The best way to drive is to look out through the windshield in the direction you want to go. Too much time spent looking in the rearview mirrors is dangerous and may cause one to loose situational awareness in the moment.

Until we invent time machines you'll just have to let the past go and focus 
on everything in front of you. 

If you ask my friends and family they would most likely tell you that I'm not one to dwell on the past. I like to keep moving forward....like a shark. In writing the blog over the years I occasionally dip into the past; telling photo related stories and waxing nostalgic about cameras that I enjoyed using but my main focus is to stay anchored to the present and to flow with the rhythm and currents of ongoing change. It's also why I like to upgrade cameras and try out new systems. While I am not the most avant-garde of photographers, technically, I'm most certainly not a believer that all the good stuff in photography happened decades ago in the age of medium format cameras, film and darkroom work. I actually believe in leveraging the present instead of (metaphorically) sitting on a deck chair, a plaid wool blanket over my legs, going on and on about all the glories of yesteryear.

I get that not everyone feels that way and there is a propensity for people to associate what they did successfully in the past with a high point in their chosen craft, or even culture. I suppose it's even comforting for people who've allowed themselves to get stuck in certain time periods to dredge up the way we did stuff in the good old days and try to resurrect the original feelings of mastery and competence they felt after having learned something cool for the first time. I can go on for hours and hours about my first 100 jobs with a 4x5 view camera and I can regale (bored) young people with stories about my battles in the darkroom to get the perfect tray development methods for "souping" black and white film but other than signifying the length of my tenure in this particular craft I can't see how it moves the blog, or my progress as a photographer, forward. Unless my goal is to stop all forward momentum and make myself into a museum dedicated to my photographic past. Something I personally would find overly introspective and boring. 

I wrote something once about how life is like a fast moving river with strong currents. If you can never get to the side and exit the river you have to learn how to navigate it. We swim with the current until we get too tired and then we find a convenient rock to cling to. If you never let go of the rock to continue swimming your fellow swimmers (your generation?) swim on and leave you behind. Eventually your whole world becomes that lone rock in the middle of the river. You cling to it and it anchors you. It both saves you (temporarily) and dooms you by narrowing your vision. Once you start to live in the past you lose the ability to embrace the current and move on. And then you die (at least creatively). 

If your aim is a retrospective show then you've already given up. If your goal is to find the next great shot then you are still swimming (and dodging rocks). When I meet people who are morose I generally find them glorifying the past and moaning about the perceived meanness of the present. When I meet people older than me who are happy it's because they are curious, willing to constantly experiment, and they are engaged. 

Creating photographs seems to me to be more like performance art than painting. The activity of actually doing the work is what an artist craves. Interpreting and dissecting the art seems to be a job for someone other than the artist who created it. But once all the focus is on the work from the past and the tools, techniques and artists of the past it's at that point that the artist has gotten tired of swimming with the current, going with the flow, and has effectively given up and found their rock to cling to. 

At 64.99 years old I feel like I'm still 18. I love making new images. The cameras are largely immaterial. They are secondary to the process of seeing new images and capturing them. And then saying, "Look What I Just Saw!!!

From time to time I have a recurrent fantasy of just hiring someone to back a truck up to the studio door and having them take every scrap out. Every camera, lens, light, computer, stand, umbrella, etc. And then, the next day, I would wake up and figure out in which direction to go now. 

In many ways we are like writers. At our best we are story tellers. Our images weave an instant narrative. But imagine if writers spent most of their time inventing and perfecting ever more expensive machines with which to tell their stories. What if the lore about the machines dominated the discussion of writing the way cameras seem to now dominate our discussions about photography? Would the stories get better or would they languish as writers waited for hardware and software upgrades to the ever-growing writing machines?

I think we are all a bit guilty of presuming that we have to use certain cameras and lenses to legitimately share the stories we want to tell. We build legends about lenses. We transfer part of our power as artists into the belief that some new camera will give us more potential imaging power than an existing one. We embrace the magic of machines to a greater and greater extent while at the same time using the new technology to replicate what we did with the older technology. It's easier now and that bothers people. But, like a writer, our machines are wholly secondary to our stories. Only now our dependence on both the visual constraints of our past, and the desire to overlay those constraints onto new working methods, keeps us from experimenting with any new storytelling. 

Eventually, if you want to move your art forward, you need to burn down the past rather than wallowing in it. You don't need to actually put all your prints, negs, digital files on a nice, toasty bonfire. You can archive them in any way you want. But at some point, in order to do good, new work (rather than just repeating the greatest hits...) you'll need to slip off the anchors of the past and resume your swim. It's the only way. 

Rocks are alluring. Rocks are comforting. At some point you'll master the rock. And it will master you.  Letting go and moving forward takes effort and faith. But aren't you curious to see what's around the next bend?



Len said...

Spot on as always. Such great metaphors with writers and artists. We are both aren’t we.

I am totally in love with the act of creating art / photographs. It consumes me. I ache for those highs ( those peak experiences), that fell me with natural highs... the photographs later become triggers for my own memories and experiences.

So much like writing it so often heads out into the world to be seen and interpreted. The visual arts has such a looser language I suspect, with so much more emotional reactions in the viewer.

You have me thinking and reflecting on my own practice.

Despite looking ahead as you look forward. Driving a car is still very rooted in the here and now. Which I think is vitally important. Yet I too often look too far ahead, possibilities. I love dreaming.

Thank you

crsantin said...

Great analogy. Great portrait. I like to reminisce occasionally, but I much prefer to keep moving. I still feel like my best days are ahead of me.

Nigli said...

I come here to read posts like this. They make me feel optimistic, which is never a bad thing.

Richard Parkin said...

There are always exceptions to any rule, I actually learnt to drive reversing coaches (bus?) out of a wash and parking them up, all in reverse, someone else froze them in and through :-) I did eventually get a car and drive forwards I’m pleased to say.

Chuck Albertson said...

Phew! I took the headline for this post too literally, and thought it was a preface to a post-by-phone from the ER following a rear-ender.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Sorry to rattle you, Chuck. All good here. No one flying through the windshield. And my Subaru has that EyeSight safety stuff and will hit the brakes for me if I become overwhelmed with checking my profile "likes" on my phone...

All good here.

Probably a rough time to make a visit to the E.R. I'll remember that when I'm driving.

Joe said...

Thank you for a thoughtful and sensible post. Reading this article was very worthwhile. Sitting on one's laurels, and thus wearing them there, is never edifying, nor even fun.

One thought: there may be interludes for all of us when revisiting the past and becoming reacquainted with older techniques, such as slow, careful large format BW, can be a revivifying change from our current run-and-gun digital world, supplementing and broadening current techniques, not supplanting them. ( My resulting 5x7 BW negatives are digitally scanned and printed, though.)

Pete F said...

Spot on my friend

Bob said...

Excellent points on GAS--I really like the analogy with writing and "writing machines." My writing seems to be the same whether I use WordStar or MS Word. I periodically sit down and write a letter out by hand to a friend or a relative...it is a bit of a different process all around, and enjoyable on another level or three.

Now if I can only find a good Bluetooth keyboard for my iPhone 12 Pro Max...

Bob said...

Great post, BTW, I really enjoyed both reading it, and the insights you provide.