Posted on September 21, 2010

By Matthew Skala


When I attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, one of my photography instructors was James B. Wood. The first thing he said was his job is to un-teach us. It was a concept that he touched on in every class. He was trying to break down any ideas we had about what makes a good photo or the conventions of what art is supposed to be. Most of us students where straight out of high school where we were taught to approach life a certain way. He wanted to undo all of that and teach us how to have our own individual look at the world. I learned a lot from this but can’t say it has stayed with me. Maybe it would have if I stayed more focused on creative outlets over the years. But as many of you know its very difficult to pay the bills and be creative at the same time.

Working on films, one would think creativity is an everyday occurrence. Unfortunately its not. There are a lot of steps to climb before one can get close to creative satisfaction, and if you struggle for it at the bottom, or even close to the top, you might end up getting fired. It gets to a point where for every day one can’t be creative, a part of your soul is gobbled up. Sometimes its one person stifling you, but more often its an institution. When this happens to me, which it does often, the enriching concepts taught to me by James B. Wood start to bury themselves deep within abandoned recesses in my brain. But thankfully Mr. Wood was not alone and every now and than I get a reminder that helps me free my mind a little bit:

Here is an excerpt from an article in Cinema Scope Magazine. “Ai” is Ai Weiwei, a famous Chinese artist and activist whom works in multiple mediums including sculpture and documentary film.

Scope: You mean you are against a formulaic or trained aesthetics?

Ai: Right, that is the worst, totally cliche. A unique aesthetic must be anti-aesthetic. If it doesn’t achieve anti-aesthetics, then it is not unique. Whether or not the content and shooting style of my films are flawless, or if the quality of each image is good or not, I don’t see these as real questions. It’s like if you were to give me a fabric: I could create clothing out of it. Even if it is an old and tattered hemp sack that was gleaned from the trash, I could still design an article of clothing from it. It is only the material. But if you don’t have that material, that piece of fabric, there is no possible way I can produce clothing for you. So, with the films, all I ask is that you bring back materials.

Editing is very important, especially documentary editing. When editing these films, I talk with the editor and explain my intention, and we make cuts, changes, and editing decisions, again and again. And after that we use music to supplement the image. When we are close to finishing, we discuss things extensively, and most of the time ask the musician-artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou to contribute the music. His music is pretty rough and raw, just like my films. I don’t want something light or exquisite.

Here is a link to a great article in Surfer magazine touching on the same concept but in relation to the art and approach to surfing:

Surfer Magazine Article.

The file is in my public drop box folder, let me know if you have any trouble downloading it.

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