I’m interested in the idea that photographs, portraits especially, can capture far more information than we realize. I’m not saying “all portraits” capture more than we realize, so I’m really talking about possibility. Intent, and what can happen if we set a high goal for what we intend to capture, and strive consistently to meet or surpass that high standard.
Years ago I taught photography at Fisk University (under David Driscoll). My favorite project to assign my class was for each student to select a close person from their lives, then make a “ten-photo portrait” of that person, over one week, intending to capture everything they know and love about this person, within ten these photographs.
From the moment they realized what the assignment might entail, the students became animated, inspired and focused for the entire week! I didn’t have to say another word. It was like I’d given them ‘permission’ to focus on who and what they most valued and loved, and then to show that through their photographs. What could be better, more fun, or more meaningful and satisfying!?
Personally, I’ve never taken a photography class. Since early high school I worked freelance as a professional, and when I considered colleges I decided to avoid being officially “taught” about photography, and to continue with my tried and true, learn what I needed as I go methodology. So I’m unschooled, self-taught, and learned by experimenting and from countless teachers and others influences, high and low. A little from each, a lot from a few. Essentially, learning from living life. And what’s valuable about this way of learning, what it really means ultimately, is that I’m free. Freer to wander & explore, in my thinking and in my work, and I’d choose very much the same path again today, if I had to do it all over.
Here lately, as part of some fresh free thinking, I’ve come to recognize that my mentally retarded sister, Lynn Thomas, who’s a year and a half older than me, was perhaps my biggest influence and most powerful teacher. Since shortly after her birth, Lynn has been severely retarded, and I shared much of my early childhood in her close presence. My mother says before I was a year old, I somehow knew that I was in many ways, her guardian, and had a responsibility to watch over her. So we were very close, even though for many years she could not speak and we had no words or language. So again, before I was one, while able to sit up in a playpen, Lynn was not able to sit up, or talk. But somehow we were very close. We knew each other, and understood each other, without any language or any words. Experiencing that, and knowing that strong connection and deep knowing is possible outside of languaged understanding, is something I learned from Lynn, and still carrying it with me these 50-60 years later. And I use this whenever I photograph someone. This is “taught out of us” through the normal culturalization that most of us receive as we grow up. But I believe I passed through my childhood without losing it.
I have a name for it, which may or may not be accurate: Simply being. Or perhaps both words ought to be capitalized: Simply Being. “Taking you in.” I think of it as “non-thinking being” since the absence of words and thought throughout sustained periods of continuous interaction, seems highly unusual. How amazing it is that no thinking occurs, while continued, interactive awareness and participation continues! It may be more common that I expect, but in my . . .
If you understood what I’m meaning by saying this, you would probably become a photographer too. With a sense of presence in the moment the vitality of life itself can carry more meat than the mere what we look like aspects of a photo. Its the difference between capturing *how we are* as a presence, versus simply what we look like as physical objects.
At sixty-three I’m still very much a kid, and I frequently say, “my commitment to immaturity’s the only commitment I’ve kept in my life.” My mom’s 91 and says she’s adopting it too. A youthful sense of humor and playfulness, vitality and a spark showing few signs of slowing downAnd the discipline to keep a youthful vitality alive and going requires real work—because it seems the whole world wants everybody to be serious and respectful. My mom at 91 is showing few signs of slowing down, so I’ve got good genes. And she’s Ive been reconnecting with with my early (1980s) portrait-making roots, and I’m feeling motivated to experiment and take renewed risks with a sense of adventure and fresh eyes. Hope to stir up some fun in the coming months, and will be inviting others to join in.
Posted a brand new site last September, only to replace it in April, and now thinking to replace it again, as time allows. -Clark