Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.
I spent most of the past three weeks outdoors, savoring with mixed emotions the onset of autumn after a brutally hot and dry summer season. Casual visitors to these parts are easily overwhelmed by their natural beauty, but to one who spends a lot of time among the canyons, mountains, and high plateaus, the effects of the changing climate are undeniable, at times painful to witness. Among deciduous varieties in brilliant autumn displays and evergreen conifers still dominating the high slopes, are many skeletons of trees that were alive and vibrant until just recently. Sagebrush plains and forest floors that would normally be vibrant and thriving this time of year after the summer monsoon rains, are brown and barren. In the highlands, many lakes have been reduced to dry or muddy basins, and some former creeks are now just dry channels meandering among the trees.
Terms like inspiration and creativity are often bandied about with rosy and simplistic enthusiasm despite sometimes being rooted in complex, even dark, moods. For example, the link between heightened creativity and some mental disorders is well documented, and products of creative thought are not all uplifting or benevolent. Likewise, inspiration—that elevated state of mind that gives rise to gratitude and drives people to create—is not always the outcome of pleasant circumstances. To wit, my time among the beauties and tragedies of this season has been unusually productive, not because of some benign sense of joy, and not for denying the reality before my eyes, but because I find great beauty and grace in the ways the natural world adapts or even surrenders to change; seeing new life asserting itself despite hardship; witnessing the sheer joy and playfulness of animals and plants in moments of bliss. Such revelations, sweet and painful at times, always seem to me in stark contrast with the jadedness and cynicism of so many animals of my own species and make me grateful for such respites of beautiful wildness from the mendacity of human worlds.
In teaching photography, beyond mastery of technical skills, I find it hardest to instill in students an attitude conducive to creative expression—an attitude of being constantly and defiantly inspired to create not only in the presence of obvious beauty but also despite challenges and difficulties. After all, how difficult or creative is it to seek out obvious beauty and to point a camera at it, or to document a beautiful event earned only by pure luck? As the photographic industry has given rise to an endless torrent of recipes, tips, and other shortcuts to beauty; as manufacturers keep touting how much their cameras can do by virtue of technology, with little effort or skill required of the photographer; how their gadgets can make for beautiful, if uncreative, visual effects; how mastery of search algorithms, hashtags, attractive models, and other factors having little to do with artistic merit can make a photographer popular.
Such attitude may do little for any measurable qualities of your photographs, or for any measure of commercial success. Indeed, a viewer may never know the difference between photographs originating in formulas and shortcuts, and those rooted in deep emotional engagement and creative expression. But to the photographer, there is a world of difference.
“Photographers want a formula for everything,” wrote Henry Peach Robinson in 1896. More than 120 years later, most still do—but not all. A minority among which I am proud to be, care little for formulas beyond those needed to realize our creations—“our” being the operative word—as we strive to give visual form to expressions and notions originating in our own minds, in our sincere and genuine emotions, in our most elevated experiences—rather than those created by things outside ourselves: objective views and technological gimmicks. “For the achievement of this,” as Paul Strand wrote, “there are no short cuts, no formulae, no rules except those of your own living.”
For us of the minority, the opportunity to witness, to participate in, and to give expression to the stories that elevate our being, is more important than any camera technique, any piece of gear or software, any “must see” attraction, any “rules,” or any traditions. For us, photography augments and gives form to the privilege of conscious living, to the effects—good, bad, beautiful, or tragic—of caring deeply about some things and ideas, to the capacity for learning and understanding the nature of things around us, to our ability to see connections and relationships in the world and in ourselves, and to the great gift of beauty in its many and diverse forms.
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