The artist community in Eureka Springs, Arkansas has a new inhabitant. Born to poor migrant parents of Mexican/Spanish descent in a railroad boxcar in Wyoming, Eli Vega grew up in West Texas, eventually attending Texas Tech University and studying art. Today he calls himself a “photo artist,” although it was some 20 years after his college days before he bought his first 35-mm SLR camera. In his three years of art studies, he studied, in depth, concepts such as composition, design, and color theory.
But photography really wasn’t on Eli’s radar at the time. “I was thinking, ‘I want to be an artist someday!’ But my art background served as the foundation of my photography”—from the first time he picked up a camera—“even to this day. And one of the plusses for me as a photographer: I look at things differently.”
Eli lived in Fort Worth, Texas in the late 1980s and bought his first “professional level” camera at that time. A friend encouraged him to join a local camera club,” and it was through that club that he really “discovered” photography. “I thought, ‘this is really cool.’ And I realized very quickly that photography plus art is a really good combination. So ever since then I haven’t let go of it.”
Eli Vega has developed a technique or process for dealing with photography with an artist’s eye. He calls it “Right Brain Photography,” and has spent the past several years teaching the technique in classes and workshops—first in Colorado, then in several cities around the country, and now in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where he moved several months ago.
Asked whether the technique is better suited to film or digital photography, Eli says “the concepts and philosophy of Right Brain Photography apply to either/or.” So what is Right Brain Photography? Eli has codified four concepts to explain it:
- It’s about being an artist first—using your camera and its features as your paint brushes.
- It’s about seeing with your imagination, not your eyes.
- It’s about learning to “see” something before you see it.
- It’s about making the common uncommon, the mundane insane.
He says a lot of his students have trouble with that second point about the importance of one’s imagination in the process, “because we’re so used to simply taking pictures of what we see. ‘Seeing’ with your imagination will help you to get more ‘keepers,’ take more ‘keepers’ home. And if you can do that, you’ll be able to ‘see’ things before you see them (point 3 above). And the fourth point is all about “getting really creative.”
One student who took one of Eli’s workshops is an engineer. “He came to me afterwards and said, ‘Eli, I’m so glad I took this workshop, because I am so linear! You helped me expand and think outside the box—and out of my comfort zone.” Several of the participants in Eli’s classes and workshops have been photographers themselves, and one told him, “Eli, before I studied under you, I used to do most of my creative work in Photoshop. Now I find myself doing more of it in-camera.”
Next April Eli will present a workshop for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. He still does regular workshops and classes at the Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Garden of Gods Visitor Center, both in Colorado. He does about ten workshops every year in various locations.
All the seminars and classes inspired Eli to put his thoughts about the Right Brain process down on paper in a new book, Right Brain Photography (Be an artist first). As he’s still getting himself established in northern Arkansas his work can best be seen on his website, www.elivega.net, or in the book, which will be offered by the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce this coming week.
Eli has a class coming up at North Arkansas College in Harrison this fall, called “Creative Photography Without Photoshop.” One of his favorite in-camera visual techniques is double-exposures. Not that Eli shuns Photoshop and other digital-manipulation software—but he insists there are other, more artistic ways to achieve the same results, many of them right in-camera. “I’ve been challenged by more than one photographer when they see my book. And they’ll say, ‘Now, you did a composite here, right?’ And I say ‘No, no, it’s a composite, but it’s a composite done in-camera.’ I had a photography instructor at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville ask me that recently.
He ended our conversation with what he calls one of his “mantras”: “The best photography is found where technical know-how and creative aesthetics meet. And with today’s digital photography, I find too many photographers spending most, if not all, their time on the ‘technical know-how’ side. So we need to combine both.”