Personal Artistic Motivations

Over the course of my time spent in the photography MFA program, I have been exposed to hundreds of photographers. Reviewing the beliefs and inspirations helped me to consciously and subconsciously frame and improve my own notions around art. Early within my studies, the main focus included proper technique, composition, formal elements, and narrative. The following questions were pertinent to my studies:

·      How was the photograph created?

·      What equipment and techniques were used?

·      How did the photographer use compositional elements to strengthen the image’s aesthetic qualities and narrative meanings?

As I advanced through the MFA program, I was asked to answer these next questions:

·      Why was the photograph made?

·      Did the photographer apply a unique personal vision to the work?

·      Do I feel the photograph is effective given the intended audience and application?

As I’m rounding the bases and heading home (aka: graduation), I’m learning that it’s necessary to examine both the photograph and the drive behind the photographers who create them. Now, it is time to consider the following:

·      Who is the photographer, and what is his or her background?

·      What is the photographer’s motivation and inspiration as an artist?

·      What defines the photographer’s signature style over multiple bodies of work?

·      Would I identify the photographer from seeing the work?

·      What is the underlying message that I feel the photographer is conveying through his or her greater body of work?

"The study of photographs at an advanced level is not just about looking; it is about paying attention to what lies beneath the surface of the photograph. By examining the interests, motivations, and intentions of the artist, you can begin to see the psychological and philosophical factors that drive their work. There is little or no separation between a meaningful piece of art and the artist who made it."[1]

While considering the motivations and inspiration behind my series, Blue Pencils, I can’t help but recall the weeks and months after losing a dear friend a couple of years ago. Bret’s sudden passing was the third friend my husband and I had lost in the short span of a few months. At the time, I was working on an entirely different fine art series, which was a strong contender for my final thesis proposal in the MFA program.

The time following Bret’s death left me questioning my own mortality. The earth still turned, and time went on; however, I was truly struggling. I decided to turn my camera on myself, capturing a series of self-portraits entitled, Haunting. As uncomfortable as I felt in front of my own camera, I explored different vantage points, studio verses natural lighting, and creative elements such as a water-soaked piece of plexiglass (set between the camera and myself). One day, I found a roll of gauze and, for some reason, decided to place it over my head and face. It was this capture that reminded me of my father and his work. After submitting this self-portrait for a class assignment, I received positive feedback from both my professor and peers. The most significant response was to “keep digging.”

Haunting | Dianne Morton | 2015

Haunting | Dianne Morton | 2015

As I journaled, I reflected on memories from my childhood, especially those involving my father who worked as a mortician and deputy coroner. I was used to our phone ringing at all hours. If there was a car accident, house fire, suicide, or the like, my father was called to make the “removal.”

My earliest memories of the mortuary included the family business’ signature blue pencils, which I kept in a plastic case in my wooden school desk.

Over time, my father became quite well known in the community, not only because he buried many people in town but also for his kindheartedness. When I was in first grade, our teacher asked the class what each of our fathers did for work. I raised my hand to answer, “My dad makes blue pencils.” I proceeded to proudly hold up my blue pencil, which had my last name printed on it with the label “Sneider & Sullivan Funeral Home.”

It wasn’t until the following year, second grade, that I began to understand how my father truly spent his time at work. It as the day I learned that the boy who sat in front of me, Jimmy Alden, died over the weekend. A car had hit Jimmy. After the morning school bell rang, our second-grade teacher briefly explained to our class that Jimmy was in Heaven.

Our class attended Jimmy’s funeral and there, standing next to his white casket, was my father.

While working on my photographs, I found the inspiration to combine three distinct artistic genres (portraiture, self-portraiture, and still-life) as a means to build my autobiographical series, Blue Pencils. My intent is to communicate my intimate childhood memories as the young daughter of a mortician. My unique experience translates to pictorial storytelling, allowing the viewer to see something that may appear vague or ethereal.


[1] Nichols, T. Artistic Motivation: Examining Motivation. Module 5. PH810-OL1: Concept & Image. Academy of Art University. Web. 10 March 2018.

Understanding Artistic Movements

An art movement is a trend or style that often includes a specific philosophy, attitude, or goal. As a medium, photography initially struggled to find its place within the confines of the fine art world. Originally, photographers tended to value sharp focus on subjects, and photographs were viewed strictly as representational. It was deemed important to capture the reality of nature without manipulation. During the mid-19th century, an international crusade spearheaded by like-minded photographers ended the division separating painting and photography. This popularized the opinion that photography is indeed art, and over time, photography has been increasingly included in discussion of art movements.

The advent of Pictorialism during the late 19th century was the first attempt to bring photography as a medium into the world of fine art. At this point in history, an artist was credited as the creator of a painting and was held in high esteem in the art world; however, a photograph was viewed as a recording created by a mechanical device. Eager to differentiate themselves from amateur and utilitarian photographers, artistic photographers began to consider the potential for expressionism within photography. No longer was the main scene or subject of significance; for the Pictorialist, the aesthetic and emotional effects became far more important.[1] Pictorialist work incorporated artistry during photo processing, creating imagery that used allegory, metaphor, and symbolism.

Various techniques were used while distorting the image: soft focus during captures, multiple negatives to print one image, and scratching the negative were all employed. Additionally, Pictorialists embraced labor-intensive, homemade processes such as gum bichromate to increase the artistic quality of their work. During this process, the photographer brushed a mixture of gum arabic solution, potassium bichromate, and an appropriate pigment or dye onto a sheet of textured paper. After the paper dried, the photographer would expose the light-sensitive paper to the negative contact and then manipulate the image with a brush or sprayed water to create a more painterly quality. Ultimately, the Pictorialist emphasized the importance of artisanship over mechanical means to achieve recognition for photography as a worthy medium in the fine art world.[2]        

One of the most notable Pictorialist photographers was Alfred Stieglitz, who was the American-born son of German-Jewish immigrants. Stieglitz and his family left the East Coast and returned to Germany while Alfred was young, hopeful that the German school system would adequately challenge him. While studying engineering, Stieglitz bought his first camera in 1882 and captured images of the German countryside. After teaching himself all about cameras and photography, he submitted articles and images to the British magazine Amateur Photographer. This earned Stieglitz a solid reputation among leading European photographers.[3]

Alfred Stieglitz  | Die Kunst in der Potographie |  1897

Alfred Stieglitz | Die Kunst in der Potographie | 1897

Presently, photographers have a multitude of options when it comes to image making and post-process manipulation. Today’s world is saturated with digital imagery, yet many photographers choose to use analog cameras to further develop their own creativity and artistic intent. One such photographer is Adou (Chinese, b. 1973), whose photographs have been exhibited throughout China, Japan, and the United States. First inspired by the documentary photographic works of Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Frank, and Sally Mann, Adou began to create images of people and settings around him, displaying exceptional visual and artistic expression. As a photographic artist, Adou uses expired film to construct dappled images reminiscent of the Pictorialists’ works of yesteryear. Balancing textures and tones caused by photographic processing chemicals, Adou creates a mystical ambiance.[4]

Adou  | Fog Child, Frost |  2006

Adou | Fog Child, Frost | 2006