myself. Only after I consider the picture can I begin to appreciate it. And remember it.

So if a simple narrative starts my mental process going, that’s a good thing for the sake of the art and for me as a consumer of the art.

Unlike Rantoul, I don’t think photographic narratives compromise a viewer’s ability to imagine things for themselves. Art lovers are imaginative folks, and no matter what the artist says regarding his/her intent in making the picture, an art lover, when sufficiently interested in the picture, will take it another step, or in another direction, or embellish it altogether with their own emotions and feelings. When that happens, they will remember it, and perhaps grow to love it, and isn’t that what art is all about?

What do you think? Are you at all interested in what the artist has to say about a work of art that he/she created? Do you appreciate knowing what was in their head at the time? Or would you rather just see the image and make up your own story? Let me know by replying to this email; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time,
J. Riley

P.S. Clicking on “Just Enough Dirt” will take you to its place in my gallery, where you can explore it (and its tenacity) in detail. 

About chiaroscuro- clarity with mystery

example of expressing chiaroscuro in photography
Foot of the Fall

When done well, artfully expressing chiaroscuro gives the eyes lots to see in both the brightest parts of the image as well as in the darkest. The sense of depth can be profoundly interesting in such images. I like to say “Light without shadows is nothing, because shadows are where the secrets hide.”  I enjoy getting lost in the shadows. Do you? 

Now, let’s talk about chiaroscuro

You might want to know first that Wiki says about chiaroscuro  “ art, is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition.”  The images below are classical chiaroscuro
  Raphael: The Grand Duke's Madonna  Chiaroscuro is an old fashion style of art, dating from the 1700s masters of portrait, still life, and genre painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt. But it’s popularity has never gone away. Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt, painters from the Hudson Valley School (1800s) extended the chiaroscuro style to landscapes.  There are many contemporary painters and photographers who continue to make images in the chiaroscuro style, including me.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) Landscape Composition: Saint John in the Wilderness Oil on canvas 1827 Sado'nun Yeri: Peder Mork Monsted - Albert Bierstadt - Daniel Ridgeway Knight Solitude by Thomas Moran (1897), Hudson River School

The only reason I’m even talking about chiaroscuro is because I absolutely love this style of imagery, and I think you probably do too since you’re reading this newsletter. After all, the strong use of shadows and light is a consistent feature in my own photographs, as in “Foot of the Fall” above. 

In my implementation of chiaroscuro, I like to follow what I see in the old masters’ paintings. There’s always lots of delicate highlights, which are made more compelling by lots of delicate, revealing shadows. Note I didn’t say featureless whites and sooty, blank blacks. To me,  featuring huge paper white spaces or pure black spaces is the farthest thing from true chiaroscuro.

When done well in photography, chiaroscuro should almost seem like the highlights are dancing with the shadows. One moves into the space of the other without stepping on toes or losing the natural rhythm. Neither is dominant; they are in perfect balance. And very difficult to achieve, even when I find natural compositions that might lend themselves to this treatment. 

But I’ll keep looking for those that do. 

Do you like this style of imagery? Do your eyes lock to one end of the light range over the other (highlights or shadows)? Or do they flick back and forth in search of secrets? 

Until next time,


Picture of J. Riley StewartDid you enjoy this edition of Friday Foto? Feel free to share this article with someone you think might also enjoy it, and invite them to subscribe to “Under the Darkcloth.”  And please leave me a comment or ask a question by replying to this email. 

Copyright J. Riley Stewart, 2018, all rights reserved.

Do you have fun with images?

“Groupies” – every celebrity has them.

My only point this week is that it’s not mandatory to accept images as being serious. When we see images, how we see them is entirely up to us. And sometimes, seeing them as humorous just makes them better.

In my role as an artist, I spend a lot of time looking at images and reading what artists and art promoters say about them. Maybe you do too. In fact, I hope you do.

So much of what I read from visual artists and art pundits suggests the seriousness of art. Descriptions like “sublime,” “contemplative,” “evocative,” “thoughtful,” and “emotional” frequent the narratives about art. And I agree, art is often all these things.

Maybe it’s just me, but these descriptions are just way too serious. Excepting obviously comedic and whimsical images, it’s rare that some expert characterizes art as “fun” or “funny.”

I like to have fun when I’m out photographing nature. I don’t mean having a beer with my camera or dancing in the woods with my tripod. I mean I like finding subjects that are funny to me.

Yes, sometimes even nature’s characters can be funny. But it usually requires me to impose on those subjects some strange, quirky human behavior; to personify the subject.

Back in October I wrote you about a completely different topic, but its featured image also was a natural personification. That time the subject was an old apple tree performing a dance recital in a clearing. This week’s featured image “Groupies” is another example.

I’ve always found the concept of celebrity-hysteria to be seriously quirky. I remember as a young kid when the Beatles took the US by storm. “Why are those kids bawling / screaming / jumping /fainting during the song?” Do you remember that? I found the whole thing well…..hysterical.

That memory hit me as I stood in front of this unusual arrangement of tree, boulders, and woodlands. The afternoon lighting seemed to bring all the important elements together in a single story: “Groupies, every celebrity has them.” I laughed to myself, and took its picture.

The whole process of personification in my art-making is fun. I often see humanly behaviors when in nature, and it’s so strong that it actually compels me to take a photograph.

Interacting with art, both making it and seeing it, can be fun. Art needn’t always be so serious and steeped in deep philosophical significance. In fact, if a piece of art makes you smile every time you walk by it because it strikes you as funny, that may be the most important outcome there is in life. At least during those brief moments!

Until next time,

PS. Clicking the image of “Groupies” will take you to its place in the gallery, where you can explore the details and see if it amuses you too.

Picture of J. Riley Stewart

Copyright J. Riley Stewart, 2017, all rights reserved.

Where do you go to get a bit of fantasy?

Old Oak plays a role on the salt marsh stage of the tidal Carolinas.
“Morning Stretch” — Old Oak plays a role on the salt marsh stage of the tidal Carolinas.
At times, we just need “something” else

21st Century life is terribly busy at work and around the house. It can be overwhelming at times, so we could use a bit of fantasy about now.

For some, that means starting that new book, or putting on the headphones and listening to music, or vegging out in front of the TV, or dreaming ourselves into that scene that hangs in the living room.

Where do you go to steal a bit of fantasy time?

Isn’t it awesome that we humans can turn to art when we need an attitude adjustment? Whether that’s literature, film, music, or still images, art has the ability to bring us back to a state of mind where we’d rather be; no….where we need to be. Art is a fantasy, and we all need a bit of fantasy from time to time.

Do you have art where you can get to it when you need it? Or do you have to run out and get a new book, or plan a visit to the theater, or visit an art show or gallery? Where in your home do you have that favorite landscape scene that always seems to bring you back to that better state of mind when you need it?

As a person who makes wall art, it is extremely gratifying when a collector of my work tells me about the difference it has made in their lives. Several of them have bought a large number of my scenes and placed them into their favorite spaces in their homes: the living room, family room, large center hallways, wherever they can go to sit and reminisce, or imagine, or just escape the busy world. Places close by where they love to go to enjoy some quiet time, to dream, or just enjoy some fantasy. These stories motivate me to keep doing what I do.

But it’s all worth the effort when someone decides to add our art to his/her personal collection; to help them create that special space where they can go to lose themselves when they need to.

Is there a lingering bias against photography in the ‘fine art world’?


The sun does magical things in the mountains.
“Purple Mountains Majesty” …..The sun does magical things in the mountains.

I want to talk about something that, in the broad scope of all we are dealing with in our modern culture, isn’t that important. But still, whenever we see bias raise it’s ugly head, shouldn’t we speak up?

The bias I’m referring to is that held by art snobs (or are they?) who have yet to accept that a photograph can be a form of art. I truly believe these folks are the exception and not the rule, but in my own little sphere of creating photographs intended as art, I see this bias far too often. So I say “Time to get real, folks.”

As Kathleen Brussard at the Art Institute of Chicago says in the related link (below): ““It’s an interesting moment. Earlier generations were struggling to have photography taken seriously. We’re way past that now.”

In its most visible form, the bias against photography as an art form takes shape in the exclusion of the medium of photography in art shows. Here’s a recent example from one of the most popular art shows in the northern Virginia area:

“..The following mediums are accepted:PAINTING – DRAWING – SCULPTURE ETCHING – WOODWORKING – GLASS.   We cannot accept fiber arts, photography, furniture, and crafts at this time due to space limitations.”

Clearly the sponsors of this popular show consider photography to be in the same category as “crafts” and “furniture.”   And “space limitations” is just another way of saying “your medium is not important enough to devote any wall space to it.”

My other pet peeve is when I see distinctions being made between “artists” and “photographers,” like “We accept artists and photographers,” or “we exhibit art and photography.”  Really?? I get the feeling that those who make such distinctions really don’t respect photography as an art medium, but they have to include it in their agenda (whatever that happens to be), and thus add photography reluctantly, and separately. It would be different if they said “painters, watercolorists, illustrators, and photographers,” but they don’t, they say “artists and photographers.”  That’s like saying “cooks and pastry bakers,” or “musicians and clarinet players.”

For the most part, and most clearly in what I call the sophisticated art world, photography as an expressive art form is unquestioned today. But getting this acceptance did not come automatically.

Almost as soon as photography was invented in the early 1800s, the debate began whether the rather mechanical process of making photographs could be considered an art form or not.  At that time, the question was “could” a photograph be expressive (i.e., artful). That question had to be answered first. After all, most paintings aren’t considered art either. But the question of whether painting could be expressive was never under debate; clearly it “could be.”  Acceptance of this new fangled invention called photography as an expressive art form required evolution, and time.

While many early photographers took the path of straight portraiture and documentary photography, others took the path of creating pictures of highly expressive subjects, Notable among them were Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson. These early pictorial photographers purposely created images specifically to gain acceptance in the European art world. The pictorial photographers were successful, and by the late 1800s, art exhibitions and galleries began including photographic prints in their art exhibits, lending credence to the claim that photographs could, in fact, be expressive art. So, the question “could photography be an expressive art form?” was really laid to rest over 100 years ago.

Aside from its many uses to merely document the human experience through the decades since photography began, it is clear that photography today is an accepted art medium. Photography has kept pace with, and in some cases led, breakaway art movements throughout the 20th Century. Today almost any well-known and respected museum has sections dedicated solely to photographic art; and there are a number of museums and galleries dedicated specifically to art photography. Photography has stood its ground in the art world for decades, and it’s time for the 21st Century art snobs to realize that fact.

So, why is there a residual bias against photography as an art medium. To be categorically excluded from an art show merely because my chosen medium relies on a camera is akin to a painter being excluded because they use a pallet knife instead of brushes. That almost never happens in general Calls for Art (“Oh, we’re sorry, we only accept paintings on linen”), and it shouldn’t happen to photographers. Camera-based art can be every bit as expressive as any painting or illustration. And that’s an opinion shared by the most sophisticated art galleries and museums on the planet.

One reason why art snobs today might be reluctant to accept photography as an art form is the same reason given in 1888.  In that year, Kodak introduced its consumer-grade camera that put photography in the hands of every man, woman, and child who could click a shutter. If everyone can do it (i.e., take a photograph), then it can’t be art, right?

Well, we can just as appropriately say that giving a brush to someone doesn’t make them a painter, either. The tool doesn’t create the art, the artist does.

I know that the state of photography today, with billions of digital images being shared on the internet by every Tom, Dick, and Harriet, can easily give an artful person cause to ask the question about photography as an art form. Personally, I find that 99.9% of the photographic images I see day in and day out are far from what I would describe as “expressive.”  So we have to ask the right question, don’t we? CAN making a picture yield something that is expressive? The answer is definetly yes, but, like most paintings, most photographs are far from being expressive and artful.

The art world in general is well beyond asking if photographs can be expressive; clearly they can be. Any measure one uses to judge acceptance of photography by art collectors proves this. Photographs often sell in the millions of dollars and in my experience, galleries  and art shows in which photographs are allowed compete very well with oils, watercolors, or any illustrative artworks.

Instead of excluding the medium of photography from art shows and instead of making false distinctions between “artists” and “photographers,”  it’s time for art snobs to give the medium of photography the respect it deserves. Let the artistic talents of one who uses a camera stand on his/her own merits, just as you allow those who pick up a brush or pen.

Related article:

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Revelations about art and artists: Art can reduce stress…..or it can create it.

We know that art moves us emotionally. That’s its only purpose, really. But why do some of us respond to a piece of art in a positive way (“I love it!!), while others respond to the same artwork in a negative way (“….yuk…”)? Is it the artwork that makes us respond so differently, or is it something in us? The short answer is “yes.”

Let’s start with a story. Two boys are standing at a busy intersection with cars and busses zooming by. One of them stands at the curb edge, toes literally hanging over the curb, relishing the rush of turbulence as the vehicles pass.  The other is ten steps back from the curb, subconsciously placing hands over his eyes, anxious and afraid to move an inch, eagerly waiting for the traffic light to demand that the chaos cease.

Such it is in life:  some of us relish stress/adventure; some of us hate it and will avoid it at all costs. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the range, but it’s safe to say that most of us treat excessive stress as something we’d rather avoid than embrace. It’s not healthy to be stressed out all the time.

I worked in the healthcare industry for over 40 years, so I have a fair sense for the misery of disease and the ecstasy of healing. For years I’ve been intrigued by the research into the effects of art therapy (the act of making art) and art intervention (the act of viewing art) to speed recovery in patients suffering from a wide range of temporary illnesses and severe stress.

The beginnings of modern art-related healthcare goes back to Florence Nightingale, who is credited with the movement that led to placing artwork in hospitals as a way to improve healing. Nightingale wrote in her 1860 Notes for Nursing that  “the beneficial effects of art was not only on the mind, but on the body as well.” Her beliefs have since been proven time and again in a number of scientific studies.

One consequence of those studies is something we see every day in our modern hospitals and medical clinics. What do you remember about your last visit to the doctor’s office? Do you remember the color of the walls and carpet, or do you remember the abundance of art on the walls? Most likely, it’s the art you remember.

We decorate our hospitals and clinics with art for a reason. Research shows that art improves not only mental but also physical well-being. It reduces length of hospital stays, reduces the need for certain medications like painkillers, reduces blood pressure, improves patients’ satisfaction with their treatment, and  reduces the cost of healthcare. Being sick is very stressful, and art helps reduce the stress, which restores health.

Not all art is beneficial in reducing stress, however. Research has shown that some art reduces stress while other art actually enhances stress.

Different art styles and subjects generally evoke different feelings. A 2003 medical study by Ulrich and Gilpin showed that art having easily recognizable subjects (i.e., representational art) from nature tended to restore health in patients faster. Restorative art subjects include calm or slowly moving water, verdant foliage, flowers, landscapes having foreground openness, warming park-like scenes having sparse trees and grassy undercover, nonthreatening animals like birds and pastorals, and natural scenes having nostalgic cultural artifacts.

“Carter Shields Cabin” by J. Riley Stewart. A nostalgic homestead at the edge of a verdant forest and bathed in warming light.

Restorative subjects may appeal to those of us who are more like the kid standing well away from the busy curb, or who want to use art to create a space having calming, stress-free influences.

Just as some art calms and restores us, there are other styles of art that does just the opposite.  Healthcare research suggests that patients exposed to non-representational images and images having negative icons responded negatively to treatment.  Specifically, art that is ambiguous, surreal, or abstract tends to evoke strongly negative emotions in people already experiencing stress. Such art is more open to personal interpretation, and people who are already stressed tend to interpret the art as harmful, not helpful, to their states of health and mood.

Certain iconic shapes, forms, and tones can evoke fear, apprehension, and suspicion even if highly representational and realistic. For instance, images containing visual negative icons like dark, razor-sharp or jagged edges, or subjects that represent dangerous situations such as rapidly moving water, or fire, or cold icy scenes are often interpreted as ominous and even hair raising.

People whose nature it is to be more like the boy with his toes hanging over the edge of the curb, or those wishing to raise the level of excitement and tension in their favorite space might prefer artwork that is more abstract or visually ominous in style.

"Blackwater Falls at Full Force" by J. Riley Stewart. Torrential waters, deep shadows, and a heavy sense of gravity can emoke a sense of adventure and apprehension.
“Blackwater Falls at Full Force” by J. Riley Stewart. Abstract scenes having  torrential waters, deep shadows, and a heavy sense of gravity can evoke a sense of adventure and excitement.

As a final point, researchers claim that people very often react to the same art differently depending on their current mood or underlying nature.  We can expect stressed or stress-averse people to respond very positively to restorative, calming styles of art and negatively to abstract and visually ominous art. Expect people who are on a perpetual buzz and full of excitement to respond more positively to abstract art and visually ominous images.

So, are our responses to art due to the art itself or is it due to something in us? The answer is yes, it is both. Art is the original “interactive media,” and we should expect our responses to a certain style of art to change as our moods and natures change.

What we now know about art and how it affects our moods provides a compelling reason to consider how art might affect us in our own living and working spaces, doesn’t it? How do you feel about the art you have displayed in your favorite space?  Does it calm you when you’re stressed? Does it bore you when you need a bit of excitement? Or is it just right?  If not, perhaps you’ve changed.

Have a comment about this article or want to share  your own experiences? Please leave a note below!

I’ll leave you with this reference if you’d like to read more about art in healthcare:

Happy collecting!

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