While I was writing my last entry here I remembered a story, related by Minor White, that I had read a long time ago that seemed to be related to our learning to slow down and respond to what we see instead of chasing our expectations. In this case, it really has to do with the phenomenon that occurs when we get overwhelmed by the newness and wonder or exotic nature of a new place. I will relate the rest of the story later, however it was this particular sentence that I thought was the most profound:
“He made us leave our cameras in the car so we could see and feel instead of getting lost in greediness.”
As I remembered this story, I also remembered my first trip to the desert southwest back in 1980, about a year and a half after I started photographing. Although I had spent a lot of time in the California desert over the years, nothing had prepared me for what I saw when, while still on the freeway, I saw my first red rock cliffs.
Back in those days, there was no internet to explore for information on your destinations and while I really hadn’t done much research, I certainly had seen many photos from the National Parks in that area.
But, as I said, nothing prepared me for what I saw when I saw those cliffs, I wanted to slam on the brakes right there on the highway’s shoulder and take pictures of it all. My body felt electrified and stayed that way for several days as we visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon. I had the feeling I wanted to photograph everything and yet it was hard to photograph anything because as soon as I framed one, I saw another better one even before I clicked the shutter. I ended up shooting almost every nook and cranny—and I was paying for film and processing in those days! I don’t think I made one decent image on that trip nor do I remember much of it or anything I did photograph for that matter. I had gotten lost in that greediness Minor White suggested.
But it is really more than just greediness, it is really just that our senses are so stimulated by whatever has presented itself to us, that we get sensory overload. When I spend a day in a great museum, I can actually feel that same electrifying sensation growing within me as I ponder those wonderful works of art. I have even heard of people passing out after visiting some of the great museums and cultural sites in Europe. In such cases, I have to retreat and allow things to calm down inside, which generally means getting someplace quiet where I can let the inspirations of the day percolate.
When we are photographing and start to feel this way, we need to find ways to allow ourselves to slow down and get past the “exoticism” of that new place. Being so enamored can overwhelm and blind us to the substance before us, as did those red rock canyons for me. We need to find a way to ground ourselves and allow ourselves to really see what is there before we start to photograph.
Minor White’s story took place at Point Lobos, an incredibly beautiful and wondrous place on the California Coast. Although I haven’t heard it mention much these days, Point Lobos is one of the most iconic locations for those West Coast Landscape photographers we all admire–Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Minor White, Wynn Bullock etc. On this occasion, Edward Weston had taken White and several others there on a workshop and he knew the power of the place and how it could overwhelm. The full story related by White follows:
“Weston toured us around Lobos after the rain cleared. He made us leave our cameras in the car so we could see and feel instead of getting lost in greediness. On one of the fingers of landholding the heaving fingers of the sea the sun broke golden through a cloud! “I have made hundreds of photographs here at Lobos. It’s like a big lumber pile or lumberyard. I have barely touched the surface.” Then after a long, long silence came the gift, “Go make your own scratch.”
So, consider allowing yourself to settle down and see and feel your surroundings before you pick up that camera—then, you will be more grounded and can go make your own scratch.