Beneath the constant visual chatter of the modern world our habits of muting the sheer volume of stimulation, lies a more personal and profound image world. This is our own unique universe of imagination and curiosity, wonder and empathy, intellect and emotion. It is the swift, deeper, potentially bottomless current that runs beneath the surface of mere appearance as we navigate our way across town or complete one of a thousand everyday chores. Our unconscious is like a deep subterranean river, traveling at hidden depths beneath the surface of daily life, but serving a vital life force. It is alive in each and every one of us, and it is as varied and as unique as our individual DNA.
What we see, and the particular way in which we see it, is a potential doorway into our personal inner realms. But this entryway can also be elusive, difficult to find, and sometimes even heavily guarded. The journey requires attention to subtle signs and clues, effort and patience, commitment and constancy.
It is important to not only make and capture images with constancy, but also to regularly look back at, review, and reflect on those images. This is where journal writing can become a powerful partner with an image making practice. Writing can be a potent tool in the process of unlocking the often deeply encoded meanings in the images we make, as well as those that we notice, collect, and keep. A journaling process that combines image making and writing can form the magical elixir that drives discovery and transformation.
Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.
― Dani Shapiro
Photographs are story telling machines. We tell ourselves a story every time we look at one. If you don’t believe me, look more closely at advertising images. These images are presenting more than an attractive model or comfortable living. We are being sold a story about beauty and glamour, desire and privilege, power and comfort. Its invented, a fiction.
Human beings crave stories, images are particularly powerful trigger points for our imagination, and photographs, because they look so ‘real’, are practically irresistible triggers for reverie.
The Deeper Dive will help you develop a creative practice that combines seeing and contemplation. If you want to dive beneath the surface of your personal image world, its important to develop habits that help you move beyond appearance and into meaning. Images matter to us because they are the symbolic vessels which convey our desires and aversions, our dreams and anxieties, our beliefs about what life means and how we should treat each other. Writing is a powerful tool for exploring this deeper realm of looking and capturing.
There are many different ways to explore and contemplate our lives, and there just as many different methods to capture and inscribe this process. You could write it all out, just like Annie Dillard did in her extraordinary memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The descriptions of her solitary walks are marvelously detailed. And when she says, “It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open”, it sounds so easy and almost effortless, this visual rendering in words. But in The Writing Life, she also reveals just how slow and laborious this work is. She makes it look easy, but those of us who engage in creative work know differently.
I think of Edward Weston as the photographic equivalent of Dillard. Weston was one of the most important and influential photographers of the 20th Century, a founding member of Group f.64, a group of West Coast photographers who defined “straight” photography – a modernist aesthetic characterized by crisply focused detail and lush tonalities in black & white prints. Weston’s My Camera on Point Lobos, is a purely visual record of a pilgrimage that pre-dated Dillard by almost 25 years. Point Lobos was Weston’s Tinker Creek, his photographs an intensely personal fragment of his autobiography.
When I photograph, what I’m really doing is seeking answers to things.
— Wynn Bullock
Weston is also particularly interesting as a role model because he left behind an extensive written journal. He contemplated and wrote about his work during all of his years of practice, but 1917 through 1934 was a particularly intense time when he journaled nearly everyday, and this writing eventually formed the basis of The Daybooks of Edward Weston, first published in 1961. This record of an artist engaged in an intensive self-dialog about his work is unique in the literature of photography. Beaumont Newhall, the pre-eminent 20th Century photography historian, compared it to the Journal of the 19th Century French painter Eugene Delacroix.
Weston’s Daybooks entries, although sometimes mundane – “I am flirting with the idea of giving up cigarettes.” – also map out an artist in deep and fierce conversation with his own work. It is here that Weston states his purpose “to present clearly my feeling for life with photographic beauty”, and expresses deep understandings of his process, such as: “My work is always a few jumps ahead of what I say about it.”
On Tuesday, March 12, 1929, as he was living in Carmel, California and pursuing photographic ideas that would ultimately culminate in My Camera on Point Lobos, Edward Weston made an entry in his journal that expresses remorse for destroying some of his earlier journal entries and speaks directly to the value that he understood journaling had to his process:
“Why write at all? I often ask myself. Do I not waste time? – my cry being for time to spend on my personal work. I am getting a clearer idea of the necessity which causes me to write. It is more than the recording of anecdotes, more than emotional release, – it is a way of learning, clarifying my thoughts. I know, now that it is too late, that I should not have destroyed my daybook from 1920 to 1923, it contained a most important period of growth, besides one of the most intense emotional periods, of dramatic interest, of exciting personal adventure. My desire to destroy was natural, – to look back over immature thoughts and excess emotion was not pleasant, – but I should have locked the books away – to reread them was too much. The same will happen to this period. I pray for strength not to destroy.”
Dillard, writing sixty years later, lays out in The Writing Life her own impetus for writing:
“When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”
She could just as easily have been writing about photography. Any attempt to see, capture, and understand is always a leap of faith. But many of us are drawn to this ledge and willingly step off, trusting that this is the only way forward.
We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.
― Kurt Vonnegut
Each of these two artists speak in entirely different native tongues. Weston’s reputation is built almost exclusively on his image practice, with only a small minority even being aware of his dedication to a written journal. Dillard’s work, although highly visual in its descriptive power, is firmly rooted in the written page. They are both products of their era, the 20th Century, a time when media tended to exist separate from one another and when authors generally needed to choose one form over another.
This is no longer the world that we live in. Technological evolution, particularly digital photography, camera-equipped smart phones, and the rise of social media, has engendered a very different kind of media landscape in our everyday lives. It is no longer necessary, or even preferable, to separate visual and written journaling.
I have found through my own experience that combining the two can create a creative partnership that fuels and deepens a contemplative process. But learning to meld these two modes of expression and communication takes practice. The following exercises provide a mean to help ease you over that threshold.