Wandering an unfamiliar countryside encourages all sorts of thoughts. There’s the familiar and the unfamiliar; landscape much like that found elsewhere yet populated with vegetation that’s sometimes the same, sometimes a little different and sometimes a lot different.
This entrancing blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar is unsettling, but not in an unpleasant way. As I wrote, it encourages a lot of thinking. Particularly about place and what it means to be in place. To different places I bring the same mind and the same curiosity, but how they work together is subtly altered by the environment. In other words, although I might think I am the same person in Devon as I am in Missouri, I really am not.
This porous relationship with the world around me is one of the more interesting aspects of travel and is perhaps the main reason why I like to do it. To find yourself a different person simply because of what surrounds you might seem like a frightening relinquishing of self, but the reality is that it is an expansion rather than a retrenchment.
Perhaps this is one reason why I find myself unable to deeply empathize with the untraveled. I understand the fear – and it is a fear – of placing yourself in a situation that lacks familiarity, but I lament the resulting small mindedness. This is unfair I know, for an insular approach to living works for some people and I’m not yet arrogant enough to feel I know all the answers. Let’s hope I never am.
But that said, I feel a delicious clarity of thought that grows stronger each day I move further into retirement. Part of this is due, as I wrote recently on Facebook to feeling like acres and acres of thought-landscape have been freshly ploughed and left fertile for new growth of all kinds. This analogy to the land is no accident and reinforces much of what I have been writing about here – only in this case, my mind is recalibrating its own assessment of its surroundings and is open to fresh interpretations.
But what has any of this to do with photography?
I am finally coming to the understanding that my photography has nothing to do with any of the concerns and preoccupations that I read about in the vast majority of articles and books on the subject. Only when I come across writings about art – and the art doesn’t even have to be photography – do I get closer to what interests me. But only closer; not there, for much of the philosophy of aesthetics is somewhat tangential to my own, deeply personal, rationale.
I photograph to create an image that represents my state of mind at the time of taking the photograph. Whether this image is good art or ostensibly uninteresting is irrelevant. What matters is how closely what I photograph acts as a key or cipher to what I was at the time. Knowing this, I now understand why I have been drawn to film so emphatically over the past three years – the film negative represents a solid key, an artifact as important as a Rosetta stone, to my consciousness at the time and place where I took the photograph. Digital images, ephemeral by nature unless captured by the printer, lack that sense of substance, although they still can do the job fairly well.
Is this, then, the end of my attempts to become a ‘good’ photographer? Perhaps. Almost everything that I thought was important about photography has become – and, truthfully, has been becoming so for a long time – irrelevant. But I have identified what’s meaningful to me, and that’s a greater prize. I certainly won’t be stopping.