This morning began as any other. At 6:30 a.m., my adult hens, Diamond and Coachie, were scuffling their claws against the wood floor of the coop and rubbing their beaks back-and-forth against the aviary wire. It was enough to wake me up but not enough to motivate me to jump out of bed.
In fact, nothing really motivated me to jump out of bed this morning. With a "to-do" list a mile long, there was no excuse. But, something inside of me, (and it wasn't because of a late night or too many beers), was uninspired to get up and go.
I used to workout with a trainer years ago who coached me, "When you're feeling stuck, do something out of your norm to get moving. If you've been sitting at the computer, go take a walk. If you're bored with your daily chores, get out and shoot some pictures. Whatever it is that feeds your soul, get moving, and then go back to what you need to do."
What could I do this morning that would make me feel somewhat "naughty" for taking time off and would get me shaking and grooving my bed-bound tail feathers? I decided to go to the Farmers' Market--not for delicious, fresh produce shopping but for photographing the goings on. There's always a cast of characters at the local market.
I went early, as soon as the proverbial doors opened. There's something about being there at the market's dawn. The vegetables are lined up like little soldiers in perfect symmetrical formation. The performers effuse a fresh morning glow, untarnished yet by the burn of the sun. Local chefs wend their way through the aisles making choice picks for their evening dinners and a lot of "older" people meander about--early birds on a mission.
I also issued a challenge to myself. Most photographs of Farmers' Markets are so damn boring. Or, at least I think so, probably because I've photographed Farmers' Markets dozens of times. Red, yellow and blue fruits playing off of each other. Baskets overflowing with carrot tops. Sunflowers winking their playful "hello's." This time I wanted to do something different, eclectic. Something that changed the way I "saw" the market.
The magic of street photography is that you don't get a command performance. You have to be patient, and wait to "see-ize" the moment.
I started out my foray taking the usual ho-hum photos: The man with the colorful shirt plucking the guitar to some random tune; the blues, blacks, and reds of the berries striking a pose next to the playful oranges, yellows and reds of the daisies; the wicker harvest basket brimming with colorful veggies.
I careened up and down the aisles like a cat on a rat hunt. At one point, a man in his eighties came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. As I turned around, he said, " I've been following you for awhile. You're acting like a real photographer." What do you say to that? I just smiled and moved on.
As fun as it was, I didn't feel the thrill of creativity. That was until I turned my head suddenly to the right. A man was just finishing a handstand behind a table of Haas avocados.
I clicked the shutter a moment before he landed. "Awesome," I said to him. "You couldn't have timed it any better."
It was a new perspective on the Farmers' Market. A carpe diem moment--I captured it and it was momentarily electrifying.
One of the best books I've ever read on creativity was Twyla Tharp's, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life.Besides being a motivational tool for learning the discipline of creativity, Ms. Tharp also suggests that people tend to get wedded to a certain observational focal length; it's part of our creative DNA. "All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at an arm's length, or in close-up," Tharp says.
She cites photographer Ansel Adams as an example of "an artist who was compelled to see the world from a great distance." Choreographer Jerome Robbins, she contends, liked to see the world from a mid-distance. In Robbins first ballet, Fancy Free, "Boys watch girls. Girls then watch boys. And, upstage the bartender watches everything..." And, most of us have seen how Robbins directed and choreographed true to his mid-distance length in the film West Side Story.
Other artists like to see the world as if it was glasses resting on the tip of their nose. Tharp cites writer Raymond Chandler, whose detective fiction is rife with tight shots and extreme detail. His stories were in the details.
I am a close-up person. That's my creative identity, my focal length. I write with obsessive detail, observing everything and everyone in the scene. I like to talk one-on-one with people. I want to see the person, hear the person, smell the person with whom I am interacting. When I took up photography, I stayed within my creative identity. I shot pictures of people that showed the pores of their skin, every crease and every wrinkle. I wanted to see what each person's lives had scratched indelibly onto their faces. There is no ugliness, only beauty in each person's close-up story.
And, then, one day I was challenged to enlarge the frame. To take pictures from a great distance. To take in the whole picture and not just the close-up view. It was frustrating at first. Miss out on the details of the scene I was observing? No way. I found myself digging in my heels. Why should I change what I so relished about my creativity?
After a lot of resistance, I complied. Only because as Tharp says, "The better you know yourself, the more you will know if you are playing to your strengths and when you are sticking your neck out. Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable." Okay, sleeves-rolled-up, I was ready to be uncomfortable.
And, what I discovered was that my "all encompassing" photos often told more of a story; they put everything into context. That door with the large question mark that I shot in Lompoc? In my close-up photos, it was just a funky door with a very vintage texture and a large question mark painted on it. In the photos I took from a distance view, that door became a question mark on a rundown building in an abandoned part of town. What bigger question could there be? What was in that building in the past and what would replace it in the future? And, when a new business moved in, would the question mark remain?
I discovered beauty in the art of a new focal length.
Challenging yourself to change your focal length may allow you to "see" things better. It can help you create a greater understanding of the people and the places around you. If nothing more, it may develop in you just enough enthusiasm to get your tail feathers moving.
What is your focal length? Are you willing to change it?
Go ahead. I dare you. Get uncomfortable. Try to see the world from a different focal length. And, if you're especially athletic and up-to-the-task, do a handstand and see how the world looks from down there!