Monday, February 11, 2013

Why having a project is important

When I began my creative journey through life I was deeply influenced by two mentors who couldn't have been more different (as in different, not better, not worse, not more, not less) intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass music, took me in as a young hotshot from New York and taught me to play bluegrass fiddle. After I resigned from Monroe's band to study classical violin (at the ripe old age of 23) I found my way to Raphael Bronstein who was a world renown violin teacher and a direct descendant pedagogically of Leopold Auer who mentored Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein (not that either of them needed any mentoring, you understand). As I said, the two men (Monroe and Bronstein) couldn't have been more different, and yet the lessons I learned under Monroe's tutelage were the same as those Professor Bronstein taught me (with different language and more sophistication). And, by the way, they were pretty much the same as I heard from my photography mentor, Mario Cabrera. The core of that philosophy boiled down to this: It's all about the means, not the end. How you arrive at the end result of your creative endeavor(s) is more important to your never ending growth as an artist than is the result of your efforts. I could write pages and pages about this, but the subject of this blog is about having a project, so bear with me, and on to the next step.

Bronstein used catch phrases with his students to communicate key ideas of his pedagogical philosophy. One of the most important was, as he used to say, 'Attached is detached, detached is attached' or put another way he might say, 'Like it is it isn't, and like it isn't it is'. This is not a simple idea to get across, but here goes. Let's say I have a musical phrase with which to work that's maybe twelve or fifteen notes long and I want to make a beautiful creation of it. So I think about this melody and how I would like it to sound, I pick up my violin and play the phrase as I hear it in my mind's ear. Invariably when I did this for Prof the result was never what I wanted, it sounded like crap, and the lesson would begin. He showed me, for example, how to systematically dissect the phrase and imbue each little group of three, four, or five notes (he called them faces) with its own special character - in essence breaking the phrase down into small parcels (detaching them) to make each a special creation, and then gluing it all back together again (attaching) keeping those discreet parcels in mind. The end result was far more beautiful than anything of which I could have previously conceived.

How does this relate to having a photographic project? Well, it matters not with what I am creatively involved - be it writing, music, photography, etc. What does matter, however, is having a project in mind, and being able to articulate what the project is and what its end goals are. Having this in hand helps me to understand the steps I need to take to put the whole thing together. If I don't keep the end in mind and go out to shoot photos, I usually come home with a hodgepodge of images with no thought focus, and the result of the day is a collection of detached images. Some days it's good to do this, go out to shoot, have fun, and click away. I've gotten some great images that way. But if I go out with the project in mind, know where I have to go to get what I want, what light I'm looking for, what type of character I want to photograph, and so on - in other words, I have clearly defined goals - then I can't help but grow from the experience of shooting and afterwards reviewing the images. On the best of days (which doesn't happen all that often) I can go out with this idea in mind yet be flexible enough to to grab unrelated images when they happen around me.

Anyone who knows me personally who saw me without my camera would think I was seriously ill. I always have a real camera with me (I've not yet used my phone's or iPad's camera). I don't go out to shoot, I just go out. Photography is a way of life for me, as was music earlier on in my life, and it affords me the means on which I thrive and grow. The projects don't have to be grand ideas or profoundly meaningful, just enough to channel my thinking. I have several ongoing: I am always drawn to men with interesting facial hair (sometimes women's also) and men who smoke cigars (always women who do). Here's two shots I got yesterday as I walked on Madison and Fifth avenues.