Saturday, April 10, 2010

I took How Many Pictures on Vacation?

As is obvious from the post dates of my blog entries, there has (yet again!) been quite a dry-spell of late as far as my blog-posting goes. The culprit, as almost always, has nothing to do with lack of interest - if anything, my ever-patient muse and I are bubbling over with creative ideas - but lack of time, owing to "day job" pressures. So, on the heels of many more papers, study proposals, meetings and briefings that I can count (while staying nominally sane), my wife and I finally found a few days of solace in beautiful Siesta Key, Florida. In a strange (nested) synchronicity, as I was completing the book I took for our trip that dealt with the psychology and physics of synchronous events (Deciphering the Cosmic Number, by Arthur Miller), the DVD my in-laws were watching upon our return to Coral Gables (where they were kind enough to look after the kids while we were away) was Koyaanisqatsi. Koyaanisqatsi, which in the Hopi language means "crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living", is a remarkable film made in the early 1980s on that general theme, and scored by Philip Glass. It also perfectly describes the inner discord I currently feel: a profound lack of balance between the two worlds that define me; one of the intellect, which is filled with equations and computer code, the other of art and other aesthetic sensibilities, which has been getting the short-end of the proverbial stick these days. Seeing the hypnotic surreal-like images of the film as we stepped into my in-laws' house instantly crystallized for me the conflict that has been brewing inside of myself during the last few months, as more and more of my energy has been channeled into purely "intellectual" pursuits (sans art).

While the imbalance unfortunately persists, its complementary part has at least been nourished in a small way by our brief 4-day sojourn to the Gulf waters. To say it was a joy to walk around with my camera strapped to my neck (something I have not done for well over two months, and one of the longest such stretches in recent memory), would be a deep understatement. Which brings me to the actual point of this blog entry, whose title recounts the words I silently uttered to myself when I looked at what I downloaded from my compact flash cards after getting back home to Virginia: "I took how many pictures on vacation?" (A clue to the answer lies in the number of images that make up the "quintic" shown above.)

The interesting part is that there are two correct answers to this question, and that each is both surprising and not. Most importantly, the answers together have given me an insight into my style of picture taking, which I now realize has undergone a bit of a transformation. Allow me to explain.

On the one hand, objectively speaking, I came home with quite a few images (in the relatively brief time I had to actually wander around, and as witnessed by the total number of files on my cards), about 1000. On the other hand, the actual number of distinct images - by which I mean a set of images such that all "loosely similar" photos are counted as a "single image" - is considerably, and suggestively, smaller. By this reckoning, I came away from our trip with exactly five distinct images!

Apart from a few unimportant and eminently forgettable "just grab the shot" shots, by far the majority of the remaining ~980 shots I took on this trip are so similar to one of the five illustrative images above that what I was effectively doing - albeit unconsciously - was simultaneously working on five mini-portfolios. Which also represents a mini-transformation in the way I "do photography" nowadays.

My wife was the first to notice (a few short day-trips ago) that I spend far less time taking "indiscriminate" shots than before. That is, if strolling in a park, say, I am much less inclined to pause to take a picture of something (and even less inclined to bother setting up a tripod) than I was a few years ago. On the other hand, on those occasions where something does catch my eye, I am also much more likely to spend a considerably longer time setting up, composing, finding alternate angles, waiting for better light, and so on. Of course, nothing in the second set of activities is anything new per se (for this is the common "work space" that most photographers naturally live in). What is revealing to me is: (1) that I am doing so much less of the first kind of "snap and shoot" photography while in the company of others, including my wife (as normally, when out and about with my camera, I both desire to take pictures and not bludgeon others' patience), and (2) that my wife has noticed (even before I did) that when I pick now up my camera, it almost always presages a long local photo session, focused on a specific subject, and is rarely about "taking that one shot." Even a few carefully composed shots of the surf on a beach at Siesta Key simply will not do anymore; I need to spend a few hours taking over a 100!

What is perhaps even more revealing (to me, anyway, as I reflect on what else this says about my own ever-evolving creative process), is that I am not trying to find the proverbial "best shot" of a sequence that will serve as the "keeper" of the group. Rather I am deliberately (in hindsight;-) methodically stitching together a multilayered view of my experience of a single moment. Each image is recorded not because I think it will merely serve as an added "exemplar" of a set from which I'll eventually select a representative "best of" series. Rather, each image is taken in the belief that not only will it almost surely be a part of a "keeper" set (imperfections and all), but that - in and of itself - it represents an important element of a broader multi-image view of the interval of time during which my attention was focused on revealing something about my experience while taking this set of pictures. By way of analogy, my pictures are slowly taking on the character of words and sentences (intended to convey richer tones and meanings, and used as grammatical components of a larger, hopefully more nuanced, body of work, even if that body of work is only about a relatively short experience at one location), rather than paragraphs or completed "stories" (as before). Even more succinctly, I am finding myself taking far fewer images than ever before as intentionally isolated images, captured solely for whatever purpose a single image may serve to convey some meaning. Again, there is nothing strikingly new in this observation, as photographers do this sort of thing do all the time; at least if we examine the final body of work they produce to complete a given "project" (it is also the Lenswork "model" of focusing on themed portfolios rather than "greatest hits"). What is new - to me - is that this process has apparently now become so innate a part of my creative process, that it occurs, naturally, even within the rhythms of an otherwise routine photo-safari.

So, what better way to convey the "essence" of a wonderfully relaxing, much needed, break from work, than by a portfolio of quintics that reveal glimpses of the five - and only five ;-) photographs I took on my vacation?

Postscript #1: For those of you interested in exploring the fascinating life-long relationship between C.G. Jung and Wolfgang Pauli (one of the 20th Century's great physicists), additional references include: Pauli and Jung: A Meeting of Two Great Minds (by David Lindorff) and The Innermost Kernel (by Suzanne Gieser). Moreover, if you are in any way interested in Jung, you will surely want to find a place that has a hardcopy of a truly extraordinary (and extraordinarily expensive!) book, Jung's Red Book (I recently saw one at a local Barnes and Noble). An on-line perusal of sample pages simply cannot do justice to the magic contained therein. Jung had worked in secret on this book for decades, and it has only now been released (for the first time) after another two decades' worth of scholarship. You can read about its story in this New York Times book report. I would go so far as to say that even if Jung did nothing of value in psychology, and the Red Book were stripped of all its wondrous prose (and there is a lot of it, agruably including some of Jung's best) to include only the images Jung drew to illustrate the dreams he explores in it (so that we judge Jung's lifelong oeuvre by nothing other than the pictures in this one incredible book), Jung would go down as an artist of the highest caliber. Even if you have only a casual interest in psychology, dreams, and/or Jung, I would urge you to look at this magnificent book for its art alone!

Postscript #2: In case there is any confusion, the five images (or image series) are, respectively (from left to right in the samples above): (1) beach/sand plants and vines, (2) close-ups of my mother-in-law's knick-knacks (as viewed on her dining-room table), (3) surf abstracts, (4) cracks in the painted lines (defining lane-boundaries on small roads in Siesta Key), and (5) close-ups of patterns on paper weights and easter eggs.