Portfolio opinion, please

In 2010 I was one of the artists in residence at Homestead National Monument here in Nebraska.  It was a great experience to spend dedicated time on a location to learn about it throughout the day and across different seasons, as well as get to know the dedicated people in the Park Service who work hard so we can have such places to visit and learn from.  Last year and now this year I’m continuing to apply to some of the other parks that sponsor residencies, hoping to get a similar opportunity as before.  As you may imagine it’s competitive and I’ve not been accepted again from the 5-6 parks I’ve applied to last year and now.

It’s discouraging at times although visiting the websites of people who are accepted reminds me how many talented people are out there who share my interests.  I do wonder at times what catches the eye of judges who are looking over all the resumes and images they receive, what specific thing connects with their intent for that park’s residency opportunity.  As I am motivated by the chance to “go deep” in an area they are motivated to select someone who will reveal their park’s unique aspects – natural, historical, social – and confirm the wisdom of their particular park’s existence as well as sponsoring an artist to interpret it.

In that light I thought I’d post the images I just sent today as part of my application and get your opinion on whether there’s anything in these that connects with you.  Do you see a trend here?  Is there something about the images that works (or doesn’t work) for you?  What might make them more eye-catching or a better story?  Looking for advice here as an artist who wants to be a part of something unique.

Click on any image to see a larger version of it.  Thanks!

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Old timey photography

If you’re interested in seeing/learning how the old-timers made their images, here’s your chance – sign up and join an artist in residence for some hands-on history.

National Park Service News Release
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE –October 14, 2011
Merrith Baughman 402-223-3514

Register to Make a Tintype Photograph with Artist-in-Residence Jason Jilg
at Homestead National Monument of America

Homestead National Monument of America is excited to announce the monument’s last 2011 Artist-in-Residence, Jason Jilg from Harvard, NE. Jilg’s passion and talent for photography will be showcased during his residency, from Sunday, October 16 through Sunday, October 30, 2011.  Jason Jilg is a professional photographer who has won over 16 international, national and regional awards, including a Silver Award from Black and White Magazine.  During his residency, he aims to “explore the human aspect of the Homestead Act as it relates to the cultural and environmental changes this Act brought to the Great Plains.”  Interested visitors can visit his website at http://jasonjilg.com/.

Jilg will host a two-part photography workshop at the Education Center on Saturday, October 29 and Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 2 p.m.   Participants will produce historic tintype photos, much like what was used during early homesteading. Workshop space is limited to 12 participants.  Pre-registration is required by Friday, October 28, 2011. To register, call Park Guide Allison Alley at 402-223-1719.

For questions about Homestead’s Artist-in-Residence program, visit the program’s website at http://www.nps.gov/home/supportyourpark/artist-in-residence-program.htm or contact the program’s coordinator Allison Alley at Allison_Alley@nps.gov or 402-223-1719.

Remember, Homestead National Monument of America has an exciting schedule of events planned for 2011.  Keep up with the latest information by following us on Twitter (HomesteadNM) and Facebook (Homestead National Monument of America).

Homestead National Monument of America is a unit of the National Park Service located four miles west of Beatrice, Nebraska. Hours of operation are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free of charge. For additional information, please call 402-223-3514 or visit http://www.nps.gov/home/index.htm .

Read my guest posts

I recently wrote a couple of guest posts for the blog of my photography school, two parts discussing my experience as an Artist in Residence at Homestead National Monument.  My goal was to explain some of the AIR purpose at Homestead and the application process for students and alum of the school in hopes of them applying.  You can read my posts at these links:

http://blog.rmsp.com/2010/12/07/guest-article-mel-mann-rmsp-siai-2009-alumtalks-about-the-application-process-for-artist-in-residence-at-homestead-national-monument-nebraska-part-1/

http://blog.rmsp.com/2010/12/08/guest-article-mel-mann-rmsp-siai-2009-alumtalks-about-his-experience-as-artist-in-residence-at-homestead-national-monument-nebraska-part-2/

Send comments on these my way as I’d love to know what you think.  And forward to anyone you know who might be interested in this type experience.

Homestead Post

There is a great volunteer group associated with Homestead National Monument.  They are involved with the activities at the Monument to support the staff there in their educational, restoration and management efforts.  One outreach tool they use is a blog specifically for their volunteer community.  While I was there in the spring I was asked to contribute to their blog, a brief discussion on what I was doing during this part of my residency.  Here’s the link to my entry:

http://homesteadcongress.blogspot.com/2010/06/homesteads-artist-in-residence-why-this.html

I’ll be back at Homestead in September for the second half of my residency and I’m looking forward to see how the prairie has developed over the summer, seeing some early fall colors and hopefully photograph the managed burn of part of the prairie.  More on that later.

The past – Homestead Monument

This is a different type of national park, celebrating history rather than displaying a grand landscape.  Much like its more famous siblings, though, such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, photography is an integral part of the history for which Homestead serves as a proxy.

Following in the path of William Jackson and Arundel Hull hauling their big view cameras to the Rockies and bringing back amazing images of what they found there, many Great Plains photographers documented life on the prairie in an equally cumbersome fashion.  Solomon Butcher, a failed homesteader himself, decided to document the life he rejected by traveling around Custer County, Nebraska and photographing families on their farms, earning his way by selling prints to his subjects.  Prints that were valued possessions people used to communicate their lifestyle with relatives “back East.”  Many of the iconic images we think of displaying this time – sod houses with cows on the roof, stoic families surrounded by their worldly possessions, family gatherings around tables laden with food – were the product of Butcher’s camera, captured on glass negatives using time-consuming wet plate chemistry.

Part of my interest for my residency was to understand this time-consuming process, not to duplicate it but rather to get a sense of the effort required to simply make a picture.  With my digital camera capable of zipping through hundreds of images before I’d even decided there was something worth photographing, I realized their approach to this craft forced a more measured approach.  Their images were very intentional, not casual, with their subjects posed and objects arranged using the combined eye of an artist and a businessman.  I found this approach, a much slower and thoughtful pattern, making me put the camera down and see more – see more in quantity and quality.

Cub Creek, Homestead National Monument

And I found this applied to the landscape, not just man and his establishments.  With these images visualized, I wondered how to provide a similar viewing experience without much digital adjusting.  One idea was a vignette, those darker corners seen on many older photographs.  But I didn’t want a digital one – I wanted it on the original image just like the Plains photographers did.  So, I took the lens hood off my telephoto – simply a long, circular piece of plastic – and put it on my wide angle lens, knowing it would be “seen” by the lens.  Some adjustments to focal length and I got a nice effect.  A little B&W adjustment for contrast and I got a scene that could have been made by Solomon Butcher right there on Cub Creek, on Daniel Freeman’s homestead.  The present, reflected by the past.

The Buildings – Homestead Monument

One of the conditions of the Homestead Act was for a permanent dwelling to be built on the claim, a house where the settlers would live during the time they had to spend in order to “prove up” the claim.   People turned to the land in order to meet this requirement.  Some found trees for lumber to build a cabin, a few simply dug holes into hillsides, but the majority used the land itself, building the iconic sod houses seen in photographs from the period.

As towns grew the buildings improved, new ones replacing the original dwellings to provide more security from the elements and show a greater solidarity of purpose on the chosen property.  Across the states impacted by the Act you can find these homes and see the choices people made in order to grasp the opportunity for a new life.  Celebrations of these choices were immortalized in later public buildings.

Finally, to symbolize the westward movement, a new building was erected at the Monument, designed with features that reflect the impact of man on the land.

Architecture fascinates me, the way light plays around the structure and reveals aspects to those patient enough to pay attention.  Part of my discoveries during two weeks in residence were how thinking through the homestead experience you have to appreciate the land as well as the buildings.  The changes made by homesteaders consisted of more than plowed fields or pastures – they included new buildings on the landscape.  Just as these not-so-distant relatives built according to their needs, we continue their efforts as a way to show appreciation for their efforts.

The Weather – Homestead Monument

Spring is a volatile season in most of the country, and people everywhere will swear they have the most changeable weather on the planet, but it does seem that Nebraska is one of the most changing.  I glance out the window and dismiss the day because of overcast, only to look out an hour later at sunlight dappling through the leaves in the forest.  Today I just packed up all my camera gear and stood on the edge of the prairie, waiting for the sky to decide whether it will be a cloudy or sunny day.  People passing on the highway that borders the park must have wondered about the camo-clad individual standing among the tall grasses continually looking at the sky.

The moods of the weather are like an alternative color palette to use in creating a photograph.  Great images take you right to the sense of the weather portrayed – storm tossed boats on the ocean, sultry palm trees on a beach, biting cold of a snowy plain – a great photograph enables you to feel the weather and know the sensation of being in the scene.

So, another compositional tool to use, although not one you happen upon while strolling around the environment.  Weather requires you to pay attention, much like the old railroad crossing signs – stop, look, listen.  And if you’re patient and observant, weather can be a photographer’s friend, enhancing a composition with added elements.