Paul Karabinis on the Importance of Work

Photographer Paul Karabinis outlined his growth as an artist and his intellectual underpinnings for the crowd at the Jule Collins Smith Museum on Jan. 22. The true message of his speech, however, was more broad.

“Art, it ain’t rocket science y’all,” Karabinis said to a laughing audience. “We over-think it sometimes. It’s about you making pictures, and the truth is, it’s like work. That’s what it is. It’s 99 percent work.”

Karabinis is an associate professor of photography at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville. The University of Florida alumnus wasted no time in relating to the audience of around 40 Auburn students.

“I have the same view towards Florida State (University) as you probably do towards (University of) Alabama,” Karabinis said. “So we’ve got that out of the way.”

Karabinis showed a slideshow of his pictures as he spoke. Each new picture’s development process was detailed down to how specific chemicals affected the final composition of the image. His voice quickened when talking technically. Karabinis knows his processes well, and decided against using the 12-page speech outline he had prepared.

“It’s pretty over-thought, over-worked and over-blown,” Karabinis said. “So I’m going to just rap and talk to you.”

The slideshow guided his “rap” as he talked about his evolution from street photography, to using paper negatives, to taking advantage of digital negatives and finally ending up making pictures that are not really photographs anymore.

After traveling in Greece working on street photography modeled after his inspiration, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Karabinis got “bored of street work.” He had grown tired of working with pictures in an analytic mindset.

“If you put a camera up to your eye, there’s something in the viewfinder at all times,” Karabinis said. “You have to decide where to move it, where to point it, and ultimately when to press the shutter.”

Karabinis began to research the people who started the photography movement, and realized “there was a bigger world for photographic process than just street work and 35mm cameras.” The difference between those in the 19th century and modern photographers is that the early practitioners were “approaching photography as if it was hybrid print-making.”

The idea of using light-sensitive materials rather than acid and ink, and not having to buy photo paper from companies like Kodak, appealed to Karabinis. He appreciated the irregularities of the pictures, and the lack of clarity that is normally associated with photography.

“I thought I connected myself with this sense of art-making, of something to do with your hands,” Karabinis said.

Photography became less about a consistent image that could be identically reproduced as Karabinis started incorporating “in-process discoveries.” The idea that he set out with could change, and he didn’t have complete control over the final outcome of the print.

“Essentially, with these photo processes I worked with whatever the photo goddesses gave me,” Karabinis said. “Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t work well. … For some reason it liberated me.”

A sepia-toned silhouette of a human face filled with skulls was being projected on the screen. The skulls’ deep eyes peered at the audience while they took in the paint splatters and uneven canvas edges. It was called “The Ocean Within,” one of Karabinis’ titles that were “kind of too precious.”

This picture had been worked and reworked, Karabinis explained. He showed the audience the same picture with slight variations. That was how Karabinis made his art: His ideas came while working.

“I have a phrase,” Karabinis said. “An old Greek proverb. My mother shoveled food down my throat, even to my last days. I’d tell her ‘Mom, I’m not hungry, I can’t eat.’ She goes, ‘Don’t worry, appetite comes while eating.’”

For Karabinis, art comes while working.

Trying different things with his pictures has gotten easier with photo editing software, he explains, but the idea behind it is the same. Art is a process.

“I won’t let them (his students) start over, just go do it again,” Karabinis said. “Embrace the mistakes to a certain degree.”

Now, Karabinis has moved to a different form of art. Where he is going is not really photography anymore. He finds the picture in a blown up image, zooms in, and makes the picture from there. His different approaches to photography were eye-opening to some members of the audience.

“I have always been interested in photography,” said Heather Leyva, pre-med senior at Auburn University. “The speaker really made me look at it in a different way.”

Karabinis has experienced change throughout his photography career in technology, style and presentation. What has guided him throughout is a dedication to work.

“Ideas come while working,” Karabinis said. “So if you’re struggling with a project right now, the only way to do it is to just make a picture.”

Written for Reporting, JRNL 2310, taught by Dr. Fuhlhage at Auburn University

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