Hermann photographer William Fields is well-known, particularly after the 2015 publication of a book with local photographer Tony Carosella, titled “Hermann, Mo. - One of the prettiest towns in America.” He has a limited edition boxed-book coming out called “The Four Dimensions - A Southwestern Journey,” featuring dramatic scenes from that part of the country. Fields is also currently showing his work through the month of March at OA Gallery, which is across from the train station in Kirkwood, Mo. and will be doing a book signing there from 1-3 p.m. on March 23. Learn more about him at williamfieldsartphoto.com
The Advertiser-Courier wanted to find out more about William Fields and a little about what he sees through the lens of a camera in this exclusive Q & A.
AC - As a photographer, you cut a scene out of what you are seeing from a grand scale. You might say that is editing Mother Nature on a grand scale, because you must eliminate everything outside of the viewfinder. Is this the power of photography or the bane of photography?
Great question! The answer is it is both bane and power for the following reasons.
The problem every artist has, whether the person is a painter, or is involved in any other medium, is this; ‘What do I pare the world down to in a composition?’. When I step outside, I see a huge and wonderful world that I want in my pictures. The viewfinder, is in fact, a powerful tool in choosing just how much of the world to capture and how much to leave out. When I paint, (I’m also a watercolorist) I cut a rectangular hole in a piece of cardboard and use it as a ‘composition viewfinder’. I encourage my students to do this as well.
AC - What would you say to a young aspiring photographer that wants to run outside and take pictures?
Take as many as possible, BUT, realize that they aren’t all precious. Be highly critical of your own work and discard the ones that don’t meet your current level of appreciation and understanding. Continue to grow in your skills and your comprehension of your work and the work of others. Some of my pictures that I thought were superb a year ago, I can barely stand to look at today. Ansel Adams said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Strive to make the next one, the best one you’ve ever made. And, make a lot of them!
AC - Thoreau is credited with saying “a sky without clouds is like a meadow without wildflowers or a sea without sails.” In your landscape photos, you like big, bold skies. Clouds seem to add context, and therefore beauty, to the terrain. Can you talk a little about this, since skies take on a special meaning in your compositions?
I had not come across that Thoreau quote before, but I think it should be my motto and mantra! Yes, of course, a big, active sky is something I constantly seek. People who remember my paintings would tell you the same thing about them. The sky is our metaphor for heaven and the inspiration for a lot of our imaginings.
“Rows and flows of angel hair And ice cream castles in the air And feather canyons everywhere I've looked at clouds that way”
Joni Mitchell - Both Sides Now
AC - In photography, some of the best photos are not necessarily pretty pictures. What else can a camera convey that touches the human spirit and why do you think that is?
Is this why photography, just like other art forms, is meant to be shared?
Well yes, of course the best images, whether they be paintings, drawings, or photographs reach us on an emotional level. Not every picture speaks to every person this way, but when a picture evokes something from within us, there’s a lot to feel and know. There’s a line of communication between the artist and the viewer that can be intimate and profound. Sometimes it’s about the beauty, sometimes it’s about deeper, darker feelings. Ultimately, it’s about what moves us.
AC - Along that same thought, in your mind, what makes for a really good photo?
Oh boy! Now, this is purely my opinion, mind you. It starts with a strong composition that has an identifiable subject and a path for the viewer’s eye to get there. It has a range of values that covers quite a number of things the eye can see in nature. Probably most importantly, a good photo tells a story that touches the viewer in a way that is nostalgic, emotionally evocative, or, at the most basic level, it just plain feels good. When the artist communicates a powerful feeling to the viewer, the picture is successful. And, keep in mind, as I work on a picture, from the instant I press the shutter, until I feel it’s a completed project, I am the viewer. So, it has to hit those notes with me as well.
AC - In your new book, “The Four Directions—A Southwestern Journey” you write
“I love the range of values that one can explore in monochromatic and semi-monochromatic images and their kinship to drawing. The range of grays between the blackest blacks and whitest whites have been the building blocks of my work from early on.”
Is this contrast, both stark and subtle, the key to really seeing something for what it is?
Most definitely. I think so. Maybe???? The human eye can see the world at approximately 576 mega pixels. Most consumer cameras are capable of about 25 mega pixels or less. Professional cameras approach 50 megapixels. A camera exists in the astronomy world that comes close to the resolution of the human eye. It is at 570 megapixels and costs $35,000,000! So, even with the best camera reasonably available, and a skilled photo processor who is able to expand the dynamic range of an image to be much closer to how we see the world with our eyes, the final result is still an abstract interpretation of reality. Granted, that it can be very beautiful and emotionally evocative. The key to seeing something for what it is and the joy of appreciating art are two very different things.
AC - Why did you decide to feature the American West in your new book of photos?
When I was a kid, my dad would tell me tales of the Anasazi people (a Navajo word for ‘The Old Ones’) who lived in the American Southwest from about 500-1200 CE. They were an advanced culture who built stone and adobe cliff dwellings, fashioned beautiful pottery, irrigated their crops and so on. It was believed for many years that around 1200 they abandoned their homes and farms and just disappeared. We know now that that last bit isn’t so. The ancient Anasazi became the Pueblo peoples we know today in Acoma, Zuni, and the all the other contemporary Pueblos. In 1976 a friend gave me a book titled The First American, A Story of North American Archeology by C.W. Ceram. It was the first in-depth piece I’d read about the Anasazi. In 1980, I was transferred to Los Angeles. It wasn’t very long before I began exploring the Anasazi ruins along the Colorado Plateau. I spent the next 20 years or so trying to capture the feel of those places on film. With the advent of digital photography and the acquisition of an infrared camera, I knew I had found the way I wanted to tell that story. Over the last five years, I’ve made numerous trips to the region, exploring and compiling the material for the book. So, you see, this book has been in the making almost my entire life. I had to do it.
AC - In your book, you talk about travel and in spite of over the top thrills many people might have experienced in their lives, there is still the element of surprise and the excitement to be gained from that, just around the corner or over the next ridge. Is this central to being a good photographer? i.e. the thrill of the chase, the pull towards finding the unexpected. Do people take photos to catch the same buzz as going fishing or hunting?
That’s a really interesting question and its answer is closely tied with the next question. Sure, I love the thrill of seeing new places and experiencing new things through travel, but there’s much more to it. Being an artist is an internal fire that is unquenchable. I think there is most certainly a high that is derived from creating a piece of work that feels successful. But one has to go through an awful lot of rubbish, frustration and failure to get to that piece that sings. It’s less about seeking the buzz than it is the fact that I have to make art. I don’t have a choice. If I didn’t, my life would be incomplete. It’s very difficult to explain this to those who don’t consider themselves artists. The creative process is as necessary as breathing, eating or drinking water. It’s a desire that is wrapped up in a basic need. I said in the book that if I could articulate it, I wouldn’t need to make the pictures. The truth is I have to make the pictures. That is the language I speak. What is central to being a good photographer is the willingness to invest and commit to the work. Malcolm Gladwell says that success is based on the ability to work at a skill for more than 10,000 hours. Putting in the time is what is crucial. Success to an artist is having the resources for the next project. Constantly learning and growing is what’s important. Never being satisfied is what is central and is far more important than the buzz we get from new experiences.
AC - You speak of being an artist that uses a tool, like a camera, to express your emotional center. What does photography do for you? Why is it important for any of us to capture a place or person in a particular point in time? Does this express a certain value that people don’t necessarily equate with photography?
This has mainly the same answer as the previous question, but the last part of your question deserves more attention. Photography is the red-headed step child of the arts. There is an artist’s organization that has courted me as a member, yet they don’t allow photographers to exhibit in their shows. I guess they just want the membership fee. A camera is a box with buttons that records light variations. What comes out of the box in its rawest form is a snapshot; something to show family members after the party is over. When an artist takes that image and works on it to not just take a picture, but to make into an art photo, something new is created. Is it of value? Does it add to human culture? Only the viewer can make that decision. The artist is compelled to do it. The rest of society decides on its worth.
AC - Your medium of choice right now is infra-red photography. Living creatures like insects see different light bands in the electromagnetic spectrum to locate food or mates. Do you consider this medium the same as editing in Photoshop to achieve a desired mood, to keep one foot in, yet one foot out of reality? Is it just an exercise to look at something differently?
Infrared or IR photography presents the world in an alternate reality. So does traditional photography for that matter. More on that in a minute. So does painting or drawing a scene. An IR camera sees things that are invisible to the human eye. Those things are there. It’s just that we are unable to sense them. Look, making a picture is the act of an artist reinterpreting, and abstracting reality. No matter how photographically excellent a picture is, it’s still an interpretation of life as we know it and not life itself. In painting there is a school called ‘photo-realism’. It isn’t reality either. A picture is two-dimensional. Life is three or more dimensions. Art is one of the ways humans communicate with one another. Some art has a signal purpose. Some is merely decorative. All of it is a way of telling a story.
If I’m to abstract reality to tell a story, I have a wide array of choices to use in the process. Infrared photography has an allure that is hard to describe. Some of it is a nostalgic feel. Shooting southwestern themed pictures in infrared, for me, speaks to the work of the historic photographers like Edward Curtis, Timothy O’Sullivan, Dorthea Lange, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and others. They didn’t necessarily shoot IR images, but the softness, the monochromatic approach, and sometimes the use of sepia tones in those earlier works is part of what draws me to infrared. I’m not comparing myself to those artists, but as a student of art history, they are among my photographic influences and heroes. IR photography helps me to connect to them and to emulate their work while creating my own artistic statement.
AC - Given the right circumstances, the human brain enables us to see what we want to see. “I know what I saw.” A camera is a machine; therefore, it doesn’t make those adjustments. Photos are used as evidence in court all the time. As a professional photographer, would you say the camera never lies? Explain.
Cameras have the ability to record documentary information, but the ability to manipulate that info is as old as the technology itself. When I shot film, I spent time in a darkroom, dodging, burning, exposing some areas, and holding back others. I played with development times. I do the same kinds of things with digital cameras, computers, Photoshop and other software. Darkroom was the same, but in a less sophisticated way. Does that change reality? No, it changes the picture that is a reflection of reality. Cameras can neither tell the truth, nor can they lie. It is the photographer, the image processor, the artist who changes that neutral information to tell a story. There was a recent event in the news about a young man and a Native American healer. The way the imagery was portrayed, it seemed that there was a confrontation between them. As the story played out in succeeding days, the facts of what happened and what the imagery seemed to tell were quite different.
In journalism that’s an important issue. The photo journalist has an obligation to the consumer to tell a story without tainting it. We all know it doesn’t always happen that way, but it should. In art, it only matters if the artist is trying to deceive the viewer in a way that can be harmful. For the life of me, I can’t think of an example of intentionally deceptive or harmful art. Art is by definition, the antithesis of those things. If changing what the camera reveals to make art is the goal, there isn’t an issue of truth or lies. The real issue is this; does the picture speak to you? Does it have intrinsic value? Do you want to have it in your home or your office? Collectors don’t typically need to ask if what is shown in an art photo is true or false; they just need to know if they like the picture.