Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Galen Schlich: Innocence and Transition
The home page of Galen Schlich’s website features an apt quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” Coming from a broken home, Schlich has been trying to illuminate a personal and artistic path through a lifetime of transition. He originally sought a creative outlet through landscape photography, but didn’t discover his personal voice until he began photographing people, as well as confronting the circumstances of his childhood. His twin themes of beauty and innocence — and their sometimes disturbing intersections — resonate throughout all his bodies of work.

Galen Schlich

Describe your first attempts at photographic visual expression.
When I first began taking photographs, my primary motivation was to put my love of nature down on film. I did that for 15 years or so. At that time I very rarely photographed people — most of my work excluded the human presence. Eventually, I picked up a book by the Czech photographer Jan Saudek. I had never heard of him before, but his work was so different from what I been exposed to; it was much more personal, and was profoundly affected by his childhood. Then, while I was working in the Antarctic for the National Science Foundation, my father passed away. After my employment there was finished I traveled back to Illinois to attend to family affairs. I also reconnected with some old friends there. I had never been around children much before, and they had two girls, Brittney and Brooke, who opened my eyes to the beauty and innocence of childhood. They were for me an expression of all that is pure and good in a world that, as we know, can be very cruel. They were an emotional oasis for me during a time of confusion and loss. They very much affected my soul as well as my work. Afterward, I traveled around the world and spent some time in Paris and southern France and consumed everything about painters and photographers that I could get my hands on. I’d spend hours in dusty little bookshops in Paris looking for new inspiration and wander the floors of the museums studying paintings.

How long did it take you to develop a personal vision and style?
I think it took a lot longer for me than perhaps others simply because I hadn’t been hit over the head with the substance of it soon enough. I really hadn’t explored deeply enough. There were a lot of things I was running away from, although I didn’t know what they were and I didn’t see it as running away at the time. When that “substance” finally did hit me, I was quite unprepared for where it would take me. Nevertheless, I dove into it and pursued it with vigor. The beginnings of this personal vision emerged from beauty. Just as I had photographed the beauty of nature, now I started photographing the beauty of women and children, but clearly with more of an idea of where I wanted to take it.


What was the biggest challenge in doing so?
Impatience. I had these feelings and ideas that I knew I wanted to express, but at the same time seemed unable to produce any material from them. I took a sketchbook everywhere and would write ideas and sketch pictures to help me visualize these ideas. I would keep postcards, brochures, tourist leaflets or any other advertising material. If it had an image on it that gave me some ideas, it was mine. Sometimes I just felt like quitting altogether; it bothered me very much that I couldn’t seem to produce anything good.

Which photographers and/or other artists have influenced you? And why?
As I’ve stated, Jan Saudek is a big influence. His photography contains elements of dreams, fantasy, beauty, ugliness, humor and juxtaposition. I like the fact that he uses symbolism in his works that often tie into other pieces, such as a window or an old rag doll. The aspect of time in his work is also fascinating — he’ll photograph a small child and years later photograph her as an adult. He is captivated by beauty, but at the same time questions it and challenges our perception of it. Robert Demachy is another influence. His eye for composition was wonderful, and his portrait and nude studies are very simple but extremely striking and emotional. He also disliked the “straight print” and preferred to add another dimension to his work through alternative processes. His work has influenced me in that I also try to achieve a different look through alternative printing methods. Joel-Peter Witkin is another photographer that has interested me. He is constantly challenging the viewer into looking at the subject of beauty, ugliness, life and death. His pictures make you ask questions or they disgust you or they make you laugh, which is what good art is all about for me.

The Falling

The ethereal, dreamlike quality to these images calls to mind the Pictorialists, yet the mood and tone feel contemporary. Is this your intent?
It is and it isn’t. I have been heavily influenced by the Pictorialists and tried to emulate that feeling in my work, but I also realized that I didn’t want to produce the exact same thing. I’m also thinking that maybe my interest in fashion portraitists, such as Paolo Roversi, may be behind the contemporary feeling in the works; possibly something is slipping in there from that influence.

Your photographs are very sensual, yet they also project innocence, which creates a certain energy and contrast.
Yes, that’s true. I think my focus in many of the pictures was to create something very simple for the eye and at the same time very sensual. The subject of innocence is very obvious in my work because it has always captivated me. It’s a question for me, and also something that goes hand in hand with beauty in children. The innocence of a child combined with beauty is magical for me, but that innocence is fleeting, like the blossoming of spring flowers; you know that in the not too far-off future that bloom will be over. Children live in the moment and, unlike many adults, are constantly dreaming and questioning things, however simple. For me, it’s nice to be a part of that simplicity and innocence. I believe that beauty and innocence are two of the aspects that compel me in most of my work.

My initial read on many of your photographs is that they’re meditations on the transition from childhood to adulthood. For example, you have an image of a ballerina that's cropped so that the position of the hands and arms is that of a pregnant woman cradling her belly, yet the subject seems to be an adolescent.
They could very well be looked at in that light. Yes, the ballerina picture does specifically play with the idea of transition. When I started exploring the themes of youth, innocence and beauty these naturally brought up questions for me about time, birth, aging and death. Even the young girl in the image “The Dreamer” evokes the idea of life and death. On one hand we see a beautiful girl who looks as if she’s asleep, and on the other hand one may also perceive her as being dead.

The Dreamer

Your image of a young girl’s legs — bare, ghostly white, smudged and cropped at the knees, seemingly suspended in midair — has a disturbing elegance and surreal intensity that reminds me of similar imagery in some of Luis Buñuel films. Do you recognize this affinity?
Yes, this is one of my favorite photos. Although I’ve only viewed one of his films, there is definitely that surrealist element that I relate with. Your expression, “disturbing elegance” is exactly what I was trying to represent with this image. I like that it leaves the mind to wander a bit about what is happening here. It’s not so clear-cut to the viewer and yet it’s not an overly complicated picture.

The still life of the dead birds and fruit and the double-exposure portrait “Natalie Two” also project a subtle surrealism. Is this planned, or is it a spontaneous result?
Yes and no. The double exposure was shot on an 8x10 camera and I forgot to flip the film plate, thus the double exposure. When I exposed the negative and printed it, it became apparent that this was a far more interesting composition than it would have been had I not made the error. With the “Still Life with Dead Birds” I planned this to have the surrealist element. I wanted to override the traditional “still life” with something that would breath new life (or death) into it, something completely out of place. I messed around all evening with different variations of these birds, and the one I eventually came up with seemed to show a mixture of tranquility, the nice peaceful arrangement of fruit and wine, overlapped by the tragedy of these birds that look as if they had just dropped out of the sky onto this table. Sketching ideas onto paper is very important to me in the visualization of planned shots such as this. I can be spontaneous, but I find that if I already have an idea to work from, spontaneity becomes much easier.

Still Life with Dead Birds

Looking at the portraits on your website, I get the impression of very concentrated, intense shooting sessions, and of a sense of collaboration with your subjects. They seem to be full and equal participants in the process, at least in terms of their emotional involvement.
Participation is the one thing that I require. If the subject doesn’t understand my work or at least what I am trying to capture, then oftentimes the end result doesn’t work. I try and involve the subject into being an active participant in the creative process. I explain what I am trying to capture, be it mood, feeling, et cetera. I often find that the second shoot with a person is much better than the first, because they’ve had a chance to see the results and have a better understanding of what I’m looking for. The exchange between subject and photographer is paramount to realization. When everything fits there seems to be a unique stillness and unspoken conversation between us. I find this very calming; it’s like someone telling you a bedtime story when you’re a child. For most of my portraits I use an 8x10 bellows camera. This slows everything down and allows for that space to emerge. I try and set an atmosphere of tranquility and work slowly so there’s a very tangible calmness when it comes time for exposure. Children are wonderful to work with — anything that involves attention and imagination seems to compel them, although sometimes it’s hard getting them to be still for long.

It seems that portraiture is your preferred genre. Do you find it more expressive than, say, landscapes or documentary?
I find that portraiture is much more expressive for me. I mentioned that years ago I only shot landscapes. That fulfilled something in me at the time, but even then I felt there was something missing, and that basically I was just composing another “pretty picture.” I like the truthfulness and reality of reportage, but I have never been able to express myself or my vision through that facet of photography. Portraiture provides the unique opportunity to seen inside someone else, to get to know them, enjoy their beauty, and try to work together to capture that vision on film.

Natalie Two

What specific ideas, themes or attitudes do you try to express in your photographs?
I try to find beauty first and foremost. If the subject has a unique look, I might try something with a different idea in mind, such as the girl in the photo “Camille.” I wanted to capture her beauty, but also the feeling that if you stumbled upon her in the forest, your first reaction might be run away. Those piercing eyes evoke a sort of evil wood nymph image. I like to experiment with different themes in my work, so it depends on what kind of physical features my subjects possess. I like to depict children as beautiful, innocent creatures, but at the same time tip the other end of the scale and portray another side of them, which is their ability to be mischievous and sometimes downright mean. Youth is a wonderful way for me to contrast immortality. Everyone can associate with youth, the days when nothing seemed to matter. There’s something about the freshness, beauty and pureness of youth as opposed to aging and withering away of the body and mind that captivates me.

I also sense feelings of loss, regret, nostalgia.
I have also perceived that in my photos. Subconscious or not, it’s definitely a recurring element. Something that was totally unexpected for me in my photographic endeavors was that there would be questions popping up about my childhood and past in general. I come from a broken family — my father raised four boys alone. I definitely lacked a female presence in my life, being four when my mother left, and thus also lacking the nurturing and love necessary for a child at that age. My father went through an amazingly hectic life to ensure our well-being and safety, but lacked the ability to show affection. I often wonder if what comes out of my photography may in fact be tied to childhood issues. I believe that’s where some of those emotions you reference come from. I relate to the nostalgia of being a kid and feeling carefree, of yearning for an age when things weren’t necessarily easier, but simpler. Many children today have never had the chance to explore wooded areas or sit outside, stare at the stars and dream. Many can’t even see the stars because of city lights. Activities that children used to participate in and learn valuable life lessons from have been replaced by videogames, iPhones and television.


Is it fair to say your works more on emotional than intellectual levels?
Although I like to include a hint of something thought-provoking in my work, my favorite photographs and paintings have always been those that hit me emotionally first. I think a work of art should try and elicit both from a viewer, or at least attempt to.

What do you think gives your work its individuality?
I would have to say that much of it evolves from the way my images are cropped and the overall feelings associated with my subjects. One’s inclination is to photograph a whole object, or at least something the mind recognizes easily, like a face. It’s not standard to crop a visually vital element out of the picture, such as half of a person’s head. This disturbs some people, who are used to seeing the whole picture. Bu I believe this can be a positive first step for viewers to use their imaginations. In “Girl at the Gate of Time” one first wants to know what the rest of her face looks like. But as the eye wanders around the frame, the focus is soon withdrawn from her face to the other, more important aspects. Symbolically, there’s a lot happening in this photo. The cropping also draws attention to areas of interest that provoke an emotion — like the girl’s neck in “Devon.”

Has your approach to photography changed through the years?
Dramatically. I see photography as an avenue to express my ideas and myself, whereas before I wanted so bad to just make that “pretty picture” that would make it in a magazine? Photography, like any other art form, should try and raise questions and emotions, not just feelings of joy at something pretty to look at. The aim of art is to challenge. If one isn’t challenged, then one stagnates. I want to create images that one can’t pass by, but are forced to take a second and third look because they contain elements that won’t leave you alone.

Girl at the Gate of Time

(I wrote about Galen Schlich for issue 54 of Black & White magazine. Spend some time with his work at:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jeff Alu: Desert Dreams
Jeff Alu is a freelance digital artist and photographer who spends most of his free time roaming California's desert areas in an open-ended journey of personal and visual exploration. His black-and-white photographs play with lighting, scale and perspective to transform the mundane into something ominous and alien. Visual equilibrium becomes a tenuous concept, as the viewer tends to feel trapped between dimensions of reality and surreality. Yet no matter how unbalanced things become, one is invariably seduced by the dark poetry of Alu’s post-apocalyptic visions.

Jeff Alu

You studied to be a musician, but began taking photographs in 2000. What drew you to the medium?
I’ve always been attracted to photography, and even entered a few competitions in junior high school, but I was much more interested time in music at that time, so that’s where I concentrated most of my efforts. I’ve always loved the desert and hiking in remote areas. I bought a digital camera in 2000 to document some of my hikes, without any real intention of breaking into fine art. It was only after playing with some of these images in Photoshop that my love for black and white was reborn. And from there I just couldn’t stop.

People are largely absent from your work, with the exception of a couple of series. Are you more comfortable photographing unpopulated locations, or is this more of an artistic/philosophic choice?
I also do commercial work, which always features people. But for my fine art work, it’s true, I’m much more interested in shots without people, even when I photograph in densely populated areas like New York City. I try to project human emotions and feelings onto inanimate objects; I’ve done that ever since I was a kid. So when I come across a small bush or rock in the middle of nowhere, I feel like it’s trying to say something to me, like it wants to be photographed, to be noticed. I don’t hear an actual voice, of course, I just get a feeling that the scene has something to say and needs to be recorded.


You seem most at home in desert locations. Why do these kinds of locations speak to you more than other kinds of landscapes? Your bio references an absence of complexity. What else?
I think it also has to do with the difficulty in finding subjects in the desert. It’s not like the city, where everything is close together. I like to have to work for what I find, which turns it into an adventure. I think maybe it goes back to the work I used to do at the Jet Propulsion Lab, hunting for comets and asteroids. It took lots of time and patience, but when I found something, it was well worth the effort. I no longer do that kind of work, but my desert trips are a continuance of that mindset. It’s really all about discovery. Although, I must say, I’ve found city photography to be equally as rewarding.

You’ve written on your website that you now see the desert in a new way since you began taking photographs. What exactly do you mean?
Well, it’s not just the desert, but everywhere. Doing photography has taught me how to see in 2D. We’re used to walking around, seeing everything in 3D. Everything looks great in 3D. But stop walking and look at the same scene, from the point of view of a camera. It can become less interesting when seen that way. So, doing photography has really taught me to notice interesting compositions that I would normally just walk past. And these compositions are available to us all the time, everywhere. You just have to stop and look. Otherwise they fly on by unnoticed.


The digital manipulations you perform look as if they could conceivably have been performed in the darkroom. In other words, your photographs have a more organic feel to them than most digital images. Do such distinctions matter to you?

There’s no doubt that I look for ways to create an organic, and even traditional, feel to my images. My processing techniques in Photoshop are very basic, converting to black and white, using the dodge and burn brush, a little sharpening here, some blur there. I don’t work in layers when processing, I just do everything to the original image layer. I like to keep it basic. I think I would probably be doing the same kinds of things if I were working in a traditional darkroom.

Have you ever worked with traditional photographic materials and methods?

Back in junior high school was the first time. Just your normal photography class. The second time was while I was working at the Jet Propulsion Lab, We would go up to Palomar Observatory and use the 18” Schmidt Camera and make images of the sky. There was no room at all for art; everything in the darkroom was very procedural. I spent many hours in there processing those films, and listening to music was the only thing that got me through it. After that, I had no desire to go back into the darkroom, so the digital age is what brought me back into photography.

There’s a kind of artificial quality to many (but not all) of your photographs in that they look more like tabletop dioramas than actual locations, giving them a surreal aspect. Do you recognize this quality and, if so, is this intentional?
The tilt-shift style of focus that I use in some of my images brings that about. I was attracted to that effect ever since I first saw it, and I think using this technique is yet another way to isolate subjects, making them appear to be hidden away within something.

Come Out and Play

Surrealism is, of course, a route to the unconscious. Does your photography tap into submerged feelings and ideas that you’re perhaps not fully aware of?
I don’t believe that I have a full grasp of why I create the images that I do. I’m not exactly sure where my desire to create these kinds of images comes from. But honestly, I try not to think about it too much. I just go with the flow. I know that when I’m most happy with the way an image turns out, it usually means that I feel I’ve created something from a different point of view from which I’m used to seeing it, and that I’ve given it a new meaning of some kind. But what that meaning is exactly, is not always clear to me.

Your images tend towards harsh contrast. Why do you print this way? Is it to enhance the abstraction of the images?
I’ve always used the word “impact.” Not to be trite, but I think this gives the images more impact, at least for the kinds of things I’m trying to express. Indeed, it does enhance the abstraction as well, which helps to take the viewer out of reality, at least a little.

According to your bio, you don’t set out to photograph with a particular theme in mind. Do you sometimes unravel the meaning of your images after you have manipulated them digitally?
I generally take and image because I see “potential” in it. Sometimes it’s very obvious when I take the shot. Other times, I don’t see it until I actually start playing with the image. Many times, I don’t actually process the image until a couple of years later. I have a huge backlog of images, and every once in a while I revisit images which at first didn’t mean much to me, but only after a time have become important.


What kind of statement(s) do you want your photographs to make?
In my 3D animation work, everything is created from scratch. I can create anything that’s in my mind, even though it doesn’t exist in the real world. But actually, I’m much more interested in finding interesting, surreal scenes that are in the real world. Almost like they could have been created from scratch with a computer, but are in fact, real. I guess I’m interested in showing the kinds of fantastic things that do exist in the real world, that are often overlooked. Art is everywhere.

Photography seems to be a way for you to filter out the extraneous baggage of urban life and pressure, practiced in a kind of Zen manner in which you’re completely open to chance. Is that an accurate read?
Yes and no. That is to say in the final product, yes. But in going out and gathering my photos, even though in the case of the desert it’s an escape of sorts, it isn’t always especially relaxing. I usually like to photograph in extreme heat. I’m constantly worried about my Jeep breaking down, etc. The part about chance is right on. I usually photograph very quickly, and I don’t hang around in one location for very long. I find that the more I think about things, the less interesting the photographs become. Or the more I know about a location ahead of time, the less interested I am in photographing there. I like to “discover” as I photograph, and that’s when I take my best shots.


Is mood always more important to you than subject? To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, is the mood the message?
Hmm, great question! Mood is certainly part of it. A big part of it. But I can’t create the mood without the subject. That is, it’s the subject that attracts me in the first place. The subject dictates the mood. I’m going to have to go with 50-50 on this one.

The mood your pictures evoke is typically dark and brooding, even Gothic, yet it’s also strangely inviting. Do you strive for this duality?
I don’t think I strive to make things inviting, but I always strive to make things interesting, if possible. It’s true, many of my images are dark. I think the darkness comes more from my interest in extremes, rather than my interest in creating a dark, gothic style. I’m just trying to create a more powerful image, and darkness sometimes solves this problem for me. Plus, darkness is a great way of getting rid of extraneous parts of an image and homing in on what I feel is important.

There’s a mesmerizing quality to many of the images. Do you find yourself in a kind of trance-like state when you make the exposure?
Sometimes I do. I have a certain way of putting myself into this state. Very little sleep the night before, very little food the day of, lots of caffeine, and lots of sun. Crazy as this sounds, it can get me into this mood. I’ve done this a few times when shooting in the desert, but in fact, I don’t find that I come back with better photographs. I haven’t done this in a while. I think when I’m shooting, it’s all about the potential I see in the image, and I don’t need to be in that actual state at the time of the exposure.


Are you satisfied with your command of the medium, or do you feel like you can improve your technique?
My technique always evolves. If you look at the shots in “g1” on my site, and then “g13” you can see an evolution of sorts. Back in the beginning, my shots were cropped, sharpened, with perfectly straight horizon lines, and I was striving for “perfect” compositions. Now, I often use tilts, blurs, and I usually don’t crop at all. I find that without cropping, I sometimes discover interesting compositions. Just when I think I’ve found the perfect technique, I discover new methods. So yes, I’m always finding ways of improving or changing techniques, it’s all very organic. My actual shooting technique has always been the same though: default settings on the camera, no tripod, shoot quickly and move on, using $300.00 digital cameras. Basically point and shoot.

Your images leave lots of room for interpretation. Is this something you strive for? What kind of reactions does your work elicit?
I think that is something I strive for. I don’t want my shots to be too “obvious,” as in, “Oh, there’s a picture of a rock.” I want to try to give that rock some kind of alternate life, to make it more than just a rock, if possible. So when the viewer looks at the photo, they have to process it a little and think about it, and hopefully, that will bring them back to look again at a later time. As far as reactions to my work, they really have a wide span. From the very same image, I’ve gotten reactions such as “turbulent,” “calming,” “apocalyptic,” “inspirational.” I’m always glad when I create a photograph that brings out these kinds of diverse reactions, because I think then I’ve done my job.


This comment from your blog seems relevant here: “My idea of a gallery show is to hang the images on the outside of my jeep, drive at least 100 mph, and require the visitors to drive along side me to see the images. Then they would better understand my mindset.” Does the traditional gallery setting somehow impede full understanding of your imagery?
I don’t think it impedes understanding of the final product, but I do think it might impede understanding of my methods of getting these images into my camera, which I suppose, really isn’t all that important in the end. It’s just funny to me how these images can have such rough-and-tumble beginnings, and then end up quietly hanging on a wall in a nice air-conditioned room.

I like how you play with perspective to lend element of unreality. It’s somewhat akin to Bill Brandt’s approach to landscape. And the contrast and abstraction call to mind Brett Weston. What photographers in fact have inspired or influenced you?
Wow, lots, I think. Way too many to mention. I’m not one who dwells on a particular photo for too long, but I’m always looking at other photographers’ work. One influence was my friend and fellow photographer Greg Fisch. The first time he showed me his portfolio was a real inspiration. Another influence in the beginning was the work of David Fokos. His use of minimalism really opened my eyes to what can be done with incredibly simple subjects. Another has been Keith Carter, with his amazing way of defocusing his images. So many others.


Who or what else do you derive inspiration from?

My mother’s art has been a major inspiration. I grew up watching her paint in a mostly abstract style, and that really taught me to see differently than I would have otherwise. Cinematography is also a big influence. I’m a huge fan of black-and-white movies, Italian neorealism, etc., those old gritty movies that were filmed under harsh conditions with minimal equipment. I try to put some of that grittiness into my images. Modern cinematographic techniques have really influenced me as far as tilting the camera, and thinking in terms of my images being a single frame from a moving sequence. I really hope to break into cinematography at some point. And then there’s music. The expansiveness of the music of Sibelius, Bruckner, many others, has had a huge influence on my way of seeing, and has pushed me to see on a larger scale.

(You can see more of Jeff's unique work at his website: