January, 2017 Update
It’s hard to write about a year in photography when You-know-who has been in the White House for over a week now. Every morning since November 9, I awake in fear at what new outrage he’s about to inflict on this planet through his tweets, executive orders, appointments, calls, and spokespersons. What new lie? Or fresh assault on reality/science/civil rights/or democratic norms and institutions? What new obscenity/flagrant hypocrisy/fraud/or bogus issue? Who will he insult/bully/or fire today?
Trump never disappoints and often outdoes himself. On Friday, he issued a statement in response to International Holocaust Remembrance Day saying:
It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror . . .
In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.
Soon afterwards, he slammed the door shut on refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors at home, even those in midflight who had all their papers in order.
The disconnect would be SAD! if it didn’t reveal such a shameless and breathtaking indifference to human suffering.
I fear for a country that is shredding its bedrock principles and values, succumbing instead to prejudice, fear, vitriol, and America Fist (intentional misspelling) domination; a nation in which the ubiquity and influence of fake news all but precludes constructive dialog and agreement on basic facts.
Is it possible to oppose this relentless onslaught without becoming exhausted and just giving up? Is that the master plan? I hope not. Few of us have the stomach for political office but new tools are available now that make it easier to continue fighting. This Washington Post article mentions several outlets for resistance if you’re so inclined. And here are almost 200 methods of non-violent protest that might also be inspiring.
All of which is to say that photography, instead of being front row center in my life, has become a place of refuge from this madness.
Two years ago, I wrote about the best photo workshop I ever attended, which was held at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY, and led by its founding abbot, John Daido Loori (d. 10/9/2009). It was called Seeing with the Unconditioned Eye and based largely on the approach to photography that Loori had learned from Minor White.
Hara, a Japanese term for the grounding center of energy located in the abdomen, isn’t normally associated with photography. At the workshop, though, it was a vital concept. Loori encouraged us to refrain from taking pictures until we were drawn to a particular subject through the hara. Not only that, but we were asked to wait until we had the subject’s permission before we pressed the shutter.
Permission from a pair of mushrooms or a rock? Not even close: If grades were given, I would have earned an F. In 2016, however, I noticed something subtle happening on occasion. I’d enter a room in my house and feel the palpable presence of light inviting me to get my camera and start taking photos. Or, as happened yesterday, an early morning routine would suddenly be interrupted by the urge to photograph. Sometimes, the initial subject works, but just as often, another image possibility calls out, and maybe a third, until I finally end up with what I hope is a keeper. Outside my apartment, a similar thing occurs: A certain scene or subject attracts my photographic eye, only to lead to another more fruitful opportunity in the immediate vicinity.
Normally, I think of photography as all my doing, all coming from me — capturing an image whose subject couldn’t care less whether it was photographed or not. But maybe the reverse is true, the world beckoning, calling attention to itself, seducing the easy mark. Maybe there’s some kind of exchange going on completely under the radar, a conversation without words or sound, a dance of atoms and energy — who knows? If this is what Loori was talking about, I guess I’m a slow learner. If it isn’t, well, at least it’s an expansive thing to think about.
In that same post from two years ago, I wrote about a growing wish to push myself as a photographer, and not rely on the “same old, same old.” Towards that end, I’ve turned to image “mashups” as a way of producing abstract or more densely textured work. For me, it’s a change of pace from real world imagery, an engagement with the imagination as well as conscious seeing. The process itself is somewhat mechanical and dull; the payoff that comes only at the end is entirely unpredictable. When it happens, it’s very satisfying, but when it doesn’t, several hours of labor end up as discarded pixels in the trash.
In 2017, I intend to start working in the margins more, seeking mystery and complexity in light and form, and breaking traditional rules whenever I can get away with it. And now that I have a borrowed camera with a shorter shutter lag — courtesy of sm — I may start photographing humans once again. If I can figure out how to hold a sign in the air and still take pictures, you’re likely to see some photos from anti-Trump demonstrations that are bound to continue throughout the year. Let’s hope they have some effect.