I had a moment in Italy last month as I walked down cobbled streets looking at reflections in the canals of Venice, raising my camera once in a while to my face, feeling like I was in that state of flow that most creatives feel in their souls like a drug when it comes over them. That moment was a realization that for years the way I saw things as a photographer had become slightly uncalibrated, like I’d been looking at things in a mirror but the mirror had moved slightly off-axis and the things I looked at where not the things I saw. And the things at which I pointed the camera were not always the things I was actually trying to photograph.
My realization was this: too often I’d go out looking for photographs, and it wasn’t working. Something was off. The problem was this: the photographs weren’t there yet. I was looking for something that didn’t exist yet. The best photographs are an intoxicating mix of “Oh my God look at that!” (even when “that” is just a spark of an idea) and all the reactions and experiences to “that” that go on in our imagination before finally coming out into the world in a tangle of creative decisions we make with lenses, exposure, focus, and the geometry of the frame. No wonder, looking for that thing out there in the world before it’s even been made, there have been days when this was harder than it had to be. We have to first have that moment of revelation before we can find a photograph within it.
No, looking for photographs isn’t the point. It never really was, though I spent many hours and days doing so. The point is finding the magic: finding that thing that lights you up inside, that lights a spark in your curiosity, or makes you react in some way. You can get a million photographs in a million other ways, but the photographs that have magic in them, those are the ones that connect with people, and pass on some of the wonder to them. The world doesn’t just need more photographs. It needs more magic.
Magic is not always comfortable. It’s not always shiny and happy. For some photographers that magic is found in the heartbreaking honesty of their work, and of their subjects. For some it’s an unflinching look at our common humanity. I see magic in the work of James Nachtwey, and no one would mistake his work for being cheerful. So don’t mistake me for pushing you to the making of saccharine images. We have too many of those already. I’m just suggesting that if you look for the spark, and let that spark light a fire, you’ll – in the end – find better photographs. Because they’ll mean something. They’ll come from a deeper place and so speak to the deeper places in others.
Forget the word magic if you have to. I’ve already mentioned that “Oh my God, look at that” reaction we have as we move through the world. Find more of That. Wait for more of That.
This approach has freed me to enjoy what I do more now than I have in years. It has removed from my shoulders the burden of “taking photographs,” and replaced it with the freedom to play. To explore. To seek experiences and connections. In a way, and I’m speaking in metaphor here, it’s placed the burden of the finding – and the looking and the hunting- squarely on the shoulders of Life itself. I still need to go out and do my work. I need to show up with open eyes and open heart. But I do not need to find photographs. I just need to be open to the spark, the magic. And free from some of the angst and pressure to perform, it’s amazing how much more I see.
Maybe it’s just words. It could be that I’m just a slow learner, only now finding out what’s been self-evident for others all along. But this realization that my job – my privilege – is to just find (and share) the magic, has been illuminating. My job isn’t, in the strictest sense, to make photographs. It’s to go out and experience life as deeply as I can. Because that’s where the magic is. And if, on those days that the magic is there but I can’t find a way to put it into a photograph, I’ll at least have been there, breathing a little more deeply, looking with wider eyes, and not walking through some astonishing city but never really seeing it because I’ve got my head down looking for something that I haven’t yet made from an experience I haven’t yet had. Find the magic. Because if it doesn’t show up at all, no amount of waving your camera around, and no amount of tricky post-processing, is going to bring it back.
Share the Love, Tell the World.
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Love the article. Thank you so much for sharing! It made me realize that this is why I love photography so much.
This is exactly what I needed to read right now. I feel like I’ve lost that wonderful feeling during a trip with my camera. I’m too busy looking for a photo and not really seeing, exploring discovering.
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Its nice to know I’m not the only one who experiences this. I frequently find myself in some new (or old) place wandering around looking for images, expecting to see them everywhere, but finding nothing that inspires me. Then a thing, an object, a scene, an expression lights a spark and suddenly there are photographs everywhere. I don’t think I had ever defined it in your terms David, but I will from now on.
I also know I have to be present to a place to see it and photograph it. Too often I find myself walking with my camera, but seeing nothing around me because the monkey mind has the volume turned to eleven. Slow down, stay still, be calm and see the world.
Thank you David, your writing and your photographs express ideas and emotions and new ways of seeing and being. That is such a valuable gift to give
I think, perhaps, magic might be the perfect word!
Great articles, lifes juxtapositions heh.
This post spoke to me, David. Recently, I’ve had a similar realization: ” too often I’d go out looking for photographs, and it wasn’t working.” When I was a new photographer and deeply immersed in creating images, and then teaching Creative Vision (seeing) workshops, which followed my study with Daido Loori, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and student of Minor White, and others, I experienced that magic, a flow, a connection with what surrounded me. it seems these days I’ve let myself forget the magic of seeing, of slowing down and being present in my surroundings, allowing the subject of come forward and show itself to me.
I totally agree David!
For me, the magic starts with beautiful light and ends with an emotional connection to the subject, even if the image is simple.
Always felt it was a good approach to lead an interesting life and bring a decent camera along.
My challenge is finding, making, the time to indulge my curiosity, have unscripted adventures and breathing space to just be interested – in people, in places, in stories. It is a worthy goal though, certainly more like living than being a tiny cog in the machine that wants to control your existence.
David, You always get down to the heart of things. I have been thinking about this very thing lately. In my work of teaching, I love a book by Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach in which he writes (paraphrasing because I lent the book out) that ‘…teaching is not about strategies and techniques but who we are as a person’…essentially we teach Who we are. I think in a similar vein, we photograph who we are. Increasingly as I have struggled hard and pressed inward towards the artist within me, I have found that how I see has changed over the past 3-4 years…find more and more times where the “magic” overwhelms me and I am lifted into another dimension almost. At any rate, I so enjoy your insights…they continue to liberate me not only as a photographer wannabe but as a person!! Thank you.
Yes, David, I do understand what you’re presenting. For a quite a while now the idea of ‘capturing’ images has bothered me, it reminds me vaguely of the ol’ ‘man dominating his environment’ scenario. Instead when I have some time on my hands and need my head cleared I wander down to the local wildlife preserve and ‘invite’ images. I mentally ask the Universe to show me want it wants me to see today. When I do that I often come home with some very satisfying images and I always come home in a better frame of mind. Now that is magic to me 😉
This was the subject of a recent letter I just finished sending to one of my mentors. I was telling him that I am tired, in a rut, uninspired and just fed up of running around my new home, Cuenca, Ecuador after leaving Vancouver Island, BC to live here. I thought the move would propel my photography into orbit. Guess what? It did for a few months, but, I look at those images and I do not know why I even took some of them. Yes they maybe interesting to look at, but they do not tell a story, my story. I am shooting to please others, to maybe get a break and get my work published or to make a few (emphasis on a few) bucks along the way. I am done. My story needs to be told, for me, and no one else. If others enjoy it, that’s a bonus. Thanks David. It is always a comfort knowing that other folks are going through the same struggles.
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This post reminds me that I need to thank you 🙂
One of the most powerful lessons I ever learned from you is to simply slow down, and let the photos present themselves instead of hunting for them.
I used to be one of those guys who’d hit a location running, and rapid-fire my shutter, all because I was afraid I’d miss that ‘something.’
Nowadays, I’ve learned to trust my intuition, thanks to you, and slow down when necessary. It helped me a lot during a trip to Cambodia recently, when I reached the palace in beautiful sunset light, but yet, realized that wasn’t the story that drew me.
And when I got to the shrine across the street that did draw me, I had to slow down, and take a breather, to see what I was really seeing, before I could find the photograph.
I wrote about it more here, if you’re interested to see it: http://www.hardwarezone.com.sg/feature-street-photography-one-day-phnom-penh-panasonic-lumix-gx8
Once again, thank you for the lesson. It has helped me immensely in my own craft.
You always nail it. Thank you!!
Very well said.
I believe this is why, for myself anyway, I need to immerse myself in a landscape/scene/area for a longer time to get photographs that are more moving.
The magic, for me, is in the immersion.
It allows me to see things more clearly, and feel the location’s “rhythm” more thoroughly.
You might arrive at a scene and “hear” a cacophony of messages. It might be overwhelming, or it might be confusing because nothing is speaking to you. But if you give it time, the scene has a way of defining its true meaning. Its true message and vision.
The magic comes from taking the time to define what is, initially, undefinable.
For me, the “magic” is to be found everywhere, even in the most ordinary experiences. If I don’t “see” it, I know I’m just missing it. This universe is a huge mystery, I have no desire to solve it, but to live it the best I am able, and to capture small parts of it in my images…
Sometimes I succeed. 😉
Great article. Really speaks to me
Thanks for writing it.