Week 1, 2022
The first week of my daily journal practice has been illuminating and rewarding. The first thing I have noticed is how challenging it is to carve out the time to post something.
Making a new image or finding the right image to go with what I have been written takes a bit of time and always seems to be in conflict with some other internal pressure about work or family obligation.
However, by the fifth day I already began to notice something significant as I looked forward to making time each day to journal. I noticed that I am feeling more grounded and I am experiencing greater clarity about what is important to me. It has enabled me to feel less rushed and more present when I am with my family and when I am in the classroom teaching. It is also making me realize how little time there is and how important it is to prioritize how I spend that time. Time is our most precious and limited resource.
I have aspired to be more deliberate in my use of time and I have expended much effort to study the wisdom of time management.
A couple of years ago I came across the hedgehog concept of a fox knows many things but a hedgehog knows one important thing. This past year I would try to create space on my calendar where I only had one thing to work on which would give me the time to go deeper in the project I was working on. I still worked on a lot of different projects but I could at least complete them in a more timely manner. I would make one day a week a finish day or a start day. I didn’t always succeed but I was making progress.
In creativity the real resistance to making work happens at the start or the finish of the project. Starting a project is a struggle to overcome the sense that you do not know enough to start on something new. I can get lost in research and preparation. Assessing what materials would work best and acquiring all of the supplies and resources is something I really enjoy doing but it is also a form of procrastination.
Once I do get started there is the pure joy of FLOW which is the harmonious playtime of actually creating the work. This is when I pick up the camera and photograph. It is the stage of production.
The post production stage is agonizing. Reviewing the work is hard and determining what to publish and what to omit can be tedious and full of doubts. Creativity is encased in doubts before and after I raise the camera to my eye.
The photographic medium also lends itself to a frenetic pace because there have been so many developments in technology. I am typically a very early adopter of new technology. My personality is that of being an innovator at heart. I was arguably the first photographer in Spokane to purchase a film scanner and adapt digital image retouching into my workflow. Back then the changes came at a reasonable pace of about 18-24 months. Today updates seem to happen on a weekly basis. Software is no longer something you buy and own but rather it is something that you subscribe to with never ending updates. It is easy to get lost in endless Youtube research on the latest tools and techniques.
As I began a journey into the study of creativity I came across Taoism and began to appreciate the yin and yang of Western top down goal oriented approaches to photography versus the bottom up awareness that Eastern philosophy offers us. My early photography was focused on going out looking for a particular image and often coming home with nothing good to show for the effort. Most of us are encouraged to go out and make images like the ones we have seen published in magazines and calendars.
I realized I was missing opportunities because I would be put off by unexpected weather conditions or subject matter. The Taoist approach to photographing involves acceptance and awareness and the cultivation of a intuitive nature that sees creative potential in every moment. It sees the beauty that exists at the end of our nose and at our footsteps. The need for exotic travel and equipment fades away.
Although my photography began to improve tremendously my internal stress and busyness in life continued. The stress of feeling perpetually stretched too thin would periodically send me to urgent care with symptoms like a heart attack.
Great Understanding Is Slow and Unhurried
Again Taoism offered me the wisdom of understanding the difference between Great Understanding (core WHY concepts that do not change) and little understanding (the always changing technical HOW concepts) and how to better navigate the flow between the two. When I realized that the brain is only wired to comfortably hold 5-7 items in memory at a time I began to let go of the personal pressure I put on myself to have to remember everything. As a teacher I had set myself up for failure by creating the unreasonable expectation that I would know everything so I could answer the most nuance of student questions. I suffered from what we now call imposters syndrome.
After reading Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery I began to ease into not having to know everything and to recognize the need for a less is more approach to life with an appreciation for craftsmanship.
Relieving myself of the pressure to memorize and track everything helped me on my journey. I started adopting project management dashboards that kept better track of my to-do lists and step by step sequences to producing the work at a high quality level. The dashboard also illustrated to me that I had far too many items on my list.
This led me towards realizing the need to limit my projects to no more than three at any given time. Having one project in pre-production, one project in production, and one project in post production is a manageable workflow.
I also started to pay attention to the internal rhythms and flows in my body and mind and recognized that I have two peak periods of creative output which seems far too few. It still felt like a story of the Tortoise and the Hare and I was being the sporadic rabbit running around like crazy and not producing much. I looked to master craftsman and longed to start over as a woodworker using only hand tools.
The darkroom became the symbol for this internal desire for craftsmanship in my work. The darkroom is a place of slow meditation that I have only intermittently allowed myself to invest significant time. The vast majority of time has been spent in the hectic digital world where image creation and publication cycles are seemingly instant.
I am not dismissing the value of digital and I have immersed myself with great joy into making very fulfilling work using these techniques. I even created these TAO PANELS which are constructed of 5-6 images that span locations and times. There is a philosophical quality to these images that relate to harnessing wisdom from disparate experiences and creating harmony and personal meaning.
The first Tao panel I made reflected my connections between my childhood memories in San Pedro California (where I photographed the Korean Friendship bell and brown pelicans) and the years spent in Washington State and Idaho (where the birds in the middle ground and the grasses in the foreground originate).
To develop the concepts for these images I read chapters from the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting first recorded in 1676 to gain insight into what I was attempting to do.
The digital work continues to be fulfilling so it is not a debate between film or digital but rather the darkroom became the symbol of my inability to settle down into a slower and consistent pace of creative output.
New Years Resolutions
For the past 20 years I have always made just one New Year’s resolution. It is to produce one good darkroom print a week for an entire year. The darkroom is the only place I had really honed my craft and mastered the materials. In the darkroom I can become the master woodworker.
Unfortunately months and sometimes years would pass before I would get into the darkroom even though I have one at home.
As I gave up on getting into the darkroom with regularity due to perceived external work factors that pulled me away and modified the resolution to be about producing one portfolio quality image per week. I have never succeeded.
The recent water pipe break in the darkroom and the flooding has been a watershed moment in my spirit as well. The fatigue in the pipe has revealed the internal fatigue in my spirit at not feeling like I have lived up to my best creative self. I have hobbled myself by being busy and I have used that busyness as a crutch to excuse myself from being accountable.
This reminded me of another Taoist story that I have accumulated along my life journey.
There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps, that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.
So he got up and ran. But every-time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.
He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead.
He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.
A new and improved resolution
So this leads me to my latest new and improved resolution of taking the time to journal every day. Instead of trying to do one big thing each week I am trying to do one little thing. As I start down this path I have tried to embody the spirit of the Loren Eiseley story about the boy throwing starfish into the sea:
One Small Effort
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
Each day I journal I am picking up a proverbial starfish. As I do this work I am recognizing something powerful happening to me. It is the power of momentum. Each day I am looking forward to making the time to write and publish photographs. It is also giving me such greater clarity into the direction I need to go with my work. Unfinished projects are rapidly shrinking and I am experience the impact of slow production producing massively more results.
It is the Artist Way that Julia Cameron describes in her daily routine of writing the morning pages. Writing declutters the mind and clarifies purpose and direction.
In my case this first two weeks of 2023 has truly been about embodying the less is more mindset. I am excited for the future and grateful that you have found your way here to share it with me.