Just Open Your Eyes

pastel morning, photograph

“But the ‘truth’ itself is simply there. This reminds us what the Zen Buddhists keep saying – that as these moments is reflected and revealed a reality of the universe that does not depend merely on our own subjectivity, but is as though we only had our eyes closed and suddenly we open them and there it is, as simple as can be. The new reality has a kind of immutable, eternal quality.”

– Rollo May, The Courage to Create

There is a funny paradox I often experience in artmaking – on the one hand I feel as though I am creating something new and on the other hand I feel I am simply discovering something already there. With photography this can be an even more frequent experience because, at some level, the subject of our photograph is already there. But clearly there is more to photography than snapping away at things in front of us.

I’ve heard other artists describe how they feel they are a channel or vehicle through which art happens, that it is when they get their ego out of the way that the creativity “happens”. This is often given external form in the guise of the Muse. Yet we obviously can’t just sit back and wait for the Muse to visit us, or wait for the moment of creativity to happen. We must create the opportunity and the right conditions.

I’ve started reading a fascinating book called The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori. Loori was a scientist who became a professional photographer and then a Zen monk!  An interesting part of his story is that he was introduced to Zen through Minor White, whose methods of teaching photography involved meditation, contemplation and ritual. Loori established the Zen Arts Center in NY where students learn about Zen using the arts.

I’m intrigued by the use of such practices to facilitate achieving the state where we can suddenly open our eyes to see what has been there all along. There’s art to be found there.

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Ready to Jump

laguna dreams, photograph

“But an artist’s waiting […] is not to be confused with laziness or passivity. It requires a high degree of attention, as when a diver is poised on the end of the springboard, not jumping but holding his or her muscles in sensitive balance for the right second.”

– Rollo May, The Courage to Create

I liked May’s analogy of the diver poised on the board to describe the heightened sense of awareness that artists feel when they are in the creative process. To the outside observer it may appear that little is happening, but inside the artist be in the most intense and delicious state of attention possible.

I know that when I am out photographing, it looks like I’m just idly walking about, looking here or there. In reality, my focus is very directed, and I am processing the scenes around me as rapidly as possible, considering what might work, how to frame it, how to make it a creative capture, what I might do with the image later, etc.

Just like the diver, I, too, am poised, waiting for just that “right second”.

May also discusses the role of relaxation in the creative process. We have all heard the stories of people struggling to solve complex problems, only to have the solution come to them when they least expect it, perhaps while taking a walk or in the shower. He says that we are at our most creative when we are going back and forth between relaxed downtime and energetic work. It is the periods of intensity juxtaposed with periods of seeming inactivity that produce the best results. As in all things, I guess it is balance that works best.

What circumstances have led you to be at your most creative and productive?

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More Than Meets the Eye

daffodil, photograph

“While the photographer cannot eliminate the object […], he still wants the photograph to be the main source of the spectator’s feeling. While he cannot erase from the viewer’s mind the implications of the subject, he prefers to depend for his effect on the visual relationships that are present in the print itself.”

– Minor White

This is certainly how I feel about doing photography but there are some that will disagree. And I’ve seen many photographs where I believe the subject was the focus, rather than the photograph itself. The cameras ability to easily render what appears in front of us can make it easy to fall into the trap of simply documenting what’s there.

As you may know, I like to compare photography to painting – having done a lot of both, it lets me bring to bear my own personal experiences. Plus I think many of us hold different views of these two artforms, both in terms of creating and viewing them, and these differences can be revealing. After all, both are about creating images, yet there are many distinctions we make between them, which I have often found puzzling.

Most paintings are more about the painting than the subject (portraits is an exception that comes to mind).  We don’t think about painting anymore as a method of simply documenting our world. Rather it is a way of interpreting our world, expressing how we feel about it.

Photography, both because of its historical roots, and because it is a better tool than painting when documentation is needed, is more often relegated, both by viewer and photographer, to being primarily a means of reporting on the world.

But a photograph, like a painting, wants it’s own identity – it wants to be more than it’s subject. That’s why, when I look at something and consider whether I will take the picture, I ask myself what I will do with the photograph to make it distinct from what I’m photographing.

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Careful Looking

trunks, photograph

“In every landscape should reside jewels of abstract art waiting to be discovered.”

– Melissa Brown

I used to photograph the landscape around me with great frequency. It was my subject of choice for many years. Living in a scenic area made this easier. Over time, however, I began to feel dissatisfied with my results.

First of all, there are a lot of really wonderful landscape photographers working today – it is very difficult to take a capture the landscape in a unique way. Yes, you can go to different places and wait for interesting light or cloud formations, but even these have become commonplace. And I didn’t feel that I was contributing much to the image, other than being there.

So I began to look for more personal and intimate scenes in the landscape. I began to look within the landscape around me, visually editing in a more elemental way what I saw.

I find that through this scrutiny I am better able to express my intention. The process of looking past what is evident and trying to find the hidden “jewels” in a scene engages me more deeply than just snapping the grander landscape. It allows me to simplify, to decide what not to include, to exercise an “economy of means”, all of which require a more careful looking on my part.

And careful looking is an essential part and one of the great rewards of artmaking.

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What Color is Your World?

Georgetown bedroom, photograph

“..Why would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?”

– Russell Miller

I love B&W photography. But Miller raises an interesting question about the role of B&W photography and it’s place in history.

We had many years of only B&W photography and many of the most famous photographers worked primarily in that mode. As a result, many of the most recognized photographs are B&W. Would things have been different had color film been invented first? I believe they would. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have B&W photography but I suspect it would be a very minor niche, probably done as infrequently as monochrome paintings.

It’s interesting that television and the movies started off also as B&W only but now there are extremely few movies and no TV shows produced without color. We even go as far as to “colorize” old B&W movies (which interestingly enough seem not as visually interesting as they did in their original state).

My own experience selling color and B&W work is that the average person, not the photography collector, prefers color work by a wide margin. It makes it hard to allocate wall space in shows to B&W work if I’m trying to recover costs or make some money. I wish this weren’t so. It’s possible my own color work is just better than my B&W and my experience may not be the same as yours in this matter.

Putting additional pressure on B&W photography is that most people are shooting digital cameras which always capture images in color. Of course, it’s easier than ever to convert these to B&W but we don’t necessarily go out with the intention of shooting B&W which was the case when we were loading B&W film in our cameras.

I’m not sure why B&W photography has had the staying power it has, but I’m glad for it. It’s a different and special way of seeing.

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Support Systems

hinges, photograph

“It’s hard to overemphasize the fact that the most difficult part of artmaking is not the making-a-living part – it’s the staying-alive-as-an-artist part. Without a support system, you not only lose a precious connection with your fellow artmakers, you also lose access to all those school experiences that have no natural counterpart in the outside world”.

Ted Orland

A friend of our just told us that her college-aged daughter is attending a 4 year art school program. Another friend recently completed her MFA at the same school. This brought to my mind a discussion Orland has in his book The View from the Studio Door in which he talks about the pros and cons of art school.

He observes that one of the differences between art school and the outside world is that there are not that many ways to be part of a community of artists outside of school in our world today. Art is no longer woven as tightly into society’s fabric as it used to be. It’s easy to find oneself working as an artist in relative isolation. I’m sure this can be a difficult change upon graduating from art school – a lot of the support systems are suddenly absent.

I believe that blogging and other social networking communities have given many of us a welcome means of connecting with others. It’s become an amazing window to a worldwide artist community. I’ve enjoyed participating in this but felt the need for something else, something more immediate.

A friend and I decided about 6 months ago to start a group composed of local photographers which meets monthly. One of the goals was to foster a sense of artistic community among our peers. We give ourselves an “assignment” each month, something vague enough we can each interpret it our own way, and we share what we’ve done that month at each meeting. This gives us an incentive to go out and do some art – often the assignment pushes us to try something we would not have otherwise done. We share our work, books we’ve read, shows we’ve seen, things we’ve been struggling with – and we top it off with a great potluck lunch.

It’s been a great success so far, and I think we’ve all been surprised at how revealing and inspirational the process has been. Interestingly enough, Orland shares that he has been in such groups himself for many years, sometimes more than one at a time and some for a very long time.

What do you do to find or create artistic community? What forms has this taken for you? How have you found it to be beneficial?
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Wabi-Sabi 1, photograph

A funny thing happened this week – one of those whimsical coincidences that can reveal. I read a book that had been recommended by Donna Watson on her wonderful blog Layers. The book is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. In it I found a phrase the not only resonated with me strongly but was the exact same phrase that had been used by Robert Adams which was the inspiration for my last blog posting. I realized that my previous posting had mysteriously foreshadowed this book and that there was a theme here for me to explore further.

Here is the quote from Koren:

“The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down the essence but don’t remove the poetry”

There’s that phrase again – economy of means. Why was it haunting me?

First, what is wabi-sabi? I won’t attempt to explain it fully here (Koren’s book does a wonderful job of that) but basically it is a fundamental Japanese aesthetic of beauty. In his introduction Koren describes wabi-sabi:

“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.”

I have always been drawn to photographing objects in some state of deterioration. I’d rather shoot an old, decaying building than a new shiny one, a beat up old car than this year’s model, an antique rather than something just made. I never understood what appealed to me in these objects and sometimes felt self-conscious pursuing them.

The concept of wabi-sabi has given me a context within which to consider these subjects. Koren discusses some of the metaphysical, spiritual, moral and emotional foundations of this interesting aesthetic. For example, a metaphysical aspect is “things are devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness”, while a moral precept is “get rid of all that is unnecessary”. The economy of means phrase refers to the unpretentious simplicity vs. materialistic complexity that is also fundamental to wabi-sabi.

I like the idea that what and how I photograph can cause me to think about the world around me in a more conscious manner. I have a feeling a wabi-sabi series is in my future.

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Economy of Means

The Avenues, photograph

“Instead their work is usually marked by an economy of means, an apparently everyday sort of relationship with their subject matter.”

Robert Adams

John Barclay’s blog mini-series on simplicity has gotten me thinking about the the apparent simplicity of much great photography. I use the word apparent because we all know that the appearance of simplicity in most good art belies the difficulty of achieving it.

Sometimes it seems easier to make things more complicated – how’s that for a paradox? In painting, for example, I sometimes had a tendency to put in much more detail than was needed in the work. It was almost as if I was trying to distract the viewer from  my lack of design, technique and vision with trivial and unimportant … stuff.

In photography, I can be seduced by crazy lenses, powerful software post-processing and weird lighting and angles. I’m of two minds about this – on the one hand, I love to play with new ideas and approaches and often have felt that “straight” photography was a little boring. On the other hand, I’m aware of the power of a simple, straightforward photograph and how a lot of image trickery can end up feeling gimmicky. I’m sure there is a balance to be pursued in this area.

I like Adams’ phrase “economy of means” – it’s a reminder that you don’t need exotic equipment or technique to create a great picture and that an “everyday sort of relationship” with the subject, while not flashy, can be every bit as potent.

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