James Hillman draws our attention to an idea from Jewish mysticism: “tsim tsum” (retreat, withdrawal): “Since God is everywhere, the existence of the universe is made possible by a process of shrinking in God… God crowds out all other kinds of existence. He must pull back for the Creation to come into being. Only by withdrawal does God allow the world.”
Our move has been to take that creation and constrict it still further until it is almost not there at all. And we call that “understanding”. As Hillman suggests, the proper move for us might mean letting the creation expand, letting genesis occur by moving out of the way. Withdrawing our human control and letting the world shine forth. Creation by retreat.
-from “Green Man, Earth Angel” by Tom Cheetham
Why is it so hard to be an artist? Being a photographer is easy enough. Even being a good photographer is something that can be achieved in a fairly short period of time. It’s a matter of mastering the technical procedure of getting a proper exposure. Making the leap into the realm of Artist is entirely another matter.
I recently watched a documentary about the last five years in the life of David Bowie. Whether you’re a fan or not, there is no denying his genius. A master at reinventing himself, he had a reputation as a tireless worker in pursuit of a unique vision that no one else could see. The stories of him pushing his collaborators down creative paths that were dark to all but him are many. I’m guessing that even he couldn’t see very far ahead. But on he went. His producers and bandmates would have no idea where he was going with a project until they arrived at that finished place. “Ah!”, they would finally say. “This is where he was going all along.”
I suspect that Bowie’s inner process was something like what James Hillman described in the above quote. I know that’s absolutely how my own process works…when it works. What it means is this: if I get out of the way and let a photograph come to me from my “inner” world, I’m more likely to find it out here in the “real” world. At this point, it’s much easier for me to work this way than it is to look at a scene or subject and force it by trying to figure out what to do with it. It wasn’t always like that for me. It’s the difference between being a photographer and being an artist.
In his 1991 book “Real Presences”, George Steiner argues that “it is…poetry, art, and music which relate us most directly to that in being…which is not ours.” I have said before that the creation of any work of art presupposes a metaphysical event. According to Steiner, man makes art in a sort of furious competition with God. The artist rages that he is always second in the act of creation. I’m not sure I agree with that last point, but it does seem to me that in creating work, we do mimic the Creator. At the very least, art is certainly the artist’s expression of his or her experience of the Creation. The point is that without the artist’s metaphysical encounter with the Creation there is nothing to make art about.
I think what this means is that, as artists, it is our “inner-ness” that matters. Moving back to James Hillman, we find our own vision inside of us by retreating and “letting the creation expand, letting genesis occur by moving out of the way. Withdrawing our human control and letting the world shine forth.”
Back To Bowie
David Bowie was a master of “inner-ness”. Aware of, but unconcerned by trends and popular opinion, he forged his own way forward by living in the land of metaphor and analogy that is the estate of the artist. In the documentary, one of his contemporaries mentioned that although Bowie indeed wanted stardom, he saw it as a means to an end. What he really wanted was the freedom that stardom would provide him “to understand how he coexisted with the world”. And so, he tried on different personalities like so many pairs of shoes. He knew he was different; knew he had the voice of the artist inside himself. It seems to me that his penchant for reinvention was his way of exploring the many facets of that voice. I think I can, in my own way, identify with this. Perhaps you can too.
Like Bowie, I have often felt lost in the world that I can see; often felt as though I didn’t belong. It’s no secret to any of us that the world we live in makes little room for artists, but it’s more than just that. Sometimes the call of the inner world is so strong, so loud, so overwhelming, that it breaks my heart. I know that no matter how hard I try or how great my skill, I will never be able to adequately express the utter and terrifying beauty that I encounter there. As Rilke has said, “Every Angel is terrible.” On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option because that road leads to despair. And so, I often feel caught in a gauzy “in-between” place. I have one foot in the world I can see and one foot in the inner world of The Imaginal, unable to fully stand in either place. What I have come to is an acceptance of this state. Rather than trying to define it, it seems to me that I should simply present it as it is. The latest result of this realization is a fascination with soft-focus photography and vintage Russian lenses.
The Lure Of Soft-Focus
Soft focus photography is a universe of invitation and inference. The object or place being photographed is more of a suggestion than a subject. Shapes, colors, and tones become dominant and the “reality” they are drawn from takes a back seat. There is plenty of room for interpretation; plenty of free range in which metaphor and analogy can play. In this universe of the viewfinder, there is no need for me to define what I see, no need for either the inner vision or the outer “reality” to be dominant. The suggestion is enough and the only limiting factor is my own and my viewer’s ability to latch onto the suggestion and engage in their own Imaginal free association.
I have found this incredibly freeing. When I went to California over the winter I tucked an old Lensbaby into my bag on a lark. I acquired it many years ago and experimented with it for a brief period. Even then, the suggestive world it offered access to was calling me. The experiments weren’t very successful. At that time, I had neither the skill nor the artistic maturity to see it as the key that it really is. So I put it on a shelf in my office where it sat for years, gathering dust, waiting for my vision to catch up with it. I don’t really know why I put it in my bag. I can only say that I saw it sitting there and was struck with a sudden need to have it with me. I’m glad I listened to that urge.
The Jonas Salk Institute in LaJolla is a mecca for architectural photographers. It’s one of those places that has been photographed to death. It’s also a remarkable example of Dynamic Symmetry and the Golden Mean. The edges of its many wings flop out in phi fashion before the viewer like so many pages of an open book. A trough of water runs down the center of the plaza, dropping off the edge of a distant cliff into infinity. I spent the entire day there with the Lensbaby, watching the light play with the shape of the buildings, creating mirror-like shadows that got taller and paler with each passing afternoon moment. It was magical. Mathematics and geometry were on full display in all their glory and I didn’t need to be a scientist to see it. The psychological and spiritual power of those numbers were in plain sight. I allowed my mind to roam freely as I settled into my world of inner vision and unloosed the shackles that would require me to define my subject. I let myself SEE. That’s all. I opened the gates to my inner world and simply worked with what was in front of me. I let it flood into me and I photographed only those things that touched me on the inside. I didn’t try to define any of it. The camera became my inner eye and I spent the entire day looking through the viewfinder into another world.
Anyone who has been at photography for a while can testify to the magic that happens when you zone into the viewfinder. “Withdrawing human control and letting the creation expand” does indeed allow the world to “shine forth”. The viewfinder becomes a private looking glass that opens into Wonderland. The only boundaries are the edges of the frame, and those edges define the entire universe. You see things you could never see with the naked eye and you see them all at once. Every dimension, every subtlety, every possibility, every meaning; all present at once in a 2x3 rectangle. It’s like seeing through time and space into the infinite. And once you have it, you don’t want to let it go. Time stands still and the hours fly by while you are immersed in the private show put on just for you. Interpretation comes later while looking at the images you have captured. But in that time of shooting there is no meaning. There’s only The Dance. The dance between you, the Imaginal, and the World.
It all begins with a discussion, so let’s have one. Do you lose yourself in The Dance? What happens when you do? What do you think about what I’ve said? Have a look at these images and tell me what you think. But let’s not talk about subject matter or composition. Let’s not talk about exposure or ISO or f-stops. Let’s talk about metaphor and analogy and myth. Let’s talk about The Dance. Never mind what the images are. That’s not important. Instead, be like the water in the trough and step off the cliff into infinity. Ask yourself: “What does this remind me of?” “How does this make me feel?” It’s the very asking of those questions that’s important. The asking opens the gates to your inner world, to the place where art is born and experienced. Maybe it lives there always and maybe we have access to at any time. I’m beginning to think that this is so.