The Obsession

The unconscious obsession that we photographers have is that wherever we go we want to find the theme that we carry inside ourselves. – Graciela Iturbide

I think I have a touch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It runs in my family – not in a huge way like you see on TV (although my oldest sister had it that way), but just some mild things that I find I just can’t let go of until it’s out of my system.

I get a specific photograph in my mind, or series of photographs, and I just can’t let it go till it’s done.  There’s the compulsive need to release it from deep within. It gnaws at me. It controls both sides of my brain – the conceptual side that is envisioning the photo plus my analytical planning mind to figure out the million details that it will take to get it done.

I released my Ghosts of Myanmar series a couple weeks ago and it’s been very well received.  By all accounts, I should be happy with that and move on to my next photo project. Except that I’m not happy.  I like them just fine, but they’re only part of the story.  The photos within me haven’t been fully released.  There’s a Part 2 in my head that will complete it, and now the planning is taking place to get that done.

By the time I finish that series, I’ll have more than two years invested in it.  Compared to many of the Masters, that’s nothing.  Photographers like Clyde Butcher can spend decades documenting the Everglades, for example.  For him it’s a passion to save that environment from destruction.

But I keep asking myself – what’s my motivation to complete the Ghosts of Myanmar series? I love Myanmar, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not it.  The best, most logical answer I can come up with is OCD – I have no other explanation for it, although my mind will endlessly keep searching for one as a “background task”. The late Spalding Gray had “The Monster” – a book that he felt compelled to finish writing, and kept haunting him until he did (I hope that I will avoid his fate though).

A side effect of this situation is that one particular series tries to push out any others that may have been percolating.  I need to consciously push these other ideas to the forefront in order to keep expanding my portfolio.

It’s not all bad though.  I know that this obsession will keep pushing me to take things to new heights – into areas that I would have never thought of without these endless hours of pondering.

I won’t head back to Myanmar until October.  Every day until then, I’ll be researching, planning, testing, learning or just dreaming about how to best complete that series.  I know the direction I want it to go, and a general idea of the technique it will take to bring them to life, but I want/need to envision specific shots. I do allow for serendipity, but that comes once I’m on location.

I have to figure out what it will take to release this series from my creative center, and that takes time. And that’s the Obsession.




New Photo Series: Ghosts of Myanmar

I’m excited to share my latest photo series – Ghosts of Myanmar.

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has a rich, sad and spectacular history filled with art, conquest, war, reverence and resilience.  Throughout my travel there I found people who were immensely proud of their country, and are excited about its future.  They also have a deep connection to the past, most visibly through the thousands of temples in every part of the country.

Many temples are still the center of village or city life, while others are ghostly decaying reminders of the past. These ghosts have been witness to countless prayers, wars and natural disasters, yet still retain their beauty and majesty.

This series is an attempt to capture that decaying beauty.

Click here to view the photo series


The “I suck” Phase

Sunset - Bagan Myanmar

Sunset over ancient temples, Bagan Myanmar

Yes. It’s possible to think of photography as an act of editing, a matter of where you put your rectangle pull it out or take it away. Sometimes people ask me about films, cameras and development times in order to find out how to do landscape photography. The first thing I do in landscape photography is go out there and talk to the land – form a relationship, ask permission, it’s not about going out there like some paparazzi with a Leica and snapping a few pictures, before running off to print them.- Michael Kenna

I’m back from my month in Southeast Asia and am deep into the editing phase of the project.  Or as I like to call it, the “I suck” phase.

I go through this with every project.  I wrote about it in my previous blog post called The Agony of Editing.  I know it will get better, but this is all part of the process – and an important one.

I have a background in Naval aviation, and the crews always debriefed themselves after every flight to see what they did well and what they could do better.  By doing this analysis, they continue to grow their skills and always stay sharp.

So as I go through each shot, I’m my harshest critic.  I look at the lighting, the composition, the content and really try to look impartially at it.  I usually find myself asking why I didn’t move to the right a bit or get a different perspective.  Sometimes the exposure is off, so I try to figure out why.

But the main thing that I want to see is if I captured the emotion that I was trying to convey.  Did I actually come back with the series that I envisioned in my head before I left.  To the last point, I inevitably don’t.  It’s like a novelist who writes a book.  They usually have an outline and a vision for the final product, but it can just as easily take a different turn as the writing process progresses.

Here’s the thing though – I can’t analyze that “main thing” right now.  I need to distance myself from the negatives for a while.  I find it gives me a better perspective if I live with them for a few weeks out of mind.  I can look at them more objectively that way.  Right now I’m too emotionally connected to them – I remember how hard it was to take a particular shot or the good or bad experience I had that day.  None of that should factor into whether it’s a good print or not at the end.

At this point in the process my “artist insecurities” are running rampant (the “I suck” phase).  I need to let that calm down for a while before I can see clearly. So you won’t see any of my B&W work from the trip until sometimes in January most likely.

Until then, I’ll relax and enjoy the holidays.  I’m flying back east to spend Christmas with the family in Ohio.  My flight leaves on Tuesday – it will be my 17th flight in the last 5 weeks. I’m already planning out 2012 and there are some seriously exciting things to come.