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Watercolours in a second

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Ian Macdonald-Smith’s latest book, Watercolours In A Second, is all about beauty, a special, restricted kind of beauty; the beauty found in water reflections.

The title Watercolours in a Second is certainly apt for, although it was selected as a play on the word watercolour, as in aquarelle, the photographs do actually look like traditional watercolours.

Artists often have a unique way of seeing the world and this is true of Macdonald-Smith who in his latest book concentrates on something as commonplace as water reflections which, in our daily activities, we mostly overlook.

Although most of us have our physical faculties intact, including the ability to see, we mostly move about the world half-blind, only seeing enough to avoid bumping into whatever or tripping over whatever is in our way.

It takes concentration and thought in order to see intelligently; indeed, seeing is a learned skill. But with water reflections, the ability to see their unique beauty in every detail, photography it seems is a useful, maybe even an essential tool.

As Macdonald-Smith points out, water, the agent through which these reflections are revealed, is in such rapid flux, being able to “freeze” this motion helps us fix this kaleidoscope of changing colours and shapes.

Some will liken these reflections to abstract art; indeed, many liken these photographs to the abstract drip paintings of Jackson Pollock who, back in the late 1940s or early 1950, was seen as a wild man. Today Pollock’s work is seen as abstracts of the natural world and truthfully, he was inspired by the reeds and cattails that grew behind his cottage in the community of Springs, near the eastern end of Long Island.

That Macdonald-Smith’s photographs are seen as abstract, supports what I have been saying for many years – that all art is to a degree abstract while all art is, at the same time, to some degree realistic.

We are bound to the natural world and its forms, shapes, colours … you name it. All art is, in some manner, aspects of the natural world, even when unintended. It is not even remotely possible to get away from it.

Macdonald-Smith has been photographing water reflections since 1987 and over these many years he has put together a collection of thousands of images. For Watercolours in a Second, he has selected 250 of his best and their presentation in this luxurious book is indeed, a visual feast.

For Watercolours in a Second, the opening photographs were taken in Bermuda, while the last one was also from Bermuda. In between, most reflections were photographed in Europe – from Scandinavia to eastern Europe and just about everywhere in between – or in North America from New York, Boston, Orlando to Halifax.

Along with each image, the author has included accompanying quotes from numerous philosophers, writers and artists. These quotes are in chronological order beginning with certain Greek thinkers, while others are from right now. Most are from the many centuries between the ancient Greeks and now. I wondered whether there was an attempt to match the quote with the image somehow, but no that is not the case. Still, each quote provides opportunity for “reflection” on the many aspects of art making.

The selected quotes highlight aspects of beauty, the creative process and the place of photography as an art form. The latter, that is the place of photography as an art, is of special interest in the history of art. Considering the status of the arts, back perhaps 500 or 600 years ago artists were ranked mostly as artisans. But with the likes of such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Titian, certain artists began ascending the social ladder. This, however, did not include those in the crafts such as potters, textile artists or furniture makers etc.

Fast forward to the 19th century and the invention of photography. This definitely was not an art form in the estimation of many, especially critics, even though artists even back then were using photography as a means of seeing certain obscure details. Consider Degas, the French Impressionist, who used Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of animal and human locomotion to finally paint correctly, the legs of running horses.

The human tendency to seek a higher social status by putting down others and their skills is just so much humbug. In my thinking, photography is every bit a fine art as painting, sculpture, the crafts … you name it. That is not to say that some artists are more skilful at what they do than others. We all recognise that. We all have differing abilities and skills in whatever it is we do, but although some are naturally gifted, no one attains their potential without practice, thought and effort. Truthfully, I am an elitist. While not excluding anyone, I want the best from everyone.

When I first got my hands on Macdonald-Smith’s book and was able to peruse it, certain images jumped out and grabbed me. Later, when I sat and carefully went through the book, other possibly more subtle reflections impacted me as much or more so than my initial impressions. Certainly, I found nothing that I thought objectionable, that I would have excluded.

Earlier I referred to Macdonald-Smith’s latest book as luxurious. Certainly, Watercolours in a Second is sumptuous, and why not? If a book is about beauty, it should be beautiful.

In Macdonald-Smith’s introduction, he writes about what he calls “self-expressionism”. As I understand it, we the audience, in viewing a work of art, bring to it our emotional response. In a sense, we then complete the work. In that regard, the work of art that was begun by the artist, is then completed ever so many times, depending on how many individuals view the work.

This concept goes back to at least Marcel Duchamp who said: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting the inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Purchase Watercolours in a Second at bookstores or e-mail mac1235@mac.com. For more information: https://imacsmith.smugmug.com/

A photograph from Watercolours In A Second (Photograph supplied)
Ian Macdonald-Smith’s latest book (Photograph supplied)
A photograph from Watercolours In A Second (Photograph supplied)

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Published March 11, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 10, 2021 at 1:04 pm)

Watercolours in a second

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