We have found our way into a closed world and mistaken it for the infinite universe. We do not know our place, and we do not know our peril. – Tom Cheetham
I’m going to ask for a bit more of your attention than usual. This is a little long, but I can’t say what I have to say in fewer words. Believe me when I tell you that I wrestled long and hard about whether I should share this with you at all. But in the end, honesty and transparency is the only way I know how to live, so here it is. And there’s absolutely a photography lesson here, so please stick with me.
I’ve talked a lot about Imagination and how it provides all the inspiration you need for your photography. I am inspired by the writings of Henry Corbin, James Hillman, and Carl Jung on the subject of the Imaginal. The Imaginal is responsible for whatever success I’ve had, not only in my art, but in my life as well. When I struggle with something, it’s usually because I’ve veered from my purpose and lost sight of the fact that the trajectory of my life has been set for me by larger forces, as you’ll see.
The last couple of months have been an exciting time for me. I’ve been fortunate in seeing fruit from some things that I have labored over for many years. Many of you have been a part of that, for which I am incredibly grateful. Those successes have raised a whole new set of questions in my mind which must be answered honestly if I want to continue on the path that’s right for me. It’s like a rock has been dropped directly in front of me. I try to live my life consciously and presently, and my artistic and philosophical nature causes me to poke and prod and question everything. And so merely going around the rock is not an option. The rock is there for a reason, right? So, I must dig and turn the rock over to see what’s underneath; I must get to the root of it. The first question is this: “What’s the next big thing I want to do to keep my momentum going?” My art and my teaching have gotten your attention. Now what? And there is pressure to answer this question as quickly as possible. There are rules for running an internet business, and I’m very, very lucky to have a coach who knows them well. I would be a fool to ignore them. One of them is to provide content to you every week. I struggle with that for reasons I’ll explain as we go, but the rules are very clear. And yet, the question remains, and I’m paralyzed until I answer it. Complicating things even further is the fact that I refuse to put out content that I feel you can find elsewhere. You are here to become a better artist and I want to be a part of that journey with you.
I’ve tried ignoring the question and just getting back to work. And guess what happens? A litany of obstacles appear out of nowhere. Everything goes wrong. My frustration level rises and my powers of concentration diminish, which is the acid capper that no real work gets done. After banging my head against the wall enough times, it finally occurred to me that the problem was me, not everything else. The universe has lined up against me until I deal with this issue and answer these questions. Only then will I be allowed to move forward.
My experience has been that at every major crossroad in life lies at least one question like this. We ignore them at our peril. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that these major questions are actually satellite questions surrounded by other, smaller satellite questions that contain the keys to answering the huge question, which has yet to reveal itself. These satellite questions are not so easy to answer. However, they are obvious and most of us have been confronted with them at one time or another. Here are a few of them:
“What do I want my business to look like?”
“How much time will it require?”
“How can I put that into a plan that works?”
There are more, but I think you get the idea. They’re exciting questions and the possibilities they raise are even more exciting. Maybe “seductive” is a better word. But here’s the thing. If I’m living my life as a material human being, then these are merely questions of strategy. The problem is that I stopped living like that a long time ago. Instead, I chose to live in a “soul state” that requires deep self-examination and takes into account the state of my soul, my spirit, and my place in the world. In that context, those questions become something entirely different because the answers I give must satisfy much deeper criteria. And so, the root under the rock finally emerges. What’s in question is my very identity. Once again, I must ask myself, “Who am I and why am I here?” I know the answers, but we’ll get to that.
Presence, Contemplation, Revealed Essence
For me, photography is an exercise of the soul. A technically accurate capture of the thing in front of my lens is never enough. I need to dance along the edge of what philosophers, metaphysicists, and theologians call the “mundus imaginalis”. It is this that I refer to when I speak of “Imagination”. The mundus imaginalis is the boundary between the world of our senses (what we can see, touch, smell, etc.) and the world of abstraction where myth, metaphor, and analogy exist. Mystery and certainty live side by side there. Boundaries are crossed and symmetries are broken there. The doors to meaning open there because possibilities are infinite there. It is there where meaning is born. We all reach into it each time we try to learn something new or broaden our understanding. It’s where we make abstract and intellectual connections that make sense out of the chaos we call “life”.
When you are making a photograph in which you are trying to convey an idea, you have to shoot and process in a way that supports what you’re trying to do. Maybe you want to make a photo of Grand Canyon that reflects your experience of it. Then you must find a way to communicate your sense of awe and scale and you have to do it on a two-dimensional piece of paper. How do you do that? First, by becoming completely present when you’re getting ready to shoot. Second, by contemplating the scene in front of you. Let it wash over you, Feel it’s presence. It is alive, after all. What do you feel, see, smell, hear? What do you sense? Grandeur? Ominousness? Glory? And third, you let the canyon reveal itself to you. You let it speak to you. Three steps: Presence, Contemplation, Revealed Essence. Then you carry that through the entire process of making the photograph. That’s how you do it.
Tom Cheetham writes that this awareness “demands an attention and a sensibility for subtleties that we have largely lost. It demands a sense for qualitative spaces, not quantitative; for presences, not motions; for forms, not explanations.” That means that we need to pay attention to not just presences, but harmonies and qualities as well. These are things we cannot see. Therefore many photographers find this difficult. Depth, mystery, and moving out of the realm of the human: these things force us to retreat, to be humble, to experience awe. And these are the things that make great art what it is. We’ve all found ourselves in this place at some time in our lives. The trick is to go there at will, in a conscious way. One of the greatest dangers of the modern mind is that it looks at the present moment as a temporary thing. It’s only that if we let it be that. But it can reveal things to us that are timeless, if we allow it.
Figuring Things Out
I’ve found that the Imaginal is a useful way to look at my life. So back to my big question: “Who am I and why am I here?”
Step one: Presence. I must put myself in that same mythic space and see things from a greater height, with more perspective. I must step beyond reason and into a larger world. And I must listen.
Step two: Contemplation. If I just “go with the flow” and allow the present moment to pass me by then I make a huge mistake. So, I play out my dilemma. Do I let business drive my teaching? Or do I let my teaching drive business? What do each of those scenarios look like five or ten years down the road? What kind of compromises will I have to make? What kind of a person do I become? What forces have worked together in the past to bring me to this moment? What forces are forcing me to stop here and face this problem? What is most important? What is my core principle?
Step three: Revealed Essence. Let the solution reveal itself and then listen to my gut! (it always does, and we rarely do) By the way, it’s an anatomical fact that the gut is where the human nervous system begins developing first, and so is the heart of that system. That should tell you something about the importance of “gut feeling”. And so, I begin to see it. At my core, I’m not a businessman. What I am is an artist and a teacher. For the present moment, I’m an artist and teacher who happens to have a business. But which side makes the rules about how I move forward in my life? Is it the teaching or the business? Maybe some people can give both equal weight. I can’t. The way for me to answer that is to answer the second half of my big question: “why am I here?”
Without going into all the details (you can read about some of that here), I’ll just say that I’ve been through some things in my life that no reasonable human being would wish on his worst enemy. If fairness was the ruling principle of the universe, I’d have been gone a long time ago because of some of the downright stupid choices I’ve made. But in some strange way and for some unknown reason, all those things have come together in a way that puts me in this moment, in these circumstances. And I’m merely expected to teach others what I’ve learned. That’s it. That’s why I’m here. Looking at it that way, it becomes evident that the teaching must do the steering. I’ll do the best I can with the rest, but my students will always come first. That means I’ll probably break some rules about how an internet business is supposed to be run. It also means I’ll make some mistakes. But I can live with that if I know that, as far as the big picture goes, I’m doing the right thing.
Once I worked this out, something fascinating happened. I immediately felt like I needed to go into my office and do some work. And guess what? Most of the computer gremlins and other distractions that had been plaguing my every move were nowhere to be found. I made the photograph you see here in one sitting. I’ll make a workflow video for you, so you can see how I got there.
The Point Of It All
So, here’s the point of all this. You’ll probably hear from me two or, at most, three times a month. The things I have to share with you will dictate that pace. And I have some really cool things to share with you! These things will take time because they all build on one another. That’s because what I’m teaching is art-making, and not tool-using. My mind just doesn’t generate the kind of ideas I’m working with at the speed of some of other truly great internet educators. When you see an email from me, it means I have something to say to you, something valuable to share with you, and not because I’m trying to fill an email schedule. If that sounds good to you, then stick around because I’m going to help you take your work to places you never imagined.
The last thing is that making great work requires more than time, effort, and technical mastery. It needs a sensibility tuned to that other place; the Imaginal place where mystery, metaphor, and analogy live. Train yourself to go there. Stop being the photographer who grabs the obvious shot and is satisfied with that. Remember these three steps: Presence, Contemplation, Revealed Essence. Take time to go through the process and watch your work show the effort.