I write a lot about jobs. And those are vital to any photographer's career. But I don't spend enough time writing about the importance of quiet time and meditation for creative people. And when I say creative people I really mean all of us. Everyone.
I just read a study about the value of meditation. Not "swami-cult-chant-incense" meditation (unless you are into that....) but simple, mindful meditation. We tend to go like the wind in our daily lives and we're confronted with new facts, new ideas and change all the time. But we rarely make enough time to actually let our brains process the things we learn and confront. The study, here , points to meditation as a tool to increase attention, create more grey matter and become better at learning. Other studies document meditation as a blood pressure and cortisol lowering mechanism that could prevent disease (dis-ease) and anxiety.
We tend to reward photographers for writing stuff about daring feats of lighting, meeting heroic deadlines and jousting with evil bean counters and this focus creates a self reinforcing spiral of dis-information that makes many freelancers feel that they should be working until they drop every day. I am guilty of presenting my version of life in this manner and I felt that I should be more inclusive in descriptions of how my life is really structured.
In this post I want to talk about the important of the quiet moments between hectic life.
Walking with a camera. When I go out walking with my camera it's not with the mindset of an explorer on an expedition, with the goal of coming back with treasures (although I couch it that way when I shouldn't). When I go out walking with a camera I am mindful that I'm just doing a walking meditation. When I see something I like I snap a photograph. And then I let go of thinking about the thing that attracted my attention. The rest of the time I'm trying to keep my mind clear of all the warring thoughts that impel us to worry and thrash around. I follow a route and keep my mind on just experiencing everything as it opens up in front of me. I think all solitary walking is a form of meditation because the cadence of your walk keeps your mind focusing subconsciously on being here now.
Catching some floor. A few years ago, during the big downturn (circa 2006 and 2007 for photographers) I struggled with profound anxiety. The way I had done things for years shifted in a heart beat. All structure exited the emergency exits and most of us were mired in a "wait and see" mode as we watched our working capital shrink and fizzle. I went to therapy. I tried Xanax. Nothing seemed to relieve the tension and apprehension. Then I decided that every time the anxiety became overwhelming I'd grab a yoga mat, lie down on the nicely padded floor of my studio, close my eyes and meditate for half an hour. I set my computer to ring an alarm, or I used a meditation CD with a timed thirty minutes of soft music. This was the one thing that worked. I could calm down enough to trace back to the quick thought that triggered my anxiety and de-fuse that mental bomb before it could do any more damage.
Eventually the anxiety went into total remission. But I stay with the practice of meditating once or twice during the day and when I get off the floor I feel rested and calm and ready for the next task. When I'm writing a book and I get stuck. I hit the floor and meditate. When I get back up the writing is easy.
Beyond meditation. After the economic downturn started to recover here in Austin it felt good to book up work again. There's a strong, pent up demand for new advertising and new images. But even though my previous writing would lead you to believe that I work a lot I spend more time doing fun, human oriented things. I book my morning swims in my business calendar. If I miss a day because of a job I go into flex time mode and look for a place to make up the swim. Even if it's just getting in the pool at sunset and swimming an easy mile. When I'm not booked I make time to have lunch with friends. Today I'm having lunch with a friend from an advertising agency. Yesterday I had lunch at a ground breaking ceremony for the theater I shoot for. We celebrated my 18 years of shooting for them. I didn't even bring a camera. I just savored the moment.
Tomorrow I'll do some work in the morning and afternoon but I'll make time to have lunch with a photographer friend of mine. We're working our way thru the "big shift" and our mutual support is priceless. We know better than any of our friends what this struggle does to us and we're working on how to deflect the ambiguous nature of it all.
Time away is the secret to getting more energy. You've probably heard that two photographers are getting on a bus and doing lighting workshops in 50 cities across the U.S. While it may make sense for them economically it seems dangerous to the spirit of their work. After big jobs I need time to read novels, go to movies, have dinner parties and live the life I want to shoot. If all I do is shoot and think about photography there's no reality left to reference outside of photography. And a constant focus on tools and techniques without subject and concept is deadly to my way of seeing and being.
If the downturn taught me nothing else it is that downtime is a gift to be savored. Experiences outside photography are the creative fuels we use to come back and create art. And art hits the audience it is made for. If the art is ABOUT photography it appeals only to other photography obsessed people. If art is ABOUT living life then the audience is infinite.
It was mid-December and we were having our first bout of chilly weather. We needed one more image for an annual report I'd been working on. The art director called to ask if we could do this photo of a rescue driving. He drives on the major toll roads helping people whose cars have run out of gas, had some sort of problem, or need some sort of service to get going again.
Couldn't have picked a better day for this kind of shot. It was windy, overcast and cold. Every once in a while some fat raindrops whipped through. The client had a location and a time in mind and I started packing. Generic camera choice. You could have shot this with just about any make or model and any lens better than a Coke bottle. The real secret for this shot was sandbags. Lots of sandbags.
I got to the location and mapped out where I wanted to shoot from and I started setting up my light. First things first, I put 40 pounds of sandbags on the heavy duty stand before I put anything else on it. Don't do this backwards!!! Don't put the flash head, softbox and modifier on the unballasted stand first or you'll have a sail in your hands. I also attached the 18 pound Elincrhom Ranger RX AS power pack to the stand for extra stability. The winds were mischievous and teased me at ten miles per hour then whipped at 30 mph. My little Elinchrom VariStar umbrella box fluttered like a flag on the top of the stand but everything held.
I set the camera in manual at it's highest flash sync speed and set an exposure that would give me a dreary background. I put half CTO (orange) filtration on the lights and set the camera to a manual WB setting of around 3800K. I shot in raw. When I working in Lightroom I fined tuned the balance between the warmth of the flash on my subject's face and the cool of the background. This example may seem a bit warm but I think it's the contrast of colors that I'm really seeing.
We shot a bunch of variations and then I broke down the set and packed up the car.
Why bring out the "big gun" lights on a cloudy day? I wanted to be able to put the light far enough away and in a light hungry modifier, covered with light sucking conversion gels, and still be able to shoot and recycle quickly enough to keep the shoot moving and my fingers from freezing. The Ranger at half power was giving me more than enough power and clicking along with a steady 2 second recycle time. The much bigger battery, in comparison with the smaller Ranger Quadra or my Profoto 600b meant less slow down from the biting cold (well.....biting in a central Texas sense, meaning low 30's.)
Nice to have the right tools for the job at hand. We were in an out in about an hour and the photo was delivered later that evening in order to meet a review deadline. That's about it.