Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Creative Threat

In my pile of stories about experiences about photography there are accounts of what was going through my head when I received a certain image. Something about what prompted my to detach from the tour of the silk factory while everybody else took pictures of the machines while I turned to take a picture of, you know, the silk. Call me crazy.

One story that gets retold the most is about one of the classes I was teaching on a sunny May Saturday afternoon 6 or 7 years ago. One of the students and I were walking and taking pictures down a residential alley. I'd never seen these growing up in Halifax, but they are common in Calgary. Garage entrances and parking are along these back lanes and there is a little more likelihood of there being some clutter an varied detritus back there than people would ever allow to appear in their front yards. There is a little more wear and peeling paint along these lanes and I find them more interesting than the repetition I'd see from the fronts of house.

As my student and I were walking along taking pictures, a bottle-picker went down the lane. He was tattered and unkempt but entirely focused on the accumulation of bottles and cans. He stopped dutifully at each recycling and garbage bin to dig around, add to his collection and proceed to the next can to repeat. One of the homeowners, working in his backyard, observed the picker as he went by and remained unresponsive as his bin was rooted through and emptied. I understand how you would be prompted to be cautious around someone looked into their bottle picking in that manner, much as you might be careful about stirring a sleepwalker. However, what happened next still puzzles me... sort of.

While my student and I walked down the lane, the homeowner, the same one who let the bottle picker come onto his property and root through his garbage and recycling for bottles and cans, took a vigilant interest and, with a defensive or perhaps even belligerent tone asked, "What are you up to?"

The cameras around our necks belied our intentions just as easily as the picker's large bag of bottles did, so the conversation did not have to occur. Puzzled, the only reply I could offer was, "Just taking pictures." Was there a concern about surveillance or an invasion of privacy? The homeowner may have been reasserting his property rights with a lower-risk target, but it still bothered me that I was harassed for taking pictures. It regularly occurs. I have been told not to photograph a video store because it was private property - a message that did not get to the graffiti-artist whose tags I was shooting. I have also been chased out of position to shoot a lunar eclipse by a neighbour who thought I was using my medium-format camera to photograph his licence plate. (As if I would leave my house without a pen.)

I find it puzzling how after nearly 175 years of photography and the near-ubiquity that has come with cellphone cameras, that the camera still makes people uncomfortable.  It may be that creating in relative solitude but in public imposes a wrinkle in the decorum that others cannot discern or comprehend. While a writer would work in solitude and stillness, even if it is in a Starbucks, a photographer or a painter can often be exposed in public as they proceed through their work.

The painter's contemplative pause at the easel, however, poses less of a menace or a nuisance, especially after a passer-by gets to steal a glance at the work in progress. The photographer, untethered and roaming, is regarded with more suspicion. The concerns about invasion of space, compromising of privacy and other news-stoked fears are ultimately code that is cited to express other concerns.

Does a photographer's eye make people feel more guarded about each moment and how they may be captured?  That is the case when a portrait is being taken, but it seems that there is a similar anxiety regardless of where a photographer's attention leads.  Amongst my encounters when out with the camera, was an occasion when I was accosted with the accusation that I was taking a picture of my accuser rather than the bench that I was clearly intent on when I released the shutter.

These encounters have been vivid and memorable experiences and they are pretty close to being the whole iceberg (for me) rather than just the tip. Still, the anxieties around public photography are such that it is necessary to make it clear that public photography is not a crime.  The public trepidation when a photographer happens to point a lens in public underlines some common things about art.  It is supposed to challenge audiences and perhaps make them uncomfortable.  You are not going to change perceptions, insights and the sleepwalk routines of the inattentive with something bland and appeasing. 

When I am out with my camera in public, my goal is to bring attentive to the things that people would prefer not to look at.  That detachment from surroundings of the non-photographers may be to assure themselves that they are focused on the right things each day and that the blinders are quite comfortable and unencumbering exactly where they are.  Some people would rather not trouble themselves to pause and contemplate their surroundings in the manner that I do, and there may be an impulse to cite me for having puerile or invasive motivations rather than creative ones.  My quest for good images in that space that they would rather stir some other notions about beauty and creativity that are just troublesome for other people in a space to contend.

There is a compelling, common image of an artist working on their craft in private, away from the outside world and only coming out when they are ready or when a work is complete. The notion of the performance becoming part of the public sphere, rather than moving from the studio, garret or rehearse space to a museum is one that is easier to digest and absorb for the public. Art, however, should not be contained in areas where it does not impact a public space and the activities, usually commerce, we associate with the public spaces.  We have to share those common spaces for more than business and we have to be willing to tolerate artists in that space.  And I do not mean bemusing flash mobs breaking into dance. 

Just as people are content to sit with a book, throw a ball or have a picnic in a public space, creativity ought to be accommodated there as well. The public space is defined by diverse exchanges of insight and opinion with the goal of democratizing that area and the people who are drawn there from outlying areas.  Conversations occur in the public setting and there ought to be an opportunity for photographers to document the beauty and details of a place and redefine it.  Artists, including the photographers ambulating and bobbing through with their eyes questing the ideal compositions they can find, contribute to enhancing that space and what goes on there.  Artists serve as shock troops to reframe and reconsider a place that is taken for granted or accepted as is.  Their vision can prompt reevaluation of the space and perhaps its reconstruction as a more welcoming and accommodating one. Given this positive impact, photographers need to be welcomed and the scope of their gaze acknowledged rather than barricaded and threatened back to where they sprung. Such a repudiation of a photographic vision is evidence of the decline of a public space that wishes to become less welcoming to not only photographers but anyone else who might be deemed not to belong. Only stagnancy and decline will result from such an imposed impermeability.

Whether an image is shared or not, a photographer's eye can transform a space. Once the paranoia about a photographer's public presence is processed, others will pause and examine their surroundings more closely and become more aware, if only for a moment, of details they normally overlook or disregard.  When a photographer's vision is shared the impact can be profound. While googling "dog poop in Paris" generates 1,740,000 hits (yes, I went there), it is Robert Doisneau's image of the kiss outside City Hall that remains the indelible, unconquerable definition of
from http://www.museumvanelsene.irisnet.be/en/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/robert-doisneau
the romantic city of lights.

It can be intimidating occasionally, but doing photography in public, in the heart of a city, is a unique pursuit of the creative act. You are exposed in the early contemplative stages of your process as few artists are and for that reason it takes a little more daring to do than in other situations, but there is the possibility in that particular work to hold up your community to a more astute assessment. If all you happen to share is a glance at the screen on the back of your camera on a sunny day, it will change the way people can look at things.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Spiritual Opportunity

It is easy to clad a discussion of the spiritual and the creative in aphorisms about being in the role of a creator. I prefer to deploy creative as a noun to avoid overstating the role that you can perform when you are dabbling in your chosen craft. Still there is something extra that is happening when you are creating freely, with little inhibition.

I am somewhat reluctant to dive deep into the spiritual aspect of the creative process out of a fear of musing too much or too happily about the occasions where the voice I want to speak or write with is clear, the words come easily and I feel like I am being dictated to rather than working for it.  It may be as much a matter of it sounding like I'm boasting, "I got there and it came so easily." Still, there are times when a song is sung or that passage in the script is performed better, more powerfully and deeply because the body, mind and soul are aligned for the task they want to ascend to.  The moment is entirely yours, but quite possibly there is an ineffable synergy that is found within that you have managed to tap into or capture.

During those moments when you are aligned with the moment that you are creating in, your instinct become sharper and there is a greater sense of possibility and you move from the drills or more tedious efforts to get into the flow you want to achieve and you get just enough out-of-body to create rather than merely perform at the effort of trying to create. The ease with which it happens, whether you are acting, singing, writing, drawing or taking pictures is a great moment. I recall an occasion doing drama during university where, finally comfortable with the script and my role, I was able to add some subtle physical humour to a brief moment of conflict with another character that I had not unearthed during other performances. I was able for that moment to get past the script and the blocking to add something to the performance without disturbing it.  There was another level of consciousness that discovered it. 

The surprises and the heightened awareness that comes when you are creating at a higher level, when you are in the zone are one aspect of that spiritual moment that you can immerse yourself in when you are creating with relative ease. There are nuances, details and extra layers of coherence that you may not have anticipated when you first sat down to work and the opportunity for that creative moment to result in something more than you had hoped for when you first got to the task nudge you toward a proficiency that you had not previously achieved and push what you are working on toward a higher quality as well.

Attempting to create takes us out of the realm of the binary, mechanical or bureaucratic and moves us into situations where potential is unknown and perhaps, infinite. If you sit down to write a love poem for the first time, consider the possibility that you write something more sublime than you had hoped for.  This is not merely a smug, "I'm damn good at this," recognition but a combination of metaphor, language and emotion stop you in your tracks with a creation that leaves you asking, "Where did that come from?!" What you were hoping to be "passable" somehow catches fire and goes beyond all expectation. The task, the subject, the inspiration and the goal all come together to pull something out of you or produce something that speaks of you and from you with an eloquence you had not anticipated.  It is that moment of peak creativity that best allows you the chance to exceed your own expectations.

If you want, you can believe that all of that was inside of you. That can be a sound argument, you have dug deep to come up with that passage, the line, that brush stroke, that note or whatever it is that you have created. You dug deep into... yes... your soul to pull that together. The skeptic will scoff, however, at the notions that whatever you connect to to create has the potential -- scratch that -- requires that you escape from the binary and mechanical to connect with something that is intangible, amorphous and spiritual. When you are digging deep, whether to find a single precise word or to sustain a creative habit for the nth consecutive day, you are trying to look for something to sustain you in a situation that can be uncomfortable and challenging.  You are also on a quest for something that cannot be found on a shelf or a search through Amazon, but something ineffable or fleeting.

When you are on that quest you do send something out. It is in your facial expression and your body language and it lingers within you and around you long after that most intense moment of the quest. Despite what you think you are sending something out into the ether in that quest and there will be many an occasion where the universe or something will reach back to you, or nudge something into your path as you make that request. It may be that fleeting word that is on the tip of your tongue, that collaborator, supporter, answer, proverbial paper clip or whatever else you need. If you indulge in your skepticism and insist that it is just a coincidence that you are getting this cooperation, be careful. The universe may just prove you right. Instead, persist at what you are passionate about, and tap into the resources you have within you to create. You will hone your intuitions and instincts, your technical abilities and grow more comfortable with the dry spells which you will manage to get past with time, humility and mindfulness. And with time you will find yourself open.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Patience, Grasshopper, Patience

About twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of a deaf photographer. He was quite frank in his comments and the exchanges and tutelage were always the more interesting for the carefully translation that his daughter provided. One favorite memory is a furrowed brow and shrug that he gave before signing to his daughter, asking the question, "What? Were you finishing the roll?" The exchanges and the critical assessment were valuable and it was insightful to get the background on his shots. One in particular fascinated me whenever I saw it - a panoramic shot of bare alders glowing in a predawn darkness as the first light of the morning hit them exclusively. I had to know how he got this shot and still assuming technical tricks in the achievement spewed a litany of possibilities. "What was the shutter speed, the aperture, the film, type... was there flash..." and so on. His daughter started signing my question to him until he sagely gathered my interrogation, put his hand on his daughter's and replied with a koanic sequence of brief gestures. Then, his daughter translated.

"He got up early."

His simple answer cloaked the reality that he actually got up early several mornings, specifically in the fall to get to that place to discover what the light could do in this spot at a particular time in November and December and return there regularly until he was there at the right time for a sunny dawn rather than a cloudy one. Having shot with him, I know that he would take what the day had given him, even if it was dimming cloud and a cold solitude that not even the coffee could fend off. When the promise of that shot was lost for the day, he would doff his cap to the place settle for the shots that he could take and return again, whether it was the next day or the next year.

Second effort at Miyajima, without the ripped negative.
He knew what he wanted and he waited and returned and set up and doffed his cap in gratitude each day and each autumn until he got that shot of those bare shimmering trees.  Without having had to put the time in I can say, as a viewer, that it was worth it. There are photographers in Japan who gather at Mount Fuji twice a year to capture the mountain's cone perfectly crowned by the sun. There are other photographers who work or live close to the equator who have to work quickly and patiently to capture a sunset during the briefer few moments that they have to work with that fading light the people beyond the tropics have a bit more time to work with. Lightning and wildlife are just two things that require the combination of commitment, patience and luck for them to be photographed successfully. In my own case, there was a sunset in Miyajima, Japan that I thought I absolutely nailed only to discover that the film in my camera, AGFA brand by the way, ripped through the negatives and scuppered my efforts on that sunset. I waited for the chance to travel the 450 km from my home to there again to try again.  It was about two years before I made my way down there and as the day came to a close I, despite my notorious desire to keep moving with the camera, set up and waited for my sunset shot.

When the opportunity to capture (or receive) your conceptions escapes you, you need to be patient and the best thing to do sometimes is to move on while that conception marinates and evolves. The cases for photographers are well-illustrated and there is a clear need to be patience for the elements or the seasons to present you with the conditions or opportunity to have in mind. With other cases, writing for instance, where the delay maybe internal, there is still that need to be patient. In the course of writing this blog, there is a post about photography that I have been trying to write about the challenges a photographer faces in the public space and I have found myself struggling with the wording and line of thought. There are times when I worry I sound like I'm advocating some sort of anarchy for in the name of art. I have held off on that post needless to say.  In the meantime I've moved on to easier veins to explore.

The same has happened with other pieces of writing. You reach a challenging passage and you take the time to work on things until you bring the perspective or experience to move things along. You don't give up, however. You work around it, proceed and, above all, remain patient.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Clickwheel Poetry - An Exercise

Other than hinting at photography whenever it strikes you and giving a nudge to write haikus, there has not been much that I have offered in terms of activity to get the juices flowing in a manner that ensures there is a safety net. If you happen to have an old-school iPod like myself, then one thing you could do is use it to generate a prompt to write poetry.

It is simply a matter if turning on random play on the device and click through songs and jot down the titles. Whether you take the titles straight up or try to rearrange them into something that pushes you to work through things a bit is entirely up to you.  Here's a first effort:

Fantasia epigraphs
Dreamland smog moon
Sober little green swimming pools
Long time gone
Radio nowhere litany
My lord, my lord
Crushed windsong
Too blue
I had a drink about you last night

I clicked through 25 tracks to pull this together, I skipped a few that did not fit with the flow of what I was putting together, I reversed the order of two titles and added an album title to separate "fantasia" and "dreamland." Ultimately though it is a first draft and it is something to play with and work through on the way to any number of exercises to play with the language see what kinds of thoughts or images the combinations evoke and to ponder the serendipity of the titles coming out in a certain order.

Here is another effort. It was more of a challenge to pull things together and find a flow that was anything other than as abstract as this appeared.  There are some interesting appearances that prompted my intervention. Even though "steel rain" appeared toward the end of my clicking efforts, I thought it would pair well with "blue skies" so I slotted it to a spot earlier in the poem than I would if I adhered more strictly to the "rules." The other decisive move was to close with "dust" which ties in with the desert reference and offers a counterpoint to the opening of "waves."

Waves
A tale begun
No redemption song
The moon is a harsh mistress
Moanin' lover's walk
First fallen angel
Run for your life
I was doing all right
steel rain
blue skies
woke up in the desert
Too soon tomorrow
I'm not from here
teenage hustling
it takes all kinds
dust

In the short term they are clearly first drafts and there may be ample reason to discard them, but they are painlessly assembled fragments that I can come back to.  With a few other efforts like this or a night's sleep on them, there might be other options for me to explore or a different perspective on what to make of them.

Whether or not you wish to lay claim to creating a poem in this way, some things are happening.  No, you aren't sweating out the creative effort or scowling in quest for the right words. You are making selections and decisions in pursuit of an undetermined final outcome.  That is pretty creative in the grand scheme of things.

You are making selections and decisions in pursuit of an undetermined final outcome.  

I skipped titles for classical tracks that included the composer's name, foreign titles (including those in script that would break the flow in English) and Sufjan Stevens titles that get a tad unwieldy. To get beyond those trivial decisions in the "writing" if you are merely putting something together to see how it turns out, you are creating.  Many pictures are taken with that motivation and the same can be said of music where adding a chord, an instrument or a non-musical sound. As you more critically examine a poem put together in this way, you are getting more familiar with the editing process, which is where the real work begins.

It is an opportunity to put words together in a way that image are put together in collage and, from a creative standpoint, the key thing is becoming familiar with the processes that you are involving yourself in, and the decisions involved in selecting, editing, molding, deleting and modifying what you are working on until it becomes something that pleases you.

To close, the next step in the polishing of the second poem that emerged:


Waves
A tale begun
No redemption song
teenage hustling
First fallen angel
I was doing all right

steel rain
The moon
Moanin' lovers walk
She is a harsh mistress
woke up in the desert
I'm not from here
Run for your life
Too soon
blue skies
dust


Friday, January 26, 2018

The Smooth, Callused Path

One of the most poignant images that I conjure for myself is that of an artist or carpenter who has, with the passage of time, been molded by their craft. The body or the hands have curled a certain way out of the ongoing daily return to the same tools, posture and vocation. With time they reach a point where they have been shaped and it would be only with great effort that their bodies can adapt to a less familiar task. A carpenter's hands repurposed over time to welcome the hammer or another tool as an extension rather than a mere tool. A bassist or guitarist curling their spines a certain way to integrate their instrument as close as possible to their body. In my own case, a callus on my left pinky from the on-going drag across the page as I have written and a small depression next to my middle finger from the pens that rested there.

In one of my favorite recordings by Harry Chapin, "Calluses," a brief interview excerpt, he speaks about the time, effort, perseverance and commitment it took for him to establish his career. His words (see left) are brief, but they speak volumes about what an artist has to be prepared to commit to. Chapin's calluses and the other ways that artists or artisans mold themselves to their work or craft of informed, inspired and prepared them for the levels of mastery that enchant us, whether we are considering a musician, a painter or anyone else who puts their time into creating daily. 

The marks that have been made on their bodies are a key part of what has made them what they are. Those marks or curves of muscle, sinew and even bone are signs of their passion for their chosen craft and for that I would pause in wonder at anybody who creates anything and has had the enviable fortune of doing it long enough for their craft to form them. Beyond that mark on the body, is the greater sense of the embodiment that you bring to the craft that you perform. You instinctively settle into or around the craft you choose to do and the body gets to know how it is done or ought to be done. With the camera, I work with students on how to hold it with their left hand gripping the lens. Henri Cartier-Bresson goes a step further and talks about the need to time the breath with the release of the shutter. Jim Henson in this video talks about how a puppeteer has to use only the hand to express the full range of emotions that actors can express with their entire body.

The pursuit of the craft gets into your bones and your routine.

The calluses, though, that thick skin is not merely a physical manifestation. There is the possibility in that metaphor of the reshaped artist's body that much more has taken place and changed. I would like to think that the mind and soul have been shaped by the commitment as well. The creative craft or pursuit smoothes out those pathways or thoroughfares that race past the inner or outer censors and keeps you at it and growing and pursuing the habits that can so invigorate you. The routines become familiar, rooted, established a part of you and they start to mold you. The skin will thicken and whatever resistance there was the so easily snag the thoughts or possibilities are eroded by the repetitions and returns to the process and steadily improving proficiencies.

That improvement is not merely the development of the technical skills required for the craft you may pursue but the internal one process as well. Flow comes more easily. The harvest of potential resources becomes frequent and bountiful with each pause in your day to look at your surroundings or to look within.  If you are keen and ready to assess what is around you for the value that it all possesses you can find more and more ways to create and with it can come a self-awareness about the things you experience and the way you carry yourself through your day.  In order for it to happen you have to mold yourself to the thing that inspires you or imparts aspiration to you. If you ignore it, the rough grain of the wood, the untrained hands and the still-rigid more binary thought processes will inhibit, snag or trip you up in the pursuit of momentum toward the thing that you wish to create, whether it is a song, a painting, a novel, a tapestry or the you within that is to be released or attained.

You just have to work at it a bit. Everyday.

Formula? Poetry!

My first exposure to formula was early and I started to bristle at it quickly. After The Tower Treasure and The House on the Cliff, I took note of the fact that the Hardy Boys series were consistently locked in at 20 chapters, about 174 to 177 pages and that Frank and Joe remained 18 and 17 years of age. There was never an explanation of their mother's absence and Chet always "chortled" rather than laughed in any other way.  I'm not sure how many of the Hardy Boys series I read but my suspicions about the series mounted and I counted the passing seasons they way I tried counting the days in Groundhog Day to try to figure out how much time actually elapsed.  "This is how many winters now and they're still... They ought to be in their 30s by now!"

Since I outgrew that series, I have had a disdain for series, especially in books though my intolerance for movie series mount as soon as the sequel talk starts. I will make a few exceptions, but the churn of sequels or ongoing series often suffer from the same things: a lack of character growth after the first iteration of the story and a formula that gets too familiar.

While storytelling boils down to only a handful of basic plots and I acknowledge that even my favorite writers resort to the same stories, or devices or tricks when they write, so much so that you could argue that they are trying to tell the same story, I get my back up when the author is making no effort to disguise that or to distinguish one book from the others. Whether writing or reading, it is the freshness of the voice and the variations that are brought to that limited range of plots that draw me in. A reliance on formula is a variation on mailing it in and it does not give you the opportunity to explore what you have to say.

While I will admit allowing a certain degree of awe at the sheer volume of production that comes from the authors who are most reliant upon formula, I have my suspicions too about how they pull it off at the rate that they do but aside from that I remain hungry for unique, original voices that occasionally veer toward the unabashedly quirky. With my own writing, it is only when I have a sense fo the voice that I want to use or hear when I write that I can proceed effectively. If the voice does not sound like mine or the one I aspire to, I am stuck.

It is the original voice that jumps out. They may not necessarily have the mass appeal of the formulaic, but they certainly provide insight into our experience that the same-old same-old does not possess. In film, it is Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry who so blew me away with The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that I told myself I was getting it on DVD before I finished my popcorn in the cinema. In music, there are countless individuals I could cite. Manfred Eicher, who came up with the unlikely but utterly compelling combination of a jazz saxophonist, a classical vocal ensemble and a parcel of 14th century hymns to see what would happen.  In literature, whether it is Haruki Murakami's turns into the supernatural, Jess Walter's deft humour, or Richard Powers familiar architecture in his assemblies of past, present, science and art in a single novel that stimulate me as a reader, listener or viewer.

The escape from or the rebellion against the formula is the ideal to pursue. The notion of what ought to be or how something should start, look or finish is only going to handcuff you and make the work that you do tedious and forced. Start where you are at, with the things that inspire you and motivate you to tell a start, paint, draw or communicate and you will invest parts of your self in the project that will enliven it and make it sing. It may not make you rich but in the world that we are in how many people have a chance to get truly rich (in terms of tangible dollars, during their lifetimes) on the things that they create. There is the beauty of the experience and the pursuit and the growth that comes from the creative endeavour that will be plenty of value. In my own case, I know of the extra jolt of energy that I have when I have finished a decent piece of writing or had a good couple of hours with the camera.

In the short run, and beyond, you should be striving for that buzz that you find from doing this well and discovering new things, whether about yourself, your craft or the things and people you connect deeply to.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

"What If...?" - Exploiting Your Curiosity

My imagination has not been my most reliable companion in my creative process. When my son suggests I build something out of Lego using my imagination, I am paralyzed. Perhaps I am immediately boxed in by my insistence that it be of a single colour or be of a certain caliber or quality. A random assembly of nearest pieces into an abstract form would probably not exercise my creative expression. it might give me an entry into the construction, much as I need to write my way into a piece of writing, but I have my reservations about that possibility. Perhaps I’m just too adult or rule-bound when given that opportunity.

The imagination does its best work when generating doomsday scenarios for things that would go wrong if I were to pursue the creative process or do anything else that involves an action that nudges me away from the safe, bubble-wrapped and disinfected end of the continuum of risk. While it is dormant on occasions when I most want to summon it, the imagination finds its gear when throwing out scenarios of what could go wrong if I did something. (Bastard!)

My curiosity, however, has been a much more reliable and valuable resource for my creativity. Stories have come together out of “what if” questions, photographs have sprung from the questions, “How would that look?”, “How little can I put in a picture and keep it interesting?” or “What might I make of this shot that I blur, overexposed or radically edit?” The experiments (and my successful efforts) in making something of a sow’s ear of a shot have expanded my range of expression.


Curiosity has served me in other areas as well. I try to extend practices or analogies to new territory where they may not intuitively apply. Many of the reflections I have come up with on the topic of creativity have come from the differences between photography and others ways of expression. In her brilliant, brilliant book If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland talks about how painters work from memory. The thought prompted me to consider whether or not photographers work from memory and I came to the conclusion that they don't and shouldn't. When painters work from memory they give themselves a structure to work with. Photographers may work from a similar structure that is recalled from memory, but if they work entirely from memory they may not see their subjects for what they really are and risk taking pictures that lack the freshness of vision that will result in compelling images. I willing to lose an argument on this, but by looking into the question I posed myself I feel I have fleshed out the conditions by which I photograph and stay open to new opportunities.

When I'm out with the camera, my curiosity has involved me in happily getting "lost" in Prague, Reykjavik or San Francisco examining doorways or details of the humble residential architecture rather than taking in the sights from the top of a double-decker bus. My meanderings have satisfied my desire for a closer look at the everyday life of the people who live there rather than making the place a backdrop for an interregnum of landmark distraction that reinforces the stereotypes of a destination. It is a curiosity that has lead me from an article on tips for good PowerPoint presentations into a broader aesthetic that I have applied to more and more of what I see and respond to in my surroundings.

During my travels abroad, I have made a point of coming to my own conclusions and completing my own assessments or investigations of what I am surrounded by rather than accepting the school of thought handed to me. When I have been teaching and living in the Canadian Arctic or in Japan, I found myself easily adopting a sociological consideration of the people I was living among and the mores of those societies. Given the abundance of space in the Arctic and the dearth of it in Japan, that frame informed much of what I perceived about the way people lived and interacted rather than assess them based on the differences between their cultures and mine. It was a creative impulse and an act of curious, respectful contemplation that provided the guide that allowed me to interact in a way that enlightened me rather than intimidated me.

The range of questions is endless, but any variation on "Why is it like that?" is a great launchpad for getting at the heart of something and make a discovery, whether bang on or comically crackpot, can feed the creative fire. Pause, ponder, and pose the question about your surroundings or your thoughts and see what you uncover in the process. Maintaining an engaged and active curiosity will continue to furnish you with material that you can work from and new approaches that can invigorate your work.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Finding Your Eye

I have found myself struggling with this post for some very basic reasons. The "entry" into the topic to not avail as easily as I would have hoped or expected. The routines and options that have been available on other days, just did not open and the simple things like starting the post on my phone proved stagnant and frustrating. Words and thoughts did not come or articulate as easily as I would have liked. Part of it may have been that I was trying to recall my opening sentences and follow up on it but my flow was unavailable. In this instance I am not even talking about the high performance level of flow but just getting the connection between thought and vocabulary to align.  I really just wanted to say "here" and have the thought form without the mediation and molding that I had to provide as the writer.  Here, without further ado is what ultimately came together...

When teaching photography, one of the messages I try hardest to deliver relates to the opportunity to find your own way of perceiving your surrounding and photographing them, rather than conforming to a common way of expressing the ideal image of a particular subject. I cite the Eiffel Tower or nearby Lake Louise or Moraine Lake as visual icons that seem to dictate a limited range of photographic expression but at the same time have an almost Pavlovian command that you stop at a certain spot to take a certain picture. The post cards, photo books, framed art, posters, T-shirts and, in the case of Moraine Lake, currency which has been branded with their images poses a limited definition of what can be expected when you photograph these places. Eiffel Tower, I admit I have not seen it, may offer more flexibility to photographers by virtual of the challenge of getting it into the frame when you stand at the foot of it, but there is the same chance that it stifles the imagination slightly.

The problem with taking images of icons is that you are committing yourself to a collective perception of the world rather than finding your own way of looking at things. Furthermore, there is the task of measuring up to images taken by professional photographers who have the time the equipment and experience to take a photograph that will surpass yours. The goal ought to be to develop your way of looking at the world and sharing your point of view as articulately as possible. Going after the technical challenge will only frustrate you with a less-than-glowing assessment of what you can do. Sadly, the thing lost in that pursuit is the simple message I hope photographers in my classes get.

Your way of seeing the world can be a unique and powerful thing. When you are able to capture and share how that vision appears in an image that has come through your camera, it will be unrivaled.

It is still a challenge to manage that, but you can make progress toward it if you are attentive.  I am conscious of the times when I am not "digging deep" with the camera and I am not seeing as much as I would hope to see. I usually start with a pursuit of colour or texture when I am working and if I do not get into the right flow with the camera, then I come away with decent vibrant pictures but I can be a little less compelling than I would have liked.  To reiterate the need to perceive the world in your way and find success or satisfaction as a photographer or in any creative exercise you have to start with an aspiration to a unique way of communicating, creating or seeing. Developing the technical skills is valuable but if you apply them to imitation or refrain from the deep dive to communicate on your own behalf, your personal growth as an individual or as a creative will remain postponed.

When you get to a point where you are taking pictures for yourself rather than for your collection, the benefits will be significant. A few years ago during a presentation he was giving here in Calgary, Freeman Patterson said, "All photography is autobiographical." I might amend that to add a proviso about the depth or originality of the photography one is doing, but I say that fully aware that it could be a reflection of my abilities as a teacher or assessor of photography. Patterson could be better equipped to identify and interpret the limitations or the mindset of a photographer or he might sagely pose the questions required to unlock the motivations that prompted a particular image. Patterson, during the presentation I am citing, acknowledged that he was trying to work something out and that his frame of mind was drawing him to certain techniques, compositions or subjects.

In my experience I can go back through the images that I took and see two significant periods where I was shooting a certain way. In the late 1990s for instances there was an extensive period where I was doing a lot of pictures of water and reflections in particular. A lot of images of ponds and shallow brooks with layers of detail and of course the reflections for me to focus upon.  I know that part of this was a technical thing I was working out - basically the task of figuring out what I could see when I was focusing on the surface or below it. Various focal points and depths of fields altered a shot dramatically and it was easy to remain locked in a certain spot for different shots of the water as it transformed. From a life perspective there was a desire to reflect and to look more deeply at things. I was just entering my early 30's and I had spent the bulk of the decade at a minority white male and determining what privilege I still had. I was regularly renegotiating expectations that I had or that were placed upon me by virtue of my appearance. Whether it was merely the assumption that I was American (rather than Canadian), the gradual realization of the expectations people had of me as a stereotypical outsider or the odd privilege I had as a speaker of the lingua franca to travel the way I did to teach my language.  The whole aspect of reflecting or looking deeply at things for a clearer view of things was going on and it is interesting to see how it manifested itself in my photography at that time.

Over the last decade or so, there has been an emphasis on minimalism. That quest for minimalism may have always been a part of my photography, but with maturity it has become more pronounced. My shots are coming from urban environments for the most part. Over the last few years though there have also been more shots of the sky to mark the day and perhaps express some optimism.  The minimalism in the images maybe a sign of a quest for simplicity or a clarity different from that I sought in the ponds and brooks I frequented twenty years ago.

Nonetheless, the pursuit of your unique vision and taking the time to reflect carefully on what draws you to the subjects you photograph can be revealing. Take the time to look at your images and ask your self about what you see and why you took that picture. You will recall the situation you were in when you took the shot and have a sense of what decisions you made and what possibilities were available when you took the shot you did with a particular image.  Such a consideration of a single shot or a group of images can to reflect on what you might be trying to work through or motivated by at a certain point in your life can be quite valuable and illuminating.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Approval and Arrogance

In the pursuit of creativity, where does approval fit in? In the grand scheme of things it may not take very much disapproval to stop you in your tracks. I can recall occasions where a perceived disapproval alone would be enough to mute me. To this day, despite my own approval of my writing I rarely share it outside the confines of what I post publicly on a blog, which is ephemeral enough for me to edit if there is more to add or a typo to take down a dark alley and eliminate.

Occasionally there are calls for me to take my turn and share something, but in those instances there is an impulse to give something one more polish and even then there remains the temptation to stand over someone's shoulder and give them a rundown of rationalizations or to-do items that might  raise a reader's eye brow as they go through it. I have not, of course, made a regular habit of that. Once cloning comes down to a reasonable price-point I may start sharing the idling, to-be-edited tomes that sit on my hard-drive, and insist that a clone of me accompany the book and to assure the reader that it is still a work in progress and that it will come together with the next draft.

I am not sure about my anxiety about getting my stuff out there and circulated. Perhaps it is a matter of the larger scale publishers and agencies that guard the gates impose to esoteric a secret handshake to let me past. With one book I self published, I began my efforts to communicate with agents and publishers in 1993 and after a series of "we're too bigs" or "we're too smalls" or "you're too narrow a topic" and a really close call that included a careful reading of the manuscript and a suggestion to keep at it and try a few publishers they suggested I went for it. I still aspire to the validation and perhaps the rites of passage that would accompany publication by a bonafide, but I'll pursue that when I feel a piece is ready.

The confidence or arrogance to do fend off questions like, "What do you know about this?" or "Can you do it any better than anybody else?" is at a premium when you are creating something and there might even be a brilliant, undercutting comment from your inner censor about what kind of ego-maniac you happen to be or will definitely become if you get the stage or venue to flaunt your work and dupe an audience into approving your work that falls short of your standards. If you aren't into it for that, then maybe that little voice would accuse yourself of being narcissistic, self-indulgent or another name along those lines. Ideally you can work around this issue with confidence by regarding your creative work as an exploration or practice of a skill rather than a final product.

Still, approval is a significant carrot when you are creating. While one might aspire to a certain degree of self-sufficiency while in the workshop, office or that tiny bistro table in your cafe of choice, there is a need to get some external feedback, affirmation or validation.  It is nice to know that you are not wasting your time and get some constructive insight to work on specific areas and shore them up. I recall a small bit of satisfaction when I was told that my images looked like postcards. I bristle slightly at the comment now, but it was still positive feedback. With my writing, teaching and other endeavours, I have been thrilled to receive compliments, especially when they are informed.

That need for praise and approval seems incoherent with the arrogance that you may require to get past your inner censor and persevere en route to a creative goal you may have. It will nourish that desire to keep at it and perhaps even let your guard down in the face of the perfectionism that is ultimately a trap for anyone aspiring to create something for anyone other than yourself or anything that aspires to bring beauty or insight to a potential audience. Finding a comfortable way to ignore that inner critic while remaining open to feedback can be a tricky balance to strike. Achieving both will ensure that you continue to work at your craft and integrate the feedback that would help it evolve;

Monday, January 22, 2018

Get It Out

The ideas, possibilities and tinier nubs of notions that come through your mind are among the countless signs that things are coming together, that the creative juices are flowing and that you have the potential to write, draw or make something. Whatever it is that you are brimming with, it is not going to have a long life in your head, no matter how reliable your memory is. 

Things will slip away. Wording that was so compelling when it first came to you will vanish. Hooks of music that you bob your head to will go off key or contract to a pair of notes that don't propel you into melody that you masterfully pulled together. Relying on your memory will ultimately leave your secret to unlocking the mysteries of the universe unspoken and unoffered. 

Those possibilities are familiar to anyone who has had a great idea and had it sneak away while they were not looking. It is not like misplacing your keys and retracing your movements back to where you left them. The hard thing to recreate is the set of conditions that prompted or supported that flash of possibility and it is hard to recapture that. The notepad on the bedside table is the typical answer to this. We are not always able to jot things down at our leisure and our inner-censor might be conscious of a certain diva-ish insistence that you stop, grab the nearest piece of paper at hand -- napkin anyone? -- and dash the idea off for yourself regardless of how incomprehensible it is for everybody else. Our phones are increasingly handy for that, whether you want to photograph, type, record a voice memo or whatever else your phone allows you to put into it.

Get it out. Don't wait. Yes, I'm a hypocrite. Do as I say and not as I do. I know. I'll get to it next time. Really. Really really. (I'm getting better, though.)

The big ideas, those for an entire story that you have the broad strokes for. There is a chance that you will hang on to that. It would take a lot for me to have a story about three midlife guys who deal with the challenges of their lives in separate ways won't sneak away from me.

The stuff that gets away from you are the nuanced observations about your surroundings, the delicate combination of words that has set your thoughts on a certain path for a few moments as you ruminate about a detail that adds a realism where you want it. At the moment, the texture of a page as the sunlight glows through it and the suspended motes of dust that catch the light above it come to mind as a tactile sensation that comes to mind. There are occasions when subversions of cliches or collocations come to mind.  For example, I wonder what could be meant or played with if I substituted "impractically" in place of "practically" in the various phrases we make along the lines of "they're practically brother and sister." Another play with the language offered the phrase "rote yearning" for me to play with. There is hay to be made in playing with the language in one way or another. There are so many moments that you can pick up, turn over and examine during your day and letting those ideas go unaccounted for is heedless if you aspire to create.

Downloading those ideas from your head to a piece of paper is an opportunity to preserve them in amber for a while and not only ensure that they are archived, but also to give you a perspective from which you can look back on them. In the instance where you hang on to one of those small ideas and cultivate it in your head from that moment of inception there is the interesting before and after comparison that can be made. Those discoveries might merely be trivial, however.

The biggest advantage of that download -- whether to your phone, a notebook or an array of post-its -- is that they have a chance to become an extension of yourself. That artifact that is available for you to examine, reflect upon and build into something else. There is the possibility of grafting it into a larger project, but the opportunity to go down the rabbit hole that a sketch or phrase leads you into can be quite illuminating. A brief look through a cluster of phrases that I have managed - despite myself - to jot down and file away, one phrase that stands out as a prompt is "dispensations of sanitizer" which probably came to mind during a visit to a fitness centre for a workout. One many occasions when I have gone to a gym to exercise I find myself pondering the reliance on this particular space and its array of varied machines to exercise us in one way or another and the monotony we push ourselves through to achieve whatever goal we are pursuing. I might have had plans for writing such a passage about the weirdness of those particular rituals and whether or not they are adequate or worthwhile in comparison to what people just did a hundred years ago rather than did for exercise. There are several directions I could go with the topic of fitness centres or merely those two words by themselves, but I don't quite have the burning urge to do that right now.  I have also come across the phrase "subjectless photograph" and I would probably be rewarded in reflecting on that for a while.

Getting it out and making that idea an actual artifact that you can look back upon without the threat of them disappearing from your thoughts or morphing into something you did not anticipate. Just as valuable is the opportunity to reflect on those flashes and see what you can make of them during an internal journey to get to the heart of what prompts and inspires you. Examining ideas that come to you can be a valuable examination of what is catching your attention and how you interpret it. That reflection can reveal a great deal about the way you think. Acknowledging that creative impulse and working through it is just as much about self-discovery as production so the reflections that you might find yourself in the midst of can be quite revealing and productive.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Mighty Haiku

The haiku has been a reliable way to express myself and, more importantly, to sneak in a regular exercise of the creative muscles. I first wrote haiku, as most of us have, in grade four and I do recall deliberately departing from the format of the poem at that age to write three-line poems that did not follow the syllable scheme. The first lurkings of creative wandering...

In the last few years I have occasionally dashed one off if something caught my eye, but last spring I took it up on a serious level after a period of time when I felt I was not connecting with people or my surroundings in the way I thought I was capable of or aspired to.  Recognizing that the lack of connection was impacting me, I made a point of writing at least one haiku a day for for the better part of about 5 months. I would pull out my cell phone and tap out the poem, post it to Facebook and pocket the phone, often during my walk to work or while riding the train. I gradually restored my sense of connection with my surroundings as I sought subject matter that could inspire me. There were days when I wrote about children I saw on the train, moments with my son, the skies, occasionally my frustrations or whatever else I chose to work with.

This morning another came to mind.

Magpies' cackle-caw
At times harsh, now signals the
coming, unseen dawn

There were times when I wanted to break out of the scheme and structure of the form but I adhered to it, with the exception of a day or two when I shifted from a 5-7-5 scheme to a 6-5-6 to see what I could do with that. The limitations were normally quite welcome and they added to the challenge and forced the forethought required to make better poetry or force the effort that made me more attached to the work I was doing and the completed poem. In keeping with the conventions of the haiku, I regularly sought to comment on the season as well.  This was not a requirement. There were several times when I was tempted to write more and go beyond the glimpse of the poem's narrow scope, but I never did. I settled on the precision of the haiku's focus and the gaps that invited the imagination to fill or the range of interpretations that might come from that scant glimpse. There was little pressure to come up with the imagery and insight that a longer poem might insist upon and the brevity of the haiku might just fend off some of the mawkishness that might seep into longer poems. You have the opportunity to test the limits of the language as well in ways that might get lost in longer pieces of writing.

The appeal of the haiku, and what would make me recommend it as a starting point to excavating dormant creativity is the portability and the low-risk it presents. I picked it up as seriously as I did in 2017 because of the lightness of the form. It is small, quick, the stakes are low and there is less chance of paralysis brought on by decision-making. Once you have the image that prompts you to start, there are only a few words left to come up to round out the poem to its full "length." Compared to a photograph, I'd argue that there are fewer decisions than you would make from behind the camera. You are able to capture the essence of what you see without having to maneuver around distractions like telephone wires or such.

One thing that would encourage you to write haikus is that they are so small and virtually evanescent.  There are longer to-do lists or shopping lists but there is less exposure of ego or self in such a neatly and clearly defined snap-shot of a moment in time. I believe the delicacy of the form makes it a more inviting and egalitarian form of art. There may be some award somewhere for haiku, but my hope is that the gathering is not a black tie affair/ with ego elbows sharpened/ for mountain-king boasts. If there was a gathering of haiku writers to recognize one another, they would all support and acknowledge one another's good work rather than pontificating about a single contemporary paradigm of what the haiku ought to be. In my imagination, the gathering would be of creative people greeting one another with mutual respect and a huge capacity to recognize one another's unique vision as it is fully realized. Perhaps this is a fantasy on my part. I believe, though, that the risk-reward balance with a haiku is the ideal when compared to most other forms of creativity, with doodling away the tedium of a two-hour meeting also high on the reward side. (There is the risk of your distracted doodling being exposed by the terse inquiry, "Ojibowski, what are your thoughts on our decline in widget sales in the 3rd quarter?!")

If a haiku stumps you, there is plenty of flexibility to edit your way out of the dead end you have arrived at. If you finish it and you don't like it, you have the option of reading it through one more time to see how it is mellowing with time or move on and write another one. If you worked through a page to jot down 7 or 8 haikus in succession, you would easily see progress and improvement. Another advantage with the haiku is that there is little to no threat of the blank page.  Even if you only have a few words, you have momentum and it is just a matter of taking that opening and complementing it with a finishing touch. You're not going to sweat through the last two or three words. At worst, you'll count syllables off the way Inigo Montoya counted off Prince Humperdink's guards at the castle gate.

What drew me back to writing haiku was the need to connect. Over the period that I wrote most regularly I was restoring my consciousness of the details of my surroundings as I walked, whether the route was familiar or completely unknown. I was in better tune with my surroundings and I was once again as observant as I expect myself to be. With the haiku above, I was lying on the sofa with my son reading a book with my back to the window and the sound of the magpie was as warm and bright ... (yes, a magpie) as the dawn that was out of view. Without that light or a sneaky glance at the clock, I was able to tell that night's curtain had been pulled back from the day. In a less attentive state, it would be quite possible for me to ignore that call, let alone know what it means.

Tapping that vein of creativity or connection, whether by haiku or any other means, extends your senses at a time when technology, news and the bafflegab of most people on television seem to close us off.  Pursuing it, in even the smallest of ways, will stir the senses and give you a source of life or passion that will rival air and water.

Friday, January 19, 2018

17 Syllables or 1000 Words?

Let me begin with this... 

Dancing shards of ice
Sway and shrink or cling and clink.
Lake shrugs off winter


Given the seventeen syllables of the haiku or the proverbial thousand words of the pictures, the poem does more to evoke what I was trying to photograph in Lake Louise in May 2009. On a visit to the lake, I was entranced by the patina on the surface of the lake as the ice was succumbing to spring. It had broken up essentially but there was still plenty of ice on the surface. What was left of it resembled needles about 2 1/2 to 3 inches long and I was blissed out by the sight of this ice as it swayed on the waters surface, tightly packed together and sliding around against each other as the water moved beneath. I was watching a small scale version of a geological dance of tectonic plates and I was conscious that this sight was a brief passing one that would only last a few days. I also suspected that possibility that it did not happen every year.

No matter how much I photographed with my still camera, I was dissatisfied with the results. It is only with the haiku above, written nearly nine years after the experience, that have captured the experience to my satisfaction and communicated what I saw clearly. A video might have done the job that the still camera did not do, but the poem communicates my experience while the video may merely outsource it.

This is just one instance of many where what you want to communicate may need to be adapt to a different medium from the one you are most reliant upon. This may be one reason why we write love poetry rather than resort to another way of creating something that expresses ourselves. There may be other ways of expressing it, but for those with few creative means of expression that is the first go-to they resort to when kisses and hugs do not express the equivalent of what one needs to express. 

One thing that prompts creativity is the desire to find the way to express something as accurately as possible. If it is something that you are compelled to express, you may be haunted or teased by that until it comes out. The haiku above may relieve me of the frustration that has nagged at me since I saw the ice dance the way it did but could not capture it with the camera. There is clearly more satisfaction with the poem than the pictures, but another visit to a lake in the spring to try to capture it again might suffice as well. For now, this will do.

There are times when ideal comes to me and I get a feeling that it is better suited to a poem than to a novel, a distinction that can be quite obvious when you are prompted to write in reaction to something. I doubt I would come up with a novel about that melting ice and furthermore I doubt I would be as satisfied with the return on the time I might invest in that. When I read books to my son, I'm occasionally astounded by how apt the cadences of kid lit are appropriate for a message I need to hear, but don't want to tolerate being delivered from a podium by a purported guru.

There are ideas that we have that need to be expressed and styling for the rudimentary methods we have at our immediate disposal would not always satisfy. We have a constant reliance on metaphor and other figures of speech to express ourselves and if we are unable to capture the gist of what we are trying to say, we can be haunted by that gap between the idea that has formed within and the idea that comes out. Trying to speak about things that are most nuanced or complex without the access to a... no no, the metaphor we need can daunt us and perhaps silence us as well.

Developing a wider range of metaphors, whether linguistic or created through other media, gives us the opportunity to unearth more of the ideas that we are inhabited by and communicate as eloquently as possible. The inability or refusal to tap into our creative urge limits our potential to connect with others, and our very core. Ultimately, it can haunt us if rely too much on a limited range of ways to express or explore ourselves. If my encounter with that icebreak nine years ago still lingers in my thoughts, it may be due to a belief that I could still photograph something equivalent to the experience with a slight change of angle. This, however, is a minor conflict that has been bedded for the time being by poetry. Certainly there are more significant ideas that need to be examined and communicated and those challenges my require all of the resources you have or the development of new ones. The things that you need to express may require metaphor, poetry, music, colour, and passion to flesh out in a manner equivalent to what you want to express. Limiting yourself to a narrow range of communicative options limits your horizons and mutes your intuition or perception.


In his book Drawing Your Own Path, John F. Simon, Jr. says, “If the idea was the art, a constant dilemma for conceptual artists was how to transmit their ideas to others. Ideas had to be spoken, written or made into an object if they were to be experienced, appreciated or understood.” Your ideas, or experiences need the right way to be expressed. You may be looking for the right avenue to do this but you may need the technical skills to identify those possible avenues or to best exploit the avenues familiar to you. Think of the frustration that comes when the right words elude and the silence you may opt for and the lost moment because they timing will not be as ideal as it is during the moment you are muted. Practice in a variety of modes of expression is invaluable and developing the skill to express the right thing in the right medium is an invaluable skill to develop.  Maybe, just maybe, there is a piece of love pottery waiting for you to mold it. You might think I'm joking or making the best I can of a typo, but I believe that someone is capable of expressing love eloquently and meaningfully with a piece of pottery.

While John Simon's notion of ideas needing to be made into an expression to be, as he puts it, "experienced, appreciated or understood" suggests some urgency about being creative and offers a promise of what can happen if you develop your ability in various forms of creative expression.  Whiel some pei dog you as ideas, experiences or feelings that remain encased within, waiting for you to find the right means of expressing them. You have to delve within and beyond for the wider range of media and metaphors to express, expand, explore and experience. Pursue that muse or the mode and see how your bandwidth for expressing yourself grows to your benefit and to the people you want to reach out to.