Journey Into the Unknown
To be an artist, to be truly engaged in a process of seeing and discovery, requires us to embrace and even cultivate the ability to get lost; to seek out and connect with the deep joy and excitement of the unknown.
But we live in a world that prizes certainty and a sure thing. This is the age of No Child Left Behind and ‘teaching to the test’, and we have been encultured to value only what is quantitative and instrumental. This is, of course, important if you are an engineer designing a bridge that needs to remain standing, or if you are an airline pilot with hundreds of lives in your care. But mystery and wonder are at the core of what makes us human, and there are levels of human experience that are ineffable, that cannot be measured or charted, and that defy efforts at prediction and control.
That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.
– Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
When we get lost, the world changes its form and shape. Everything looks and feels different. Its a form of waking up. But what does it mean to be lost? What is its value? Is getting lost a question only of geography? How can getting lost help us find our way?
Its always been helpful for me to distinguish between being a tourist and being a explorer, I’ve always wanted to feel like a traveller rather than just a visitor. The impulse to travel but not confront the unknown is the mark of the tourist, the sightseer, the vacationer in the pursuit of distraction. Artists, on the other hand, travel differently – be it physical, intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, or whatever.
I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.
― Dani Shapiro
Picture making can be understood as a form of exploration. Explorers embrace the complexities of a world that is bigger than they are, and they are willing to endure the uncertainties and dangers of stepping off the beaten path and setting a bearing for a territory for which there are no maps. This is what it means to be a voyager, a discoverer. It’s also what is means to be genuinely in touch with your creativity impulses and to place your faith in being able to navigate the unknown with nothing more than your own skills and wits.
But its all a big leap of faith.
To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false.
― Dorothea Lange
The american explorer Daniel Boone claimed that “I never was lost in the woods in my whole life, though once I was confused for three days”. Like Boone, artists understand that being confused is not the same as being lost, that genuine exploration always happens without the benefit of a map, and that they only need to rely on faith in themselves to eventually find their way back to familiar ground — with stories, news, images, and artifacts from a newly discovered world. Artists map the unknown, so in a way it is our job to continually get lost. Rebecca Solnit has written lyrically and wisely about this in A Field Guide to Getting Lost:
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. … Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. … To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. … There’s another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering, of being at home with being lost.
Solnit makes it sound so romantic and beautiful, at least to the uninitiated. But to read it is different than to live it. Don’t be surprised if its harder than expected. It is surprisingly difficult not to feel under pressure to know exactly what you are doing. Resist this because it defeats your purpose. Instead, think of journaling – both visual and written – as an exploration, one in which you can only point in a particular direction. Point and then follow. Some of what you discover will be predictable, but you will also stumble upon the occasional happy accident. There will be surprises, you may begin to notice multiple paths, you may start to see and point to new places. And of course, you will occasionally realize that you’ve travelled down a dead end and need to re-trace your steps a little – you may be confused for awhile. That’s ok, its what all explorers occasionally experience. For the truly creative, there is never a handy blueprint or crisp map. Real creativity is never efficient, its always sort of messy. But certainties and recipes are not what many of us are looking for, its not the point.
The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.
― Anais Nin
When I started graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute, I came in contact with someone who would change all my ideas and understandings about photography, and who would come to be a role model for everything I aspired to as an artist, an explorer, and a human being. His name was Larry Sultan, and one of the first things he gave me to read was a chapter from a book called Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, by the travel writer Tim Cahill. The chapter is called “Getting Lost” and it tells the childhood story of Cahill wandering away from his mother in a department store. But the story is really about much more than that, and Cahill is really writing towards a deeper parable:
When you’ve managed to stumble directly into the heart of the unknown – either through the misdirection of others or, better yet, through your own creative ineptitude – there is no one there to hold your hand or tell you what to do. In those bad lost moments, in the times when we’re advised not to panic, we own the unknown, and the world belongs to us. The child within us has full reign. Few of us are ever so free.
I still have a copy of the chapter and I sometimes still share it with my own students. As I was thinking about, and writing this chapter, the work of Sylvia Plachy kept coming to mind. Plachy spent 30 years as a staff photographer for the Village Voice, the iconic weekly free newspaper in New York City and had a regular column called “Unguided Tour”. She built a career around the uncanny ability to get lost, within the Greater New York area, across the United States, and around the world. She brought back photographic reports from dog shows, nightclubs, calf-roping pens, jails, millionaire resorts, amusement parks, gospel music tents, you name it. Plachy was a refugee, she was smuggled out of Stalinist Hungary at the age of fourteen in the bottom in the bottom of a farm cart. I’ve always wondered if her early experience of being traumatically uprooted somehow allowed her to face the unknown with more courage and confidence that most of us seem to have. I don’t know, but I have always admired her work and been seduced by its mysterious edginess. So as I was writing, I went to my bookshelf to find the book of her work which I have carried around with me for probably twenty five years. It has been sitting on a shelf
I am not interested in shooting new things – I am interested to see things new.
― Ernst Haas
near a window, and I discovered that its originally rich brown slipcover had faded to a dull bird’s egg blue. But when I opened the book, the photographs inside were as visually rich and stunning as they were the day I brought the book home. Over the years I’ve opened this book many times and thought I knew every page in detail. So imagine my surprise when, about 20 pages in, I came across the Cahill quote above from “Getting Lost”. And suddenly all the dots connected in a blinding epiphany: Larry Sultan and Tim Cahill and Sylvia Plachy – various points on my own personal compass – have all been in conversation with each other all these years, inside my head. These are the surprises, the unexpected rewards of being an explorer.
The key truth is this: to get the most out of your picture taking and your writing, you need to lose any fear of not knowing. Instead, think deliberately about this process being one big journey into the unknown. Push any discomfort or fear aside, what you may then be able to see more clearly is the incredible excitement that comes with the notion of pure potential. Anything can happen. Step off the ledge. You might suffer a scratch or a bruise, you might be confused for a few days, but you will land on your feet. And if you are like most artists, as soon as you land you’ll want to scale the cliff again and take another leap.
You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.
― William Faulkner
Try not to feel impatient. Creative exploration has its own timetable. You may not be entirely in control of this, which some of us find very hard to surrender to, but trust the process.
Let the camera be your compass. Go out of your way, beyond what you know. Getting lost might just be your path to finding your way.
I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.
― David Salle