Were it not for the massive stones of the breakwater that cuts into the ocean for fully one mile before ending at a lighthouse that guards the entrance to the harbor of Rockland, Maine, you’d feel like you were walking on water as you make your way across it. At sunrise and sunset, you’re surrounded on all sides by aqueous color, unless there’s fog and then you can hardly see. Then, as you walk the stones out into the sea, there comes a point when you can’t see where you’ve come from or where you’re going to. It’s disorienting – and magical. You could be anywhere. You could be nowhere. You could end up in either place.
Sometimes the less you can see, the more interesting it becomes. Then, imagination takes over. It’s clinically proven that when people are subjected to minimal sensory input (such as floating in an isolation chamber) for long periods of time, they begin hallucinating – the inside comes out. Creatives often ask how they can leave room for the viewer, encouraging interactivity and participation, rather than spelling it all out, breeding passivity and detachment, knowing that doing so often creates more powerful and personal experiences for them. There is such a thing as ‘too much’. You want to give people enough to enchant them, but not enough to dispel the magic. This leads to the question, “How much room can you leave for the viewer without losing your message?”
Simplicity works for so many reasons. With fewer elements in play attention is concentrated on what remains. There’s more is riding on what’s left. There are no distractions. Ordinarily, this leaves fewer doubts as to what to focus on. Here, in this image, as there is only vapor and water and the suggestion of a horizon, what is taken for granted and often goes unseen comes forward – light and how it fills the air. Strip things down far enough and you can see what ordinarily is invisible.
This image takes my impulse to strip things down to their essentials to its extreme. It presents an experience of space and light, simultaneously empty and full, that is profoundly simple but not simplistic. It asks more questions than it answers. It takes questions like, “How much can you do with how little?” and “How distilled can you make an experience?” and goes further to “How little does it take to make a representational image?” and “What are the foundations for our understanding of reality?” A chain reaction is started and more questions arise.
In so many ways, not just because of the frames they put on the world, images are always leaving things out. They work best when they do this with purpose. They work best when they leave only the essentials and leave out the rest. Sometimes, more can be said with less. Sometimes some things can only be said with less.
When is more less?
When is less more?
How can you do the most with the least?
When does simple become simplistic?
One sunny day at Long Pond in Acadia National Park, Maine I became fascinated by the patterns of light in water I saw in my viewfinder. Suddenly, the patterns were disrupted. I looked up and saw the source of the disturbance. My dogs had gone swimming in my picture. But I soon found that the new patterns they made were much more interesting. I decided to go with the flow. Instead of calling them back to the shore, I threw sticks into the water for them, simultaneously playing and photographing for the better part of an hour.
When I got my film back (Yes, this image was made during the transition from the ‘good old days’ to these ‘strange days’.) I was surprised once again by how complex and varied patterns of light can be. These patterns became more pronounced when symmetry, almost mandala-like, was created. Creating symmetry from these patterns wasn’t a move I had planned to make at the time of exposure. There are many times when I make images when I’m not certain that they will work out or where they are going, trusting that something will come of them. It’s surprising that things work out as often as they do.
The natural color palette of these images wasn’t all that attractive. I first explored removing the hue, trying black and white. Then I changed hue. I went too far. Or so I thought. The strong abstract patterns were able to support dramatic color changes. I went with the flow, enjoying color in a way I never had before. It took some time to run out of steam. Some flows are stronger than others. Was it gone? Was that it? Where was the limit? I systematically tried many variations. Shifting gears and being more analytic than emotive, through a series of studies I discovered that the images that worked best contained no posterization, preserving three-dimensionality, and used two dominant colors with warm and cool variations of each, stretched just short of the point where they became other colors. With this information, I was able to resolve many more images. I extended the momentum of the flow.
I was surprised by how much material I had to work with. Initially, I hoped to find one image; now, I found that I had enough material for an entire series. What’s more, the idea could be extended to many other situations in the future; it had legs.
You might say, things didn’t go according to plan – and I was very glad they didn’t. It might be more accurate to say that the plan evolved along the way, as the best plans do.
To go with the flow you have to tune in. You can’t go with the flow if you’re unaware of what’s happening or that it’s happening. Going with the flow is something that you can prepare for. You can learn to be more aware. You can learn to be aware in many ways. You can develop a taste for flow and know when it’s about to happen. You can make flow more likely to happen by seeking out or creating situations that are super-charged. You can engineer flow – by preparing yourself (and your collaborators) as well as your environment. Flow is a mindset.
The Greek philosopher scientist Heraclitus said, “You can never step in the same river twice.” Sieze the moment. Go with the flow.
What happens when you go with the flow?
What happens when you stay the course?
What happens when you modify a plan based on new information?
When is it better to go with the flow?
When is it better to stay the course?
When is it better to modify a plan based on new information?
Can you return to your original plan later?
Sometimes those little extra touches make all the difference in the world.
On my first voyage to Antarctica, I was thunderstruck by its immensity. The vast untouched silent spaces were overwhelming. It was a supreme challenge to suggest this sense of scale in the comparatively small images I was producing. This was even more challenging in an environment without human figures or man-made objects.
One of the ways I approached this challenge was to make images filled mostly with space and populated by tiny objects. You can create a powerful sense of scale if you can present large things as being tiny without creating a sense of distortion at the same time.
Some objects bring magic with them. Include the sun, moon, or evening star and you’ve added a magic moment. The bigger you make them, the stronger the magic moment becomes, but no matter how small it’s always magic. Did you ever notice how when a tiny figure is included in an immense landscape picture that the images becomes about the person? I’m always amazed at how something that occupies 1% of the total image’s area can make such a difference.
I marvel at how we overlook the dramatic distortions inherent in making small images of very large things, like mountains. On the one hand, this strikes me as funny, in both senses of the word – comical and strange. On the other hand, this is magical; you can hold the earth in your hands. Suspension of disbelief is responsible for much of the magic of looking at realistic images.
Initially, this image was made without the moon, which was added later. The moon makes this image stronger in many ways, taking it up a notch. The moon also changes the nature of this photography. Without the moon, this image can be seen as a literal, historical document. With the moon, this image becomes an aesthetic object with a heightened emotional emphasis; a poem rather than a piece of non-fiction. While both versions hold up, I prefer the version with the moon. I choose which version to show based on what’s appropriate for a given use. For instance, I show the version without the moon in my editorial body of work Antarctica. The same means are not appropriate for all situations.
What small things could you include to make a big difference?
Which small things make the biggest difference?
Does how you include them increase or decrease the contributions they make?
Is their inclusion appropriate for what you are trying to accomplish?
The motivation for the creation of the first image in the series Reflection was to suggest a state of unusual calm by showing clear reflections in waters so calm not a single ripple or distortion could be found. As the body of work developed, a clear progression in the character of what was reflected revealed itself – from calming, to clearing, to illumination. Initially, I appreciated the first images for their calmness. Later, works began to contain a remarkable simplicity. In time, the photographs became so simple that the pure spaces they described began to reveal how charged with light they were. Finally, at first only in the byproducts they produced in their environments, the sources of light began to reveal themselves. Throughout this progression a growing intensity builds as the gaze is focused more directly and deeply into the source of illumination. Reflection XVIII represents an important culmination in the development of this body of work. And an important realization. I was surprised that a thing so simple could have such strength and depth.
In my work sky and water become metaphors for states of mind. Many religious traditions use bodies of water and weather as metaphors for states of mind. Throughout the ages, the world over, skies and water have been used in ritual practices to intuitively reveal what often goes unacknowledged by the conventional mind. If you watch water and sky closely, you’ll understand why. As water grows still, it becomes clearer so you can see more deeply into it and its surface becomes calmer so reflections reveal more fully what’s above it. When the sky clears you can better see the light in it and as color fades you can better see the lights behind it. In these states, it’s not clear where one thing begins and another ends. They become calmer, clearer, deeper, fuller, and more connected.
This progression in character happened inside me as well as in the work, perhaps from years of meditation, perhaps from doing the work. It’s rewarding to consider how our inner states are reflected in the things we are attracted to, that we surround ourselves with, and that we create.
How much can you do with how little?
When is less more?
When is more less?
At what point is it too much?
At what point is it too little?
I knew instantly that something new had happened when I saw Budh appear on screen. A clear outline had been introduced to the symmetries I was creating, which were previously unbounded, changing planes into volumes. While many of my images have qualities similar to environmental sculpture, this image and the series of images that it started create sculptural forms made from the environment. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a whole new series. I was working on another series when this happened. This could be a distraction or a breakthrough. So I was faced with an important decision to make, stay the course and finish what I had started, based on previous successes, or pursue a new direction, one I didn’t fully understand but might lead to new successes. Which would be the most rewarding course of action?
I walked away. I weighed my options. Though it might take some time, I could return to the other series later. This new work was unexpectedly fresh and exciting. I had a feeling that if I ignored this call I would not have been able to return to it later with the same intensity. I gave the decision some time. I slept on it. The excitement hadn’t faded. The mystery was still there. So I trusted my instincts. I moved forward and made new images. I continued to hold the question of how long to pursue this line of inquiry, until I had enough repeated successes to know it had legs. After six successes following similar lines, I knew I had made the right choice.
What I didn’t know then is that doing this new work would help me better understand the work I was developing; and much of the work I had already done; and the reason I work at all. Doing this work clarified ways of thinking and feeling that are essential to what I do and why I do it.
The landscape this image was drawn from had a presence. The symmetry more strongly suggested a presence – a living presence, perhaps one with a unique kind of consciousness. Many people see this image and feel as if the landscape is looking back at them – I do too. The working title for this piece Unseen Watcher lead to the final title Budh, the root of the word buddha, which means awake. Treating all of nature as something that is alive is my basic impulse and perhaps primary message of my life’s work. The sacred mindset this attitude brings with it increased awareness of, respect for, gratitude about, and wonder by being a part of it all.
It happens to me time and time again. I find that if I’m open to surprises and trust the process, I discover new things – properly guided, important new things. This is part of what it takes to move beyond conventional thinking and uncover new things about the world around us and as yet unclaimed inner resources.
One of the things I hear repeatedly from other artists is that the work that surprises them most is often the work that satisfies them most and the work that is most highly celebrated. The French writer Andre Gide remarked, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” The creative process is a process of discovery. You can’t have discovery without the element of surprise. As a defense mechanism we often resist surprise and try to reduce the number of times we are surprised; some surprises can be both unpleasant and unfortunate. Instead, we need to embrace surprise – and the changes it can bring. Surprises can be magical and transformative.
When is it best to pursue a new direction?
When is it best to stay with your current plan?
What can you do to evaluate the merits of both old and new directions to help you make the best choice?
February 15, 2013 | Leave a Comment
You may have heard the phrase, “You’re responsible for everything that’s included within the frame of your images.” Few stop to consider that this also means, “You’re responsible for everything that’s not included within the frame of your images.” We can eliminate objects in the frame in many ways – moving the frame, moving objects, and retouching are the three most common and progressively make pre-visualization more challenging. All three practices came into play while making this image.
One day, I drove to a remote corner of California’s Death Valley National Park called the Racetrack a location famous for the unusual paths that rocks made on the clay playa’s time-cracked mud. Theories about the cause of this mysterious phenomenon include ice, wind, magnetism, and extraterrestrials. The playa was wet when I arrived and couldn’t be walked on without leaving new tracks. (The park requests that people not make new tracks and only walk on the playa when it is dry.) So, I made exposures without tracks and later made new ones virtually, digitally removing cracks from the image selectively to form the appearance of a path. By removing something old you can create something new. Elimination can be more than a matter of hiding, it can also be about revealing.
The art of composition and storytelling is indeed as much about what is not included as what is included. Making these decisions is more than choosing an angle of view, it’s the beginning of a point of view.
How many ways and to what end do you typically eliminate things from your images?
How many other practices of elimination can you imagine?
How would practicing other forms of elimination change the nature of your images?
The Story Behind The Story Behind The Image
(Years later, photographer Jay Maisel commented on this image, “That’s a good one. I’ve got one just like it. Only, mine’s more pure. I drove my car out on the mud.” (I assume he did this at another location.) “Mine’s more ‘environmentally friendly.’” I responded, only half in jest, as I consider a majority of my work a form of virtual environmental sculpture. I do this kind of work virtually and ephemerally because I’m working in a culture that doesn’t have a common land use ethic and I don’t want to impose my interpretation of the land on others and future generations, particularly in pristine places, whether public or otherwise.)
There have been a few moments in my life filled with unimaginable stillness and clarity. I find myself continually looking for this quality wherever I go. I’ve found that what it takes to return to this state comes as much (or more) from within as from without.
The Buddhist tradition uses many metaphors that link states of sky or water with states of mind and these are in turn used to cultivate specific qualities. I made this image (and others like it in the series) spontaneously, not to illustrate or practice Buddhist concepts, yet it arose out of a parallel impulse. I made this image to bring more of this quality into my life, into myself. All photographs are acknowledgements and recollections, some are aspirations too.
Though it’s rare to find incredibly still surfaces without a trace of distortion (by wind, weather, or currents) I have seen them many times. Few of them are picture perfect, but they are nonetheless inspiring – even surfaces that are not perfectly still can be inspiring. So to make this image, I made separate exposures of the sky and water and joined heaven and earth virtually. These images connect two moments of stillness and extend them through the creation of a third, one that is reenacted with each viewing.
Titles can speak volumes. How do you title images like this? Cushing, Maine 1998 and Clark Island, Maine 1996? The standard convention of place and date breaks down and if applied seems complicated and ultimately beside the point. This image is portrait of a state of mind rather than of a location – an internal space rather than an external place.
Whether unconsciously or consciously, whether unintended or intended, whether collective or individuated all images portray states of mind. The most important question then becomes, what quality is that state of being?
What states of being are portrayed in the images you appreciate most?
What states of being are portrayed in your images?
Does intensifying your own state of being produce a reciprocal effect in your images?
Can you cultivate states of being through your practice of image making?
I find this image supremely challenging – because of other people’s reactions to it.
The first time I exhibited this image, over the space of a weekend, in front of this image, four women shared stories of personal loss – a friend, a son, a husband, a father. Over the years, this has happened more than sixteen times Years later, in front of this image, in the same location in the same room, I found myself discussing the death of my first wife with one of the first women to share her own story of personal loss. I could pass this off as coincidence, but that would be irrational. While it sheds a little light on this mystery, Jung’s concept of synchronicity furthers rather than solves it. I simply can’t explain this. This challenges me – and others. Though largely formed of conjecture, the discussions are interesting. Specific combinations of qualities, universal color codes, sacred geometry, archetypes, intuition, precognition … theories multiply. The mystery remains.
When I made this image I wasn’t aware of the themes of death and loss weighing on my mind or heart. I was totally absorbed in making the image. Now, it’s almost impossible for me not to think of it, though I can still see much more in this image.
What people share about works of art may change their own and other people’s relationships to them. What the artist shares about their relationships to the works of art they create often changes the relationships their viewers strike up with them. This process is often encouraged and sought out. It can work the other way too. What people share about an artist’s works of art may change the artist’s relationship with his or her own work. While this type of process is less typical, it raises an interesting set of questions to consider, “When, where, and in what ways is encouraging this exchange most beneficial?”
The process of communicating the experiences stimulated by works of art and the results of those interactions, which continue spreading in many ways, often producing both intended and unintended consequences, is part of the life of a work of art. Though not entirely in the control of the artist, it is not separate from the work of art. Works of art connect us in unique ways.
It’s interesting that the amount of energy imbued in a work of art is not limited to the amount of energy invested by the artist, more is added through others’ experiences of them. How strongly a work of art does this is one criteria, among many, for evaluating its quality and success.
How many ways can you encourage meaningful discussion about your images?
How many ways can you seek useful feedback about your images?
How many ways can you give yourself useful feedback about your images?
While studying painting in college, I was given the assignment of painting night. After dark, I took my paint and canvas out into the night – and couldn’t see either. So I found a portable light source, which made them so bright that I couldn’t see beyond them. Next, I used a camera to make photographs to paint from and colors became distorted and moving objects blurred or disappeared altogether. I ultimately ended up painting from memory, drawing on all of my accumulated memories from these attempts to make the final images.
Much later, working with digital imagery, I returned to this challenge. Wanting to avoid the distortions I had encountered before I took a clue from Hollywood, shooting by day and color adjusting those images to look like night. Realizing that the hard multi-colored points of light rendered by the camera eye did not look like what I saw with my naked I, I began digitally drawing stars as I saw them.
I found other people’s reactions to these images fascinating. Knowing that long exposures were necessary to make photographs in low light, photographers would ask me, “How did you get these exposures?” Familiar with the relative relationship of specific stars in the sky, astronomers would ask me, “Where did you find these constellations?” What each viewer knew changed the way they saw, the questions they asked, and their final reaction.
In order to see more, to see more deeply, and to see in more ways, I find myself constantly challenging what I think I know and striving to learn more in as many ways as I can think of.
How many ways does what you know help you make stronger images?
How many ways does what you know get in the way of your making stronger images?
How many ways can you increase the positive and reduce the negative impacts of what you know on your image making?
What I don’t know makes this image more interesting.
Several years after making this image, I couldn’t remember whether I had captured the snow photographically or rendered it digitally or if the appearance of snow was created with a combination of both. It was one of the few times where I felt my experience of my images was closer to the experience others have of them. In this instance, I no longer suffered from the curse of knowledge. I was confronted with a mystery. Rather than quickly rushing to open the file and settle the question, as only I could, I chose to cultivate the question and see what useful insights I could find in doing so.
I looked very closely at the image and saw more than I had seen before. I looked more closely at other people’s images of snow and saw more than I had seen before. I looked more closely at snow and saw more than I had seen before. Because of what I didn’t know, I knew more. Because I questioned what I learned (and the ways I learned), I learned more. Not knowing, can be wonderful! You may be pleasantly surprised by what you don’t know.
Many people look to photographs to confirm what they already know or think they know. I prefer to look to photographs to challenge, expand, and enrich what I know. In works of art, sometimes the things that remain unanswered and remain open become more valuable than the things that are answered and closed. The life of a good photograph extends far beyond itself and our initial experience(s) of it.
How do you know what you know?
How many ways can you challenge what you know in order to experience more?
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