What is Photographic Vision?

Finding your Artistic Voice In any Medium

Watermelon © David Ulrich

Watermelon © David Ulrich

Who are we? In teaching art and photography, I am always struck by the fact that we have reached adulthood without fully understanding how to see, without having discovered our intrinsic vision or voice. Human vision contains enormous potential that we have not yet fully realized. And how can we open our vision, open the doors of perception to the inner and outer worlds? It is a question for all of us, though we may likely have many clues at this point, especially if we have been alive for several decades. The problem in part lies with our culture and with our educational system, which clearly values external accomplishment over internal experience and realization.

What is my own? What am I do to, to be, that grows from my intrinsic nature? An art medium offers a wonderful means for the search and discovery of our essence or our original face, our true self. If our work is to be alive and to evoke strong responses in others, it needs to grow from deep within, much like a seed grows into a plant, first within the earth, then breaking the surface and becoming visible to all, taking its place in the great chain of being. We have something to discover and something to contribute through our work, whatever it may be.

In over ten years of teaching photography and creativity at Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center on Maui and another fifteen years teaching through Pacific New Media at the University of Hawai‘i Manoa, I came into contact with mostly adults, people seeking to find an authentic mode of expression. Most of the students were older than college age and were prepared to work passionately toward realizing their creative aspirations. Most had faced the vicissitudes of life enough to have cultivated both diligence and humility. In thirty five years of teaching art, I have all too often observed and lamented one unfortunate result of declining standards in education: Many students initially view the creative process in an overly simplistic manner. They enjoy some success with the early stages of the process that ask for spontaneity and freedom of expression. But they often shirk from the rigorous work involved in the latter stages that requires self-discipline, an unflinchingly sincere, evolving self-knowledge, and a long-term commitment to themselves and their chosen medium.

Moreover, it is truly surprising to me that many young artists believe that they already, and seemingly by instinct, fully understand the process of creativity. It is not viewed as a question or an inquiry; rather, it is seen as something that they feel capable of accomplishing through their ordinary mind alone, without the enlarging dimension of the deeper parts of their nature. It is a reductionist attitude—and one that is unfortunately promoted by many popular books on creativity—in which students attempt to bring larger truths and ultimately unknowable dimensions of being down to their level, squeezing it into their own still-limited framework in order to understand it.

One of the many paradoxes of creativity is that we cannot know it fully, yet we can deeply experience it in ourselves. The creative process, as with all natural processes of growth and evolution, proceeds along a lawful line of development but does not always follow a linear progression. Like a river’s journey, it contains broad currents of free-flowing movement, meandering streams that fuel its course, vigorous rapids and spirited falls, passages through perilous narrows, areas of inert stagnation, clear pools of polished stillness, and finally, a place of union with the sea, merging with the source.

Eight Keys to Enhanced Creativity

Akron, OH © David Ulrich

Akron, OH © David Ulrich

I propose an outline of eight principles of creative practice that can help in finding one’s essential vision and becoming a genuinely creative voice in the world:

I.  Facing the question: Who am I?

• Self inquiry; the examined life
• Exploration / Experimentation phase
•  What is my own?
•  Search for what one needs to do / one’s deepest responses or heartfelt questions
•  The principle of “inner necessity”
•  The messy mind; learning to embrace right-brained thinking
•  Transcends logic or rationality

II.  Going within; Entering the Body

• Relaxation needed to open to authentic voice or vision
• The body is always in the present moment
• Wisdom of the body and feelings . . .
• Renunciation of superficial likes and dislikes in favor of something more real
• The role of attention
• Neurological changes / heightened awareness / Entering the flow
• Staying open

III.  “Try to love the questions themselves”—Rainer Maria Rilke

• Living the question. Most artists work from questions, not answers
• Staying in a place of “not-knowing”
• Accepting the discomfort of staying in question, of living with ambiguity and mystery
• Asking questions; allowing for gestation
• Need to extend beyond one’s own current viewpoint
• Working from a “lack,” a need
• Always asking: what else? Not to be satisfied with immediate answer

IV.  Natural Wisdom: Opening to the Unconscious

•  Trusting instincts and intuition
•  Embracing the real mind: the unconscious
•  Search for inspiration; new understandings from depth mind
•  Discover unique inner landscape of the depths of one’s being
•  Put question in back of mind / allow to gestate / activate unconscious
•  Contact deeper layers of response beyond conscious mind
•  Heightened consciousness and awareness / need to be open and flexible

V.  Creative Courage

•  Overcoming fear, insecurity, doubt
•  Just do it!
•  Learn to see with acceptance, without judgment: the cruel radiance of what is
•  Going against the grain of established ideas or one’s own mere opinions
•  Perceiving what is needed and finding the courage to proceed
•  The ego participates in its own destruction. Loosen hold.

VI.  Right time; Right place

•  Need for supportive conditions
• Time and place to work
• Synchronicity; see the world agrees with me
•  Attention to craft; mastery of materials
•  “Right” rhythm for every activity, each moment
•  Time and the art of living
•  Craft as a living exchange with the world

VII. Deepening Connections

• Creativity grows from relationship to something
• Deeper interests, passions, commitments
•  Artists are only the vehicle for work / understandings to be born through them
•  The hero’s journey
•  A durable connection to a larger dimension—social, cultural, historical, psychological or spiritual—and the discipline required to maintain and deepen that connection

VIII. Who Are You? . . . Other People

•  One’s creative work—insights and intuition—are not for oneself alone; we live in an increasingly interdependent world
•  Creativity is a form of communication
•  Collective intelligence; collaboration
•  Learning from responses and insights of one’s audience
•  The tavern, the coffee shop, the bedroom
•  Ideas build upon ideas; exchange; in the air
•  Making one’s contribution; contributing the to the dialogue of our times
•  Making love as a metaphor for living creatively

I’ll be returning to Hui No’eau on Maui next weekend to teach a photography class on Sat/Sun Sept 29-30: Photographic Vision: The Next Step.

Open to anyone with a camera who wishes to more fully explore their creativity through a lens, the class will explore in greater depth many of the key principles outlined above.

And I’ll be giving  a free slide lecture: One Hundred Images: 1971-2011, Selections from my archives, on Thursday, Sept 27 at 5:30pm. Hope to see you on Maui!

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