I’ve been spending a lot of time in the city lately. Which is funny because despite the fact that I grew up in its innards, I’ve spent the better part of 20 years trying to get away from it. I think spending my youth there made me tired of its claustrophobic spaces. But over the past year, I’ve felt a strange pull from it. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time away from it. Although I’m intimately familiar with its streets and its workings, I sometimes feel like a tourist. In a way, it's kind of like meeting an old lover. New and different on the surface, but oddly familiar. Or like an old leather jacket that has spent decades in a dark corner of the closet. You pull it off of its hangar and slip it on and it feels strange but it’s worn in and it meets the contours of your body. The city is like that for me now. It feels new but somehow it slides into the old contours of my soul. And because I don’t live there anymore I can see it as an artist.
The modern city is the last light of our dying civilization. Its final, heaving gasp. But I’m a moth, drawn to it because there is something morbidly beautiful about it. When I’m there with a camera in my hand something happens to me. I immediately find its rhythm and conform to its thrumming meter like a good little foot soldier falling into a parade line. My real world becomes unreal. Day or night, the shadows deepen and all that’s left is the light. The strange and beautiful light. And, oh those shadows! The light tucks her secrets into the corners of those shadows and surrounds them with a silky, inviting darkness. And so the light becomes the greatest sculptor of all. Chiseling and chipping and melting and molding itself into a living acropolis, unveiling a new face with each fleeting moment.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my life. I’ve been thinking a lot about where I’ve been, the roads I’ve travelled, the things I’ve done, and the choices I’ve made. I’m not going to pretend that I have this all figured out. I just know that I am where I am. And I’m pretty sure that my feet are on the ground and that I’ve grown down into my life. Recently, I decided to let my facial hair grow out. That’s something I haven’t done in 25 years. I’m 54 and I always say that it seems as though my hair won’t turn gray and it won’t fall out. But my beard is another story. It has lots of gray in it. But I think I’m going to keep it anyway. It seems to me that the gray hair is like rust. I have a Jeep that has 150,000 miles on it and sports its share of rust. But it runs like a top. To me that rust represents all of the miles driven and all of the places I’ve been in that truck. The gray in my beard is kind of the same thing. I’ve earned that silver hair. It reminds me of the journey I’ve been on, the work I’ve done, and the wisdom I’ve hopefully accumulated.
What in the hell, you may be asking, has this got to do with making art? Maybe my attraction to the city is something like my beard. Bear with me on this and I’ll get there. If you are going to grow into the person you are meant to be you have to face your darkness. Wrestling with one’s demons can be very dangerous. Because not only does it change you deep to the roots, but you don’t really know how it’s gonna turn out. At the outset, let’s not confuse this darkness with evil. It’s not the same thing. What I’m talking about is the part of yourself that you hide away. The piece of you that violates your idea of what it means to be good and respectable and acceptable. That darkness is a part of all of us. The battle begins when we try to disown it. It’s uncomfortable as hell to think that there are things that are sewn into the fabric of who we are that we find repulsive. In fact, it’s horrifying. But inside of each of us there lurk urges and thoughts and character traits that violate the very sensibilities we have been taught to accept. If you stop and think for a moment, you know this is true. Our natural inclination is to try to bury those things with a kind of self-righteousness. "Other people, those people, do that stuff. Not me!", we say. “I’m a good person! Not like them!” So we divide the world into black and white, right and wrong, us and them. And all you have to do is watch the news for five minutes to see where that has gotten us. We have to wake up, my friend, because life ain’t like that. It just is what it is. It’s just life and believe me, ain’t a one of us that’s The Virgin Mary. One man's sins are another man's virtues. So get over it.
The nasty little truth is that when you push down the darkness that’s inside you, you’re strangling yourself. Now let’s be perfectly clear here. I’m not saying that you should indulge every inappropriate urge on the grounds that it’s a part of you. Au contraire. What I am saying is that you need to acknowledge that stuff is inside you. And own it. And then confront it and learn to use it in a positive way. Because if you don’t, not only will you miss out on some very cool stuff as a result of the struggle, it will escape into the outside world and affect the people and environment around you.
That’s exactly what happened to me. If I look behind me, at the years I've lived, the path of destruction I left in my wake is breathtaking. It looks like a tornado ripped through my life and tore up everyone and everything around me. No one escaped unscathed. Psychologists call this part of us “The Shadow”. It’s the part of you that wants to do things that you can never see yourself doing. The part that thinks thoughts that you would never speak in the light of day. Why? Well…because it’s a part of you! That’s why. Instead of dealing with that we shove those thoughts and ideas deep down into some hole in our hearts never to be heard from again, right? Ummm…NOT! I’m not saying that you have to actually do those things. But if you don't look them in the eye and give them their due, believe me, they'll find a way to the surface in the most unpleasant and inconvenient way imaginable. Just admit that they are a necessary part of you. And then use them to fuel your art. Your darkness contains the artistic expression that removes the "ordinary" from your work.
You see, it's all about balance. If you don't balance the dark and the light, you are controlled by them and you end up in a mad dance, ricocheting back and forth from one to the other. One day you're a wonderful, loving human being. The next day you're a complete ass. But you need both sides in order to be whole. Without both you’re only a partial person. Half of the equation. Just like there’s no sweet without sour. No joy without misery. The trick is to realize that although things like light and dark seem like completely different things, they aren't really different at all. They're just extremes of the same thing. Can you really identify the exact place where light becomes dark? Where joy becomes despair? Where mercy becomes weakness? Where strength becomes cruelty? The magic we can experience in life lies in bringing these things into balance so they are all properly expressed. In order for something to be "warm", it has to be both "hot" and "cold" at the same time. But it has to do so in a balanced way. So realize that finding and expressing that dark part of yourself in a healthy way is really important for living fully. And then remember that every other person on this planet has their own special kind of darkness. So give them a break. Confronting your darkness may take away the simple black and white of life, but in its place you get a whole new array of nuance and emotion and understanding. And a whole new vision, which is what I’m all about. So hear me Young Jedi: once you confront your own darkness, not only does it change who you are, it brings depth to your soul. It brings compassion and insight. And it opens doors of perception you never knew were there. Which brings me back to my journeys into the city.
The city is absolutely part of my darkness. I was spawned there and I reveled in its dark corners. There I first heard the voice of my muse and recognized my calling as an artist of some kind. But with no Muse Owner’s Manual or mentor to teach me I had no idea what to do about it. So I did what seemed like a good idea at the time. I lived the outer life of an artist wannabe. I partied and caroused and nurtured delusions of grandeur. It almost killed me. And so it scared me to death. Once I got the chance, I ran as fast and as far as my life would allow. I battled the demon by hiding in a suburban hole. In short, I did exactly what I was expected to do in order to live a respectable life. Never mind the fact that I had inside me an entirely different purpose. I left behind childish things. The only problem was that I left behind the wrong childish things. That just made it worse. Neil Peart said it far better than I can:
“Sprawling on the fringes of the city
in geometric order
an insulated border
in between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown.
Nowhere is the dreamer
or the misfit so alone.”
And guess what? That old demon, he’s a quick one. He wanted to be heard, dammit! So he pushed and pushed and pushed. And I ran and I drank and doped up and I tried to run some more. Eventually one of us was backed into a corner. And it wasn’t my demon. So I folded my hand and ended up in rehab.
When I got out I spent a lot of time in the country and found solace in the light and the wide open space. I photographed horses and barns and country roads and I found a soothing that I hadn't felt in many years. Being out there, in the smell of the corn and the hay and the animals, I was able to take a step back and look at my darkness from a distance. It quieted me down and grounded me. I got a lot of healing there. I still go there when my meter is running low, when I need to reconnect with the deep rhythms that run in the subterranean ravines of millions of years of human existence. So I worked for awhile in the beauty of the quiet farm country.
What I found out, what shocked me, was that the darkness didn’t go away. What he wanted was to be acknowledged and expressed in a balanced way. He also brought me a gift; and this is the cool part: he offered encounters with the numinous. Once I began to dip my toes into that pool of darkness that lies inside of me, I began to see things in a different way. My darkness was bringing harmony and context to my work. I had been making photographs by responding to what I saw around me. My darkness enabled me to make work that originated inside of me. This was a huge shift. I began to see my work, my vision. So I engaged fully. But instead of doing it in a destructive way, as I had before, I tried to use it as a starting point for my work. I tried to look through it to find extraordinary grace and beauty in the peaceful surroundings I was in. It began to show itself in some of the horse photographs I was making. Like this one:
Force Of Nature
My work was beginning to reflect my inner state. I had found the key to unlocking my vision. We all start by mimicking the work of those who have come before us. We have to. It's how we learn our craft. But looking inside allowed me to stop making photographs that had been made a thousand times before by a thousand different artists. I could make work that was truly mine. Work that couldn't be made by anyone else. This is the way of the artist. The urge and the direction come from the muse but the inspiration and the vision comes from the darkness. Anything creative comes from that dark corner of yourself. And that’s why I have to go back to the city.
These days going into the city is an almost spiritual experience for me. I know that sounds trite. But I look at those buildings and I see them rising up out of my darkness. And to me they seem like monuments to that chaotic corner of my soul. Terrifying and majestic and full of themselves. Adorned with regality and splendor. At the same time they represent everything that is so wrong with our world. The greed and waste and exploitation. They are glittering memorials to a culture that has ground so much to dust under the heel of its boot in order to build them. But they are beautiful still. And so I photograph them. For me they are part of the torment and glory of my own soul. My own personal daimon. And so, for this time at least, my vision for my work begins there. I'm still working out my vision for my architectural work. But with each photograph I make I get closer. My work is beginning to look more like my own and less like anything that's been done before. It's mine because it's authentic and because it comes from inside of me. And so it's a journey.
So here’s what I have to say to you. Find your own darkness. You know he's there and you know what he is. Stop running from him. Know that if you run, he will chase you down. If you decide to confront him, he will lay traps for you. The battle is hard and it takes great courage. But in the aftermath, your fear of him will be gone and though he never quite lets go (he has a great bullshit detector), he has in his possession a great treasure for you: he can pull back the veil that separates you from the numinous experiences that are the feeding ground for real, soulful artmaking.
Next time, it's real photography stuff. I'll talk about the vision I had for this photograph, Dark Towers, and about the details of making it. The fun is just beginning!