Looking for photographs is the most soothing pursuit of my soul. I’m just looking. At this point, I’m not trying to arrange, prevent, manipulate, control, produce—that will come later when I have narrowed my search to this clump of crocuses and have to remove the dead leaf and the stick, and block the sunlight with my shadow. During the looking stage, I’m not struggling, wrestling, or grasping. I’m simply lost in the wonder of wondering, of looking, of being present to what is present with me, and no will to exert, only the capacity to reject or receive, and the thrill of being able to create a photograph out of the elements present in a particular scene. Photography is an escape that grounds me in the present experience of living, and opens me to the beauty of life and the joy of being alive.
I troll for photographs the way trawlers troll for Haddock. I wander through scenes with the nets out, hoping for a haul. I stalk photographs the way lions stalk antelope. I hope for photographs the way Peonies hope for the rain. This is my life. It is what I do. I can’t be nonchalant about it, lazy, indifferent. I can’t wait for the mood to strike me, for the weather to be right, for breakfast to be served.
The pictures are out there, but it takes some doing to find them. Even the pictures you just walk up on take some doing. You have to go out of your way to be where the pictures are, and remember to take a camera along. Finding pictures is work. Work that is difficult to defend, justify, explain, excuse, or understand–given the little that comes from it, even if you get a picture. Even if you get a really good picture. A big part of the work is doing it anyway, going out of your way and then getting out of the way. Remembering to get out of the way is hardest part. There is nothing easy about any of it.
Photography is as much about deciding where you are going to be, and when you are going to be there, as it is about taking the photograph once you arrive. You can’t just show up somewhere whenever you feel like it and find a photograph. You have to be on the prowl for photographs like a cat after Robins. You have to think things through, plan it out, take all the variables into account, and hope that something will be there when you are. Then, of course, there are all those photographs you walk up on—the ones you stumble over—the ones that drop on you, like a piano, out of the sky. But, even those require some degree of planning. You have the camera with you, after all. You may be trolling for photos, not stalking them, but you are still trolling. You are still hoping one comes along, however deeply buried the hope may be. We’re always hoping one is waiting for us.
Speaking of waiting, sometimes, we have to wait it out. I waited two years for a photo of Price Lake at sunset to “develop” in the world of “normal, apparent, reality.” I knew it would be there eventually, when the clouds were in place and the wind wasn’t blowing. It’s only a matter of time, you know. All it takes is time. All in good time. Everything in its own time. Time will tell. So, if you don’t see it now, but know that under the right conditions you will see it, then wait, and watch. Eventually, if you are lucky, you’ll get the picture. Or, get the opportunity. While we wait, we can practice the skills required to take advantage of the opportunity when it rolls around. Photography is a wonderful exercise in seeing—what’s there, and what will be there—and a delightful way of sharing what is seen.
I know a woman whose life—at this point in her life—is feeding birds. Who am I to tell her that she is wasting her time? I am here to tell you that my life is walking through the world taking photographs. Who are you to tell me that I should be serving meals at the soup kitchen and befriending the poor? My idea of what your life should be is very likely to have little to do with what your life should be. What should your life be? Who is to say? You are! But, don’t just make something up! Don’t just say anything! Be right about it! that’s the search for the Holy Grail! Being right about the life that is our life to live, and living it!
Luck is strictly a matter of perspective. An event is propitious or malevolent depending on our point of view. What it is, is the coincidental confluence of circumstances. What it means is what we say it means in light of our purposes, desires, intentions and experience. If we didn’t have purposes, desires, intentions, or experience, we would never be lucky or unlucky. Whatever came our way would be just what came our way. What does a stature care about pigeons, or a flat rock about cows? So, luck is what we make it out to be. If we like what happens, we are lucky. If we don’t like it, we are unlucky.
Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Samuel Goldwyn, and, well, the list is long, are all credited with saying “The more I practice (Or, The harder I work), the luckier I get.” Whomever said it first, the point is well taken. We can increase our chances of being published if we actually write something. The more we write, the better our chances, particularly if our writing improves with practice. The same thing can be said for selling photographs. We have a better chance of selling them if we take them. If we want to be hit by a train, it helps to stand on the tracks.
There is an idea afoot that doors open to those who are persistent, patient and prepared. It is generally voiced in a way which suggests that the open doors are a reward for persistence, patience, and preparation, as though something is directing the doors to open, and if you “pay your dues,” you will be accorded the splendor of success, the rapture of prosperity, and the satisfaction of having it made—with “invisible hands” helping you on your way.
Well. We increase your chances of catching fish by going fishing, by baiting the hook, and by fishing in places where fish live. That doesn’t mean “invisible hands” are putting fish on your stringer. If you keep doing what success requires, we are apt to be more or less successful over time. And, if we keep it up, we are apt to lose, more or less, everything you worked for. But, no one will say “invisible hands” caused the market to crash or our job to disappear. However, nothing is as fickle as those “invisible hands.” We can make ourselves quite crazy trying to arrange our life so as to receive the blessings those hands dispense—and avoid the curses they bestow.
I say, take your chances. Stop trying to develop a system for beating the house. Take what comes, do what you can with it, and don’t worry about amassing a fortune and having it made. What are you going to do with a fortune that you can’t begin to do right now? How “made” do you have to have it before you can start enjoying your life? Stop trying to please “invisible hands,” and do more of what you like to do and less of what you don’t like to do, and see where it goes.
Start living right now. What do you think life is about if not being alive? What do you need to be fully, vibrantly, joyfully alive? Upon what does your life depend? What is standing between you and being alive? What is assisting, encouraging, enabling your participation in, and experience of, your own life? We have one life to live. How long are we going to wait to get started?
Our job, our work, is to trust our own magic—to trust what we do to have its own magic. Take the photograph! Let taking the photograph do its own work, work its own magic. Do your part, do what is yours to do, and disappear. Get out of the way. Trust the magic of doing your part, of doing what is yours to do, and see where it goes. That’s our work. Our work is doing our work and trusting our work to work its own magic in the world.
I’ve said “see where it goes” in the last two paragraphs. I’ll say it again. We are here to see where it goes. To live toward the best we can imagine and see where it goes. To trust our life to have its own innate sense of direction—to know more than we know—and see where it goes. Seeing where it goes is enjoying the ride. It is understanding that we are on an adventure, the likes of which we could never imagine or believe. We don’t know what’s coming, what will happen next, or what we will do about it. This is the wonder of being alive. We don’t know where it’s going. We have to live to see.
Part of the discipline of photography is being in the right place at the right time and doing right by the moment, by the scene, as it presents itself to us then and there. It’s called “getting the picture.” It is not enough to get an approximate picture, or a reasonable facsimile of the picture. Nothing less than The Picture will do. Our status as photographers depends upon the frequency with which we get The Picture. Once in a while will not do. We have to be more determined, committed, persistent and consistent than that.
I would never take a photo trip if I listened to my feelings, and I would never take a photo if I didn’t. The word is discernment. I know when my feelings cannot be trusted because I’ve lived with them long enough to begin to understand where they come from. Scaring myself is what I do best. I can terrify myself with all the things that could happen if I leave home to take photos far away. I could talk myself into staying in bed for the rest of my life. Bad things happen to people when they get out of bed. I pulled a muscle once getting out of the recliner. See? We should never leave the recliner. And, those are the feelings we have to over-ride in order to get up and do what needs to be done–what needs us to do it. In order to know what that is, we have to listen to another type of feelings. We feel our way into knowing something that we don’t understand, into serving something we can’t comprehend. And, find ourselves doing what is supposed to be done.
We cannot just buy a camera and be a photographer. To be a photographer, we have to take pictures, consistently, dependably, reliably, whether we are in the mood for it or not. To be a photographer, we have to belong to the camera, we have to be owned by the light, we have no life of our own. Our life becomes photography. If you want to be a photographer, that’s one thing. If you want to own a camera for those occasions when you want to take a picture, that’s another. If you want to do anything well, it has to be your life.
Photography is not an after-thought, an aside, something we do in addition to something else we do, like taking a trip, or having a picnic, or going with the kids to the park. We don’t bring the camera along “just in case.” Photography is an attitude, a mind-set, a way of life. We live to take photographs. Everything else is the aside.
Our holy obligation—the categorical imperative for photographers—is to be there when the photograph is there. Which means being there long enough before the photograph is there to be ready for the photograph when it arrives. We are photographers in waiting. We wait for everything, through it all, the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, and the tourists to get out of the way.
There are no excuses for missing the photograph. Our job is to get the photograph. Not to be there five minutes late. Not to fumble with the equipment. Not to not-know how to use the camera. Not to forget to check the focus, and the exposure, and the composition. Anybody else can fail in these things—not photographers! We have to be there. We have to be ready. And we have to be competent in what we do.
Photographers see the picture, get the picture. That’s all there is to it. Not everyone can do that. Photographers can. We can depend on photographers to see the picture, get the picture. If you can’t do either of those things reliably, consistently, dependably, but are determined to, that counts. Call yourself a photographer and stick with the regimen. It’s only a matter of time until you see the picture, get the picture—reliably, consistently, dependably. You can already consider yourself a member of the guild. Determination is the price of admission.
It’s a nice foggy day outside, and there is ice on the pond. There are some pictures I will not take. I can get fog in April and August. I don’t have to go for fog in January and February. I know I should be more of a sport about these things, and volunteer to be miserable for the sake of the photo, but. There are lines to be drawn. You wouldn’t stand in traffic to get a photo. I wouldn’t stand in freezing fog.
I want to take landscape photographs and write, and that entails traveling to the places I want to photograph, and presenting what I photograph and what I write to an audience, or to audiences. A virtual audience, as in the web or eBooks, will do. And, I want to make enough money to allow me to do those things, which includes buying the equipment required to do it, and affording the physical comfort that enables me to do it without particular hardship (I don’t want to camp out and spend a lot of time being cold, wet and hungry, for example). That’s the core. That’s central. Everything else, wife, home, the children and the grandchildren, movies, and relationships, Christmas and Thanksgiving, and the like, coalesce around the center. My work is to make central what is central. It takes a lot of juggling to stand at the center, to be who we are. It is called “Balancing the contradictions.”
Even the sun needs help from time to time. A sunset on the Sound would be nicely enhanced if a boat were to come sailing into the picture. So, we wait on a boat, hoping one comes along before the sun disappears. Photography is the fine art of waiting. Waiting on the children to get out of the waterfall. Waiting on a cloud to diffuse the sunlight. Waiting for the wind to diminish. Waiting on the fog to lift or roll in, for the rain to stop, or start. Waiting, waiting. Watching, watching. Some days it pays off nicely, helping us forget the days it doesn’t.
The camera opens us up to places and closes us off to them. The blessing is the curse. Looking, seeing, we fail to simply be. We lose the gift of presence, the gift of being there, of being a part of the place, of belonging. We observe, and as observers, we hear, we touch, we taste, we smell, as a function, as an extension, of seeing. We gather, absorb, a sense of the place as an extension of seeing. But, we do not just sit with our backs against a tree and let the people with the cameras and the tripods bounce around from compositional vantage point to compositional vantage point. We do not just pick a spot, and sink into it, closing our eyes, perhaps, and opening ourselves to the wonder of being where we are. The camera is a harsh taskmaster. We have work to do. We are burning daylight. There is no time to waste. The moment waits for no one. We must take advantage of the opportunity. And, in so doing, we lose a different opportunity. If you are going to ride the ride, you have to pay the fare. Which ride is our ride? To what do we say yes, and no?
I have a picture taken at Bright Angel Point on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with my thumb holding my hat shielding the sun from the camera lens in the upper left corner of the picture. That’s what film did for us. Digital gives us an LCD screen and takes the guesswork out of image making. With film we could bracket all we wanted, thinking the thumb is nicely out of the picture, but NOT! A beautiful shot in a classic location lost to a wayward thumb! What do you do? I hold the photo up as a reminder to me and a lesson to others! Be awake! Pay attention! Check the edges! And, love yourselves anyway when you don’t! Sometimes, I can almost see the rest of the photo without being distracted by the thumb.
It helps to go without expectation, just being open to what you find when you get there. There is no way to plan for some shots. Maybe the leaves are right, maybe not; maybe the sky is overcast, maybe not. Maybe it’s raining, maybe not… So much has to come together, you’ll make yourself crazy trying to get it all lined up and marching to your tune. We have to see what is there to know what to do about it. We can trust ourselves to figure out what to do in plenty of time to get it done.
There are small seasonal streams in the Smokies that depend on a wet spring for their brief existence, and do a wonderful job with the opportunity to do what all streams do. In their “stream-ness” they are one with all streams, everywhere. They are as “streamy” as it gets, and flow splashing and gurgling along their course, nourishing the mosses and ferns, trees and flowering plants—doing what is theirs to do—with all the passion and dedication of streams that last year-round, and come replete with names, and bridges, and swimming ropes. My hat’s off to these little wonders. They encourage me on when I encounter the Soul Killers: “So what? Who Cares? Why try? What’s the use? What difference will it make?” And they remind me to say, “I’m just going to do what I do best and see where it goes.”
It isn’t hard to find photos in the fall in North or South Carolina. It’s hard finding a place to park and a place to set your tripod. The rural roads have no shoulders and people, urban and rural, are funny about you walking through their yard and standing in their flowerbeds. Their dogs are even funnier. You are limited to public places with parking and no, No Trespassing signs. And you thought it was about having an expensive camera and several lens. We make the same mistake with everyone who comes our way. We look at them and fail to notice all they are dealing with—how the Cyclops in some present-day configuration is body-slamming them just for the fun of it, and laughing. John Watson’s words are worth carrying around, remembering, living out: “Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle.”
I always miss fall when it’s gone. I love finding photos everywhere, not having to look for them, not having to wait on them—but there is still something to complain about: Not enough camera time. That’s my complaint. Fall doesn’t last nearly long enough. If it only lasted as long as July and August! There should be some compensation for July and August! They last six months apiece. That’s a year total. Fall should last a year. Fall should last long enough that I begin to long for winter. Wish it would snow so I could shovel the driveway. That’s how long I want fall to last.
Something else to be big about—as though we need something else to be big about! We spend all our time granting concessions, making allowances, adjusting our stride to fit the terrain, accommodating, accommodating, accommodating… The turtles and the fishes, the deer and the Great Horned Owls have to do the same thing, but they don’t know they are doing it. It’s just, “Oh, well,” with them. They don’t sit around grousing about it. Not even the Ruffled Grouse grouses. Something’s wrong about that. Something else to grouse about. To be big about. To get over.
The toughest thing about photography is giving your eye something to see. You can’t take your eye somewhere without going with it. And a quiet day reading by the fire with a cup of coffee is out of the question. You want to do this and you want to do that. That conflicts with this. What are you going to do? Enter the agony! Bear the pain! The only people who live pain free lives immune to agony are dead. They may be upright, intact, 98.6 and breathing, but they have been dead for years past counting and are only waiting for the undertaker to make it official. If you are going to be alive, you have to live with the pain and agony—the reality—of “this” negating “that.” Mutually exclusive wants, wishes, options, choices and desires characterize being alive. You get this by giving up that. You get that by handing over this. Trade-offs are the price of being alive. When you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, be damned and be done with it! Make a choice! Decide! Get the camera and give your eye something to see. Or sit with the book and read. It’s your life, live it—and bear the pain of your choices!
Edward Hicks painted over a hundred versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom” between 1820 and his death in in 1849. That’s having to get it right—having to do it well. This is the primary distinction between the artist in both the practical arts and the fine arts and those who aspire to be artists by doodling around, owning all the props and wearing the costume.
A plumber is as much an artist in what he does as the painter or the poet is in what she does. What makes them all artists is the drive to do it well. My wife has never taken a landscape photograph in her life, but she has landscaped beautifully and well the yards of every house we’ve lived in.
Art is where your gift lies. Everyone is an artist who knows what gift she, he, has been given and lives to serve that gift, to bring it forth and do it well according to his or her own sense of perfection, no matter what the critics say—and the critics there be many whether they get paid to write reviews or snicker about your flowerbed as they walk down the street.
What do you have to do well? Who says when it’s done well? Joseph Campbell said, “If you can do something you love to do without fear of criticism, you will move. You will feel the joy in it. You don’t have to move more than an inch to feel the joy. Remember, the Buddha’s third temptation was duty, doing what people expect you to do. That’s the censorship fear.”
Live your art, express your gift, do your work—and do it well, according to your own sense of completion.
The gift is a harsh task master, demanding everything in the service of the gift. And it is the giver of life and being. We serve the wonder that brings us to life, anoints us with life, calls us forth, directs our steps and forms the way we are in the world. It is the invisible source of vitality, joy, enthusiasm and delight. A blessing and a grace. Without it, we would be deader than dead. With it, we leave the dead to bury the dead, and press on, in service to the gift. May it always be so, with us all, forever!