Abstract Magazine International | Towards Immateriality: The Photographs of David Conison
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Towards Immateriality: The Photographs of David Conison

18 May 2017, Posted by admin in Art


I. History

I came to photography late. I trained as a theater and opera director, but eventually I left frustrated that the images I wanted to create on the darkness of the stage could not be realized.

The theater I used to make was often called “conceptual.” I was never much interested in reality – people discussing marital crises on a couch in a simulated living room and that sort of thing. I wanted a replication of reality on stage only so after an hour of banal discussion, a giant block of ice could inexplicably crash through the ceiling.

The things I’m most drawn to, across art forms, use reality & the material as a springboard to something else, something immaterial. That word is often used dismissively (i.e. “it’s immaterial!”), but I think that’s what I’m constantly chasing. I’m not religious or even spiritual, but I do believe in aesthetics and the things I’m drawn to always gesture towards the impossible.

II. Flowers

Recently, I’ve realized that learning a new art form is about learning a new way to see. This is generally explained away as studying and improving on discrete skills – “the craft” – but craft is useless until you can see the right way. This will come back to photography in a moment, but to do so I need to talk about another art form, Ikebana (traditional Japanese flower design). I started studying Ikebana under Sensei Nori Noda over two years ago on a whim. The Ikenobo school I study is nearly 500 years old and every arrangement is steeped in history, bound by rules that are riddled with exceptions. Every type of flower, every season, every vase, and every combination thereof has rules upon rules of how they should be placed. Only after making over a hundred arrangements, spending hours week after week, am I beginning to see – to tell the difference between a good and bad arrangement, to understand the relationships between color and line and space that constitute a successful design of flowers in accordance with a precise set of ancient Japanese principles. While learning the craft has been part of that (which scissors to use, how to cut branches properly, the secret way to pinch an unopened iris bud so it blossoms on command), these skills are useless without learning the right way to see. When I take photographs, I feel each one brings me slightly closer to seeing photography – to understanding why a combination of lines and colors is mysterious and good.

The relationship between Ikebana and Photography is interesting; they are both about making precise images. Ikebana is about taking living objects and crafting them into prescribed shapes. It’s a three-dimensional art form that aspires to look two dimensional. With each passing moment, the flowers are blossoming, then fading, until a few days later the arrangement is transformed: it’s decayed and dead forever. The arrangement is in a constant state of changing. Photography also translates three dimensions, but renders it literally in two dimensions permanently.

I’ve been told my best photographs are haunting or mysterious and perhaps even melancholy. But photography like Ikebana is fundamentally sad; trying to bottle the feeling of a moment is impossible, and fixing time in pixels for me can’t be anything other than strange.

III. On Reality

Ikebana at its best is hyper-real – an arrangement of flowers that looks more natural than anything that occurs in nature, a harmony of impossible collisions. A flower is always beautiful of course; but its beauty becomes accentuated and arguably better when it’s situated in a composition of lines and colors that is unlikely, yet feels effortlessly natural.

When I first began photographing I tried to capture reality. As I’ve continued to learn how to see, I’ve realized that again I prefer the hyper-real. Photography by its nature implies reality. Winter sunlight falling on a building in Brooklyn is always beautiful of course; but its beauty becomes accentuated and arguably better when it’s situated in a composition of lines and colors that make it seem like a building on a summer day in Los Angeles in 1950.

The photographs in this series were all taken in New York City, mostly in Brooklyn where I live. When I started taking pictures a year ago, I thought I had to travel. As I’ve shot more and more, I realized I was not skilled enough to take photos of  new and exotic places with anything other than awe. The photographs were always a beautiful ocean with the implied question, “is this not beautiful and strange and exotic?” Beauty is certainly nice, but strange beauty is a rarer currency. I had to turn to the things I see every day – two stars in an alleyway, a tree outside my apartment, a car in a garage at midnight – to find something to say.

It’s strange that it took me so long to understand what I like. I discovered it in theater and then promptly forgot it when I put a camera to my eye the first time. But there are always resonances across art forms; it’s just interpreting the new material (in theater, presenting fake sets that look real; in photography, presenting real buildings that look fake) to summon forth that inexplicable feeling.

The art I like and try to make, whether it’s the arrangement of flowers or reflections off a building, strives for the impossible. It requires a constant effort to improve, to try again. There is no mastery; there is only learning to see a bit better, one photo at a time, and perhaps briefly render the immaterial in 24 stunning megapixels.

About the artist:

David Conison lives and works in Brooklyn, where he works across disciplines in theater, photography, and Ikebana. His writing on theater has been featured twice in Theater (Yale University Press), and he has spoken on conceptual theatrical practice at the Martin E. Segal Theater/CUNY and Hamilton College. David currently serves on the board of directors for the Ikenobo Ikebana School (NYC Chapter), and his arrangements have been seen at the Nippon Club, The Japan Society, and the Kitano Hotel. Photography and recent flower arrangements can be viewed on Instagram under his handle @PanoptiConison

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