Tag Archives: photographers block

On logos, on perfection

This is my first post of 2013. I’ve had writers block – quite literally so. Across the last few weeks I have been meaning to write, but even the opening line has been difficult. So I said to myself: “Why not just say it as it is?” Isn’t it so strange that I don’t know what to write, yet here I am typing away on my keyboard, whispering to myself, hoping that some words will come to me? And as I think of what I am doing right now, I recognize that much of my photography is the same way – there isn’t conscious thought involved. Only the pressing need, just the burning desire, to tell a story.

I’m not stopping to think and ponder now; I’ve done that across weeks. This is the time to write, and because I don’t know what I have to say or want to say, I am going through some recent photographs in Delhi. As I see my photography of late, I realize it has changed a lot. My subjects, the people I photograph, my composition, pretty much everything – nothing seems like what it was when I started. The same is the case with me. I am no longer the same.

I’ve got it. Change. That is what this will be about. This blog I mean. Change always reminds me of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said that change was central to the Universe, and he came up with the term logos in Western philosophy, which meant both the source and the fundamental order of the Cosmos. Interestingly, in ordinary Greek, the meaning of logos went beyond this to notions such as language, statement, conversation, principle etc.  And you see, there are no coincidences in life; logos to me also means what my photography is about – my language, the words I want to say but which elude me, and so I let my photographs be those words.

This change in me is evident in the images I create. I photograph now from within my soul. Not with my eyes. I photograph because it is spiritual to me. It no longer is just a passion. And what better way to see the change within than use my photographs as milestones along this journey. I have slowly begun to minimize what I have in my photographs.  Be it the subject, or even perhaps what is captured within the frame. This is how my life has been of late. As Leonardo da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” My attempt is now to lead a simple, uncluttered life. I don’t want to be fettered with much. I have started giving away much of what I have, with the notable exceptions of my books and my music, and of course my camera. I have started sharing. And the more I give, the more I receive…

I used to be unapologetically self-centered in many ways. I always wanted to receive – giving (or even sharing) was the toughest call of all. Whatever I earned was mine and mine alone. I had everything and more. But did I do things for people who weren’t as fortunate as me? Unequivocally no.  If I were in a relationship, I wanted everything my way. I’ve changed all that. At least I think so. And guess what – I think the biggest hurdle to change was the thought that always held me back: “What will people say? They’ll say, he can’t ever change. He has always been this way. So why should I change?” 

But I needed to change. I had to see the difference between ebony and ivory.

So then there came a time in my life where everything changed. It has been called by many names – watershed moment, turning point, epiphany etc. To me it was the time when I finally started believing deep within that there was a Power far greater than me. Someday, maybe someday, I will write about this also. Don’t get me wrong – I am not religious – far from it actually. I am just a believer. And that changes how the game is played. The game is played where He wants me to play, not where I want. The game is played when He wants me to play, not when I want to play. And the game is played according to His rules, not mine. And when I understand all of this, I sleep better at night. Because I did it, the best way that I could.

I also had this desire to be perfect, the best at everything that I did. It isn’t possible. I couldn’t see my own flaws even though the reflection in the mirror said it all. Today I realize how profound and deep the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the Airman’s Odyssey are: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  And we all know that day when there will be nothing left to take away, will be when I will stand on Judgment before my Master, my Creator. And that day I pray, I am able to say staring into His eyes: Yes, I changed.

These are just some thoughts:

On logos, on perfection.

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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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