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Photographs and the Controversy By Valerie Owen

Do you remember those ads in magazines with a drawing of a turtle’s head, urging you to “Draw this” and then send it in so experts could evaluate whether you had any artistic talent? Or how about Pictionary… have you ever played that game? I always felt artistic, so found it surprising that I could be looking right at that little drawing that looked so simple, or be playing that game and picture something so perfectly in my mind, but somehow when I put pencil or marker to paper something got lost in the translation! These personal experiences are part of the reason I am puzzled by the subject of artists using photographs in the creation of their art being a controversial one.

I have heard a few artists make the statement, “I don’t use photographs,” as if the use of them is something to be ashamed of, and I feel that controversy is very possibly what prompted them to feel the need to put that information out there. But many artists I know freely admit to using photographs, including my husband, Bill Owen.

In an effort to understand why there’s such a wide range of thinking on this subject, and especially so much criticism regarding the use of photographs, I have watched and listened over the years, making several observations and coming to some conclusions.

I’m often asked, “Does Bill use photographs?” and my reply is simply, “Yes.” In those situations, I don’t know where the person stands on the issue and they rarely tell me, therefore, I don’t go on to tell them how I feel about it. So I have decided to take this opportunity, as part of the introduction to the photographs shown on the Journal page of Bill's webstie, to share my observations and conclusions. You may find them interesting and you may agree with me, or you may not give a hoot what I think and you may disagree. Either way, I doubt what I say here will settle the debate, and that’s okay, it's only my opinion.

It is almost expected, and is definitely completely accepted, for artists’ to use models in the creation of their art. And an artist doesn’t hesitate to tell the world if they pore through book after book, researching historical events, often accompanied by old photographs, utilizing what they find there for their art. The way I see it is that using photographs correctly is no different than utilizing a model or a book. All are artists’ tools, no different than a paintbrush or a palette knife.

Notice I said using photographs “correctly.” I do believe that an artist can abuse the practice of using photographs. In my opinion, the proper use crosses over to abuse when the artist goes from being the creator to allowing the photograph to be the creator by simply copying every single element of a photograph. Or when an artist fakes things, either because they don’t know the subject matter so they don’t know what’s really going on, or because something comes out unclear in the photograph. Perhaps part of the detail is in the shadows and the artist can't make out the detail of the bridle or reins. If the artist doesn’t know how to recreate a detail accurately and fakes it, that one item in a piece of artwork can be glaringly incorrect and stand out like a sore thumb to someone who knows.

There are times photos aren’t used when they should have been. I haven’t met many people in my lifetime who have a photographic mind, but most everyone has seen a piece of art with items out of proportion or an item the artist got totally wrong, as explained in the prior paragraph. In those cases, there's no question the artist and the art would have both benefited if photographs had been utilized.

Bill Owen has been a professional artist for going on forty years, and to my knowledge there was only one time, very early on, when he used photographs someone else had taken. From that time he has made it a practice to take his own photographs to study and use as research of the subject matter he chooses to portray in his art. But he does not allow the practice to stifle his creativeness; he often takes artistic license, taking an element from this or that photograph and incorporating them into one piece of art.

While most pieces of Bill’s art are of real happenings in a real place, with real people and animals, there are times he will have a painting in his mind for years before he finally creates it. Perhaps it’s based on something he knows to take place out there or it’s something he did see but wasn’t able to get a photograph of since things happen so fast. Such was the case in the creation of Renaming His Horse. In preparation for that piece, Bill went out in search of the landscape he had in mind, found it and took photographs, and then went through hundreds of the photographs he keeps on disk in his files to locate the other elements needed to use as models.

Bill doesn’t have a photographic mind, so although he has lived the cowboy way for most of his lifetime and has first-hand experience, he is a stickler for accuracy and will spend hours studying photographs. He tells of a time when he was a young man working on a ranch and he and the boss got into a friendly discussion; the boss stated that a horse always had at least one foot on the ground regardless of the gait. Bill disagreed and took pictures, successfully proving that when a horse is running all feet come off the ground with each stride, and one foot is always on the ground when in a trot. This is just a small example of how important it can be to take and study photographs; someone who knows horses can tell if he’s walking, trotting, loping or running, when portrayed properly.

George Phippen knew first-hand that going out and gathering research isn’t always easy, and once stated, “It’s a life for those not easily bruised.” Owen often camps out in a cowboy’s range teepee and has done so in freezing wind, rain and blizzards, as well as in scorching heat. He’s been bucked off and then had to get back on his horse and ride for the rest of the day. He has had equipment malfunctions or failure often related to the weather, such as fogged up lenses and digital cameras that just lock up. He must take care to not get in the way, and at any given time he must be willing to abandon taking pictures to help out depending on the situation.

Bill has spent decades establishing relationships with the cowboys, ranch foremen and owners of various ranches. Some call him to let him know when they’ll be doing this or that, at times going so far as to tell him they’ll be at a location that’s especially picturesque. They know Bill will portray them honestly and accurately, and they have great respect for him as a cowboy, a person, friend, and artist, and the feelings are mutual. Bill has said for a long time that his greatest accomplishments and proudest moments are realized when a true cowboy looks at one of his pieces and says, “That’s exactly the way it is!”

For me, there are no more compelling arguments in support of an artist utilizing photographs as a tool for creating art than these, and I remain completely puzzled that this continues to be a controversial subject.

The final conclusions for me are that being an artist is no easy task, because if it were, everyone would be doing it. The beauty of art is that it is subjective, and as in every other aspect of life, one will never please everyone. Due to the later, I’m extremely happy that Bill creates his art to please himself, and we’re both grateful that many others obviously approve and appreciate it regardless of the method he utilizes.


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