The Pursuit of Perfection

“You have literally taken my breath away. What perfect photography and how perfectly preserved in the reproductions. I am glad to have lived to see this happen. And here in America, all America and I am not a nationalist I am an idolator of perfect workmanship of any kind and this is truly perfect workmanship. I am elated.”  Alfred Stieglitz

Black Kitty In The Wheatfield, Kansas

Black Kitty In The Wheatfield, Kansas

One can only imagine how Ansel Adams felt receiving this praise from Alfred Stieglitz upon the completion of his classic photography book, “Sierra Nevada, The John Muir Trail.”  Knowing that Alfred fought for decades with the fixed attitudes within the fine art community over the recognition of photography as a fine art medium, he must have known that his time had arrived.  It had, and so had photography.  Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, and Ansel Adams had perfected the platinum palladium, bromoil and silver gelatin printing processes and in doing so laid the very foundation in which photography came of age.

The reason I chose this title, The Pursuit of Perfection is based on this principle. Though we may never attain perfection, the pursuit is its essence – with the journey, the methods and applications all essential to its existence.

This blog will cover many different photographers, artists and the avenues they traverse.  The only prerequisite being an in-depth look into their pursuit of perfection and how it has redefined their lives.  I will begin with friends and professionals I know, respect and have worked with over the last three decades and then gradually branch out from there. A simple beginning but one full of adventure and insight.  I will be the first to jump into the pond. The next blog will begin with a verse that has influenced generations throughout the world.

The Manifestations and the Mystery

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.”

~Lao Tsu

Shibui, Wyoming

Shibui, Wyoming

 This first verse of the Tao Te Ching translated by Gia-Fu Feng has been the spring board for many seekers of all ages for over 2,500 years.  As a professional photographer and gallery owner, I have always found inspiration in poetry, literature, philosophy, and truth.  I have read books that have inspired me for months on end and finished others that put me into a much needed contemplative mood.

When I am out photographing nature and landscapes, people often ask me why I bother using a cumbersome, heavy large format camera in this day and age. To be honest, it seems to always come back to simplicity, quality, slowing down, and respecting time.  As I am not in a hurry, desire is curtailed — and if I don’t capture the image that too is okay. I know in the larger scheme of things, I am not in control.  So, in the end, if everything comes together and I am able to capture the essence of what was presented, then for a moment I caught a glimpse of what lies beyond the gate.

Cooperation is the key ingredient, therefore, throughout the entire procedure I try my best to slow down, listen to the unknown and seek out its manifestations. It’s a dance with light, the ever-changing elements and time.  Then the second act begins, namely the process. It’s not allin the process, but to arrive and bring forth my visual interpretation it is equally essential.

At this stage in my career, I am not one that feels they have to be out in the field every waking moment from sun up to sunset. Like the song goes, “There is a season turn, turn, turn.”

A Choice, and a Letting Go

“You see, we only have two alternatives: we either take everything for sure and real or we don’t. If we follow the first, we end up bored to death with ourselves and with the world.  If we follow the second and erase our personal history, we create a fog around us, a very exciting and mysterious state in which nobody knows where the rabbit will pop out – not even ourselves. When nothing is for sure, we remain alert – perennially on our toes. It is more exciting not to know which bush the rabbit is hiding behind than to behave as though we know everything.”

Don Juan Matus (Journey To Ixtlan) by Carlos Castaneda

Silent Storm, Wyoming

Silent Storm, Wyoming

Throughout my 11 years at the Brookover Gallery in Jackson Hole I have often been approached by photographers and asked such questions as,

“How did you capture that?”
“What is your secret?”
“What camera do you use?”
“Do you shoot film or digital?”

In essence, none of this really matters as there is no secret.  As in most endeavors, one often starts with an open mind, heart and eyes. How long one remains true to themselves and open will determine the length of their endeavor.

For example, when you have a camera and step five feet from your car and snap something quickly because you are either too busy or preoccupied, that image will inevitably have no energy or thought.  In doing so, you have sided with the shallow surface of the world.  One must dig deeper and seek out the unknown, the part within ourselves that asked us to stop THERE, at that particular place, at that specific time.  Listen.  Really listen, and it will communicate to you.

If you think you have all the answers from the get-go, then you’re doomed to produce more static, boring shots and might never feel the excitement Don Juan is speaking of.  It’s wonderful to experiment with different angles, lenses, time and light – as this will enable you to strengthen your skills.  However, be careful of being too dependent on them, and lose sight of the mystery the world has to offer.

Remember, “only the boring are bored.”  Anticipating light, shadows and the excitement of the unknown is much more fun!  Slow down, take a deep breath, smile, and follow this simple approach and your images will improve from the first day.  When you see something that inspires you – take it all in, and then allow what you really see to shine through your work. The camera is just a tool.  The vision lies within you.

The Dawn of Awakening

“The ego may exist as a series of passing thoughts, beliefs, actions, and reactions, but in and of itself it has no identity.
Ultimately all of the images we have about ourselves and the world turn out to be nothing but a resistance to things as they are. What we call ego is simply the mechanism our mind uses to resist life as it is. In that way, ego isn`t a thing as much as it is a verb. It is the resistance to what is. It is the pushing away or pulling toward. This momentum, this grasping and rejecting, is what forms a sense of a self that is distinct, or separate, from the world around us.”

The End of Your World

Adyashanti

Epiphanous Rays, California

Epiphanous Rays, California

I absolutely love the quote above, especially this particular line: “Ultimately all of the images we have about ourselves and the world turn out to be nothing but a resistance to things as they are.”

I still remember exactly what I felt
 when I photographed the image Epiphanous Rays, as if it happened yesterday. I was coming out of a valley and as I drove up the hill I saw the sun slowly setting. Knowing I had only a few minutes to capture what was before me, I quickly began setting up my Wisner 8×10 field camera. My initial response was panic (yes a lot of egoic grasping/rejecting was taking place). Then, I saw the beauty rapidly unfolding before me and came to a stop. Something very deep inside just gave up. Perhaps it was the light, the majestic redwoods, the evening scent, the highlighted undergrowth, the sun`s warmth, or an awakening. All I remember is the world collapsed. After taking it in, the rest was pure mechanics. A shift in perception, and suddenly everything — including the observer — were equal in time. Even though I was still fortunate enough to have had the time to photograph this image on film, I knew I wouldn’t know till much later if I had actually captured what I saw. Nonetheless, I thanked the powers to be for allowing me to witness it.

Trust me when I say you will have the right number of opportunities for they are infinite. The bigger picture is what Adyashanti is talking about. If/ when you do, the world will look so different. It`s ok to just observe and relish the moment and forget what you are doing (I have plenty of times) and it`s also fine to try and capture it. There are no rules. Resistance to things as they are….. remember that phrase, for it can become a great teacher in and of itself.

Identity and its Equivalence

“I can`t verbalize on the internal meaning of pictures whatsoever. Some of my friends can on very mystical levels but I prefer to say, that if I feel something very strongly, I would make a photograph that would be the equivalent of what I saw and felt.” ~Ansel Adams

Gateway to Avalon, Wyoming

Gateway to Avalon, Wyoming

As one progresses as a photographer these words of wisdom should remain close by. Personally, I have always found that by not seeking the reasons why, my best work will come through. It’s not for me to even ask, but rather, when deeply moved, use what you have learned and draw upon it.

Over time as you deepen and broaden your own way of seeing meanings will change and like a good novel or discourse the depth of what you saw will reveal itself. In certain situations that allow for one to merge with their environment here are a few recommendations.

Don`t be afraid to ask for a little help. Unfortunately, true humility is not a strong suit for many of us but you might be surprised that just in asking, paradoxically we are both relieved and blessed in the act. A certain relaxed softness begins to surface and the tension one feels begins to disappear.

Place your attention on giving yourself to whats in front of you rather than bringing it to yourself. This not only pertains to the time of capture but more importantly what you do afterwards. This particular quote by Mark Nepo pretty much sums it up.

“One reason so many of us are lonely in our dream of success is that instead of looking for what is clear and true, we learn to covet what is great and powerful. One reason we live so far from peace is that instead of loving our way into the nameless joy of spirit, we think fame will soothe us. It leaves us with these choices: fame or peace, be a celebrity or celebrate being, build our identity on the attention we can get or find our place in the beauty of things by the attention we can give.”