Let Images Reveal Themselves

En ensom mann nyter en varm høstsol ved Elliot Bay Marina

Sometimes I find myself running around frenetically searching for images, searching for the muse that seems to having hidden somewhere around the next corner. Or maybe the next after that again. It most often happens when I arrive in a new place, I have an assignment and limited days available before I know I will have to fly out again – and bring back those images that the client has asked, and not the least paid, for. It’s like my body gets all geared up and almost aimlessly runs wild. And the more I frenetically run around like that the more the muse will hide for me.

Then I know I need to stop. I need to let go. And I need to sink into the situation rather than keep running. Really let go. The photos will be right where I am – and not around the next corner. If only I let myself open up to what is. The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: «I’m not responsible for my photographs. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself and then sniff, sniff, sniff – being sensitive to the coincidence. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it, or you won’t get it. First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.»

I don’t know why we photographers always believe the gold is around the next corner – or at the end of the rainbow. Why we go to the far corners of the world hoping to find that one photograph that will for always give us peace in mind? Is it something with the process of collecting snippets of real life? That craving after what we don’t have, believing the grass is always greener on the other side, which manifests itself in the photographic process? Or do other artists do the same?

The thing is what we might be looking for is where we are. And if we are already there, there is nowhere to go. We don’t have to look around the next corner. You have all that you will ever need – right here and right now.

I do love to travel and go to new places. I will openly admit that, but I have also learned that going to remote places, doesn’t make me see better or capture better photos. While travelling is great fun and can be a source of inspiration, we need to be careful that we are not just caught up in the endless need for novelty. What is required to grow as an artist is not running around to one place or clinging to another. The fullness of experience and the richness of treasures are only discovered when we realize they are within and when that within is being in balance with out. Creativity and vision are available to all who are willing to listen to the wise words of Lao Tzu: «Be still and let the mud settle.» Our work is to drop the burdens that obstruct seeing, and, yes, to be still. Let go. Breathe. And allow yourself to sink into the situation. More times than not, images will reveal themselves.

I think I learned the lesson as a kid. We were always on the move. From one place to another, not staying longer than one year at most in any place. I learned a valuable insight – without being consciously aware of it at the time: It is possible to bloom wherever you are planted. Later in life I put the experience from my childhood together, realizing that we don’t need to be somewhere else than we are. That insight has also completely changed the way I go travelling. It’s not for the thrill of experiencing something new and «better» but to learn more about life and myself.

«Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.» – Joseph Campbell

105 thoughts on “Let Images Reveal Themselves

  1. Great post and very wise words. I quite often just walk around my apartment block as we are surrounded by orange groves, a bit of wild stuff and a paddock, and it is quite amazing what pops up when I just walk quietly and look deeply at what is right in front of me.

  2. Very well said.
    Your Lao Tzu quote made me smile as the strap line for my website (not blog) is a Lao Tzu quote: “If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given” …. a great teacher the modern world could learn a lot from!

  3. This is so true Otto. I find that my best photos just come when I least expect them …. when I let me self relax into the situation I’m in.

  4. Before, when I lived in a central part of the city, I could just grab my camera, go out the door and find a lot of different scenes and interesting stuff to photograph. After we moved to a more suburban part of the city, I can’t do that anymore. I always have the camera with me, but I find our new neighborhood to be extremely boring.

  5. It is the human nature to always try to find THE best. And yet, as you said, it’s almost always where we are at any given moment.

      1. I think it can be expanded upon beyond photography as well. There are signposts or “coincidences” in life and they are meaningful if one is sensitive to them.

  6. “That craving after what we don’t have, believing the grass is always greener on the other side” – to me, this seems like a deeply human trait. We are conditioned to look out there and chase after those fleeing muses of life itself, all the while being – as in existing, here and now – is its own ‘purpose’, as you beautifully pointed out… Btw. it would be quite funny to see a series of photos on “chasing the muse”!

    And, of course, I really enjoy your blog and both written and shot perspective :).

    1. I believe you are right, that is a human trait. But I think sometimes we would be more happy if we found peace at wherever we are in life. Thank you for a poignant comment, Jelena.

  7. Another wise post, Otto. I love that quotation from Lao Tzu: «Be still and let the mud settle.» That mud is my own thinking, trying to figure everything out in my head instead of just looking around and really seeing. Getting out of my head, “letting go,” as you put it, that’s when the magic happens for me. Not necessarily awesome photos, but usually some that I’m happy with. And peace and a lifted heart, at the very least.

  8. Love this line – “The fullness of experience and the richness of treasures are only discovered when we realize they are within and when that within is being in balance with out.” Totally agree with you Otto! Well said and thoughtful!

  9. E’ bellissimo leggerti, mi immergo totalmente nelle tue parole e le faccio mie, come una lezione che mi arricchisce. Grazie Otto.
    Un grande saluto, Patrizia

  10. Fully agree! Going somewhere far flung or acquiring more expensive camera gear does not make for a good photographer. Also, travelling shouldn’t be about ticking off a checklist but rather going around with an open mind and open eyes…

    1. A good point that this also holds true for expensive equipment. If travelling becomes ticking off a check-list, then you miss everything that is really travelling. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Angelina.

  11. Wonderful post..with anything we experience in life, be it joy, grief, excitement, etc we must allow ourselves to sit in the moment, feel that moment and then we are re-balanced and what is supposed to happen next will happen. Same with photography or at least that has been my experiences.
    Thank you for the reminders!

  12. What an insight, going remote places can be an easy way to get your dream pictures but striving to see what offered around where you are is the real challenge. I think people need break from time to time and I completely agreed travel can be used as inspiration. Very good post!

    1. At least we believe that we can get the dream pictures by going to far-away-places. But very often they become superficial and not relating to a deeper human experience. Thanks for the comment.

  13. Such wisdom in your musings, Otto. One of my little mantras is, “What is, is good enough.” I began learning that lesson during a several-year period when I was the full-time caregiver for my elderly mother as well as running my business. I love to travel, but I couldn’t travel. It bothered me greatly, and I often thought, “What can I write about, from this “stuck” position in life?” I began looking around, and discovered there were things right in front of me that were worthy of examination.

    Annie Dillard, in her wonderful “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” says there are two ways to travel. We can travel far, or we can travel deep. Sometimes, far isn’t possible. Alway, the deeps are there.

  14. i love what you wrote, you know me, i like to take pictures of the everyday, my husband, and i’ll tell you a secret, i like going into my bathroom and finding a good shot (one the i like, not neccessarily other people lol)… if i’m quiet, i can look right in front of me from my computer chair and see three pictures that I know i will like… sometimes i will put quotes with a picture, or a few weird words that i wrote to give it an extra dimension, go see my picture tonight, it gave me a chuckle, with the words 🙂

    1. I thought the post with resonate with you, Elaine. The way your describe your approach to photography, is a lesson everyone could learn from. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  15. I love this article!:-) As always your article is not only about photography, but about life, all aspects of life. I love that about your writing! It is so wise! Being a spiritual person I read so much into your article about spiritual life and the life of the soul. It is truly inspiring to me! 🙂 Thank you! 🙂

  16. Your post is a wise reminder that spirit and art are companions. You also reminded me of something else Joseph Campbell said: “follow your bliss”.

  17. Another excellent write-up Otto. I agree with you – the key is to be patient and really observe things happening around you. Reminds me of a Steve McCurry quote – ““If you wait people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”.

  18. Another interesting post. I always think it is not necessary to go to exotic places to make a great photo. Many pictures I see taken in exotic places are just “normal photos of a nice place”.
    More difficult is to make “a nice photo of a normal place” 🙂

  19. Jahaja…och vad har jag att tillföra som du inte redan har sagt?
    Precis så kände jag när jag läste din text och sen så tänkte jag en gång till…och det du säger är sant och det är din historia. Vi har alla vår historia, i vissa fall sammanfaller den med våra vänners och ibland svävar den ut, den får vingar och den kanske till och med lyfter…mot nya mål, återigen!?
    Det är så mycket det du skriver nu, det väcker så många känslor och ännu fler frågor…till mig,
    till alla andra och inte minst till dig själv.
    Att vara seende, att våga ta ut svängarna, att se det som inte är självklart och uppenbart, att se bakom “kulisserna”…livets kulisser…det är en konst, en gudabenådad egenskap, som man får skatta sig lycklig om man någon gång i sitt liv får komma i närheten av, få lukta lite på, få känna att det stämmer, att allt har fallit på plats och inse att detta kan jag inte göra bättre…någonsin.

    Att vara vagabond, att ha resandet i blodet, att alltid vilja se och uppleva något nytt…det är en bit på väg mot att någon gång, kanske, kunna känna sig…lite nöjd med det man har åstadkommit:)
    Och visst är det så att man alltid tror att gräset är grönare på andra sidan, att man alltid kan ta en bättre bild, måla en mer djuplodande tavla, skriva en mer intellektuell text, bestiga häftigare berg, åka skidor i djupare pudersnö, dyka med vithajar…och så vidare…men med ålderns rätt Otto, så tror jag att vi kan vara rätt nöjda.
    Du får ursäkta…nu svävade jag ut, men jag blev så inspirerad av dina rader…och nu avrundar jag för idag…annars tar det aldrig tar slut:)
    Dina ord, dina tankar och dina bilder berikar!

    1. Du har så rett, Gertie, vi har alle vår historie og noen gang flyter historiene sammen og skaper spennende former for utveksling. Hvis det jeg skriver kan vekke følelser hos deg, har jeg klart noe det vi alle prøver med vårt kunstneriske uttrykk, enten det nå er med ord eller visuelle virkemidler. Selv like jeg hvordan du beskriver lykken ved å kunne oppleve at alt faller på plass. Som du sier er det en gave når det skjer. Vi har kanskje aldrenes rett til å være fornøyd – og jeg er nok fornøyd med mye som jeg har fått gjort. Men samtidig føler jeg meg mer sulten enn noen gang. Takk selv for dine vakre ord og tanker. Jeg setter alltid pris på et besøk fra deg.

  20. Well said! Beauty is often found in the simplest things. You don’t have to go far to find/see it.

  21. A wise post, Otto. I especially liked; ” Creativity and vision are available to all who are willing to listen to the wise words of Lao Tzu: «Be still and let the mud settle.» ” There’s another of his sayings – ‘look within to the universal self’ which perhaps goes rather well with your stunning photo?

  22. oh, thank you Otto, for again reminding me of this truth…that usually what we are looking for is right where we are already. Traveling to distant places is so difficult for those of us that farm and raise animals…too many mouths to feed on a daily basis. I try to content myself with all the many sights in our rural area. Most days, I am quite happy with these subjects but there are those times that I long for that greener grass and the exciting subjects that I see on the blogs…mountains, oceans, ancient buildings etc and try to remind myself that maybe others are longing for what I can access so easily right in my backyard. My favorite quote (that I have engraved on a bracelet that I wear) is “Happiness must be grown in one’s own garden”. Thank you also for commenting on my blog yesterday…it came at just the right time to encourage me to take my camera out for a walk and to work on posting again. One more thing…the photo that you’ve used to illustrate this essay was the perfect choice.

    1. Thank you for a poignant comment, Karen Ann. Yes, I know the feeling or drive to get out of the usual rut and find those greener fields. But the reality is still the same, as long as we are willing to see it, that the best photos will always be from an environment that we know or people we know or animals we know. I am glad my comment on your blog got you out with the camera again. 🙂

  23. What a beautiful post and so true, Otto. I remember one day taking a long drive out to a nature conservation area with my camera, I took hundreds of shots but just wasn’t feeling it. Then coming home driving up my driveway I spotted some beautiful tree shadows on the side of my house…turned out to be the best image I took all day. Funny how that happens!

  24. What you say here is much like being in touch with the Spirit of God and alive to the present
    opportunities for good.
    Thanks for your comment on my blog.
    Here’s to Your Health!

  25. What you have written is so very true, Otto. Earlier this week I had a spare 45mins while my wife shopped in our local city centre and I went off to capture a few images. I usually look for images centred on geometry, architecture or shop windows: I couldn’t see anything new and the first few minutes felt very frustrating. And then I stood still, up against the wall of an arcade, and just became aware of the people around me and suddenly the images came to me. The people around me, my fellow shoppers – those were the images. If you check back on my blog late on Friday, then hopefully there will be an image or two up there, along with a link back to this excellent Post.

    1. I certainly will check your blog later on. You example is another excellent one illustrating exactly what I am trying to say in my post. As soon as we let the impressions come to us instead of desperately seeking them out, it so much easier to get into that flow of creativity Thanks for sharing your experience, Andy.

  26. I don’t travel much at all and yet I find that there is an abundance of the things I like to photograph in my own city, even in my own yard. Photography has helped me to notice the smaller things. For me, “God is in the details.”

    1. Photography does help one to notice smaller things and see the world in a new perspective – and I thing that is one of the beauties of photography. Thanks for the comment, Candace.

  27. Great post, Otto! I think that struggle is always present in some form for most creative people. It’s so important to be still and present, often we’re too busy looking ahead or thinking about what’s around the next corner, as you said. As it relates to photography, when I’m traveling, I am able to admire the details and immerse myself in my immediate surroundings. This is something I struggle with back home. Sometimes it’s hard to see the beauty in your own backyard. I am always intent on traveling outside of the U.S., determined that all the beautiful places are overseas (which is obviously not true). In reality, there are plenty of amazing cities, landscapes, and people here. I just need to better open my eyes to these things. Love that last quote by Joseph Campbell, might be one of my new favorites!

    1. I think most of us struggle with seeing the beauty where we live. We are just to accustomed to notice anything at all. If we try to discover home with the eyes of a foreigner we will better be able to see the beauty in the usual. Thanks for sharing your experience, Alex.

  28. I often feel a deep sense of panic when I stare at a blank piece of paper. Wondering if the last painting I created is the last one I will ever create. Then I start with a stroke. Sometimes the flow refuses to come and I feel certain the piece will die. But if I press on, most of the time the image partners with me and emerges. It wants to exist! And I am fortunate to co-create with, I believe, THE Creator, who wants the image to come into being even more than I do. I always appreciate your posts on the creative process Otto – they put into words a foundation that keeps me inspired.

  29. I enjoyed this post. I do think artists are always searching; that there is a restlessness inherent in artistic expression. But the humbling aspect of the creative process is in the letting go, in putting your ego to rest. There is a cycle like breathing in and letting the air out, giving and taking, sleeping and waking. Creating is active and passive. Our culture emphasizes the activity, but letting things happen is so essential, as you have described. As someone who has a case of the “grass is always greener” myself, I identify with a fascination for novelty and a need to teach myself to marvel at the mundane. Thanks for the reminder!

  30. In my experience, too, this is just so true, Otto — and so much so, that when I was reading the post, I felt like you’d written it specially for me!

  31. I love that photo…it epitomizes the idea of finding space to dream. Kicking back by the waters edge with no worries allows the mind to run free and doing so it can find the solutions needed when you get back to the office. Finding that place, and being able to return there when needed, one of the important keys of life 🙂

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