Interview #30: J. Alan Constant (2023)
“To See a World You Otherwise Could Not See” ／ Interview by Paul Rowland
J. Alan Constant is an abstract artist whose images blur the boundary between photography and painting. He thinks of his camera as a tool to gather raw material, which he transforms through creative editing, finding beauty in the ordinary and the mundane. Although his work is an expression of innermost feelings and experiences, his images result from an intuitive awareness of the world around him. Alan is also an important figure in the artistic community on Instagram, having done much to promote his fellow artists and bring them together.
Here is Paul Rowland’s interview with him…
PR／Please tell us about yourself and your background.
JAC／I have been photographing for the past 45 years. I began in 1977 with the idea of creating inspirational books with photographs à la Ansel Adams. I studied photography and Art History at San Francisco State University and got a degree in Art History in 1982. I was enthralled with abstract art and actually tried my hand at painting, but I eventually realized that I was more skilled at photography. When I started photographing, I practiced the West Coast brand of photography as typified by the Group f/64 (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Brett Weston, et al.). I was out shooting landscapes in about 1980, and I suddenly had the idea to shoot a rusted green water tank against a blue sky, but I shot it in an abstract manner letting the green tank and blue sky fill the image (think Mark Rothko). That was probably the first time I consciously shot an abstract image. I didn’t do anything with the photograph, but it planted a seed.
Over the years, I tried my hand at more abstract imagery as it occurred to me. The one image that really got me interested in abstract imagery (and using Photoshop to enhance my vision) is “White Over Orange” [see above]. The image was half white and half orange — a very similar composition to the green tank and blue sky that I had shot about 20 years earlier. When I returned home and looked at the file on my computer, it really looked like nothing much. But something urged me to play with it in Photoshop. I was able to pull out colors and details that I didn’t know were there. I also made some “mistakes” in processing it, which I decided to leave in. The result was fascinating to me. This image became something of a seminal image in my evolution as an abstract artist. It taught me to not overlook any subtle surfaces when I am shooting images and it also taught me that my post-processing decisions are as important in my work as my decisions about what images to capture.
PR／Why are you drawn to the subjects you photograph?
JAC／This question requires a cerebral response, but my approach to finding subjects is not cerebral. My experience with photography is much more intuitive. Over the past 15 years that I have focused more on abstract imagery, I have learned what subjects could be lodestones for my creativity. Certainly old dumpsters and deteriorating billboards provide fodder for my imagery, but also anything metallic or rusty, monotone surfaces — which sometimes can be transformed into something beautiful in Photoshop — and any kind of design that would make an interesting composition. Sometimes, it is in an area that is 2 square inches and other times, it could be a wall that is 20 square feet. It just means that I have to keep my eyes open, moving in and out of whatever scene that is in front of me. I have to be aware of what it is in a scene that attracts me and crop out anything in the image that detracts from what I see.
In the case of “Sonatina” [see above], the actual image area was maybe 3 or 4 square inches. I found this on a metal sculpture in Madrid, New Mexico that yielded a number of good images for me. Most of the images I got from here were pretty small in actual size. It required me to keep looking closely at it to find interesting compositions. While I am shooting like this, I am not thinking very much about what I am going to do with the image because I can’t really see everything that is in the image. I am also moving pretty quickly, and I don’t have the time to try to examine each area closely. That comes later in Photoshop. In “Sonatina”, when I pulled it up for post-processing, I started seeing things that I did not see when I was shooting. The central figure reminded me of a rose and there were marks on the left side that reminded me of musical notations (hence the title). The influence of Rothko is also seen here. All this goes to say that I try to keep my eyes and mind open to what presents itself in my field of vision. It takes discipline and practice, which I have been able to develop over the years.
PR／How does your location and environment affect your work?
JAC／I have heard it said that it is almost impossible (in very technical scientific terms) to accurately determine the temperature of a liquid because once a thermometer is placed in the liquid, the temperature of the thermometer changes the temperature of the liquid. This is what comes to mind when I consider how my location and environment affect my work. I used to travel to other countries to find new images to photograph, but I would often find that being in a new environment affected how I saw things. Sometimes I would start shooting different kinds of subjects. For instance, I went to Ireland a few years ago thinking I was going to find new abstract subject matter, but I was so struck by the beauty of the country that I ended up shooting a lot of nature shots and very little abstract imagery. But increasingly over the years, I have learned how to just keep my eyes open wherever I am and find interesting images regardless of my locale or environment.
On a more practical level, though, my current locale has created some specific challenges to the kind of images I like to shoot. I moved to New Mexico from San Francisco in July of 2021. The light in New Mexico is sunnier and brighter than the foggy, diffuse light of San Francisco. I actually prefer diffuse light when I am shooting. When I have strong shadows in my photographs they are difficult to control. Harsh shadows create more depth in a photograph, but I like to work with a flatter kind of image. I prefer to create depth through controlling contrast and juxtaposition of color. Strong shadows can work well in traditional photographs, but in creating abstract imagery, I like to be able to have fluid control when I am in the post-processing phase. Consequently, when I am out shooting, I carry a small umbrella to eliminate the shadows in my subjects. It works pretty well when I am shooting small areas, but sometimes I just have to bite the bullet and deal with shadows the best I can.
PR／What does abstract photography mean for you?
JAC／First of all, I don’t separate abstract photography from any other medium working in abstract art. A camera is a tool, just like a paintbrush or a palette knife is a tool. Most painters, collagists and photographers work within a two-dimensional space and the inherent dynamic tension that exists in the confines of that space. The question is always: how are you going to work within that space to create a tension that holds a viewer’s interest? I have always liked representational photographs, but over the past 15 years or so, I find myself creating more abstract imagery because I (and the viewer) are freed from the constraints of traditional photography. Most traditional photographic imagery creates inherent limits in the viewer’s mind — that is, an image of a house is not an image of a horse or vice versa. But in abstract work, the limits are lifted and the mind is free to roam around and imagine freely. There are not the same visual constraints to channel your mind into a particular finite experience. There is a freedom for the artist in creating the piece that, hopefully, is rendered into a similar freedom for the viewer. William C. Seitz, an American artist and art historian, said it this way:
“Abstract Expressionists value expression over perfection, vitality over finish, fluctuation over repose, the unknown over the known, the veiled over the clear […] and the inner over the outer.”
— William C. Seitz
Placing the value on expression and vitality over perfection and finish is what creates this freedom for the artist. At this point the artist is conforming to nothing but his or her own inner urgings and the expression of innermost feelings and experiences. This may sound like a lot of gibberish, and it will be nothing more than that to anyone who has not actually had to wrestle with creativity.
Abstract imagery is a lot like reading a map. And just like reading a map, it can spark my imagination and take me to places that I’ve never been. The reality of a place often clashes with my fantasy of it, but, as long as I can adjust, the reality can be enjoyable in a different way. An abstract image actually is a map to the unconscious mind of the artist. In the same way that jazz or classical music can create a particular experience or emotion in the listener (and this music is an inherently abstract experience), abstract visual imagery can create an emotion or experience in the viewer. It can be a beautiful experience or an uncomfortable experience, but if you are willing to go along for the ride, it can take you to new places and even new ways of thinking. Understanding an image is not always necessarily the point. And, to paraphrase Picasso, trying to understand art is not unlike trying to understand the song of a bird — it just is.
PR／How would you describe the creative act for yourself?
JAC／Creating photographs is a very intuitive experience for me. I cannot always express into words what it is that attracts me to a certain image. I don’t do a whole lot of thinking when I am shooting. When I capture an image with my camera, I never know what it can or will become. I often shoot an image without knowing what it will become to me over time or what it will evolve into once I’ve had a chance to live with it for a while. I often take pictures of objects that look very plain and ordinary thinking that I might be able to pull something out of them in post-processing. And sometimes I am able to do just that. Some of my favorite images are the ones that have surprised me with a beauty and power that was not apparent when I captured the image. I have learned to never dismiss an image until I have had a chance to see what it could become in Photoshop. The work I do in Photoshop is just as important creatively as finding the image in the first place. When I am shooting I am really collecting raw materials to be refined in the post-processing phase. When I enter this phase, I like to think of it as “letting the image tell me where it wants to go”. It is a trial and error process, but if I remain open to it, my “intuitive mind” leads me to a satisfying result.
I have an artist friend, Françoise (@franswazzart), who I met through Instagram. She is a wonderful mixed media artist who has been very generous to me and my family, and I wanted to create an image in homage to her. The piece I created is a composite photograph. I don’t always do composites, but sometimes I have two images that do not seem to make it on their own. That was the case for this piece. Sometimes I have to try several combinations before I hit on the right one, and this is where “letting the image tell me where it wants to go” comes into play. It took quite a bit of trial and error before I came upon this combination. The color palette in this image is the type of color palette that she would use in her work, so the image said “YES” when I finally got it to this point. Not every image takes as much work as this one took. In the same way I need to keep my eyes open when I am shooting, I need to keep an open mind when I am in the post-processing phase and let the image take me wherever it wants to go. Sometimes it can take minutes to see where it wants to go, but sometimes it could take months. I just have to let the process take its own course.
PR／The way you describe your practice often includes a spiritual, mindful or contemplative element. What role does spirituality play in your photography?
JAC／For me, creativity can be like meditation or a spiritual practice. In meditation, one of the goals is to let go of the thinking mind and to get in touch with something deeper and ineffable. When I am creating imagery, I am relying much more on my intuition than on my thinking mind. I am able to transcend my intellect, and it brings me in touch with a deeper and richer experience which results in the imagery that I create. When I am shooting or involved in the post-processing of my photographs, I am very much in the present moment. I am usually not aware of the time during these moments. The act of creation is a god-like experience. To create I have to be in touch with an unnameable source inside of me. Some people call that God. I like to think of it the way Paul Tillich describes it: my “ground of being”. That creative frame of mind is a very spiritual place for me. It is a kind of meditation that requires open eyes, open mind and open heart. And that brings to mind the words of a hymn I learned growing up in a fundamental Christian home: “Open my eyes that I may see”, which is very apropos of the photographic experience — I must consciously keep my eyes and mind open so that I can see what is right in front of me.
Spirituality is a deeply personal experience, but it is also about connection to something greater than one’s self. Sometimes it is community that is greater than one’s self. My art community on Instagram has been a great source of support and inspiration for me. I have also had my eyes opened by colleagues who see my work in ways that I can’t see it. “Debussy Plays” [see above] is a good example of how an artistic friend opened my eyes. To me, this was just a wall of peeling paint that made an interesting design. But Shar Marie (@sharmarie_studios) saw Debussy in the image and opened my eyes. In my abstract work, I don’t always have the need to relate it to a subject in the real world, but in this case I was delighted.
PR／Many of your images could be described as “painterly” and contain echoes of abstract art. What role does painting and art history have in your work?
JAC／I am subconsciously thinking of all the great abstract paintings I have seen over the years. I believe that this subconscious thinking has a great effect on my intuition and creates my attraction for certain imagery. I certainly love good photography, but I probably spend more time looking at paintings and collage than I do looking at photographs. A few years ago I attended a workshop that dealt with professional practices for artists. One assignment was for each of us to create a PowerPoint presentation about “My Place In Art History”. We each had to look at past artists who influenced us and contemporary artists who we identified with and place ourselves within that framework of art history. Since I received my degree in Art History, this assignment was right up my alley, and it helped me to validate myself as a contemporary artist. During that assignment I discovered the art of Antoni Tàpies, a Spanish artist, whose work echoed some of the visual themes that appear in my own work. I love the work of other abstract painters (Joan Miró, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Richard Diebenkorn and Cy Twombly among many others), and I think they have all affected my photography in subtle ways.
At times I will come upon a certain image in the real world which speaks to me. Sometimes the images I find obviously look like paintings and other times it is a more subtle relationship to painting. In the case of “Splatterly #3” [see above], it was more obvious. It looks to me a bit like Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly. This was not consciously thought out while I was taking the picture, though. It was more of an artistic decision that was made on the subconscious level. I think that I subconsciously look for imagery that could be paintings — it is more of an intuitive process than it is conscious thinking.
PR／What is a great photograph for you?
JAC／I don’t often refer to my artwork as photographs. I prefer to call them images. I like to focus on the commonalities I have with other artists rather than the specifics that separate us. A great image does not necessarily rely on my subject matter. I often consider that when I am out photographing, I am merely collecting raw materials to (hopefully) be developed into an interesting image when I am in Photoshop. If you look at the subjects that I shoot, they often look ordinary or mundane. But for me a great photograph is one that transcends the specific time and place of my subject matter and becomes a universe unto itself (and makes me smile). And this thought takes me back to the role of spirituality in my work. Transcendence is a spiritual concept. When I am able to achieve transcendence in a photograph, I have created an image that can hold my interest for many years. I get bored very easily, so this is not a small thing for me.
PR／What kind of photographic tools do you use, and why?
JAC／I have used a number of cameras over the years. I have played with medium format and large format cameras, as well as shooting for years with 35mm cameras. When digital cameras came of age, I switched over. However, I switched a little too soon — my first digital camera cost $2000, and it only shot 3 MP! Since then I have tried Canon and Sony digital cameras, which were very good cameras. However with the iPhone 11 Pro, I finally found an in-phone camera that produced results that I not only could live with, but outshines every other camera I have used. I currently have an iPhone 14, and that is the only camera I use. I carry it with me wherever I go. It allows me to shoot on the spur of the moment and makes me much more spontaneous to every situation.
I also use Photoshop which I find indispensable to the kind of work I do. Photoshop “sees things” in my images that I didn’t know were there. It is a very rich program — I probably only use about 5–10% of what it could do because that is all I really need. I have been using it for about 15 or 16 years, but I still discover new tricks and ways to accomplish what I try to do in my imagery. I can’t recommend it enough for any serious photographer.
I had a photo instructor back in 1979, and I remember a fellow student asked him a technical darkroom question about developing film. The question was along the lines of: If I develop a roll of film for 7 minutes at 70 degrees will I get the same result in my negatives if I develop it for 6 minutes at 72 degrees? (The current generation of photographers may not even understand what I am talking about here). My instructor just looked at him, kind of smiled and said: “It’s all visual, man”. I have carried that with me all these years. It doesn’t matter what tools I use and how I use them, as long as I get a result that is effective.
PR／How has been your experience on Instagram so far?
JAC／Instagram has been responsible for the most creative period in my life. I began in July of 2019. In October of that year, I decided to post a new image every day for a full year, and I was able to complete that promise to myself. It forced me to be more disciplined with and committed to my art. Before Instagram, I created my art in isolation and I have always entertained doubts about the value of my creative efforts. So the support and response to my work has given me new validation and confidence as an artist. During my time on IG, my creative methods have gotten more refined, and I am able to “listen to where my images are taking me” more clearly. The platform has given me a worldwide art community, which I never really had before.
While it was great to have this community, I also felt that something was missing, because I only had fleeting exchanges with most artists. So in February of 2022, I initiated a series of art forums on Zoom where we could meet each other and talk about art. We had 8 of them in 2022. Each one of them features an artist who talks about their work and their creative process, and they have been immensely rewarding experiences. Without the Instagram environment, I don’t know if I would have ever thought of doing this. As one artist told me, this is the positive aspect of what social media can be.
If you are interested in attending one of these events, you will find them posted on my Instagram profile. We have also recorded 7 of them (we neglected to think about recording the first one), so you can view them on YouTube. I would be happy to send the link to anyone who would like to view them. In addition, an abstract photography forum grew out of this initiative. Tim (@atimosabeart) liked the idea, but he wanted to talk specifically about abstract photography. I assisted him in getting it started, and it now has an active, vibrant membership of about 16 artists. Contact him if you would like to learn more about this group!
J. Alan Constant is an abstract artist whose images blur the boundary between photography and painting. He thinks of his camera as a tool to gather raw material, which he transforms through creative editing, finding beauty in the ordinary and the mundane.
Although his work is an expression of innermost feelings and experiences, his images result from an intuitive awareness of the world around him. Alan is also an important figure in the artistic community on Instagram, having done much to promote his fellow artists and bring them together.
Interview by Paul Rowland.
Hintology is an abstract photography magazine project created in August 2020 which strives to create a community where every artists are given a chance to broadcast their voice, the aspiring just as much as the established. We are a small team of volunteers who rely on the passion and contributions of their community to help spread the beauty and diversity of abstract photography. If you share our vision of inclusiveness and inquisitiveness, you can make a difference by tagging your work with #Hintology on Instagram, or by following our page and joining our group on Facebook. If you appreciate our curative work and the interviews we conduct, please do consider donating via this link; all funds will go towards printing the first physical edition of the magazine.
Visit Hintology.org for all the links.