Shared Vision: The work of Keld Helmer-Petersen

Making connections between disparate things, be they ideas or objects, has always had a special kind of fascination for me. Unlike comparing apples to apples, I think it can be much more enlightening seeing apples and oranges together.

In a previous post about the work of photographer Brett Wilson a generous reader clued me in to the work of another photography I had not yet encountered, a Dane named Keld Helmer-Petersen.

Keld took up a camera in the late 1930s and never put it down. He seemed to enjoy experimenting with a broad range of subject matter and technique. It seems from what I have yet explored of his images that his approach to photography was about a project much larger than the final result of any given image. He wasn’t trying to create a certain photograph at the end of the day, he was using photography itself as means to explore the world around him in all of its various forms.

His collected photographs are hosted online through the Royal Danish Library. In this time of social distancing and limited ability to get outside and make images of my own, I have found Keld’s images resonate quite deeply with the way I see the world.

There seems to be no organization to the online database of his photos, which highlights to me the eclectic and wide-ranging set of interests that grabbed Keld’s attention. The things that seemed to catch his attention weren’t the subjects of the scene so much as the relationships between various elements. He captured odd angles of buildings, light and angles, shadows of things as opposed to the things themselves, as well as a whole lot of experimentation with light and image made photographically without cameras.

The way he composes scenes showcases a way of seeing that calls to attention gestalt qualities occurring accidentally, unintentional forms arising out of unique arrangements of buildings and industrial forms.

For me, going through the back log of his work has been a surreal and striking experience. Like the interactions between abstract forms in his photographs, I find myself resonating and relating to his work quite strongly. The description that came to mind was described in a paper by Einstein in which he described “spooky action at a distance”, two particles sharing properties and influencing each other without any direct connection, often separated by vast amounts of space.

This is someone who shares a way of seeing that I can relate to. I can imagine myself taking the pictures that he has taken, and I can see what I think he was trying to capture in those same images.

The experience of making these sorts of connections is more than simply camaraderie, more than a knowing wink and a nod. To share this way of seeing with another artist is like being inside of them. It is an experience of deep sympathy and resonance. We are all ultimately looking to know that there are other people in the world who can relate to us in a meaningful way, and I am beginning to see the broad swath of art as the only real means of finding these visceral connections.

In this time while most of us are spending time sheltering in place and keeping our distance from one another. How vital to continue sharing work that can build these connections over great distance and even gulfs of time, so that we can find others that see how we see and let us know that we are never alone.

If nothing else I am about 2000 images into his collection, and there are more than 18,000 hosted to go through, which should keep me busy.

Links:

Keld Helmer-Peterson on Wikipedia

Collection of photographs hosted by the Royal Danish Library. This resource has an incredible amount of collected media beyond images including writing and visual arts. Though much of the site is in Danish, this is still a wonderful place to explore while sheltering in place.

Artist Inspiration: Brett Weston

I have just discovered a kindred spirit in the photography world and wanted to share some of my inspiration. I’m not going to dive much into his biography since that is something quickly found online. Suffice it to say that he was born second son to an already famous photographer but quickly defined his own talents and style.

I came across his work through The Brett Weston Archive, a wonderful site focused on the photography that offers several curated collections that can be viewed online. All images in this post are taken from one of these portfolios titled simply “Oregon”.

What immediately struck me about Brett’s work was his focus on texture and the abstracted patterns of positive and negative space that appear on surfaces or are created through repetition or overlapping of textures within a scene. His work doesn’t seem interested in depth so much as the more two-dimensional patters created by the elements whether they be on the same plane or not.

He seemed to see the confluence of light and dark and wanted to flatten it through high contrast black and white so that the resulting image would show how these elements combined with one another to create something more interesting, rather than showing them in relation to one another within a larger scene.

I’m not sure whether to consider him as a “nature” photographer or an abstract photographer, but a combination of the two certainly seems appropriate, given that he was using the natural elements to highlight an emergent pattern, rather than highlighting a specific subject in its own right.

I very much appreciate the aesthetic and have long been interested in creating similar visuals through various media that I have explored. Seeing a photographer who is able to capture such things so beautifully on film in the way that I can currently only imagine is absolutely inspiring to me and shows me that there is a way forward and a benchmark to measure myself against.

Hope there was a bit of inspiration in there for someone else who reads this! As I continue my own journey into the history of photography I will certainly call out those who speak to me, and I would appreciate having other photographers pointed out to me if there are suggestions from any readers.

Links:

Brett Weston – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brett_Weston

The Brett Weston Archive online – Portfolios page https://www.brettwestonarchive.com/portfolios/

Ink and Wood: Inner Landscapes

At a critical moment of my young adulthood while I was travelling abroad for the first time in my life, I found myself in Hong Kong studying Chinese art history, and losing myself in the magical wandering landscapes of black and white ink scroll paintings.

I was immediately captivated by images created using only simple brushstrokes, deep black inks and cloudy washes. Within these simple parameters were created fantastical mountain scenes, steep rolling cliffs, bristling trees and silently tumbling waterfalls, all shrouded in swirling mists. A combination of the details and the impressionism drew me in and invited me to spend my time wandering in those images.

The history of scroll paintings is ancient, and like all art forms it has developed and evolved constantly along the way. Landscapes are just one area of focus for within the history of scroll paintings, but have become incredibly important as an area of focus because they have developed strong ties to underlying philosophical and religious ideas about man’s relation to the larger world.

For a deeper introduction to the subject I encourage you to follow this link to a collection of Essays posted through Department of Asian Art within The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm

Something about the flowing line work really grabbed me from my first exposure to this art form. Each portion of the painting is generally made up of similar repeated brush strokes, building on each other to show texture and form. This is because the brush strokes themselves were based upon the same forms used in calligraphy, which requires specific methods for writing. There is fascinating connection between the fact that the forms used to create landscapes are built out of the forms to create language. It might be seen as a meta-version of “a picture is worth a thousand words”, compounding upon itself. There is also the idea that each person has a unique for to their calligraphy, and the way in which one person writes shows something about who they are as a person. This was equally true for this style of painting.

These men extolled the virtues of self-cultivation—often in response to political setbacks or career disappointments—and asserted their identity as literati through poetry, calligraphy, and a new style of painting that employed calligraphic brushwork for self-expressive ends. The monochrome images of old trees, bamboo, rocks, and retirement retreats created by these scholar-artists became emblems of their character and spirit.

Essay: Landscape Painting in Chinese Art, The Met

I have repeated returned to this art form as an inspiration through many different explorations of media over the years. Repetition, line work and density of layering in order to create texture and depth have all been qualities I find interesting. This I think resonates in some of my philosophical views and the idea that we, and the world around us, are a beautiful collision of chaotic elements coming together in just such a way as this. There is beauty in the chaos, and it is only possible to see the beauty of each element in relation to the rest of the picture.

My journey through visual art has been strongly tied to self expression. I use the work I create to have a conversation with myself about what I find meaningful and inspiring. This meditative and immersive aspect of scroll paintings immediately made sense to me and resonated at a deep level. Learning that this was indeed part of the genesis of the original art was both eye opening for me (and validating) but also seemed as if it could not be any other way.

Going beyond representation, scholar-artists imbued their paintings with personal feelings. By evoking select antique styles, they could also identify themselves with the values associated with the old masters. Painting was no longer about the description of the visible world; it became a means of conveying the inner landscape of the artist’s heart and mind.

Essay: Landscape Painting in Chinese Art, The Met

One of the most fascinating things I remember learning about landscape scroll paintings, was that they were meant to be semi-interactive. Many scrolls are very long, much longer than could be fully opened for viewing on any desk, or even in most rooms. Though the height of the image was often quite comfortable to sit on a desk, both trailing ends much necessarily be rolled up, like a roll of sketch paper used for children’s drawing tables. The artist would roll one end and unroll the other to move the paper along an work in sections, allowing portions to dry before moving on. This also affected the way in which they must be viewed. In order to experience a painting the viewer must also begin at one end and move the image in sections by rolling and unrolling through the image. In this way the viewer was encouraged to follow the imaginary journey through the rolling countryside in a temporal way, almost like a visual novel or film strip.

So the images weren’t intended only as a means for the artist to express themselves, but also used as a means of inviting self-reflection and escapism in others.

Up until now I have been struggling to create images from within myself that will inspire me and help pull me outside of myself. Looking backwards, that seems a bit like trying to turn around far enough that you can have a conversation with yourself. Though the idea is noble, the physics just don’t work. Photography has shown me that the images I am looking for are already out there waiting to be found. Nature will always be able to create a more perfect colletion of elements than I ever could. Rather than generating the image my perspective now is to try and be receptive to it, to capture it and allow it to speak to me.

The ink paintings has returned to me in the form of dead wood. Looking closely at fallen logs, split and aged with time, scarred by the elements and bare to the light, show striking resemblance to the forms and flows of Chinese scholars sitting in seclusion trying to find themselves.

Like the image above I have recently been focused on finding these deep patterns of texture on fallen logs that translate into surreal landscapes all on their own. I have been collecting them in a new portfolio project on the site and will continue to add as I find more.

Gallery: Ink Paintings In Wood

For now, here are a few of the ones that speak more clearly to me and allow me to go on escapist journeys of self-discovery like the original masters.

Cheers, thanks for reading as always. Here again are the links to the two resources cited in this post:

The Met, department of Asian Art:, essay on Chinese landscape painting: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm

China Online Museum, Chinese Landscape Painting: https://www.comuseum.com/painting/landscape-painting/