There are moments in life when something suddenly changes, shifts. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “the decisive moment” – a split second that reveals a larger truth – is one of the most famous phrases in photography. The decisive moments that I’m referring to are moments in the growth and development of a photographer in technique and vision. Such moments can come like a bolt of lightning and thunderclap, a spark onto gasoline, or it might be the moment between tides or the one when summer turns to fall.
In my experience, if I’m conscious, paying attention, what we think of as subtle moments of change are just as strong, bold – decisive – as the loudest thunderclap I’ve ever heard.
In regards to photography, there have been a number of defining moments for me. In fact, I believe that unless we quit growing and learning, there will always be yet another decisive or defining moment.
When I was first learning to print my own work I struggled to grasp at vision and understanding of what exactly I was after. I made print after print, filling the trash can in my studio day after day, week after week. It just wasn’t coming. I doggedly pursued my elusive result – journeying through what seemed to be a jungle of options on techniques, tips and tricks, paper types and printer profiles, display calibrations and software presets. It really was a thick, tangled jungle back in those days. The most important thing I had to find though – and find first before I could even begin to weave a pathway through that jungle, was my goal. The goal of what I was really after in a print, what my vision was.
One warm July afternoon in a spare bedroom studio in Vermont, came my decisive moment – the moment I came to connect with my vision, came to understand how to express what my mind’s eye saw rather than what my eyes or the camera saw. The ‘how’ to print it came very simply and automatically seconds after that. I was working on an image that I had made 4 years prior, on the other side of the country in Pilar, New Mexico. I was standing beside a winding river road and looked up at the hill in front of me. My eyes could make out the detail on the side of the hill but the image I saw in my mind’s eye was the echo of the cloud above the hill and the profile edge of the hill. It was yin and yang, a dance of earth and sky, a union of opposite yet complementary energies. I snapped the photograph and it sat on my storage drive for four years until that afternoon that lightning struck and summer became fall, so to speak.
I felt I had found myself, my vision and how to express it. I sent a copy of the file to my friend and mentor, George DeWolfe. He wrote back:
Whatever the feeling you had when you made this image is the one you want to lasso. To me you just went through the "hole in the thicket." It is full of light, grace and mystery.
George has written about his own visual journey:
My study of awareness started with a single photograph in 1970 that broke through the “surface” boundaries of reality. It was accomplished both with vision and technique. The White Rock was my first introduction to my own authenticity to see beyond the boundaries of the real. It encompassed both the awareness of what I was feeling and seeing about the rock and the technical skills I had learned to develop the negative and print accordingly to achieve the final photograph.
For the seeker to break through to reach their own benchmarks, decisive moments, breakthroughs, they must be thirsty for it, diligent, dogged, studious and tenacious. For me, I used both jungle and barefoot across the hot desert metaphors - it really, really does take that.