Twice Seen

Man and Child, photograph

“In the words of a Native American holy man, to see profoundly means ‘to look at the world twice,’ minutely as well as dimly, in order ‘to see all that there is to see’.”

Eugenia Parry – in an essay introduction to “Bill Jacobson Photographs”

One of the things I love most about visual art is the way in which it allows us, and sometimes forces us, to see the world differently.

Imagine for a moment a world without any visual arts. The only things to see… would be the things themselves. While it’s hard to even imagine, I believe that there would be far less dimension to our world. Our surroundings would feel a little more like a Hollywood set. We would lack the ability to see “all that there is to see”.

Much of my photographic work involves images seen less minutely and more dimly. They might feel a bit like the dream state, or that interval when awakening emerges from our dreams. Just as we perform important work on many of our conscious thoughts while dreaming, we can expand the range of our vision of the world by viewing it in a manner less minute. Then we will look twice, and maybe more than twice, to see what is revealed when the particulars are absent.

Please do keep looking. You will continue to find more.

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A True Original

table setting, photograph

“When originality becomes a goal, it is no longer original. The artist is merely trying to be different.”

John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity

Here is a most subtle distinction to ponder: original vs. different. What is he getting at? Loori goes on to say:

“The word original comes from origin, the source. Different just means something that is set apart from everything else. […] originality can be reached only through a long, arduous process of self-discipline and mastery of the medium. Then, ultimately, our own uniqueness naturally finds it’s own expression.”

Difference is easier to achieve – just do the next one in a way that is unlike the previous one. Original means that you have connected in some way with an internal source of inspiration. Originality has nothing to do with the relationship of what we create to other works of art – it has to do with it’s relationship to what is inside of us.

The premise here is that we can only connect with this inner wellspring by achieving a state of unselfconscious mastery. I think this is one of the reasons it is valuable to work on a series, a coherent body of work that is explored over and over. I know when I work this way, it makes me much more conscious and thoughtful as I explore new approaches to the subject. When I don’t work on projects in this manner, I find I’m taking random shots, any of which might be interesting and even different on their own, but rarely do they reveal much about me or much that is of lasting value.

Loori finishes by stating

“Originality is born of craftsmanship, skill, and diligent practice, not from trying to stand out in a crowd.”

It’s one of those things that you can only achieve by giving up the attempt to achieve it. When you stop focusing on standing out in the crowd, you actually might have a chance to do so.

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The Dark Side

san francisco nights, photograph

“… it’s also important to recognize that what we’ve created may be private work, rather than something to offer for publication or exhibition.”

John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity

Do you ever create this kind of private work?

We’re not referring to work that is kept private because it isn’t up to our personal quality standards, but rather work that just isn’t suitable for consumption by others. It might be something that was inspired by an inner muse that you are not ready to share. The work may even be disturbing to others. Not all art is “feel good” art.

As artists I think it is good to challenge our audience, but not to intentionally upset them. Since we explore our inner state through our art, it makes sense that a wide range of feelings and emotions are represented.

I know many artists are tempted to produce only work that uplifts, themselves and others. We are all enriched by such work. But I recommend examining other modalities in your art as well.

I was recently told by someone that a body of my work “should be seen, but was not commercial”. In other words, it had something to say but nobody would probably want to buy it and hang it on their wall. There are all sorts of categories that art falls into beyond the familiar ones so many of us focus on.

So tell me, do you have a collection of private work hidden away somewhere? What can you tell us about it?

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Healthy Competition?

transits 32, photograph

“When we are in competition with ourselves, and match our todays against our yesterdays, we derive encouragement from past misfortunes and blemishes. Moreover, the competition with ourselves leaves unimpaired our benevolence toward our fellow men.”

Eric Hoffer

There are many opportunities in the art world to become embroiled in competition: juried shows, camera clubs, publication submissions, etc. It’s challenging to heed the excellent advice of Hoffer to compete only with ourselves. I do like the consequence he points out, that of minimizing any ill feelings toward others!

Competition in art seems so arbitrary – how can one compare a photograph (or painting) of a landscape against a figurative piece? Or between two pieces with very different styles? What qualities of the pieces are being compared and contrasted? I don’t envy jurors of these events – it’s a necessary task, but one incredibly hard to do well, I think.

Even competing with oneself is a challenge. How does one measure improvement? Often there are too many variables at play – if we created the same type of work over and over, we might be able to compare results, but I’m constantly changing what and how I create the work. Progress, if even identifiable,  surely occurs on a non-linear trajectory.

This year I’ve decided to engage in more events in which my work will be judged by others. I’ve had some success so far, and some rejections. I am a competitive person by nature, so am working on keeping that tendency in check.

This will be my last posting for a short while – this weekend I am off to Photoalliance, a portfolio review in San Francisco. There I will be confronted with lots of feedback from curators, gallery owners, artists and publishers. I will be looking for direction, networking and inspiration. Hopefully I will keep any competitive urges at bay…

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Self-Forgetful Concentration

vintage vines, photograph

“What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

Elizabeth Bishop

First of all, I think Bishop is being facetious here in her phrase “perfectly useless”. There is little that is of more use to us than the still point of concentration we experience when creating art or being moved by it. “Self-forgetful” is a state sought by most spiritual paths as a requirement for deeper understanding.

What struck me about this quote, however, was the way in which Bishop equates, at some level, the experience of creating art with that of experiencing it. When I see art that captures my attention, there is a sudden suspension of my surroundings as I focus my attention on the piece in front of me. It is similar to the way in which we become unaware of what’s going on around us when making art.

This shared state of mind, this self-forgetful concentration,  is at the root of the connection between artists and their audience. It occurs at a level underlying the specifics of any individual, at a more essential stratum. For me, this is one of the reasons it is so rewarding to be an artist – knowing that I share a bond with others making and experiencing art that exists regardless of our differences.

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