3.16.2010

It's all about the Ruby Slippers.

    Red shoes in a museum thrift store in Marfa, Texas.  EP2.  Kit Lens.


I drove 1200 miles.  I froze my butt off in the Davis Mountains when the temperature dipped to 15 degrees one night and I was camping rough.   I ate protein bars while nudging the wheel to keep within the faded lines on the most desolate roads I've ever seen.  I woke up and drove 45 miles one morning in search of good coffee.  Or hot coffee.  Or any coffee.  I sat, bored in a coffee shop in Marathon as the rain moved in, thumbing thru my withered copy of Jack Kerouac's, On The Road.  And I discovered the thing I missed when I went off on my half baked desert driving adventure.  I discovered why it all works and it all doesn't work.

My revelation was put into words for me by the movie, Buckeroo Bonzai, when Buckaroo says, "Wherever you go, there you are." and, of course from, The Wizard of Oz.  I convinced myself that I needed the Ruby Slippers to transport me back to the land of "Art".  But on my whirlwind visit to the Oz of the great southwest I came to understand something very important.  Vital.  Art isn't some place, it's some thing that you carry around inside of you.  If the art isn't working it doesn't need a change of venue it needs a change in you. Art isn't a camera or a wide open landscape --- it's a way of seeing.  And art definitely isn't something you pick off a low branch.  Doesn't matter where you go because the firmware is already uploaded.  Only the scenery changes.

And the further I drove the more I felt that I was running from something and not towards something.  I went out expecting to find exciting things to see only to find that the endless and picked over landscape felt, for me, all used up out here.  But this process of discovery and re-discovery was important.  What did I really see?  What did Jack Kerouac see on his sad series of desperate journeys back and forth across the United States? The sadness he carried around with him.  The journey gives you time to look into your own heart.  If the images you create aren't good it's because you've given in to the conformity that pushes us all down to some mediocre baseline.  I've gotten good at technique but lousy and lazy at looking for something that means something to me.  The journey was like a mirror in a cold, dirty Exxon gas station restroom.  You look in the mirror in the morning, after sleeping hard on the floor of your car the night before and you see the tired eyes of truth look back at you with the recrimination that you could have done better.  You should have looked harder and felt more.  You should have ignored what everyone else was doing and stuck to the work that gave you butterflies in your own stomach and a sense of anticipation every time you thought about it.  But I didn't.    And you get two choices.  Or a thousand choices.  I only get two choices.  Try harder and better or hang up those magic boxes and quit.

So here's the deal for me.  I traded normal for photography many years ago.  While my friends marched into jobs as doctors and lawyers and bankers and engineers I marched into the chaos and candy of being a photographer.  An artist.  But over the years I reached too far.  I tried to make photography into the same secure path that my friends enjoyed in their career paths.  How to do that?  By making the thing you love into a business.  By slowly and systematically sucking out the life from the art.  Chasing a dollar by giving the people what you think they want.

And you know what?  You end up not pleasing anyone.  You don't have art.  You don't have product.  You don't have equity and you can't sell your practice.  If you didn't do art you screwed yourself because that was the only prize on the path you chose.  And the sad thing is that there may always be a market for the people that ignore the perceived marketplace and do the art even if they think no one will like it.  Even if they think no one will notice.  Because they will have, at least, pleased themselves.

What I learned from Sal Paradiso's journey was this.  We count up our losses.  But there are also gains.  The overwhelming journey is the important one and we're constantly learning those lessons.  I learned that, at 54 I can still sleep on the floor of a Honda Element with an old orange sleeping bag from Costco.  I learned that waking up at 6 am on a freezing morning means that I alone can watch the sunrise from my austere angle, miles from anyone else.  It's like water in a fast moving river.  You never step into the same water twice.  I watched the sunrise over nameless peeks and hills and I knew that no matter how good my craft the photos would never equal the experience of just watching quietly and soaking it all in like rays of new energy.  I didn't take a camera out of the bag as I watched the purple and blue and yellow of the sunlight slowly work its way down naked mountains and into valleys of valiant scrub  brush and bustling Javalinas.

There's no long term project here.  No book.  No shared quantum of revelation or wisdom.  There are no masterpeices among the 1200 images I stuck onto little memory cards.  But there is an overwhelming joy in knowing that I can still feel wonder and curiosity.  That I still have time to rescue the second half of my life from the mindless conformity of image making that I expected I needed to do to make a living instead of making a thriving.

I guess what I realized most was that the first half of most lives are about mistakes and enthusiasm and lessons learned and time spent in the raw pursuit of mastery.  The second half of life can be about whatever you can take from all those lessons and leverage into sheer, exuberant happiness.  And if that comes in your art, so much the better.  Shared or unshared.  It's the one things that's totally yours.

When I set out to do a roadtrip project I was in talks with a publisher.  After weeks of negotiations we'd worked out a contract that was workable.  We had agreement.  Right up until I saw their writer's guidelines.  They were so regimented.  How to deliver chunk by chunk of the writing on a factory schedule.  What program to use. What operating system to use.  Precise and required formatting.  It turned a creative idea and a creative process into a Sinclair sweatshop.

We parted ways.  And I decided to go on and do the project my way.  Only what I found out on this trip is that trying to teach creativity is like trying to do anything else.  The teaching is not the art.  The idea of a book is  like a life preserver for people whose industries are in trauma.  It's a way of delaying the need to change.  It's not change.  I may never do that particular book.  Or I may find a better way to get the ideas across.

But I did come away from the last six days with one firm idea.  I really love taking photographs and I'll do that until I can't do it any more.

(This is the only philosophical rambling I'll post from the project.  I do have images to share and discussions to put out here in the blog about what worked for me on the trip.  I am happy with the outcome of the adventure and ready to jump back into photography with more passion.---Thanks, Kirk)