inspiration

Memorable Quotes- Sting

Whenever creative people talk about their medium, whether it be writing, dance, painting, sculpture, ceramics, music, film, etc., they always speak for artists in other mediums. This is because creative concerns and methods are essentially universal to all artists, regardless of medium. I read an interview with Sting recently in which he talked about his creative process. Substitute the word "photography" for "music", and this thought is equally relevant:

"Music is like a sea without a horizon and without a reason for being. Making music is a wonderful adventure without borders - exactly like love. You never get to the bottom of the person you love. The closer you get, the more you understand about how little you know of them. That means that there is a lot of work yet to be done."

Exactly.

Memorable Quotes- Jerry Uelsmann & Duane Michals

There are a many thoughtful photographers out there who speak eloquently about their work and photography in general, but few are as inspiring as Jerry Uelsmann and Duane Michals. (I could list more, like Kip Fulbeck, for instance, but will limit myself for now.) Last month I attended the Society for Photographic Education's national conference, where 82-year old Uelsmann was a featured speaker. Here are a few of the more memorable things he said:

"I asked an historian, "What IS history?", and he answered, "History amounts to those things that you choose to remember."

"The camera is a license to explore."

"The viewer always completes the image."

"Art is one of those areas where there is more than one right answer."

"Once you think you know everything, the questioning stops."

And perhaps my favorite: "I don't want this presentation to be a snore-fest with yawn-sauce on the side."

Michals, who is now 85, was equally entertaining and challenging when I heard him speak at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2000. Here are some of his most memorable lines:

"Do not try to be perfect, please. Perfect is boring. Your humanity lies in your vulnerability."

"Pay attention to your mind. You put crap in your mind, you get crap in your life. You put good things in your mind, you get good things in your life."

"I think about thinking."

"Don't come crying to me because nothing happened. Nothing happened because you didn't make it happen."

"You have 2 choices in life: doing and bullshit. Don't tell me what you are going to do. Show me what you have done."

"Guess when you were born? You were born now."

When golfer Arnold Palmer died in 2016, it was written of him, "People loved him because, in a world of sullen superstars, Palmer radiated joy and delight in the treasures of his life... He had a wonderful time being Arnold Palmer and squeezed every drop of juice from the experience." The same can be said about Uelsmann and Michals, both giants of 20th century photography.

Reliving Cultural Moments That Change Your Life

In 2015, the New York Times ran a series of articles written by a variety of people that addressed the following question: "What cultural work or encounter do you wish you could experience again for the first time?"

The authors wrote about concerts, books and films that had had a profound impact on them, each of which they wished they could experience again for the first time. For me, there have been two such cultural experiences, one of which I blogged about in 2014:

[embed]http://janealdenstevens.com/?p=1382[/embed]

The other experience took place during a visit to New York City in the mid-1970’s. I decided one day to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in order to see in person some of the artworks that I had studied in art history classes in college. I had no particular agenda for this visit, no works that I specifically wanted to see. After having taken in the art on the first two floors, I started up the flight of stairs that would take me to the next level. Doing so meant going up a short flight of stairs, turning 90˚ to the right, ascending another short flight, then turning another 90˚ to take the final steps up to the third floor. As I ascended that last section, I became aware that a large painting was coming into view with each step I climbed. It was enormous, it was black and white, it was riveting.

It was Picasso's “Guernica”.guernica_all-1

Although I had seen this painting in reproduction many times before, I was stunned when encountering it in person. It is one thing to see a photograph of an artwork in a book, or as a projection or screen image, and quite another to experience it in real life. Nothing had prepared me for the violence, the authority, the command of this painting.

I stood there at the top of the stairs, unable to move, not knowing where to begin or even what to think. It was as if all thought had been stripped from my brain, leaving a blank slate behind. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed there examining and thinking about the painting, but I do know that it was a good long time. I left MOMA without having looked at anything else.

I was aware that "Guernica" was going to be sent back to Spain eventually (it was, in 1981), and that this was probably the only time that I would be able to see it in person. So I drank it in while I could, all the while wondering how a painting could evoke such a visceral response in me.

Looking back, I understand that my reaction arose from a combination of things: the way the painting came slowly into view as I ascended the stairs, the powerful content of it, the fact that it was in black, gray & white, the abstract method used to paint it, the relationship of the figures to each other, and my total lack of expectation about what I was going to see as I climbed those steps.

I think of that day often, as it was the first time that I realized how potent and personal art could be, and wish I could see "Guernica" for the first time again.

Thoughts on Beauty

I have been invited to participate in The Anna May Project, [embed]http://theannamayproject.com/[/embed]

an educational "visual storytelling project that helps women and girls learn to shape and tell their own stories." The Anna May Project was founded by Amy Whitaker, who brings years of executive leadership experience plus degrees in Fine Arts and Art Education to the table. She seeks to empower women and girls to find their own truths and inner strength through the use of photography and visual storytelling.

Some of my photographs will appear in the first edition of Riptide Magazine, being published by The Anna May Project in January 2017. In the meantime, Amy asked me to compose a short essay on "beauty", which will be the focus of that issue of the magazine. Doing so was an interesting exercise, as I never had written anything on that topic before, and I was limited to 200 words. After finishing, I realized that beauty is a topic about which I have very strong feelings, particularly because it runs counter to so much that is valued in today's art world. Here is what I wrote:

"Beauty is strength, resiliency, and conviction. Because I am drawn to these qualities, beauty often finds its way into my work.

Beauty emerges from a combination of elements—the setting, the light, the ambient sounds and smells, the way people move—in the way these elements interact and connect with each other. I thus can find beauty in any setting and in people of all ages, because it is not just about how things look.

Making a picture that speaks to my definition of beauty is never a specific goal; rather, it is a byproduct of how I see and experience the world and what I want to say about it through my photographs.

In today’s art world, beauty is something that is scorned by many. Back in 1981 when I staged my Masters of Fine Arts thesis exhibit, "Dancing on a Wall", a mentor wrote, “(Your photographs are) … an expression of a vital ingredient of creation—the artist’s delight and love for a much maligned, old-fashioned, but everlastingly satisfying component of much of art—beauty.”

He further advised me to never apologize for that, and indeed, to embrace it as part of my creative self—and I always have."

Learning to stand up for who I truly am as a person and artist was one of the most important lessons I ever learned from that beloved mentor, Charles A. Arnold, Jr., known by all as Charlie. Although he is gone now, his lessons resonate and guide me every day of my life.

Tracking Family Connections

The project I am currently working on examining, in part, the connections among my various family members. It's fascinating to me that we all know each other so well, and yet at the same time don't know each other at all. What connects us as a "family"? A. Hope Jahren, currently a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oslo, recently published an essay in The New York Times titled

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/opinion/sunday/my-fathers-hackberry-tree.html?_r=0

"My Father's Hackberry Tree". In it, she describes a connection to her father that arose from her research work:

"...In 1993, my father collected hackberry fruits for me. My task that year was to observe the development of the seed over the course of the growing season, and I had earmarked several trees in South Dakota for that purpose. During a rare visit home to neighboring Minnesota, I saw with new eyes the fine specimen of C. occidentalis that graced the southwestern corner of my parents’ property.

I asked my father if he wouldn’t mind pulling off a few fruits every week throughout the summer, and he obliged. From May through September, he visited our hackberry tree twice each day, carefully recording the weather conditions, and also sampling, first flowers, then green fruits, then ripe, then withered, all placed into small plastic vials. Hundreds and hundreds of fruits — each week’s harvest wrapped in a sheet of paper describing its yield.

... (My) father spent the better part of his 70th summer observing a single tree, and in the end, gave me a hundredfold more than what I had asked for.

My father can no longer write. He is 92 now, and he cannot make his hands work. He cannot walk, or even stand, and he can barely see. He is not certain what year it is, but he is sure that I am his daughter, and that my brothers are his sons, and he treats us just as he always has...

When I visit him these days, we sit in the same house that I grew up in, but we don’t talk about science anymore. ... (We) talk about poetry instead...

As with many Midwestern families, great distances pervade our relationships — both literally and figuratively. We never really talk to each other; instead we box up our hurts and longings and store them for decades, out of sight but not forgotten.

... This year my father and I have spent (the summer) inside, reading...

In the fading light, we offer each other words that were carefully written by dead strangers, because we know them by heart. We also know that children eventually leave. Even when they do come home, there’s always the end of the day, of the week, of the summer, when they fly away to the other side of the world, off to a place where you cannot follow.

This month I am leaving Minnesota, and the United States, relocating yet again, to build a new lab and start over a fourth time. Compared with my previous moves, I am taking very little with me. The dead fruit of my early career has now been discarded. Instead, I carry in my luggage a delicate pile of paper. It is the small bundle of notes written in my father’s handwriting that I recovered from the box of hackberries he collected.

The notes are precious because they constitute proof — proof that my father thought of me every single day and must still do so. Proof that I am his, our shared last name written on every page. Proof that no one in the world knows that tree the way he and I do.

Our hackberry tree still stands, tall and healthy, near the western edge of Mower County. It should outlive both of us, growing stronger and greener even as we inevitably wither and fall. The tree will remain in my parents’ yard, and the notes describing what it was like 20 years ago will go with me, though its fruit will not.

I am taking with me only what I can’t live without, and the utility of these letters is clear. This collection of papers, filled exclusively with symbols and dates and botanical terms, is all of the things that my father and I have never said."

How beautiful that a collection of simple scientific data can make such a profound connection with a loved one. This task that was performed daily for a summer left behind evidence of that love, of the fact that the father thought every day of his daughter, and performed a service on her behalf. The notes that Jahren's father made say "I love and respect you." in a different way than the words themselves, and which is profoundly affecting.

Members of a family sometimes express attachment and affection for one another in such subtle ways that they can be essentially invisible or are not seen for what they are. It is this sideways approach to familial relationships that I am examining right now. What do we discover about our families and our selves when we look for evidence of love and connection in the less obvious places, in the places where links are there, but lie undetected? Trying to answer this question is requiring me to think quite differently than I have in the past about how to portray these issues visually.

Taking Risks in Your Artwork

Different people have different thresholds for risk-taking. Some find it easy to dive off a cliff into the unknown, while others hesitate before diving, and still others never take the leap. But there is a lot of truth in the axiom: "No risk, no reward". David Bowie makes the case for taking risks with one's artwork in this brief interview:

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNbnef_eXBM[/embed]

Someone said to me once that if you are willing to jump off the creative cliff into the unknown, you will spend some time in free-fall, terrified at what you have just done, certain that you will crash and burn. But it's important to remember that you will probably sprout some wings on the way down, which will ease your passage and provide you with a successful  landing. This has proven to be true for me most of the times when I have taken the greatest risks in my work.

I have recently started photographing people in silhouette, something I have never done before. It requires using the camera settings in a very different way than I am used to, and assessing the scene in front of me completely differently, too. It's aggravating, scary, and exciting all at once. I am impatient to get great results right away, which almost never happens when I start something new. That lack of immediate success increases my level of frustration. But working this way has pushed me out of a comfort zone that I hadn't even known I was in. And something new will come out of it that I otherwise would never have done.

Taking risks + being uncomfortable = Totally worth it

Making Connections Between Music and Visual Art

I had coffee recently with cello-player-extraordinaire Nat Chaitkin. Nat plays cello everywhere in Cincinnati, it seems- with the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, and through his music advocacy program, Bach and Boombox, all over the city. Those facts do not begin to do him or his playing justice, though. Nat wants to change the way people experience and perceive classical music, and everything he does is geared towards breaking down the walls between musicians and audience. He tells his students to find the story in the music they are playing, for all music tells some kind of story. Figuring out what the story is requires imagining something that becomes visual. Conjuring up something visual, even if the story is only seen in the mind's eye, is something that visual artists can relate to.

Nat told me about an experience he had had at one of Cincinnati's street festivals with a woman who has synesthesia. Her form of this condition is such that when she hears music, she sees colors that change as the notes change. Nat ended up playing music in different keys, while she drew what she was "seeing" on the pavement with colored chalk. It is just one example of how music and visual art connect.

Here is Nat's full blog post about the encounter:

[embed]http://bachandboombox.com/your-experience-may-vary/[/embed]

Most photographers don't consciously think about how the sounds that exist in the environment in which they are photographing might affect what and how they photograph. This is too bad, because of course the sounds (and smells and tactile qualities) that surround us affect our experience of that environment, and thus affect the kind of art we make from it.

Nat's experience is a reminder that visual artists should try to remain aware of all of our senses as we create our work, and not just rely on our eyes or our brains.

Thoughts on the Creative Voices of Women

I am currently reading a recently-published biography titled The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, by Elaine Showalter. Although Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is best known to Americans for having written the lyrics to the iconic song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, she saw herself for much of her life first and foremost as a poet. Indeed, she was a published poet, playwright, essayist, and women’s rights activist, but one whose creative voice was stifled at almost every turn until much later in her life. Because she lived at a time when women were not allowed control over their own financial affairs, when women who married were expected only to have children and keep the household, and when the consequences of stepping outside the lines that society had drawn for them were dire, Howe struggled mightily to write anything, much less get it published. Reading this book has once again made me infinitely glad that I was born when I was, and not back in earlier times, when the lives of women were so different than they are now. The freedoms that women have gained since Howe’s time are so many and varied that I have often wondered how many other creative women we would be familiar with now, had their voices not been stifled back then.

The changes in attitudes towards women in the arts just in my own lifetime have been radical, and I have been the beneficiary of many of them. I came of age during the women's rights movement of the 1970's and the fights that we fought back then have given us momentum towards continuing to change the future. While the canon of the histories of the creative arts is still dominated by white males, and some fields are still male-dominated (architecture and movies, anyone?) the work of females and other marginalized groups is increasingly being taught more in schools, and is certainly being exhibited/published/performed/built. The internet has created public platforms for artists that were unimaginable only a few years ago. It’s my view that the participation of females in the arts is profound and that their work is valued more today than ever.

Is there more to be done in this regard? Yes. Absolutely.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of how far we have come from earlier times, when it was impossible for so many women like Julia Ward Howe to express themselves creatively, much less be recognized and lauded for their efforts.

Portraits, Self-Portraits, Cindy Sherman & Aging (Part 2)

My last post was inspired by a recent New York Times article about Cindy Sherman's  latest body of work. In it, she presents herself in the style of old Hollywood screen goddesses who are past their prime. Rather than looking sadly like they are trying to still look like their younger selves, the women that Sherman portrays have a certain dignity to them. They look like they are older. They look like they have lived a life. Photograph by Cindy Sherman

Sherman states that this work, which came after a 5-year hiatus, was the result of she herself getting older and trying to come to terms with it. She says, “I, as an older woman, am struggling with the idea of being an older woman.” And apparently she is using this new series to try to figure it out.

Sherman is now 62, an age which for many is an in-between state — not quite still middle-aged, but not yet old-old. As author Gerald Marzaroti recently wrote of people that age: "You are milling in the anteroom of the aged." The fact that Sherman is professing that this series of pictures is more autobiographically based than her prior work is really interesting to me, as is the fact that her age is a driving force in making it.

Numerous photographers have used aging as a foundation for their work- Anne Noggle  and Lucy Hilmer are two who leap immediately to mind—and I, too, find myself very consciously exploring it in my own work at the moment.

I have always been interested in the process and effects of aging. For the “Shadowing the Gene Pool” series, I photographed young children and very old adults, marveling in their similarities and differences. I did the same in the “Birth & Death” series. In my current work, I am looking at my own body, how I am aging, what I think about it, and how I see myself as I age, in addition to looking at how others age. While it is not the only issue that my new work tackles, it is a big part of it.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column back in March that speaks to how being older can enrich one’s work. Here is an excerpt:

“…(People are) less likely by middle age to be blinded by ego, more likely to know what it is they actually desire, more likely to get out of their own way, and maybe a little less likely…to care about what other people think.

…They achieve a kind of tranquility, not because they’ve decided to do nothing, but because they’ve achieved focus and purity of will. They have enough self-confidence, and impatience, to say no to some things so they can say yes to others.

From this perspective, middle age is kind of inspiring. Many of life’s possibilities are now closed, but limitation is often liberating. The remaining possibilities can be seized more bravely, and lived more deeply.”

Thank You, Prince

Yet another genius of popular music has died. The fact that Prince and David Bowie died within months of each other does not feel random to me. Two people who lived and breathed their art, always seeking for different ways to express themselves, both of whom marched to their own beat and who died far too young. Photograph by Planton Antoniou

The New Yorker magazine published an article that outlined some of the many reasons for why Prince was so respected by his peers and fans alike.

And here is an excerpt from an interview Prince did with Jim Walsh from the Minneapolis Post:

“I am music. I feel music. When I walk around, I hear brand new things. You're almost cursed. You're not even (its maker), you're just there to bring it forth. You know, ‘Can't I go to sleep?’ No. You can't. But OK, now you can. And you go to sleep, and you don't hear it, and then you're lonely. No one wants to be on Earth alone.”

 He spoke for all artists with those words.

Walsh wrote, “…that’s what we mourn today — the loss of an eternal seeker, which all great artists are at heart.” Our world is left less colorful, less vibrant, and diminished by his passing.

Thank you, Prince, for all the gifts you gave us.

Artists I Like- On Kawara

Perhaps because I am currently working on a project that utilizes photographs that I have made on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, I am intrigued by artists who have taken that approach in their own work, regardless of medium. On Kawara (1932-2014), a conceptual artist born in Japan, certainly fits that mode.  For 48 years, he would spend a part of each day making a painting that had at its center the date on which he was painting it (his "Today" series). Other creative methods he used were mapping the places he'd been, and  keeping daily lists of people he met. Between 1970 and 2000, he sent his friends more than 900 telegrams just to tell them that he was still alive.On Kawara In the pre-social networked age that we live in today, that kind of thing would perhaps have labeled him as eccentric. Today it makes him seem to have been far ahead of his time. It's possible that, if he were a young artist today, he would have been posting a daily Instagram of each meal, sending weekly selfies on Snapchat (without showing his face, as he was obsessively private), and tweeting his whereabouts on Twitter. Taken together, his work creates an archive of his life.

In an article on Artnet.com, critic Ben Davis wrote that Kawara not only anticipated our data-obsessed age, "he offers an alternative way of thinking about it, a possible model for how to stay human amid it all."

That brings up the issue of the culture of sharing (oversharing?) of personal information in today's world. For me, the most effective kind of personal sharing through one's artwork is that in which an artist reveals just enough for the viewer to engage with, but which only hints at the deeper currents beyond. I like artists whose work makes me feel like I know them, at the same time that I realize I don't know them at all.

On Kawara's work does that for me. He tells us so much about himself and his life, but ultimately preserves his privacy and seems completely unknowable.  For his art wasn't solely about him per se, it was about the passage of time. By focusing on how that passage is built from incremental steps day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, Kawara make us aware of our own inexorable movement towards the future, as well as of the past we have left behind.947-am

The Process of Creating #3

I read a memorial piece on author James Salter in the New York Times Magazine recently. Written by Will Mackin, the final paragraph contains a wonderful description of what the creative process is like. Salter had been a fighter pilot prior to turning to writing as a profession, and Mackin was convinced that the experience informed how Salter wrote. Here is the final paragraph: "...you can sense Salter's search for the idea, or the feeling, or the mood behind the fictional moment. I see him sitting at his desk, as he once sat in the cockpit over Korea, staring out in front of him, a space that can be defined only by what's not there. He doesn't know exactly what he wants to say, or how to say it, but he feels its presence. As his search goes on, he may begin to doubt the existence of what he's after. But then it appears - in the case of an enemy fighter, "silent as a shark" - and immediately it tries to escape or to turn on him. He struggles to maintain sight of it, moving in close, so close he can't miss. And when he hits, something vital shatters."

I can relate so much to what Mackin was describing, as I think any creative person in any field can, for that is the creative process in a nutshell. Beautifully said! And... it makes me want to read James Salter's books!

Artists I Like- Lars Tunbjork

The poet Philip Levine (1928-2015) once said, "I think poetry will save nothing from oblivion, but I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it's the home of the extraordinary, the only home." That sentiment perfectly applies to the work of Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjork (1956- 2015). Tunbjork specialized in photographing the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. His brilliance lay in his photographing those scenes in ways that made us reconsider them and see them in new, fresh ways.

Here is his take on the modern office:

images

 

And his observations on people in a variety of settings: Lars-Tunbjörk-5

 

 

Dear David Bowie...

Dear David Bowie, You have been on my mind a lot since you passed away two weeks ago. Not that you have ever been off my radar, but the event of your death has caused me to ask myself why I will miss you so much, now that you are gone. The author and journalist Charles Shaar Murray was quoted in the obituary that The Economist ran in its January 14, 2016 issue as saying: "I can think of no other rock artist whose next album is always the one I'm most looking forward to hearing."

And that sums it up in a nutshell for me. You were predictable in your unpredictability. I never quite knew what you would do next, and that sense of anticipation- of not knowing what was around the corner- was exhilarating. Whether it was in the music itself or the way you dressed and presented yourself to the world, there was always a feeling that you had discovered something before the rest of us and encouraged us to explore it, too.

Even your voice was unpredictable. It was unexpectedly powerful, yet it would quaver. As a friend of mine so brilliantly put it, your voice was "so striking because of the contrasting qualities of fierce self-assurance and bristling vulnerability." I sometimes would think that it wasn't quite in tune, but then it was. Where would it go next? I loved that I never quite knew the answer to that.

You were an artist who epitomized the idea that the best of art is based on a substantial foundation of knowledge and experience that is invisible to the rest of us, but which is necessary to produce your work. Always seeking, always curious, always telling us that it is normal to be different.

I will really miss you, Mr. Bowie. I'm so glad that you spent as much time as you did on earth.

Thank you for your art,

Jane Alden Stevens

Making Art Over Time

The Sunday New York Times Magazine recently published an interview with the British actor Charlotte Rampling, whose heyday was in the 1960's and 70's. While never completely off the radar, she has a powerful new film out titled "45 Years" that is bringing her a lot of attention. Now 69, she speaks in the article about what it is like to be the center of attention as an older actor, the nature of her career, and the choices she has made over the years. Here is what she said that hit home for me in particular:

"I wanted to make my life, not a work of art - I didn't think of it that way - but I wanted to create a visible continuity in what I did. I wanted there to be a thread I could follow and other people could follow."

That is exactly how I see my own creative choices when I look back over the course of my career. Without consciously having intended to create it, there is an arc of continuity throughout my work that ties it all together. The various series that I am working on now really point this out. My goal is to have some of this new work out in the world in some form by summer.

We'll see if life allows that to happen!

The Importance of Taking Time to Look

While the advent of 35mm roll film cameras heralded a whole new era in photography, the emergence of digital photography has done the same. One casualty of the ever-increasing ease in picture-taking is the time we spend looking at the scene in front of us before we press the shutter. This hurry-up approach was as true when 35mm cameras were first introduced to the marketplace as it is today. Put a digital camera in my hands, and I'll click away quickly and thoughtlessly with the best of them. (Burst mode, anyone?!) However the benefits of slowing down, of first spending time just looking at what is in front of us before we shoot, should not be ignored. This was brought home to me when I read "The Most Powerful Artwork I Have Ever Seen", an article about cave paintings by art critic Jerry Saltz. Saltz and his wife visited the Niaux Caves in France in 2008, and the experience  became a seminal moment for him in his understanding of art. The part of the article that spoke to me about the importance of spending time looking, though, was the following excerpt:

"...we came to what felt like a large, irregularly shaped cavern. I can still feel cool currents on my face. We were in the "Salon noir." Everything remained silent; our guide pointed her light to the ground so our eyes could adjust. After a moment, she wordlessly shined the beam upward. A never-ending clap of thunder sounded inside me; one reality was replaced by another...th-1

Nothing [in the paintings I was looking at] seemed only imagined; everything felt observed, studied, thought about, recorded.

These are the paintings of people who looked at mammals for over 30,000 years - far longer than all of recorded history combined. I was seeing visual wisdom, the hard work of looking and taking the time and trouble to make exact renditions of what one watched. Looking at these images, I began to know things we don't know anymore but still know in our bones. These astounding levels of visual intelligence tell me that had these people wanted to make only symbolic images of their mysticism and magic, they could have...The clap of thunder that sounded for me in the caves was that the world outside and around these people was the same as the world that was inside them."th-2

How odd it seems that today's art students need to be taught to "learn to see", when this was a fundamental requirement for survival for the earliest humans. Observing the color and shape of things, the ebb and flow of weather and tides, the behavior of prey, tasting unfamiliar plants and animals to see if they were edible- doing all of this built up a body of knowledge that enabled Homo sapiens to thrive. They thus gained the kind of innate understanding about their world that most of us sorely lack in the 21st century.

One of the reasons I like working with large- and medium-format cameras is that they require me to slow down. I simply can't work quickly with them. They demand that I consider carefully the scene in front of me, which is not something that happens with smaller, lighter cameras. Sometimes I will spend long hours looking for a shot that eludes me, and I won't make any exposures. But that time is not wasted, for it gives me practice in looking, and, hopefully, seeing. Taking the time to be fully present in the world around me is something I should be doing on a daily basis. And slowing down, regardless of the type of camera I have in my hands, would benefit my work greatly.

Optimism & Creativity

Ever since I first learned the meaning of the words "optimism" and "pessimism", I have known that I am an optimist. Even when things are at their worst, I am still, at my core, an optimist. That is why this quote from the great Nelson Mandela resonates with me: "I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward."

Being optimistic has helped me creatively in two ways: 1.) It has enabled me to harness fear in a constructive way, and 2.) It has given me faith that times of creative drought will eventually lead towards times of fertility. Looking forward while remaining fully in the present is a guiding principle in all that I do.

More Thoughts on Editing

I am currently in the midst of editing down a large number of photographs into a coherent series. It is an overwhelming task at times, as the sheer volume of images (about 1,300 to be specific) can't be dealt with all at once. This is something that will take time, as my goal is to end up with between 35-70 pictures total. I find that it really helps to edit in small doses, and taking a lot of breaks helps. Sometimes I need to step away from the work for a couple of days in order to recover from the visual overload. DSC_0225But editing, as I've written before, is so important to my creative process that I would never dream of hurrying it up. This was brought home to me when I read an article titled "The Creative Process" in the July/August, 2014 issue of The Atlantic magazine. In it, creative people in a range of fields were asked about "the inspiration and evolution of their work." The whole article was very interesting, but the section that featured short story author Lydia Davis was downright fascinating.

Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, described what her life was like in the fall of 1973 and how she approached her writing early in her career. There followed the first draft of one of the stories she wrote at that time, "In a House Besieged":

"In a house besieged lived a man and a woman, with two dogs and two cats. There were mice there too, but they were not acknowledged. From the kitchen where they cowered in the man and woman heard small explosions. "The wind," said the woman. "Hunters," said the man. "Smoke," said the woman. "The army," said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already at home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged, in a house that belonged to someone else."

And then appeared the final draft:

"In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. "The wind," said the woman. "Hunters," said the man. "The rain," said the woman. "The army," said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged."

What grace the final version has! What clarity, what elegance. Proof positive that excellent editing can strengthen the fruits of one's creative labors. In the final draft, there are no extraneous words that could distract from the message of the whole. Davis has cut out unnecessary details so that the point of the piece is more easily comprehended. The final version causes the reader to ask questions about what the implications of the story are, instead of answering every question the reader might have had. When editing, what is excluded often determines the strength and meaning of what is included.

And that is exactly the task at hand for me in my editing work. Exactly how many photographs need to be included in order for a sequence of pictures to be maximally strong? Which pictures should be included/excluded? What order should they be in? Those are the questions foremost on my mind as I work through the task at hand.

Photographic Archaeology

A character in "A Forgotten Poet", a story by Vladimir Nabokov, writes, "If metal is immortal then somewhere

there lies the burnished button I lost

upon my seventh birthday in a garden.

Find me that button and my soul will know

that every soul is saved and stored and treasured."

The same could be said for photographs. We take them and put them away somewhere, in a drawer, in a shoebox, on our computers, or in the Cloud. All too often, we proceed to forget about them.

Every once in a while, we happen to come upon these treasures from the past. When we do, our gaze falls upon them and memory is reawakened. Emotions bubble up and time shifts somehow. Going through old photographs is like participating in an archeological dig. We sift through layers of the past, trying to make connections between the history being revealed and the present.IMG_1314 V2

It is inevitable that, in this process, questions will arise that cannot be answered. But by asking those questions, we learn something about our selves, and the past lives again. Photographs are not the only artifacts that have the ability to generate these sensations, but they do it in a way that is unique to the medium.

IMG_1313 V2This has a direct bearing on the creative work I am doing now, in which I am sifting through my photographic archives and discovering much in the process. I'm still editing all of this, trying to make sense out of the thousands of images I am looking at. Stay tuned to what emerges!