We live our lives pushing away and filtering out stimulation, immersed in the practical task of getting from here to there. We fall into daily patterns and habits that often give us tunnel vision and shut out experience of the present moment in a complex world. In order to inhabit the demands of a world ruled by schedules and lists of things to do, we tend to strip out the aesthetic components of everyday life. There is no time or energy for symbolism or wonder, those things often being relegated to our dream worlds, if at all.
There is ecstasy in paying attention. – Anne Lamott
This habitual struggle to manage external stimulation through subtraction is well known to psychologists and neuroscientists. Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist at Barnard College, in her absorbing book On Looking, recounts twelve neighborhood walks she took with twelve different experts and what this taught her about her own mechanisms for filtering out stimulation, sensation, and perception.
Even in those rare moments when we do wake up, puncture the bubble of mundane list making and way finding, and really start to experience the visual world around us, we don’t often take the extra step of capturing those images. So these momentary islands of being genuinely present remain elusive and fugitive, we lose the opportunity to revisit that moment, look more closely at what we were seeing, and reflect upon the possible deeper messages that lie below the surface of our personal vision.
This may be your starting point, the first task at hand. How to wake up, pay attention, real attention to the intricacies of the visual world in which we are all immersed, and how to begin capturing and collecting what is essentially your visual autobiography.
Your photography is a record of your living. – Paul Strand
What moments have you already missed today? The play of light and shadow on your bedroom wall when you first opened your eyes this morning? The soft sleeping form of the person you woke up next to? A certain way that three strangers shared a bench together as they waited for the city bus? That view out the cafe window, when you noticed how the reflections from the glass seem to paint the sidewalk with a grid of pastel circles, which made you think of a dream you had a couple of nights ago?
Picture taking helps to make your vision more intentional. It will force you to pay closer attention, and the act of inscribing the moment captures that fleeting spark of consciousness as an actual record you can go back to and analyze more closely, as often as you want for as long as you want. It may sound odd, but taking pictures helps you to better see what you are seeing.
Now, you should prepare yourself for the fact that every picture you take will not be a masterpiece and many of them may not even be that interesting. That is not point, and besides, as you begin to take and review pictures on a regular basis your skills will become more refined. What matters is simply that you have begun to instill in yourself that habit of intentionally paying attention, looking, and capturing. Don’t rush to judge or critique whether your pictures are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Turn off those voices. Take this leap of faith.
If we look at the histories of photography and literature, there are so many examples of artists who were constantly hunting and gathering. Seeing, capturing, collecting and inscribing were more than an art practice for them, it was their way of life. Their hunting and gathering was as ingrained as breathing, eating, and sleeping.
Garry Winogrand, a giant in the world of 20th Century documentary photography and the definitive New York street photographer of the 1960’s and 70’s, photographed constantly and compulsively. When he died in 1984 he left behind 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film plus an additional 6,500 rolls that had been developed but not proofed. His photographic archive is comprised of over 150,000 prints, negatives, and color slides.
Tell about it. – Mary Oliver
Of course, we now live in an era of immediate gratification. The concept of undeveloped roles of film belongs to a previous era, not the world of smart phones and digital cameras. But my point is this: be copious in your output. The best and most dedicated artists generally fit this profile. If you want to develop your personal vision, you must exercise this part of your consciousness. Its not that different from going to the gym regularly.
The famous early 20th Century French writer Marcel Proust was a prolific memoirist. His heavily autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time, is comprised of seven volumes that total around 4,000 pages. It is bursting with inscriptions and descriptions of moments, images, and other detailed minutia from everyday life. It is impossible to imagine an author writing such a monumental story without a highly developed journaling process.
This section of Light Sensitive is intended to encourage you to think more deeply about your creative process, and to help you develop a journaling process that combines photography and reflective writing. Your starting point, if you need one, is to develop the habit of looking and photographing everyday, and to develop a constant rhythm that begins to feel fluid and effortless. As an aid and in addition to short essays like this, I’ll also be periodically posting suggestions both for image taking exercises and for reflective writing.
Image credit: New Old Stock