Whenever I view or print my photographs, I recall the actual moment of exposure in my body – the chill of the cold, the smart of the wind, the glowing relaxation of the summer sun. These “bio-memories” are essential support for my work. It’s a process that has continued for as long as I’ve had memory. However, as I re-examine those memories, deeper recall summons up a more profound moment that literally flew in my face, a long time ago.
I was five, standing in the glass corridor of my school, with my nose pressed against the window. A swallow swooped in front of me, flying kamikaze toward my eyes. As I watched, the bird slammed – seemingly in slow motion – into the window, its body twisting in a sideways snap directly through my eyes, into my skull. A sensation of stunned emptiness, of eternal Stillness, stopped me cold. The sense of “I” vanished, and all that remained was impenetrably silent space.
Overwhelmed, I stood fixed, for a long while, arriving particularly late for class. As my teacher lambasted me for tardiness, her shrill voice seemed to echo from far, removing her as a reality from my immediate awareness. Though I heard her ghostly shriek, it couldn’t overpower the grip with which the great silence seized “me.” My mind, analyzing what happened in the glass corridor, formed an austere commentary: “So this is how it goes. When we are born, we leave the great, peaceful Stillness and are born alone into this world, and when we die, we die alone — into Stillness.”
The force of this experience persisted as immediate reality for months, burned indelibly into my awareness. As I grew, and current events crowded in, the sense of immediacy dimmed into a voice that never left, but was often obscured by life’s ebb and flow.
Except when it snowed! My room was on the second floor of the Connecticut house. It had a small dormer that created an alcove facing North into the beech woods. When it snowed, the silence of sound-snuffing snowfall would call to me, sometimes rousing me from deep sleep. I would sit motionless on the window sill in the alcove, staring into the hypnotic blur of falling flakes. In those moments, awareness of Stillness within would be drawn up to surface level by the Stillness outside.
I could reenter that moment when the Stillness first showed itself to me. In this way, I learned to meditate, not knowing then what I was doing, or what it meant, or why I was doing it. The sensation of Stillness became a friend and, in time, a Personal Theme.
Everyone has them. Personal Themes may be fully conscious axes we grind, or they may be subtle longings, urges, or emotions that want out. Personal Themes derive from the “flavors” life feeds us since our earliest age — even into adulthood. East Indian mystics call them “sanskaras” or, “dung heaps.” Technically, this means “impressions made on the mind.” Personal themes dictate our attraction to specific subject matter. Creatives are in varying ways aware of and need to express them. Our effort to learn skills that make it possible to produce them as tangible “art” describes, in part, who and what we are.
One could argue that ALL human creative effort, is an expression of our longing for completion, driven by our need to resolve Personal Themes. Our themes put the meaning in our motions while we work out our singular salvation. Personal Themes, expressed as photographs, may seem tortured or angelic, serene or brutal, unforgiving, judgmental, or loving. They may scream out, “I feel pain!”, or, they may whisper, “I am love.”
The passing viewer may judge a photograph “good” or “bad,” depending on its resonance with a Personal Theme. They may not even recognize the power of a well-presented Personal Theme if it doesn’t resonate with theirs. However, a “pass” on a photo does not necessarily mean failure. A photograph is successful for its creator if it accurately portrays the emotion tone that activated and attracted the artist to record the subject matter.
Georgia O’Keeffe recalled her mother placing her, as a toddler, on an intensely colored blanket in midday sun. Projection of the vivid color into her eyes embedded an impression of vibrant color in her cognitive functions that she tried to recreate through painting a good part of her life. That did not happen all at once. In the earlier days of her career in New York, her work was more dark and brooding. She realized that color was missing, and she moved to New Mexico, alive with color and colorful subject matter. As color and country simplicity entered her life – and, her paintings – she moved into resonance with a Personal Theme, and her art became tremendously popular.
Albert Einstein was ill; bedridden, as a child. His father gave him a compass to play with while he was recuperating. The impact the compass had on Albert – always pointing to North – was profound. It convinced him that all material reality must somehow orient in the same direction. That became a Personal Theme. This theme absorbed him so much that in later years, this theme had its expression as his Unified Field Theory.
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg indicated a personal theme when he expressed the delight he took in “scaring the pants off” his little sisters. Discussing his movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg admitted that it was one of the few films that was one hundred percent “his.” He not only wrote it, but it also expressed feelings he held within.
Creative entrepreneur, Dave Thomas of Wendy’s Hamburger fame, admitted that he was an adopted child, and was also born out of wedlock. The discomfort he felt over his background grew until he became so uncomfortable with it, he did something about it. He worked hard to elevate the process of adoption in the United States — something he consciously made a Personal Theme. Before his passing in 2002, Dave Thomas received many awards and Presidential recognition.
Personal Themes may overlap – sometimes aiding, sometimes interfering with each other. We’ve all experienced beautiful moments we wished to record. Then, something got in the way. Another Personal Theme appeared, hindering us from bringing the vision to fulfillment. Conversely, there are times in the darkroom, when I’ll have a thought or feeling that flashes me into an elevated space that lubricates the creative moment, and a beautiful print emerges.
Photographers may worry about the quality of their equipment interfering with image-making. However, I propose that it is a lack of quality inspiration which produces mediocre results. Incredible photographs can always happen with any device that records light; guided by well-connected personal themes.
Personal Themes, for me, are spiritual by nature. For others, they may be social, personal, mechanical, or emotional. A significant issue for me, as a professional photographer / writer, is maintaining the necessary skills to create works that are potent and meaningful for my clients. If I am in touch with the sense and inspiration of Personal Themes, the work goes remarkably well. When I lose touch, I stop and take a walk in nature. Breathing deeply for a while, I eventually reconnect.
orig. pub. Lenswork Quarterly vol 25