Sunday, May 17, 2009

Photography and Punctuated Equilibria

Lately I feel that, as a photographer, I rose to a new level of skill and technical accomplishment on my five-week-long roadtrip out West last summer-into-fall. I feel like something changed, and I stepped up a quantum level as an artist. I don't feel after the recent roadtrip to Maine and back that I improved yet again, but I do feel as if I sustained that new level of skill.

I set out on that West-bound roadtrip in the high heat of summer, and when I returned it was already fall at altitude in the Rocky Mountains. The transition happened on the road. I almost didn't notice it, but for the truth that I was moving through faster than it was happening at any one given location. One day I was at the ocean shore in Oregon, where everything was warm and green; less than a week later I was watching the aspen turn golden at the foot of the Tetons above Jackson, Wyoming. Although I wore the same jacket in both locations, the sea breeze is cold in way that's qualitatively different than the way early fall icy rain is cold in the mountains at 7000 feet. On one level, cold in cold, and you have to bundle up. On another level, the type and nature and quality of feeling cold is entirely localized.

On this last roadtrip, to the Down East region, which I just returned from, a long loop through New England to coastal Maine and back, I set out in early-mid-spring, and returned in early summer. The trees here were just starting to bud, to leaf out, little small catkins and buds creating the effect of a green mist overlaid on the drab grays and browns and off-whites of the late-winter forest vistas. As I drove north and east, I followed the line of advancing spring: the stage of development of the tree-buds was pretty much the same all the way out to Maine. This made early spring linger for me, and gave me two weeks of viewing the same flowering trees, shrubs, and wildflowers everywhere I traveled. The trip began with mists of buds against the poles of the forest trees; continued through the blooming of all colors and varieties of trees; the golden explosion of forsythia, the pink haloes of redbuds and the white crowns of crabapples, the eggshell rapture of magnolias and tulip-trees. As I returned, I passed through the sustained beauty of dogwoods blooming, like white ghosts in the greening forest at dusk. And I returned through the lilacs blooming, and bulb flowers still blooming in my own garden patch.

I'm aware that this is not the first time I've jumped up a quantum level as an artist, in terms of skill and composition, nor is it likely to be the last. One progresses as long as one keeps working. I can look back at my own life and spot previous lurches upward, when technique and an eye for composition suddenly got better after a long period of relative stability. Sustained work with certain subjects will bring on a new leap in what your eye can see, as well. I remember when I lived in Java, Indonesia, studying gamelan music, that my photography of dance and music performance radically improved. (A dance photo I made a few years later won an award.)

What intrigues me about the shape of the process of making progress as an artist is that it is not a straight line, a perfect geometric rise such as one sees in graphs of algebraic acceleration lines, whether they are representing financial trends or weather patterns as the seasons change. What intrigues me is that, like in most other things in life, the process of improvement as an artist happens via a series of alternating quantum jumps and plateaus.

I find this pattern everywhere I look, once attuned to it. The quantum physics model of the atom, in which probabilistic electrons "jump" between energy states. The actual patterns of the stock market financial cycles, which look more like a line of skyscrapers than a smooth curved wave. The theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology. (I can't help think that Eldredge and Gould, who developed this theory, had the same insight I'm talking about here, wherein they noticed that evolution as well as personal growth seems to happen via a process of periods of stability alternating with periods of rapid change.) The way one learns technical skills in martial arts practice. (George Leonard, Aikidokai and writer, has discussed this in his important book The Silent Pulse.) The energy input thresholds between turbulent and chaotic states, as described in fluid dynamics and chaos theory.

This way of progressing, by leaps and jumps interspersed with no apparent movement, seems to be a fundamental energetic structure of the universe. (Which does appear to have a particle size lower limit, a "grain" if you will. Granted, it's incomprehensibly tiny.) That's why it's reflected on all scales of scrutiny, both the large and the tiny. If motion seems to be smooth vectors on the large-scale of gravitational attractions or ballistic trajectories, on the atomic scale it's still pretty grainy. One of the defining characteristics of fractal geometry is self-similarity on all scales: you can zoom in and out, and see basically the same forms and relationships. The line of blocks at the top of a mountain range can be seen reflected in tumbled talus slopes at the base of those mountains, in hand-sized rocks shaped in exactly the same forms. That fractal geometry is the most accurate description so far of actual material structure is remarkable.

My attitude, which I learned from my Aikido sensei, is to just it let happen. Don't dwell on it. just keep working at your practice, be it martial art or art-making, and let it develop. You will plateau for awhile, then without your even noticing, at first, you will suddenly be much improved at your undertaking. I may be mostly when one is newly on a new plateau, that one notices that one has skipped up a level recently. The noticing usually comes after the happening, in other words.

For now, as I go through the photos from the Maine roadtrip, I find some images that seem to be as good as my photos last fall of the Tetons and Yosemite. Not better, but as good. I'm still working at that new level, and appreciating it immensely. I recognize the pattern of the process of progress, as it happens, now.

Growth in one's art doesn't end, as long as one keeps working. It's just that it proceeds by this pattern, in this manner, by leaps and plateaus, rather than as a smooth curve of gradual progress. Remembering that, it's easier to get through the places in the plateaus where one might feel stuck or stale: just wait, endure, and keep on pushing your skills, and eventually the next quantum leap will occur. Knowing that helps one get past the stuck places.

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