As many of my blog readers know, I began writing a book about my photographic adventures over a year ago. The people, places, struggles and triumphs of my work as an artist.
The book is tentatively titled “The Nightmares Stopped the Moment I Decided to Stop Shooting.”
I’ve purposely kept my blog writing and my book writing separate. Some of the topics have intermingled, but none of the actual text has cross-migrated. Partly because the book has been very personal and it seems like the blog was never the forum for such a large discussion out of the context of the book.
I decided to begin writing at length about my photography a the urging of a producer friend of mine. Over many lunches, he would listen to my stories about how my various photographs came to be.
It has an interesting and rewarding process for me. Pausing to express in words what I have been trying to create photographically. The resulting book is shaping up to be a bit of a hybrid of coffee table photography tome combined with a non fiction autobiography. It jumps back and forth between present day and my adventures of the last few decades.
I’ve never encountered a book such as this and who knows if it will ever find the right publisher, but that is a concern for much later after the writing is complete.
So, rather than write a blog about 2008, I’m very hesitantly lifting the cover for a peek of a chapter I completed in the last few days. Out of context and in rough draft form.
The pain of art
I began writing this book over a year ago. Seventy thousand words later, I still have no answer to the question I asked myself when I began writing. Will I ever shoot with the same joy I used to experience?
We’ve all heard of cultures that believe when someone takes a photograph of them, it is tantamount to stealing their soul. I think the one thing I have figured out during this writing process is that when I take a photograph of something or someone, I am giving up a bit of my soul in the process.
It’s my soul that’s being placed in my subject’s care, or perhaps even stolen.
My process of photography, right or wrong, is something of falling in love with whatever or whoever is in my viewfinder for that moment. The reason my photographs have such emotion in them is that when I click the shutter I have the most profound sense of wonder and awe of what I am creating.
If I can’t find something to love in my subject, the photographs suffer. I can go back over the years shoot by shoot and say whether I was feeling anything during the process. The subjects I was most inspired by, the most in love with, those images have a quality that the others do not.
When I use the word love, it’s something quite different than the conventional meaning of love. I’ve traveled thousands of miles, exploring, learning. Even in my own studio, traveling into my own head. And the love I find is always as an observer. I love with my camera.
Photography has very seldom just been a job for me. It’s been the most important part of my life the past 15 years. I have been hired to do work that has little artistic value and I’ve learned to find the bliss in that in other ways than the photographs themselves. The result of that is to make me want to photograph something soon that does inspire me.
It’s important to pay the bills and I welcome the jobs that help with the process. Whoever hires me knows they’re going to get something special. And I do my best to find that in whatever I am hired to do. But the really amazing photographs are usually images where I am channeling something from deep inside of me. Something I feel is important. Beautiful. Manmade or not.
Which brings me back to my soul. I’m not a religious person, so perhaps the word soul is not entirely accurate. However, there are several non-religious definitions to the word:
A person’s moral or emotional nature or sense of identity.
Emotional or intellectual energy or intensity, especially as revealed in a work of art or an artistic performance.
I’ve never defined myself by my job or what I do. However my identity, who I feel I really am, is inescapably linked to the art I create. If you want to know me, really know me, you must know my art. You may not understand it, but looking at something that I have created is as close to a window into my soul as I can offer.
I’m always fascinated when someone looks at one of my images and tells me what I was thinking or feeling when I made that photograph. I believe that art is more of a mirror most of the time. The viewer sees something in themselves when they walk up to one of my prints hanging on a gallery wall. But every once in a while, someone see through the reflection and gets it. Gets me.
My most important work is what I create when I let my guard down. It’s very personal. Many times painful. It’s that giving my soul to the work. The pain comes when I realize the empty feeling that sometimes occurs afterward. I have given something up of myself to make it. A part of me that perhaps I should not have given away in some cases.
But I really don’t know how else to do it. It exhausts me at times and I find myself needing to put down the thing that brings me at the most joy because the pain that often accompanies it becomes too intense.
My photography has become quite the paradox.
When I photographed my parents over a Christmas visit this year, it caused me to rethink what I do. They were important photographs. Perhaps the most important photographs I’ve ever taken. Very powerful and moving.
For whatever reason, perhaps because I never wanted to invade their privacy, I have not included my family in the creation of my artistic photography. I’ve certainly documented family gatherings and shared the images privately with them, but never in public before this.
I spoke with them about it yesterday. I showed them the images I created as they practiced the violin and guitar together to help my mom recover from the effects of her stroke. I told them how moved I was when I saw what I had. They think of themselves as simple people. Never ones to be in the limelight, but doing extraordinary things on their own every day. They don’t consider what they do extraordinary. They just call it living.
The act of creating those photographs of them has caused some confusion in my own head. Sometimes I feel like I am on the cusp of something that I cannot see. I look down on myself from above, from some imaginary perch watching myself journeying over immense sand dunes looking for something.
From the vantage point high above, I can see what I’m looking for just over the next summit, but the me doing the climbing over the endless desert seems to veer off in another direction just short of reaching the top and experiencing the answers on the other side.
More than ever, I feel like I have to leave Chicago. It’s as if I keep bumping my head on the limitations of the space I am inhabiting. I have done all I can here and I need a larger place to create. Not the physical space of my studio which is plenty large, but an environment where I’m not fighting so many emotional and mental limitations of the midwest or the United States as a whole. It’s the problem of not being able to be a prophet in your own land. I have outgrown the place I call home.
When I began writing this book, I was at the start of a self-imposed photography respite. The pain of creating had been taking an unhealthy toll on my well-being. After a year of experimenting with other subject matter, very successfully, I began to entertain the idea of returning to working with women again.
My other subjects were rewarding certainly, but there is something inside of me that is very passionate about creating work with women who inspire me. It was a difficult decision to consider and one that I did not take lightly. I have grown to be very protective of myself and my art.
I opened the door a crack, not entirely sure what I would find. I allowed myself to let the ideas of what I would create begin to percolate. All the while very mindful that if I began to start this engine up again, it would be devastating if I had to shut it down again.
I believe in self fulfilling prophecy, and the fear I was trying to avoid was always present. So I took my time. Letting a few of the ideas begin to form. As in years past, I allowed the ideas to get to a vague notion, knowing they would be completed during the photography process. Leaving room for inspiration in the moment.
I gingerly began with two shoots this month. One with a woman I’ve photographed many times in the past, and one with a new model I had never worked with before. The results were unexpected.
The new model and I shot first, creating images that were very different from anything I had done before, at least to me. I was happy with the results. Very impressive for a first shoot which has the challenge of everything involved in the “getting to know you” process.
The second shoot was more of a spontaneous one. I wasn’t planning on shooting that day when the familiar model suggested we try. I was very excited about the idea and we began.
But even though I had made thousands of photographs with her in the past, it felt a bit like starting over. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find my artistic footing with her. The photos were good, but something was missing.
Perhaps I was holding back. We had enjoyed a very gratifying body of work in the past. A level of collaboration I have rarely experienced. I may have been more hesitant to let go with her than with the new model because I knew if I began shooting with her, I would have truly started my creative engine again and there would be no turning back.
Within a week of that shoot, the intense pain returned in a way that was both familiar and disappointing. It felt like shooting again, at least with her, may have been ill conceived. I felt empty once more. The engine is running and I’m not sure what to do with it. Shut it down for good or battle through it.
As this year winds down, I find myself in a very introspective mood. It’s not easy to take in all of years bests and worsts lists without turning the spotlight a bit on myself as well.
To say this year has been a challenge is understating it. Somehow though I find myself on the end of it being able to list more triumphs than failures. Life is rarely fair and I consider my reaction to the setbacks with a fight to move forward one of my greatest accomplishments. There was a time when I would have been paralyzed by similar events in my life. Wanting to give up.
But repeated mistakes are fewer and fewer these days. I consider them bitter reminders of things I should have learned. I try to smile at them now, knowing I have been knocked down but not out.
My personal photography, the work that I am so passionate about, continues to be a curious mistress however. My compass is spinning in a way that makes it challenging to know how to proceed. The journey continues.
-From the forthcoming book “The Nightmares Stopped the Moment I Decided to Stop Shooting” by Billy Sheahan © 2008.