Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Click of the Shutter Button...and A Deep Mystery

Physics is replete with "revolutions" in world-view that emerged after someone was brilliant enough - and brave enough - to question the foundations of "common wisdom." Witness Copernicus and his assertion that the Earth was not the center of the universe; Newton and his realization that the same force that binds us, as physical beings, to this planet is the same one that keeps the planets in their orbits; James Clerk Maxwell and his curiosity about the relationship between electricity and magnetism; Einstein and his stubbornly persistent analysis of the deep meaning of simultaneity; and Louis de'Broglie (along with a handful of others, including Einstein) puzzling over the difference between particles and waves. The list goes on and on, of course. In each case, a seemingly mundane - but sincere - questioning of an "obvious" fact (as Tommy Lee Jones says to the Will Smith character in the movie Men in Black, as he tries recruiting Smith's character to join MIB: "Everybody knew the Earth was flat...") led to a radical conceptual reordering of how we think of the universe, and our role in it.

While I do not propose any such radical reconceptions of our world in this humble little blog entry, I am going to suggest that the "creative act of photography" affords us an opportunity to ask a disarmingly trivial question (that may indeed alter how we perceive and interact with our environment, and ourselves). I will preface the question by first positing that one of the deepest mysteries confronting science today (apart from questions pertaining to the standard model of physics, string theories, or loop quantum gravity) is the nature and origin of consciousness. Consciousness is something we all, presumably, possess; yet is something about which - apart from knowing we possess it, and guessing that our experience of it is "pretty much the same" as that of any other humanly conscious creature - we have little or no real understanding.

Three of the more cogent (and often widely disagreeing) discussions of consciousness are (1) Consciousness Explained (by Daniel Dennet), (2) The Conscious Mind (by David Chalmers), and (3) I am a Strange Loop (by Douglas Hofstadter). None of these, of course, "explains" consciousness; but all are great at stimulating further discussion.

My particular interest, at least for purposes of this blog entry, is that aspect of consciousness that has to do with intentionality; i.e., the (apparently) willful decision to "act" (such as when we decide to "press the shutter" of a camera). Before I ask that question, however, consider this "simple" experience: I am holding a ball in my hand, which, at some point in time, for whatever reason, I decide to throw up in the air a few inches, and catch again. A trivial everyday act. Yet an utter mystery, as far as both fundamental physics and our understanding of consciousness is concerned. Just as there is no "physics" (of which I am aware), no equations or simulations, that accounts for why a small sphere located at some space-time position (x,y,z,t) suddenly "decides" to move against the gravitational field; there is no theory of consciousness that "explains" why I chose to throw up a ball. Oh, I certainly register the fact that the ball has been thrown - i.e., I am "conscious" of having done so after I've done it - but I have utterly no idea why I chose to throw it at the time I threw it. Bejamin Libet has studied this fascinating phenomenon in the laboratory (see Mind Time), and has found that consciousness is actually far from a vehicle of willful intentionality; indeed, its real purpose may be to negate possible actions, not - as we have been taught by convention - to create them.

Why am I choosing the words I'm typing now, and not others? How are they forming in my mind (and, while we are on the subject, what is mind?) I am aware of having "written", but I am at a complete loss as to explaining why I chose the words I did; nor am I able to "explain" why they emerged when they did. They "come out of me," as if by magic; and I have little, or no, "control" over what they are or when they will form. My conscious self reflects back on their existence, but appears blissfully unaware of the process by which they were created.

So what does all of this have to do with photography? Everything, really; the creative act of photography is a microcosm of our general state of conscious experience. In my previous blog entry ("Experiential Flow in Photography"), I wrote of how the best photography is usually done when the photographer is in a state of flow; in which many of the attributes of "self awareness" - or consciousness itself - vanish. In truth, though, every single photograph is a result of (at least an instant's worth) of a "lack of consciousness." When I press the shutter, at that instant, I am completely unaware of why I have done so. It is important to understand exactly what I mean by this. I do not mean that I have idea of what I am doing. Clearly, I am out taking photographs, and I am fully aware of this, even as I press the shutter. But when my finger physically moves down on the shutter button to initiate capture, I have absolutely no idea why that act did not occur a microsecond before or a microsecond after. Indeed, if Libet's research is to be believed, the best I can say is that I become aware of having pressed the shutter button only after I have done so, but in no other way has my consciousness been an active participant in the process that led up to pressing the button.

The act of taking a picture thus presents the photographer with both a puzzle (about who we really are, apart from the role we play in helping the universe take a picture of itself) and an opportunity to learn something about the universal core of the creative process and consciousness itself.

What I sometimes do (when I can retain enough of my self-awareness to remember to do this;-) is to try to minimize the time between which I have pressed the shutter and at which I become conscious of having pressed the shutter. This is not at all as "easy" at it may sound. It requires a razor-sharp Zen-like focus on the process and the moment; and is, at heart, obviously antithetical to the "photographic flow" process, as described in my earlier blog entry. It harbors a bit of a paradox: the deeper one is immersed in the "flow," the less able one is to "reflect" on the process and "understand" the unconscious instant of capture; on the other hand, the "easier" it is to reflect on the process, the less likely it is that the process being reflected upon is the one of deepest interest (i.e., "flow"). Paradox - unavoidably it seems - always lurks around questions about consciousness; and just as mysteriously, it lies at the very heart of the creative process.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Experiential "Flow" in Photography

I am often asked, "What do you think about when you do photography?" To which I typically respond with something like, "the less the better." An answer which, unfortunately - more often than not - only leads to a protracted discussion (that my deliberately "short" reply is usually meant to avoid).

However, the truth is that while my reply is curt, it is far from flippant. Indeed, it conveys the very essence of what I love about photography. Apart from the signature theme of my blog ("Tao" / photography), and my lifelong predilection toward mysticism and spirituality, the one word - the one idea - that best describes what the "I" that the external world calls "Andy Ilachinski the photographer" experiences during (the most memorable moments of doing) photography is flow.

Here I am thinking of the word "flow" as defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Drucker School of Claremon Graduate University, and author of (among many other books), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In this book (and in his multi-decade long examination of the subject), Csíkszentmihályi describes the supra-conscious state (sometimes called the "groove" by musicians, or the "zone" by basketball players) that people "awaken" to and experience when completely absorbed and immersed in an activity. For me, of course, that "activity" is doing photography; or, more precisely, when I am out "shooting with my camera" (and eye/I).

When I write, as I do in some of my blog entries and Blurb books, that my best moments as an artist - as a human being - are those when I entirely lose a sense of self, I do not mean this to be interpreted as poetry or metaphor; I mean this literally. If I come home from a day's worth of a photo-safari, armed with 10 or more GBs of RAW files, and know that I was totally aware of what I was doing the entire time (consciously thinking of f-stops, filters, and compositions), I will also know that there will be little chance of finding any soulful art in that huge digital pile. I was not in the flow. On the other hand, if I go out for a walk with my dog and camera, and come back with but one shot of I know not what because my mind was lost while I was taking it, I stand a good chance of savoring that precious gem of an image that is likely to emerge on my computer screen. Not always, of course, but the chances are usually good, if I lost myself in the process of capture.

This experience, and my interpretation of it, is far from unique. It is experienced by everyone, at some point in time, though not everyone is always attuned to when (or why and how) it happens, nor appreciates what needs to be done to maximize the chances of it happening again. This is where Csíkszentmihályi's books come in handy, as they describe the nature of this experiential flow; how it comes about, what the tell-tale signs are, and how one might better prepare for the "ride."

There is a wonderful 20 min long presentation by Csíkszentmihályi on TEDBlog. A powerpoint presentation (in Adobe PDF) is available here.

Csíkszentmihályi identifies 8 conditions / dimensions of the flow experience: (1) clear goals every step of the way; (2) immediate feedback to one's action; (3) balance between challenges and skills; (4) focused concentration; (5) sense of potential control; (6) loss of self-consciousness; (7) time distortion; and (8) autotelic or self-rewarding experience. Critically, in order to maximize the potential for experiencing flow, one must eliminate (as much as possible) any anxiety or boredom, and strike a delicate (and typically dynamic) balance between the challenge of the activity and the available skills that one brings to bear on the required tasks. The purest - or deepest - states of flow are achieved when one is able to apply a maximal skill set (which can itself, of course, be achieved only through long study and practice; i.e., a total immersion to craft) to the most highly challenging activity. This is rare, but is a spiritual prize well worth pursuing.

Among the several wonderful quotes that Csíkszentmihályi includes in his University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center presentation are these three: one from an anonymous rock climber...

“You’re so involved in what you’re doing, you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

...one from a surgeon:

“You are not aware of the body except your hands...not aware of self or personal problems….If involved, you are not aware of aching feet, not aware of self.”

...and one from poet Mark Strand:

“You're right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you're completely enraptured, you're completely caught up in what you're doing…. there's no future or past, it's just an extended present in which you're making meaning…”

These sentiments pretty much express my own experience of flow in photography. When in the flow, I do not know my name, I do not know where I am except for the "feel" of my immediate surroundings, I do not reflect on my problems or station in life, I do not worry about what "I need to do" after I've finished my photography. I am one with my camera, I am one with what my camera is pointed at, I have no conscious sense of self or awareness of being, apart from a pure primal joy in experiencing total immersion in what I am doing. I am focused, strongly and deeply, but not at all actively engaged in thinking about anything. There is no sense of time, not even as I press the shutter repeatedly or take long exposures and somehow, though only mechanically and utterly devoid of conscious reflection, tick off the required seconds. I know the flow has vanished when I hear myself ask, "What now?"

Interestingly, Csíkszentmihályi's research suggests that it is highly unlikely that individuals will attain a sense of flow - in any field or endeavor - unless they've immersed themselves in it for at least 10 years. I can attest to this being true in my case, though (being a bit slow perhaps;-) it took me nearly twenty to reach this state. But, oh how I look forward to that precious, wondrous experience when it comes! Alas, when I am one of those (much, much more frequent) non-flow states, the best I can do is recall having the flow experience, not the flow itself. But I know it will come...

So, "What do you think about when you do photography?"