Monday, December 8, 2014

Thank You Ralph Waldo Emerson

As you might have noticed I read a lot. Generally I am more re-reading than reading but the process is much the same. (and when I write about what I read, Alcy and Jerry, I just go on and on)

As mentioned in the previous post I just received Dan Winter’s The Road to Seeing. I am about a sixth of the way through and enjoying it very much. It, so far, has been his life story but along the way is thrown in tidbits about the photographers he has encountered along the way. Extremely interesting stuff.

I am on a chapter that is talking about W Eugene Smith. For those that do not know of Smith, he was a real character, but one of if not the greatest photojournalist of all time who off and on worked for Life. As Winters mentions, “He (Smith) was famous for being infamous. His photographs were sometimes hybrids of documents, in that he frequently manipulated events by posing his subjects and inventing entire scenarios in order to create the picture he wanted. While it was the preferred practice of photojournalists to shoot using only available light, Smith comically insisted that available light was any light that was available to him at the time.” [frequently articulated as “any damn light that…”]

Winter’s goes on to mention that earlier in his career he had frequently wondered if his own photographs would ever be a powerful as Smith’s. Which leads into something Winters writes that I think is important…

“It is important for us not to compare our work to the work of others, as challenging as that may be. It is simply human nature to look outside ourselves, rather than face that which exists internally. Comparison is ego-based and unproductive in the long run.” 

There are two important thoughts in that paragraph. I know he doesn’t place a great deal of emphasis on the first but it is there and it is important, “..rather than face that which exists internally.” 

Winters as well as every descent photographer eventually must face that what is the photographer’s to give is that which exists internally. I frequently claim to be an internally turned person, meaning that I am way too egocentric, way too examining of my own existence. I sometimes worry about that, yeah, actually I do. But growing up with Emerson’s Transcendentalist writings has warped me beyond any chance of  recovery. As a result I seem to be more aware of what is inside--I examine everything, every action, every inaction for its meaning. That may sound a little silly but I have always done that. I find me very interesting. I have no idea whether what I know about me is truth or illusion which makes it even more interesting.

I think the inwardness serves my photography well so I really do not regret all the hours spent reading Emerson.There is a treasure trove of themes, concepts just ready to pop to the surface at the slightest suggestion. That frankly Scarlet I greatly enjoy.

I most often encounter this in talking to other photographers about themes. It seems such a foreign concept to most; one they have never considered. I think my inwardness makes it so much easier for me to identify personal themes or concepts. Not that I am pleased that others find it more difficult—I think to a degree that is very, very sad (see addendum). But I am very pleased that I find it so easy. And for that I must think my friend and life long companion, the words of  Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Addendum: Sorry but there is more. Before I come across as much too pompous and self centered I want to state that I consider myself to be a person of considerable insignificance in this world. As is most of us. Most will be forgotten in a matter of a very few generations; as little as two, possibly three.. Having no heirs I probably will be forgotten much sooner than most. So being insignificant is a position I find interesting enough to have once written a piece about the significance of being insignificant. I am amazed at how unbelievably complex a simple, insignificant life can be.  


  1. Gary, As much as you may think you are insignificant you are not. I have learned so much from you either by your side or from reading this blog. But, then again, maybe we are all insignificant.

  2. Larry, thank you for your extremely kind words. I am always pleased to find that someone has read what at some silly moment struck me as being important to say. You are right when you say we are all insignificant. A few, a very few, will enter history books beyond fond family remembrances. But to me that makes life all that much more interesting. How or why do we become so complex just to serve out this temporary unbelievably brief time, not even a proverbial blip on a radar screen. An amoeba serves its time as well without nearly the drama we are or that we create. Life is a fascinating thing to contemplate. Individually we are fascinating creatures, so alike and so damn different. If I have any thought that I would like to leave with photographers it is to bring that combination of universality and uniqueness into their photography. That too will fade but most likely will out exists each of us.