Tuesday, August 16, 2011


 The Company We Keep

We’ve all heard the old adage that so much depends on the company we keep, as if we were all chameleons ready to change our colors to suit whatever landscape we happened to occupy or group we found ourselves among. As if boldly declaring our true colors and shape were tantamount to an invitation to be shunned – or eaten. I would hope that we are made of stronger stuff than a flying insect or a small lizard using variations in skin tone as a form of camouflage or social signaling and bonding, but the fact is, we aren’t as far up the evolutionary scale as we think.

 Invitation to be Eaten

But I’m not here to discuss human frailties or my admitted admiration and envy of creatures with wings or tails. This blog and its author are all about art, so it’s art I’m about to discuss. Follow me back to an afternoon some 20 years ago when, thanks to the influence of a painter friend, I found myself in a place I had never visited nor felt any urgency to remedy my neglect – the modern art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in particular that most impenetrable of sanctuaries, the rooms dedicated to Abstract Expressionism.


I’ve always been a Representational kind of girl. I like clarity and a classic sense of structure and proportion in all my artistic expressions, be they made of words, stone, paint, physical movement or sound. There was always enough chaos and abstraction going on inside my head and heart, enough questions and confusions, enough consequences following upon the mistaking of a man for a nest of snakes, or a swimming hole for a sea of knives. I liked my scenes familiar and their inhabitants unbroken, whatever their character or intent.

 Beyond my Reach

My reaction to abstract art was always that of tolerant appreciation for the effort of the artist and even the importance of the piece in the context of art history, but in general, being left cold and not a little annoyed by the experience, like an uninvited guest standing outside a window through which seemingly intelligent and likable persons were visible having seemingly meaningful heartfelt conversations I could not decide whether to envy, resent or discount as nonsense. Whatever was going on behind the frame, I was not welcome. It became easier to declare that there was indeed nothing worthwhile there than to find a way inside.

 Still Room

I had seen the likes of Pollock, Kline and Rothko in books. As I walked through the Met galleries, their paintings definitely made a bigger impression in person, but not necessarily a deeper one. Then I walked into a room full of large canvases by Clyfford Still and took advantage of a small centrally located bench to rest my tired feet and frustrated sensibilities. The painting I faced was simple enough, consisting of jagged splashes of a few basic colors with no discernible subject matter or theme. But for some reason, I could not stop looking at it. It was one of those rare afternoons in the museum when everyone is somewhere else and I had the room entirely to myself. Suddenly I felt as if I were sitting in a vast cathedral with walls of stained glass pierced and illuminated by shafts of sunlight. One minute I was looking at a painting, and the next I was looking through a window, and the next I was inside the window looking out. Then I was the sunlit window.

 Still Room with the recent misguided addition of a sculpture where my bench used to be

I gasped audibly and said to the empty room “now I understand!” as I realized I was not looking at a painting of a thing, but a portrait of a feeling, and it was more than a human emotion evoked, it was the emotional life of paint itself. I spent the next hour confronting each side of that square room and the artworks hanging before me. Each one had its own feelings to share with and to stir in me. I began to notice that Still only used a small selection of colors and did very little blending and mixing. He achieved his effects by placing colors next to each other in certain ways and bringing out different qualities by adjacency alone. I said out loud to no one “red with blue along its back is nothing like the red that lies alongside black.” It became clear to me that these colors were literally taking on character before my eyes depending on what colors they were next to, depending quite literally on the company they were keeping. 

 Side by Side (with thanks to Fiona D)

When I began making the selections for my photography book, I followed a tradition of book-building I learned when I was collecting poems into a full-length manuscript. A collection of works should never be random in its structure; there must be an organizing principle, whether it be as simple as date of creation, or batched more thoughtfully by subject matter or form. But it should not be as superficial as matching your shoes to your handbag. Within that ordering, a good writer will also attempt to construct adjacencies that run deeper, placing poems together that may seem unrelated in every way, but side by side bring things out of each other that no other nearby poem can. An attempt at this kind of matching informed my choices for my photography book, and I assumed I was building a book of images the way a poet would build a collection of verse, in which every poem belonged and none could occupy any other place, a larger version of the microcosm of one poem in which every word was where it needed and had to be.

 Untitled 1946-H by Clyfford Still

Then I realized I was actually putting photos together the way Still put paint on a canvas, sensing that a certain image would feel entirely different depending on what image lay next to it. I was amazed to discover how unique and distinct these pairings were, as if I were entrusted with a delicious plate of food and charged with finding the right wine to complement and in fact enrich its flavors. It was hard to find combinations of images that worked subtly and interactively, only bringing out the best in each other. To my mind, they are all more or less successful pairings, and I hope that at least some of them will be to any one person’s individual taste.

 Hide and Seek

Which brings us to matters of taste. Five weeks ago, on the very last day before the submission deadline, I created and entered my book into the Photography Book Now contest featured on the Blurb site. I knew about this contest for three months, and had plans to make a book of my images as far back as autumn of last year, but for some reason the concept and the content were not coming together harmoniously and I kept setting the project aside, recognizing that any time creativity feels forced, for best results it is wise to wait until such time and circumstances in which it flows smoothly, the way you entice a photogenic butterfly to land on a branch nearby by pretending not to be there. 

 Safe to Come Out

As the deadline came closer, I felt even more forced to create something, even more concerned with the kind of book I felt would be to the taste of the judges, and even more frustrated as the project failed to come together. Then something wonderful happened – on the day before the deadline, I decided not to submit a book after all, and freed myself from the arbitrary pressure of the contest and its specifications. Then I began playing around with my images and downloaded the Blurb bookmaking program, and within an hour the book I had imagined simply emerged, like a cat you thought was lost but was simply hiding behind the curtain. And it was exactly the book I had been carrying inside my head for months. I told myself that the contest had already served its purpose in prompting this act of creation, that I now had a collection I could share with others in book form, and that no other reward or recognition was necessary or to be expected. After all, there is no accounting for taste.

Out in the Open

I wrote this post yesterday knowing that today the Finalists for the PBN would be announced on the Blurb site and leaving this final paragraph to be written at that time. It still remained to be seen whether the judges would respond to the survivalist chameleons taking on the surrounding colors of what is currently considered the proper look of fine art photography, or the solitary butterfly out in the open, unprotected and daring to be different. The results are in. 
Reader, I am not a Finalist. I am not surprised. And I am not changing my true colors for anyone.


  1. Gabriella, once again a great post. Everything we do or face does have a reason. I am really glad the book is out there no matter what for all of us to enjoy!

  2. Luis, thank you so much. I truly did not expect or rely upon any recognition from the industry, knowing what it's about, but there was a part of me that wished I could have ended this post with better news. It would have been a win for all of us who toil outside the mainstream! I'm still feeling a little let down and stung, but as you say, there is a reason for this happening, and another door will open and make me forget that I ever cared about this one closing! Be well, my friend.

  3. ahh, great photos here...
    yes , this particular group of artists are really good and important... not representational art is fantastic when it is made by great and sensitive artists that have as proposal to be sinsere to their feeling ans emotions.
    Sad the abstract painting was "destroyed by many painter during the second half of the 20th century that only wanted aesthetical excuses for their boring theorys about art.
    But I love these artists here and the works you showed are just fantastic.
    thank you.

  4. ahhh.. about the book. I just think you did the right thing.

  5. Caio, you are so right - the true masters of abstract painting painted from emotion, not theories! I am grateful that it took me so long to understand non-representational art...I was able to meet these works one-on-one as a mature person, not a kid with a head full of everyone else's stupid ideas! Unfortunately, empty theories and borrowed ideas still have the ascendancy in the art world, in all media. Maybe it's easier than to dig deep into yourself and be brave and let creativity flow from an honest, pure source. I am so happy that you understand, and try to stay true to what is pure in your work! Thank you, my friend.

  6. I offer no condolences, only congratulations. This entry is a triumph in and of itself, with its beautiful writing and images — and yes, even suspense. There is simply no measuring or weighing of your accomplishments. You do your work and pursue your dreams, and that’s what matters. There is not one single person on this planet who can do it for you. And there are millions who are afraid to do it themselves, and who don’t even know what their dreams are. You bring light and show the way. You’re an inspiration, come what may.

  7. Sir, I accept your encomium! Well said and much needed and oh so appreciated. Stay tuned - I am already at work on my next post which I am sure you will like, as you are one of its sources of inspiration. Proof enough of my gratitude for having you as a friend, but just in case - thank you.

  8. I love the congruence of your work. Your photos and your words belong together in a seemingly effortless juxtaposition. Knowing the effort involved in achieving this end adds to the beauty and the joy they make me feel. Thank you yet again for a post which has me thinking, thinking, thinking ....(and a pox on the house of the ignorant judges).

  9. EC - as long as there are people like you out there who not only understand what lies behind my work, but also feel joy from it, the ignorance of judges means nothing! Thank you so much, my friend.

  10. dear Gabriella,
    this post is really a triumph!
    the wonderful way that you tell us, the path of creation, from observation to the epiphanies .... you shared with us, the script of your thoughts, your abstract discoveries, that led you to the concrete fact, properly transformed into the book.
    It's your ART, dressed in the book ....
    You won! it matters!

    ps: and these pictures are great!!!

    mille baci

  11. Thank you for this wonderful post, which not only expands my thinking, but is exactly what I needed to hear today. And your description of your book just coming out of you is inspiring. Keep sticking with your true colors!

  12. Denise, I am happy you enjoyed this post! I am glad you think I'm a winner. Your opinion means so much more to me than the contest judges! Thank you.

  13. JMG - it's always good to hear that something I am going through in my own life, that has prompted me to write a post about it to help me work it out, somehow has relevance for or touches other people! One of the nobler, most gratifying aspects of blogging! Many thanks for your comment.

  14. Hi G/TT - I really enjoyed reading this post. The thinking about adjacency made so much sense and I recognised within your writing, that which I had experienced when going thru your book - the looking side to side, the checking and sensing the tensions or difference between the two, or discovering a similarity that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. So your intent found its mark with me! I also loved the discussion of how the book came to be - the best of our work happens when we say "it cannot be for thee" kind of thing, it comes from us and it finds it place. In the end I didn't even feel disappointed by the result; I just accepted that is often the way of the world, and that we sometimes walk out of step with the powers who decide such things, but but its a much nicer rhythm to find yourself keeping the beat with fellow travellers! Hope you are having a great weekend - the book is a success!

  15. Thank you so much, F! I knew you would understand. And that understanding is worth more in the end than a pat on the back from "industry" folks. I am still torn about the true benefits of a nice prestigious award or two - they bring exposure to a new audience, they open doors and fill the coffers, yes, but ultimately I'm not sure I want to be recognized by the kinds of judges who make the unaccountable choices they often do. Sometimes it feels like more of an honor NOT to be nominated! At any rate, it's the work that matters. After I got the news, I consoled myself by working on my next post, pondering, writing, finding images to enrich the text, and all was again well with the world - my world, on my terms. Have a great weekend!

  16. Hey G!
    Beautiful images and wonderful words as always!
    Stay true to you.


  17. D! Thanks for the comment. Staying true aint easy, but it helps to have the support and example of friends like you. Hope you're having a great week!

  18. TT- loved the line that things often seem like the cat that seemed to be lost but only hiding behind the curtain - and what a great photo of such a cat. F and I often say it is interesting how challenges help us decide on directions and paths - not ones that we logically set out on but in the end ones that are true to us. TYour blurb book graces our coffee table - both because of its beauty but also because it reminds us of your willingness to follow your path. Go well and travel gently with yourself. B

  19. Barry - it is pretty funny that feline antics can be the perfect parallel to creative struggles! The cat in the picture also caused panic one day by retiring to the laundry basket in a closet and then being shut inside - sending us in a panic all over the apartment building thinking she had escaped and was gone forever! Once again, what we thought was lost forever was right under our noses waiting to be released! Perhaps the muse takes her cue from cats, just to mess with us occasionally and make us appreciate her being around! Best of luck to you and F with next weekend's activities!

  20. Satisfying discussion on Still. So happy to read that. I've been obsessed for years. Color, energy, space, and emotion. Yes! Also enjoyed your photography posts. Can't wait to see the book! XO

  21. Hey, you! Thanks for visiting my blog. The only problem with this post was that it made me want to get my ass to NYC and experience the Still Room in person again, even if my bench is gone and I'll have to crawl on top of that sculpture or sit on the floor or something, an act of defiance the man himself would surely approve! Working outside the mainstream, and not quite fitting under any label was just fine by him! My hero!

    My book (and your umbrella) are waiting for you when next we meet. Here comes the weekend...

  22. these images are just amazing, you are amazing, such an inspiration with your story and your incredible photographs....CoNGratULATions my friend...


  23. Wow, TB, that's a lot of praise in one comment! I really do appreciate it. The butterfly photos are from a trip to a conservatory I made a few years ago and seemed the perfect images to convey what's lately been on my mind. They were taken with a basic lens - no macro - and it was wonderful they allowed me to get so close and capture them on film. They were even more amazing in color, in person! Have a great week.