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.’
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.