Considering Flow

A year ago I took a course in basic black and white photography, to learn how to develop and print by hand. Skills all the more special to me because they’re edging towards obsolescence. The emphasis of the course was mostly technical – and very clear and thorough it was  – but our tutor would also weave in digressions about different philosophical approaches to photography. He’d present these in the form of either/ or choices, but never passed judgement on one as superior to the other. Just different ways of taking pictures – or ‘making pictures’, as we learned to say on the course. 

One choice was control photography or flow photography. A control photographer will begin with a very precise idea of what she wants to photograph, and will go to great lengths to create and control the shooting conditions that will allow her to realise her idea exactly. A flow photographer sets out without plans or expectations, and opens himself up to whatever comes along to be photographed.

I felt an immediate prickle of excitement at the idea of flow photography. I knew that our tutor knew that the idea was going to be greeted with scepticism; but also that he knew, from experience, exactly what he was talking about. And he hinted at more: that in the flow state, extraordinary things could happen.

It might have been the very next roll of film I shot for the course, but without conscious effort, I managed to get into the flow state. I was completely absorbed in what I was doing, and my capacity for paying attention to photogenic details and scenes was much sharper than usual. But there was also more: it seemed as if the world around me was arranging itself in order to co-create photographs. Light hitting the exact spot needed to set off a scene to perfection. People and objects suddenly forming themselves into attractive compositions – or clearing out of the way to reveal another irresistible scene. To respond to this spontaneous arrangement, I had to work in the moment: selecting the camera settings, framing and shooting without pausing to think too much about what was going on.

I naturally expected some wonderful photographs from that roll, but when I developed the film I found that I’d failed to wind it on properly at the beginning, and had nothing but a blank strip to show for the collective effort. Ah well. I’ve found the flow again on perhaps two or three occasions since, and it’s always by chance. What’s more, although I’ve had some good photos come out of those flow states, my success rate isn’t necessarily better than from an ordinary shoot. So my experience of flow photography so far is that’s it’s less about results, and more about feeling the experience itself, picking up on it and learning to let go into it – surrendering expectations, not second-guessing what’s happening, not worrying or judging, working intuitively.

You might well have an everyday familiarity with this kind of flow state, if you’ve experienced those wonderful days when everything clicks into place like miraculous clockwork. You arrive at the station just as the train pulls in, the sun comes out just as you step out for lunch, you get home just in time to pick up that long-awaited call. But still I find it strange that the world should choose to co-operate with a human being in the process of making photographs.

The reason I find it so is that I’m a photographer gnawed by guilt about the very act of taking photographs. I’ve read my Susan Sontag; I’m plagued by the assorted arguments that can be made against interposing a piece of image-making technology between myself and my direct experience of the world. The resources needed to make and distribute cameras, the building-in of obsolescence and pollution, the thoughtless proliferation of photographs in the world, the assumption that taking them is an automatic entitlement or moral good, all weight as lead if I pick up my camera in a suitable frame of mind.

Reflecting through these feelings, I realise that my thinking is colonised by the cultural habit of framing in polar extremes. A pressure of sheer excess that has nowhere to go but its opposite: utter abstinence. Either photography is all wrong, or it’s a profuse, ubiquitous right. What’s missing from this habit is a recognition of balance, of intermediacy, of a capacity for discrimination. My enjoyment in making photographs is part of how I exercise my gift, a possibility of co-operation between myself, the creative technology of photography, and the world in which we’re embedded. One thing I deduce from having experienced the reality of the flow state, is that to make photographs is not inherently an unwelcome intrusion upon the beyond-human world, but one way in which the world further unfolds and realises itself, appreciates itself. Yet these co-creative dynamics depend upon my capacity to surrender control and work with an unfolding situation, instead of imposing the limitation of my desires upon it.

These dynamics also depend upon my capacity to discriminate. There are as many occasions on which I don’t take photographs. Because I’m not in the mood, because to do so is prohibited (whether for good or bad* reasons), because there are times when I can feel the anxious quest for shots getting in the way of the richness of direct experience, because I judge or have some instinct that it’s unwelcome or inappropriate, because – and this has happened more than a few times – my camera has mysteriously jammed just as I began taking pictures in a particular place, and as soon as I left, it just as mysteriously unjammed itself.

So, a gift grows strongest from the ability to discriminate as to its best use.

Doing is best honed by not-doing.

*Where taking photographs is censored for unjust reasons (concealment, dishonesty, protection of vested interests), making the shots regardless may well be the right course to choose.

(This piece began of one mind, and had the good fortune to become a conversation – to the other threads of which the green links will take you.)

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