The World Beyond My Head

In 2001, my wife got me a dog for my birthday. We’d owned cats before, and my family had a dog when I was a kid, but this was my first free-roaming canine ward. In terms of intense life change, welcoming a puppy certainly was not like welcoming a child, but young Oliver immediately altered my behavior in a very significant way: he turned my gaze outward, away from the inside of my head.

Oliver, digital photograph, 2003.

My default outlook tends towards introversion and introspection. I automatically opt for solitary activities, or ones with minimal human interaction. This can be a very good thing, because in the case of endeavors like painting or drawing, isolation encourages focus, and focus can produce work. But isolation can also lead to trouble. In my most troubled times, my inward gaze turned into to a grim chorus of self–criticism, and my head became an echo chamber of obsessive thoughts and doubts. This made maintaining focus impossible, which meant no work, so the only thing I created was…more trouble.

Running into this kind of trouble is far from unique; among many artists I know, it is something of an occupational hazard. For me, its most dangerous aspect was the paradoxical conviction that, as an intelligent person, I should surely be able to think my way out of trouble. All I needed to do was turn further inward, find the underlying problem, and fix it.

Cortona 11.16.2017
Cortona 11.16.2017, digital photograph, 2017.

That was of course a terrible idea. Against all of my instincts, what I really needed to do was reverse direction and face outward, which is exactly what a dog makes you do. When the only thing I’d done all afternoon was catalog all the phantom reasons why making art was worthless, Oliver demanded that we leap out the door and into the world, blowing right through that mental fog. Each day the world was completely different to him, and any dog owner will tell you that keeping up with a dog as they explore a park full of people, plants, property, and other dogs is not a cerebral endeavor. The humorous inversion is clichéd but true: he took me for walks, not the other way around.

Oliver passed away in 2011, and my wife and I got a new dog shortly after his departure. By then I understood that the daily practice of relating to the world with less thinking and more doing was extremely important to my sanity. Dignan was even more intelligent and personable than his predecessor, and even better at dragging me out of my head and beyond my regular range. When we arrived in Tuscany, he became absolutely invaluable, anchoring my daily experience. I did not know anyone in our new town, and when I met new people, I could barely communicate with them. Dignan helped me bridge that divide, in part because many Italians love dogs, and because exploring our new world together became a ritual. For three years his routine was my routine, and even on days when trouble started creeping up on me again, in the form of new expat “stranger in a strange land”–type worries, he got me out of the house and facing outward.

Dignan, digital photograph, 2014.

I’ve written previously that walks through Tuscany with Dignan recharged me by introducing spontaneous photography into my artistic practice, and ultimately led to the 2016 and 2017 Cortona Skies series. So when Dignan died after a long illness earlier this year, he left me with a very fortunate habit: whether he was there or not, I had to keep walking and making pictures. This was not nostalgia, or a tribute. For sixteen years my dogs trained me to react to internal trouble with doing, not thinking, so after Dignan’s departure, taking my camera for daily walks felt like a reflex.

Cortona 11.08.2017
Cortona 11.08.2017, digital photograph, 2017.

I was shocked at how well it worked. I’m not saying that shooting pictures requires no thinking, because it requires quite a bit of reactive adjustment, especially when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts technical stuff. But these days, the moment I walk out the door with camera in hand, my attention turns from the inside of my head to the immediate visual experience of the world. It’s an amazing relief! My brain stops spinning theories and descriptions about what the world is like, or how it should be. Instead, the world simply arrives in front of me. It is fully realized and self evident, and I don’t need to concoct a thing.

Cortona 11.12.2017
Cortona 11.12.2017, digital photograph, 2017.

I am very fortunate to live in a place many artists seek out for picture-making, especially if their work takes landscape as its subject. But in truth, the pictures I made this year using digital photography only became “landscapes,” or “street scenes” after they’d been captured and considered. As I got rolling with this recent work, I read Ibarionex Perello’s excellent Chasing the Light. In one of its early chapters, he describes experiencing an epiphany:

So, even before I raised the camera to my eye. I was seeing my photograph because I was aware of the light. I was introduced to my subject because I was awake to the qualities of the light and the potential it had to transform the world around me.

Vico Equense 11.20.2017
Vico Equense 11.20.2017, digital photograph, 2017.

This helped me a great deal, because it clearly stated what I was beginning to understand: the light is everything, it is both the subject and the medium. The world outside my head is illuminated by all the material I need to make pictures, all day, every day. If I stop thinking about what it should look like, and instead face what’s actually there, every moment I pay real attention to the world is a moment with unique potential for transmutation into something remarkable. I can only take this photograph now, at this moment, because the next moment will offer entirely different materials, and an entirely different possibility. Which in a sense is what Oliver and Dignan both knew from the get-go. Thankfully, even though I was stubborn and dense, they were both very patient with me.

Firenze 11.25.2017
Firenze 11.25.2017, digital photograph, 2017.

The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford is another wonderful book I read this year. Though his reasoning involves a lot of introspective, philosophically heavy thinking, he makes a compelling argument for unplugging from the isolated silos of online life and turning back to the daily business of the world. For me, 2017 was a tough year to follow his advice, because the daily business of the world appeared to be an ever–escalating disaster. In Italy, I live among the physical and cultural remains of several fallen empires. From one point of view, those ruins provide constant reminders that the world has always been prone to ever–escalating disasters. Seen another way, the ruins (and the disasters) are foundations of the present world, a world far too complex and beautiful to fit inside my expectations of what it should be. This new understanding of the world beyond my head offers hopeful alternatives for living in it, and I have the camera to thank for that.

Cortona 12.14.2017
Cortona 12.14.2017, digital photograph, 2017.