Wednesday, January 01, 2003

The Inner Vision

Some comments from the Dancing Trail Newsletters from April through September of 2003.

DTNL2003.04. Inner Vision: Rent-a-kid. Get a young-un. Set up a date with a five year old for a walk in the woods. Get your eyes opened to a world you have never seen before (or at least not for a l o n g time). Or invite a Zen master to come and show you how to forget names (Lots of us don't have problems with that any more) but I'm not talking about the names of people or friends but of things. It's gets so easy to look at a tree and mentally say "white pine," or at a flower and think "trillium," or at a cloud and say to yourself "cumulus." Zennists would point out the magic of seeing the absolutely stunning beauty of a single pine tree, or a trillium where you look and see not "trillium," but line, curve, shadow, form, green on green, and white and purple, wavy line, and so on, being careful not to even think "palmate," "saw tooth," and so on but to see the plant or tree as a totally unique collection of the energies of the universe forming into a transient expression of beauty. And then there's the photographer. What's the best way to approach the photograph of a trillium? Like the old time baseball player. Reach down and get a good handful of dirt, rub it together through your palms, then spread the remainder on your face, finally wipe your hands on your clothes and jeans. Now you are ready. You can get down in the dirt and wiggle up close to the trillium, camera in hand. Good art is a dirty business.

DTNL2003.05. Inner Vision: Marshall McLuhan spoke of photography and movies as being very different from each other. Photography, he claimed was a "cool" medium while movies he said were "hot." McLuhan defined "hot" as being a medium that fills a single sense with data; apparently you don't have to add anything yourself, all the sensory perceptions are given to you. A "cool" medium though, provides little data and requires the observer to fill in the missing parts, or "connect the dots." So a good photograph, or painting, by its careful composition, choice of visual element, determination of subject, object, other visual elements, leads one to get lost in that picture, following their imagination which is already at loose in the landscape putting those dots together. A movie, on the other hand, according to McLuhan, has none of this magic, but simply grabs the poor bystander, makes of him or her a viewer, then drags them into the movie like someone caught in a fast creek. All that's pretty clinical, to me, and I think it really misses the magic of good video, or of a good movie. Can you think of a good movie that has let you connect those dots? A quick candidate for that would be the Ken Burns series on the Civil War. Of course that was a documentary, and he used audio wickedly, especially the tune Ashokan Farewell performed by the group "Fiddle Fever" and the narration. Yet his scans of old photos were done exquisitely, I remember wanting to "push" his camera to move it a little bit more quickly. My personal view of a person actively pursuing a medium into its coolest level would be someone sitting alone in his/her living room late at night listening to Beethoven, or Miles Davis, or the Beatles, on a good quality stereo system, probably wearing headsets, and with eyes closed and focused on another world, perhaps making conductorial guesters into the late night air. What has happened in this case is that, because of a low data density environment, the listener has extended his/her sense not just to encompass the extended media, but to encounter and enter into another plane of understanding, as described by Author Koestler, thus bringing the world of the composer or writer, beyond that particular piece of music or article that they have authored, into the world of the reader or listener. Too often in the field of photography, we emphasize the importance of connecting the dots for the viewer - we just got to listen to McLuhan, Koestler and Burns, and forget all those connections - it's really the dots that are important!

DTNL2003.06. Inner Vision: Making photographs of a thing helps me see that thing more clearly and understand it better. I keep looking for combinations, contrasts, tonal integrity, colors, and other visual elements. Just getting one of my cameras out and looking through the viewfinder is abit like introducing yourself to someone who looks interesting. If I spend some time photographing a subject, or a place, I feel like there is a real transaction that takes place. I get to know it better, and it has an effect on me, changing me a little bit.I always learn something when I make photos, and often find an unexpected "personality" in my subject, which means that subject no longer just a thing but a resonating part of the universe in which I resonate.

DTNL2003.07 Inner Vision: Photography can easily become a technical thing. F/stops, shutter speeds, ISO ratings and filter factors, and worries that go on and on. but there is the other thing - the relationship between you and the thing that you are making its picture. To me there has to be an aspect of a love affair between the artist and the subject. I like to think of it as a date. When I meet a nice scene or a pretty flower or a spectacular view, I am happy to spend some time with it. In my long ago bachelor days, I didn't charge from one lovely lady to the next in a race, as many photographers I have seen do (including myself at times) looking for the next picture, but I would spend time with each person getting to know and enjoy being with them. What would you do if you happened to encounter someone really special out in the mountain forests - someone like say, Paul Newman, or Beverly Sills, or Walter Cronkite - what then? Would you say something like "Hold it!" - click! - "Bye!" and go on through the forest? But then, that's what I do - entirely too much. My good pictures come from getting to know who I am honored to be with.

DTNL2003.08 Inner Vision: Somehow the good pictures are made not so much from that which exists around us but from that which exists within us. The great journey takes place not across the surface but under that which is seen, and the exchanges between observer and observed transact on planes we do not understand or comprehend. Great art seems almost always an accidental occurrence, wherein some unexpected event disturbs carefully prepared plans. This is a way of saying that it seems to me that preparations need to be made on both the logical frame of mind and also the intuitive scale of awareness. The voice of intuition is not strong, needs to be sought rather than just heard, and its use does require training and preparation. One way in which I try to court intuition is to approach the subject and its surroundings (and my surroundings) with care, respect and openness. I like to spend some time in a meditative mind while in the presence of the subject. I was taught as a child to see soul in all creatures and in all things, and souls can always resonate together and find common meaning

DTNL2003.09 Inner Vision: Do we photograph what we see or what we feel? Turns out that our eyes are easily fooled. They look for glint, glitter, sparkle, patterns, things we smugly call "composition." But the real images are pictures our souls pick out and we recognize them as pictures we wish we could make. Every scene has a part that beckons to us, a hidden heart that yearns to know ours, a dream desiring us as a partner, but unfortunately, if our brain and logical mind are in control at that time, we often miss the invitation. I often think of a book written by perhaps the greatest nature photographer alive today, Jim Brandenburg. See his book Chased by The Light, a quest where he walked alone in the northern forests for 90 days between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice with a mission to make one photograph a day - only one - no second chance - just one opening and closing of his shutter each day. The book is one of the great portraits of human resonance with the universe, a revelation of what happens when soul meets light.

© John Womack, 2003. All rights reserved.