There are many ways that photography can feed the soul. My contemplations so far have largely consisted of metaphoric and imaginative reflections with the images in front of me. Recently had reason to reprint Dry Dock Boat and, as the image was taking shape in the developer, my heart was activated before I even had a chance to reflect on the subject matter. Later, I decided to contemplate the impulse of heart activation, what I regard as a force of subtle attraction. In common parlance, it’s quite simply the energy of love.
When working creatively, there comes a pull—felt largely in the heart—that prompts a desire to explore the subject more deeply, to deal with it, perhaps to sustain or intensify the feeling, or to deepen understanding or connection. Likely both. Whether the initiating force is a person, place or thing, there’s an urge to deepen the experience. By delving into the minutest details of attraction, connoisseurs of wine, restorers of vintage cars, collectors and animal lovers engage their subject with a passion. And whether or not it’s financially profitable to invest time and energy, the engagement itself is its own reward. I don’t know who said it, but I appreciate the definition of an artist as one who is compelled to do what they do, irrespective of money or the opinion of others. They create because they have to. And many artists don’t know why.
The act of creating is engagement with the energy of attraction. Love actually. For some it’s intensified by exploring subject matter. For others the process itself can activate and deepen the initial attraction. I venture to say that for most, it’s a combination of both. For me, one of the wonderful things about film as opposed to digital photography, is that there are the greater depths of craftsmanship to exercise, more elements to deal with and wrestle toward perfection. As opposed to manipulating and printing images on machines, the process of cooking up prints by hand is more tactile and arguably more engaging. And because the materials and processes require specialized knowledge and skill in handling as well as a discerning eye, there is always more to learn and greater care to master. Systemically, engagement with more elements (input) generates increased enrichment or output (read: love energy). I photograph with a digital camera as well. But I derive more satisfaction from making rather than turning out prints.
Like opening a can of soup, I could have simply printed Dry Dock Boat digitally. But watching the paper emerge from an inkjet printer would have been a flat experience. Contemplating it afterward would have been enriching, no doubt. But as I watched this image emerge in the developer, it engaged my heart. Love immediately. Subtle, but nonetheless. And it continued as I moved the print through the various solutions on the first pass. Again, when I moved the prints through the archival process. Again, when I provenance the prints. And every time I pull such prints from their archival storage envelopes I get a jolt of WOW! followed by a THANK YOU!
However subtly, I refer to these prints as “numinous.” Many of my images appeal, but the litmus test for a print that is numinous is the extent to which the attraction is strong enough that it evokes WOW! and gratitude. Invariably, these are the ones I select for contemplation.
In my formulation of the creative energetic process, attraction directs attention, which prompts exploration (consideration, testing, playing) which, can lead to eros that says, “This is nice. I’m getting somewhere. I’ll keep at it.” It’s love with hope or expectation. With further deepening (actually it’s an ascent) comes appreciation born of refinement—engagement in the details which, when accompanied by feelings of gratitude can lead to agape or selfless love, an appreciation of the thing itself. Love without expectation. Deeper yet is the domain of experiences, aesthetic among them, where the sensation of fullness, completeness and unity prompts identification with that energy. Can photography or any other creative activity trigger an experience such as this? Emphatically yes! Even the mundane, approached with awareness or appreciation, can take us there. It’s not about the thing or the process. It’s what happens when we’re searching and receptive, willing to be touched by the great mystery.
As with most refinements, I’m talking about very subtle energies here. These are not exciting, emotional or dramatic experiences. The world is full of distractions—increasingly so and in part due to the information and mass media technologies that are making it easier, faster, more interesting and in some instances more profitable to connect and expand the reach of personality. Feeding the soul is not like taking a pill. Neither is it an exercise that requires a substantial commitment of time and discipline. It’s a matter of being with, paying closer attention to and nurturing whatever it is in our environment that generates the energies of attraction and appreciation. And engaging the details.
If I love the world as it is, I’m already changing it: a first fragment of the world has been changed, and that is my own heart.
About This Image
Dry Dock Boat
Theme: Subtle Attraction
Negative #: 549-A3
Our family was on vacation in Toronto. I’d never been there before, so on an afternoon when I had some time to myself I drove around looking for places to photograph. Being naturally drawn to boats, piers and marinas, I followed the waterways south of the city and came upon an area where several boats were dry-docked. There were no fences and no one was around to ask permission, so I wandered the site and made several hand-held exposures with my 2 1/4 camera.
I’ve used Kodak’s T-Max film since it was introduced, in combination with Xtol developer because I wanted the finest grain possible with high resolution and a long gray scale. Gradation has always been a powerful attractor for me. I don’t know why, but I crave it. There have been times when I’ve done elaborate lighting setups in the studio over weeks at a time, just to satisfy this craving. (My article on this entitled, “The Aesthetic Urge” including a portfolio of images called, “Gradations & Geometries” appeared in the 2002, February-March #39 edition of LensWork magazine). When I saw how the sunlight was raking across the hull of this boat, accentuating the texture of the fiberglass, I became ecstatic. In my printing notes I tagged the image as “numinous” — my highest rating.
The virtue of the camera is not the power it has to transform the photographer into an artist, but the impulse it gives him to keep looking.