Inside this issue
My Important Way
Experiences are the building blocks of life
Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US.
The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. ~Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I confess to feeling awkward these days, as I suspect many do, writing about photography, art, and qualities of experience as momentous events unfold in the world. These may seem petty considerations in a time when the very forces of nature are conspiring to threaten the existence of the human species.
I am writing again from a campsite in the desert. It is November, in the latter days of the autumn season, when much of the life in this desert usually falls dormant before winter sets. Yet, several species of plants that normally flower in the spring months, are attempting to bloom. I am enough of a naturalist to recognise that this is not normal and that there is reason for alarm. But I am also not one to pass up an opportunity to stick my nose into a flowering sand verbena or cliffrose. To do otherwise seems to me not only to deny myself a moment of bliss, but to rudely decline a great gift.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi passed away recently, which is perhaps as good a reason as any to mention his work on flow—his theory of optimal experience. The basic premise of flow is that any activity having the power to consume a person’s attention entirely, if approached with the right attitude may become autotelic—rewarding in its own right. Csikszentmihalyi described the experience of flow, ensuing out of being immersed completely in an autotelic experience, as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
There are some photographers for whom the process of making photographs is autotelic, and some for whom it is not. This explains why some photographers find sufficient reward in just being out with a camera, immersed in creative thought and experimentation, while others may consider photography as less rewarding, perhaps even not worth pursuing, without additional rewards like popularity, awards, sales, or being part of a community.
The link between creativity and intrinsic motivation has to do, among other things, with the fact that creative work requires experimentation, and may not yield any outcome that another person may relate to or offer reward for. Some may even criticise or be offended by creative work that departs too far from common norms. There are also cases where successful creative ideas may not win any recognition from peers and contemporaries, perhaps not even within the lifetime of the creator. In such cases, even if a person finds some initial intrinsic reward in creative work, this motivation may erode over time if that person works toward extrinsic recognition that fails to materialise. This perhaps explains why in this era of social media, where so many become obsessed to the point of addiction with constant feedback, judgment, celebrity, and peer-approval, creativity in developed countries is diminishing measurably.
The distinction between the primacy of intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards in driving a photographer’s work occurred to me recently during an email exchange with a photographer who was preparing to travel to Yellowstone National Park. This photographer expressed concern about the crowds in the park. I suggested to her some alternative destinations where crowds may not be a concern. She conceded she may enjoy herself more in these places, then added in exasperation, “but I’m a wildlife photographer,” as if referring to an incurable disability rather than to an ostensibly enjoyable and voluntary activity.
The self-defeating nature of relying primarily on extrinsic rewards in any endeavour extends beyond just diminishing the perceived value of pursuing creative work. Put bluntly, to rely on extrinsic rewards as the deciding factor in one’s perception of worth, is to cede to other people control of one’s happiness and sense of meaning in life. This effect seems all the more tragic when considering that any of us may choose consciously to consider intrinsic rewards as more important, and in so doing to become more confident, self-sufficient, less anxious, and more creative.
The importance of artistic work may be considered objectively or subjectively. The subjective view of deciding for oneself what is important and meaningful, taking control of one’s own sense of value in life and in artistic work, is obvious. The objective view may be less so. Describing the objective view of artistic importance, David Galenson wrote, “Important artists are innovators whose work changes the practices of their successors; important works of art are those that embody these innovations.” Being that innovation is the result of creativity; and creativity, as I mentioned above, is linked with intrinsic motivation, we may conclude that the objective view also suggests that an artist is more likely to produce important work when motivated intrinsically.
Suppose I’ve convinced you that intrinsic rewards are worth prioritising above extrinsic ones. Now what? Driven purely by the desire to experience flow in creative work, one may become stymied in trying to decide what work may be most rewarding and important, and therefore worth investing one’s time, effort, and creative energy in. The question occurred to Edward Weston, who worked with various subjects and styles during his career and came to wonder which of them may ultimately be most worthy.
In his Daybooks, Weston pondered, “When I work in the field with rocks, trees, what not, I think that this is my important way: then comes a period of ‘still-life’ which excites me equally.” He then concluded (correctly, in my opinion) that “the best way is not to theorise, but do whatever I am impelled to do at the moment.” There is no telling at the outset whether a great creative breakthrough may be possible in one subject that will later prove more important than whatever progress one might achieve in a different subject. On the other hand, any activity that is autotelic is always rewarding, sometimes to the point of flow—an optimal experience—independent of any outcome or later judgment of importance.
Referring to my exchange with the photographer who felt implicitly entrapped in her characterisation of herself as a “wildlife photographer,” I think that, by the same token, such categories as “landscape photographer,” “film photographer,” “black-and-white photographer,” or “documentary photographer,” should also not be treated as incurable handicaps or as creative fetters. If the muse calls, in whatever direction, it is best to heed. Inspiration and creative energy are rare and valuable—and autotelic—enough in their own right, that one would be a fool to refuse them, regardless of labels or personal styles or any other category one may try to fit into. A moment of creative bliss, no matter what medium it manifests in, is always worth experiencing; certainly more so than any experience that may seem tedious or uninspired in comparison.
This is not to say that one should fall into the trap of hedonism. As many studies show, excessive hedonic behaviour leads ultimately to misery and dissatisfaction due to the effect known as hedonic adaptation. By comparison, hard work, when applied to autotelic activities, as well as traits such as kindness, compassion, and generosity, all pay dividends in happiness and sense of self-worth even if involving considerable degrees of effort and discomfort.
When I read Weston’s musings about his “important way,” I felt compelled to wonder what my important way is. Without intending any disrespect to Weston, I think he was a bit myopic in his characterisation of importance strictly in terms of photographic work, or even in terms of photography itself. Photography is important to me, but by itself is at best just one means to “my important way,” not the way itself. When considering the effect of flow and the nature of experiences that may lead to flow, in the context of the finite and diminishing count of living moments I may have remaining, I think that the only “important way” is to strive to experience flow and meaning in as many of my remaining experiences as I can, whether or not they involve photography.
Wherever there is contention between work—artistic or other—and having a meaningful experience, to the degree that one has a say in the matter, I believe that work must be the wildcard, not experience. Experiences are the building blocks of life. If making a popular and lucrative photograph requires that one eschew more elevated and personally meaningful experiences, even if yielding no product, then I say: to hell with that photograph. As Nobel laureate Thomas Mann put it, “The important thing for me, then, is not the ‘work,’ but my life. Life is not the means for the achievement of an esthetic ideal of perfection; on the contrary, the work is an ethical symbol of life.”