Blind Faith

Exercise

For an entire day, shoot all your pictures without looking through the viewfinder or screen. Don’t look at or review the pictures afterward either – at least not until the end of the day. Shoot at least 50 pictures.

At the end of the day, take your first look at your shots. Pick out ten pictures that are particularly interesting, satisfying, or surprising. In your journal, write a short note about each of the ten pictures – why you selected the image, and what about it is distinct or meaningful to you. Write about any surprises that resulted from this exercise. Is there anything about this experience that will influence your shooting in the future?

Superstition

Exercise
Shortly after you wake up in the morning, read your horoscope, do a tarot card reading, or consult the I Ching. Make a list of 3-5 keywords from this reading. Use this message as your theme for taking at least two dozen photographs that day. At the end of the day, write about this experience. How did your keywords inform your photographs?

Mapping

Exercise
Get a paper map of your local city, or display the map on a computer screen or your smart phone. Close your eyes and point to a spot on the map. Travel to that location and shoot at least 50 photographs. Afterwards, write about your experience and the resulting photographs. Write a story based on at least one photograph.

Get Lost

Image & Writing Exercise
That’s right, for one entire day – if possible – get lost. But think about what it means to be lost, not just literally but also figuratively or metaphorically.

You don’t need to travel very far, maybe not even at all. Think about ways to get lost on your own street or in your own neighborhood.

  • Walk exactly one mile from your front door. Repeat, but walk in a different direction each time.
  • Take a bus towards the edge of town.
  • Drive 30 minutes in one direction.
  • Explore a strange building, open unlocked doors (OK, don’t do anything stupid, dangerous, or illegal).
  • Hang out at the train station or a hospital.
  • Talk to strangers.
  • Assume a fictitious identity.
  • Take a vow of silence.

Do you get the idea? Getting lost doesn’t have to only be about the physical world, it can also be a psychic experience. It can be about geography, but it can also be about identity.

Be sure to document your journey. Take lots of pictures. Make lots of notes.

Once you are back on familiar territory, review and reflect. Read over your notes. Look at your pictures and pull out ten or so that you find particularly interesting or mysterious. Start writing.

  • What was your plan and how did you formulate it?
  • Did you really get lost?
  • Was there a particular moment when you realized you were in unfamiliar territory? Describe your emotions, were you fearful or excited? Did your behavior change, do you become a different person once you leave the familiar?
  • Did your picture taking habits change in any way, did you ‘see’ differently?
  • Were there any surprises or happy accidents?
    Would you do this again?

Go back to the ten or so pictures you set aside and make a list of keywords that you associate with these images. How does this list compare with your earlier keyword exercises? Is it basically the same vocabulary, or are there new terms in this grouping?

5 | Getting Lost

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

Who is Your Inner Critic?

Writing Exercise Reflect back on the ‘100 Pictures in 5 minutes’ exercise:

Creativity takes courage. — Henri Matisse

  • Was it a challenge to get to 100?
  • How easy or difficult was it to shoot without editing or censoring in advance?
  • Can you describe your inner critic?
  • Is it gendered?
  • Is it associated with a particular person in your life, past or present?
  • Is there one persistent or common message that your inner critic commonly repeats?
  • How does this voice influence other parts of your life
  • How do you typically manage this voice?
  • Who is generally in control (you or it)?

Don’t think too much. There will be more time to think later. Analysis won’t help. You’re chiseling now. You’re passing your hands over the wood. Now the page is no longer blank. There’s something there. It isn’t your business yet to know whether it’s going to be prize-worthy someday, or whether it will gather dust in a drawer. Now you’ve carved the tree. You’ve chiseled the marbled. You’ve begun. ― Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

100 photographs in 5 minutes

Visual & Writing Exercise

Day 1 | 15 minutes
Identify a person, place, or thing that is visually interesting to you. Take 100 pictures in 5 minutes or less.

Twelve significant photographs in
any one year is a good crop.
— Ansel Adams

Think about all the different variables that we work with when composing an image. Experiment with centering, symmetry, asymmetry — think about all the terms in your visual vocabulary and experiment with these variables. Play with foreground and background elements. Vary your distance to your subject. Take some long shots, but then get progressively closer. Focus in on particular elements. Take some super close-ups. Try different angles and perspectives. Photograph your subject from low to the ground, take some shots from above.

Work quickly and don’t over-think. Exhaust all the possibilities, then keep shooting. Be a zen master: push through boredom to fascination.

After you have completed your 100 shots, take 10 more minutes to write down some reflections on this experience. Here are some suggestions for writing prompts:

  • How easy or difficult was this exercise?
  • Did you encounter any internal resistance?
  • Did you get frustrated or bored?
  • Where and when did the resistance occur, and how did you push past it?
  • Were there any surprises?
  • Did you learn anything new about this subject?

Set your 100 pictures aside and don’t look at them for the rest of the day.

Day 2 | 30 minutes
The following day, spend about 15 minutes reviewing your 100 pictures. Separate out 10 images that you think are the most successful.

Now spend 15 minutes in reflective writing.

  • Of the 10 pictures you identified, is there any pattern to where in the shooting process they occurred?
  • Did they happen mostly in the beginning, towards the end, or are they pretty much evenly scattered throughout the group of 100?
  • Can you remember what you were thinking or feeling when you took these shots?
  • Are your thoughts and feelings about these shots different after letting a day pass?
  • As you review the entire group of 100 images, what changes do you see occurring in your vision from beginning to end?
  • Are there any take away lessons from this?
  • Do you feel differently about your subject now?
    Would you be inclined to repeat this exercise with a different subject?

The purpose of this exercise is to help you loosen up and become comfortable with shooting prolifically when you encounter a subject that interests you. Don’t worry about being excessive. Hunt and gather first. Cast a wide net as you collect raw data. Exhaust all possibilities. You can critique and analyze later.

Using Your Keywords as Guides

Visual Exercise
Once you have completed the exercise above, review your list of keywords. Select a single word, a pairing, or a cluster that you that particularly sparks your curiosity. Review the photographs from your archive that elicit the keyword(s). Spend the next day or two shooting more pictures inspired by this theme. Shoot at least two dozen pictures. Review these images, compare them to your earlier photographs, reflect on and write about them. Are you seeing repeating and recurring ideas? Are there any new or surprising aspects to these images? Can you discover change or evolution? If you can see it, can you also write about it; how you explain the change, how you feel about it?

Keep repeating this exercise. Select new keywords and follow the same process. Wait a few days and then go back to your first keyword. Keep reviewing, reflecting, writing. Keep trying to articulate what seems be constant in your vision, keep trying to identify where you see the emergence of something new, and continue to be mindful of how you are responding to this process intellectually, creatively, emotionally.

 

Reflecting on Keywords

Visual Exercise
Troll through your image archive, selecting images that particularly jump out to you as interesting. You don’t need to think deeply about this, just go with your gut instincts or visual cues. Try to select fairly quickly and intuitively. Don’t be precious, be playful. This is not an examination, just an exploration.

Do this in any way you wish — chronologically from oldest to newest, or reverse, or randomly, or whatever. Spend about 15 minutes on this, or until you have at least a couple dozen images.

Once you get your images selected, slow down and go back through this edited group. For each image, write down between one to three keywords that come to mind. Try to think broadly and expansively about your possible vocabulary of keywords. Some straightforward examples of possible keywords could be: people, nature, angles, texture, family, pattern. These would be fine and good. But there might be other keywords that are less obvious, such as: silence, duration, frenzy, desire, memory.

After you have listed keywords for all the images in the group, start reviewing and reflecting on this word list. Here are some questions and follow-ups that you might consider:
Are there any keywords that you used more than once?
Are there any pairings or clusters of keywords that seem related? Can you begin to connect and consolidate?
Can you write a few sentences or a short paragraph for each keyword that further explains or expands its meaning in the context of these pictures?

Set these images aside, or duplicate them, in a new electronic folder. I encourage you to review and reflect on this grouping more than once. Wait a day or two, then look at the pictures again. Read your notes. Do you have any new thoughts or insights?

Repeat this exercise multiple times, perhaps over a period of several days, until you have reviewed your entire archive. As you continue to make pictures, you may want to get into the habit of writing down keywords as you review your images. You can begin to incorporate keywords in the naming scheme for images that particularly interest you. You can also begin to organize your pictures into folders that are named according to your personal keyword vocabulary.

There are undoubtedly patterns and habits in your way of seeing. You may notice, for instance, that your pictures nearly always have people in them, or that you focus mainly on architectural details that feature strong lines and angles. Perhaps your archive has a strong shoot-from-the-hip street documentary flavor, or is populated with more methodically framed sedate landscapes.

You might be surprised by the discoveries you make. You may be missing key insights about how you see. For instance, you may take tons of pictures of buildings but realize that your most satisfying pictures are always about people. This is significant, potentially even a breakthrough. We don’t always understand, especially at the beginning, how our seeing works or what we are trying to capture.

Keep looking at your work. If you are starting with broad keyword terms, like ‘landscape’, you may find that over time your can subdivide and refine your vocabulary. So you may discover that your landscapes are really about solitude — and that the idea of picturing solitude is a broad theme that interests you. And then one day you go back through your archive and suddenly you can read those occasional street shots you took as a visual opposite of your landscapes — they were attempts to visually convey congestion. Then suddenly you discover that these two sets of images have been in conversation with each other, and that maybe what you are really pursuing is different notions of space and place. And on and on. This is the kind of thrilling and mysterious rabbit hole that you can fall into.

3 | Paying Attention

It begins with a vague fascination with taking pictures. In some cases it might be closer to a compulsion or even obsession. The visual world fascinates us, organizing our impressions and capturing the experience is endlessly seductive. If we are disciplined, and a bit lucky, our personal image archive begins to steadily enlarge. This should be happening for you by now as you have followed the previous exercises and reflections.

Think of your pile of pictures as alive. It should be speaking to you. With just a little work on your part, it can and will. Think of your images as raw research data, your personal database. This work chronicles and maps your exploration of the image world, and like any data set, it has the potential to tell multiple stories.

We are reading the story of our lives as though we were in it, as though we had written it.
— Mark Strand

The work you are engaged in is complex and multifaceted. Part of it involves shooting regularly and prolifically, but it is just as important to actively sort through, catalog, and organize this stuff. Your efforts
may feel vague and diffuse in the beginning, your collection of pictures may appear on the surface to have little cohesion or direction. But if you go back and review this archive, study and engage what you are accumulating, and begin to ask reflective questions, you can start to see the beginnings of habits and themes. This is how your casual fascination can grow into a disciplined and intentional practice.

Our personal pictures can be thought of as a conversation we are having with ourselves. These images come from a place inside us that may not lend itself to language, as we generally understand that word — primarily speech and writing. This may be a part of your psyche that you are actually not all that familiar with. The messages may be faint, symbolic, cryptic, or confusing. It may take a long time to become adept at decoding this other aspect of yourself, but the good news is that this will motivate you to continue pursing your practice.

Carl Jung’s theories of the human psyche are based in the notion of the unconscious, a deeper psychological state that we do not generally have access to in our waking lives. Jung believed that this part of ourselves communicated and generated meaning through the production of symbolic imagery, and that our dreams become the theater in which our unconscious creates densely encoded visual narratives that give voice to who we are at our very core. He believed that every night we entered into an image world that was like a huge, powerful subterranean river flowing beneath what appeared to us as the solid ground of our everyday lives, and that analysis of our dreams could lead us to a deeper understanding of our lives and of the complex world in which we are immersed.

Based on my own visual practice and my many years of teaching, I know that photography often functions as a form of wakeful dreaming. Just as our night time dreams often contain images that are densely meaningful, often to the point of being utterly mysterious, our own personal photographs frequently contain layered and elusive meanings that do not always reveal themselves clearly or immediately.

Imagine your photographs as icebergs. There is the small portion sticking above the surface, the bit that’s visible, which is usually just the facts of what is literally in the picture. But there is almost always a much larger unseen portion, what’s beneath the surface and initially unseen, that speaks to deeper symbolic attachments. As Jung said, “Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend”.

These elusive deeper meanings are not completely out of our reach, but engaging them requires an extra measure of time and reflection. Its not enough to just take pictures. If you want to really engage the meaning of what you are seeing, you need to also commit to reviewing your images and asking yourself what it is you are really seeing in these pictures.

This is the point at which a journaling process that combines images and writing can form a powerful combination. Writing about your pictures helps you to slow down and really look at what you are creating and collecting. It encourages reflection, helps to guide and focus attention, and invariably leads to discovery, sometimes even revelation, about what is unique about how we each see the world.

We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.
— Ralph Hattersley

Keep in mind that these discoveries may not come immediately, and will probably require work and patience. And you should also understand that there is a bottomless quality to this process — if you are really asking hard questions, you will never arrive at some magical all-encompassing answer and the ultimate meaning of what’s going on in your image world will never be entirely revealed. Actually, you don’t really want this to happen because it would mean the end of having a reason to take pictures.

So learn to cultivate and simply enjoy the ultimate elusiveness of your process. The mystery of it can keep propelling you forward. This may be one of the hidden secrets of a lifelong image making practice. Most artists who devote their lives to making pictures do so because they never completely figure out, with utter certainty, what they and their work is try to say. So they make another picture, and that picture gets them a little closer to understanding, but absolute clarity remains elusive and just out of reach. For many of us,
that’s the hook. Remember, its the journey that’s important, not necessarily the final destination.

That journey begins with the accumulation of a large personal archive of images. I personally throw very few of my images in the trash. Storage is so easy and inexpensive that I want the option of potentially going back to anything and everything. Our vision changes and evolves over time, and I have sometimes discovered an old image that I was not able to really ‘see’ and appreciate until years later. That said, you are now at the point where it is becoming important to apply some kind of editing filter to your expanding raw archive. This exercise can be a starting point for you, but one that is reflective and intentional.

The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.
— Carl Jung

I’ve been making pictures for about three decades now. If it was just about taking pictures, I would have gotten bored a long time ago. But what I discovered is that my pictures tell me about myself — they’re like mirrors. And sometimes the stories they tell are layered and complex. I have come to believe that, in some respects, my work is smarter than I am, that I learn from the pictures I make, and that making and reflecting on my pictures has changed me. My history of image making — creating them and looking at them — has transformed me. Literally, I am a different person because I make pictures.

But this process takes time and energy. You need to actually develop an intentional process, and writing can be the vehicle for this journey. You can’t hurry this, so try to slow down and be truly present. Too often we are so busy taking pictures, that we fail to actually give the pictures the reflection time that they deserve. The act of photographing is only half of the equation. Sitting with those image is just, if not more, critically important. Your pictures have stories to tell, and surprisingly they are not always the story you were telling yourself when you clicked the shutter. They sometimes want to tell you something else, something that may be truer and more revealing than you realize. It can be useful to think of your pictures as unsolved riddles.

You will find that if you develop the habit of quietly looking at, and writing about your personal images, their meaning will shift and expand. With time and patience, you will begin to see more than just visual habits, you will begin to sense and discover themes and cycles in your work. If you look closely enough and long enough, appearances will begin to surrender their meaning. As you develop a creative rhythm of making images on a regular basis, you will discover there are deeper layers beyond the surface of what you are seeing. Your vision has an intelligence that in the beginning may be invisible to you and that, no matter how long you engage in this practice, may always be elusive and difficult to pin down. But if you commit to just keep showing up — just like going to the gym or sitting on a yoga mat — your ability to ‘see into’ your pictures will deepen and expand.

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