Paying attention to that which attracts
There are many ways that photography can feed the soul. As the print of this 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 chest—that prompts a desire to explore the subject more thoroughly, to deal with it, perhaps to sustain or intensify the feeling and gain more understanding about what triggered it. Whether the initiating force is a person, place or thing there’s an urge to explore the experience further so it can be repeated.
By delving into the minutest details of attraction, connoisseurs of wine, restorers of vintage cars, collectors of all kinds and animal lovers engage their subject with a passion. Whether or not it’s financially profitable as an investment of time and energy, the engagement itself is its own reward. I don’t know who said it, but I appreciate the definition of a true artist as one who is compelled to do what they do, irrespective of money, expectations or pleasing or provoking others. They create because they have to. Many artists don’t know why. I suspect it’s the craving of a hungry soul.
The act of creating is engagement with the energy of attraction. Love actually. For some it’s intensified by exploring the nature or appearance of the subject matter. For others the process itself, just working with the materials can activate and deepen the initial attraction. I venture to say that for most, it’s a combination of these. For me, one of the wonderful things about the film process as opposed to digital photography, is that there are greater challenges in terms of craftsmanship, more elements to deal with to reach the impeccable. As opposed to manipulating pixels and printing images on machines, the process of making gelatin silver photographs 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’s always more to learn and greater care to be taken. I photograph with a digital camera as well. But I derive more satisfaction from making rather than turning out prints.
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.
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 blossom in the developer, it engaged my heart. Love immediately. Subtle, but nonetheless. And the experience continued as I moved the prints through the archival solutions, spotting and provenancing. Years later, I still get a jolt of WOW! and THANK YOU! whenever I pull such prints from their envelopes. I refer to such prints as “numinous,” because they elicit a spiritual experience.
In my formulation of the creative process, attraction directs attention, which prompts exploration (consideration, testing, playing) which in turn 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. 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 inside when we’re searching and receptive, open to be moved.
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 these. Feeding the soul is not like taking a pill. Neither is it an exercise that requires a substantial commitment of time, money or discipline. It’s a matter of simply paying closer attention and attuning to whatever stimulates a pull, the energy of attraction. Love.
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.
Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)