I only really treated photography seriously in 2008 and it’s been a rollicking ride ever since. I had no sense then how taking photographs would change my life, change me in a process that would test and redefine any beliefs I had of myself till then.
In today’s The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor quoted Jane Hirschfield whose birthday it is today. After publishing her first poem she went away to California to practice Buddhism and for the next eight years didn’t write at all. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life…. I first had to find out what it means to live.”
Back in the 1970s, my piano teacher, Gerda Fisher-Kley, similarly enjoined me when I started taking private lessons with her in a shabby room in downtown Indianapolis. Raised and trained in Stutzgart, southern Germany, Gerda had continental ideas about music. “Read all you can about history, art and culture if you want to play Mozart or Beethoven,” she said. Making music was more than virtuosity in navigating difficult or lightning-fast musical passages. Technical proficiency was vital but beyond that was an even more vital need for vision.
Vision is the light that shines through any artist’s deftness with technique and repertoire. Vision is what distinguishes him from everyone else on the planet. It may not be hyperbole to claim that artistic vision is the artist’s soul shining through his work. It is soul that after all art attempts ultimately to capture.
Soul, vision, what are these but names for what in moments of triumphant creativity we are able to extract from experience? There is no way, no path that we must walk: we create the path by walking.
After a lifetime working in another field, photography is opening a door to another life, one that, yes, I could have lived from earlier on. Sometimes I bemoan how much I’ve wasted going a route that didn’t use these many other facets to my being. It seems to me now that I was living on alternate paths, the “other” hidden from me while I walked that one path. That other life is the counterpoint that adds complexity and richness to the path I am walking today, to the music I am playing today.
I am ever fascinated by the lives of people I hear or read about. It’s simplistic to think those lives can be so simply limned. I know how much more depth there is to living than what remains in memory or becomes available to us even through the amazing vehicle of art, vision and imagination.
Given the limits of conscious thought, the inherent duplicity of intellectual assessments, I still value the insight into destiny and the paths we choose (or not choose) when looking at a person’s life in toto. All too often we don’t see the forest for the tree. In the moment awareness is microscopic. Art is both microscopic and macroscopic. Artists must switch levels at the whim of creation to marry essence with material specifics. Experience is the raw matter; art is what transforms it into transcendent vision.
Experience is the bulk of who we are. There is the genetic matter we inherit from our parents, our people and culture; there is character and personality; and there are the ongoing, unfolding events that we accumulate in the course of being alive. All these make up who we are.
Photography and art that propels it work hand in hand with my exploration of who I am. When it comes to personal (or soul) identity facts don’t matter as much as meaning and perception, a vision of ourselves that is always alive and changing. Art allows this kind of aliveness, a dynamism to our view of the world, thus of ourselves.
Photography is enabling me to reinvent who I am. It’s a tool for personal growth and discovery. As I add pages to the book of myself I add pages to the photographer’s manual that I am writing. And what I shoot and process helps me re-imagine myself and the world. It’s a win-win situation.
The beam in our eye is the limit genetics and experience place on our vision of reality, of the universe, if you will, but it’s not just limits; that beam is also our individuality, the very fuel for what constitutes art and our creativity, whether we talk of photography or writing or the more essential process of living our lives with vision and authenticity.
No matter the art we pursue, it is no more than a life thoroughly and richly lived. L’Chaim!