Annotation: Magic Worlds of Fantasy

It is very easy to get caught up in the notion being an artist in such a way that you fail to make any art at all. The idea of being a famous avant garde artist is far more romantic than actually making avant garde art, and as such is far more alluring than simply making art whatever way you can, whatever way makes the most sense to you. That idea is the basis behind Magic Worlds of Fantasy: it showcases four relatively unknown artists that the author had come across who ignored the idea of an artist, and simply made art.

Before I get into talking about the book, I should mention that none of these artists were using drawing as their medium, so really the artwork gains more of its relevance in the act of creation and the philosophy behind the book more than discovering drawing technique or style that I like. That said, there is a lot of value to be found in this sort of book. I find that it is very easy to get wrapped up in the “proper” way of doing things, so a book that says to find something I enjoy and then make art out of that is really quite delightful.

The author, David Douglas Duncan, was a good friend of Pablo Picasso. As such, when he traveled around the world on his own artistic journeys, other people would approach him to ask about Picasso, and (occasionally) to bring gifts or art to be passed along. It was through this process that he came across several artists who were not well known by anyone, and really pursued art purely for their own sake. They might never have ended up in a gallery or museum, though their art was certainly good enough, because it wasn’t their purpose.

The book opens with a brief essay about the author’s relationship with Picasso, including a collection of “posters” Picasso did for some of his friends, each one with the same elements but each unique and individualized. The idea of Picasso’s house is really quite appealing: when he opened his doors, he opened them wide, to any who could claim his friendship. Diplomats, priests, paupers, circus performers, it didn’t matter. If anyone took offense to this panoply, no one mentioned it: a friend of Pablo was a friend of theirs. There is so much to be said for this idea, the idea of a space where individuals of varying fields could all be comfortable and interact regardless of social status. It’s an idea that I personally would love to foster, but have no idea how to go about doing this.

The first artist in the book is a housewife in England, who used scratchboard to create fantastic, dreamlike creatures and locations. Her work was clearly her own, though I could see some references to early Chinese art in some of her linework. Born in war-torn Berlin, she invented robust dream worlds in her mind in order to block out the bombed out buildings around her, and continued to tell stories and draw from this imaginary world once they fled to Switzerland. She discovered scratchboard when she was 8 or 9, and fell in love with the medium, working in it ever since. Most of her work was made to accompany the stories that she would tell her own children.

The second artist highlighted was a retired psychologist who would go out into the woods and find interesting patterns in the bark of various trees, and photograph them. Some of them are extremely abstract, to the point where it is not entirely clear whether it is a photograph or a painting. Wild swirling mishmashes of color combined with variegated texture to create unique images. As a psychologist, he had always been fascinated by finding order in chaos, so when he retired from psychology, he picked up a camera and became fascinated with the patterns and order and shapes found in the bark of trees.

The third artist is the most fascinating to me. Hsueh Shao-Tang was a tailor in pre-Communist China, and fled to escape Mao’s army. He was then conscripted by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army, and forced to serve in Taiwan for several years. After finally being discharged, he trained as a chef, and became a chef for diplomatic envoys to foreign countries. The author discovered his work while visiting the house of an ambassador in Switzerland, where he had been master chef for several years. The particular style of art that he does is what is particularly fascinating to me… he collects canceled stamps, and cuts them up into small pieces, which he uses to create elaborate and detailed mosaics. Some of the work is truly impressive, and is clearly enhanced by the texture and variation that is provided through the medium, such as a mosaic dragon he created, where the texture of the scales is created through the shape and color gradation of the stamps he used. It’s absolutely brilliant work.

The fourth and final artist showcased in this book is a widowed Baroness who likes to wander through old growth forests barefoot accompanied by a great dane and her camera. She has some really phenomenal nature photography, which is my own personal hobby. None of it is necessarily innovative — to a certain extent, a photograph of a cobweb is a photograph of a cobweb — but there is an underlying voice that permeates all of her work, which reinforces the basis of art: there are only so many variations of a still life: what makes it unique, expressive, and “art” is the addition of the individual’s viewpoint and creative voice, the focus that they choose to apply to it.

On the larger subject of art, I thought this was an interesting book, worth the time to read it. On the specific subject of drawing, it’s certainly less relevant, but I still feel my time was well spent by reading it. No art (if you could call my chicken scratchings art) exists in a vacuum, and viewing alternative mediums definitely helps energize my mind as to what things I could do.

Duncan, David Douglas. Magic Worlds of Fantasy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Annotation: Ways of Seeing

Originally published in 1972 as a companion follow-up to his BBC television series, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is a remarkable and interesting book from start to finish. Even the cover is nontraditional, ignoring the standard need for a cover separate from the rest of the book. Instead, they simply took an excerpt from the book, and used that as the cover. This establishes the sort of book this is from the very get-go: challenging the current deified, over-intellectualized view of art in modern society.

Standards are meant to be a groundwork, a starting point to grow from. They are not meant to be a constraint, a restriction as to the only “proper” methodology, but that is exactly what they have become. To fall back to an art medium I’m more familiar with, in photography one of the most commonly referenced “standards” or “laws” is the law of thirds, which is a guideline for composing your image. There are plenty of reasons to use this guideline, not the least of which is our natural predisposition to “sacred geometry” which a thirds-based image tends to satisfy. That said, photographers can end up trapped by this law, and become incapable of doing anything but this. They become chained to it, and often become incapable of appreciating any image that deviates from it. It is not until these deviations, these abnormalities become accepted by the artistic elite that they become accepted as a worthwhile technique. This has been my sentiment for quite some time, and I found Berger’s essays on this subject both cogent and topical. In particular, I found the statistics provided by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel on public perceptions of museums and art particularly interesting, as well as his discussion of the historical causes of this shift.

Interestingly, some art students argue that this shift never took place, and that this was always the nature of art. These are also the same art students that declare that “art is dead” so ardently, which I personally feel is the cliché battle cry of those who are afraid to contribute to it. Once again falling back to photography, I can pretty safely argue that this shift from art for art’s sake and as a commercial entity into the deified realm restricted only to the social elite is entirely within the realm of possibility, and with historical context as referenced by Berger, seems a virtual certainty. I have been witnessing the same progression in the field of photography for most of my life, and have discussed the topic with others who have been in the field for well over 40 years. With the advent of inexpensive scanners and printers, it is easier than ever before to accurately reproduce a photographic work, with or without the consent of the photographer. This has forced professional photographers to undergo a shift of their own: they must either shift into charging for their time and creativity rather than on a per-print basis, or face financial extinction through individuals purchasing a single print and duplicating it themselves. In order for this shift to work, however, there must also be a cultural shift in mindset to view hiring a photographer as a service, not as a product: you are purchasing the photographer’s creativity, not the print. This is, in my mind, incredibly similar to the cultural shift that painters underwent when lithographs and other methods to reproduce their art became available. The artists needed a way to justify their profession, and the social elite needed a way to continue to separate themselves from the masses, hence the shift to the importance of having an “original”, and to have the name of artist mean nearly as much (or more) as the painting itself.

I think I may have talked myself into a corner here, so allow me to clarify what I mean: the art community was forced into a paradigm shift in order to survive. This is pragmatic and understandable. While it is unfortunate, I do not consider this shift necessarily a bad thing. What I do consider bad is the way the social elite took this shift and bent it towards their own purposes — namely in further stratifying themselves from the rest of society.

As you can probably guess, the first essay in Ways of Seeing really struck a chord. I’ll let it rest for now, and instead move on to the rest of the book, which decidedly also merits discussion. His second essay, which was a montage of images gathered to form a visual essay was interesting. I found it directly relevant to one of his later essays on depictions of women in art, and I found both essays to be significantly less heavy-handed and accusatory than other essays and articles I’ve read about the topic. (While the objectification of women is a damnable thing, taking an accusatory, hateful tone about it is quite possibly even less effective or useful than simply doing nothing. Demanding reparations does nothing more than encourage resentment.) In particular, the use of female sexuality in commercial art is really rather directly pointed out, and the distinctions he makes between being naked, and being nude, and it explains my own personal choice to prefer the direct earnestness and honesty of an image of someone who is naked versus a picture of a nude. That is not to say that nudes don’t have their own place, and the objectification of the human form (male or female) can be used towards great effect as a method of artistic abstraction, much in the same way that a building can be made a thing of abstract shape and form through perspective, becoming something that is no longer a building (or in the case of nudes, a person). But as far as portraits, or human expression is concerned, I would far prefer to see someone naked because that is the most primitive, honest expression of themselves, than to see someone posed and nude because someone else wishes it.

I’m going to skip over the essay on the nature of art as a method of proving your possession of something else (a ship, a piece of land, a prize animal, a spouse or child, et cetera), because I feel like I’ve already addressed this in my discussion of the first essay, and go on directly to the essay on the use of art in advertising. This brought up some interesting points both in favor and against the ways art is used to sell things other than art, as well as how “corporate art” can still be considered art. Here’s my take on it, after reading his essay: of course it’s still art, and of course the social elite brand it as “selling out”. Use of art in advertising brings art to the masses, countering the whole push to keep art as a tool of social stratification. Whether it is through direct use, or through emulation of a classic piece of art, it allows the masses to have access to works that they might otherwise never see, and never appreciate or be enriched by. There was significantly more use of art in advertising and publicity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, at which point there was a backlash, when the notion of use of art in advertising was a form of selling out and devalued the merit of the art really gained enough momentum to be noticeable. By the late 90s to now, there has been significantly less use (though it still does happen), and I can’t help but feel that this is part of the over-intellectual stratification, an attempt to retake art as solely the purview of the elite. Looking through the images included in the essay, while dated in composition, it is obvious just how much more direct influence prior art had on advertising compared to modern day.

Frankly, I blame the academic institution at large. While there are always exceptions, I find it remarkable and frightening how many schools of “art” I have seen that do nothing more than churn out more embittered, brainwashed pseudo-intellectuals that serve to do nothing more than maintain an entirely unnecessary stratification fostered by their professors (who themselves have been ensnared in this mindset). They obscure this stratification by hiding behind muddy definitions-through-lack-of-definitions of art, trapping their students in the circle of asking “what is art?” Well, here is a definition: art is a method of expression. That is my definition, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all a definition it needs. That, of course, is not acceptable to those who wish to deify art, because that definition intrinsically makes it accessible to anyone who wishes to express themselves. It returns art to the masses.

Mind you, I am not making a distinction between “good” art and “bad” art. That is a largely subjective arena, and can really only objectively be discussed on the merits of particular techniques, and subjectively on whether you (the individual) like it or not. Really, whether art is good or bad does not matter to the larger definition of art itself — the artist either expresses themselves well, or they don’t. They either have good technique, or they don’t. (I am well aware that nothing is truly binary, which is why I generally place things in three categories, things I like, things I don’t like, and things that I may not like but respect. But for the sake of the discussion, I’m keeping it generalized.)

John Berger has certainly raised some very interesting subjects, in a coherent fashion that are still just as relevant today as it was when it was written 30 years ago. I would gladly recommend this to anyone interested in art (and in fact already have). Considering just how topical this book remains, it really serves to prove just how hard it is to break through the established mindset. I can only hope that at some point, it ceases to be topical, and instead becomes historical.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1973.

Annotation: The Art of Final Fantasy IX

I love beauty. I think it is a crying shame that the word has become so tied to a fairly vapid, superficial definition for so much of society, since the notion of beauty when boiled down to its most basic principle, is simply a method to name and identify that which draws us to a person, place, thing, or even abstract thought. It is with this in mind that I say I love beauty, and it is this idea that colors everything I strive for in my life. I suppose that is one reason why I tend to prefer the fantastic in art: more often than not, fantasy grows out of taking the beautiful from the mundane. The Art of Final Fantasy IX is an excellent example of this concept, creating an entire world that is beautiful and fantastic.

The Art of Final Fantasy IX is a companion book that was published when the game Final Fantasy IX was originally released, back in 2000. I bought the book at that point, and promptly lost it in a move. It resurfaced at my brother’s apartment this past April, as I was preparing for this semester, and I am extremely grateful for it. With my desire to learn the process of creating a world and characters such as (but not like) this, being able to see the actual original concept art that the game was built upon is invaluable. The majority of the art is by Hiroyuki Ito, Hideo Minaba, Akira Fujii, and Shin Kajitani, with a smattering of Yoshitaka Amano’s work on the lead characters. There is very little in the way of written work on it, though what there is was done by Dan Birlew, hence why the Library of Congress calls him the technical “author”. Interestingly, back when I thought the book was gone, I looked into buying a new copy… it has been out of print for several years now, and used copies are selling for over $85 (it was originally $20). I only wish they would turn this collection into a series, and release the art from some of the other games made by Squaresoft (makers of the Final Fantasy series, of which there are currently eleven released and another two in development. They also developed Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, as well as the Mana series of games, and Xenogears, all of which were visually stunning in their own right), but I don’t think it made enough money in sales to merit it.

One of the interesting design choices they made for this this game was the use of caricatures, taking character traits of the individual to an extreme to create unique flavor to the environment (for instance, a gluttonous individual looks like a hippo, a set of pompous nobles have horns for noses so that they can “toot their own horn”, et cetera). It all ties into the underlying theatrical theme of the story, because in theater, things are also often exaggerated for the purposes of creating a robust atmosphere out of what could have been a very dull stage.

There are some images that I find particularly appealing or informative that I’d like to mention. Right off the bat, I’d say some of the most fascinating work is the work on the town of Final Fantasy IX. There are three primary cities, each with a very unique flavor: Alexandria, Lindblum, and Burmecia. Alexandria is largely influenced by pre-industrial European, with heavy emphasis on ornate religious symbolism, thatched roofing, and towering castle spires. The central design element of the city is a large (easily over 100 meters tall) crystal obelisk that crowns the center of the castle, which ends up playing a central role in a particularly magnificent scene later in the game.

Lindblum could easily considered a “sister city” to Alexandria, remaining strongly influenced by European architecture, but with a greater emphasis on technology and industry. The entire city is filled with clock towers and massive gates to allow airships to pass through (airships are a central aspect of all the Final Fantasy games… they are a recurring theme). Despite the fact that you are actually only able to explore a portion of the city, the designers do an excellent job of depicting a massive city citadel that has built upward rather than outward, with the entire city contained inside the gargantuan castle walls. (If pressed to choose between the two in preference, I would say I prefer the atmosphere generated in Lindblum, but appreciate the beauty and grandeur of Alexandria more.)

The third major city in Final Fantasy IX is an entirely different culture, and is called Burmecia, the City of Eternal Rain. It has VERY strong Indonesian cultural references, and I would argue that it is the most interesting of all three cities. We never get a chance to explore Burmecia in an undamaged state (it is invaded and decimated very early in the story), but even the ruins are truly beautiful and epic. Giant stone statues guard the gates to the castle, with lesser statues lining the streets. There are three themes to the landscape of Burmecia: that of battle (many warrior statues), that of music (in particular, harmonies and bells), and that of spirituality (especially revering one’s ancestors). It paints a remarkable backdrop for a fascinating culture, without even needing to say a word about it.?

A lesser town but still worth noting is the city of Treno, which is mostly drawn from Victorian era design. The city is mostly stone manors, and is circular, with the nobility living on the lower, inner ring of the town. What really makes this town notable is the overwhelming references to games. Several of the walkways take the form of large playing cards, and the nobles each take their name from chess pieces, playing cards, and the tarot (“King of Wands”, “Bishop of Coins”, “Queen of Hearts”, et cetera). The overall mood created by this design choice is really quite unique in the game. I think it may be my favorite town in the game, at least partially because of the juxtaposition they create in it: it is a two-tiered system. There is no middle class, you are either wealthy, or dirt poor. There is a certain amount of irony in binary socioeconomic classes that is interesting to observe, even in a fictional setting.

I’m going to address the section on the monsters they designed separately, because I would like to accompany my writing with some attempts of my own based on their work. Suffice it to say, they are well crafted and interesting, doing an excellent job of reasonably depicting what various beasts of legend should look like. Instead, I’m going to close this annotation by talking about airships.

Airships are a central, recurring theme in every Final Fantasy game, one of a very few recurring things. (Others include “chocobos”, large chicken-like birds that you can ride like a horse, and some character in the game named “Cid”.) It should be noted that no two Final Fantasy games take place in the same world… the theory goes that each Final Fantasy is the final world-affecting story of a given story universe. Airships have been in every single Final Fantasy game since the very first back in 1987 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. That said, they have never been as ornate, detailed, or well thought out as they are in Final Fantasy IX (that includes games after IX).

Put simply, the airships in Final Fantasy IX are beautiful. They are massive and ponderous, and take on attributes of both sailing ships and fish (but not airplanes). In particular, the “Prima Vista”, a theater ship. It is called a theater ship because it in fact houses a stage on the aft of the ship. It is ornate and festive, designed with the need to house (and hide) the band and the various props and set pieces that might be needed during a performance. It is a delight to look at, pure and simple, physics of such a contraption be damned.

Truly, this book is a real treat for anyone interested in the art that goes into game design. The artwork itself is delightful, and the amount of information that can be gleaned from it is remarkable. While I would certainly not suggest purchasing it for the $85 a used edition is currently going for, I would definitely recommend finding a copy to borrow from somewhere to anyone interested in such a field. I said it earlier in this piece, and I’ll say it again: I would LOVE to see them turn this into a series of art collections, for the rest of the Final Fantasy series and other games as well.

Birlew, Dan. The Art of Final Fantasy IX. Indianapolis: Brady Publishing, 2000.

Annotation: Drawing As A Sacred Activity

Trying to find my own balance with the connection between spirituality and art has taken me to a number of books, not the least of which would be The Artist’s Way, and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, neither of which I am directly talking about here (which is good, because I have not yet finished either of those books). It also introduced me rather directly to a book by Heather C. Williams called Drawing as a Sacred Activity.

It isn’t exactly a new concept: using art as a form of therapy has a lot of history behind it. But then, the issue for me has never been an ignorance of the merits of art. My issue has always been (and continues to be) getting past my internal censor to allow myself to DO the art. I do not have the technical ability right now to be able to create what appears in my mind’s eye, not as I would like it to be. Because of this, I am extremely critical of my own work, and allow myself to become paralyzed by this self deprecation. Which leads me to the blurb on the back of the book:

…many people are not encouraged to embrace their creativity. So they quietly shut down that part of their inner lives. Even people who learn to embrace their creativity may find themselves blocked by past emotions. Heather Williams has developed playful yet profound exercises to teach not only the technical but also the emotional skills that artists and nonartists alike need to create and heal their lives. (Back Cover)

Help me get past my past emotions and help me get back in touch with my creativity? Sounds good to me! It was this blurb on the back cover that got me to check the book out of the library. At worst it would be hokey, and I could lampoon it in my annotation. Instead, I was impressed with the honesty of her writing, and found that her advice genuinely made sense. While I have not managed to put much of it into practice, I have every intention to do so.

A good deal of the book is spent doing exercises, and ways to interpret those exercises. They start out very simply, with drawing basic lines, then moving onto doors and windows, then tables, chairs, and finally moving on to clothing and living things (trees, flowers, et cetera). She also recommends drawing with your non-dominant hand for a while, particularly in free-drawing, because it taps distinctly different parts of the brain, parts that often end up being tied to emotional response and memory. It is through this non-dominant drawing that we can often finally come to terms with things that have been blocking us for years. I definitely plan to work on this more, in the hopes that I can finally get past whatever it is that is keeping me trapped in the sentiment that my artistic ability is no better than a third-graders, no matter how good or bad it actually is. (In some ways it is more annoying to those around me than it is to myself. I merely trash my own work, which is an established routine for me at this point… those around me, though, are left confused and exasperated as to why I’m so hard on my work.)

I found her chapter on drawing animals far more interesting on an intellectual level than I did on a technical level. Her opinion (and I tend to agree) is that animals are an excellent way to learn to draw compassionately, which is more in tune with your own emotional well being. Animals (especially pets like dogs and cats) love unconditionally, and do not hide behind false pretenses. They will behave in exactly the way that most suits them at any given time, regardless of who is watching. This really struck a chord, because that is what I seek in my close relationships: an ability to behave exactly as I choose, without fear of judgment. I can be as goofy or relaxed as I’d like, without fear of reprisal. I can think of nothing that makes me love as absolutely and be as unconditionally happy as having that feeling with someone else. THAT, to me, is one of the core essences of love.

I’d say the biggest thing that I learned from this book is that a drawing doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be good, as long as it is emotionally honest. The corollary to that is that not every piece I draw must be technically good in order to not be a failure. There are some very childish, simplistic drawings in this book (admittedly, most of them were done with the artist’s non-dominant hand), but they still succeed in their goal: to honestly convey the artist’s feelings.

If the spoken and written word is the way that our thinking mind communicates, then the visual image is the way our emotional mind expresses itself. That may be an over generalization (where, for instance, does music fall in that range? It is an imperfect analogy at best), but it does convey what I am trying to say. I look forward to putting this (and what I learn from other books) into practice, and perhaps, finally, become comfortable with my own creativity.

I was a bit skeptical when I started the book, but now that it is finished, I am glad I took the time to read it. Anything even brushing up against the spiritual runs a strong risk (in my opinion) of being hokey rubbish, so discovering that I had not wasted my time with this one is really rewarding. I would definitely recommend it to anyone in a similar position to me.

Williams, Heather C. Drawing As A Sacred Activity. Novato: New World Press, 2002.

Essay: The Motive to Create

For many people (myself included), there are few things quite so difficult as the act of starting something. No matter how much passion for a given subject that I might have, taking the necessary steps to begin the act of creation is always difficult, stressful, and time consuming. Even now, as I write this, my attention is vying for anything other than this essay, ranging from traffic nearby to lint underneath the keys of my laptop keyboard (how frustrating in an innocuous way). I redact my writing as I am writing it, constantly going back and deleting, correcting, amending, which disturbs the flow of getting the intial thought OUT, so I can then move on with the rest of the essay. In so many ways, attempting to write out my thoughts is a waste of time, even before we delve into the psychological censor we impose on ourselves, making it sometimes (often times) emotionally wearing or even painful to write. So why do we write? Why do we draw, or paint, or sculpt, photograph, sing, compose, why do we go through so much trouble to create, go through the growing pains where no part of it even feels rewarding?

We build houses because we need a place to live. So what essential need is satisfied by building a sculpture? Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, said that “The creator made us creative. Our creativity is our gift from God. Our use of it is our gift to God. Accepting this bargain is the beginning of true self-acceptance.” I think that very well might be a major part of it. At the risk of expanding in a possibly pedantic way, we create, even (and sometimes especially) when it is painful to do so, because it our way of communicating spiritually. There is a lot of talk nowadays about different types of intelligence, such as emotional intelligence. There has been at least a few remarks of artists being more emotionally intelligent than, say, a scientist or engineer. But that isn’t necessarily always true, and really doesn’t satisfy the particular way that artists are able to communicate. I think, perhaps, artists of various types (writers, painters, et cetera) have developed a spiritual intelligence. Those individuals who exhibit a natural predisposition towards art have a higher natural spiritual intelligence. I think emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence are closely related, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that they really aren’t the same thing. There is a rampant misconception that artists are automatically more “in tune” with their emotions which, knowing and being related to a variety of artists of varying caliber, I can comfortably say is completely erroneous.

Annotation: Quiet Light

This work was not a book on photography. It was a book OF photography, a distinction I thought I’d make clear before I continued. It had very little writing in it, though the images more than made up for that. John Sexton is one of the few photographers currently out there that makes a living entirely on creative photography–that is to say, he does not work for others, every image he takes is for himself, though he sells prints. I have a great deal of respect for this, above and beyond an appreciation for his style of photography (fine grain black and white, taken at dawn and dusk and other times when there is a particular quality of light. I’ll get to that in a moment). This was a redacted collection of a little over a decade’s worth of work, including some pretty remarkable images that I will discuss later in this piece. What little writing there was had been written by Colin Fletcher and James Alinder, short introductory essays to the book and artist. I really found very little insight beyond biographical information about the author within them, and won’t bother mentioning them again.

Before I get into discussing individual prints, I want to bring up the underlying concept behind the book. It is called Quiet Light for a reason. Sexton believes that there is a certain magic found at key times of day… the hour or two before and after sunrise and sunset. The light at those times is much more gentle and subdued, but that said, also causes things previously unnoticed to jump out. It is a quality of light unlike any other. I’m inclined to agree with him, wholeheartedly no less. It’s something I’ve believed in for much longer than I’ve seen any of Sexton’s work. It’s what I call Lux Ducis: The Lord’s Light. It inspires, energizes, it encourages the sense of wonder, of magic. Personally, living in Vermont as I do, I see that light more often than others in the country (it does happen elsewhere… but in my experience, not as often as here). It’s not just a time of a day, it’s also found in the air right before or right after a thunderstorm. What Sexton does with his photography is he tries to capture the essence of those moments of this beautiful, quiet light. While he does have a few “failures” in that endeavor, in my opinion, his number of successes is considerably higher, to the point of discounting the “weaker” images.

The first plate starts out the book quite well, with a finely done lithograph of a sunset at Panther Beach, out in California. The tonal range is remarkable, and the spartan setting really allows for the objects of his attention to really ring out, a distinction from the dark sand surrounding. A minor distraction, in the distance a man is standing in the froth of the sea, slightly blurred due to the length of exposure. On the other hand, plate 3, an image of a stand of aspen at dawn, is all distraction, for me. There is too much else going on in the image, a mishmash of evergreen and aspens, turning it into a conflagration of light and dark. (This is entirely opinion, of course. I’m sure others enjoy it far more than I do.)

Plate 6, a picture of a bleach-white branch sticking out of the Merced River I consider to be a remarkable image. The tonal range is excellent, and the image itself I find striking: the dark, nearly smooth water of the Merced, with this white branch sticking up out of it, mirrored in the water, like the white-clad arm of the lady of the lake carrying excalibur. It has both heavy symbolism as well as technical excellence, a combination which I find makes a strong image.

Plates 11, 12, 15, and 16 I found interesting and delightful, for varying reasons. These I consider “bread and butter” shots of Sexton’s work: it’s the sort of image that has a high technical quality, and is remarkable in content, but lacks a certain emotional relevance or abstraction found in some others. I point these particular images out because they are EXCELLENT images, just lacking that certain something that makes a particular image memorable or evocative.

Plate 19 was an image of a small tree surrounded by other, larger trees. This concept has good potential, but I’m unimpressed with the image. The foreground is overshadowed by a far too active background, leaving the viewer with the aggravating task of trying to separate out the focus of the image from its surroundings. In short, the arrangement of the image is too busy.

Sexton included two images of the same subject, which I’ll discuss together instead of in order. The two I’m talking about are plate 22 and plate 39, up close images of corn lilies. Perhaps its the abstractionist in me, but I REALLY like these images. Corn lilies have large, curved leaves with straight lines stretching lengthwise along them. As the leaf curves, the lines within the leaf curve as well, overlapping with other leaves to create a sea of abstract patterns, nearly surreal in nature.

There is one image in the collection that I like more than any of the others. Plate 39, “Fern and Log”, is simply fantastic. It is relatively simplistic in arrangement, but has a level of detail and tonality that is extremely rare and valued by me a great deal. It is the frond of a fern, placed in juxtaposition to an opened log, the wood grain at odds with the patterns in the fern. There is a particular glow to it, even though it is a relatively dark composition. The initial simplicity of the image at a first glance makes it accessible, which in turn is rewarded as you began to study the image more closely, to see the subtle details of the print. This, I feel, is a worthwhile image, and would have made the rest of the collection acceptable; thankfully, it did not have to carry the rest of the collection… Quiet Light was certainly worth the time to examine it.

Sexton, John. Quiet Light. Bulfinch Press, 1990.