Impure Thoughts

Please note: I am taking a (perhaps permanent) break from teaching workshops in 2025. If you would like to join Michael Gordon and me on our Visionary Death Valley workshop, don’t wait. We only have a few seats remaining in 2024.

I delight in photographs

I delight in words

I delight in mixing both

To see what happens if they blend

My pity for the pure photographer

My pity for the pure poet

Is tempered by the responsibility

I have to three media

Whereas they to only one.

—Minor White

I sat down to write an article. I ended up with a stream of consciousness. I hope some of it is useful, or at least entertaining.

Yesterday, I sat under an old juniper tree just before dawn, sipping my morning coffee near my desert campsite on the rim of a steep canyon, when a curious badger wandered in. It sniffed around my camp for a bit, unaware of my presence. When it finally noticed me, we locked eyes for a second, before it quickly retreated into the brush. Shortly after, I watched the full “supermoon” setting behind me through a layer of purple and lavender, then turned around to soak in the intensifying glow of the rising sun over the canyon walls before me in perfect silence. The day was off to a good start.

Throughout my life, beyond striving to make the most of my experiences and opportunities, I have always been mindful to leave for my future self—the person I may someday become, who likely will be wiser than I am—as much freedom as I could to make his own choices, to decide for himself how he may want to spend his days, to not hobble him with any more commitments and responsibilities than I had to.

The morning’s experiences reminded me how grateful I am to now be this “older self,” having the freedom to spend my days in places like this, to wake up among beautiful geography and beings, not having to rush, able to experience such wildness and beauty in peace as a matter of course. It is obvious to me that this life and these opportunities would not have been open to me if, as a younger man, I instead took on commitments I was not comfortable with and whose ostensible benefits didn’t seem to me worth the sacrifices—the possibilities I would have forfeited and denied myself before even knowing their true worth or even that they would be within my reach. Thank you for that, younger me! I know it wasn’t easy.

As the world and my circumstances are now changing, and as life presents me now with new challenges and opportunities, I must again consider what course I should take to both make the most of my “new normal” and also to consider what my even-older self may wish to do in the years ahead.

A few months ago, I heard an interview with the brilliant Stewart Brand. Something he said has been rattling in my brain ever since: “When you can do the thing you’re doing in your sleep, wake up. Go somewhere else.” It made me think about the role that photography has come to play in my life, and to consider where it may take me next, or if perhaps I should make some room in my life for other things that may keep my creative fire burning.

I have been a “serious” photographer for more than three decades, making photography one of the longest running threads throughout my life. I have always been restless, easily bored with things once they became routine, predictable, too easy, or no longer challenging enough to hold my interest. When anything I do starts feeling like “more of the same,” I know it’s time for a change. I hate feeling bored.

Photography has been, and is, an anomaly in my life in the sense that it has always provided me with new possibilities, new challenges, and new enjoyable experiences beyond what I have already done. In stark contrast to many former interests, some aspects of photography still feel as exciting and rewarding to me today as they did twenty and even thirty years ago. But other aspects, alas, have lost their appeal over the years.

In recent years I have also tapered off my involvement, both online and in person, with photographic communities and events. Admittedly, the social aspects of photography, especially in recent years, are not at all appealing to me. Being a reclusive introvert and a die-hard individualist, I lament the fact that being a professional photographer today almost mandates incessant socializing and constant self-promotion, largely to the detriment of the very things that drew me to the profession to begin with and that to me are most meaningful about being a photographic artist: living life in pursuit of meaningful, elevated experiences, and then striving to express these experiences in creative, personal work—having (as Paul Strand put it) “something to say about the world” that is beyond the ordinary and that has not already been said by others… sometimes ad nauseam.

There was a time, when I was confined to an office for much of the day, when the places I loved to photograph in were far less known and far less crowded, when photographers were largely passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects, and not driven as much by popularity and competition—a time before selfies and YouTube channels, before the “feeding frenzy” of social media influencers and their followers, before the days of “likes” and emojis, before the experiences of most viewers became dictated and managed by corporations aiming to maximize ad sales and to harvest their users’ personal data, when I sincerely enjoyed interacting with other photographers online, engaging in thoughtful discussions, debating personal philosophies, on occasion even airing disagreements. Those days are now long gone. Observing the social feeds some days, as an outsider, I struggle to find content that holds my interest. On the rare occasion that I do, I become quickly frustrated with the context, with the utter lack of dignity of social platforms as venues for showcasing art, with the general creepiness of feeling constantly advertised to, having decisions made on my behalf by algorithms optimized for… anything but the reverent experiences I hope to find in art.

I fell in love with photography because it was something I enjoyed doing on my own, in peace, in remote places, steeped in natural beauty, in the company of wild (nonhuman) lives, disconnected from the human world. It’s strange to me these days to hear about such afflictions as fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) plaguing younger people when they are offline, unplugged from the social matrix. My mindset has always been the polar opposite: I fear what I may be missing out on when I’m not out, alone in nature. And when I am out, I fear having to reconnect with the mundane, petty, and noisy preoccupations of humanity when the time comes to reenter the human world.

When I am in my element, photography is most rewarding to me not when I feel myself a hunter stalking trophies to harvest and to bring back to the tribe for others to feast on or as something to brag about. Photography for me is a tool for exploration, discovery, personal expression—an extension of my senses and my mind as I look closer at the world in my most cherished times, as I seek beauty beyond the obvious in grand scenes and in the finest details of the natural world around me.

As one may use a notepad to record one’s thoughts and poetic expressions, so is a camera to me a mechanism for giving tangible, portable form to my experiences and creative epiphanies. To detach writings or photographs or any other personal creations from one’s personal experiences—from elevated sensations, thoughts, or feelings—let alone to make a photograph the purpose of an experience, in places where far greater inspirations may be found beyond just making photographs, is disturbingly strange to me, and yet I see it everywhere, in great abundance. Far be it from me to tell others what to do with their own lives, but I can’t justify spending my own living moments in this way—not when it is within my reach, even if at the cost of some effort and risk, to invest my time in more meaningful and rewarding experiences.

As I am not getting any younger or healthier, and as many of the places I love are rapidly succumbing to the ravages of the changing climate, to “development,” and to excessive visitation, I feel compelled to spend as much of my time as I can with my loves—with the places, things, lives that have helped make my own life so rich and meaningful over the years. Heading into the desert in past times used to feel like opportunity for adventure. It now feels more like going to visit and to sit with old friends, to bemoan our ailments and reminisce about the “old days;” to assure each other that we have been through a lot together and that it meant something, that we have seen and experienced and done extraordinary things, that we have (in Thoreau’s words) “stood up to live”—authentically, defiantly, as best we could, not to prove anything, and not for applause. But, especially in the quiet hours, there is no ignoring the fact that the times, as the great singer wrote, “they are a-changin’.” Although not as euphoric as some of my outdoor experiences in days past, these are profoundly beautiful and deeply emotional times—times for gratitude, nostalgia, contemplation, reckoning. Decisions need to be made.

I am of the sort who is in constant need of intellectual stimulation and challenge. Alas, most days I don’t find them in photography, even when in the presence of spectacular beauty. When faced with a wondrous feat of nature, subtle or spectacular, more often than not, I just want to savor it, to feel the significance of it in my gut, to cry with it, to be reminded by it of how fortunate I have been to see and to experience all that I have, but not necessarily to go through the scripted ritual of photographing it.

It’s obvious to me that I need to find a “next thing” to keep my mind challenged—something I don’t yet know how to do, or what secrets and mysteries it may reveal to me—about the world or about myself. When I first felt it, the most obvious direction seemed to me to embark on some novel photographic project, something I have not tried before. So, I’ve done a couple of those in recent years, and I enjoyed the work very much, but still… even though the creative moments were powerful, it was back to the same old… camera, lens, click, Photoshop, keyword, upload… same routine, same practiced skills, same… same…

My archives of unprocessed work keep getting deeper but my motivation to finish images keeps waning. I realize I need more inspiration and less mechanics, more epiphanies and less rote, more time thinking, feeling, experimenting, meditating, less time producing, fiddling, dragging, brushing, sizing, cataloging.

In considering my options, there are things I want to write about, learn about, explore, experience, get good at, that have no direct (or any) connection to photography—things I have set aside in past years thinking I’ll get to them someday, maybe, if… I have been at such junctures before. One thing I learned: “someday” never comes unbidden. It’s up to me to declare, when I can no longer come up with plausible excuses, “someday is today!”

Although it’s rare for artists who become invested, even accomplished, in some medium to consider alternatives, it is not unheard of. (Not that it should really matter.) Henri Cartier-Bresson, trained originally as a painter, then fell in love with photography, became great at it, but finally decided to return to his first love. In his later years, he conceded, “All I care about these days is painting—photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.” I’m sure that took courage to admit.

Ansel Adams famously gave up a career as a classical pianist to become a photographer, and also wrote about how much his photographic work benefitted from his earlier musical training. Similarly, Minor White switched (for the most part) from poetry to photography after completing a project of writing 100 sonnets. Rather than claiming one medium as superior to the other, White realized that to him they were just different ways to pursue the same purpose: personal expression. He wrote, “Changing from verse to photography will only be a change of media, not the core. I have known the taste of poetry while writing, the taste will be the same in photography. If a few years pass without the ecstasy of poetry while I learn the camera, what matter—if some day the taste of Poetry is a Photograph.”

White’s words—“the taste of poetry”—have been on my mind for some time now. I love poetry. I find myself drawn to reading more and more of it in recent years. I even tried writing some of my own. Unlike White, for me the “taste of poetry” feels quite a bit different from the “taste of photography,” but I absolutely love both. At different times, I crave one or the other, sometimes both. Of course, I’m not as good at both. But I think I’d like to be. At least, I’d like to try.

It may not lead to anything worth sharing. I may change my mind before deciding. Doesn’t matter. Someday may not yet be today… but I think it may not be far off.

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26 thoughts on “Impure Thoughts

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  1. I’d love to see one (last?) workshop devoted to the ideas in this essay. Surely anyone who has been doing anything for many years, and who is past the mid-point in life, has some of these thoughts. And I’d love to see some of your poems. BTW, I think White said “blend,” not “bend.”

    1. Thanks, Gary! You’re right about the misspelling. I corrected it. Alas, workshops take a lot of work to design (if you want to do it “right,” that is) and I’m not sure it will be worth doing for one session, nor that enough people will be interested to make it feasible. I absolutely intend to keep sharing my thoughts here, wherever they may take me.

  2. Well…you know I can highly recommend a stint in the circus. Matter of fact, there’s a highly active slackline community down there in Utah. I can 100% attest to the fact that it is very different from photography LOL. You do you, Guy, do what you need to do, when you need to do it. Not like you ever haven’t. Might be time to finally take up violin (and none of that b/s about hands, at least out in the desert, you’ll be the only one that hears it, so the quality won’t matter LOL). Bonne chance, mon ami. In the cirque biz, you never say goodbye, just “See you down the road.” Until then.

    1. Thanks, Lori! Oddly, in a sense I feel like I’m leaving the circus 🙂 Definitely hope to see you down the road… wherever that might be.

  3. It will be interesting and I strongly suspect inspiring, to continue to follow you on your journey, Guy–bon voyage…

  4. I think many of us are fans of your thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc. and how you write about them. We’ll still appreciate hearing from you whether it’s about photography or not.

  5. The waning of motivation is familiar. For all photography used to provide as an escape and connection to things I feel the most kinship with, somehow the modern world seeped into it like a toxic chemical spill. Then it gets increasingly difficult to separate the normal dips in creative motivation, wondering when the next inspiration will be, only to find one that comes is but a mere molehill of temporary discovery. You wonder if it is just something that needs deeper examination or is the weight forcing the dip in the first place just too heavy to carry anymore.

    1. I agree, Mark, although I don’t think my creative motivation has declined. It’s just pulling me in new directions, alongside having to adapt to some changing life circumstances. I’m hoping to do more writing in the coming years.

  6. I wonder if you’ve considered the academic world. There you may find people willing to take on difficult subjects, expressing complex ideas, and attempting to create change through art. These people are not looking for mass validation (although most would like to be validated in some way by their peers), and they are not seeking the same vistas or formulaic images.

    1. Thanks, Sarah! My original career plan (a long time ago) was to stay in the academy. If it wasn’t for a prolonged teacher’s strike that nudged me to look for other employment before I completed my postgraduate work, I might be a professor now. Part of the appeal for me was working with smart, science-minded people. Not really a career path open to me now, though.

  7. I hope you find the next thing that works for you. You were very helpful, I think on NPN, when I first started thinking o photographing something other than birds. I remember learning a lot about processing from an e-book of yours. I look forward to whatever you do next….

  8. I appreciate your photography and your writings/teachings. I prefer your perspective, deep thinking to so many other artists. New things are what keeps me going. Best of luck to you.

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