Nature is not, of course, always benign and beautiful. It can be frightening and terrifying also.
Not too many generations ago, raw nature and wilderness tended to inspire fear and dread in “civilized” people.
They represented Otherness and the Unknown. That which is “wild” is also “bewildering”.
Today, wilderness is usually considered to be something good and in need of preservation.
The beauty and awesomeness of it dominate our attention.
We are attracted by wilderness, the Otherness of it, the sense it is something inevitably outside of us.
Always beyond us, it is what is ultimately real.
We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach it with any taint of human pretense.
It will elude us if we allow artifacts like clothing to intervene between ourselves and this Other.
To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough.
In Wildness is the preservation of the world.
-Henry David Thoreau
There is a constant conversation that takes place involving photography and more specifically, equipment. Tools, techniques, gadgets, gizmos, extras, and essentials. From cameras, lenses, bags, to software. It can be so overwhelming at times I am surprised newcomers continue to pursue it. But pursue they do, and in droves it seems.
I am consistently surprised at advice I hear and read that is given to those wishing to learn, “photography”. One of the most common suggestions I have heard is, read your camera manual. Possibly, more likely probably, the single worst piece of advice that can be give to anyone with a desire to learn photography.
The complexity of even simple cameras today can be overwhelming. Menus nested in menus, nested in menus, is the norm on the most basic dslr cameras. The amount of technical options in one manual is simply overwhelming, if not ridiculous.
There is always somewhat good advice mixed in such as, use a tripod, along with the standard suggestions of, understand exposure, and learn composition. Necessary and good for sure, but are they talking about learning photography or simply learning to use a tool? Last I knew, really good hammers, and knowing how to drive a nail straight does not build a lovely home.
As time goes by one will hopefully become adept at operating their equipment and the additional paraphernalia such as a new lens, a macro lens, (closeups are cool). Then comes the age old advice of, venture to popular places, explore a few iconic locations, stand where many photographers have stood before, possibly famous and well known photographers. Become popular on social media, build hundreds if not thousands of followers. Enter photography contests and possibly win. Sell some work and become known as; A Photographer. Many may long for the social interaction that photography can supply. Social bonding with others of similar beliefs, ideas, and yearnings. Photography outings are planned from sun up to sun down if not longer. Fun I am sure for its social interactions and comradery. At this point, hopefully, you will have become very proficient with your tools, learning to get the most out of them. You may have mastered them. You may now have many more friends, both physically and virtually. But the question seems to always remain; are you getting the most out of photography?
We all will undoubtedly need to learn how to use our tools. There is no great trick to this. It simply takes practice. The other side of this on going “how” is of course, why? Why does one want or need to master the tools of their craft. Be it musical, culinary, or visual such as photography. There is more to a great piece of music, a great home cooked meal, or a photograph, than simply mastery of tools used. There is always more. They play themselves out as options that afford a greater understanding of the process, the experience, the personal insight required to understand not only what to do, but why to do it. This is not about the photographs one makes but reasons they chose to make them.
A very common if not the most common experience surrounding photography is that based in chance. Or to put another way, blind luck. Explore the places, lands, and environments that are popular. These are easy to find. Magazines and online outdoor and nature articles are full of them. They give you everything you need from time of year, time of day, gps coordinates, even the equipment recommended to capture a scene exactly as they are showing you. This will undoubtedly lead to a higher chance of producing photographs that fall into a few of the categories previously mentioned. Most notably the category of popularity. Iconic scenes of blossoming wildflowers, the array of colors of Autumn foliage, reflections in the lakes of surrounding mountains, the ever popular sunrise and sunsets complete with long reaching sunbeams, and the growing popularity of the night skies filled with stars and the milky way. These are all popular for sure, and to adequately capture, one will need a good understanding of their equipment.
Over the years I too have given much time to this game of chance. This hit and miss approach. It is one that can produce great rewards. But more often than not produces disappointment. Disappointment is not what photography is about. Expectations are fine, but what one basis their expectations on seems to have strayed far from the beneficial attributes of why one pursued photography to begin with.
I am not one who seeks affirmation of my photographs. I have written about this previously and have stated without question, the work I pursue is for one person and one person only, me. This may very well come across as a selfish endeavor without any regard for the photograph or even for others. This is simply not an accurate assessment. It is a selfish endeavor yes. But only in the regard that it is based entirely on the experience of what may become a photograph. Put another way, the photograph is the end product of the experience, with the experience being the only essential part of the pursuit.
One can leave opportunity up to chance, or one can create opportunity by choice. The two have strikingly different outcomes. One has a high risk of ending in disappointment while the other creates personal experiences of deep, profound, and emotional moments based on unbounded respect. This may be what Buddhist Masters have refereed to as Zen, a personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others. Or a phrase coined by Alcoholics Anonymous, a Higher Power. But it can be described simply as an understanding or acceptance of life that is greater than oneself. Possibly the antithesis of selfishness.
I belief these profound moments can have life changing consequences. They become personal insights, with the ability to provide a path that transcends all known emotions we may have previously experienced. These moments seem to have a prerequisite of solitude, are deep personal reflection, and meditative in nature. This is what I ultimately want to share with others. But are they even shareable? The experience, no. But a photograph, story, or sharing of such insights, yes. It seems to be the best we can do. But it does not happen without first making the choice.
So it begins with a selfish choice and ends with deep respect, humility, empathy, and awe for those places, times, and moments of my own making. From there, I cannot be naked enough.
While it is true opportunity shapes attitude, it is also true attitude shapes opportunity. As Henry David Thoreau so rightfully stated: We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach it with any taint of human pretense. To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough.
Kansas Flint Hills, Konza Prairie | ©Brad Mangas
In The Beginning
Age Of Bling
Spirit Of The Moment
Not all those who wander are lost.
I have written about the why’s of my creative pursuits in photography over the years, but I am not sure I have specifically attempted to answer this question. I thought I should spend a few moments here and attempt just that.
Some may not have read other attempts I have made to answer this, plus I should not be so naive to think this can be answered once and that’s that. This should be given thought on a regular basis. Not just because motivations change but it should be a basis for keeping true to oneself. Never forget the reasons you love something. Same can be said towards others. Never forget why you love someone.
Moments can be fleeting, time can drag as syrup down the side of a winters Maple. Both seem to be at opposite ends of the same time spectrum. A well known fact to anyone who has ever attempted to express themselves in a creative manner.
The why of this at times seems very simple, it fills a void in my life. What void exactly I can not say with certainty. But a void all the same, this I am certain of. We all have voids of one form or another. I am in no way an expert in such an area but I know this to be one of the truths of life nonetheless. One of the great challenges of life, if not “the” greatest challenge is to live a life fulfilled. Fulfilled with happiness, joy, well being, contentment, to name just a few of what seems meaningful to me personally. How does one, or in this case, how do I go about that?
I am fortunate in one regard. I have found a way to instill these meaningful qualities into my everyday life. That is not to say my life is any different than others, but obviously each of our lives are acutely unique to each of us. There is a key to a life fulfilled I believe, a small magic potion if you will. This potion can be, but does not have to be complicated and is best if it is as simple as possible but approached with the utmost seriousness.
To describe it in one word seems overly simplistic, even naive possibly, but I will try nonetheless. Belief. Belief in something that is greater than ourselves. An understanding that I am not the center of the universe. Not the focus of attention. Not the one that has all of, or possibly any of the answers. A simple yet strong understanding that I am what I believe.
I may be simply trying to say, find what you love and live your life according to that witch you love. Make it part of you every day, a priority, one of the reasons you get up in the morning, and the reason you smile throughout the day. Last and certainly no least, make it the reason you stay curious about life.
You must now be thinking that photography does these things for me. That is not the case. Photography is not the reason I feel these things. It is the reason I need that allows me to go out into the world in search of these things. I could roam around aimlessly and possibly stubble accidentally on these feelings of contentment. But that would be like driving with no destination. Which in itself is somewhat ironic for me to say since many may think that is exactly what I do. But simply is not the case. I may travel to places with no set destination but that does not mean I am without a purpose. It can summed up well with the quote previously mentioned from J.R.R. Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost”. A line from the poem All that is gold does not glitter.
I have no doubt that I could write on this subject ten times and word it ten different ways. I think that is the point when I say, make it the reason you stay curious about life. The key, the potion, I mention is not a one size fits all. To make it even more desirable yet difficult to achieve, the key, the potion does not stay the same. Life changes, our motivations change and thus the purposes behind our contentment must change.
No need for me to keep rambling on with this subject. The need I have now is to wander. Wander with excitement, knowing I am not lost.
Winters colorful sunset from the shore of Lake Perry. | ©Brad Mangas
When people see things as beautiful, ugliness is created. When people see things as good, evil is created. Being and non-being produce each other. Difficult and easy complement each other. Long and short define each other. High and low oppose each other. Fore and aft follow each other.
-Tao Te Ching
Do you live in the present? That is to say, do you only react to the world around you? Or, do you aspire to make the world one in which you want to live in. I have come to realize I no longer live in one world. This may sound strange because to most it may be near impossible to understand. I can safely say, now some 10 years of traveling down this path, I live in two distinct worlds.
Part of me thinks this is just a play on words and I’m making something up for the sake of being different. Part of me believes this idea is not productive in my pursuit of meaningful work. I may even be able to convince myself these two worlds are really the same, it is simply my perception that separates them. But when I attempt to ask myself about those things I am first confronted with, why? Why would I try to convince myself of anything? Why can I not just accept what is presently my view of things? So, I am not going to change my thought on this and will state once again; I live in two distinct worlds.
What do I mean by that? What are these “two” worlds I live in? This may sound somewhat convoluted simply because there is no straight forward way that comes to mind to explain it. The two worlds, to put as simply as possible are; the one I live in the majority of the time, such as now as I am writing this. As opposed to the one I live in when I need to wash away the dirt and grime from this world. They are both, for all intents and purposes physiological states of my existence.
It’s not like I live in two separate places. Or even experience two separate lives, not at all. But there are very noticeable differences when in one place vs. the other. Is this actually two worlds? Well, maybe only in my mind I will admit. But it is a striking enough difference that I notice it emotionally as well as physically. It has become clear I prefer one over the other. Not just a little but almost completely. I say almost because there are virtues of both. I can not say with certain they balance each other out. But one I definitely prefer over the other. What is perplexing to me is attempting to understand how one is directly responsible for the other. I know this is true. I know I can not have or experience one without the other. It is my Yin Yang. Two halves that come together to form one.
Over the course living we become aware of many important though trivial things. We learn to be careful and cautious of what we ask for. Consume one and neglect the other can and most likely will have negative consequences. Time has shown us there can be many unintended consequences of what at the time seemed like a good idea.
I view this now stated Yin Yang experience as a normal struggle. I also realize I may be in a small minority when it comes to this “two world” theory. I believe that being in this minority may make it even more real, even necessary to me. If everyone felt this way I would see myself as quite ordinary. I like ordinary, but I don’t want to be ordinary. Ordinary is for when I’m setting around late at night relaxing watching a good sci-fi on Netflix, that’s ordinary. When I am out washing the grime of everyday living out of the deepest cracks and crevasses of my mind, this is anything but ordinary. That to me is living.
Another noticeable addition to this state is how much one world effects the other. Or maybe more accurately how one world effects my perception of the other. In trying to think of a comparison I could make the comparison of living in the city to living in the country. Actually I could compare living in New York City to living in Onaga Kansas. Never heard of Onaga Kansas? Exactly. The differences are as striking as night and day.
Though we may prefer the Yang over the Yin we must always be aware how effecting one will have consequences on the other. Create the world you want to live in. Do not neglect the world around you but make it a vital part of the whole. Escape to those places you long for. Make them important even if they last for just moments. Build upon each to nourish the other.
As we have heard many times, there are two sides to every story. So it goes to reason there must be two sides to every life.
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” Joseph Campbell, from; The Power of Myth
I recently returned from a 7 day 6 night road trip that took me from Kansas to a two night stay at Indian Cave State Park Nebraska. Then back through Kansas for two nights, one at Chase County State Lake and the other at Fall River Lake State Park. Then down to Oklahoma for two nights at Robber Cave State Park before heading back home with a short visit to Osage Hills State Park In Oklahoma on the way back. It was a trip of pure pleasure. Exploring some new places in search of and enjoying the Autumn landscapes. I camped each night enjoying cool evenings and the strange feeling of going to bed at 8pm each night instead of my normal after midnight hours I keep. One thing about camping, when it gets dark and you have no after dark plans, hitting the sleeping bag is about all there is. I did stay up a couple of nights and listened to an audio book that I enjoyed very much. It is the origin of the quote at the beginning of this post. Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyer. I greatly enjoyed it. So much so that quotes by Campbell have lingered in my mind.
I traveled just over 1300 miles during my 7 day 6 night venture, never considering the distance, only the journey. Lands didn’t seem all that foreign to me. Even at Robbers Cave which is situated among the Sans Bois Mountain. I felt mostly at home, at least very comfortable and relaxed. For 7 days I lived a somewhat reclusive life. I did visit with the occasional fellow camper and had a nice conversation with park ranger at Robbers Cave for some 30 minutes. For the most part my plan was to keep to myself. Find those places that filled my mind with wonder while listening to birds sing melancholy melodies among nature. For the most part my plan worked out well.
There was one moment, more like an hour or so on the forth day as I was passing back through Kansas I became very nostalgic. For that hour I seemed to relive many years of my life. Remembering past experiences and places. What struck me the hardest during this time of great nostalgia was when I would wonder about the choices I had made in life. If I have made good choices or bad choices. I touched some feelings that brought emotions to the surface. Not bad emotions necessarily but deep emotions. I would contemplate past decisions that I knew where life changing. I knew my life had been, up to this very moment, a direct result of choices I have made along the way. It also struck my that life is extremely short but with endless possibilities of how it is lived. As nostalgic and emotionally charged as I was during this time I had a feeling of peace and calmness. It was not from the fact that I have made only good choices because I have not. I believe it was due to the fact that I was confronting them and attempting to understand and come to terms with them. This is not the first time I have experienced such deep feelings. It happens on occasion. It might be getting more frequent with age.
Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska ©Brad Mangas
During the last day of my journey and as I was making the long drive back to Kansas which would take me home, I had a good feeling of accomplishment. It wasn’t from the multitude of image that had been captured and now resided on a memory card, but from the memories that resided within myself. My own mind, my own body, my own soul, my own home. Places that have continue to shape who I am and leave indelible marks. Like those etched on cave walls by the hunters, gatherers, mothers, and fathers tens of thousands of years ago. It might as well have been yesterday that the paleolithic cave art was made. Even in the midst of this ever changing world, our memories have the power to bring our past back for us to once again contemplate.