Today is different. I’ve been home for a couple of days now after two weeks on the road. There is something about this place that I always love coming back to; something that goes beyond the veneer of the red rocks and the big cottonwoods – a deeper sense – a feeling of home. These last couple of days were among the most beautiful of the year, but I was still in “work mode” and needed to unwind. Today the winds picked up, temperatures dropped a bit, big clouds are moving in, the air is laced with the scent of wood fires, and showers of fallen leaves swirl down from the tall canopies. I realized that “looks like autumn” and “feels like autumn” are very different things. Today feels like autumn.
The same distinction, I find, applies to images. Some images look, while others feel; some images are of, while others are about. It is a quality that defies definition and that cannot be distilled into simple rules or technique. It can be explained but not quite taught, experienced but not spoken, related to but not described. We know it when we see it. It transcends mere aesthetics and interest, adding a distinct personal narrative to the visual elements. The capacity to express such feelings in one’s work seems to me to correlate with a degree of maturity and mindfulness in the artist.
I recently watched a fascinating documentary titled Between the Folds. Among those featured in it is physicist-turned-origami-artist Robert J. Lang who spoke of the significant point in which skill and technique began to take a back seat to expressing emotion in his work. Among other things, the transition also resulted in simplification, favoring essence over difficulty. I can attest to experiencing this effect in my own work, and have heard other artists speak of it, as well. What I found most poignant about Lang’s description, however, is his assertion that every artist invariably goes through a “phase of no emotion,” as they hone their technical skills and before their work becomes truly expressive of the person behind it. I wonder, though, if this is indeed a period all artists go through, rather than a phase that only some artists, if they are sufficiently dedicated, manage to mature out of.
Having just returned from a stretch of photographic workshops in California, in collaboration with my friend Jack Graham, it also occurred to me that in a small way, this also serves to articulate one of the greatest challenges of teaching creative art. It is one thing to talk about emotion, about the need for introspection, about slowing down, about isolating the creative voice from distractions, and seeing beyond simple aesthetics. The irony is that in a workshop setting, it is nearly impossible to actually implement such lessons. On a workshop you are tired and rushed; you are socializing with new people, whom you are not likely to open up to; you are overwhelmed by abundant subject matter and new knowledge. All of these will prevent you from experiencing the quiet reverence that leads to the making of emotionally-rich images. This is not what attending workshops is about. The real test is how much of what you learn you will take back with you, work on by yourself, and implement going forward.
I’m often asked about “one thing” I might suggest to a budding artist. While I don’t know that such simplistic advice can be of any real use, one suggestion I will make is that, if you recognize yourself being in this “phase of no emotion,” make an effort to move past it. This has little to do with how technically proficient you are, any awards you won, or any heroic challenges you overcame to “get the image.” If your work is ultimately devoid of emotion, consider taking a break and looking inwards. Ask yourself what it is you wish to accomplish. All too often photographers look to technical solutions (gear, travel, software, etc.) for creative problems. The answer is not there. The answer is emotion.