On Being A Photographic Artist

“Work of the eyes is done,

begin heartwork now

on those images in you, those captive ones;

for you conquered them: but you still don’t know them.”


-Rainer Maria Rilke


I’ve been told more times than I can count that my work is dreamy, even mystical. The truth is that I’m not trying to portray my dreams in my photographs. They are dreams. They’re dreams in the active sense; dreams as they are being made. They’re the unfolding of my consciousness at the very moment it emerges from the far-away country of The Imaginal. My photographs are my experience of that moment. They’re ideas that…just come. That was brought home to me in no uncertain terms in January on a beach in LaJolla, Ca. Tom Cheetham puts it this way:

“We don’t “have” ideas—we do not make them up. They come to us. And we struggle with language to hold them, to make them keep still—but we manage to capture only fragments—they are from other places, not here…(They) are openings onto other worlds, tangential to ours. They demand the attention of the whole person; they demand attention to subtleties we have almost wholly forgotten.”

With some practice and the right state of mind, you can do this too. I’m not superhuman nor am I bestowed with some magical gift. I’ve simply been at it a long time. I take it seriously and I work hard at it.

The camera is the perfect tool to capture these ideas. Press the shutter button and in a fraction of a second, you have some sort of a visual record of that idea. It’s almost instantaneous! Artists working in other mediums must labor long and hard just to make a beginning. We photographers have only to press down slightly with one finger. But there’s a catch. It’s us! The space between the moment of the idea and the shutter press is a chasm of eternity.

One of the things that lives in that chasm is meaning. If we’re not paying attention to the small, quiet voice of the idea as it emerges, it’s gone forever. We may still press the shutter button, but the power driving the photographic urge is lost. Whether or not we engage with that chasm is the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. A photograph communicates something from my soul to yours. A snapshot is merely a record of me being in a particular place at a particular time. Guy Tal talks about this in terms of “creative photography” vs. “representational photography”. For me, it’s a matter of Matter vs. Spirit. Edward Weston put it like this:

“This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”

What, Exactly, Is Imagination?

The chasm I mentioned before is Imagination. I sometimes refer to it as The Imaginal. What, exactly, do I mean by that word? I throw it around a lot, so I owe you a good definition. When I use that word in classes, lectures, or presentations I always ask those to whom I’m speaking to tell me what it means to them. The answers I get range from “make-believe” to “something that isn’t real”. One person even shouted “Disney!” When I use it, I mean something completely different. The best definition I’ve found comes from Colin Wilson. His book, “The Outsider”, is about those among us who feel out of place; who feel dislocated and alienated from Western culture. It was written in 1956 and has never been out of print. Hmmm. Sounds familiar and interesting. He defines it this way:

Imagination is the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present.

How perfect is that? That’s exactly what I mean when I use that word. We know there are physical realities that we can’t see, that aren’t immediately present. And the ability to measure something is not a condition of its existence, so let’s put that to bed. In a way, our knowledge has become a slave of science. “If I can’t prove it scientifically, it doesn’t exist!” Have you ever heard that one? How absurd! And yet, we seem conditioned not to think about the nature of the world and the universe we live in. “That’s the job of Science”, we’re told. So, we end up not valuing our own observation and intuition and we rob ourselves of a much deeper experience of life.

For example, did gravity come into existence only because the apple fell on Newton’s head? Surely not. We only see a very small portion of the spectrum of light. Our ability to measure the rest of it is a fairly recent development, but it has certainly existed all along. Ask any quantum physicist and they’ll tell you that a particle can be in two places at the same time! Surely that was possible before we could measure it. Who knows what else is out there that we can’t yet measure in some way. Even the scientist needs Imagination. Without it, he would have no way to think beyond the boundaries of what he already knows. I could go on and on but here’s the point: if there are other physical realities, is it really such a leap to think that there are other metaphysical realities as well? I think not. In fact, I’m sure of it.

What It Takes


…just like the story of Michelangelo being congratulated at the unveiling of his immortal David.

 “How in God’s name could you have achieved a masterpiece like this from a crude slab of marble?” a fan is supposed to have asked him. 

“It was easy,” Mike is said to have said. “All I did was chip away everything that didn’t look like David.” 

-Boston Herald American – 1974

In my last post I gave you a strategy to use when you’re shooting. Presence, Contemplation, Revealed Essence. But there’s more to it. How do you know what to shoot in the first place? To step into that state, to be a photographic artist, you must remake yourself by stripping away “all that is not David”. What that means is that you must go back to your original self. That self is still there, under all the veneer heaped upon it by the world we live in. Stop and listen! Adopt an attitude of vulnerability and steer yourself beyond what you know. Take a breath, center yourself, and venture out into the depths that you yearn for.

This is the beginning of remaking yourself. Find your inner voice and then give yourself to it. Free yourself from gazing outward at the world and gaze inward. Your greatest work isn’t “out there”, it’s inside you. Develop what Rilke called “a loving preoccupation with your own inner fullness”. We live in the modern world and we retreat from that fullness with all the speed we can muster. Search out your inner images and embrace them. You know they’re there, waiting for you. Only then should you seek them in the outer world. Out here, you will find only their pale shadows. Those very shadows are the raw material for your work. Once you find them, see them with your heart rather than your eyes. When you’re getting ready to shoot, ask yourself, “what is the soul of this place, thing, or person?” Step into metaphor and analogy by asking yourself, “What does this remind me of?” or “What is this like?” Shoot the answer to that.

Think of your entire being as a camera. Your eyes are the shutter to the sensor that is your heart. That’s where the images that you see are interpreted and recorded and reunited with the archetypal ideals imprinted upon your soul. At that moment you are at full throttle in The Imaginal. Forget your eyes! Forget what you see! Reach for your heart! Make photographs from there and both your work and your life will be transformed. As Rilke has memorably written, “For gazing, you see, has its limits…”

In the End…There’s a Payoff

Eventually, you will arrive at an inner place that can be felt but cannot be articulated. This is not the limit but instead is the lure. Longing arises in that inarticulate absence. Longing for what cannot be spoken, what cannot be seen, what cannot be fully known. This is the wellspring of your creative expression. And because it cannot be articulated fully, its water will never run dry. No attempted expression of it will ever be complete. There is always more.

Contrary to how all of this may seem, this remaking of yourself drives you not away from the world but fully into it; past its superficialities and more courageously into its mysteries and depths. Beware! Walking this inner path can be dangerous. It’s easy to get lost there because you are in the world of metaphor, analogy, and myth. This kind of seeing is not an abstraction and withdrawal from the world isn’t necessary to see it. Instead, you must be entirely in the world, open to it. So much so that you merge with it.

The reward of all of this is a sensibility, an awakening of sorts. You are flung into the possibility of an awareness beyond your waking eyes into a touching of the numinous. After that, there is no turning back. Once you experience this, you’ll seek it out everywhere, every time you have a camera in your hand. All of creation becomes one big piece of art; a never-ending, multifaceted expression of what is. Behold it’s terrible, unspeakable beauty and allow it to inform not just your work but your entire being. You will never be the same. You are remade. You are new again.

When we make art like this we become, just for a moment, more than human. We pass into a world of mind and spirit, far beyond any thought or thing. We enter into the Imaginal, which is the gateway to life in the larger universe.

“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

-Thomas Merton