Why do artists make art?

It’s a fair question. Why do artists make art? What I say next may make you see that what I’m actually asking is “why the hell do artists make art, given how few people actually appreciate it.”

Let’s say you’ve gone to college to get a degree that allows you to freelance. You then enter the job market and begin selling your talents. It’s difficult, but you make do, living small and cheap, perhaps taking a second job to make ends meet until your freelance business takes off. Eventually you’re able to focus all your time and effort into your passion, and all is well.

The 2017 report from Artnet describes how this happens in the professional visual art-making world, or more accurately, how it doesn’t work. 

Would you continue working in your primary job if it only provided you a fraction of your basic needs to live on? What if the things you make in that job only sell once you’re dead?  Who would do such a thing? 

Answer: most visual artists in the US.

  • In the US, only 1/4 of all professional artists make $10,000 or more per year from their art. 
  • In 2018, the federal poverty threshold for US individuals was $12,140 annual income.  

So, which artists are making big money? You probably know them by name: Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Claude Monet, Georgia O’Keefe, and many others. But what you’ll notice right off is that, well, most of the artists reaping huge monetary rewards from their art are……. dead. 

Does this mean most living artists are dirt-poor?  Not at all. Many have supporting spouses, offer complementary services (e.g., classes and workshops), or even have another full time job, either related to their artistic talents or not. There’s no such thing as a starving artist, because starving is not sustainable. 

But that’s the dark side of being an artist, and not at all what I wanted to focus on in this article, and that is this: 

Monetary impediments aside, artists will continue making art– until they can’t.

It’s quite astonishing, if you think about it. Against all odds, artists continue making art. Artists have chosen a life path having few opportunities to make even the most meager living. And yet, they still create. They create because making art is important to them, and because they know that making art is important for Humanity.

I believe it says alot about the creative drive of people (all people, not just professional artists). Even when the public-at-large doesn’t appreciate it (i.e., buy it), artists will  make art– until they no longer can. And they stop only when they no longer have the time to make art, or no longer receive even the basic rewards necessary to enable them to make art, including the satisfaction they get merely from receiving appreciation from an audience.

Let’s be clear. Making art is not entirely an altruistic, self-serving endeavor. We all know artists who say that’s the only reason they make art, but I know of no artist who doesn’t expect at least a small degree of external reward for making their art. Sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, mere appreciation–the occasional “thank you for making your art” –is all the reward they need. And for some, the necessary rewards goes beyond the simple act of applause.

I know no professional artist who rejects being paid for their artwork; just the opposite. Most artists hope to make enough money from making art to cover expenses and even make a decent living– while they are still alive. Unfortunately in the US, visual art is very under-appreciated, as proven by the 2017 Artnet study.

The under-appreciation of art in the US isn’t just of visual art. Virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played Bach masterpieces in the Washington, DC subway station for 45 minutes one cold January day back in 2007. A thousand people passed by; hardly anyone seemed to notice. Very few stopped to listen. His total coin-drop for the session was $32.  

Bell admits that he didn’t enjoy the experience. Here he was, an artist at the top of his game, and to this particular audience, he was nearly invisible. A near vacuum of human interaction: That was the worst part of his experience, he said.  Bell didn’t expect to make a lot of money from his 45 minute performance, but he did expect people to stop and listen; perhaps even applaud. 

Appreciation for our artists cost nothing, folks. The next time you see an artist performing or sharing their passion for making art, a small hand clap goes a long way. Better yet, a purchase of their work will be a huge help to them continuing to make their art. Because if they stop, Humanity may miss something extremely important. 

Hug an artist today. Better yet, add to your art collection and help an artist succeed in life.



Art Requires a Bit of “Stewing”

Chapel of Ease by J. Riley Stewart example of making photographs
“Chapel of Ease” – Moss drapes the portico of an antebellum church ruin in the Carolina Lowcountry.

I like taking photographs, but I love making photographs. And making photographs requires stewing over them.

This article comes from a selfish, artist-centric perspective, but I thought you might appreciate hearing what one artist thinks about rushing the process of artmaking.

Making art has nothing whatsoever to do with enjoying art. In fact, when the process of making art becomes important to the process of enjoying art, something has gone terribly wrong. The end result should stand on its own without you having to consider whether the artist used oils or watercolors, or fat brushes or bamboo sticks, or a digital camera or a film camera, or whether it took the artist 5 minutes to make the artwork, or even 5 years. Enjoying art requires only the finished piece, the fine art product.

So, why even talk about the extraneous aspects of making art?  Because sometimes we artists need to remind ourselves to slow the hell down and stop being in a such a rush to produce “anything, just to get it on social media.”

Making art is one of those things you can’t rush. Even Bob Ross, who used to create those beautiful mountain landscapes in 30 minutes on TV back in the 80s, would make a number of practice proofs of the scene before going on camera. He sure did make it look easy, though.

In this digital age, so much is made of how quickly a photograph can go from “click” to “share.” Smart phones have literally shortened this time to mere seconds through any cellular connection. Thousands of software tutorials show us how quickly we can modify a straight photograph, right from the camera, to any number of “artistic” renderings with just a few clicks of the mouse.  But is ‘being quick’ a good way for an artist to behave?

Using film like I do has a way of slowing the process of making a picture.  Selecting a composition, setting up the camera, and even recording the shot in my field log is a very deliberate and careful process.

After settling on a composition, the picture-taking process is very mechanical, very non-creative. I think it’s fun, but I can surely understand why some wouldn’t find it so. Then there is the time-consuming process of getting the picture to a state where I can see what I actually took (or more precisely, what the camera gave me).  First I have to develop the film, and it often takes me a couple weeks to get to that. Next, I have to scan the negatives–which may take a day or two–and still I only have a very preliminary look of what I envisioned in the field.

But once I have the negative digitized, the creative part starts again. And it takes me days to weeks to turn what the camera gave me into a finished fine art print for exhibition.

That’s the point with making art: you can’t rush it. It should be a very deliberative process. Numerous artistic decisions and actions have to be made; often by trial and error.  Some of these deliberations are downright painful in terms of the mental anguish involved. But this ‘stewing’ over my art is so worth it.

As with many things in life, the personal return from making art is proportional to the level of investment: the more I find myself stewing over a particular photograph, the more excited I get about it. I feel very little emotion toward pictures I take with my iPhone and share through social media. In such pictures, I’ve invested almost nothing. They are mere snapshots.

Pictures that require personal investment and stewing are a different story.  I like taking photographs, but I love making photographs. And making art requires stewing over them. Often it’s a fight. Sometimes it turns to hate. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.  Regardless, I’ve learned something in the process as an artist, and from that I get personal satisfaction.

What do you think about this?  Have I overlooked an element of making art that benefits from doing things fast instead of deliberately?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

“Chapel of Ease” is available as a large-scale, hand-varnished fine art print from here, and you can see other images from the Carolina Lowcountry while there.


What makes a photograph good?

an example of what makes a good photograph and what makes a photograph good
Exposed–Skeleton of a small tree, standing apart from the protection of the forest.

Have you ever wondered what it is about a photograph that makes you stop and stare? Not many photographs will do that, but some do, surely, and those are good photographs. What makes a good photograph? Or more importantly, what makes a photograph good?

I look at a lot of pictures; it’s my job, so to speak. I admit though, that very, very few make me stop and stare. A quick glance is enough to tell me when a picture just isn’t important enough to stop what I’m doing to explore it.

Is it the same with you? Do you skim over most of the pictures put in your face, but every now and then find one that keeps you spellbound for minutes at a time? What is it about such pictures that are so important that you feel compelled to spend your time with them? 

John Szarkowski, the long time Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had clear ideas about what makes a picture a “good picture.”  He said

“The best pictures are important because they achieve the high goal of art: simply and gracefully they describe experience–knowledge of the world–that we had not known before.”

Simply put, Szarkowski suggests the two main attributes of a good picture. First,  it has to be simple and graceful. Second, it has to show us something new. 

Simplicity and gracefulness relates to the aesthetics of the picture, and aesthetics relate to the craft of the artist.  

A good artist having a high level of craft knows how to create something that is simple and graceful. I love my 5 year old granddaughter’s drawings, but they aren’t what I would call simple or graceful. I love them for a reason that has nothing to do with aesthetics. But I doubt my next-door neighbor would feel as I do about my granddaughter’s drawings.

Long ago I decided what simple and graceful meant in my own craft. Simple means compositions having not more than 3-4 components, such as “trees+water+sky” in a vista landscape or, as in Exposed– “tree skeleton+foreground foliage+background forest”.  All the rest of the chaotic forest environment I edited out when I took the picture to give me a chance to make the final image simple and graceful.

Simple also means using lines and simple shapes to lead you through the story. For example, Exposed contains simple lines created by the foreground foliage that lead the eye to the main character (the tree skeleton). The tree then itself presents a simple line leading you to the dark, forbidding forest, which then stops the eye to return to explore the story of the small tree and foliage again. Lines and shapes can be very subtle yet still be effective in leading us through the visual story.

Graceful is more difficult to describe. Gracefulness has less to do with the subject of the picture and more about how the artist presents the subject.  I  love photographs having dramatic but delicate lighting and a wide range of mysterious shadows. And I love elegant, natural transitions from light to shadow.  On the other hand, I dislike harsh, empty highlights as much as I dislike empty, pure black shadows.  To my tastes, such harshness in a image lacks gracefulness and elegance.

Szarkowski’s second point about knowledge of the world–and I find this the hardest part of making good photographs–relates to the visual story told by the picture. He says a good picture will “..describe experience..that we had not known before.”

If a picture doesn’t change you in the least, perhaps it’s because you’ve seen millions of similar pictures; it shows you nothing new, it’s too common or cliché.  You probably found the story boring, uninteresting, and thus, not important.

When an artist does show you something you haven’t seen before and you find the story compelling and interesting, then you are more apt to remember it. This new memory will change you, perhaps ever so slightly, but change you nevertheless.  That is what Szarkowski meant by the “high goal of art.”

It’s not easy to make a picture that simply and gracefully says something entirely new to people who see it. That’s why there are so few good photographs. And with so many pictures being shown to us today, it’s harder than ever before to make good photographs that reveal something new. 

The last thing I want is for my pictures to be cliché, common, or unimportant. Instead, I want to make only good photographs. I want to be deeply moved by them, and I want others to be deeply moved by them. They should show something new, to change the way people think about the world. To perhaps even find room in their visual memory for it to live forever!  It’s a very high bar to reach, and I’m prepared to never reach it, but there it is.

If I ever reach that bar, it means I’ve succeeded as an artist, because I will have created something that approaches “the high goal of art.”  

When you find a picture that tells you a story (i.e., an experience) that is new to you, and the story is well-told through high-craftsmanship (simply and gracefully), then you’ve found a keeper that you’ll enjoy for years. Take action to own it and live with it–either in your visual memory or on the wall of your favorite space. As I like to say, you deserve to live with the art you love!

Want to read how other photographers answer this question?  Read this article.

A note about Exposed:
Forests offer so much to see. Yea, there are trees, I know. But what often draws me to forests is that there are also lots of interesting characters and shadows hiding things from the light. And sometimes, I find something in the forest that is well-lit when it shouldn’t be.

This small tree, long dead and only now existing as a skeleton of what it once was, is an example. The dark, shadowy forest in the background suggested to me that this small tree should have been back amongst its peers. Under the protection of the canopy. But instead it was out in the clearing, exposed to the elements of Mother Nature and Man, and the result is clear. The story didn’t end with the death of the tree, however. Visual stories rarely ever end, do they?

Exposed is available as a limited edition fine art print from 14×11″ to 40×30″ here

See hundreds of other examples of scenes from nature, romantic landscapes, and old nostalgic architectural subjects  /here/


The Nostalgia of Still Life Images

picture of old buckets from Geo Washington's Distillery

Water from the Well


I’ve talked about the power of nostalgic images before and it probably won’t be the last time I mention it. Experiencing nostalgia is a huge part of being human, and it can be a common emotion that art can evoke in us. 

Unlike timeless landscapes and nature pictures, still life images can be highly nostalgic. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a still life painting or a still life photograph; certain subjects can be strong reminders of something important in our past. A picture of a bouquet of flowers might remind us of something our mothers cared for, or a setting of tools might remind us of our granddad’s workbench, or an image of a desk and chair may remind us of our mother’s daily tasks. The list of nostalgic visual triggers is endless, and no matter how many times we see such images, the feelings of nostalgia never fade. 

At 66 years old I’m a member of the last generation who lived through times of wooden buckets with rope handles. Now days, like most things, buckets are plastic, and have plastic or wire handles.  In fact, it seems most objects today are plastic. Plastic houses. Plastic cars. And, therefore, plastic landfills (don’t get me started.).

Remember that scene from the 1967 film “The Graduate” when young Braddock was advised to “go into plastics..it’s the wave of the future”?  Well, it wasn’t far from the truth, was it? 

Common to my generation is the longing for everyday objects made from wood, or metal, or rock. So when we are reminded of those times, it can be quite nostalgic. (If you’re not of my generation, then there are other kinds of objects that affect you just as much; objects that you grew up with and long for today.) 

For instance, as a young boy visiting my Grandpa Elmer’s place, I can recall like it was yesterday being told to go draw water from the well ‘out back’ and bring it back to the house. Grandpa’s well was the type with a large wooden bucket you dropped into a deep hole in the ground and then used a big crank and thick rope to bring it back up. That chore was no small feat for a scrawny kid like I was. But I don’t recall ever thinking it was work; it was more like I was doing something important for my Grandpa. And to this day I can still smell the sweetness of that water.

I’m drawn to nostalgic subjects that remind me of the good old days. “Water from the Well”  is a simple setting of old oaken buckets that reminds me of good times I spent at Grandpa’s house long ago, and that makes my heart smile, every time.  

What does it remind you of? I’d love to hear your story.

You can find more of my still life images here

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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.

He said “change the world”…..and maybe there’s a way.

Sunrise at Wimbee Creek
Sunrise at Wimbee Creek

As I look back on the past 3 months of winter, by some definitions I haven’t done much. I’m ashamed to say it, but  I’ve been a couch potato for much of this winter, watching TV and reading….and lots of thinking about my artwork. And making decisions.

For some months, I’ve been questioning what the heck I’m doing taking my camera out in the woods and capturing scenes to print and sell (hopefully). Sure, I’m happy doing that, but am I really contributing anything important with my artwork? What difference is my artwork making to anyone?  I’ll probably never know the answer to that question, but at least I’m asking it. It comes from a healthy dose of self doubt.

This winter I read “Courage to Create” by Rollo May.  This book heightened my sense of what it can mean to be “creative.” May’s thesis is that all profound changes in humanity down through the ages began with feelings that arose from art, and that it was the responsibility– no, the duty–of artists to create art that changes humanity profoundly. He sets an extremely high bar for anyone who considers themselves to be a creative soul:  to “change the world.”

I wish I could change the world for the better, but I’m not sure I have that much courage.  I can be more creative in my photography, however, and perhaps begin to address that nagging concern about my art’s worth in the world.

The photographer Minor White once said “One should not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are.”  Maybe that’s what I’m after….how best to reveal the “what else” in my chosen subjects.

Revealing the “what else” requires a creative mind. Photographing the “what else” requires watching a subject closely for a time–even over several days–to get to know it, to give it time to tell us something we didn’t know before. Isn’t that what a photograph is supposed to do? I think so.

The amount of time I’ve spent thinking and reading over the past several months about being more creative I hope will have long lasting impacts on my work as an art photographer. I hope you see those changes, and I hope you begin seeing more of the “what else,”  not only in my photographs, but whenever you see an image that strikes you. I hope you begin asking “what else” does the image mean? Once we start asking ourselves such questions, we’ll begin engaging in photographs more deeply, and enjoying them more, and maybe even changing what we think about the things photographs represent. Perhaps even developing a fervor for the subject that will eventually “change the world.”  Who knows?

Other News:

  • I just returned from another week in the romantic Carolina Lowcountry. I love that area of the country. I spent every night camping out of my new Ford Transit van equipped with a cot and sleeping bag, and surrounding by all four of my camera bags, tripods, film gear, and food. That way, I was able to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I thrive at being spontaneous (some would say impulsive).  I’ve developed all the film, scanned them, and am in the process of expressing the subjects the way I do. The header image “Sunrise at Wimbee Creek” is one of the first from the new series.
  • There’s still 12 days to visit my “Virginia Grist” exhibition at the George Washington University Ashburn, VA campus. Click the link to get details.

Have a wonderful Spring!

P.S. If you think like-minded friends and family would enjoy seeing and hearing about the news I’ve shared with you, ask others to subscribe to my newsletter. I promise, subscribing won’t cost them a dime.

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The Romance of the Carolina Lowcountry

I didn’t know what to expect. But a wedding hosted by good friends in Charleston, SC was a welcomed opportunity to see a bit of South Carolina’s Lowcountry for the first time.

My wife and I did the things all the guidebooks tell you to do when visiting Charleston: we walked the streets (stop it, now!), visited the local plantations, ate great food, and took a carriage ride.  But there was so much more I wanted to do, photographically speaking.

If you want to photograph Charleston, the best time is before 9 am. At 9, the parking meters become active and fill up pretty fast. Parking in Charleston is a challenge after that time. As it happens, early morning is also the best time to photograph Charleston, so you’re in luck. The summer sun came up around 6am, so I had plenty of time to photograph the city uncrowded.

Most of what I really wanted to see, though, happened out in the rural Lowcountry: salt marsh, spanish moss hanging from the old oaks, historic plantation gardens, and the ocean, of course.

Folly Beach

Folly Pier

The Folly Beach pier is probably photographed as much as the Statue of Liberty. There aren’t many ways to depict this structure that haven’t been tried already. I happened to catch this scene just at sunrise, so I had good light. Using a slow shutter speed to soften the waves and really bring out a sense of motion was important to me, and I purposely timed the wave movements to reveal the wet sand reflecting the lights from the end of the pier (which was tricky using a 1 sec shutter speed). The reflection was important compositionally.

A visit to Magnolia Plantation. Here’s another big tourist attraction, but if you look closely there are really great treasures to be found.  One of the most interesting sights I found at Magnolia Plantation were the cypress groves. “Lowcountry Cypress” is full of light and shadows. Near the center of the frame is what appears to be a circle caused by a large arching limb and its reflection in the river that perfectly frames the brighter visual destination downriver. Along our visual journey, large cypress trees full of rich details entertain us.

Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River, SC
Lowcountry Cypress

Characteristic of the Live Oaks found in the Lowcountry are the huge limbs that like to arch close to the ground. Spanish moss seem to love these limbs, and you often find it just hanging out there. The path is clear, under the arching limbs, and it’s a walk we must take. Spanish moss is very delicate, and I rarely found it just hanging still. The slightest breeze would send it dancing about. I chose to capture that motion in “Lowcountry Walk” because that’s part of the story, isn’t it?

Lowcountry Walk
Lowcountry Walk

South Carolina Landing State Park

Long before there was a Charleston on the peninsula, there was a vibrant settlement across the Ashley River. It’s now a beautiful natural area with lots of large oaks and spanish moss. I got there late morning and the sun was already making it difficult to photograph, but I think I made the trip worthwhile. There was far too much green in this scene, so I did what I typically do when I find that situation: I shoot it in B&W and emphasize the shadows and penetrating sunlight.

Lane to the Ashley River

Edisto Island and Botany Bay Plantation

By far the most interesting site I visited on this trip, and one I’ll definitely return to again. A nature photographer’s paradise, this old plantation site has been turned into a protected wildlife management area.

A 1/4 mile walk through the salt marsh takes you to one of the most interesting beaches I’ve ever seen, Botany Bay beach.  As a WMA, there are heavy fines for taking shells from here, and the pebbly beach is therefore covered with them. Many of the shells are intact and large. You almost never see these on public beaches. So what do people do when they can’t take their beach trophies home? They hang them on the numerous dead trees that also cover the beach. On another day, I might have found that sufficiently interesting to photograph. But not that day. My eye caught this lone, dead tree just waiting for the inevitable: it was a story that had to be told.

One lone dead tree awaits its inevitable demise at the hands of the ocean.
“Inevitable” – One lone casualty awaits its inevitable demise at the hands of the ocean.

Also on Botany Bay are many dirt roads and trails. If you’ve been following me very long, you know I love tiny dirt roads. Perhaps it’s the relative solitude I find when traveling them, or maybe it’s that I really like driving at 15 mph. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that along one of these roads I found “Spanish Moss and a Palmetto.”

Botany Bay scene
“Spanish Moss and a Palmetto” – Botany Bay, Edisto Island

At first glance, this scene appears busy and chaotic, but the more you look, the simpler  it gets. The main characters in this story are the soft, swaying moss bending slightly toward the right side of the frame, seemingly leading us to find this little Palmetto tree hiding in the shadows. You rarely see Palmettos in a shaded place like this, but there he/she is, seemingly content to be dominated by the oaks and a cloak of moss.

There remain a few buildings from the time when Botany Bay operated as a farming plantation. I love historic architecture. It’s easy for me to imagine the stories of those who occupied and/or worked in these old spaces, and I often find myself wondering about such things when I stumble upon them.

I didn’t know what this structure was when I found it on Botany Bay Plantation. Its highly decorated facade led me to believe that it must have been something special and probably close to the main manor, but I didn’t know. As it turns out, it was the icehouse: definitely special and definitely near a family dwelling, when it still stood. Now it sits alone in a clearing, surrounded by encroaching trees and the ubiquitous spanish moss.

Plantation Icehouse, Botany Bay
Plantation Icehouse, Botany Bay

Angel Oak

No visit to the Carolina Lowcountry would be complete without a visit to the Angel Oak on John’s Island, SC.  Words that describe this particular lifeform include “magnificent,” “ancient,” and “Godly.”  This old fellow has been sitting on this spot for 1500 years, and since healthy oaks never stop growing, that’s a long time to get really huge.

Most photographs you see of Angel Oak include the whole tree, often with a person standing next to it. That perspective makes one get very far away from the tree because it’s so big.

But the story I wanted to tell about Angel Oak was more intimate:  The story of how Resurrection Ferns take rook on the ancient branches-life from life. How the past loss of a limb still reveals the scars from that loss. How its branches bend and turn as events during its long life forced new directions, much as events during our own lives do.  And how, like old people, its skin is heavily furrowed and worn. I offer  “Enduring Arms” and “Neverending” as examples of these intimate portrayals of Angel Oak.

"Enduring Arms" - Angel Oak, John's Island, SC
“Enduring Arms” -Angel Oak perspective
Angel Oak
“Neverending”- Angel Oak, with its branches seemingly extending to the heavens.

I hope this little travelogue has stimulated an interest in visiting the Carolina Lowcountry. The Lowcountry is much more than the city of Charleston.

Technical and Ordering Information: I captured these images using a 4×5 large format camera with either color (Kodak Ektar or Portra) or B&W (Ilford FP4) film, scanned the negatives to high resolution using my drum scanner, then artistically interpreted them.

Pigment prints on heavy cotton rag paper are available from 16×20 up to 32×40 inches, framed or unframed, with the surface varnished to provide protection and enhanced vibrancy and texture.

To order, go do Lowcountry photographs

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.

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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:  https://www.healthdesign.org/chd/research/guide-evidence-based-art

Happy collecting!

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A Study in Luminosity: What photographers can learn from other artists.

A visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC yesterday inspired me to write about something that guides my own journey as an art photographer, and it comes from my favorite fine art painters.

Green River Cliffs, Wyoming by Thomas Moran

I’ve always had a powerful wonder-lust for the romantic, luminous landscape paintings from the 19th Century. While the romantics were busy at work in Europe, the luminism movement was underway by the Americans at the Hudson River School. Even as a kid, I remember being thoroughly captivated when looking at picture books of paintings by the luminists like Church, Moran, Bierstadt, and Durand: it was my secret pastime.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luminism_%28American_art_style%29

Luminism refers to the dramatic portrayal of natural bright light in a scene, particularly in landscapes and seascapes, where it appears as if God created a huge spotlight to illuminate the subjects.  Reflective surfaces like rivers, oceans, and pools often played a significant role in luminist’s paintings, as if to help scatter the light across the canvas.

Just as important is the luminist’s use of shadows. It’s the very quality of vast, open shadows that I really love and appreciate in works of the luminist style.  Their shadows are full of life and details that draw me in to explore what’s going on–to be curious–and I’m never disappointed.

But It’s the interrelationship between shadows and brilliant lighting that create the overall emotional effects one gets from the art of the luminists. The luminists were masters in creating a sense of luminosity. Luminosity gives us hope in the knowing; it enlightens us. Dark shadows are sublime; making us wary and uncertain. Without the substantial areas of shadow, the intrigue and mystery would be lost, and without the brilliant lighting, the luminosity would fall apart. The interplay between the two are critically important to creating such strong emotions associated with the art of the luminists and romanticists.

In my own photography, I’m always looking for situations that remind me of the luminists. One of the main reasons I still use film to capture my images is because only film retains shadow details and textures at exposures that also retain delicate details in the highlights. As with luminist’s paintings, having in my photographs something to explore in both the shadows and well-lit subjects is important to my creating the feeling of luminosity and intrique, something that I find personally rewarding.

Happy collecting!

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”The sun does magical things in the mountains. This scene along the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River surrendered to the magic and created a very real demonstration of that phrase in our National Anthem that we all know, but very few of us get to witness.”
Purple Mountains Majesty, copyright J Riley Stewart
One Morning at Liberty Furnace
“One Morning at Liberty Furnace” copyright J. Riley Stewart
Path to the Chapel
Path to the Chapel, copyright J Riley Stewart

Note: The National Gallery of Art is an easy walk from the Archives metro station in Washington D.C. The Gallery is a national treasure not to be missed if you’re in the area. Admission is free. Open most days 10 am – 5 pm. There you will find one of the largest collections of paintings by artists of the Hudson River School. Besides thousands of other exhibits, they have a marvelous art book store.