A landscape from the Maniototo district of Central Otago, a province in New Zealand c 2007 Tony Bridge. Click for a larger image.
Several months ago, I was approached by New Zealand photographer Tony Bridge, who had read some of my writing here and asked if I might be interested in having a conversation with him about art and life. Although we live halfway around the world from each other, we discovered we're both in midlife, neither young nor old; that we're both professionals who juggle demanding schedules and deadlines (he as photographer, I as a graphic designer) with our personal artistic pursuits; and that we share a lifelong inner artistic search, trying to push ourselves to do the best work we can but also to integrate it with our lives as a whole. Tony and I both seek to understand what we are doing and why; to learn from this path more about what it means to be human; and to use whatever abilities we have developed to contribute to the world in some way. However, we don't know each other well at all yet, so this conversation, which we will both be posting on our blogs, is likely to be an exploration of art and also the unfolding of a friendship. And, taking advantage of the blog form to expand on what would normally be only a two-way communication, we warmly invite and welcome your comments and questions.
January 29, 2008, Montreal
Happy New Year, very much belated! I hope you will forgive my tardiness; I've been very consumed with professional work which has had tight deadlines, and with family. But I've been turning our conversation over in my head and thinking about where we might begin a more public dialog.
I keep going back to your photographs themselves - those breathtaking images of "your beloved Maniototo" which stunned me with their beauty. Perhaps we might begin there, and talk about the challenge of beauty itself for the artist, whether in words (for me, primarily) or images (for you). How can a 21st-century artist approach this concept of the beautiful in a fresh way, trying to convey what it arouses in us without creating something that is saccharine or hackneyed, something that goes beyond "calendar art?"
I experience beauty as a primary inspiration and source of hope, but I realize that it is dangerous material in my hands, with the potential to distort my words into something I did not mean, something untruthful -- because it is incomplete without the sense of being seen through the soul of a person who has lived and experienced the unbeautiful, the terrible, the utterly Other. Beauty without this poignancy is not fully felt, to me.
But what do you think?
February 18, 2008, New Zealand
Like you, the last six weeks have been a wild rollercoaster of a ride. Perhaps the analogy of the surfer, riding the Bondi pipeline, is a more accurate metaphor. At times, I have felt as if I was rushing down the side of the wave, barely in control, with a vast wall of water looming above me, with meeting client deadlines the light at the end of the tunnel. At any time, I could lose control, and then everything would cave in. Frankly, it hasn't been a necessarily pleasant experience! Fortunately, I seem to have stayed on my board (mostly) and I'm coming out of this somewhat terrifying experience. So, in the time available to me for before I head to the North Island, I thought I would begin our discussion.
It's probably an appropriate place to start, the idea of how an artist deals with the issue of beauty. It brought me back to my artist statement, which you can read here. In many ways the statement, which I wrote during a long dark night of the soul in Africa, has proved to be a profound and anchoring thing for me. It was as if all the roads which I have travelled in my lifetime came together. I arose around 4 a.m., in the liquid blackness of an African night, a blackness punctuated by the strange and alien noises of the creatures that move in it, and after stepping outside for 10 minutes or so to confront it and smoke a cigarette, the penny, as they say, fell into place. A strange compulsion had come upon me, a kind of road to Damascus experience, and even though I knew I needed the sleep, my mind wouldn't let me, and held me by the scruff of the neck until it was done (about an hour and a half later). Then I collapsed for another hour or so before it was time to rise and go back to the workshop I was assisting.
I think that writing one's artist statement is a very defining experience. I know it certainly was for me. It had brought together all the experiences of my life, and in some strange way gave clarity to what I had been doing, and an indication of the road ahead. It is the thing I visit whenever I am uncertain of the path I am following, a kind of lighthouse to remind me where I am.
You see, whenever I revisit it, it is as if I am looking at myself in the mirror, reminding myself of who I am. And why I am.
Perhaps I can start there.
Over the years I suppose I have journeyed in and out of the different rooms that comprise photography. I've turned my hand to documentary, to landscape, and portraiture and wedding photography. I have even, on the odd occasion, shot sport or natural history. In those times I was really seeking to build my skills and a variety of different photographic areas. You see, all those rooms have interconnecting doors. Over time, as I worked my way up the spiral from beginner to wherever I am now, I have revisited those things again and again and again, each time trying to add something new to my photographic vocabulary. I suppose, over time, I have acquired a certain facility. None of that, however, is really worth anything of itself. I think it was Edward Weston who said that there is nothing worse than the technically brilliant execution of a fuzzy concept. In the end, possessing all the tools/toys and having the skills to work for them to their potential is of minimal value. Adding something to the sum total of human experience is.
I reached a point about 15 years ago where I realised that while my photographs were technically sound, the concepts were fuzzy. It was a frightening realisation, but a necessary one. I had reached that point where, if one is both lucky and blessed, one comes to realise that photography for its own sake is of little or no consequence. I realised that, for all my knowledge, the humble snapshot had a greater intrinsic value than any of my Ansel Adams like landscapes. I mean, why photograph the landscape anyway? The original is infinitely superior and far more perfect. Who was I to mimic God's creation? And so, for a time, I journeyed through the Slough of Despond. For a time, I wondered whether the 15 years I had invested in learning photography had been a pointless journey down some cul-de-sac.
Then I read a book of Sam Abell's work. In it, he talks about reaching a point where he really didn't know what whether he wanted to continue in photography or not. It was only when he read a book on Japanese garden design that he realised the art of photography lies in framing. This realisation gave the impetus to pick up his camera again and continue on.
It wasn't quite like that for me. It took me some time to realise that running into this brick wall, and having to confront the question of the point of photography, while difficult, was actually a gift.
Not long after that, I went out for an evening walk, at a time when the city had settled and pulled the duvet up around its ears, and the night air didn't seem quite so cluttered by the business of human consciousness. It was time to walk, reflect, and think. They say that angels talk to a man when he walks, and for me the night has always been a peculiarly profitable time for doing this.
As I walked to the end of our cul-de-sac, I happened to look up. There, suspended on the sky before me in all its glory, hung a gloriously liquid full moon. On the telephone poll above me, in the glare from the street lights, several moths danced and circled and paid homage to the demigod. I stood entranced, enraptured by a site that for all its simplicity was incredibly complex and somehow perfect. As the Moth Song continued, I wondered how I could possibly capture its beauty so that others could share what I was beholding. I wondered how many other people had stood at the end of their cul-de-sac and watched moths dancing in the moonlight. I realised I had been given yet another gift. Somehow, this small event was a symbol, a leitmotif for all that is wonderful in nature.
I returned home and lay in bed with the moths still dancing in my mind. As I did so, I thought back to my boyhood in the wonder of the trees in the forests where I grew up. They were my friends, my secret companions and the source of my boyhood imaginings. I realised then, that photography can be a sort of visual shorthand, and that the popularity of the image lies in its ability to summarise, to say in the 60th of the second what might require more time and words. Those moths dancing in the moonlight was a moment that can be laid down in an image, yet require a novel to convey. Small wonder then that imagery is increasingly replacing text. I suspect however that is a topic for a future letter!
Once you realise the power of this incredible tool, the camera, you realise you have the facility to do great good or to do great evil. In other words, to be human.
As I pondered it, I realised that I could easily take on a documentary project that exposed the harsh underbelly of life in my city. I could photograph derelicts and street people and those hard done by on the outer edge of society. But to what purpose? While this might give me some sort of false sense of doing something for the greater good, using my talents, would I, by going down this road, really be adding anything to the sum total of human experience?
You see, for me, that is a matter of primary importance. It is easy to take, it is easy to live a life of consumption, it is easy to absorb the planet's resources with little thought for our tamariki, our children. If I appear somewhat didactic, I make no apology. Caring for the planet and looking to the needs of those who will follow is of great importance to me. And because I have some facility with photography, it is my responsibility to use it, to try and make a difference.
So do I draw attention to the ugly, to the hateful, to the distressing? I can, for I have that right, should I choose to exercise it. But do I want to? Will I, by making images of pollution or destruction and holding them up in the mirror of mankind, add anything to the sum total of human experience? Does a shock value have any lasting effect?
I suppose I thought these things over for a year or so. And then I remembered. I remembered the moths in the moonlight, I remembered the trees whispering outside my bedroom as a boy, and I made my choice.
It is easy to be tired, to be visually banal. It is easy to decorate the surface of the chocolate box, to be formulaic. I could easily stand on the side of a hill in the late afternoon, waiting for sunset, with a gravel road meandering gently into the distance, and sheep winding slowly o'er the lea. There are plenty of books that will help me to achieve this kind of result. There are plenty of competitions that will teach me the techniques and approaches I need to be successful at this type of photography. Is it however little more than the type of photography that says “I stood there, I photographed that, with a romantic mood is thrown in?”
I think our greatest resource in any form of artistic endeavour is ourselves. In the end, all artistic works are autobiographical. As you know, the theme is critical, and for a visual artist, self-knowledge is of the utmost importance. Of course self-knowledge is not some kind of absolute, some readily package-able and easily-defined quality. It is a shape-shifter, sometimes a chimera, and endless journey to a destination that is only ever of whistlestop. If we are lucky. Beauty is a terrifying and demanding mistress, but she is no absolute; she is as we perceive her. And I believe that beauty exists in each and every one of us, that moths dance in the moonlight of every human being's heart.
So to my landscape photography. If I am to see the intrinsic beauty in this scene, I believe I have to come to it with an open mind and, more importantly, an open heart. I have come to realise that my journey through photography has not been a process of learning, rather it has been a process of un-learning. To see what is intrinsically beautiful, I have to learn to see it as for the first time, rather than be a Miss Havisham, surrounded by the dusty relics of a lifetime's memories. And therein lies the challenge.
I suppose I have always had a fondness for aging knights on rusty horses, in search of windmill dragons.