The Daily Walk as Creative Activity

As I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere, my recent health issues have, in an odd way, been a creative boon for me. There’s nothing like staring into the void to concentrate your energies. I’ve been feverishly developing, scanning, processing, post-processing, evaluating, ordering, printing and creating drafts for books to publish. I wish I had done it earlier, but that’s hindsight. Maybe readers can learn something from my experience i.e. there’s no time like the present.

I’d love to get in my car with a few cameras and just go for a trip and photograph and see what I come up with. In my experience, the best subjects are the ones you just stumble upon. The results tend to organize themselves; the story develops as you look at what you’ve done. I think that’s how creativity works; it doesn’t have a goal, it just forms itself as you go along. At some point you have a “body of work” that coheres, or should cohere. Unfortunately, my health issues preclude an extended car trip, or an extended anything for that matter. I’m tethered to my home, where medical attention is available should I need it.

So, if engaging in a creative project is my goal, I’m left with my daily life to make what I will out of it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One thing I’ve noted in all my past photographic activity is that the best stuff always came from the places I least expected. Having travelled extensively, I’ve got thousands of negatives and digital files of exotic places and people. In hindsight, they’re interesting but not compelling as a retrospective understanding of my creative life. The best stuff seems to happen in the daily flux of living a life, or at least the stuff that genuinely get’s to what it’s about to have been me, living this life in this time and place.

Obviously, those that mean the most involve the people, beings, places and things that constitute my life. These are the photos I hope survive me and will have some meaning for those left behind who knew me and loved me. But there’s also a subset of less obviously ‘personal’ work that, in actuality, says things about me that even those most intimate daily photos don’t. Maybe they afford a glimpse into the person I was and am, the subjective part of the self that creatives seek to uncover…or I should more appropriately say ‘discover.’

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If I want to continue to create something of meaning to me, I’m left with my daily life and its routines. Having two happily active dogs, this means I do a lot of walking through my neighborhood and larger community with them, which all of us enjoy immensely. In the past, though, I’d never thought of using those walks to photograph, basically because there didn’t seem to be anything worthy of photographing. My eye had long ago become inured to anything there that might be grist for my subjectivity. Typically, I’d tune out the familiar stimuli of the routine walk by listening to a book on tape or music. Michael Crawford, a ‘philosopher’ at the University of Virginia whose academic interest is what he refers to as the “attentional commons”, would say that, in doing so, I’m adopting the Enlightenment ideal of the radically atomized autonomous individual who creates meaning from inside his head as opposed from the things that exist outside his head i.e. the real world and it’s ‘thingness.’

Current technology is perfectly tuned to deliver this representational world to us. Internet, phone, music, photo, social interaction, all mediated by third parties and abstracted. This is the world that moderns inhabit, a world not of things but of representations – iTune MP3s that stream through our noise-cancelling headsets, phone interfaces where we read the news and learn of the world or ‘interact’ with disembodied others via text and social media, disembodied visual images that have no existence except as they are temporarily reconstituted for use as communication i.e. “this is what is currently in front of me” and not the production of a new thing via a creative act i.e. “look at this tangible thing I’ve created from the world that exists around me that now has its own physical reality as an example of something that had meaning for me and says something about me as a human.”

To that end I’ve taken to going out the door with a camera in my Billingham bag. Of course, I’d always had a a camera with me on all my previous walks, my phone, but never used it much, maybe because part of the purpose of my walk until now hadn’t been an exercise in seeing what I could see. Given my age, I’m just not acclimated to thinking of my phone that way. Always having a camera with you, everywhere, is a simple but brilliant strategy for exercising your creativity. With an open mind and discerning eye, you can find your subjects anywhere. The important thing is to be available to it when it presents itself.

And I’ve found, that if done judiciously, I can still live in that mediated, representational world and still pay attention to my creative impulses. The other day I left the camera and used my phone, which was at that time doing double duty as a hi-fi system playing the awesomely remixed Revolver album just released by Apple. (Make sure you buy the Deluxe edition which includes the remixed versions of Paperback Writer and Rain, which, if you remember, were not on Revolver proper but released as an A and B side single after release of the album. The new ground-up remixes of both are transcendent and must be heard). There must have been something in the water in 1965. It was the same year Dylan released Positively Fourth Street as a single and not on Highway 61 Revisited. Three of the most iconic rock and roll songs ever, none of them even making it onto an album. But I digress.

What really makes me happy is that I still live in a world where I can carry a camera with me, go for a few walks, aim it at various things, push a few further buttons on my computer, and end up with something viable. Has it become too easy? Back in the film era the whole process would be a big, long, involved affair. Now I can do it on a morning walk, while choosing to listen to iconic music and giving the pups their exercise, or just being in the moment and taking in the world about me without the mediated distraction. My choice. This is the upside of the digital age.

10 thoughts on “The Daily Walk as Creative Activity

  1. Christopher Dubea

    In 2007, after Hurricane Katrina, my family and I relocated from suburban New Orleans to the Planned Residential Community of Reston, VA. I had accepted a job in the area and the Fairfax County schools were highly regarded, and Reston was in a good centrally located place in the area.

    By complete happenstance, the house we purchased was adjacent to one of the many walking trails in Reston.

    In the early days, I paid little attention to it, but a health (back) issue emerged about 10 years ago and I was advised to fold some sort of physical activity into my life, a first for me….

    So, like you I would take my daughter’s dog, Bently, and we would walk around Lake Thoreau. At first it was just for the exercise, but as the days and weeks went by something else unfolded, something far more rewarding, and motivating.

    I’ve never been one of those folks who puts the earphones in, and just goes off about their business oblivious to the world around them. That’s pretty much de rigueur up here in NOVA as we fondly call it. Scurrying through life, barely catching a glimpse of the world around them. When traveling from here to there, I always take the time just too look and see the world around me. It’s amazing what you see when you take the time to look.

    In any event, our daily walks became more about the discovery than the exercise. Some 5 years ago, the thought emerged to grab the Fuji X100s, just in case, and the world really began to open up.

    Every time that Bently and I went for our walk, there was something new, something that wasn’t there last time, something to be captured with my delightful little Fuji. So, what had begun as a physician enforced chore evolved into a delight that my dog and I actively looked forward to. He knew the walking days and would meet me at the front door yipping with excitement. We both loved it.

    Alas, like all good things, this came to an end. First Bently got to the point where he wasn’t able to physically do the 2+ miles around the lake.

    So we still had walks albeit much shorter, but I still did the Lake Thoreau loop with my Fuji. As years went by, I began to constrain the format of the photo collecting, wildlife, flora & fauna, water, infrastructure, etc. What I found was these constraints freed me to really open up my creativity and new and wonderful things emerged.

    Then, finally, we sold that house last year, and now live in Fairfax, City, VA which is a delightful old community in the heart of the hustle and bustle of Fairfax County. Similar photo walks beckon, but with a completely different focus. This is a means to and end, as my wife and I are building a retirement house in Williamsburg, VA and that will become the next subject of my photo walks.

    take care,

    Reply
  2. eric de montigny

    HI Tim.
    THere’s two small book from Thich Nath Hand that could be of interest for you.
    How to walk and how to see.
    Not really the same kind as the book about walking that you wrote about here many years ago.
    Regards

    Reply
  3. Stephen Jenner

    Good morning Tim,

    I don’t have much to say today regarding ‘meaning’…

    But Positively Fourth Street has got to be the ‘meanest’ song ever written…

    The most negative…

    There’s ‘nothing’ positive about that song…

    Regardless; in my view, it is one of his greatest…

    And perhaps that is why it wasn’t on the album?

    …Those last two lines, leave the abandoned in no doubt…

    The absolute antithesis of his friend Liam Clancy’s advice, when he said…

    Remember Bobby…

    “No Fear, No Envy, No Meanness.”

    Reply
    1. Stephen Jenner

      Oh… I forgot… Those last few lines.

      “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
      And just for that one moment I could be you
      Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
      You’d know what a drag it is to see you”

      Bitter… or what?

      Reply
  4. Steve K

    Hey Tim, I’ve really been enjoying your recent string of posts. I particularly connected with this one. You see, for the last five years, since a life/death episode of my own, I’ve found plenty of inspiration while carrying a camera around on daily walks. For me, an earlier life as a competitive runner meant I was seeing absolutely nothing as I cruised around my neighbourhood. Now, I notice things that apparently were there the whole time. Even better, now that I’ve somewhat recovered, I can choose to walk or jog (not run, at least not as I used to define it), as the mood strikes me. Either way, I carry a camera (an M-something if walking and a Ricoh GR III if jogging), and I feel no guilt whatsoever in stopping to snap photos of whatever catches my eye. And to answer your question, “Has it become too easy?” I say, who cares? Carry on, as long as you don’t resort to posting photos of your lunch on Instagram. We’re all better for it.

    Reply
  5. Leicaphila Post author

    Glad to hear I’ve given you some inspiration. I too ran for years, 10 mile morning runs before work. Not competitive, but I did once run a 2:59 marathon with inspiration from a wife who had just left me for a ‘friend.’ Can’t do that any more, but I can still enjoy my walks. It is nice to slow down a bit and recognize what’s around you.

    Best to you, and I hope your health allows you many more years of ambling about with your camera.

    Reply

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