Of Polar Bears and Pointless Ladders


It seems odd that I should place poor Ed Barron (the model in these two shots) in water all the time, but at least it’s water he didn’t have to endure at the time. The burden of that water was mine, in post, in Photoshop, using several pictures to try to tell a story.

After completing the newest image, “Storm Psychology,” I went back and found this older image from nearly three years ago, “a Preference for Fiction,” and I was struck by the contrast in the execution of the images. Sure, spend enough time on something and you do get better, but there is more than technical craft I wish to discuss here, there is sensibility, temperance, and restraint as well.

“Fiction” is an image that’s dear to me still, but I no longer consider it part of my portfolio. I like the idea of it - it speaks to me personally - about a person who is completely oblivious to the world around him and prefers to lose himself in a book or other fiction. It certainly is a personal statement, but I cannot get past the technical issues as well as the compositional failures too.

Critiquing an older work has its merits - it shows you where you’ve been and where you are, and makes certain recurring tendencies very visible. “Fiction” features one of my most challenging habits to overcome: overcrowding. Too many elements, too much information. At the time, each element had a justification - the clocks literally meant the passage of time while lost in a fictional world of reading. and the rain and lightning and spray were there to convey BAD WEATHER!!! A ladder above meant that there was a way out of this mess but he was oblivious to it. The wall was a feeble attempt at establishing some sense of location - perhaps his property? I didn’t put much effort into creating a “where” element in the image, but then, maybe I justified it as not important to the concept.

But then, neither were the antennae, nor the piece of white fabric on the ladder, nor the ladder, nor so many clocks. It is something I have done, this overcrowding, since I was a very young child drawing. Once in awhile I feel compelled to pull out all the stops and make something grand, at least grand in my own mind, with dozens and dozens of layers and elements all woven into a tapestry - a feast for the discerning eye. Mind you, I do not think this desire is a bad one - I do think there is a place for it in art and in my work, but this older image suffered from it.

It would have been enough to have the rain and the storm clouds and the man reading in the midst of it. It would have been better still to have him walking and reading in the middle of a road. It would have been enough to convey the idea, with the title driving it further, without all the nonsense elements that distract from the character.

And now onto the new one…

Without going too deep into what I was thinking and the idea behind it, you can see this man is also somewhat submerged in water and seems somewhat unbothered by it. Where is he? What is going on out there behind him with all the animals? Why is this room he is in open to the water and allowed to flood? These are the questions I hope the image inspires the viewer to ask. To add more clues to it would be a disservice. I don’t want to explain it all to you, I want to give you a suggestion - some basic ingredients to steer you in the right direction, and leave some room for your own interpretation. That is my hope, anyway.

Now, onto the lessons learned…

Those tendencies I mentioned still trickle into my mind now, even if it has learned a thing or two about composition in the last three years. For instance, I wanted to have a lot more going on out that door than is here now - I had buildings behind the animals, some of them submerged. I had a lot more detail in the clouds, and I had even more animals than I do in the final image. In this room or house, I had a lot more in mind as well. Paintings, mementos, objects all hoarded into this place to try to keep possessions safe. I had an animal close to the door peeking in…

All those things I felt would have been fun, but ultimately distracting to the man in the image and the circumstances he may be in. The animals are leaving in formation, there is water coming into this place, and this man is not alarmed or moving. There, enough said. It’s hard to listen to reason when you feel a burst of creative excess come on - but it is something to strive for. No, I don’t think that simple is always best, but direct or focused is. Balancing essential elements and extraneous or superfluous ones is a maturation process necessary for most artists, and it might be embarrassing to look back on your earlier work, but it is useful for growth and perspective.

I like this new one a lot more than the older one, but then, the idea of the older one is still sound and relevant to me, so perhaps this image will be revisited one day and reshot with more clarity and sense of focus.

Ideas are never the problem, the execution of them tends to be.

Stay dry and watch out for the Polar Bears!

Michael Bilotta
February 14th, 2016