Photography – A Million Times More, With Feeling: Creative Passion by Don McGowan

As my photo journey continues, I count myself fortunate to have been influenced by many talented people. However, Don McGowan, goes way beyond the talent part and today talks about his journey – a special look at creativity and passion. — Bob Grytten

Photography – A Million Times More, With Feeling: Creative Passion

by Don McGowan

On the evening of July 24, 1846, Henry David Thoreau was given the opportunity to sojourn overnight in the Concord, Mass. jail.

This stroke of fortune arose from his refusal to pay the poll taxes, which in his
mind supported the institution of slavery, to which he was devoutly opposed. The
next morning he was released against his will because some unknown person had paid the tax for him.

During his time in lock-up he is said to have been visited by his great friend
Ralph Waldo Emerson, although this exchange is undocumented. At the
onset of the conversation Emerson is said to have asked, “Henry, why is it that you
are here?” To which Thoreau is said to have replied, “Waldo, why is it that you are not?

I have often reflected on this supposed discourse because it encapsulates one of my primary observations of the character of one of my favorite humans. It says to me that, whatever else he may have been, Thoreau was a person of deep and abiding passion.

In the years following my graduation from law school, I spent countless hours in the woods, hiking and backpacking at every chance. Along the way I received my first 35mm camera. I carried it everywhere, and I shot lots of slide film. But even after reading the
books I could find, I still did not really know what I was doing. I knew that in the viewfinder there was a circle and a needle, and that as long as I kept the needle inside the circle when I released the shutter, life would be good and I would have an image.

I photographed this way for 20 years, until 1994 when I took a photography workshop featuring John Shaw and created by the genius of Bill Fortney. By then I owned a Nikon 8008 S camera body and two lenses. I had purchased my first tripod before the
workshop. I had no cable release, no filters, nada.

More than 200 folks attended this event in Gatlinburg, not far down the road from where I was living in the shadow of the Smokies. It began on Friday, April 22, and John Shaw is an amazing teacher. One of my images selected as the “Best of the Weekend” by the team of the Great American Photography Weekend. I was shaking John Shaw’s hand. I was pretty much in disbelief; but as I stood there, an awareness shot through me: This is why you are here. Do you get it yet?

Fortunately, I got it. Two weeks later I was a photographer’s assistant in a commercial studio in Knoxville. At the age of 46, I became a professional photographer; and a
professional photographer is what I have been every day of my life since then.

When Skill meets Passion…

This story, however, is not about me; it is a story about passion and commitment. I’m just the messenger. I believe that passion and creative work are inseparable. I believe creativity, including photographic creativity, proceeds in the same way as a thunderstorm is brought into being. The impulse builds, the intensity grows, the energy flows and then there is release and the energy subsides to calm once again.

In speaking of the impulse as it relates to creativity, the great Irish writer Edna O’Brien
has said, “…the obsession is already there, and that obsession derives from an intensity of feeling which normal life cannot accommodate.”

In the beginning, in the early obsession, there is a fundamental dilemma that must be addressed. Even as the creative impulse seeks to build, it simultaneously asks for a balancing of energies: between skill and abandon, between reining in and letting go.
As David Ulrich so astutely observes, “We gently nurture the enthusiasms and passions that arise from our deepest selves while we carefully cultivate their expression. Our passionate inclinations are already there, an integral part of our being. We encourage their
full emergence through our commitment to the process.”

The Artistic Within…

As we continue to persist in our desire to be photographic artists, something becomes active. Within the process itself, there is a moment when a genuine connection arises, and we experience a new feeling for what we are doing, for the activity itself.

Suddenly, and perhaps only briefly, we find ourselves in a flow of energy, and we sense that we are somehow deeply within that flow. At the same time we become aware of reciprocity between that incipient creative impulse and our inner sensitivity. We feel
an accelerated receptivity to the work itself; and in return we are helped, assisted, guided, and energized by the process. We become willing to take risks, to try new ideas, to experiment and in this we are often carried away by an overwhelming passion for the work.

As we establish new connections with ourselves and with the work, these connections call forth a deepened interest and a heightened awareness; and the energy we receive from this helps propel the creative impulse forward. All of this speaks to something that might loosely be referred to as a hint of awakening, or of heightened consciousness.

The imminent psychologist, Rollo May, posited in his seminal work, The Courage to Create, that the second element of the creative act is the “intensity of the encounter.”
In this part of the process May suggests “that absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved, and so on, are used commonly to describe the state of the artist or scientist when creating , or even the child at play. By whatever name one calls it, genuine creativity is characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.”

In this stage we encounter a sense of euphoria, of being “high” on the experience; but we also have to attend to the techniques and motions that are required by the task at hand. It doesn’t do much good to become totally absorbed if we don’t remember to set the exposure values. At this point, says David Ulrich, the artist opens to a deeper relationship with the work. As photographers, we may well begin to discover unexpected elements and a deepening connection with our images; on the other side of the coin, we begin to serve the
process. When we reach this awareness, the work itself will begin to suggest how it may best be revealed through us.

Our having known this experience on one occasion, and it being the state to which most artists aspire, we then begin to seek within ourselves for ways to return to the experience again and again. We feel compelled to continue with the work in spite of difficulty,
or economic hardship, of lack of public acknowledgement of our work. We have experienced the place within where great energy dwells.

Finding the Pathway…

So what are the factors, or circumstances that we may look at within our lives that may help us to find the pathway that will allow us to remain in the fullness of what we have experienced and now know to be possible?

Ulrich suggests three:

  • One, we must be engaged in something we care deeply about. We must approach our artistic efforts as we would approach something sacred.
  • Two, we must be mindfully attentive to the quality of our efforts. This begins with being truly present in the moment of our interaction with our tools, and simultaneously mindful of our growing relationship with our subjects. We must be connected with our bodies and our feelings; and our minds must be active and alert, ever questioning and searching.
  • Three, we must understand that we have to remain open and receptive. When we
    do this the boundaries between self and the work dissolve and become seamless. We listen to the work, to our intuition, and to the guiding voices within us.

It is so, that the work is an extension of ourselves; and yet we cannot become it. We have to maintain a critical distance and remain capable of objective relationship with our efforts. This gives us the freedom needed to be in a real conversation with our materials and our ideas, and to remember the essential truth of the process: the work comes
from us, or through us, but it is not of us.

Can passion, then, be created?

I do not believe that passion is something that we can simply will into being; but it is something, as Ulrich says, that naturally grows out of our compelling interests, our most vital responses, and our unique experiences.

It grows out of our interactions with life and living, and is something that can be encouraged. We realize passion as we foster commitment to the paths we choose, and as we bring forth within us an increased awareness of ourselves and the world around us.

Passion is congruent with our capacity to deeply commit our interests and our energies in a desired direction. We are privileged to have been given an amazing gift called “life.”
How can we not be interested in it?

When we observe the myriad relationships and energy flows that are the Earth, how could it fail to invoke our concentration? Does not passion arise simply from our being observant; and so is it not the capacity for a heightened awareness that is transformative?
As Ulrich urges, “Look around. Take the time to see and feel. Go beneath the surface. Everything has meaning. Everything is a reflection of the ultimate cause…”
Once we have done this I do not believe we can do other that commit ourselves fully to the process of seeking connection with the world at our fingertips and the creative tools that are the extensions of our hands and minds and hearts, and of engaging fully in understanding and enriching our relationships with the “things” of that world.

And armed with this commitment, can we do other than to live with passion?

— republished with Authors permission. Don McGowan’s website which lists his workshops is Subscription to his quartly newsletter if free and a must. Weekly posted images are also worth a look.

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