Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Characteristics of a Photographic Sage - part II "The Eye not the I"

"Photography is  drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, then sniff, sniff, sniff - being sensitive to coincidence.  First you loose yourself and then it happens." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

    The second characteristic of the Photographic Sage is their reliance on the "eye" and not the "I".  Simply put, the Sage attempts to rid themselves from their sense of Self.  If the photographer has truly listened to what the landscape is trying to teach them, then, in a sense, it's the landscape that makes the photograph, not the photographer.

   This may seem, at first, contradictory to what I have previously written about.  The Contemplative Photographer seeks their own soul in what they photograph, how they compose it and how they later edit the captured image.  They make it a very personal process.  I would reconcile the two by saying that contemplation brings you to a particular moment, a special place... it leads you gently by the hand and then tells you to "sit down and shut up!"  You must clear your mind, let go, and listen. You can't do that if your mind is cluttered with "I's"...I want to do this, I want my image to look like that, I want people to like my work, I want to make a "significant" image (whatever that may be!).  There is a great danger in this way of thinking.  When a sense of self predominates it's like closing one eye and squinting with the other - it narrows your world to a pin point and makes it a whole lot less likely that you will let yourself go "off script".  It also makes you reject subjects or places as "not you".

If you hunt only where rabbits live
then all you will catch is rabbits!
Yours Truly 

   I was completely committed to black and white photography from the start. Until a trip to Ireland in 2009, I hadn't produced one single color image.  On that trip I allowed myself to go "off script" quite by accident and there is no going back.  I was walking the Burren in County Clare on a very inhospitable day....chilly, windy, a slight mist in the air...I didn't think I'd be making any photographs that day.  I sat on a rock and thought I'd just "listen" to the land for awhile, maybe come back another day when the light was more favorable to the black and white landscape photographs I usually make.  I thought about the amazing caves deep and out of sight and the underground rivers that permeate the land.  I could almost feel this life blood of the Burren rushing beneath my feet. That thought made me  look down. There was a circular opening cut into the rock with tiny plants growing in the dark recesses, life seeking the light in a most unlikely place. I turned my lens downward, away from what everyone else was looking at, like the crashing waves and the rock strewn hills, to this tiny world beneath my feet...this little spot of color in a black and white land.  I was hooked.  Had I let my "I" interfere with my "eye" I would probably have just returned to the cottage complaining about not being able to make any "decent" photographs that day.

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Tao te Ching - 2

Now Some Practical Stuff... 

   Put together a collection of 20-30 photographs you think represent your best work. Really look at them to see if there is a common thread that unites them.  Do you see a specific "style" to your work?  Good!  That means that you have found a voice that suits you! You have found your "I"!  Make a list of words that would describe that style.  Now look at some of the photography books on your shelf. Take any photographer, make a list of words to describe their style...their particular way of photographing the world around them. It works every time. It is easy to find the "I".

A Little Practice for the Week:

    Now is the time to go searching with the "Eye", not the "I".  Take your list of words that describe your style and go to a place that you find interesting. Before you start to make photographs, review your list. You can not use any of those words!  You must put the "I" away and use only your "Eye".  Try to see the landscape in a new way, with new eyes. If you only shoot in color, shoot in black and white...if you mostly use a horizontal format, hold your camera vertically....if you only make crisp, in-focus images, try some soft focus ones...if you like the "long shot", get up close and personal. You may discover that your style is more flexibly defined, less restricted by past accomplishments. You might also find that over time, your "I" may subtly shift...evolve. This is what the artistic process is all about!

"When I have won a victory, I do not repeat my tactics
 but respond to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways."
 Sun Tzu


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Patricia Turner said...

Thank you. I've been studying this topic for 9 years now. I'm not sure where you live but another contemplative photographer and wonderful teacher, Kim Manley Ort and I are doing a weekend workshop over Labor Day on Star Island. You might consider joining us! Links are in the right side bar.

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