Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I visited one of my favorite blogs last night, written by another photographer whose photography and writing I admire, Guy Tal. Guy's blog is always worth a visit. His commentary often reflects many of my own thoughts and today I will focus on a particular aspect of his recent post that caught my attention: silence.

How often do we experience true silence, at least in the respect of the absence of man made sound? I would venture that this happens very, very rarely for most. In fact, I have observed that most people become distinctly uncomfortable in the absence of some kind of man made background noise. Do you leave the television on even when you are not watching it? Do you have to at least have the radio playing, even when driving? This seems to be the normal state of affairs for most. Humans are deeply social creatures and the presence of some form of man made noise seems to offer a form of comfort for many.

Another aspect of this is the constant din of more subtle man made sounds that pervade our lives, mostly unawares. As I write these words, I am sitting on my deck this Sunday morning, enjoying a light breeze as I finish my second cup of coffee, listening to a woodpecker announce his presence in one of our wild cherry trees and the wind chimes occasionally doling out a deep, mellow note. The cicadas are starting to send out their insistent love calls, a sure sign of another hot July afternoon in the offing. This idyllic moment has an underlying current, however. I can hear the distant roar of a powerboat on the Great South Bay, an alarm activating at a neighbors house as they start their car, the low, steady thrum of many wheels speeding along the Sunrise Highway, a brief burst of a siren and finally, the horn and low rumble of a passing train. These sounds fill a space that is so constantly present that most of us don't even realize it is there – until it isn't.

One of the great gifts of a back country trek is the absence of these constant, man induced sounds. This is especially so during a solo journey, when I've gone whole days without seeing or speaking to another person. I have observed three distinct reactions to persons who venture out to these 'silent' places. Some do not notice. They remain busy enough with the details of their respective activities that they miss the change. Others become distinctly unnerved by the silence. They must have a radio or something, anything, filling up that empty space. These people will never be at ease out of a man made environment. The third reaction is one of blessed relief – as if an invisible weight has been lifted. As you may have guessed, I am very definitely in the latter group. I will actually start to stress out in a major way if I can't get away from the constant, underlying din occasionally, even if just for a few moments.

(click on image to enlarge)
Fortunately, while my backcountry time has been much reduced lately, there are other options. The best one exists as much as a factor of timing as location: the predawn. The simple fact that most people are sound asleep at this early hour reduces the activities that generate much of the noise. Add to that a little bit of distance and silent bliss can result. The best, easily accessible local place for this is Fire Island. A short fifteen minute drive followed by a mile or so of walking and one can find themselves in a silent reverie. Here, the 'noise' consists only of crashing waves and wind, and depending on the weather, sometimes even those sounds are absent. The only other entry might be the occasional cry of a gull.

(click on image to enlarge)
Here, at last, the hidden distractions can melt away and the mind can relax, availing itself to the more subtle presence of the natural world. Sitting for a little while alone on a bit of driftwood watching the slowly brightening glow of the eastern horizon, there is something that breathes life deeply back within. Everything seems to open up. I feel the dampness of the sand beneath my feet, smell the brine of the ocean with its complex mix of life and death where land meets sea. The mind and the senses can once again reach out. The result is a renewed connection with the ground beneath my feet, the air that I breathe, the expanse of the sky above, an all too brief respite from the din that drives the real world away.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Art of Creativity

Among other bad habits, I am an avid reader. I spent a good portion of my wastrel youth soaring through the galaxy with the great writers of the science fiction genre, such as Asimov, Heinlein and Herbert. As I grew older, my interests gradually shifted from the E.E. Doc Smith 50's style of Buck Roger adventures (what better name for a grand villain than 'Ming the Merciless' and the brutal Fenachrone!) to the more thoughtful and involved stories of the great Isaac Asimov and writers of a similar intellectual vein. Science fiction became a medium with which to study the human condition, absent the usual direct or implied baggage carried by terrestrial location. Asimov's 'I Robot' series is a model example (the badly butchered Hollywood movie version not-with-standing). More recent years have seen a clear shift in my reading towards non-fiction, primarily relating to the study of the human mind and the nature of consciousness. In retrospect, over the decades there has a been a clear trend towards this direction, the seed planted long ago and fertilized by these excellent authors: the study of the mind, behavior and how each relates to the human condition.

One of the more interesting and fascinating topics along these lines is that of 'creativity'. What is it? How does it happen? Where does it come from? This blog entry does not attempt to answer those questions. I will delve into those dark woods another time. Instead, today I will write about a more immediate facet of creativity: when is one's creative work 'good enough'? This aspect is likely the first question that will quietly and inevitably force its way into the thoughts of anyone attempting to create something new and considering exposing their work, regardless of type or medium, in the public forum. This thought was prompted by a passage I read in my current book of interest, Ray Bradbury's 'Zen in the Art of Writing'. As a side note, this book is an excellent example of why it pays to explore the writings of a favorite author outside of the more well known works. Asimov is another example of a writer known for his science fiction but who has an enormous lexicon of non-fiction writings – but I digress. Mr. Bradbury wrote of receiving an unexpected letter from a person whom he deeply admired, the great art historian Bernard Berenson, but whom he had never met. The letter was written in response to an article Mr. Bradbury had written for the publication 'The Nation' defending his science fiction work (he does not state why he was defending it). The letter read as follows:

“Dear Mr. Bradbury:
In 89 years of life, this is the first fan letter I have written. It is to tell you that I have just read your article in 'The Nation' — "Day After Tomorrow." It is the first time I have encountered the statement by an artist in any field, that to work creatively he must put flesh into it, and enjoy it as a lark, or as a fascinating adventure.

How different from the workers in the heavy industry that professional writing has become!

If you ever touch Florence, come to see me.
Sincerely yours,

B. Berenson”
Ray Bradbury wrote this vital comment in describing his reaction to this unexpected message:

“We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell us we're not crazy after all, that what we're doing is right. All right, hell, fine! But it is easy to doubt yourself, because you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.”

The importance of the message within this response cannot be over-emphasized. Regardless of the source or subject of our individual creative muse, it is our own unique muse. There is no shortage of critics in the world, far from it. Back in the mid-seventies, I had two experiences with critics that effectively killed my nascent art career. I was, admittedly, a rank beginner, untrained and unschooled. I was working primarily in water colors and airbrush. My work was heavily influenced by two artists whom most would never mention in the same sentence, Maxfield Parrish and Roger Dean. I had received much positive support from friends and family, such that I even started selling my work in local art and craft shows. I remember being happily shocked when I sold a good chunk of my entire inventory in an early show. That success lead me to try the next step: the commercial world of art sales. This took two forms: approaching galleries and record companies. By way of explanation of the latter, album covers were a hugely popular medium at the time. This is how I became exposed to Roger Dean's work – his series of album covers for the progressive rock band Yes.

During a successful show in a local town, I was encouraged by an attendee to approach a local gallery to sell my work. After the show, I visited the gallery and introduced myself to the person in charge, explaining my success in the show and the suggestion made by one of his patrons. I had with me a large framed original of one of my favorite paintings for his consideration. The criticism was instant, scathing and delivered in such an aloof and arrogant manner that it served to extinguish any glimmering of pride in my work completely and totally. In my naivete, I had been skewered soundly through the heart and this stuffed shirt bastard couldn't care less. If anything, he seemed rather proud of his use of carefully sharpened words.

My next misadventure occurred shortly thereafter. I had an appointment with the art director at Columbia Records, one of the major music labels at the time. I arrived on time for the appointment with a portfolio of prints. Being realistic about my abilities compared to the professional work I'd seen, and not yet fully recovered from my prior experience, I was expecting a rejection. What I was prepared to happily settle for was some constructive criticism and maybe some friendly suggestions. Little did I know the world I was unexpectedly walking into. Something happened first, however. Upon exiting the elevator in the high rise Manhattan tower, I became immediately lost and instead of entering the receptionist area, I accidentally entered the back offices. I had wandered around for a few moments when I stumbled across an office with a man sitting in an armless, upright chair. Leaning against the man's legs was what was clear to me as artwork for an album cover, about 30 inches square. Surrounding both were about six or eight men in suits. I listened for a just a bit and suddenly recognized the tableau for what it was: an interrogation. Why this subject? Why this color here, and that color there? - delivered in cutting intensity. I cleared out before I was spotted.

I finally found the receptionist and introduced myself. The pretty and pleasant woman made me comfortable and announced my presence. I waited. I waited some more. I waited some more beyond that. After a full hour, the receptionist apologized and explained that something had come up and the art director would not be able to see me after all. I asked if he could at least take a look at my portfolio and she agreed to bring it in. Anticipating this possibility, I had left a note attached to my work asking for constructive comments. In less than five minutes, the portfolio was returned and my note was found torn to bits in the bottom of the folio. My budding career as a freelance artist ended in that office.

We jump thirty five years to the present. With a couple of exceptions as requests from friends, I had not painted another work in all those years. I briefly fiddled with pencil and pad in the early eighties, but quickly gave that up too, in spite of a strong reaction from friends. Over the years, I had very occasionally dabbled in photography, but my nomadic lifestyle did not lend itself very well to the film medium, having to rely on third party developers to see what worked and what didn't. It wasn't until the advent of digital cameras that photography and I really connected. I started taking photographs of our backpacking journeys and almost immediately started getting commentary reminiscent of my old paintings. I slowly realized that my old friend, my creative self was returning. There was a fundamental difference in my approach, however.

All my earlier work had been done with the public in mind. Each painting was done with the intent to impress an audience. This was no longer the case. Every photograph I now took was done for strictly personal reasons – because I wanted to capture a specific image for myself. The audience had ceased to be a participant in the creative process. The image had to speak to me and me alone. I did not realize it at the time, but a vital and important change had taken place. For creative art to work, it must reflect something of yourself, to 'put flesh to it' as Berenson wrote to Bradbury. Whether or not an audience will accept or approve is a deeply secondary matter. It should have absolutely nothing to do with what you create, be it a novel, a painting, a photograph.

(click on image to enlarge)

An audience may not approve, but for the artist this should be irrelevant as far as the real art is concerned. Will it sell? Maybe not. The photography I consider my best seems to sell the least. These days I do produce images expressly to sell, but as a general rule these are not what I consider my best artistic images, the ones that speak deep to that place inside. They are good, sound work, 'pretty pictures' as it were, striking a cord somewhere within the purchaser, but it tends to be related more to pleasant memory than something that touches deep within, along with my ability to capture images in a certain way. Make no mistake, there is a place for this and good images still require talent and skill, but it is sometimes a bit like doing a cover song than singing that heartfelt personal ballad, to use the musical analogy. The good news is that art can also result from this process as well, it is just a little less likely.

(click on image to enlarge)

The trick, as the old bit goes, is to work with what you know, those subjects which have a deep emotional hold on you. Only in this inner place can you begin to create something that will reflect your heart and emotion. Here lies the home and source of art. Connect with this part of yourself and 'good enough' may well take care of itself. As the years have progressed, I have learned that I can include more and more in this internal creative space as my experience and understanding increase. Now, even when working with a new subject or location, I am more likely to be able to make that vital emotional connection and it shows in my work.

I no longer consider the audience when visiting with my creative muse. It is more akin to two old friends sharing a private moment together, sharing an intimate conversation, our private lark and adventure. When the winds blow favorably, the results will speak to a greater understanding, a place that even the audience may recognize.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Taking a Moment To Pause

Well, it's been a busy month. We have come out of a series of successful shows, including a last minute invitation to the Bellport, NY show. This turned out to be one of our best shows of the season so far and we will definitely be back next year. The only fixed show date on the horizon now is the Sayville show, which was our strongest last year. Hopefully that pattern will repeat! We have some invitations for various shows come September and October, but we have made no hard commitments yet, as we have to see how our summer plays out. It is also a bad sign that I'm a week into July and I haven't even taken the kayak out of the garage yet.
The Bellport show was unique for the season in that it was a dedicated art show, not a combined arts and crafts show. I find that dedicated art shows are much more satisfying, both for the better sales as well as the more interested, and interesting, audience. People who take the time to attend these shows are there for the art, so the visitors are more focused on what the artists are offering and more inclined to express their interests as they visit your display. This is very enjoyable, as any artist loves to discuss their work with an interested audience.

Aside from the usual inquiries as to locations, technique and equipment, Bellport stood out in that a recurring theme percolated to the surface pretty frequently with quite a few visitors to our display. Several visitors took a lot of time to really stand back and soak up my images and almost all of these commented on a common element within the images: They pointed out that it was clear, regardless of the varying subjects or locations, that I had taken the time to really see and consider the particular moment or scene I was photographing. More interesting, and satisfying to me, is that they stated that this came through as a very strong element throughout my images.

I had taken a moment to pause and really see the subject.

This simple point highlights a critical aspect of successful photographic work. It also reflects what I consider a quality missing in much of our far too busy daily lives. So much is missed in our constant rush of obligations and responsibilities that we take upon ourselves. If we don't take a moment to slow down and step off the speeding treadmill occasionally, too many of us find that our lives have flown by in a blur before we had a chance to actually live them. This is something that I have long refused to accept. I have just as many responsibilities as the next guy, maybe more than most considering my dual careers and long list of interests and activities, but I take the time to break out of the mental monotone that too many of us seem to maintain during the normal day. This takes effort to do. My favorite quote, credited to Jeanne de Salzmann, addresses my approach to this in a very direct way and can be seen on the header of this blog, which should give a bit of a clue as to how important I consider this concept:

"You do not realize enough that your attention is your only chance. Without it you can do nothing.”

This quote speaks to the center of the quality with which we choose to live our lives. A growing concept within psychological circles is that we are truly conscious a very small part of the time. Apparently, we switch in and out of fully engaged consciousness without even realizing it quite frequently. This is not as outlandish a claim as it might seem at first glance. Consider, for a moment, a learning experience such as learning to drive a car for the first time. There are elements of apprehension, joy, maybe even a little fear as you move the vehicle out onto a public road and into traffic for the first time. You are fully engaged in that moment. You are right there, right now. Presently, assuming that you have a few years (at least) of driving experience, where is your attention as you navigate those well known routes? Chances are that you have set the 'chore' of driving to be attended to by a lower level of your mind while the higher levels are attending to something else, possibly something quite mundane – reviewing the grocery list, listening to a favorite bit of music, etc. The complex process of driving a car has been relegated to an automatic process and your attention may be elsewhere or not even engaged at all. This is the mental place where we spend most of our time. Living, or even just seeing fully requires that we break out of this habit as much as possible.

(Click on image to enlarge) A Magnolia bloom seen one morning while walking to work.
It takes effort to do so. Part of the problem is that we slip in and out of being fully attentive so automatically and smoothly that most of us don't even realize it has happened. The direct result is that we can move through the world largely unaware of our surroundings. For the photographer, this is not at all acceptable. We must be engaged with our surroundings as much as possible, as often as possible.

(Click on image to enlarge) A natural color reflection, barely visible, but I noticed it as I walked by on the trail.
My method for doing this has two basic parts. The first is to be engaged with the constant flow of light in and around my surroundings. This constant scanning keeps me alert for unexpected photographic opportunities and works quite well. The second part is simply forcing myself to stop. To pause, even for a brief to take a moment to look, really look and consider the scene before me. This latter point sounds easy enough, but that is often not the case. How often has something caught a flicker of your attention and your reaction was to get back to that when you have the time? Ten minutes later, that moment is likely not even a memory. The power of habit and momentum can be extremely difficult to break. The effort comes in the form of actually making yourself STOP. Stop to look. Stop to consider. Stop to contemplate. Stop to really see.

This is the place that good, even great photography comes from. You must pause a moment. Only then can you fully absorb the scene before you, to fully engage with the world around you and the possibilities that it offers.