Chased by the Darkness

I recently tweeted that I’ve had an epiphany or two. Here’s one…

Have you ever been chased by the darkness? If so, or if you’re just in need of a creative kick in the pants, I recommend a book called, Chased by the Light, by photographer and environmentalist, Jim Brandenburg. This post is not a book review. It’s an essay on being chased by darkness, and it applies to makers of all types of art.

Once a National Geographic photographer who created thousands of images per assignment, Brandenburg gave himself the assignment to make one meaningful photograph per day between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. That’s one image as good as he could possibly make it, one shot per day for 90 days.

For each day of the project, Brandenburg was confronted with a fundamental question, and 24 hours in which to answer it:

What do I want to say today?

Each day brought a 24-hour confrontation with the inner critic. What if the lighting gets better later in the day? If I make my one photograph now, then I’ll miss the opportunity for a better one later. But, what if I wait and the lighting gets worse, then I’ll miss this opportunity. What if there’s a better subject elsewhere? What if I go to bed early in preparation for a good daybreak image tomorrow morning, when I should have rested in preparation for a good middle-of-the-night image? Don’t be deceived by a seemingly straightforward project. It can induce deep anxiety in an artist. It can increase self-doubt instead of erasing it.

Brandenburg’s project was so personal that he never intended to publish it. He put it away, content with the images never being seen by anyone else. Showing them off wasn’t the reason he made them. It was a personal journey, a soul-searching exercise. Plus, Brandenburg, a producer, director, cinematographer, World Achievement Award-winner, and multi-recipient of Magazine Photographer of the Year award for his National Geographic work, considered the project’s images to be too informal, too raw, and too unpolished.

Eventually, evidence of their existence leaked. Eventually, reluctantly, he assembled them into a book. Since its publication in 1998, Chased by the Light has inspired and challenged artists of different media, as well as raised money for his own wildlife preservation efforts. It seems as though there is no dark place to hide once the shadows are gone and the light finally catches you.

Self-assignment exercises can be motivational. They can also distract from the work of making art. That said, how would it affect your art and creative attitude if you had one shot at making what you make every day for 90 days? If you write, what one sentence would you type per day, if you knew that the backspace or delete key must remain untouched for three months? Imagine how personal your 90-sentence project would be when you’re done. This holds true regardless of what art you make, or would make if you weren’t chased by the darkness.

Why is today’s writing titled, “Chased by the Darkness,” and not, “Chased by the Light,”as Brandenburg’s book is? Because that’s how it feels when you’re where Brandenburg was. I know, and so do you. We’ve all felt chased by darkness. The truth is, we allow it to find us. We announce our location and wait for it to arrive, then we use its presence as a convenient excuse.

Want more truth? It’s too easy to forget that it’s not the darkness that chases. It never was. Light does the chasing. Darkness does the running away. That’s pretty much how electromagnetic wave propagation works.

More? I lied. There is darkness. When the light chases us, it’s cast in front of us in the form of a shadow. The shadow is big and scary and distorted, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. It stays right with us for as long as we run away from the light.

Want to guess whose shadow it is? Who casts the shadow when the light is behind you? Stop running. Wave to your shadow and I promise that frightening thing will wave right back. Dance and it will too. Stick your thumbs in your ears and wiggle your fingers at it. Dang if it doesn’t know how to to that too.

Now, stand still and let the light catch you. Look down and watch your shadow shrink and disappear. Stop running from the work required to make art, and let it become play again. It will, but it won’t against your will. You must let it. You must. That’s an imperative, and a necessary deliberate act on our part.

My next epiphany is already written, as are more stories with and without images. I’ll talk to you again in a few days. In the meantime, you know what to do.