If you don’t do photography in series, you go out and photograph with a brand new plan every time, or maybe no plan at all. You get better a photography as time goes by because you learn what works and what doesn’t, but the only time you’re thinking about photographing is when you’re capturing or editing images.
Did I get that right? Since I nearly always work in series, I may not understand what it’s like if you don’t. The above is what it feels like to me when I’m not engrossed is a photographic series, as when I’m on a family vacation.
Hold that thought.
When I was working as an electrical engineer, I would occasionally find myself in a tough spot with a design. Engineering is all about dealing with constraints, and sometimes I would find myself seemingly unable to come up with a design that worked the way I wanted it to, as well as I wanted to, consumed as little power as I wanted to, and would cost as little to manufacturer as I wanted it to. When I painted myself into one of those boxes, I usually found my way out. And the way I found my way out came as a fully formed idea, and was usually so inventive that that surprised even me. That’s how you get patents, leapfrog the competition, and make the company – and hopefully you – a pile of money.
And here’s the interesting thing: those breakthrough ideas almost never happened while I was sitting at my desk. I would wake up in the middle of the night with an aha!, and record it with the Dictaphone that I kept by my bedside (I was afraid that I’d forget it, but I never forgot the big ones, and the Dictaphone was just so I could sleep soundly). I’d be taking a shower, or lying in the bathtub drifting, when the solution to the problem that I’ve been struggling with pop into my mind.
What that meant was brain was working on the problem all the time – when I was driving my commute, when I was sleeping, when I was going through all the routine, and not-so-routine tasks that make up your day. Then, when I was sufficiently relaxed, the unconscious part of my brain would deliver the solution to the conscious part.
It seemed too good to be true; there was a part of my brain that would work tirelessly and continuously — and with no conscious effort — to help me out of a jam.
If I hadn’t designed myself into a corner, there were no flashes of insight in the middle of the night. My unconscious assistant left the building. I continued to do solid design work, but the aha moments were fewer and farther between.
Okay, now back to photography.
When I’m working on a series, I get the ideas that move the series along at the same odd moments: I dream them, they pop into my head when I’m relaxed and least expect them. What that tells me is that working in the series, and struggling with the inevitable problems that arise, energizes my subconscious to move the project to the next step even when I’m not thinking about it. Instead of my photography advancing only when I’m explicitly doing it (capturing or editing), my subconscious is working on making my photography better 24/7.
Jack Hogan says
Jim, if you haven’t read it already I highly recommend this book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. It describes in detail the process you outlined in your post and it shows how it can work for and against you. Fascinatingly important book.
Lynn Allan says
Brains are fascinating (not a particularly profound or original thought on my part).
I recall a scene from “Tron” where a tank-like device was maneuvering in a maze, looking for something. It seemed to be in a “fire and forget” mode. Memory sometimes seems to work like that (such as “What is their last name?”), and perhaps “aha” moments.
Or when my Lab Retriever is looking for a thrown toy to fetch in deep grass, she “ranges around”, semi-randomly or mostly-randomly, until she finds it. That seems similar to how our brains “ferret out” a “hidden gem”. Or not?
Supposedly, some future generation of the IBM Watson computer will be adept at such interlinked “aha” realizations.
Or like Asimov’s “The Last Question”?
tex andrews says
So, a couple of things here, since you brought up the quite interesting (to me and others, at least) situation of “the subconscious”, whatever that may be. Preliminary ramble:
Of course the idea as we understand it today mostly derives from Freud and Jung. The former’s work, while seminal, is now mostly derided in psychology circles, as psychology turned away from adaptive, intuitive analysis and more towards a science based, experimental mode. Partly this was done because so many interesting things were being done in that vein, and they dovetailed so nicely with other areas of scientific inquiry in useful ways. More insidiously, Psychology as a discipline in academe needed to make itself look more legitimate to its hard science peers, and so began to cloak itself in a more “exacting” raiment (this pattern has been followed by other disciplines whose bases and forms seemed intellectually “wobbly” to other members of the academy. I have seen this first hand…). Finally, Freud’s work was so sexual, and now understood to be quite off the mark in a lot of ways, not to mention underlying biases he himself could not escape. So, Freudian interpretations migrated over to Literature and Art History departments…
Jung was even more of a wild card, given his wide ranging and notable investigations into things like alchemy, kabbalah, general mysticism, metaphysics, &etc, and more in his quest for universal patterns (and more) in “the subconcious”. His work wound up being even more useless to science-based Psychology, and even to literature and art history departments! One reason is that mysticism in any and all forms is anathema to enlightenment-humanist-modernist orthodoxy thinking (for some sound reasons, but…). Another reason is the extraordinary breadth of his investigations, meaning that getting a handle on them is a career in itself….
Nevertheless, when you say “subconscious” these 2 immediately become large beasts in the room with you, like it or not.
So, the point of my post is a couple of things: 1. (try) reading “Number and Time” by Marie Louise von Franz. She was Jung’s secretary, and is herself a distinguished if unusual author. I suggest this book because she specifically goes after the subconscious underpinnings in math and physics in a startling way, with some very interesting anecdotes from famous personages thrown in. I say “try” reading because the book is pretty dense, and the content notes are like their own meta-text—and must be read.
2. and this is personal—over the years I have interviewed many artists, read their statements, read the famous ones’ interviews, and “interviewed” myself over an over again. I have come to a conclusion of sorts about the nature of artistic inspiration, and what it is the artist does for all of us. Basically, what an artist does is bring into concrete manifestation something that previously did not exist that way (the sphinx-like Andy Warhol: “An artist is someone who makes something no one really needs, but that he, for some reason, thinks they ought to have.”). So, where did that come from, that thing that is now manifested?
Jim gives some good examples of how there is something in his head somewhere that he needed to take extra measures to record, because “solutions”, “ideas” would pop up unbidden. We can say that in these engineering settings, the gears were turning in the background and that at some point they mesh—and there you have a moment of fresh understanding. Similarly, this works in art ways. I wouldn’t necessarily deem this full subconscious, but just the way (amazing, nonetheless) our brains can work in preconscious mode.
But what of those moments that seem to go beyond that, and there appears seemingly out of nowhere something beyond a building block pattern and a “mutation” into a real transcendent leap? What is that? This I would say is where the real subconscious comes into play. In art we start calling things “original” or “groundbreaking”, and they are after a fashion, but in another way we say these things to label them so that we don’t have to think about that situation anymore—because that situation is uncanny, thus spooky, and not normal, so uncomfortable.
Are these original moments an expression of individuality? We make that assumption for art. But what of the examples of the mathematicians and physicists documented in von Franz’s book? Are these intuitive moments, leading to significant advances in their fields, just an expression of individuality? Somehow that doesn’t ring quite right.
So I have begun to see this process, that of making manifest something that was not, more like the process of translation than invention. Somehow, the un-manifest is bring brought forward across a liminal space that separates subconscious from conscious to make it manifest. To me, the artist’s real task is to be as pure a vehicle for that as possible, and in so much of the best work by artists one can sense the sublimation of individuality to “the project”. We tend to value cults of personality, but when we admire a great work of art, by an artist, are we really admiring them, or the work? Is the work valuable because it is some expression of their individuality, or because it is a work in an overarching cultural context that expresses deep seated cultural values (and more) through individual agency? So here I refer back to Jim’s original meditations on “the series”. He struggles with his “boredom”, and that that becomes one limiting factor, but really isn’t the main event the series itself, and aren’t its inherent concrete parameters the driving force behind the thing itself, and Jim (or my) inability to move forward either a failing of the flesh, or, more interestingly, something within the work that is telegraphing a halt? So here we have the idea of an autonomy of the object, not the agent.
That something that is now manifest can be seen as something new, or it can be seen as something that always was there, autonomous, but needed to change planes, as it were, to be “seen”. It’s an old idea, at least back to Plato, and revived periodically by various and sundry. I believe it, have seen too many examples not to.