Part 5 in a series of 5 weekly posts about discovery and the creative process
“One should not only photograph things
for what they are
but for what else they are.”
Having photographed for nearly 35 years now, the only thing about the creative process that I know for sure is that one has to find a way to listen to what is going on inside. You have to be willing to let go and follow where it leads even if it makes no sense or goes against what one thinks. I had a sense that something was there for me with those Lotus plants and yet consciously couldn’t grasp it. There was this “buzz” or vibration created inside of me as soon as I came into the inlet and saw these plants. In fact, I felt it so strong that first day that I knew there was something going on and yet consciously I couldn’t imagine myself creating work about these plants. Even as I walked back to the car after that initial visit, I felt that I needed to go back but knew that I had done what was there to do that day. Both of these feelings were right, I just didn’t understand the first one.
I ended up shooting the Lotus over a period of 4 months. Often, on those early trips, the images that seemed most available were exactly the type I had little interest in. Then, it would be easy to see the same sort of image that I had already made on earlier trips, sort of the recognition of what you already know. And occasionally, there would be something different and new and maybe understood–or maybe not. I actually don’t see this as much different in nature to anytime I go out shooting, but the process I had adopted demanded that I make every image I noticed.
Although there was the initial struggle to make sense of my being there, there would always be those few new images made that went beyond what I had done previously and showed me something new. Those were the ones that made me go back. As I moved forward, some of those early images that egged me on would recede in their importance and effect, having served their purpose. And then, sometimes, there would also be a new version of an earlier success which transcended the original. What had been discovered had been refined and distilled into something new.
That important fourth trip also seemed to mark a transition where the images being made were essentially of things above the water’s surface. After that trip, the images became more about the layering of imagery where the water’s surface became the pivot point. There began to be complex relationships that formed between how the surface played with the reflections of what was above, the objects laying or floating on it and those things that laid beneath. This allowed for even more ambiguous imagery and the sort of pattern interrupt that I find most interesting.
Photography for me has never been about the equipment used. Equipment choice has to do with what might work best for the intended subject. Then, regardless of what one ends up shooting, you adapt to the tool you are using, creatively exploiting its strengths or even its weaknesses. My choice to use the iPhone certainly wasn’t because it is generally the best tool for shooting landscape. It had to do, solely, with the creative process/exercise I had defined for myself and how it would be facilitated by its use. It was about the process of discovery and seeing, not results.
That said, what is true–and maybe important to understand–is how the physical and technical characteristics of this device also became a catalyst to looking and seeing in a different way–other than just as a result of the process adopted. I am convinced that most, if not all, of the images in this body of work would not have been possible with more conventional equipment. I was often holding onto a tree on the shore, leaning over the water and extending my arm as far as possible through the foliage to capture the image I was after. In some cases, using my normal equipment would have required my head, and possibly even the camera, to be underwater. Because of the dense growth of the plants and their root structure, entering the water with a tripod and/or larger camera would have completely altered what I wanted to photograph. The iPhone had turned out to be the optimal piece of equipment for making these images. Most importantly was that it is what allowed me to look where I might otherwise have not and to see things I would have likely passed over because they would have not been possible if I had been working in a more traditional way. My seeing had adapted to the tools capabilities, as it should, and allowed for something different to be seen and created.
The “stream of consciousness” methodology, that this tool facilitated, also helped push me past my bias towards the subject and allowed me to work more deeply than I might have otherwise. But again, it was being able to work in places where more conventional equipment could not that allowed for the creation of the images that had captured my attention. (There were certainly photographs that could be made with any camera there, but it was the nature of these images that was specifically suited to the iPhone)
Of course, there were many exposures that just didn’t work because of the technical limitations of this device. This fact was exacerbated by the nature of the area and the extreme contrast in how the light played above and below the plants. This was certainly an area where the camera’s innate limitations would be revealed. Having already used the iPhone quite extensively, I pretty much knew what would or wouldn’t work but would shoot without regard to that or even thinking in those terms. Sometimes I would get a pleasant surprise from one of those that was supposed to fail technically. Of course, that is actually the point of making the exposure before thinking about whether it might work or not–visually or technically–that is where discovery is found and repetition avoided. In reality, I am not sure that, with experience, one doesn’t make subconscious adjustments when working, when possible, that can overcome known limitations–or even exploit them.
And there were the images that just didn’t end up working visually regardless of the technical issues. The kind of images where you can recognize what you were after and learn from looking at the results obtained–as well as those you have no idea why you made them, at least not yet. But then again, there would be surprises here as well.
Almost passed over
In one particular case, as I looked up while maneuvering to make an image, I had seen something in the water a little further ahead. It had my attention but I was finding a lot to shoot where I was at the time. When I finally approached to photograph it, something beyond it grabbed my attention before I got there and I passed it by, thinking I would come back to it. Eventually, I moved totally away and forgot about it. As I retraced my route back out of the area, I saw it again and leaned out to take one quick shot of it. By then I had rationalized it as being not important but I still felt compelled to make the image as part of my process—to shoot whatever catches my eye. When I got home and saw it, I was very thankful that I had been paying attention when I passed that way again.
Going into the landscape has always provided me with a respite from life’s demands and stresses, even before I started photographing. When I started to photograph, what I connected with early on was how naturally occurring structures and the juxtapositions of elements could reach inside and stimulate things in new ways or just make the mind float. How something that is essentially ordinary can be transformed into something extraordinary when looked at in a different way. Maybe it stimulated a specific feeling or some unknown sensation but often there was just a release that would clarify things.
For the last several years, the concerns I have dealt with in my photography have been rooted in more sociological issues. These concerns have been stimulated by economic, political and technological developments that I have felt have become, or could become, detrimental to our society. Change is good but not things that divide or separate us. I am concerned about real human connections and unity and how those might be getting undermined by a myriad of factors. Returning to this more contemplative work has been extremely gratifying to me as well as being regenerative. I continue to work on projects concerned with the former issues but also look forward to doing more work like this as well.
A little over a month ago, I did return to work on the project I was working on when I discovered these lotus plants, the Texas Landscape work. I initially had mixed feelings about it. In some ways, I felt like that project may have served its purpose as the catalyst to creating this body of work. I thought maybe it was time to move onto something different while keeping what I learned from my experiences. But I also knew that I had some work and direction from it that I felt deserved further exploration. Of course, my ambivalence might have been the product of that same letdown I described in Part III of this narrative, the one you get when you complete a project. Now, with a little more distance from the completion of Lotus, looking over this more recent work, I can appreciate what was done and look forward to continuing with it. The beauty about this whole creative thing is that you never really know where it might lead if you allow yourself to let go and follow. It may be the one area where it is just better to be a follower.