Searching is everything—going beyond what you know. And the test of the search is really in the things themselves, the things you seek to understand. What is important is not what you think about them, but how they enlarge you.
Winter invites reflection. For some, such end-of-year reflection is tied with traditions or the numbers on the calendar. For me, it’s the silence, the crisp, glowing quality of the light, the short days, the palpable sense of life in the high desert slowing down. Some residents have left for warmer climes, others hibernate, and those that remain active generally do so in short bursts before retiring to the comfort of nests, dens, and other protected spaces.
Having no special traditions or other rituals associated with any calendar dates (at least none I have pursued for more than a few years before giving them up), my moods and doings are driven by the pace of the places I roam in, the opportunities they present me, the experiences they make possible, whatever events unfold in my own life, and the limits of my abilities. All are only partly known and loosely predictable quantities, all are prone to both anticipated and unexpected changes. In recent months and years, it is clear to me in hindsight, all have in fact changed to greater degrees than I could have foreseen.
Unpredictability, at least the conscious acknowledgement of it, may be uneasy for some. For me, it is a necessity for a meaningful, exciting life: the ever-present recognition that I don’t know and can’t predict everything, the capacity to be surprised, to be challenged, to experience—sometimes to astounding effect—things that are unpredictable by their nature: discoveries, revelations, adventures.
Adventure, like art, is a term whose meaning in recent times has become eroded, cheapened, and ambiguous to the point of near uselessness in practical use. It baffles me to see so many people describing experiences involving little more than safe travel to known places, according to preconceived plans, as adventures. (Don’t get me started on art.)
“The quest for certainty,” wrote Erich Fromm, “blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” Adventure, if it is to be qualified in terms of meaning, relies, if nothing else, on things not going according to any plan—on finding oneself, without warning or preconception, needing to improvise, to rely on one’s wits, experience, skills, and luck to tackle some challenge of unexpected origin and uncertain outcome. The greater and riskier the challenge (by one’s own capacities, not in comparison with others), the more one may claim it an adventure.
By this characterization, I consider my life path as an artist, as a photographer, as a perpetual learner and explorer, to be a creative adventure: an ongoing foray toward a loosely predictable future, hoping for unexpected discoveries, revelations, experiences—even if fraught with uncertainty and risk that may seem frivolous or rebellious to some but that is nonetheless the undeniable and non-negotiable “cost of entry” for some experiences that would otherwise be altogether unavailable and inaccessible.
It is this search—the ongoing pursuit of such experiences for their own sake, for the sake of feeling intense emotions, for the sake of acquiring new knowledge and understanding, rather than striving for any anecdotal accomplishment—that I consider my purpose in life. It is a search whose end is not any desirable outcome. As the search for me is synonymous with living, it can have no predictable end. Its end will be, and can only be, my end.
Whatever accomplishments may ensue from this search, while welcome and rewarding gifts when they occur, are byproducts rather than goals. I must always consider them—consciously and decidedly—as such, lest I succumb to the siren call of easier and less rewarding paths. To forget or ignore this distinction between goals and byproducts seems to me the reason why so many artists have been led astray from their original, perhaps even openly stated aspirations. No doubt, such artists may accomplish much in the material and popular senses, but at what cost? A cost that I, at least, have considered and been tempted by on occasion, but time and again concluded I am unwilling to pay.
The deciding factor, sometimes by a narrow margin, always was and always remains as Marie Beynon Ray put it bluntly and beautifully: “We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand and melting like a snowflake,” leading to the inevitable question, put just as bluntly and beautifully by Mary Oliver:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The adventures I search for—the experiences, the knowledge, the elevated living—cannot be had or even estimated vicariously through the adventures of others. “Freedom and life,” realized Goethe’s Faust as he contemplated his life in his elder years, “are earned by those alone who conquer them each day anew.” Alas, like adventure and art, freedom and life—the words—seem also to have lost much of their gravity and profundity in the course of recent history.
History for the searcher is not a roadmap; it is a reliable guide (at least as reliable as any guide may be in preparing one for an uncertain future and yet-unknown experiences). Among the things I’ve searched for in recent years, and have finally made some progress on, is a new means of adding to history, going beyond history, transcending common styles and aesthetics in photography.
It is clear to me that, despite so many vocal protests by purists and traditionalists (who seem bent on halting progress in every age, despite being humbled time and again by every major historical advancement in art), realistic representation and romanticized idealization in photography have reached maturity in terms of their usefulness. We must acknowledge today that realistic depiction, while deserving utmost reverence for its historical contribution and perennial importance to journalism and photographic art, is no longer the primary use for photography as art, nor the only important use for the photographic medium. Artists working other media have known this for well over a century.
Photography, for reasons unrelated to artistic aspiration, still struggles to free itself of “prison f/64.” We photographers have a long way to go just to catch up with other artistic media if we have any hope of keeping our medium relevant and respected in the realm of art, certainly if we hope to make further important contributions to art beyond the capacities of other media.
No doubt, realistic and romanticized art is, and likely will always be, of immense value to human experience. It must continue! But it must not continue as the “one and only” form of valid photography. Certainly, it must not be held in that position by coercion, by derision of other uses, by asserting itself as a hurdle to further evolution of photographic art, by preventing creative artists from exploring new ways to put our powerful medium to broader and yet-to-be-discovered uses reflecting, driven by, and relevant to our rapidly changing reality and ever-evolving notions of art.
In this search, we are fortunate to have had some of humanity’s most courageous artistic scouts—painters, sculptors, philosophers, scientists—point the way, having already done some “heavy lifting” on our behalf. It is for us photographers now to first catch up, then to dare venture ahead in search of new adventures and discoveries, to chart new paths of our own, driven by unbridled creativity, free from the fetters of arcane prejudice and century-old aesthetic sensibilities.
The path before us, now settled by more than a century of thinking and artmaking, is the path of abstraction and transcendence of the obvious. It is time for us to leave the safety of the familiar and to extend our search beyond just mimicking “habitual seeing” (to use John Szarkowski’s term). To do otherwise, to call off the search, to do nothing more than to just use different technologies toward the same ends, is a path with predictable consequences: stagnation, repetition, desensitization, banality, obsolescence.
Having spent recent months contemplating, reading, seeking answers in philosophies of art, in breakthrough science, in the words of great artists and thinkers, I have come to a revealing realization. Art of the past tended to be lavish and complex in its methods and creations, but shallow and easily accessible in the philosophy behind it. Such art, by representing and glorifying familiar appearances and common myths, gave us objects of astounding and timeless beauty, aiming toward elevating emotions, but often achieved little in terms of challenging the mind to seek great knowledge and intellectual revelations. Today’s art—so-called “postmodern”—in contrast, seems to be the opposite. It is founded in complex, brilliant philosophies that, alas, to most, are esoteric and inaccessible. Despite such great intellectual depth, resulting works are often obscure, confounding, simplistic, ambiguous, uninteresting—in some cases, downright ugly.
In an age when machines may create more visually impressive works than humans; when art is viewed most often as degraded, short-lived, often obscure digital impressions, barely afloat in a torrent of inane distractions, delivered by the truckload through platforms designed to hijack spectator attention toward lesser, baser, interests; when creativity and reading are measurably declining in industrialized societies, how can art remain relevant and useful? How can complex ideas be made interesting and comprehensible, emotionally and intellectually compelling, without sacrificing either aesthetics or depth, or both?
It seems to me that works of visual art by nature excel at elevating emotions with a power and immediacy that other media cannot. At the same time, this ability comes at the cost of lacking the power to express complex ideas and narratives. In this, other artistic media—creative writing, film, music, dance—have the upper hand. The pressing question facing artists today, I believe, is this: can we find ways to express in our works—not by tribal allegiance to any one medium or aesthetic but by creative, skilled use of all the means of artistic expression at our disposal—a deeper and more complex philosophy of life commensurate with the great advances in science and philosophy made in recent decades, without sacrificing beauty and elevated emotions?
My search has brought me here. My path ahead, not yet well defined, let alone known, is at least clearer to me. I wish to see if there is a way to reconcile the beauty and elevated emotions possible by the medium of photography, with the wisdom and complexity of contemporary science and art, perhaps requiring a collaboration with creative writing or other medium. I suspect it will take more than just visual works to make such progress, certainly more than just photographic renditions of scenic views.
Perhaps I will fail. But the point is not so much to succeed as to be inspired, to feel creatively excited. I admit, I have not felt that about photography in a while. I do now.
What is next? Experimentation, deep thinking, further education and research, hopefully discoveries and adventures. Where will it lead? I can’t say at this time. Thankfully.
“You will never find yourself,” wrote Robert Henri, “unless you quit preconceiving what you will be when you have found yourself.” But I don’t need to quit anything. I make it a point to never preconceive such things to begin with.
This article is brought to you—in full, free of charge and free of advertising—by the generous support of my Patreon patrons. Please consider becoming one for as little as $2 a month. I am a professional artist in the traditional sense: I make my entire living from art-related activities. Much as I enjoy sharing my work and thoughts with the broadest audience possible, I would not be able to do so if I could not generate a living income from it.