#4. Opening up.
On meditation and other topics.
Happy New Year!
Joel Pulliam here. This is the fourth issue of my newsletter, and the first of 2021.
One of my goals for the new year is to keep this dispatch consistently interesting. Often, photographers find it challenging to write about photography, and I’m no different. But putting in the effort helps me think critically, and that makes my own photography better. At the same time, I hope you will enjoy receiving these. And as always, there is a link at the bottom if you wish to unsubscribe.
Another of my goals is to read twenty books this year. Now I won’t be turning this newsletter into a book review, but I’ll mention that I just finished my first book of the year, The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald. It’s part fiction, part essay, a meditation on the trajectories of history and loss. And it’s interwoven with photographs, maps, and other ephemera. Altogether a splendid work and one that may have a particular appeal to anyone interested in photography.
Finally, a third goal for the year is to make meditation a more regular part of my life. I felt its benefits in 2020, yet I was far less consistent than I could have been. This year, I’m going to do better.
For me, the value of meditation is that I become less attached to particular thoughts, ideas, or emotions. As a result, I become more alert to what is going on around me—and inside of me.
Not coincidentally, that’s where I am working to go with my photographic work, as well. To open myself up to the flow of images around me, noticing more and chasing less. To be attentive to the here and now of the ever changing world around us. In this, I am inspired by the words photographer Joel Meyerowitz (who certainly does write well about photography):
“And so I walk around in the world, waiting for something to penetrate my natural resistance and open me up. I seek this particular characteristic of openness to things. I don’t want to merely make another good photograph, I want to have another experience of life being so thrillingly perceived that I am helpless front of it, and I just say yes to it!”
Photographing in this way is a change, because I frequently have made photographs by first forming an idea and then staying with it until the idea is realized (or until I give up in frustration). Here, for example, is a photograph of mine from the spring of 2019.
The background is a temporary wall surrounding a construction site. They’re common in Tokyo, most often plain white, and only occasionally decorated, like this one. Because buildings go up fast here, they never last for long.
I liked this particular design and I liked the idea that it was temporary—that here I could capture a candid scene that would not easily be recreated again. I had a clear image in my mind of someone in the middle of the wall, lost in thought. (Another idea was to look for someone running by, with the arrows reflecting their physical energy rather than their mental state, but ultimately I rejected that as too obvious.)
So I stood some meters back from the wall and waited. And waited. Any number of interesting scenes might have developed and evaporated while I stayed intent on what I wanted. I took several photos that almost match what I had in mind, but didn’t quite work out. And finally, it all came together. The gentleman was actually walking when I took the photo, but I shot the photograph as his legs came together to create the illusion of him standing.
I was plenty surprised later that year, when I attended an exhibition of Kikuji Kawada (who I discussed in my previous newsletter) to see him riffing on the same scene.
What kind of photograph would I take if I passed by the same construction site tomorrow? I don’t know. Photographing with an open-minded approach means that I discover my vision as I work.
Regardless, I won’t be taking photographs of people on the street for a while; a state of emergency has again been declared in Tokyo, reminding us of the need to continue avoiding unnecessary social contact until the pandemic is defeated. So I’ll postpone photos of people and continue to enjoy making photographs of the Furukawa River and other areas that are largely empty of people.
This year, I’ll also be spending a lot of time indoors, reviewing past work. It turns out that I have a lot that hasn’t been shared at all before; I’ve been through stretches where I shot thousands of photos and barely looked at them afterward. Right now, I’m posting some previously unseen work from late 2019 on my Instagram account. I plan to discuss some of it in a future newsletter.
I am also continuing to work on my project about the Furukawa river, provisionally titled The Old River. I’ve already compiled several different potential series into handmade books — nothing polished, just enough work to see how they look in print and how they flow together as pages are turned.
The photos I am most attracted to for this project were taken in the meditative mode I discuss above, and I am hoping that they might also instill a reflective state in the viewer. To this end I am selecting photographs that have a vertical orientation. Horizontal frames are well suited for action and tension. By contrast, vertical photos are calmer. Less space for movement, more for emptiness and light.
The photos above are particularly tall and narrow compared to those you might be used to. But to me, the dimensions feel right. I am interested in Japanese hanging scrolls and picture books, both of which frequently feature art in a long vertical format. Moreover, they often include text that does not explain, but that complements, the pictures. This has been leading me to think about how language can be used in my own work here, which has come to be about memory and time, just as much as it is about a particular place.
But more on that later. For now, I will leave you with this photograph of Kegon Falls by Hiroshi Sugimoto, lithographed and then mounted on a traditional hanging scroll. Now, I don’t want to give the impressions that this is a typical mode of displaying photographs in Japan; in fact I can’t think of another major photographer who has done it. Yet it suits this wonderfully meditative photograph perfectly.
Until next month,