Critical Compassion

My daughter brought me a wonderful piece of art that she had created titled “When the Birds Graduate From High School”. It contains no birds and no evidence of their school. Pine needles and dried flowers lay across the page against a blue background, the scattered remains of a party taking place higher up in the branches as the birds celebrate their passage into a new phase of life.

Taoism describes each unique aspect of our world as an expression, a manifestation, of a singular source. Each person, plant, object and phenomena stems from this source. We are not separable from it, so much as we are difference frequencies, or facets. At the core of it all we share the same substrate and origin, the same vibration and wellspring.

In this explanation of our existence, the source is constantly recreating itself, seeking to express itself in a variety of ways. It could be said that all of existence is itself creation. Each unique version of creation is following its own path of unfolding and its own undercurrents, seeking to be the most true version of itself that can possibly be.

As artists, working in such a world, we are necessarily meta creators. It is in our nature to express ourselves and our experience as truly and honestly as we possibly can.

I can’t see with your eyes or hear with your ears. The moments that inspire me to capture an image come into existence as a work of art behind layers of intangible decision-making. We must accept that the work of other artists is necessarily incomplete. That our understanding will require an acceptance of the inherent mystery.

Rebecca Solnit, a wide-ranging culture essayist tackles this issue as it relates to art criticism as one piece of writing from her book Men Explain Things To Me. She argues for a form of criticism that seeks to expand the works rather than reduce them. This is compassion at work, the act of injecting energy, hope and excitement into the dreams of others.

“This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective.”

Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable” from her book “Men Explain Things To Me

This is a wonderful expression of my belief in the power of curiosity and compassion. In a world where postmodern cynicism, irony and skepticism has been weaponized by those in power, and has trickled down as incomplete fragments to the general public, it is common for us to think about the work of other people as competitive. We have been trained to think of our world as a zero-sum game in which one good idea must rise above another in order to survive.

The world is complex enough without our help, but humans have done an amazing job adding layers of technological and social nuance over the infinite depths of basic biology, chemistry and physics. The Taoist perspective of our existence is that we are distant outposts from the core of the source. Like living our lives on the tips of a porcupine’s quills, we are all just trying to figure out what our world, and our place in it, is really like.

There is enough reality for everyone, and if any one of us thinks that we will be able to get our hands around it without the help and perspective of others, then we are sorely mistaken.

Solnit’s model of criticism isn’t simply a matter of giving the artist the benefit of the doubt. Compassion requires active engagement and vulnerability.

If I were to have seen my daughter’s picture without her description, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate what was actually happening or the complexity of her thought process. Knowing what she saw when she was creating it I can open up new possibilities for engaging with the image and new ideas that it can inspire.

Compassionate criticism does not mean that we change our views of what is beautiful. It does not require that we deem everything successful or compelling. It asks us to engage openly with the work and be open to a new perspective. It offers us a chance to find something extraordinary by looking for what the artist is trying to show us. We do not need to deem it beautiful, or hang it on our walls at the end of the day. The work’s success or failure does not imprint upon us. Enjoyment of a work of art does not alter our character, no matter what the exclusionary critics might say.

It is also not the artist’s responsibility to convince you or to “grip” you with their work.

Viewing art is not a passive engagement. It is an opportunity for us to gain a unique perspective on existence through a set of eyes that are not our own. Our inability or unwillingness to explore the pieces and seek deeper truths is a denial to ourselves, a missed opportunity, like spending time glued to a smartphone screen while walking through a national park. You certainly don’t have to enjoy the scenery, but if you don’t take the effort to engage with it, you will be missing an opportunity to experience a view of our world that you can’t find during your daily routine.

Those who are willing and able to seek inspiration from others will be living in a richer world with more opportunities for a nuanced perspective. Here’s to a bit more compassion in our criticism.

2Q22

What do we call a hero who ignores, abandons or refuses the quest?

In Haruki Murakami’s seminal work, his main character finds her self in a world that she suspects is no longer the one she knew. As a way of noting for herself that she is now a stranger in a strange land, she changes the current date from 1984 to 1Q84, and sets about finding her bearings.

Many of us may feel similarly out of place in the world that we find ourselves in at the beginning of this new year. For most of us this didn’t happen at midnight New Year’s Eve 2021, and for some it has been coming for decades.

This isn’t about COVID, and it isn’t about any specific political or pop culture shift. It is about the more general way in which the narratives have been breaking down around us.

As early as the mid twentieth century there was talk about a shift into post-modernism. Discussion started in the realms of literary theory, but spread through the following decades to describe what was happening in many spheres or discourse.

In broad terms, postmodernism is the breaking down of grand narratives, the stories we have told ourselves about the way things work. As these once-secure footings began to dissolve we entered a reality more focused on subjective experience and riddled with skepticism about how one “should” think, feel or behave.

In the novels of Murakami, the characters are faced with strange twists of reality, and situations that make them question fundamental truths that they have told themselves, or absorbed from others. It is in their discovery and navigation of the places in which their worlds seem to dissolve, that they play out their heroic roles.

Photography has been a way for me to make note of the strange within my world. I perhaps wouldn’t have described it this way a decade ago, but it is becoming clear to me that what I take pictures of if often what I find a bit odd, or seemingly out of place.

A deep part of me has always embraced the skeptical nature of post-modernism. My early photography especially seemed to focus on pointing out spaces of the city that were not intended to be focused on. I focused on the back staircases of apartment houses, the alleyways and awkward architectural features of buildings that had not been designed to go together. Perhaps my subconscious was attempting to draw my attention to the places which society’s narrative didn’t account for.

At first my ability to see behind the veil was a call to action, a charge to challenge the faulty narrative at work. I felt cheated when I saw something that didn’t add up. I felt as if I had been lied to, that surely someone must be held accountable.

Fiction places heroes into the grand narrative. It asks great things of them. We are accustomed to heroes who must save the world from great dangers. Sometimes this same unfortunate hero must save the world over and over again, perhaps upping the ante each time.

Murakami’s heroes also find themselves in the middle of dramatic events. There is often a disturbed undercurrent of supernatural power at work in the world because the world has been cracked open, laid vulnerable, crying out for repair.

More recently, as the perspective on my own work, and my own place in the world, continues to develop, I see a different place for my photography. Far from speaking to the world at large, my images seem meant purely for myself. Rather than showcasing injustice, or highlighting hypocrisy, or even drawing much needed attention to situations that were overlooked, it remains inwardly focused, speaking only to me.

The moments of strangeness that I seem interested in look more to me now less like failings of society, and more like accidents, easily forgiven in context of all that is taking place around us. Like Tolkien’s wonderful description, the world in which we live has been spread too thin, like too little butter over too much bread. There is so much complexity and ongoing development that no one can possibly comprehend or begin to approach an understanding of it all. Not that we ever really could, though we did a wonderful job convincing ourselves.

Postmodernism has been a blessing, a liberation from outdated models of thinking that might have tied us down artificially to a world that no longer existed. It has given us tools to free us up for new development and evolutions. All change requires conservation of energy, and the destruction or transmutation of what exists before it can become something new.

Like any tools, however, the ability to criticize and tear-down a grand narrative can be turned loose where it is not helpful. Like any tool, it requires the proper training, or at least a passing glance at the manual before operation. It seems that the disintegration has gone rampant in our time, accompanied by the escalation of complexity in our world. We are confronted by a civilization in which the landscape is changing daily, and we are simultaneously working to destroy the maps we have used up until now, no matter how imperfect. What is more, anyone who tries to present a new map is immediately pulled down and silenced.

Murakami’s heroes often disrupt what we expect of them. Sometimes this means abandoning the “main” quest altogether. Often this means making decisions which place them into unique consequences many of us would not be willing to live with. For each character the real story becomes about how they orient themselves to the world around them, and what they ultimately choose to strive for as an individual, rather than looking outwards at the values, expectations and judgments of other people. The reader is often left feeling harmoniously adrift as the world-building and the characters part ways on the page.

Looking at the world through a lens has been a way for me to identify where my resonance is with the world around me. Reviewing the art I have created across a variety of media during the last couple decades, I can see what carries meaning for me, and where the questions are that I have been working to tease out.

Photographs of nature dial in on dense foliage, intricate textures and layered compositions. Nature has been my refuge and my inspiration for a while, but I find myself returning to images of what humans have built. Still, it is those accidental moments, the awkward juxtapositions, the unintended consequences of what we have created which interest me. I seem to enjoy the beauty within the chaos and the idea that everything has a life of its own, especially in concert with everything else.

These conversations continue in all areas of my life, and it has become easier and easier for me to recognize where I feel most activated and whole, and what situations seem unnatural and toxic.

Taoism has helped me focus these ideas, that everything is living out its own unique character. That to express oneself fully, to be most fully who you are, is the most natural and important way for us to try and be in this world.

Stoicism urges us to ground ourselves in values. A life lived in congruence with our core values is the way to live honestly, openly and fully, without regrets.

In order to be most fully ourselves, we need to do the work of getting to know ourselves, of testing our value systems and challenging what we think we ought to be doing. Murakami’s characters remain true to themselves, and their abandonment of the quest that they have been thrust upon is of no concern to them. Their purpose lies within, their quest is not open for us to see. We may not be able to describe the what or the why, but we all recognize someone who is being true to themselves.

Now that we are in the deep throes of tearing down the narratives around us, it is time to starting thinking about the next steps. Destruction is useful to clear the way for something new. The onus looms large that we begin the work of reconsctruction. I believe it must be a hyper-grassroots effort, in which each individual concentrates inwards. Like a substance breaking into basic atoms, we must start from the bottom up.

When living in accordance with our own nature we are learning to define ourselves on our own terms. It may be awkward and it won’t always be comfortable, but the result is there for anyone who does the work. Live life according to your own values and no matter what is going on around you it can feel like an authentic life.

Murakami’s characters use the strangeness of their situation to spark this transformation. The fact that the world is broken isn’t their charge to go and fix it the world outside, it is a reflection of what is happening within. The quest they ultimately undertake brings them into a new world. Not one in which the outward reality is back to “normal”, but one in which they are free to live a whole life no matter what else is going on.

Art, curiosity and compassion are tools that we can use to discover ourselves and test our values. These attributes can be combined to tease out a life in which we can feel more whole. It may not seem like much, but I think it has to start here.

In a world where the grand narratives have been torn down, it is on the individual to create their own roots.

That is my charge for 2Q22. Not to change the world, but to change ourselves. Follow your curiosity, support others with your compassion.

Wishing everyone the best this year, thanks for reading.

Conceptual Awareness – Moment of Conception

At what point within the process of making the photograph, did the photographer understand what it was he or she was trying to capture? It is tempting to look at a photograph and think, as a viewer, that we understand what it was the photographer saw or was trying to show. The final image is only one clue to to its origins.

Minor White, a photographer and teacher at the California School of Fine Arts during the mid-twentieth century, want his students to spend time thinking critically about the decisions they were undertaking during the process of image making. He felt that for an artist to grow and develop their work consciously, they needed to spend time looking closely at each aspect of the work they were creating.

In order to support this effort he created a five point framework from which images could be dissected and evaluated. This post covers the fifth and final point of his framework; considering exactly when the idea of image was formulated, and at which point the creative process ceased. There are several interesting aspects of this which were diffiult to nail down, even in the time that White was teaching. As our technology has evolved the complications of this specific question have increased exponentially, though that might not change it in essentials. I would like to spend some time reviewing how White envisioned the question, and how we may no longer be able to judge it for our own evaluation given the changing world.

The first four points from his framework have been discussed in the posts linked below.

White’s framework is meant to be used by his students to help the envisions where they sit along the span of a conceptual spectrum. On one end he described photographers whose use of the camera seemed to come from a conceptual framework of “camera-as-brush”, describing how they intended to express themselves through the creation of a new work, which could be judged on its own and could itself be thought of as an art object. On the other end he describes those who use the camera as an “extension-of-vision”, or whose work aims to capture the truth of something outside of the picture frame, acting perhaps as a channel for expression of something external.

When discussing creative conception, he describes the spectrum quite simply like this: those who are working from a concept of camera as “extension-of-vision” execute the full creative energy of the image during the staging of the shot, the set up of the camera and the time looking through the viewfinder. For them, the creative process ceases as soon as the shutter is released. Each stage occuring after this point (processessing of the film into a final print) was undertaken so as to preserve as accurately as possible the photographer’s vision from that initial capture.

In contrast, those working from a conceptual standpoint of “camera-as-brush” may see the initial shutter release as one step along the creative process. Each subsequent stage might bring new creative opportunities and inspiration that could contribute to how the final image comes together; one process contributing to the next as the artist crafts the desired final outcome. Easy examples of this might be images with post-processing edits, double exposures or “handwork” adjustments to the captured image. Creativity, however, is always going to be known only to the artist, and therefore can never truly be teased out.

This isn’t where the step ceases. It isn’t enough to look at one’s own work in a void, thinking about what decisions went into each piece without relation to the work of other artists. White included this criteria because of the challenge it imposes and the opportunities it provides, not in spite of the futility. Like archeologists, we must use the clues we have available, and make the best guesses that we can. Even if we cannot be sure of our results, the pursuit itself is where we will learn what is most helpful.

Several photographers working in the early twentieth century were gracious enough to speak or write about their process so that we can use them for perspective.

Ansel Adams sits near the purest end of the “extension-of-vision” range of White’s conceptual spectrum. He is famous for developing what he called the “zone system” of taking pictures, which placed significant emphasis on previsualization of how the image would look before taking the picture. His was a process of having every aspect set up ahead of time. He knew how the lighting would appear, what the tonal range would be and how the final outcome would be framed, and only then did he actually release the shutter.

This sounds like science, and there is certainly some of that to go around, but it must not be overlooked that each photograph is still a vision.

The layered graphic images I have been creating certainly fall onto the other end of the spectrum. Each begins with a single image that takes on new life after creation with the camera. It is in the process of juxtaposing images that relate to each other, that I begin to develop what will become the final creation. The process of creation continues well beyond the camera, though I respect the essential properties of that step.

Though it seems easy to think about the poles of photography on a scale such as this, things have changed in regards to technology as well as visual culture, which make this scale quite a bit more complicated. Take what seems to be a simple litmus test for White: whether creativity stops at the click of the shutter or not.

In the beginning of the twentieth century there were certainly ways to create photographic images without using a camera, but they were not the norm. The conceptual benchmark of creativity that stops with the camera itself would have resonated as a mechanical and optical truism. Once the film has been exposed, everything else done to it as sort of “after” the act of taking a picture.

Nearly as soon as digital camera technology came into existence, this simple act of pressing the shutter release became more complex. The DSLR camera retains some of the optical elements of film photography by reflecting light through the lens, over the protected sensor and through viewfinder. The film itself is digital, but much of the optical effect of composing an image using pure light, remains. Mirrorless cameras are one step away, eliminating the optical through-put. What the photographer sees on either the digital screen, or through the viewfinder (also digital) is what the sensor is seeing. Immediately the photographer is one step removed, for they are already seeing a potential “finished” result of the camera before they click the button.

In one respect, this aides in the purism. No longer is there a chance that unintended consequences of the darkroom process can alter the outcome that was initially envisioned. For many photographers at the beginning of the art form, this was a huge part of their process and their outcome.

What come with it, however, are a suite of adjustments which are being applied to the image in real time before the image is captured. Many of these are simply there to aide in the usual optical balancing which goes into any photograph. Others provide effects that would never have been achieved with a mechanical film camera, and blur the line between the artistic intent, and the actual return.

For instance, my Fujifilm X-E1, the first generation mirrorless from that company, allows for several different types of film simulation, such as monochrome, sepia or a range of color adjusted films which the company creates for traditional camera. When these effects are live, the camera is showing me something other than what it sees. It records the full RAW spectrum of data, including color, but shows a monochrome version on the viewfinder. Another option is for bracketing, which is the successive capture of multiple photos, usually three, in which some factor is adjusted for each one to capture a range. For instance, if I wasn’t sure whether my image was properly exposed I could have it take three pictures at different exposures, giving me the option to pick the best one.

This isn’t even to discuss the fact that digital photography allows us thousands of instant feedback photos without worry that we will run out of film. Photographers no longer need to spend so much time framing each shot so selectively when they can get real time feedback and make adjustments on site with a few test pictures. If a photo is developed over the course of thirty test shots, or selected after coming back and combing through hundreds of similar ideas captured during a photo shoot, does that mean that creativity continues?

My camera was out-dated when I purchased it used, and I am not familiar with some of the current software updates which might be available on other models. Looking at camera phones, and the expanding suite of apps available to filter and pre-adjust photos being taken it is quite clear that the purist ideal of pre-visualization can no longer be traced to the click of a button.

Perhaps, in keeping with the spirit of White’s framework, it is best to step back from the details of the technology and try to look at the spirit of intention. Even those artists who work with camera phones filters and taking hundreds of test shots have a process during which they are expressing their creative goals. Some will be able to express that their goal is to take the “final” image through the camera as best as possible, rather than make any adjustments after the fact.

Harry Callahan, who was teaching and creating photographs through the middle of the twentieth century, provides a more complicated and nuanced perspective on this question from White’s framework. The two images shown below were taken by Callahan in and around Chicago during his time teaching there. Many of his images used double-exposure to layer pictures on top of one another. This process was clearly showing how his creativity and expression were continuing beyond the camera, and extending into the “camera-as-brush” realm, in trying to create an image from photographic material that could tell the story more effectively than a scene which he could capture through the lens.

Chicago, Harry Callahan, 1947, The MET

During the next year he seems to have found a building, and framed an image, which tells a similar story, but without any post-processing or external adjustments. The spirit exits in both, but the creative process has been executed differently, this time feeling much more like White’s description of camera as “extension-of-vision”.

Chicago, Harry Callahan, 1948, The MET

Thankfully we also have written resources from Callahan in which he discusses more about how he thought about the creation of the images.

He had a difficult time explaining why it was he took the photos that he did. Something outside of himself seemed to be calling to him, and he was trying to capture something which had piqued his interest visually out in the world, even if he wasn’t able to explain what it was, even after the image was taken.

This may sound like the purist end of the spectrum, but he was also vocal about how he did not practice pre-visualization. He seemed to take his pictures instinctually and perhaps leaving open some of the results to chance in the development process. Clearly, some images spoke to him later on in exploring how to further push their underlaying elements.

What are we to do about someone who seems a bit unclear of their own conceptual station?

As viewers looking in we will never be able place words in the mouth of another artist, but when instinct is at play within the process it may be easier to assess the situation from the outside. Perhaps the artist is simply too close to see the larger trends at work, but for others the underlaying concepts will be more clear. Creating work instinctually based on some kind of deep-buried internal compass is surely of a different inherent quality than shooting randomly hoping for an interesting picture. Callahan wasn’t able to express many aspects of his work, but he was clear about what he was trying to achieve. He was trying to show the world the unique things that resonated with him in a way that brought them to life, brought them to our attention fresh of any preconceived notions. He was trying to be true to himself, no matter what that looked like, and no matter what the process itself required.

I think that is a key for this framework, and what White was ultimately trying to provide to his students. Placing oneself upon the spectrum is only helpful in the perspective it provides. Artists can use the information to create a bit more consciously. As with any label, the temptation is there to put things in boxes, but that was not the intention. White himself created work across the spectrum of conceptual camera use throughout his career.

Like Callahan above, for most artists, we are resonating with something, trying to express something which exists intangibly outside of our grasp. Our attempt to capture it may take many forms, but it can be enlightening to think about how and why we do it the way that we do.

I encourage any creative to see if these questions provides feedback on how the creative process exists within themselves.

Where does your creative impulse end? Do you feel like capturing the image is the end, or are you constantly seeing new prospects and avenues all the way until the image is complete? Is this really something we can see in the work of another artist, or are we simply fooling ourselves?

Thank you for reading through these exercises and I hope that you find something useful to take away when thinking about your own work.

Conceptual Awareness – What Is Real

How do we treat the subjects of our photography? Do we seek to express inherent qualities of the object as seen outside of ourselves, or do we use the things we photograph to express something from within us? This is one of the central questions that Minor White asked his students in order to help them get at the heart of who they were as photographers, and perhaps as people as well.

White created a five point framework while he was teaching photography in San Francisco immediately after the end of WWII. He want to give his students a framework for using the work they were creating to self-evaluate. Kind of like an archeological dig, he wanted each student to use the clues found in their own work to uncover truths about the conceptual foundation they were working from.

In this article I am going to spend time talking about the fourth point on White’s list, which talks about the inherent “reality” of the subject in the photograph.

Articles on the preceding three points of the framework can be found here:

We should think about this analysis in the context of a spectrum. How we depict the reality of subjects within our photographs isn’t a clear cut “yes” or “no” binary, but will place each photographer somewhere along a sliding scale.

At one end of this scale are photographers whom White described as using “camera-as-brush”, and were generally coming from an artistic concept in which they were using photography to create an expression of themselves, a photograph as a new art object that had been brought into existence to convey an expressive meaning. On the other end of the spectrum are photographers who use their camera as “extension-of-vision” as he put it, to capture some truth outside of themselves, channeling their photographs and presenting them to the viewer as if a conduit to something from without.

Talking about reality in our current post-modern and relativistic mindset is not such an easy task. Especially for artists, the concept of a single identifiable and agreed upon reality may be restrictive or simply misguided.

What White seemed to be focusing on, however, was something we encountered during the previous post on composition. Do the contents of the image seem to be real objects, or do they seem to have been abstracted? Perceptions of reality will be different for each viewer, which is ultimately how questions like this will be decided over time.

I have already spent some time talking about post-processing and the vast array of manipulations that can be made to am image once it has been captured. In White’s time there were also plenty of techniques at hand for that kind of adjustment. When we are talking about the representation of the subject we aren’t talking about edits or tweaks. We are talking about the fundamental capture, and whether they come across with a sovereignty unto themselves.

Let us focus on some of the essential optical qualities of a photograph, like focus, exposure and tone.

Soap Bubbles, Berenice Abbott, 1946, The MET

Though clearly an abstract image in terms of perspective and composition of the image, this photo by Bernice Abbott demonstrates White’s ideas of reality quite nicely.

Abbott has used the essential optical elements to capture with technical accuracy the elements of the soap bubbles with as much clarity as she could. The delineations between each bubble are points of focus. The tonal range is subtle and smooth throughout the image, reaching contrasting points of light and darkenss but providing a lot of information about the roundness of the forms and the tactile nature of what we are looking at.

The reality of these objects as bubbles, the sense of wetness, or delicacy, is intact. It is the nature of the object which she is seeking to transfer on to the viewer rather than impose her own agenda.

Altering, or masking reality can be as simple as over or under exposure, selective focus or overpowering compositional execution.

Untitled (View Upwards to Fire Escape), Walker Evans, The MET

This image by Walker Evans is clearly of buildings, but the sharp tonal contrasts and inky black silhouettes do not read primarily in this way. Instead, their reality as buildings resides secondary or at best alongside, the striking graphic forms of sky and shadow.

Each of these images is abstract, each is presented without post-processing, and each is arguably within the range of how a human eye would perceive the same subjects without a camera. It is in the viewer’s perception that these images seem to diverge.

All off White’s questions seem to be an exercise in teasing out whether the artist is working most broadly from without, or from within. In the case of represented reality, is the artist seeking to convey a truth that they have seen, or are they trying to communicate a truth they have within?

I think the two example images in this post are excellent representations for how using this overall framework of questions can help a photographer zero in on what is going on when they make pictures. Both photographs by Abbott and Evans fall pretty closely on the spectrum, especially as compared to some of the other aspects we have gone through in previous posts. The ways in which they diverge, and how they diverge, are what help us to see what was going on in the artists mind.

Pretty much the entire drive from Cleveland to the east coast will look the same for each driver, but taking a different exit at the end will mean ending up in Boston rather than New York.

Pretty much the entire drive from Cleveland to the east coast will look the same for each driver, but taking a different exit at the end will mean ending up in Boston rather than New York.

Imagining it from the other perspective, I could also think of a highly abstracted and even edited image in which the elements taken from reality are still preserved in such a way so that they are identified as having come from elsewhere. Perhaps this is the case with some of my own graphic explorations. I did not want to create my own lines and forms, but rather, wanted to retain the sense that there had been an external object, inspiration and link to the natural world, even if it isn’t immediately clear or identifiable.

This image “Meridian” is an example of my work in which the natural elements are not presented as we normally see them, but hopefully retain a sense of their origin. In this case, the color and context have been abstracted and do not reflect how these wild flowers and grasses would normally look, but the rhythms and textures are enough to retain the essential qualities that tie them to the real world. These textures were not hand made, and a viewer would link them back to a real plant from the real world.

In comparison to this is an image by a sculptor, Pol Bury, who cut up photographs to create this dynamic new visual.

Again, the formation of the image and the structure of the building are completely abstracted, and only vaguely architectural in the basic verticality and the base having been placed upon the street.

It is the tonal quality of the structure, the shadows and highlights as picked up in the photograph that clue us in to a scene of deeper reality. Rather than this being a fully constructed and drawn image, we are made aware of the connection to real element that exist in the world outside of the image. This tie to the physical world helps draw a sharp contrast and harmony with the dynamically unreal nature of the print.

In these examples, I hope, it is easier to see how White’s sense of “reality” in the image should not restrict us to seeing it as simply representational in a documentarian style. The way in which the reality of subjects is presented can have just as much flexibility and range as the composition or other factors.

How do your images work to highlight or mask the reality of your subjects? Do you think of yourself as trying to capture some underlying truth of the scene, or are you looking to channel something of your own expression through the objects you choose to depict? Have you learned something new about the way that you see the world, or the images you created?

The next post will cover the fifth and final piece of White’s framework, which discusses the moment(s) of creativity itself in relation to the final picture.

Conceptual Awareness – World Within the Frame

Looking back through images we have created can give us useful insights about how we think about the art we make, if we can leverage the questions that matter. Minor White, an innovative instructor at the California School of Fine Arts during the middle of the twentieth century provided such a framework for his students to use. I am taking each of the five points separately to see how they can be put to use in our contemporary era of changing technology and social norms.

This article will be focused on the third point of his list: how the composition of the image speaks to us about what the artist is trying to achieve, or where they are coming from when creating their work.

Previous articles in this series can be accessed through these links:

Composition, or the arrangement of visual elements within the frame of the final image, may be one element that is not significantly different now than it was when White was teaching. At least, not different from a technological standpoint. Though our cameras have changed, our post processing options have exploded, and the options for how we have our images presented to the world have also multiplied, there will always be the final reality of a frame, and the contents. Entire articles may be dedicated to the ways in which modern technology may actually eliminate this (think Meta, projection mapping and other potentially border-less evolutions) but for now I will focus on a realm in which “photography” still ends in something resembling a photograph.

In all of these thought exercises, Minor White was trying to help his students see themselves as coming from points oriented along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum White saw artists who were using “camera-as-brush”, or camera as a tool to create images from a tradition of painting, drawing, or fabricating the image in some way to create something new in the hand of the artist. On the other end of the spectrum were those he as as using the camera as “extension-of-vision”, or seeking to reveal an outside truth about the world through their lens, and therefore working to represent it as faithfully as possible to an external “reality”.

A simple litmus test in regards to composition is whether the layout of the final image seems to have been orchestrated in any obvious manner. Has the subject been consciously framed by other elements to be seen in balance? Has the image been staged in a certain way? Are there strong diagonals or verticals that seem “placed”? Is the image seeking to represent itself in any tradition of landscape painting or seated portrait?

Mystery Of The Street, Umbo (Otto Umbehr) 1928, The MET

In the image posted here from Umbo, the top down street view is sharply reformatted into a second scene, seemingly existing in a world other than the one we initially recognize. The strong diagonal formed by the sidewalk divides the image in half, creating a contrast between the figures. The shadows, lengthened in the afternoon or morning light, become the upright forms of humans that we expect to see. Their simplified silhouette forms push them into a realm of generalized meaning and symbol for man, woman and child, though their interactions are unclear. All of this is brought sharply into existence through the conscious framing of the elements within the frame of the image.

A created, or forced, composition will generally make the image appear to be a constructed thing. The viewer will instinctually consider the image itself, the work of art, the message it is trying to convey, and will stand back from entering the image, from seeing it as if with their own eyes.

To use the camera as extension-of-vision, the artist works to compose the image that they see in the world outside of themselves. White saw these images as being composed and dictated by the subjects, rather than the artist.

Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, Eugene Atget, 1928, The MET

In many ways, this is the central point that White seems to try and tease out throughout his five point framework: does the image invite the viewer to look into the image, or at the image.

When I think of photographers who capture images without imposing an artificial composition, I think immediately of “street photographers” and journalists. Those who are out seeking to capture the momentary happenings of the world around them, often with lightning reflexes and their instincts to guide them. In many of these images there is little chance to frame an image, and therefore we naturally see them achieve a sense of spontaneous open layout.

For any other photographer, even when trying consciously to break from what might be seen as a “traditional” sense of composition, there will always be the visual instincts that lead us to create images with a sense of balance, or rhythm or contrast or harmony or other fundamental quality so as to bring the image into cohesion. Indeed, these compositional elements are what help us create strong images which people will want to spend time looking at. Without some of these elements, a viewer is unable to grasp the thread, and will not be able to appreciate what the photographer initially reacted to in his or her own mind’s eye.

This and the following bullet points tend towards a more difficult territory of ambiguity in analysis, and White was quick to acknowledge this.

He came down in the shoes of the viewer, and their perception of the composition. Does the image seem to be orchestrated? Do the elements seem to hang together of their own nature and harmony?

In White’s time, when photography was popularized and graphic images were widely in use for advertising across the American landscape, he still had a sense that viewers would be aware of the classical painterly examples. He was keen to align the photographers who used camera-as-brush with the traditions of composition that belonged to painters. The avant-garde photography using extreme angles and juxtapositions, close ups, forced perspectives and unusual focus of details was probably what he was thinking of when we thought of the opposite end of the spectrum.

The way we frame images may not have significantly changed between his time and ours, but the rolling evolution of artistic movements and the ever more ubiquitous nature of images in all aspects of our lives has certainly changed the visual literacy of the viewing public. It does not seem to make sense of thinking in terms of a painterly tradition. Many of the avant-garde images have themselves created a historical canon for photographic composition that now seems quite normal, or even quaint.

If talking about the specifics elements of composition is not enough, I think the core of his analysis still remains. It is simply enough for the viewer to react either to the contents of the image as a sense of captured reality, or to think about them as elements arranged to create a new point of expression.

How do the compositional decisions impact how you create images with a camera? Are you looking for an outside truth to capture, or is there greater truth in the elements as you are able to arrange and present them? Can there even be such as a thing as an un-composed image, or is this question simply off of the mark?

We continue wading deeper into ambiguous territory with the fourth post of five, in which White seeks to tackle how we represent the truth of the subject before us. This, as has been the case in previous posts, is both more difficult now than it was in his time, and somehow quite simple.

Read the next posts here:

Conceptual Awareness – Fix it in Post

What do you notice when you look at your own work? Minor White created a five point framework for helping his students break down elements of photographs to try and categorize the conceptual foundation that helped create them. Teaching just after WWII he and his students used this method to discover new ways to discuss their work, and often turned up insights about who they were as photographers.

The first element of this framework was developed in my previous post: Compositional Awareness – Surfaces and Presentation, and discussed the physical format of the printed image.

In these second element of White’s framework, he discusses alterations and decisions made about the image during the processing and development stage.

When photography was a purely mechanical process of lens, light and shutter release, the photographer was required to either project the negative itself through a projector, or process the image onto paper using chemicals. There was no escaping the need for some kind of processing in order that the image could be shared with other viewers.

The conceptual framework he was describing was intended to help photographers place themselves within the larger context of a conceptual spectrum. Most broadly described, White outlined to two poles of the spectrum in this way: those whose aim was to process and develop their images in such a way that the image itself would be most clear, most accurate to the image as initially witnessed within the viewfinder, as compared to photographers who were interested in using elements of the development stage to adjust the final image, and in this way push the medium as the creation of a work occurring through further stages of printmaking.

That was a mouthful, perhaps we can even more simply say: those artist who want to leave the image as pure as possible, compared to those who are interested in what they can add or adjust in what we now think of as post-processing.

White described these two conceptual uses as different philosophies towards how the camera itself is being considered. The first type of photographer is seeking to use the camera as extension-of-vision, whereas the second is using the camera-as-paintbrush or drawing tool.

Dark room practices had evolved considerably as the art form matured, but artists from the beginning had been experimenting with ways to alter or enhanced the image on film during the process of actually developing the negative. Some artists adjusted the chemical compositions while others made physical manipulations to the print which White described as handwork.

One excellent example of handwork and aggressive alterations during the dark room process can be seen here, from photographer Sigmar Polke, who was also a painter, but created my photos during the 1970’s. Below is an excerpt from the description of his process for this image which is in the collection at The MET and can be viewed online.

Untitled, Sigmar Polke, 1975, MET online collection

Polke considers the darkroom a sort of alchemic laboratory in which he can explore infinite mutations of imagery. With the negative in his enlarger, the artist developed this large sheet selectively, pouring on photographic solutions and repeatedly creasing and folding wet paper. The resulting abstract organic forms thus issue from and re-express the boozy, convivial energy of the scene.

The MET Online, excerpt from description on piece. LINK

Post-processing, as the practice of making adjustments to images or film using editing software, is a full time profession for many creatives. The suite of tools and technology available since the development of Photoshop has continued to expand.

Some of these alterations bring options to artists who are considering the camera-as-brush which enable them to achieve previously unimaginable outcomes.

The evolution of post-processing as an art form on its own right has created so much distance between the initial photograph and the final image in some instances that it no longer makes sense for us to think about the work as photography at all.

In my own work I have taken many pictures specifically to be used as elements that would later be used in works which have been confused for paintings. My initial creative inspiration while taking the images was with this end goal in mind, firmly placing me on the painterly end of the spectrum.

In my own work I have taken many pictures specifically to be used as elements that would later be used in works which have been confused for paintings. My initial creative inspiration while taking the images was with this end goal in mind, firmly placing me on the painterly end of the spectrum.

This image, “Cloud Mountain” was created in the way described above, using two different digital images, reduced and composited one on top of the other.

When presenting my work I describe the photographic base of the final image, but cannot being myself to call them photography. The label simply doesn’t not make sense to me in this application, though the level of post processing isn’t as far removed from the initial image as it might be assumed.

Ultimately it isn’t the end result, or the label of it, which matters in the context of this thought experiment. It is enough to consider the edits being made and how they are applied. If they are being undertaken as a conscious creative step in the process towards the intended final expression, then they can be classified as a camera-as-paintbrush approach.

Photographers from the mindset of camera as extension-of-vision, may have found the development process a technical challenge in keeping the purity of their images intact. As digital photography came into existence, it was perhaps seen as closer to the reality of the image as envisioned. No longer would it be necessary to go through the technical steps of film processing, and perhaps accidental alteration, of the original image. Beyond even that, mirrorless cameras, cell phones and similar contemporary devices have done away with the optical viewfinder. Now, the image that we hope to capture is what we see on the screen, and therefore, exactly what will be seen in the final image.

This is a rabbit hole that I will spend significant time on when we are discussing White’s fourth point of the framework, but for now, focusing only on post-processing, it is quite clear regarding the “straight” photographers. They will generally reject the use of any alterations to their work after the image has been “created”…or will they?

Many photographers who consider themselves “straight” photographers still have a dedicated set of Lightroom presets which help them dial in the image clarity, sharpness and color balance. If we were to accuse them of changing the original image we might be met with frustration and alarm. These photographers are using post processing in order to enhance the initial image, to bring out the “true” image that they imaged as they looked through the viewfinder.

There are many who fight over the use of post-processing, and argue that any adjustments are impure. They view the “real” photographers, and the “real” art of photography as something that happens within the camera itself. Any need for adjustment afterwards means that the initial capture simply wasn’t done well enough.

What if the edits make the image easier to read, and actually allow us more opportunity to experience it? Focus stacking may be a very interesting development for “straight” photographers who wish to present an image as a scene which the viewer can enter as if using their own eyes.

Focus stacking is the process of taking many exposures at different focal lengths, and then combining them together into one final image. The human eye, and the camera lens, can normally only focus within a selective range when looking at any scene.

Any one image will be able to capture a limited range of focus, which means that the viewer will be able to experience as seeing from their own eyes, within that limited range. A viewer trying to focus on an out of focus area of the image may encounter a break in the fantasy that they are within the image. For the photographer seeking to bring a viewer fully into a scene, the use of focus stacking allows them a hyper-realistic creation. One in which the viewer can focus where they choose, and have the experience that they are able to remain within the scene.

None of these philosophical perspectives are individually the goal of our discussion here. White’s framework is not in place to hold one area of purism up over another. What it does as us to do is to think about what has been done, and why.

If using focus stacking, is the photographer trying to create a more realistic illusion for the viewers to enter and experience, or is the hyper-reality of the image actually meant to act as an alienating factor to set the work apart in its own reality in contrast to our own?

Thinking about the decisions that were made and applied is the way in which he pushed his students to look within.

If there is any value judgement occurring, I believe it is the setting artist intention against happy accidents. For White, the photographer can only be given more tools by understanding the concepts at work behind what they choose to create. We are always in the process of creating from the subconscious and cannot escape harnessing influences which we are not aware of. As much as we can, however, delving into the workings of our individual processes can teach us much about what we value, and give us more tools.

Where do you fall on the spectrum within this regard? Do you eschew post-processing and let the images stand as they do out of the camera? Is there an artistic opportunity that you have found in the manipulation of images that allows you to express your unique vision? Which sort of work do you find yourself gravitating to when looking at the work of others? Has asking these questions helped to tease out an element of your own work that you hadn’t thought about before?

I am currently balancing the highly abstracted work as exampled above, with a turn towards a more “purist” approach of trying to capture as many elements of the final image within the camera as I possibly can. I see this as a challenge for myself, and a way to get closer to expressing (and discovering) the way my eyes tune in to the world around me. For me this is a central question for why I make art at all, and I am hoping that digging further in will provide me some answers.

During the next section, the third of five, I will be talking about composition, and the way in which images are framed.

Conceptual Awareness – Surfaces and Presentation

How we present our images to the world has a great deal to tell us about why we make them, and how we think about them. In this article I want to explore the first of five points that Minor White elucidated in discussing how analyzing a photograh can reveal information about the conceptual process of the photographer.

In outlining his framework of analyzing images he takes the approach of working from the outside in. His initial points have to do with the appearance of the image as it exists in the world and is experienced by a viewer. The first point it about the quality of the surface of the print itself.

Is the surface of the print apparent, and do we notice the paper itself, the texture the grain the substrate? Or is the viewer under the impression that they are looking into a scene, through the picture as if a window.

Oak Tree and Rocks, Forest of Fontainebleau by Gustave Le Gray, MET collection online. 1849-52. Wax paper negative creating an impressionist-like quality of light and texture rather.

In the days during which White was an instructor, pre 1950, there were limited options for printing and viewing photographs, at least in comparison to what we have available to us currently.

He focused attention on this point rather simply, in that either the image was produced to be crisp and clear and to eliminate the sense that it was printed on paper at all, or it was produced in such a way as to cause the viewer to perceive that it was itself an object to be considered.

Artist who have made the choice to emphasize the paper, the printed and produced quality, are drawing from a background or conceptual world of painting, drawing and built images. These artists are broadly working from a mindset of producing an image rather than presenting one. Allowing the paper to become an element of the whole allows for additional layers of created meaning and expression.

In contrast were photographers whose images were presented so as to make the paper invisible. The goal to create a sense that the viewer was directly on site and seeing what was depicted. These artists were likely coming from a conceptual mindset that utilized the camera as an extension of vision itself, a tool to aide in seeing.

Currently, the options for printing out images on different surfaces seems endless. While the majority of fine art prints are still produced on high end specialty photographic papers, there has also been a rise in producing museum quality images on acrylic, glass and metal. Some images are projected onto surfaces, and other images are never intended for printing at all, but only ever exist as viewed on a screen.

Artists working in the commercial sector are able to produce images on just about anything. Third party manufacturers specialize in applying images to drink ware, decor, textiles, wall coverings, personal accessories and pretty much any kind of material. Images are printed on phone cases, sneakers and can even wrap cars and busses.

Does this myriad of options destroy the ability to meaningfully assess such quality in images being produced?

I think it is helpful to always think about it in terms of choices. There may be more choices available, but the essential dichotomy remains intact: Is the artist seeking to present their images in a way that emphasizes the scene as a scene to be viewed beyond the substrate, or is the type and quality of substrate an integral part of the art as a piece of work?

What does it add to an image to be printed on metal as compared to glass, or textured matte paper? When a photographer produces and image with the intention of removing a barrier between the viewer and the content, is an image printed on ultra-crisp acrylic less of a barrier than high gloss archival paper?

The response will be different for each image and substrate. There may be qualities of a photograph that are simply so geometric and abstract, so unusually composed within the frame that no matter what sort of clarity of printing the viewer will never be able to see it as a “real” scene, as a witness.

Similarly, there may be images, a street scene perhaps, which are printed directly on a wall, but sized and represented in such a way that the wall itself disappears, and the average viewer would have difficulty seeing it as anything but a convincing portal.

A variety of options, as if often the case, does not damage the core ideas, it simply muddies the waters.

Most photographers producing images today, likely do not spend much time thinking about the effect of the print itself on the viewer. Even fine artists are often only concerned about a reasonably priced and archival option.

We have all been living in a world drowning in created images. We are used to a porous sense of reality. Scrolling through a social media feed, watching television or even out and about in a world of commercial imagery we are constantly seeing images of scenes which do not match our reality. If this is related to a sense of fantasy, or suspension of disbelief, we are all professionals. As a consequence, we are probably very forgiving and dismissive of the substrate for any given image. This may be considered as a maturing sense of visual literacy in the general populace.

How do you think about the representation of images? Does it matter the format in which you are viewing something? When creating your own work, do you spend time considering the choices you have made about how the surface of the photograph is present or absent to the viewer?

The magic of such a framework isn’t that it gives any specific answers. Like all forms of investigation, it will lead to more questions.

To spend the time considering these qualities will provide the artist with more tools. Rather than producing something unthinkingly, we can utilize a broader range of tools to convey meaning, deepen our connection with viewers, and learn more about the values we have in place while we are creating our own work.

The next post continues with the second point of White’s five point framework and deals with something that has become a whole new reality since his initial writing: post processing and the vast array of options for editing images once they have been captured.

Read the next posts here:

Conceptual Awareness – Reflecting on our Photographs

Creating photos is also creating a trail of breadcrumbs. Looking carefully at the images we create can help us discover language and ideas about how we think about our work, and perhaps who we are as artists. Here is the first in a few articles that will be looking at a specific framework which was created to help turn photographs inside-out for analysis.

Just ahead of the middle of the twentieth century, as the GI’s were on their way back home and eager to dive into passions and professions, Minor White was given the chance to lead an innovative photography program at the California School of Arts in San Francisco. He seems to have relished his role helping to shape several years of students who were given the chance to dive head first and deep into professional practice and creative pursuits within the medium.

During this time White began developing his personal focus on using photography as a means of learning more about oneself as an artist and a human. He pushed students to challenge themselves and look closely at what they were like as photographers, and what their images could tell them in return.

In an article titled “You Concept is Showing” he outlined a conceptual framework for how someone could look at photographs and begin to sort out where they fell within a broad spectrum. His goal was to provide his students with a means to look at their own work as a means of archeology. To use the work that existed to get a sense for what decisions were being made, which could then be used to tease out further questions. By pursuing these lines of inquiry, the artist could go beyond the simple emotional reactions to a piece, and hopefully come away with new avenues to explore and questions to try and answer.

Any artist will likely have a sense of what they are trying to achieve with their work, regardless of the media they utilize. The question of intentionality contains layers, however, and White was under the strong bias that those who could speak more clearly to the choices they were making were also able to achieve more impactful results. Not necessarily in universality of their image, but in the ability to articulate a goal and describe how successful, or not, the final piece was in relation. He was clear and succinct in his description of a piece that had been created thoughtlessly, whether it was attractive or not: the ever-hungry wastebasket is right over there eagerly waiting.

The framework utilized five points from which to analyze a photograph. Each of these elements would provide some insight into the nature of the concepts which had been used to create the final photograph. He emphasized that no single element from the list was necessarily more important than any other, and that the process wasn’t a matter of tallying up a score based on the elements. Each image must be individually considered, and each of the five points may or may not end up tipping the balance either way depending on how it was utilized.

The five elements that he initially discussed can be summarized like this:

  • Treatment of the surface of the print.
  • Adjustments made to the image during the processing stage, such as chemical treatments or hand work.
  • Composition of the image.
  • Representation of the subjects and sense of reality.
  • Creative input and sequencing of creative execution.

Photography is a broad subject, and the number of ways in which an artist might describe their conceptual standpoint within the field are too many to consider. These five questions are not meant to pinpoint a specific niche. Rather, they are indicators of where an image may sit along the continuum between two poles.

White described the two poles, as he saw them, in this way. First, the photographer who uses a camera-as-brush. This may broadly be considered a way of taking photographs which are under the control of the artist, who is creating the image to share with others. Second, the photographer who uses camera as extension-of-sight. As opposed to the first, this may be thought of as an artist who is looking to find something to share by expressing the truth of subjects that exist outside of him/herself.

I find this broad spectrum highly compelling in that it seems to have many useful guideposts to inform any sort of artist who uses a camera. Clearly similar descriptions could be applied to artists in any media. I think that there is little stretch in describing all artists as either creating something from within them to share, as opposed to trying to capture something from without in a way that others will be shown what the artist has taken note of. For our purposes, and White’s, we will stick with photography.

At the time of his teaching this method, and writing about its implementation, the world of photography was in a golden age of technological breakthrough and maturity within the medium. Film photography was expanding through the availability of “miniature” cameras, and artists were exploring with ever more abstracted ways to develop and alter the exposure of film within the darkroom. Despite this, and in comparison to the technological advances which we are encountering today, the photography of the mid 1900’s was able to retain a purity of execution when it came to clicking the shutter release and exposing the image to film. I am curious to compare and contrast White’s core ideas to see how well they hold up in today’s world, and what they can continue to do as a means to inform our own photographic journeys.

Reflections in a shop window as captured by Minor White, on display California Historical Society in San Francisco through January 2022

During the next few articles I will look at each of the five criteria as they were originally outlined, while also speculating about whether, and how, they can continue to inform us today.

Do you consider yourself a Pictorialist, or a “Straight” photographer? Do you craft your images like paint on a canvas, or seek to bring forth the underlaying truths inherent in the subject at hand? I thought I knew before diving in, and I am eager to dig further. I’d love to know how your own perceptions of your conceptual framework stand now, and what you discover along the way.

Trust and Follow

Not allowing myself to take the pictures that reveal themselves to me is simply a lack of trust in myself. The process isn’t pretty, and the images challenge my perceptions of who I am.

It doesn’t feel comfortable, and it doesn’t conform to the conceptual ideas I have spent time considering when it comes to who I say that I am, and what I tell people I am interested in exploring.

To NOT take the pictures, however, is a denial of something else.

I do see something in these images that speaks to me, even if I can’t read that language.

I do feel something resonate, even if it points into the wilderness.

Trust cannot be taken, it must be given. I want to give it to myself, but I confront the uncomfortable truth that I may not trust myself the way I thought I did.

Sweeping, the Personal Shrine

The values we choose for ourselves provide an anchor to hold fast to, and a filter to help us making meaning. It is important to enshrine those values with a conscious recognition of what they provide for us. We must also be constantly paying attention, because the elements of our life that can provide value and perspective are often not the headlining titles or the exciting events that take place. Our shrines are the everyday elements that we return to, and would do well to approach with the respect they deserve.

Shinto Shrine, Ada E. Leeke collection hosted by the Center for Korean Studies Digital Archive

My life as a tween changed in the 90’s when I discovered Saturday Morning Anime on Cartoon Network. I had always like cartoon shows and comics, but never had I seen anything like this. It was a first step to opening my perception to another culture. Though presented in a highly stylized way and told through wildly fantastic narratives, there were some aspects of real world culture which seeped out through the cracks.

It was in the unique tolerance for open spaces, quiet scenes without subject or action, and heavy openness within the story-telling that I came to feel that one’s perception of life could be significantly different than what I found myself surrounded by.

Of all the unique bits of scenery that seem to have settled in my subconscious, I think distinctly of a lone figure, dilligently sweeping fallen leaves from the ancient stone steps of an equally ancient shrine in some remote area of the city, nestled at the foot of the mountains, removed from society. The person taking care of the shrine was depicted as serene, dilligent and single-minded in the work, though relaxed and at peace with the world around.

Such a peace with myself and my surroundings was something I did not feel growing up, and perhaps that is why I took hold of this image and kept it with me. It was a taste, a fragrance on the wind, a clue that things could be otherwise, even if it did not provide any direction to turn in which to seek it out.

In more recent searches for that same space of peace with the world by consciously following the threads of my own curiosity, I have circled back around to learn a bit more about Shinto spirituality.

I will not claim any significant knowledge or education about Shinto. The following context and historical notes come from the wonderful Encyclopedia Of Shinto available online for those who wish to dig deeper.

Shinto is the worship of Kami. There is much to be said about this term, but it was this quote from the resource linked above the caught my imagination. It describes Kami as encompassing the pantheon of popular folk and historical deities in literature and culture, but also…

…refers to all other aweinspiring things—people of course, but also birds, beasts, grass and trees, even the ocean and mountains—which possess superlative power not normally found in this world. “Superlative” here means not only superlative in nobility, goodness, or virility, since things which are evil and weird as well, if they inspire unusual awe, are also called kami.

EOS, Kami – Concepts of Kami – “Definitions and Typology”

When people encountered these awe-inspiring aspects of their world, they felt the need to venerate them somehow. That has developed into a complicated system of national shrines as well as a myriad of less official, or personal shrines, dedicated to a vast array of different kinds of Kami.

Though physical shrine buildings have been in use for more than a thousand years, the earliest expression of worship took place outdoors, at places thought to be sacred. Instead of the spirits inhabiting the place permanently, they were thought to roam, and visit these sacred locations only at certain points of the year when a ceremony would be held to honor them.

The use of the word “Awe” took hold of my imagination when I encountered that quote. For even though we have watered it down in the daily use of the word “awesome”, the core of that word is directly tied to an experience that by definition should be powerful enough to cause us to stop in our tracks.

How pure and simple, that one should feel the need to pay respect to whatever has caused such a feeling?

Is this the common beginning for all forms of religion? Did each of our great monoliths of relic and ritual come from such knees-to-the-dirt beginnings? One can draw the line convincingly through to Pagan ritual and poly-theistic system, but I must admit it seems a likely beginning for any line of thought in which we begin to try and form a relationship with something greater than ourselves. It seems a likely primal beginning to any such seeking.

Psychologists who are working to tease out the mechanisms underlying emotional states, have come to some general agreement about how we can define the word

When experiencing Awe, one is encountering something novel, something that is outside of expected experience of the world. Beyond this violation of expectation, there is also a necessary awareness that there is a gap in one’s knowledge about the world. This experience doesn’t fit in the box according to what we think we know of how things work.

Awe is an experience so outside of your experience and expectation, that you cannot easily assimilate it into your view of the world. It is a challenge to what you understand, and cannot be easily put aside without some kind of cognitive reckoning within our own mental map of the world.

Because of these factors, Awe also seems to bring a self-transcending quality, a sense that we are smaller in relation to the world around us, a reduction of the ego.

Paraphrased from a panel discussion available at this YouTube link: “Beyond Oneself: The Ethics and Psychology of Awe

Awe, as a dramatic revelation that the world around us is not the world we tell ourselves it is, relates directly into my interest in curiosity. Awe, when someone is in the right mindset, can be the spark to light the fires of curiosity, the signpost pointing out a new direction of exploration.

Curiosity itself is the pursuit of new knowledge in order to fill in gaps within our mental maps of the world.

As a child my life was about trying to fit in with others. I was constantly on the look out for signs that I was violating a social norm, or other unwritten code of conduct. I do not know where this sense of fear came from, but it led me to live for the acceptance of others rather than following any internal guidance. I spent all of my school years, not in a state of trying to ingratiate myself to others, but in a more passive state of simply working to avoid a faux pas. The aim was to maintain any connections I had. My sense of self was not strong.

I remember working at my the clothing store which was owned and operated by my grandfather. He had me working at the age of 14, doing odd tasks as they came up.

One evening, after the store was closed, I was tasked with sweeping the wooden floors before we could go home. Being impatient I set about completing the task as quickly as I could. He stepped in right away to correct my technique.

Sweeping, he instructed, cannot be rushed. If you flick the broom too quickly it just send dirt and dust into the air, into the clothing, and ultimately back down onto the floor you just swept. The only proper way to do it was methodically, slowly, patiently, so as to make sure everything could be gathered and disposed of at the end.

For me, this was a chastisement, a wrong step the I desperately wanted to avoid, but it also became a touchstone in my life that has carried through. It was a first lesson in respect for one’s work, and self-discipline. It was a test of my character.

My last decade of life, at least, has been dedicated to more consicously following the internal tug of curiosity. It has led me through art, to spirituality, to entrepreneurship and now psychology. I have come to respect the process.

Following the threads of things which are at the edge of my understanding has allowed me to broaden my mental map. Along the way, it has given me chances to define and exercise aspects of myself that I value and use as guide posts. It has allowed me to discover the person who spent years trying to be nothing in order not to do wrong.

Curiosity has helped me expand the map, but true understanding of myself comes from self-reflection on my own journey. It is through looking back on the patterns of my life that I am able to piece together the person that I am. So when something repeats I try and pay attention to what it is telling me.

The act of sweeping itself, has come to hold unique significance to me, and I find that I must pay it the due respect that it demands.

When I take part in the weekly ritual of sweeping the floors in my home, it always becomes more than the broom in my hands. It becomes the experiences with my grandfather, who turned out to be a significant role model in the years after he taught me how to properly sweep the floors. It becomes a connection to the romantic vision I had linking the act of sweeping to an act of meditation and being in the moment that I had observed in anime shows in another context of my childhood.

Sweeping forces me to slow down, and allows me a chance to feel my body in motion. It is easy to be more aware of my physical self. I notice whether I am stiff, or lethargic or fluid.

Without conscious effort, my mind drifts to the current focus of my curiosity. Many of the times I have spent sweeping the floor I have been at work pulling together threads for concepts about purpose in life, and blog posts like these. It is as if sweeping and curiosity, self-knowledge and universal questions are all bundled up together for me somehow.

I have learned to respect the repetition. I see now that sweeping, for whatever reason, is a unique physical manifestation of meaning in my life.

Shinto describes the natural reaction to such a discovery. Now that I have discovered something that links me to deep purpose and mystery, the only reasonable way to honor it is to build it a shrine. Not a physical one, but a honorific space in my awareness.

The words Reverence and Veneration come to mind.

I believe that there is some kind of difference between merely being aware of what drives value, and treating that awareness as veneration.

Both of these terms come with ideas of respect and deference, but also with concepts related to “paying” respect, honoring in a more proactive way.

For me it will perhaps be to approach the task more mindfully, before I pick up the broom. An act of clearing my mind in respect so that I can more fully embrace the way in which the activity links together these running threads of my imagination, my upbringing, my physical body and my creative pursuits.

What might it mean if more of us took the time to venerate the aspects of our life that resonate most deeply? I wonder how the human conversation might change if reverence pooled naturally where it connected most deeply, like rainwater, rather than being bestowed upon things that have been agreed upon.