There are so many stories,
more beautiful than answers.
For several years now I’ve been coming to terms with some transformative events and new circumstances in my life. These things changed me and my outlook in important ways, some of which I likely don’t fully understand yet. If you look at most of my photographs from this period, however, you may never know that anything in my life had changed. Was I wrong in thinking of myself a self-expressive artist?
I realized that my photographs of the last few years have been expressive, not of my actual experiences, but of experiences I yearned for and no longer had, experiences I’ve missed, experiences I wished to find again. But after a while, sticking to such wishful thoughts did not seem like enough. It reminded me of this confession by painter Francis Bacon:
“There is a connection between one’s life and one’s work — and yet, at the same time, there isn’t. Because, after all, art is artifice, which one tends to forget. If one could make out of one’s life one’s work, then the connection has been achieved. In a sense, I could say that I have painted my own life. I’ve painted my own life’s story in my own work — but only in a sense. I think very few people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that the painting is an expression of the artist’s mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.”
Still, I knew from past experiences how much being able to express my inner thoughts in photographs has helped my emotional wellbeing. I decided I needed to find means of expressing in my photographs something of my new reality, and for a while I had no idea how to do that. I needed to figure it out, not only so I could once again pronounce myself self-expressive, but because in the process I hoped (perhaps on some level even knew) that photography will help me make some sense of things, distill and crystallize some useful, perhaps even beautiful, essences from the chaos and confusion that dominated my thoughts. It has before.
Wynn Bullock said, “When I photograph, what I’m really doing is seeking answers to things.” It’s an approach that served me well, too, when the answers I was seeking related to things outside myself: what does it feel like to be in such-and-such place? how can I express the beauty and elegance of a tree? what about these rocks makes them so interesting, and how can I make them interesting to other people? But now I was dealing with unknown things within myself and did not even know what questions to ask. The questions that did come to me seemed paradoxical: what can I say about things I don’t understand and can’t describe? how do I express emotions I have not felt before and moods I have no words for?
Reaching for styles and subjects that worked in the past, that I was comfortable with, that people came to associate with my work, felt safe. I should mention that as tempting as such safety is in ordinary times, it is a hundred times more tempting, and a hundred times harder to transcend, in uncertain times. But I knew in my gut that I had to. The safety that seemed so appealing began and ended with how other people responded to my work, but I needed my photographs to do more than just impress others.
Before seeking answers to things, I realized I needed to first ask the right questions. This realization led me to an even greater one: rather than wait for answers, I could still use photography to express my questions: my doubts, my uncertainties, my puzzlement, my wish to explore and to understand. This finally got the creative circuitry in my mind excited. The question I was trying to answer before any other was a paradoxical one: how can I express in photographs not things I know but my desire to know them? It’s easy in photography to prompt viewers to ask questions. I can do so by means of abstraction, by portraying familiar things in unobvious ways, etc. The challenge before me, however, is not only to get viewers to ask questions, but to get them to relate to my questions.
I have some thoughts about how to accomplish what I’m after, but my point here is not to get into specifics of my project, which is only beginning and much of it I still don’t know. Rather, I want to point out how photography, not for the first time, is making an important difference in my life. I may not have answers, and may not even know all the questions yet, but I feel creative, and that’s something: I have ideas that excite me to get out into the world, to explore, to engage, to create, to express meaningful and important things. Photography, when approached with a certain mindset: not as just a hobby but as an extension of personality; not as a casual interest but as a means to creative expression; not as a distraction from other things but as a means to explore and to assimilate meaning and importance; not as just a technical or artistic skill, but as a life skill; has the power to affect life, to motivate, to improve emotional wellbeing, even to help in healing. Whatever photography or any other medium may be in any practical sense, it can be much more when employed as an extension of the self into the world: as a sensory organ, as a source for useful metaphors, as a means not only of finding useful answers but of asking useful questions.
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