Tag Archives: muse

On gratitude

Almost a lifetime. That is how long it feels now that I am here finally writing a post. Words don’t come easy. I am stumbling, staring at the blank sheet of paper as I attempt to find expressions that can convey what and how I feel. Nothing yet.

But I know the photographs I want to share, and those I hope will render this easy. For the last 3 months I have been in the deserts of Iraq on work, but yearning for the mountains that I love.  Those are the photographs I have open at this point of time – waiting, hoping that there will be this sudden surge of inspiration. The mountains do something for me. And not going there makes me feel as if I were incomplete. In the same way, photography and writing make me complete. I am different from what I was when I left for Iraq. I have been told that by those who know me. And what I have been told hasn’t been good. I have changed, and not for the better. This is what happens when I don’t photograph, when I don’t write and I don’t find myself in the mountains. These are what I am, this is who I am.

After months of travel, I finally got around to editing some photographs of Ladakh where I was in April, and found quotes as I often do for them.

For this one, I thought of what Andy Rooney said: “Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.” ­

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And this is what Pablo Neruda said in 100 Love Sonnets:

“So I wait for you like a lonely house

till you will see me again and live in me.

Till then my windows ache.”

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“I’ve learned that a storm isn’t always just bad weather, and a fire can be the start of something. I’ve found out that there are a lot more shades of gray in this world than I ever knew about. I’ve learned that sometimes, when you´re afraid but you keep on moving forward, that’s the biggest kind of courage there is. And finally, I’ve learned that life isn’t really about failure and success. It’s about being present, in the moment when big things happen, when everything changes, including myself.” – Cynthia Hand, Hallowed

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As as I beheld spring, the words of Ernest Hemingway came to mind:  “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”

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I feel better now as I write. I know this post isn’t great, but this is just how I feel without having photographed or written for months. I just hope the photographs compensate for my words.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ­– Hunter S. Thompson

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It is much later such as now when I contemplate deeper on what that moment meant to me, do words come out and find their place, intruding as they were on my feelings. It is only in retrospect that I can actually apply logic and creativity and composition and all such things to the frame. Not then.

The feeling of being there, both in solitude and otherwise, is something I cannot explain in words. Not possible, even for me.  But I’ll do the best I can. The feeling is meditative, of being immersed in the here and now, utterly and completely awestruck by the sheer beauty of it all. As I reflect on how I feel then, I realize that more often than not, I have no thoughts. Everything is still. And somewhere in that meditative frame of mind, I put the camera to my eye and press the shutter. I don’t compose. Or let me put it differently – I cannot compose. At least not according to me. I am in a zone.

Sometimes not always, there are those errant tears that run down as I see whatever is in front of my eyes. It is Creation. No, it is the Creator.

And there is only one thought if at all that overwhelms me then:

Of gratitude.

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P.S. I love you

Why would I want to write a love letter for the world to read? Why should I, an intensely private person with my feelings, declare undying love on my blog? Why must I, the doubtful one, say that yes, I do believe in love now? Only because this time, it is different, I feel it within – I am in love with my muse.

It was love at first sight with Ladakh, where on clear mornings, peaks of mountains part cirrus clouds and rise into azure blue skies. Beneath those skies lies a lost kingdom, Ladakh, which literally means “land of high passes” and is part fantasy, part reality. Out here the forces of nature conspired to render a magical, unrealistic landscape, a smorgasbord of extremes – both desert and blue waters, burning sun and freezing winds, glaciers and sand dunes – a veritable, primeval battleground of titanic forces.

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Ladakh is a forgotten moment in time, an anachronism if you must, with villages carved out of mountainsides, stupas reaching for the sky, chortens in fields, monasteries virtually hanging from cliffs and crags, their interiors filled with priceless antiques and art. It lies is isolated from the modern world, almost insular. Authentic to the core, it remains faithful to ancestral customs where life is characterized by intense spirituality. Rich traditions of Buddhism flourish in their purest form here, and it oftentimes has been referred to as Little Tibet. On most days as the first rays of the sun cast their crimson-gold hue on the mountains, monks sound large copper trumpets from the rooftops of monasteries, while in the courtyards below, still others in maroon robes and masks prepare for rites and performances. The music slowly rises to a crescendo; wafts of incense fill the air with fragrance, as another group of monks in ceremonial attire comes out to unfurl the “thangka” – a large painted scroll. Just another “ordinary” day in paradise, where the doorway to Heaven lies.

But I am straying from what I want to say. This isn’t a travelogue, but a photoblog. So now getting to business – why did I say “I am in love” in my opening proclamation, and not use the contemporary, “I’ve fallen in love”. Because the word “fall” implies that the process is in some way inevitable, uncontrollable, risky, irreversible, or that it puts me in a state of vulnerability. I only agree with the first adverb, not the others, as I am not really contemporary. In ways more than one, I am classical in my thought and belief, a purist at heart who bought his digital SLR much after the world had transitioned to bits and bytes, because I believed that photography is either about film, or it isn’t. I still much rather prefer the expression of B&W. Even today, I rarely, if ever, crop the images I create because I believe composition is within the frame, not in the digital darkroom. Strange, yes I know.

So in the classical world which I believe in, “love at first sight” was understood as passionate love, a kind of madness or, as the Greeks put it, theia mania (“madness from the Gods”), and was explained as a sudden and immediate beguiling of the lover. Which is just what happened to me with my muse. Now a muse either exists in a photographer’s life, or she doesn’t; she ignites passion, infuses fire, ignores rules, embraces abandon. Without this freedom and desire, I can’t create. In a sense, my muse is the stone from which my sculpture, my art is created. She is there, everywhere, but yet not. To recognize her needs time, patience, a deliberate slowing down to see your own art; when that art comes from within, when it is the creation of your soul, your entire being, when each time you see it, you feel something stir inside, then you have found your muse. So now go forth, wander, and find your muse, whoever, whatever, wherever she might be. It is only then you will discover the meaning of creativity (I also wrote about this in small measure in my earlier blog “Explore. Dream. Discover” http://debeshsharma.com/2012/04/explore-dream-discover/).

And by the way, the word “muse” itself comes from the ancient Greeks, who started with three muses and then went to nine. Eventually Plato named Sappho, born on the island of Lesbos, as the tenth muse – the poetic muse, as she was known. (I also think of photography as poetic, visual poetry so to speak, which is why I write). Much after the Greeks, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 invoked the Tenth Muse:

“Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth, Than those old nine which rhymers invocate.”

Well Mr. Bard of Avon, I found the eleventh. So there.

P.S. Ladakh, I love you.

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Explore. Dream. Discover

After a week in Ladakh, I feel the magic! I am happy. I was thrilled to hold my camera in my hand in Ladakh, morning, afternoon, evening. Yet I had been despondent same time seven days back, really miserable. Everything seemed right with photography, yet all wrong with my photographs (or at least so I thought). I was feeling blue when I wrote my last blog post, and promised to write about what worked for me, what allowed me to get into the creative groove from the creative rut, a subtle but evocative turn of phrase (and mindset).

All I needed really was to get out of where I was – the physical space. My environs had made me mentally claustrophobic, emotionally constrained. I’d stopped feeling. For me, the process of making a photograph, of creating an image is heartfelt…it’s not just about putting my viewfinder to my eye and pressing the shutter release button to capture whatever fills that frame. A photograph for me is a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But I’ll write about the photographic story some other time. For now, let’s return to what happened. When I kept visiting the same places, seeing the same people, the same things where I was, over and yet over again, I suffered from cognitive blind spots. I was inured, and for that reason, “trigger shy.”

I literally needed to get out for some fresh air. In the rarified high-altitude atmosphere of Ladakh, my brain may have been oxygen starved, but my soul was satiated. I felt everything with innocence, without thought, logic or reason, but through the awestruck eyes of a child seeing that brand new toy. My singular goal was to engage “photographic gears” of the heart, the eye, and the mind (in that order) so that better photographs could follow. I needed to feel again.

Working in unfamiliar territory (literally) often provides insights to me and offers new ideas and challenges. Again, this gets my brain working, solving problems, and leads to new approaches. For example, I don’t focus on any specific genre, but I rather create images of people, places, and things that stir me within, that make me feel deep inside long after I have made that photograph. But in Ladakh, I spent a long time photographing locals, talking to them, and that almost compelled me to look at photographic composition in ways that I hadn’t before.

On my first day in Ladakh, I was driving by when I saw this old man sitting on a broken-down chair in a junkyard by the roadside. I crossed him and went past for maybe about half-a-kilometre or so when I felt something tugging at my heart and wanting me to go back. So I turned around, went back, smoked a cigarette with him, and made a few photographs of Mr. Twinkling Eyes. Isn’t it strange how the eyes don’t have to be wide open for the universal language of an indulgent smile to be recognized? This place was en route to where I was staying in Leh and I crossed it each day. Every single day after that I watched out for this old man, but never saw him again. I’m glad I went back.

Lesson learnt – shoot at sight!

I experimented. I made some great images, and I daresay some masterpieces; and that was just because I felt free, felt liberated – there were no limiting boundaries of the “same old, same old”. I talked to people, listened to their stories. I created pictures of the same subject in many ways – over- and under-exposed, black-and-white and color, in focus and out of it. I had no rules, but for an imposition I placed on myself – I wouldn’t crop any images later. This ensured I walked (and slowly at that) to get the composition right, which also meant I saw and felt much more. When I moved physically, I saw my subject with a more open mind and fresher eyes. I approached the entire process of making a photograph in new ways and along those ways I learnt much about my photographic vision. My idea was to remember that there are a million ways to look at even the most “ordinary” subject. Having said that, I actually don’t believe that there are any “ordinary” subjects, just photographers with ordinary vision – I’d used that word, figuratively speaking, to put across a point. As Emerson profoundly observed, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament”.

Of course it helped that I was surrounded by conventional and classical beauty. And also beauty in the form that photographers with visual acuity see – the wayside sacrament variety. I had found my muse. I had discovered Ladakh. As an illustration, this photograph of prayer flags is possibly “ordinary”, but for me it has a meaning as it would for everyone who has been to places such as this. Prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bon, which predated Buddhism in Tibet. Traditionally woodblock-printed with texts and images, they have Buddhist Sutras inscribed which were then transmitted to other regions of the world by the wind. Legend ascribes the origin of the prayer flag to Shakyamuni Buddha, whose prayers were written on battle flags used by devas against their adversaries, the asuras. These horizontal prayer flags, called lung ta (meaning “Wind Horse”) in Tibetan, are in five colors representing the elements, and arranged from left to right in a specific order: blue, white, red, green, and then yellow. Blue symbolizes sky/space, white symbolizes air/wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. But for me the meaning is rather simple. Serenity. Belief. Faith. Hope

And so yes, that too did pass. All because I stepped out. Thank you Mark Twain for telling me that. “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

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This too shall pass

I’ve been feeling this way for a few days now. This dry spell is as if I was in the middle of the Sahara, but I suppose all artists, including photographers, go through it at some point of time or the other. I seem jaded, I seem spent. Is that why I’m focusing more on writing? The creative rut is obvious: it seems to be staring at me in my face, and I don’t like what I see. I have no ideas for new images; I am making photographs of things that don’t really interest me; I find myself photographing the same people, places and things, in the same “old” ways; I am finding my computer slow, my mouse unresponsive, and Photoshop a waste of time. I am finding fault with every photograph that I make. I am dreaming of changing my camera and other gear. In fact, I don’t even want to write about this, but I am.

Thank you Google for letting me know that “photographers block” hasn’t afflicted me alone. I found a psychologist called Graham Wallas. He talks about the phases of the creative process. Now Graham introduced one of the first models of the creative process in 1926, which happens to be en vogue still with the customary additions, deletions, and year-on-year reinterpretations. In Wallas’ model, the creative process has five distinct phases: preparation, incubation, intimation, illumination, and verification.

The first phase is preparation – defined as the moment when a goal is first set, generally as a question e.g. “What would be a better way to capture the landscape of the Indian Himalayas?” or maybe even more specific, such as, “How do I make a unique photograph of the Zanskar river in Ladakh?” For me the question is difficult, or rather the answer is: “What is my signature style?”

Next comes incubation – a time of subconscious reflection on how to get those photographs i.e. figuring out the answers to the questions. This is when the brain is working on the problem, and sometimes, it’s easy to confuse incubation with creative block. For me the important thing is to recognize that real inspiration does not come without serious contemplation of the issue at hand, and for this I need time. I need to stimulate my brain as much as possible so that it can come to the best, most informed solution. I need art, photography, paintings. I need to change my frame of reference. This is what I’m doing, but it needs patience, and yes, it is frustrating. Patience is not my forte.

After that is intimation (hopefully), the idea of which is pretty simple, even though it seems like divine intervention. I might get the feeling that the solution is “coming to me,” because, in fact, it is.

If all goes well, illumination follows; this is the moment when Archimedes jumped out of his bathtub! Illumination is the “eureka” moment. It’s the breakthrough, the instant when I’ll have a clear answer to my questions. I also realize it may come when I least expect it, while I’m in the shower or buying groceries, but it’s the result of a lot of work on the part of my faithful old brain.

The final phase is verification where my “lightbulb” idea will be confirmed. Because moments of inspiration come and go, I need my photographer’s notebook for my thoughts e.g. the next time I’m out on the street, stop down the lens, minimize ISO, force a slow shutter speed and make B&W photographs of scenes which dynamic motion. I have to remember that some thoughts may seem like radical ideas, but they’re also the kinds of things that will pop out when much time has been spent in trying to resolve a problem.

This is not new to me. I’ve done this before when I’d had enough of the “usual” sunsets, though at that time I didn’t ponder too much on this, simply because I didn’t know enough. Maybe too much theory on rules also obstructs creative license. In this photograph (one of my first after I “started” serious photography), for instance, I didn’t think too much. It is only now that I find I made it such that the railing of the pier was along the primary diagonal adding dynamism to the image and led the eye to the cabana and the sunset with radiant, golden hues. Classic Rule of Thirds.

In all of this, I guess if I could be creative then, I will be creative again. The important thing for me to believe is that creativity sometimes needs time to find a way out of the doldrums. I need to believe that creative block, for any artist is not permanent, much less fatal, and doesn’t need a medical policy. Note to self – quit being worried.

But what’s the solution I wondered? Again, Google to the rescue. From Project 365, to just point-and-shoot, to venturing into new genres, boot-camp photography, to studying the master’s, playing with toy cameras, old-school photography assignments, the full Monty – nothing has been left out. What’ll happen to me? I really feel like I lost my creative mojo. You would think I could come up with an answer – something, anything. Nada. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

I don’t quite like this feeling of being in an inter-planetary galactic space at all. I feel restless. I need inspiration. I’m off to Ladakh for a week day after tomorrow. I’ll tell you what works when I get back.

And oh yes, Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”.

This too shall pass.

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