“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
Henry David Thoreau
“I lost passion. I felt a little unfulfilled and empty.”
Photographer & cameraman
(Reflecting on his 90-day journey)
We normally associate renewal with springtime but I think fall is a wonderful time to undergo creative renewal and would like to talk to you about a great story of an artist who used the 90 days of fall to undergo a creative transformation.
Today marks the first day of fall. Before I moved to Iowa a few years ago fall had little impact on my life. That third week of September was usually just another summer day in Florida and California. But here in the Midwest the change is amazing to watch. Just this week I was riding my bike and couldn’t help but notice the fallen leaves on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. Soon there will be an explosion of color in the trees and coolness in the air.
Several hundred miles north in Ely, Minnesota near the Canadian border I’m sure fall is well on the way. That is where photographer Jim Brandenburg calls home. Several years ago when Brandenburg was on contract with National Geographic he found himself in a place that many dream of. Traveling the world in search of great images that people would admire and appreciate.
Yet the schedule was grueling as he traveled away from his family 50 to 70% of the year. After 20 years he decided that he need a time of creative renewal. I have read that National Geographic photo assignments average 550 rolls of film and that a 1,000 is not unheard of. (A thousand rolls of 36-exposure film is 36,000 shots.)
It’s been said that every assignment for National Geographic is like getting up to bat expecting to hit a grand slam home run.
Brandenburg said of the schedule “the day is never done. You start early and don’t stop until you are exhausted or you are absolutely sure you got that photograph. And I had been through that cycle for 20 years and I was getting weary.”
So he began to look for way to find creative renewal knowing that he’d either find a breakthrough or do something different with his life.
So Brandenburg’s idea for creative renewal was to take the fall of 1994 and only shoot one shot a day. If he stayed the course he would shoot less than three rolls of film. He explains it as sort of a Zen experiment in ascetic discipline. To search everyday for the one photograph that needed to be taken.
Brandenburg said, “I was looking for something elusive, an idea or a process, or a spiritual direction of some kind.”
“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things. This is the best season of your life.”
It’s reminiscent of the stories of photographer Ansel Adams who in the 1930s would take his 8X10 camera deep into Yosemite. Because he was limited on how much film he could take he would often camp out and just watch the sun one day as preparation for shooting the next day. There is a reason we still admire Adams work today.
And there is a reason I’m bringing up Brandenburg. His special project that was meant for just himself eventually became a National Geographic spread that showed every single shot making it the largest single photo essay in National Geographic history.
(Side note: You can view all of Brandenburg photo from his journey on his website www.jimbrandenburg.com. Because of copyright issues I did not use a photo of his at the top of this post. But that photo was inspired by Brandenburg as I took my camera on an early morning bike ride yesterday after reviewing Brandenburg’s photos for this blog. Creative renewal is contagious.)
Brandenburg’s photo eventually became his best selling book and a DVD followed in which Brandenburg recounts the creative process and the struggles he had along the way. Chased by the Light; A Photographic Journey with Jim Brandenburg is a wonderful documentary full of insights into the creative process. Rarely do you find such an elegant exposition of the creative process and I think there is something here that all writers and artists can gleam from.
On the DVD Brandenburg talks about some of the experiences of his self-assigned experiment that was never intended to be seen by others. Some times he would set out before dark and walk many miles. At day 23 he thought about abandoning the project because he thought he had failed. But he remembered the old saying, “There are no rewards without risks.”
Day after day he waited for the right moment to that that one picture of an eagle, wolves, deer, ravens, loons, trees or whatever else captured his imagination.
His last photograph was December 31, 1994 at 1:40 AM. The photos then sat in a drawer for two years until National Geographic Senior Editor John Echave saw them and then published them in November 1997 as a 90 photo feature.
Brandenburg continues to shoot. He has also taken steps to protect the land “that nurtured and renewed” his creative spirit Brandenburg and his wife Judy have set aside with The Trust for Public Land 640 arces of Ravenwood forest to be preserved in perpetuity.
The Brandenburg’s are also involved with preserving the tallgrass prairies of Jim’s youth at Touch the Sky Prairie Preserve in Rock Country, Minnesota.
If you’re ever in the Lavern or Ely, Minnesota be sure to check out the Brandenburg Gallery or see more of his work online at www.jimbrandenburg.com.
There are other ways to seek creative renewal. Tom Peters says that some times you need to move another country or climate to rejuvenate yourself. No one said creative renewal would be easy or practical. (Heck, how do you think I ended up living in Iowa?) Let me tell you another story of renewal.
When I was in film school back in Los Angeles in the 80s I sometimes assisted fashion photographer Art Pasquali. Art not only had the coolest last name but lived in his studio in downtown LA with two doberman pinschers and flew gliders in his downtime from shooting beautiful people.
After shooting for 20 years Pasquali bought a sailboat and sailed away from LA-LA land, down to Mexico, through the Panama Canal and eventually found his way to the Cayman Islands where he stopped for a Corona and has called it home ever since.
Brandenburg and Pasquali’s stories are exceptional which is why I bring them up. Deep down change and renewal is going to take more than turning off the TV for a week. If you’re a writer it may be taking up photography or writing in a genre or style that you’ve never tried. If you’ve never written a screenplay maybe that’s what you do in the next 90 days. (All you have to do is average a page a day.)
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings didn’t hit her stride as a writer (or publish a novel) until she moved to rural Florida which would provide her inspiration for her novel The Yearling for which she won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie staring Gregory Peck. Martin Ritt directed the excellent Cross Creek that tells the unusual life story of Rawlings.
Perhaps you just need to take a small step in your creative renewal. Here is Julia Cameron’s suggestion in her book The Artist’s Way:
“Spending time in solitude with your artist child is essential to self-nurturing. A long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunset or a sunrise, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighborhood to taste foreign sights and sounds–your artist might enjoy any of these. Or your artist might like to go bowling.”
I hope these stories and ideas provide some inspiration for you as fall starts. When is the best time to start your creative renewal? I’ll defer to Karen Lamb; “A year from now you may wish you had started today.”
Photo & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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