Familiar Landscapes, New Eyes

Urban Inmate P1080491 (Plea) (black and white photograph)
Urban Inmate P1080491 (Plea) (black and white photograph) by Paul Politis, 2017
Untitled (black and white photograph)
Untitled (black and white photograph) by Paul Politis, 2017

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
—Marcel Proust

Although my next issue of Qualia will be comprised mostly of photographs made during my recent Montreal trip, there will be several photographs in that issue that I made in Ottawa that are really among the first that I’ve made as part of something that I’ve now begun thinking of as my ‘Five-Block Challenge’. The Challenge, which is still ongoing, is to see if I can produce work that I like, and a consistent amount of it, here in downtown Ottawa in what has become, for the time being, my habitual wandering grounds: a roughly five square block radius of city streets. It’s an endeavour that I’ve undertaken for what is ultimately a very practical reason. I’m most interested and passionate about what would traditionally be called ‘street photography’: in finding and making unstaged photographs from the details and people in the (primarily urban) environment. And although I made a trip to Toronto over the summer, and then more recently to Montreal, both much larger cities with a seemingly endless supply of walkable urban streets to constantly provide fresh stimulation to my senses, I simply can’t financially afford to be constantly travelling to new cities in search of inspiration. No, I’ll need to exhaust the possibilities right here at home. (Even as I write that, I can’t help but believe that anyone who says they’ve exhausted the possibilities in such a situation is not looking hard enough, not being creative enough).

So, over the summer, I’ve wound up wandering those five square blocks a handful of times, and it didn’t take long for my eyes to become jaded, for those streets to become boring and monotonous. Fairly quickly, I found that I was simply walking around, barely looking and without seeing, with incessant thoughts clouding my mind, that white-noise hum of recollections and imaginings, quotidian concerns and worries. Nothing around me seeming remotely interesting.

But I’ve kept walking. I’ll often walk for five or six hours, resisting the temptation to get discouraged and go home, defeated and frustrated. And at some point I recognized that if I persevere in my repeated attempts to quiet my mind and focus outside of myself, there will usually come a time when some detail of the world will finally push through and trigger an emotional and creative response. Once that happens, I’m more open and less jaded, and the world becomes visually fascinating, details luminous, and I’ll begin to photograph intuitively, unselfconciously. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet figured out how to summon this state on demand, and suspect that I never really will, but I’m hoping that I can at least develop strategies to increase the regularity of its visits.

Some people are motivated to make art primarily to connect with others. Others do it to primarily to connect with themselves. I’ve realized that the external world is most useful to me as a scavenging ground from which to create something, it doesn’t hold much appeal for me if I don’t have a camera in my hand. These last months have been occupied by discoveries and realizations, exploring the world around me and thereby simultaneously exploring within myself, and accepting as non-judgmentally as I can what comes naturally for me and what doesn’t, what I like and don’t, what feels right and what doesn’t. None of this is anything new, really, it’s just more a concerted and sustained effort, an attempt at an actual way of living day to day in a way that nourishes me. More than ever, I’m delighting in not having to interact with people when I don’t want to (which, truth be told, is the vast majority of the time), not being forced (or forcing myself) to be something I’m not or for some reason think I “should” be, and simply enjoying my solitude, focusing on finding and strengthening and experiencing as often as possible that fleeting creative connection to the world, and, hopefully, ultimately making artistic strengths out of my weaknesses. While I obviously value and connect more strongly with some of the images I’m creating more than others, they are all stones in a path, and I’m excited to see where they lead, and I’m delighted with every discovery, large and small, along the way.

Anyway, over the next few weeks or months, I’ll post some of the images taken during my Challenge. Qualia #10, at least, will likely be completely devoted to the Challenge images I’ve made the past few weeks, and that I will hopefully continue to make.

When you get to the point where you say ‘I don’t know what to photograph’, that’s when you actually begin the process of being an artist
—Brooks Jensen (from Lenswork podcast 249)