Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Right Time, Right Place

This is an un-retouched photo. It has not been edited in any way (save for sizing reduction to display here; the original's a 10mgp image). I was simply at the right time and right place for the image to be captured by my camera.

Fortune favors the prepared. A truism.

It means: always be prepared. Always be ready for serendipity. The luck comes to everybody—but you have to be ready to receive it. You have to be open to it; you have to be willing to let it happen. That means you have to pay attention. It also means you have to be prepared. The artist's discipline is to be always ready for the moment to strike. Your tools must always be prepared, cleaned and at their best, and close at hand. Don't leave home without them. That's a truism, too.

Being at the right time, the right place, means always being ready for the moment to strike, and having your tools at hand, ready to be used.

I always have a camera with me. No matter what else is going on, I always have a camera with me. Many of my best images were accidents such as this one, that were the result of being in the right time and place, and being alert.

This is how this photo happened:

I was standing on a beach in the Florida Keys yesterday, somewhere on a roadside beach in the middle Keys, tracking a seagull as it flew over me, hoping to catch a silhouette against the cloud-clear-bright glare of the sky overhead. In a moment of serendipity, I snapped the shutter at exactly the moment the bird passed between me and the sun. The sun's flare whited-out the bird's wing, and made the image into a vision. It was an instance of luck and perfect timing converging to make an accidentally perfect image. (There is no need to retouch an image like this, or to invent it in Photoshop. I doubt I could have done a better version by inventing it, anyway.)

This is a subject for a photo I've tried to capture before, over the years, with limited success. For me, it is deeply symbolic. This image is archetypal, and mythic, expressing a truth about the nature of the soul: a bird rising into the sky has been used in many cultures as a symbol of the freed soul, leaving the body, rising into the One; and also just as a symbol of freedom and grace. Or release, and ascension. There are many labels, and stories, and representations, in world art, or similar subjects.

For the sake of comparison, here is the shot immediately beforehand, when I was tracking the flying gull as it approached:

Not nearly as a good of a photo, but not a bad one. It pales by comparison precisely because the other image is sublime beyond ken and intent: a quantum leap more powerful an image by its own nature. It's a step beyond the usual. It contains a power that I can only hope my art achieves, on occasion. I couldn't have planned it. It just happened.

There are no accidents. Yet another truism. But there's an important message in it:

Leave room for the serendipitous in your art.

If you dare.

Most artists don't dare. They plot and they plan, and they don't leave enough room for chance to provide them with happy accidents. They try to control the outcome. In the worst examples, they try to control the meaning of their artwork, and to dictate what that meaning should be to the audience: as though they were transmitting to a receiver. Such artists tend to over-control their creative process. They leave nothing to chance. They leave no room for the happy accident.

I can't tell you how sterile most such art ends up being: how lifeless and cold and uninteresting. And that is the vast majority of art being made nowadays. (Probably it's always been that way.)

This image that came into my camera yesterday demonstrates, by its very existence, how little control we have, as artists, over our own art, its outcomes, its intent, and its meaning(s). That this was an accident gives it more layers of meaning, for me. It changes the image from something that I made into something that I was given. That it is an image that conveys, in an instant, an aspect of the essence of the spiritual aspect of much of my artwork, is something that I can only point towards, to hint at, with these words, but never actually encompass. There is a lot going on in this image; probably more than I know. It gives me a sense of calm, of transcendence, of something Other than myself, that I briefly touched for a moment, or that touched me. I really can't explain it; I'm just flailing away at trying to describe the experience of being present when the image was made.

One way you as an artist can get past this neurotic need to control your art's outcome is to consciously and deliberately give up control of some aspect of your creative process, of your art-making process. For a lot of artists, that's purely terrifying. So start small, and go slow: Start with giving up just one kind of control. Don't overdo it. Pick just one thing to set free. For example, I often take photos without looking through the viewfinder. I have a pretty good sense of aim with my camera, without looking through the viewfinder. Still, there have been several occasions in which not framing the image through the viewfinder resulted in a much better composition, crop, and subject matter.

For example, another personal favorite photo of mine was taken as I walked by an interesting scene, pointing the camera backwards as I walked past. Just as with the seagull image above, I had no idea how good the shot was till I saw it later, or even if I'd gotten anything at all.

(The composition and cropping are in the original, which was a color photo. I have used a custom Photoshop filter process to give the image a pen-and-ink texture. No other editing was used.)

This letting-go of over-controlling your art requires trust. Trust in the process. Trust in your tools. More importantly, trust in your connection to your tools: that they are your friends, extensions of your hands and heart and mind. An artist's tools are not things we manipulate: they are things we become, or that become us, in the best sense: a merging, a connecting, an overlapping of purpose. (What does a tool want more out of life than to be well-used in the purpose for which it was made?)

Artists who cannot let go of control do not trust the universe to take care of them. They do not trust their tools to teach them. Their egos do not believe they have anything to learn from their tools.

But our tools teach us something new, if we let them, every time we pick them up to be used. You cannot help but learn, if you are open to learning.

Being at the right time, the right place, means always being ready for the moment to strike, and having your tools at hand, ready to be used. This applies not only to visual art, but also to music, poetry, dance, architecture, all artforms. I am talking about allowing serendipity to come into your art, but I am also talking about inspiration—the root word of inspiration means to breathe. This is the natural breath of life: a birthright. You cannot force inspiration. Nothing kills inspiration faster than an attempt to coerce or enslave it. You have to be willing to follow wherever it leads. You have to be willing to let go. And to trust.

That is, if you want your artwork to have that genuine breath of life in it. If not, feel free to continue to over-control your creative process. But then, you must expect the results to be only accidentally interesting, and generally sterile, dry, and cold.

Unless that too can break through into a happy accident.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I gave up photography as an art form many years ago, well before the digital revolution. The reason was cost. It was too damn expensive to snap and snap and snap and snap. Which is pretty much what you need to do to land lucky. I think digital cameras are a wonderful invention. I've never got round to buying a decent one though. Maybe if I did, something that felt right in my hand, I'd be more inclined to experiment.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Digital photography keeps getting better, and more higher resolution. There are still some things that you can only do with film stock, though.

But the expense issue is major. Not having to pay for film OR for developing is a major advantage to digital.

I recommend you look into the Kodak or Canon pocket-size rangefinder cameras. They feel good in the hand, they take great shots at high resolution, and they're easy to carry around, so you always have a camera with you.

1:07 PM  

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