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The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt but in spite of doubt.
Paul Cézanne famously said he wanted to die painting, and he did. My commitment to photography is not quite so decisive. I can’t say that I want to die photographing, or even to die a photographer. Frankly, I don’t really care, and I’m sure photography doesn’t care, either. My commitment to photography is not absolute, it is founded in a simple condition: so long as I find value and meaning in photography, I’ll keep doing it.
To the degree that I am, and have been, committed to photography, the commitment has not always been the same. Long ago, photography was a fun and gratifying thing to do: an enjoyable hobby to augment and to enrich my solitary explorations. It soon became a passion, then an obsession, and then it got considerably more complicated as is the fate of any long-term relationship. Some days I feel I can’t do without it, and other days I can’t stand the thought of it. Some days it’s a source of happiness, and other days, a source of despair. Some days it’s a gift, and other days, a burden.
In my early years as a “serious” photographer, if you asked me why I photograph with such great dedication, I may have given you some naïve trope about photography being my creative outlet, or about showing people the beauty of nature, perhaps even contributing to public awareness of the need for conserving wild places. In truth, none of these was ever really, or at least not entirely, the case, but in different times they all felt as real as any other explanation I’ve had. In hindsight, I confess, photography was never something I’ve done for any particular purpose. I practiced it because it added yet more enjoyable dimensions to experiences that already were, still are, and likely will always be, indispensable to my wellbeing.
My commitment to photography today (and likely tomorrow, and probably also next week, but that’s as far as I’m willing to commit), is as my means of choice for creating expressive art. What I mean by this, is that photography seems to me so far to be the medium best suited for expressing the kinds of things I most want to express: epiphanies, aesthetics, and essences inspired by my experiences in the natural world.
It’s not only that the mechanics and technical qualities of photography allow me to create in places and circumstances not well-suited for other media, but also that, by continually training my mind to intuitively seek interesting and photogenic subjects, I become more mindful and aware of dimensions of my experience—things and relationships, both real and metaphorical—that I may otherwise not take notice of. Photography not only gives me the technology to make expressive art in the places and conditions where I am already inspired, but it also enriches those conditions and enlarges the range of things I may find inspiration in. In terms more conducive to art, photography is not only a useful tool for expressing creative ideas once I already have them, but its practice also increases the likelihood of having such ideas.
As far back as 1967, photographer Jerry Uelsmann wrote, “It is interesting to note that much of the experimental photography that we revere today has been done by individuals whose commitment to photography is but one aspect of their commitment to art.” In my case, I would throw another commitment into the mix: my commitment to natural experiences. It used to be that nature, photography, and artmaking, were so closely related in my mind that I could regard them as perhaps just separate dimensions of one thing: my commitment to life as I wish to live it. But after so many years of living this life, nature, photography, and art have slowly drifted apart. Each has become complex and significant enough to me in its own right as to also warrant its own mode of appreciation and its own manner of commitment. My degree of commitment to each is rooted in this hierarchy of importance: I often doubt my commitment to photography as a means for art; I sometimes (but rarely) doubt my commitment to art; but I never doubt my commitment to nature. I will always be a naturalist—I will die a naturalist—and I almost certainly will always be an artist of some kind, but I’m at least open to the idea that some other form of expression may someday become more appealing to me than photography.
Beyond sometimes doubting my commitment to photography, I also sometimes doubt my commitment to presenting myself to the world as a photographer—not only in considering my other passions and interests, but also in light of the expectations and prejudices that often go with the designation. Most people, I learned, have a more simplistic, and often lesser, opinion of photography as an art form as compared with such things as painting or music. Beyond just a penchant for “taking pictures,” few consider photography as an emotional and intellectual pursuit, as they might consider such things as poetry or creative writing. What to me is “a work,” to many is “a shot”; what to me is a creative act, to many is just being in the right place at the right time, if not outright dumb luck; what to me is the culmination of a prolonged experience, to many is just a random moment frozen in time; what to me is subjective expression, to many is objective representation.
Right now, I’m of the opinion that such doubts, like so many expectations, are futile to contemplate and useless in practice. Right now, I’m content with my life and work, and with my commitment to my medium. What else matters? And what do the opinions of other people have to do with it, anyway?