Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Photography As Seed for Contemplation

Three Circles

In going back over my archived photos of the past three years, searching for materials to work with now that I might have overlooked previously—as time gives perspective to quality—I find myself pulled into photos I had forgotten I'd taken, forgotten were there, in one or two cases forgotten where they were made until I looked at the context.

I often take photographs of interesting scenes or found arrangements, knowing I might use them as elements later in a digital artwork. Sometimes I never use them; sometimes I have a vision for a piece right away, and use them immediately. Some elements have been recycled through more than one digital artwork.

For example, a photo of a seagull in flight—a motion-blurred closeup, taken at the beach near Ft. Lauderdale, FL, in 1993, when I was there for an academic conference, giving a paper, and stole away with some others to the beach for an afternoon—has been used in two or three pieces, as it was the most evocative bird-in-flight image I had, that I could call my own. From the beginning, it was important to me to use my own photography as elements, rather than clip art or stock photos taken by others. A point of pride, orbiting concepts of originality, rather than a copyright issue. Photos that were entirely mine, that I didn't need permission to use; certainly some recreated what I'd seen in stock photo books, or concepts seen in surrealist advertising images, and elsewhere: but entirely mine, made by myself and my camera.

White Bird/Badlands

Nowadays, having traveled much more since then—my semi-nomadic lifestyle not manifesting itself as fully-alive until a decade later—I have many more such images to choose from. By continuing to shoot elements, one gradually builds up one's own personal stock library. Still, whenever I'm out making photos, and I happen to see a similar bird-in-flight image to be made, I do so. The next photo of the same subject might be better than all the previous ones. You might get lucky, or get it just right by intention; either way, it's worth pursuing. Over time, as I have become a better photographer—and I feel as if the road trip out West, last late summer and early fall, pushed me into a new level of quality in my photograph that I'd never achieved before—I still return to many of the same subjects that compel my interest, always trying to do better each time, hoping each time for a new image even better than all the old ones ever were, on that subject. So I always keep my eyes open, and my camera near at hand. Capturing the moment is a discipline of readiness, of being mindful and of having one's tools close to hand, cleaned and prepared and ready to use.

Making a poem is exactly the same thing, for me: readiness, preparation, combined with openness to experience, to seeing what's around one, and being prepared for the poem to come at any time. I'm never without a small notepad; there's one in the outside pocket of my camera case; there may also be one in a shirt pocket; there's one in the backpack, another clipped to the truck's overhead visor; and so on. Readiness is all, when a poem can come to you at any moment.

Making a drawing or painting is more deliberate, It requires more choice, more will, more deliberate intention. At this point, making a photo is often effortless, the camera is the end-extension of one's hand-eye coordination. All you have to do is turn the camera on, bring it up, frame the image, and shoot. It can less time to do it than to tell about doing it. Starting a drawing means I need to open up the zippered case in which I carry some colored pencils, a sketchbook, and some other small tools; I need to pull out the sketchbook, grab a pencil, and get to work. It's becoming more natural, as I progress along that road of teaching myself to draw; it goes faster, and can be more compelling; but photography remains the most effortless of the visual arts I engage with, the medium that requires the least consideration before execution.

So, drawing and painting still require intention, if only for the time it takes to set up the tools. Photography is becoming increasingly unintentional, unwillful, and egoless. Poetry likewise. I find myself wanting less and less to include any part of myself in a poem, but only to be the receiving pipeline via which the poem happens. And they do seem to just happen, often enough. I freely admit I'm not very good at intentional poetry, anyway: sitting down to try to write a sonnet, or a sestina, or something similar, is certain to be an hour wasted in which I could have done something better; and the artistic product of such intentional sessions, the poem itself, usually is a lesser vessel, for me—never one of my best efforts. Usually too far unbalanced towards the cerebral.

I freely admit to some impatience about feeling like I'm wasting my time when asked to do certain activities. Why don't I attend writing workshops? While I might gain some new insight or technique, most such workshops are geared towards beginners and intermediate writers; if there were an advanced workshop that would really push me, creatively, I'd consider attending. But 99 percent of all seminars on any creative topic will give you the exact same teachings and lessonings—rephrased through each teacher's individual experience, and useful to the extent that, if one way of talking about a perennial principle doesn't excite you, another will—and you'll repeat yourself a lot. I can do "writing exercises" on my own—études, scraps, and finger-exercises—without paying someone to lead me through them. (There are plenty of free-to-read craft-polishing websites available, too.)

To be clear, in no way am I sneering at workshops of any kind. I disdain nothing. There are always people who need them, and for whom they are life-changing and revelatory. For some of us, though, we take the lesson and move on to the next, without needing to repeat it endlessly. It's not a question of workshops being bad, it's a question of needing another level of workshop than is generally available. And at a certain level, you're teaching yourself, anyway: it only requires realizing that that is what you're doing, and that hand-holding is no longer even emotionally necessary. Perhaps it's a sign that, after all those years of struggling and repetitive practice, progress has actually been made.

Why don't I teach a workshop, then? Actually, I already have, on the community college level. It was a popular course, too, the few times I was asked to teach it. I don't claim to be a gifted teacher—although I will certify that I'm rather good at "translating" complex concepts, without oversimplifying them, into forms understandable to many beginners. I certify only because students have so testified. Actually, I do enjoy teaching. The problem I usually have is with the administrators, rather than the students: I tend to present concepts from outside-the-box, oblique angles. I like to do so precisely because it's a sideways approach. I use musical analogies when I teach photography; I use poetry to talk about dance; I use cinema to teach poetry. I would teach a workshop on what I've learned, over time and experience, any time some group paid me to do so. It's a great pleasure to pass on what I've acquired. It might also be of the nature of a duty, on some deeper, archetypal level. Readiness is all, and willingness treads not far behind.

Devil's Tower, WY

When I look through these past few years of photography, in which my travels and experiences, and some of life's evitable dramas, have pushed me to continue to improve as a photographer, artist, writer, and human being (the true work, the real opus, always a work in progress), what I see in the photos is a record of my own progress. No, it's more multiplex than that: my improvements technically often feel serendipitous to me: accidents that I learn to repeat, mistakes that yield fruit when repeated: my evolution via experience as a pilgrim whose Way is the artist's way as much as the spiritual-technology way: as though those could really be separated: are perceivable as punctuated equilibria proceeding by fits and starts: up a bouldered volcanic throat rather than a smooth incline: whole months of photos bland boring and repetitious: followed by a sudden leap into a vision never quite so clearly seen before: as though the eye itself had caught focus as the world catches light. The path of progress runs along a fractal coastline, twisting back on itself on many scales, infinitely recursive while still proceeding along a path towards resolution and escape.


The photographic image is whole, but is also made up of its elements. Zoom into a photographic print past the resolution of imaginary meaning, and one approaches the veil between matter's solidity and its representation as vibration locked into habitual electronic forms: the singing of the atoms, the music of the spheres. How can one separate the paper from the image, the dancer from the dance? Even the gods have habitual opinions, endlessly repeated across the narratives of myth. The bright deities in their own way as inflexible of purpose as their darker cousins, their blooded emanations reflecting in the burning glass. Only when reborn as human is there a chance for change, the power to choose, and choose again. The way of heaven, the river of stars, the bloody road, the six paths and the four ways of meifumado.

And so one progresses, artistically and humanistically, paths braided upon one another as a pebbled stream. In reviewing life and work, it's tempting to become a tracker, reading sign in the trail and assembling a narrative from it. All narratives are invented, usually in hindsight: memory is not different, even with reminders. We make something coherent out of something incoherent, scattered, and momentary. What endures, other than the photographs, is what we choose to keep—apples chosen from the bushel for freshness—and what makes demands on us, even against our will.

I find photos, in my review, that are compelling now, although at the time they seemed forgettable enough. They call in voices louder now. Ripening to fruition over a months, or years, to focus attention on themselves where previously unremarked. An emergent process of contemplation: what once was overlooked becomes sublime.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Readiness vs intention. Very interesting. I guess I am the same. I've rarely intended to write a poem. When I'm in the process of doing it that's a different thing, I intend to finish it. A poem is always a response and I agree totally when you talk about being ready to respond. I guess it's like the nature photographer making sure he has film in his camera or whatever the digital equivalent is nowadays. There are times I have wanted to write poems about specific happenings but the results are always contrived. That said I don't see myself as a pipeline, rather a mirror; I don't channel, I reflect.

I have never attended a workshop and I never will. For one I'm not a social person but the main reason is that I object to anyone saying there is "a way" to go about things. That said I have a way I go about things, a way that developed over time. I can envisage a lot of younger writers wanting to look for a short cut but there aren't any.

I like the idea of using one art form to explain another. It's definitely the way to go. If someone isn't understanding something then find something they do understand and take it from there. That applies to far more than simply art of course.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

A mirror is another good analogy: a mirror for observers.

I think it's perfectly possible to develop a system that works for oneself, and not for others. I think my own process is probably of that category. I can teach it, but I don't know if it's any good for anyone else; probably not. You're absolutely right that there are NO shortcuts. The only way to proceed is by practice over time.

I'm not opposed to workshops, and I've attended a few. What I'm clear about is their severe limitations. There's only so much that can be transmitted in the workshop environment. I wonder if lots of folks go to workshops because they're subconsciously searching for that shortcut, that magic bullet of enlightenment, that doesn't exist. I'm also critical of what has developed into a "workshop culture," with its own self-perpetuating goals and means—many of which are antithetical to inspiration and artistry. Who cares if you have a finally-polished poetic craft but really have nothing to say?

The teaching by analogy from other arts is something some of my own teachers used to use. It's probably where I got the idea, originally. But it does seem to work, for lots of people, even artists who mostly or only work in one medium.

12:35 PM  

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