Believing is Seeing

| September 1, 2014

What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough. –Eugene Delacroix

A strange train of thought was set in motion when a fellow photographer asked me this seemingly simple question: “Where do you go for inspiration?” My answer, I am embarrassed to say, sounded more like a rambling stream of consciousness rather than the neat list of resources the photographer likely was expecting. My difficulty in answering ultimately comes down to the greater challenge of being an artist in cynical times. Inspiration – like beauty, transcendence and emotion – for art mavens has long been usurped by the obstinate formalism of modern art, and in the minds of many casual shooters is of secondary importance, at best. Who needs inspiration when you can Google “photo hot spots”?

Inspiration, as I experience it, is the drive to make meaningful, important and expressive work – images transcending what Antoine de Saint-Exupery called, “the tyranny of petty things.” While it may ensue out of the seeing of great art or the reading of great wisdom, a certain pre-condition is needed: the artist must believe that such an elevated state is possible and be willing to set aside cynicism and pragmatic concerns in order to rise to it.

In another time, Henry David Thoreau lamented the failings of industrialization, and in particular the loss of purpose and contemplation in human affairs, suggesting that, “The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten.” Applied to photography today, these words may seem prophetic. Even images created with the goal of art often seem to accomplish little in the sense of transcending the ordinary, and by that I am not necessarily referring to the ordinary in life, but also to the ordinary in photography. So many landscape photographs look the same; so many street photographs look the same; so many architectural photographs look the same; and so on. Beauty, precision and objective measures of quality are in abundance, but often are pursued for their own sake, and with little regard to inspiration.

Venturing an answer regarding inspiration, I started by rattling off the names of photographers and other artists whose work I enjoy, books offering wisdom and insight (not always photographic), places I enjoy visiting, publications and blogs and podcasts I follow, etc., although I still felt that such an answer was incomplete. I was reminded of Minor White’s account of meeting Alfred Stieglitz for the first time, whereupon Stieglitz asked him, “Have you ever been in love?” And, after White responded in the affirmative, Stieglitz concluded, “Then you can photograph.”

Lacking Stieglitz’s imposing temperament I opted for a less dramatized approach and admitted to the photographer that, more often than not, it is not I who finds inspiration, but the other way around – inspiration finds me when I’m in the right state of mind. This state of mind takes far greater effort than merely seeing images, reading books or listening to music as it requires a sustained state of openness that is not easy to maintain when mundane concerns encroach; it requires disregarding nagging thoughts and anxieties and shifting my thoughts to more elevated matters, feelings and sensations. It also requires a sense of humility so as to appreciate the genius in the works of others and be uplifted by it. It is only when such state of mind is accomplished that places, people, wisdom or art may pierce through our general disenchantment with the mundane, and come to serve as true sources of inspiration.

When it comes to facts and figures, it is often said that seeing is believing. Inspiration, however, requires the opposite. One has to believe that it is there and allow it in. This is especially true in photography where too many are obsessed with the passive act of seeing, but often miss the transcendent simply because they don’t wholly believe that it is there.

Autumn Vigil

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (3)

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  1. John Wall says:

    I’ve been thinking about Theodore Roszak lately for some reason and was just reminded by your post about a book of his called “Where the Wasteland Ends.” The link is to reviews of it on Amazon:

  2. Dave Benson says:

    My brain really has to work hard as I read your blogs… and for that I thank you… and after reading this a few days ago I sought out an “old book” written by Susan Sontag, “On Photography”. Thanks for leading the learning..

  3. Daniel Ruf says:

    Good words and beautiful image. As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts.