On Showing Up and Doing the Work

Quote of the day: “The advice I like to give to young artists, or really anybody, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens.” — Chuck Close, from Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another by Andrew Zuckerman

Showing Up
Akiko Chanting Heart Sutra in Zendo

While I was in Hawaii I asked Akiko, the owner of Akiko’s Buddhist B&B (where I was living), to do a portrait session with me. We finally scheduled a session about a week before I was to fly home. Akiko agreed to do the session but wanted the session to be one where the focus was on her body and movements and not her face. As a dancer and teacher of dance and theater, she prepared for our session with the discipline of an artist.

Dressed in a leotard, she came to the session with a few props and an old book a friend created years ago. I came with no specific intention in mind, except to make portraits. As Akiko began to move, I began to make photos. She stopped once and said, “You can tell me to stop and hold a position if you want. You can ask me to move however you would like.”

Showing Up
Photo Against Window

Then she pointed out that I might want to move so that the blank wall was behind her instead of the windows, table, and door, which I had framed the photos against. “Duh…,” I thought, “Why didn’t I think to look at that?” I realized that I was so nervous about the photo shoot that I was not fully present to the lighting and other conditions.

I stopped, took a few slow breaths and assessed the room. Yes, I do prefer the way the light works against this wall as opposed to against the windows. The light is still challenging and I need fairly slow shutter speeds so I’ll use the tripod.

But beyond assessing the light my mind was blank. I stood there dumbly. What is my intention? What is my vision? Finally I realized I had no specific intention. I had no vision of what I wanted to capture. I was like a sponge, soaking up whatever presented itself.

Showing Up
Showing Up

I wasn’t happy with this passive view of myself as an artist. I thought that I should have been more creative, more artistic, more directive.

At the end of the session, I reflected on the energy and ideas that Akiko brought to it and on my lack of inspiration or direction. Is this how I want to be as a photographer? Do I just want to let things happen? Or do I want to be more active in designing and creating? I decided I wanted to be active, to envision something and then to work to create it photographically.

But deciding and acting are two different things. Inspiration doesn’t always arrive on schedule. And we can miss opportunities if we wait for inspiration to strike.

Akiko offered to do another portrait session with me the next day. The next day came but no ideas came to me. I told Akiko that I was postponing because I still had no specific goal in mind and I didn’t want to do another session without an inspiration.

In the meantime I got to work on the photos from our session. I took the book that she had brought to our session and found that the art in the book and the poses that Akiko struck during our session created an inspiration around the idea of transformation. I created a short video slide-show based on those ideas, photos from the photo shoot, and photos of pages in the book.

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Even though I had no inspiration when I started, I found inspiration doing the work. Oh. I get it.

Show up — Do the work — Don’t judge

The days flew by. And suddenly it was my last day in Hawaii. So little time remaining! Waiting for inspiration I  had almost missed one last opportunity to do a photo session with Akiko.

I wanted to capture the feeling and beauty of Akiko chanting the heart sutra during meditation sessions. The first time I climbed the stairs to the Zendo for sesshin, with Akiko leading the sesshin, I was entranced by the sound of Akiko’s voice chanting, by the dim light, the smoke and scent of the burning incense. It sounded to me like ancient rhythms, ancient voices, traveling through time.

We had just enough time to do a quick photo session in the morning. It was not the dim light I had hoped for and I was still nervous about asking for what I wanted. The photos did not turn out as I envisioned them. But I got some frames that I like, that express a bit of what I felt in the Zendo.

Showing Up
Chanting

Photography teaches me lessons about life.

Show up, be present, do the work.

 

 

 

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