“I began to feel that my practice of photography was more than just to create beautiful pictures – it was a way to connect more deeply with the world.”
–Philippe L. Gross, The Tao of Photography, pg. 4
Now that I’ve basically given myself permission to follow my instincts without worrying so much about where they’re taking me, it’s like I’ve crossed a threshold and started wandering in a very interesting new world. I’m wandering along, admiring, learning. (It’s fun!)
Interestingly, it’s turning out to be not just about exploring new things (getting out of my comfort zone and so on). That’s a lot in and of itself – but there’s actually more: It’s like, liberating myself in one way has opened up numerous other doors at the same time. I’m getting all of these personal insights and learning things about myself. I didn’t anticipate that.
I guess it makes sense that it would be like that though. If you’re muzzling one part of yourself, is it likely that the rest of you will be free-flowing? I don’t think it works like that.
One thing that’s becoming very clear to me: everything I’m doing now is connected, very directly, with ideas I’ve had brewing inside for at least a year. And I didn’t at all grasp that before. I was actually worried that turning down this path was an example of me being unfocused – emerging as it had (I thought) out of nowhere. But this is definitely not the case! And NOW I’m surprised I could have thought otherwise.
I think sometimes you know something inside of yourself before you know it in your head. Your head is so full of distractions – insecurities, practicalities, other people’s needs and judgments. But there’s a level, inside, where I think you pretty much always know what’s right for you. The challenge is to not let it get buried under the weight of “I should…” or “I ought to…” or “they expect me to…” or “it makes more sense to…” And that can be tricky (for me, at least.)
I’m realizing more and more how much photography is bound up for me in LIVING LIFE. The kinds of photographs that move me the most, the kind of work I aspire to produce someday, is the kind that compels you to really SEE what’s around you. To immerse in it, to feel it, to feel a part of it, connected to it. And that’s a level of awareness I aspire to as a person, not just creatively.
It’s like what I was trying to get at when I wrote recently about a music video that visually really affected me. I’m still half-laughing at myself for being so affected by that. I mean, it’s just animals in the wild! It’s not earth-shatteringly interesting – but yet, it IS. It’s about how you look at something – how much time you take to really see and feel. It’s about IF you take time at all, or if you just let your eyes glide over something.
That video made me really LOOK at the animals – at the sinewy muscles of the cheetah, at the texture of the zebra’s fur. I could almost FEEL their power, their intelligence.
I want to live my life in an immersive way. I want to ground into the moments and live them fully. And I don’t want to miss details…the beauty all around me.
Existing at the superficial surface of things is such a waste of time.
I’m finding photography to be an extremely powerful tool for digging deeper in this manner – for cultivating the level of awareness I aspire to cultivate. There’s just something about having a camera in my hand that channels my thoughts. I see more, I feel more. And I see and feel more productively. I find that I’m less reactive when I’m in picture-taking-mode. I’m more aware – of myself and how I’m feeling, as well as of what’s around me. This is all tremendously helpful to me, personally.
A book I read recently, The Tao of Photography, speaks very directly to this idea – of photography as a tool for mindful living.
Here are a few quotations pulled from that:
“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.”
–Marc Riboud (quoted in The Tao of Photography, pg. 54)
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
–Elliott Erwitt (quoted in The Tao of Photography, pg. 70)
and most especially:
“One may not even have to be actively involved in taking pictures to train the habit of awareness. Simply the act of carrying a camera around throughout the day…can be used as a mnemonic to keep one’s awareness open, to see life unfolding moment by moment.”
–Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro, The Tao of Photography, pg. 123
When I came upon that last passage, I stopped flipping through the book and read it start to finish. (And it was worth reading, if you get an opportunity!)
One of the things I’m exploring right now is what it is exactly that moves me about the images that do. I’m trying to understand myself better as a photographer, but also as a consumer of images.
It’s been interesting – just stepping back and observing, kind of dispassionately, what it is exactly that moves me. I’m surprising myself a little bit – kind of like with that Thirty Seconds to Mars video. I can’t always predict what it is that will affect me…and there isn’t necessarily a rational explanation for what I feel.
I’m finding for example that I might have a respect for the technical proficiency of a certain photograph – but that doesn’t mean it makes me feel anything at all, or penetrates at all beyond the intellectual. An appreciation of aesthetics doesn’t have anything at all to do with emotional connection (which is something I think I knew and valued more before I actually studied art history…which in itself is an interesting realization.)
Landscapes, for example, don’t tend to touch me as much as, say, street photography does. But that’s not to say that no landscapes affect me, or that I need there to be people in a scene to feel an emotional connection to it. I’ve linked to this photographer before. His work is incredibly moving to me – even though it’s about as far away from the grittier intimacy of street photography as you can get.
And then there’s portrait photography – which can be very interesting to me…or not at all. And I can’t put my finger yet on what makes the difference for me. I can grasp the fact that I don’t care much for high-fashion photography, generally-speaking; it’s too staged for my taste. But yet some surreal photography moves me deeply – and that’s hardly un-staged. So where are the lines drawn? (of my taste)
I think it has something to do with how much a photograph penetrates the layers – of a person, of a place, of emotional experience, of LIFE. But the specifics are still a puzzle.
I imagine I’ll need a better understanding of all of this at some point. I don’t know that you can produce meaningful art without a sounder understanding of what you personally find meaningful, and why you do. But I’m not worrying about that at the moment. Right now I’m letting myself just be moved by what I feel, rather than dictated to by what I think. I have a sense that I might actually learn more if I keep definitions and categories and that kind of thinking out of the picture right now – or at least confine that kind of thinking to the technical aspects of photography that I’m teaching myself right now.
The Tao of Photography again:
“In searching for a path to liberation, we may be inclined to expect a neat method or formula for achieving this goal. But all goals share a common shortcoming: they are rooted in the discriminatory mind, which has a natural tendency to focus on a goal and slavishly strive for it, rejecting anything that appears to impede progress. Singlemindedness may meet with some success in accumulating money or power, but its narrowing, sclerotic character is antithetical to achieving liberation. Because the discriminatory mind constricts awareness, it imprisons the seeker – even the spiritual seeker – in the trap of Little Understanding. Psychologically, one becomes a victim of the “paradox of intention”” that is, one’s intentional efforts to achieve a goal may be the very obstacle preventing one from reaching that goal.”
–Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro, The Tao of Photography, pg. 108
So (as is probably clear) I don’t know where I’m going with photography. But I’m having fun! And I’m learning a lot – about the art form and about myself. So it feels like I’m doing something worthwhile.
I actually feel like my creative muscles are flexing in a way they haven’t since I was a kid (and unfettered by practicalities and confidence issues.)
A part of me wishes I could peek into the future five years or so and see what (if anything) this drive to experience photography has turned into.
But there’s another part that’s glad I can’t. I think there’s a lot to be said for enjoying the ride! (And I really am right now.)