by ag

Several years ago, I took a photography workshop at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY entitled “Seeing with the Unconditioned Eye.” It was led by John Daido Loori, the monastery’s abbot as well as an accomplished photographer, who died 5 years ago at the age of 78. Loori had studied photography with Minor White beginning in 1971, and the workshop borrowed heavily from White’s Zen-like approach to the medium. Too often, Loori explained, we go out and take pictures we’re already programmed to see as a result of our preconceived ideas and tastes. The aim of the workshop was to photograph with an “unconditioned eye,” to open ourselves to subject matter and discoveries that our blinders usually shield us from. It was easily the best photo workshop I’ve ever attended.

I thought of that experience as 2014 came to an end and I found myself getting bored with some of the photos I’ve posted here. It’s not that I don’t think they’re strong images but rather that after three years of doing intensive personal photography, many felt like the same old, same old. Perhaps I was influenced by the work of Peter Liepke, whose gum bichromate photos of NYC are like no other pictures I know. His photographs, which take hours to print I’m told, blew me away and left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable with the ease and simplicity of my consumer-level digital camera. At the other end of the spectrum, the ubiquity of very commendable work by total amateurs is also pushing me to stretch myself more creatively.

In 2015, I’ll probably continue to do what I’ve been doing all along because who can resist a wonderful photo when it crosses one’s path. More and more however, I’d like to go off in a different direction that makes room for unconventional ways of working and happy surprises. The monthly mashups of images from last year that I posted January 3 were one small step down that path.

I saw Liepke’s prints at Gallery 270 in Englewood, NJ where his show runs until January 31. The gallery specializes in traditional photographic processes and has none of that phony pretentiousness and preciousness I find so off-putting in some of its brethren across the river. Tom Gramegna, its owner, encouraged me to buy a print — which were remarkably affordable I thought — but I declined: first, because I’m not awash in money, and secondly, because I’ve never viewed myself as an art collector. The next day though, I wondered if maybe I should reconsider: collecting would be a way to support artists whose work I admired and might even ensure some financial security in my old age — not that far off — depending on how the market for art photography behaved. In the end though, I decided I’d rather invest in my own creative expression, (e.g., self-publishing a book, or prints and framing for a show), and sink or swim on my own. Sorry Peter.

About that future book or show, which I seem to mention in every annual update:

In October, I had an interesting conversation with David Ross, the former head of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, who lives in the same town I do. I was talking to him about a problem faced by older artists whose body of work, for various reasons, can’t find a home at the end of their lives. He said, yes, that’s a real issue and why lots of good art has gotten lost over the centuries. Something clicked for me at that moment and I thought of Tibetan sand paintings, the intricate, detailed mandalas that Buddhist monks spend several days crafting only to destroy when finished. As a spiritual practice, it’s a teaching about impermanence.

Suddenly, I had a new way of looking at my work: Maybe it wasn’t photographs I was making but transient snippets of light and colors and shapes that much like sand paintings weren’t meant to last. Instead of worrying about leaving a photographic legacy, or being posthumously discovered à la Vivian Maier, it felt OK that my images might not survive long after me. In fact, that possibility was kind of comforting as an expression of existential truth.

I haven’t given up on doing a book or exhibiting my work at some point, but I’m no longer attached to either goal. If it happens fine; if it doesn’t, that’s fine too. On the other hand, I’ve just spent a week saving three years of Pixetera to the cloud and I have no intention of deleting my images shortly after their posting. I guess for me, non-attachment goes only so far :)