The Beauty of the Ignored
Author’s Note: It’s a rare commercial or editorial photographer who succeeds in blending the psychological explorations of fine art with the bill-paying realities of pleasing clients. In other writings I have referenced David Lachapelle and Annie Leibovitz as luminaries who have crossed that boundary that power and vision. Although I seek to be a success with work that is commercially viable, I do have an inner drive to reveal a consistent theme, and that drive isn’t necessarily in sync with what pads a bank account. This blog hints at that undercurrent, come what may.
I’m really not a dark person.
You won’t find me reading Anne Rice novels or becoming immersed in a record collection steeped in death metal.
But I do fancy the overlooked, the ignored, and often find myself examining why an image or an event seems to culturally qualify as “quirky.” I realize that people generally refuse to do the difficult and even painful work of looking within. This refusal to “deep dive inside” and the cultural need to categorize certain things are linked. Discovering the You within isn’t easy, and once you catch some glimpses far enough inside, it starts to color everything you see outside.
In other words, I believe the main reason people don’t go on real, meaningful, serious inner journeys is because they realize that it will quite literally turn everything they perceive inside out. Knowing your self, or what you think is yourself, changes your understanding of literally everything else.
This is why art is important.
Creativity is the art of change. The “creative act,” no matter how it’s reflected, is an act of change. Cooking, painting, dancing, the discipline of sports, people management, writing, and any other innumerable ways to create are all about the twin processes of self-discovery and change.
The first few sentences of Genesis sum it up powerfully; first there wasn’t, then, there was. Talk to any scientist who has a grasp on this planet’s birth, and they’ll talk of cataclysm and of intensities that are unimaginable to us now. Creativity therefore isn’t always pretty or desirable. In fact, creativity often has nothing to do with beauty.
Most people therefore think of the “creative arts” as practices of adornment. Decoration. The masking of a present reality to reflect a pretty fantasy. Show them a work of art that was born of a process that involved the artist himself changing or observing a life change, and they will squint, turn their heads to the side, ask if the work is “right side up,” and will usually emote, “what exactly is that?”
It’s true that you “don’t know what you don’t know.” And if you don’t know your Self, then you cannot recognize the work of another in the process of knowing—or revealing—a sense of self. It is alien, distorted, unpleasant.
And what do most of us do when confronted with that which we don’t understand? We seek to control it first, and exclude it, second.
If there is any avenue of creativity for the self-ignorant, it’s in the myriad ways developed to willfully ignore that which is confusing or misunderstood. It is precisely in this area that I most enjoy spending time with my lens.
In a world of duality, you can learn more about the One if you spend time studying the Other.
Leonardo Da Vinci was fascinated with ugliness.
The master of the Mona Lisa’s wry smile, and creator of so many lithe beauties, was equally—and dare I suggest, even more—fascinated with the freakish and the grotesque.
There have been many theories for why such an unquestioned master of art, painting, archetypes, and beauty would be so enamored with the study and creation of beauty’s opposite.
I am no expert on the matter, and my understanding of Da Vinci goes little further than my memories of Rose Marie Crask’s lectures on the Renaissance. (RMC was the chair of the art department at the University of Kentucky’s Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Kentucky. Her enthusiastic presentations were revelatory to me as an idealistic graphic design and photography student in the mid 80’s.) However, I can tell you that Leo was spending as much time studying the reactions of his audience to his grotesques as he spent creating them.
LDV, I believe, understood the power of art to change perceptions, not just about “topics,” but about the viewers, themselves.
The conventional view is that, consistent exposure to the “good,” the “noble,” and the “ideal” will lead us to aspire to those things. And that concept still prevails today. But Leo spent a rather disproportionate chunk of time producing images that were of such disturbing power, that it’s unlikely that his grotesques were a playful lark. He was a scientist as much as an artist. He was attempting to get at something, and what’s more, to share it with his audiences. For this, he was remarkably, almost shockingly ahead of his time. He was thoroughly modern.
I know what my more disturbing images aim for. And I’ll share that with you.
I don’t seek to shock for shock’s sake. That’s just childish. Da Vinci certainly didn’t; you could tell by the actions his grotesque figures were taking; they were intended to reveal the dark nature inside each of us.
When we look into a mirror and see Mr. Hyde, we are disturbed. However, if the mirror’s presentation can give us insight as to how he and the good Doctor are one in the same, that would be a change for the better, because that would be a broadening of self awareness.
To use a term my friends loved to use when I was a kid, I’m simply seeking to “bust” myself whenever I arbitrarily assign a negative label to a person, place, or thing.
Whenever I encounter something that makes me recoil, or wince, I ask myself, “why?” “Where did that reaction come from?” “By labeling it it “unpleasant,” how does that artificially reinforce your sense of separateness from it?”
“Because,” I remind myself, “you are not separate.”
Always, the intent is to cause the viewer (and you have to understand, I am my own “first audience”) to question their inclination to label or manipulate or shoo away, which as I spoke of earlier, is a refusal to look inside. No matter how unusual or unnerving, I hope that you find some aspect of your self in any image that has a sense of twist to it.
Send me an idea. I just may say “thank you.”
If you follow my random rants on Twitter, you already know that I’m running a “thank you” promo that’s right in line with all of this. It goes something like this:
If you understand what I’m getting at, and don’t think I’m just swirling a hock-load of psychobabble, let it form a visual in your head. Then…share it with me.
Can you think of something that people, or even yourself, routinely and without thought turn away from? What events in life do we seek to avoid as a matter of course, even though we may not have a well-reasoned answer why? If we were to capture that in an image so that it could be frozen and examined…so we could walk around it from all angles, what would it be?
Click here so I can know that you’re going to toss an idea in the hopper for a “dark side” or “ignorable” image, then, Tweet your idea to me, @samlowephoto, and be sure to use the hashtag, #darkside.
I’ll be watching the Twitter feed for ideas that roll in from those who have registered, and on Tuesday, November 9th, I’ll select the winning idea. I’m going to set up and photograph that idea…and send the giver a 20” x 30” signed photo print to say “thank you.”