THE MATURATION OF INDIVIDUAL SEEING
To See A World In A Drain Is Grand
An essay with photographs on finding one’s own vision and subject matter as a photographer
Just about everyone is familiar with the lines from William Blake’s great poem, Auguries of Innocence—
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower;
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
That pretty much says it all about seeing and about being present in the moment, and those words have undoubtedly inspired many souls, artistically and metaphysically—they certainly have inspired me in those ways.
But I ask you, if a mere grain of sand can reveal the infinite universe, doesn’t that also suggest that just about anything else in the world could do the same thing for us? That what matters most is our being present, our being tuned in to the infinite and eternal reality of things? That perhaps, ultimately, as artists, our choices of subject matter are much less important than what we bring of ourselves to the act of photographing?
Why, perhaps we could reveal the infinite beauties of the universe in even so prosaic a subject as the kitchen sink! We know the old saw about including everything but the kitchen sink, but why discriminate against that old kitchen sink—let’s include it, too! In fact, my kitchen sink has been a fairly frequent source of inspiration and material for my photography, and I believe some of my strongest and most personal images have been made there.
Let me tell you a little about my kitchen. My wife and I live in a very small San Francisco apartment. I strongly doubt that you have ever been in a smaller kitchen—it’s available floor area is 24 square feet. Nevertheless, we do manage to produce some wonderful meals there (if I do say so as the chief cook in the family)— plus, and most importantly to this dissertation, it on occasion has some of the loveliest window light I’ve ever seen, and when that beautiful light falls upon, well, yes, even dishes in the sink, why I can seldom resist such a fertile photographic opportunity!
Now, quickly, before you conclude that this writer is completely cracked, let me share with you some of my philosophy about making pictures, as it has evolved over the thirty-some years I have been at this strange but marvelous endeavor. What I wish to recount is essentially my own personal artistic journey, from my emulative beginnings to my emerging individuality. I do not wish to suggest that I think my work is great or that I have “arrived.” (In fact, I’d like never to arrive but always to keep moving forward.) I do believe, however, that there are undoubtedly some common, universal experiences in my journey, and I hope that they may be of some interest, consolation or just plain old amusement to some of my fellow workers.
I began, as so many, as a photographer obsessed with the landscape, and the grander it was, the better. When I first visited California from New Jersey and saw the Pacific Coast and the Sierra Range, I flipped. I said, “No wonder all the great landscape photographers are out here—all the great landscape is out here!” (Our landscape back in “The Garden State” was more, well, subtle.)
So, at the very first opportunity I quit my job, packed up my 4x5 view camera, left New Jersey and headed west. Whereupon I proceeded for a number of years to photograph at all the very best places: Pt. Lobos, Big Sur, Yosemite, etc. The very best places at which to emulate Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and Wynn Bullock, that is. And I truly believed that was fine. I believed that there was plenty of room for individual expression while working within the same vein, with the very same subject matter, heck, even while standing in the exact spots from which those masters made their great images! Boy, was I wrong.
But it took a while to realize that big truth. I remember during that period reading an article by Margery Mann and Sam Ehrlich in Aperture, commenting on the sterile and derivative nature of West Coast photography, post-Adams and Weston. I recall the authors challenging photographers to look in the mirror each morning and say, “I am not Edward Weston. I am not Ansel Adams.” Boy, that made me mad! I guess I thought I could be one of those guys, just by virtue of producing technically excellent images of tried and true, iconographic subjects.
The Proper Role of Influences
To emulate the work of others is, of course, a natural part of developing as an artist; we see it in painters, musicians, writers, etc. It is accepted as a phase of the maturation process. To get stuck in that phase, however, is a problem. As the great photographer Josef Sudek has said,
“One cannot escape being influenced by others, but these influences were only good to the extent that they forced me to go my own way.”
David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their marvelous and indispensable book, Art & Fear, offer another insight into the problem of trading off one’s own personal development, with its many risks, for the relative security of slavishly following a well-worn artistic path:
“At least for the novitiate, some period of artistic recapitulation is both inevitable and, by most accounts, beneficial. On both intellectual and technical grounds, it’s wise to remain on good terms with your artistic heritage…but once having allowed for that, the far greater danger is not that the artist will fail to learn anything from the past, but will fail to teach anything new to the future.”
The world of jazz offers a good metaphor for this creative dilemma. In jazz, it is typical for even the greatest innovators to go through an apprenticeship period in which one models one’s playing style after earlier masters. It is considered part of absorbing the tradition. But it is also considered to be merely a launching pad, artistically.
Developing An Individual ‘Sound’
In jazz, the goal of achieving a unique, personal individual sound is of the utmost importance and the most highly valued attainment within that amazing art form. Without that, one has not attained anything of significance. Further, having achieved an individual sound and style, it is a jazz musician’s ongoing ability to surprise the listener that is most prized. (The great jazz writer Whitney Balliett has in fact called jazz ‘The Sound of Surprise.’)
Where, in photography, is a similar tenet? Why are the need to attain a signature visual style and the ability to surprise not considered such rigorous, essential standards in our medium? So many seem content to merely “learn the licks”—to be technically proficient and to produce technically adequate look-alike images. In short, to settle for being a “good” photographer, for journeyman excellence.
That was exactly where I was stuck, for many years. While it was always the expression of beauty that I sought, I realize in hindsight that I simply had not yet fully developed my own individual ability to see beauty. I was stuck in the cycle of repetitively replicating other photographs I had seen and admired.
Looking back, I’m grateful that my work never achieved any real recognition during this early period (even though I strongly believed then that it justly deserved such attention); it’s most likely, I think, that had “success” come at that premature stage, I would have become frozen artistically, as have others I’ve known, and never have moved beyond that level of seeing.
The emptiness of it all eventually became apparent but only after quite a long while and quite a few thousand of those “perfect” landscape images.
I believe now that my growth has involved a subtle, yet profound, shift from perceiving beauty as something outside of myself, as separate from myself, to that of experiencing it internally, as fully integrated within my self and my values. I had been mistakenly looking for beautiful subjects, for things that were already dazzling and amazing.
In Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, he expresses the idea that:
“No thing is beautiful. But all things await the sensitive and imaginative mind that may be aroused to pleasurable emotion at the sight of them. This is beauty.”
I also recall reading around this time an A.D. Coleman criticism of someone’s work, in which he said the person was merely “making jewels out of jewels.” I was of course affronted at the time, since that was exactly what I thought I should be doing as a photographer!
A key to becoming unstuck was learning gradually simply to be more present, and to work with fewer preconceptions about what the kinds of images I wanted to make. I began occasionally to make photographs that seemed to come out of nowhere. Robert Henri’s teachings began to resonate with me, especially when he advised students to be willing to create:
“…a picture that does not look like a picture.”
Choosing Personal Subject Matter
As preconceptions about subject matter dropped away, I increasingly found more things from my everyday life that moved me to photograph. I also became more flexible in my working methods, less locked into the rigidity of planned times to “go out shooting.” I began to photograph more spontaneously. (A change in working method helped facilitate this; I used medium and small-format cameras more often.)
At times, a profound appreciation for simply being alive and present in the moment would motivate and guide me to work. At such moments of grace, as I consider them, I’ve had the feeling that I could make a picture of virtually anything before me. Apropos of that kind of feeling, I recently read a wonderful description of seeing, from a novel by James Sallis:
‘Seeing consists of forgetting you know the name
of the thing that’s seen.’
Someone once said that the greatest artistic discoveries have been made in familiar subject matter, and I began to experience that. Photographer Robert Adams has written, “Art asserts that nothing is banal,” and I agree that even the most ordinary subject matter can be used successfully. Of course, it’s an artist’s responsibility to elevate or transcend a subject so that the final product is itself not banal. A number of great photographers have been fully capable of this; one thinks of Weston’s sensuous toilet, of Lilo Raymond’s elegantly simple still lifes, of Sudek’s marvelous images of his cluttered studio, of Ruth Bernhard’s wonderful doorknob picture. Speaking of Josef Sudek, here’s something he said about staying open to how and what one photographs:
“It would have bored me extremely to have restricted myself to one specific direction for my whole life, for example, landscape photography. A photographer should never impose such restrictions upon himself.”
From Half Dome to My Kitchen
Over time, placing fewer restrictions upon myself, I began to photograph more frequently in my home. (It is, after all, “where my heart is,” as they say.) Which brings us back to my kitchen. (A long journey from my early pilgrimages to Half Dome!) At times the morning light there is simply breathtaking. After I made my first kitchen picture, of light falling upon a roll of paper towels and a dish rag, I thought, “What a fluke; I doubt I’ll ever find anything else to photograph in this tiny space!” And then soon after I made another. And then another. (None of these subjects have been arranged, by the way.) And I continue to shoot there, as well, of course, in many other places both inside and outside of my home, including even the occasional landscape.
So I offer this handful of kitchen images as personal evidence that one can find creative material virtually anywhere, including the kitchen sink! And I would only suggest, in closing, that a photographer might wish to stop now and then and ask him or herself a few important questions, such as: “What is it that I feel most deeply about in life?” “Are these feelings coming through in my images?” “What is the subject matter I relate to the most intimately and profoundly?” “Am I trying to make my own pictures or imitating those of others?” And lastly, “What is it that I see that no one else does, that only I can show the world?”
1. The Literature of England, Volume 2, Scott, Foresman & Co.,1958
2. Aperture, “The Exhibition of Photographs, Northern California”
Volume 13:4, 1968
3. Josef Sudek, Poet of Prague: Outward Journey, Aperture,
Number 117, 1990
4. Art & Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking,
David Bayles & Ted Orland, Capra Press, 1993
5. The Art Spirit, Robert Henri, Westview Press, 1923
6. The Art Spirit, Robert Henri, Westview Press, 1923
7. The Moth, James Sallis, Carroll & Graf, 1993
8. Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values,
Robert Adams, Aperture, 1981
9. Josef Sudek, Poet of Prague: Outward Journey, Aperture,
Number 117, 1990