Nothing thrills me like photography. Well, I should say, nothing used to thrill me like photography. Somehow, the weight of a global health crisis, the daily crush of terrible news and this constant, thick foreboding is like a big creative tar pit; creating a difficult and slow plodding to even the simplest of endeavors.
And to be clear, it’s me, not photography. Photography itself is having a hey day, with images of empty streets, portraits of people in their doorways and behind their windows, the world seen from inside a car, FaceTime portraits and images from demonstrations. It seems the world of photography is as healthy as the world is sick. I just can’t seem to muster the strength to participate in it.
I still shoot for clients, of course. It’s the personal themes and work that once stirred my soul that is a desert with no rain.
Depression makes you tired. Anxiety thwarts creativity. Stress ruins inspiration. I still think about it, but I can’t act on it. When I’ve mentored photographers, I almost always start with a scenario: “Have you ever been driving in your car and seen something and thought, wow, that would be a great photograph — and then kept driving? From now on, your entire job is to stop the car.”
I find photography to be an output of motivation, not a collection of techniques. When I look at a great work, I almost never ooh and ah over the light or composition, but over the effort it took to get. I see photographers running toward things most run away from; exploring places or ideas uncharted. And, until recently, that explorer’s blood ran through me, too.
I have no photography right now because I don’t feel a personal drive to turn ideas into images. It doesn’t feel important enough to stop the car for. And I’m not sure what I can add to the glut of imagery that might possibly make a difference.
I’m packing a camera bag right now, against the tide of what my body is telling me to do. For the first time in a very long time, the family is going on a bit of a vacation. We refuse to get on a plane with everything going on, so with a 5-year old and 1-year old in toe, we are packing up the ’95 Montero and heading a few hours north, to a cabin in the high California heat at the foot of a mountain. The camera bag was an afterthought.
With little desire to shoot, I thought I could just write, or better yet, just read. Or better yet, just sleep. But I’m trained to pack it. Packing photo equipment has become synonymous with traveling for me. And so I do it out of some ancient duty, or habit, or because it would be weirder not to.
I pack too much. A sign I really have no idea what I hope to gain.
We picked the middle of a heat wave to head out to desert land. Or it picked us. Finding the energy to leave the small spot in front of the fan in our tiny cabin is hard. Holding a camera? It doesn’t cross my mind. Inspiration used to be enough to push off from creature comforts. I can see it’s going to take something different this time. Not a spark, or an idea. More like a purge or a new season. This is slightly familiar, though.
I had a writing block a bunch of years ago. I came into my writing class head down — “I have nothing,” I remember telling the teacher. “Also, I am having a hard time knowing what the use is of any of this.”
He told me, “That’s fine. Don’t write.” And he handed me a copy of Under The Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry; a novel about a drunkard’s descent. The entire twelve chapter affair takes place in a single day, in a small town in Mexico, careening toward the central character’s violent death, which you know is coming — the only question is just how far down under the volcano he’ll go before it happens.
Sitting mostly motionless, feeling mostly useless and entirely lethargic, the creaky wood cabin, with its torture bed, no kitchen, sloping floor, insects and visiting pigs and goats, is a physical drain — it feels like a descent. Like I may never shoot again.
The ropes around me unravel in a chicken coop. It smells bad, but bad in an ancient way. The messy job of making perfect eggs.
The light is dramatic, but my attention is on the chickens. How have we ended up here together, cooped up like this? I feel something here. I make a note to return again tomorrow, if I have the energy.
Maybe I’ll bring the camera.
You can’t tell a chicken what to do. Its movements are quick and jittery. It makes sudden jumps and is a study in gracelessness. But on the plus side, it’s going to show you a lot of looks. I’m keying in on the moments when the chicken suddenly ends up in a position that reminds me of the human plight. Particularly keen on this moment staring at a wall, with the window so close. Maybe I am the chicken.
Today I climbed out of the hole and the heat and headed up the mountain range here in Los Padres National Forest. I camped near here as a kid. My dad and I set off in a VW camper van. In easier times. It was as cold then as it is hot now. But up high, the temperature evens this time of year. A few clouds drift in from the west.
We explored and came upon an old tree. Maybe it was the cool air, or just what happens when you embrace the descent and find the depth of your own abyss. Whatever it is, I found a reason to stop.
And that’s when the rain fell.