There is something refreshingly simple about visual isolation. Not sure whether it is because of what we choose to leave out or because what we choose to accentuate. But whether it is the result of subtraction or addition, our enjoyment of visual scenes seems to be directly related to this simple visual arithmetic. Everyone has their favorites, but for me, subtraction seems to win most of the time. That is not to say that my intent is to photograph a single object in a scene, but rather that in every scene recorded, I find it more appealing when something within that scene plays a dominant or prominent role. It could be a castle at a distance, or a gentle hand over a book, whatever. What matters is that the photo is clearly anchored on an object, or a theme, as opposed as having every item in the photo compete for your attention. Granted, though, that focusing on an object is not as complicated as focusing on a theme. A photo of flowers will always be easier to capture than a photo depicting melancholy. But something must dominate the thought process, something must stand out to be remembered, and if a photographer is lucky or skillful enough to capture both an object and a mood, then that is payday in a creative’s life. Easier said than done, but undoubtedly the magnetic force that keeps us on the eternal journey of discovery.
Like any other aspiring photographer, I too get tired of the familiar. I’m talking about those places where we tend to spend too much of our limited photographic time in the hope that on any particular day, that great photo opportunity will simply appear before us. Most of the time, it is a total waste of our time. Same thing, different day. But every now and then, something happens. A spot that we have photographed a thousand times without ever liking any of the photos taken, suddenly rewards us with a moment, a keeper moment, if you know what I mean. Hard drives full of photographic junk immediately evaporate from our consciousness, and for a moment (but what a moment), that simple click becomes the justification for endless hours wasted in pursuit of a reason to get behind a camera again. Perfection? Not by a long shot. Satisfaction? Oh yes. Such was the case with this photograph. A familiar deck in Alexandria that I have photographed seemingly a million times before, but only for what seemed destined to my photographic junk pile. I have photographed the deck from every side and from every angle short of being on a boat in front of it. Nothing. Nada. Photo junk. And then this guy shows up. I watch him walk towards the deck and I just stand there waiting for something, anything, to happen. Pack down, leg up on the bench. Click. Moment over. An imperfect photo for sure, but one that reminded me that being there to take the photo is ninety percent of the way to making great photographs. We just have to keep showing up.
It was the very talented Indian writer Faraaz Kazi who authored the words that introduce today’s blog. Recently, I just happened to come across a reference to this author, and upon digging a little on the Internet, I stumbled upon his full quote, which goes like this: “I inhale loneliness like it is the sweet smell of virgin earth conquered by fiery rain drops. Within me, I’m a thousand others.” Suffice it to say that I suddenly smitten when I read that last sentence. Six words, but within them one of the best depictions of the power of our imaginations that I’ve ever encountered. Moreover, I realized that these words were very applicable to some of my recent photos. For some reason or another, I found myself taking photos of people who in the middle of a buzzing city, appeared to be alone, or alone with their thoughts for that matter. Immediately after reading Kazi’s quote I started thinking of these photos and how his words seemed to apply to the scenes I had captured with my camera. Detachment, solitude, disengagement, and perhaps a thousand other realities becoming active in people’s imaginations. In those brief moments when I pressed the shutter, endless flights of imagination could have been taking place, hidden from the world and unencumbered by its limitations. At some level, the photos were merely an attempt to depict the kind of “me” time that only solitude can deliver, and where anyone can become anything they dare to imagine, even if that means a thousand other versions of themselves. Maybe this was not what was happening inside the minds of my photographic subjects at the time, but the romantic in me cannot hold back from wishing it was so.
As I walk around all sorts of cities during my endless photo walkabouts, I can’t help but notice the sheer number of people I see alone. No, I’m not referring to the millions who go about their days moving from point A to point B as they go about their normal workdays, but rather I’m referring to those who are “really” alone, as if “I’m here all by myself” type of alone. So, unable to stop my mind from wondering what may be going through these solo souls’ minds during their personal walkabouts, I have begun to dwell on all sort of things relating to loneliness, companionship, and solitude. No, I’m not loosing my mind or plan to give up photography for psychiatry, but rather that when I’m alone out there (camera in hand), I always wonder whether my fellow lone riders are enjoying the “life less interrupted” as much as I am.
“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” … Paul Tillich
From the little I can gather, it seems that people need as much time alone as they need the company of others. Call it a recharge, a moment to gather our thoughts, or whatever. And even when the line between loneliness and solitude is a blury one at best, somehow we all kind of know when we have crossed it. Ideally, that transition from one side of that undefined line to the other is a voluntary, and timely, one. That seems to be the implication of Tillich’s quote above. Choice, then, appears to be at the core of human ability to temporarily disengage, to fly alone, and to find meaning in the things around us. It is in that seemingly empty, yet rich space where we can get back to the basics of our humanity. And what emerges from that brief moment of solitude is a better person, a more fulfilled person, who’s time alone will make the company of others that much more enjoyable.
Don’t ask me why, but lately I’ve been pondering how much our environment affects our creativity. After all, painters gravitate to the south of France in search of the perfect light, creative writing courses travel to Paris in search of inspiration, and photographers don’t seem to be able to stop talking about the lonely pursuit that their craft demands. Remember Georgia O’Keeffe? Her artistic peak came about during the period in her life when she made the wide, open spaces of the New Mexico dessert her home. And how about the irrepressible Salvador Dalí and his incredible imagination that traced its roots to the small Spanish towns of his youth, Figueres and Cadaqués. And famous writers are all over the place, but invariably alone when practicing their craft. So what am I to conclude from all this? Perhaps that for solo creatives, solitude during the creative process seems to be a lot more important than any particular location. After all, the proverbial creative block doesn’t seem to care much about place. It is the simple act of “disconnecting” from the everyday that seems to be at the root of our creativity. What is must give way to what’s possible in our consciousness. And if getting there takes us to a faraway land, or just as far as the kitchen table, so be it. Our eyes and our hearts will tell us when we’ve arrived there, wherever there happens to be.
Something good always happens in our national capital region when a snow storms forces most of the government to shut down for a few days. For starters, the entire region’s stress level comes down a notch or two. Bureaucrats get to enjoy a paid day off courtesy of the taxpayers and the environment gets a bit cleaner thanks to tens of thousands of commuters staying home for the day. What’s more, a sort of calm sets into the area with the falling snow, giving people a chance to reconnect with themselves and the place where they live. It may not be quite enough for advocates of the Slow Movement to label Washington, DC as a Slow City, but it’s nice to experience for a day or two what all that slow stuff is all about. I’m digging it.