Recently Harold had a short stay in the hospital. Afterwards he was reflecting on the things that have mattered the most in his life and I taped a short conversation between the two of us about his thoughts on life and photography.
Judith: As a photographer for 67 years now, and a teacher to hundreds of students over five decades, what would you most want to share with other photographers, artists – or anyone – about the meaning and importance of photography in your life.
Harold: I would say our work is a form of prayer – a manifestation of the gift we’ve been given. That famous quotation “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is true! It’s important for us to give recognition to what it is we behold. Not in judgment, but simply in acceptance — so that it can live a life of its own. What emerges will always be a surprise taking many forms that we may not even have thought about.
Our primary gift is in giving recognition to what is. Sadly, this is what rarely occurs in education. What is called education is often an attempt to replace “what is” with what “should be.” Yet, the journey into the unknown is so rich that it challenges all preconceptions of what “should be.”
Judith: And when you talk about the journey into the unknown, you’re talking about… ?
Harold: I’m talking about saying “yes” to the gift – whatever our gift is. Because each of us has a gift – a form of expression of the uniqueness of who we are – and the job of the educator is to encourage that gift in our students. To live life truly and authentically is to allow that full expression to come through. Why else are we here?
The most important word in the creative process is “yes” – even before we know where it will lead us. “No” is dead in the water. So I say, come wander in your wonder. And that’s the journey into the unknown. All you really know about it is that it’s the truest aspect of what you are – and yet is has nothing to do with you at all! It’s letting in the light.
Judith: What do you mean by that?
Harold: I mean, because it’s a gift, it’s a sacred thing. Walking into the unknown of your own creativity is mysterious. It’s where you find yourself as an individual, but also touch on what is universal. Remember, you are not alone when you walk in to the temple.You have brought God with you.
Judith: And the temple is…?
Harold: The temple is that place that is sacred to you. For me, my photography is a sacred act because I recognize it as my gift. And I’m hugely humbled by it, because I don’t own it. I can only be gracious to it. That’s all I can do… and, what’s another word for gift?
Judith: A present.
Harold: Yes. It’s obviously a present, but it’s also the present. To be present. So the gift is in being present now and now and now. To see what’s in front of us in any given moment. That’s why I’m always saying: “Will you look at that?” Because there’s just so much that’s absolutely extraordinary every moment in the ordinary. It’s called being present to the gift of life.
Judith: So how do you guide your students in this path, which is not just a path about seeing and about photography, but seemingly a path about living life no matter what we choose to do?
Harold: I say to my photography students: Whatever brought you into this room, and whatever brought me here, I consider sacred. That’s what I’m here for.
Whatever you do, whether it ends up with photography, or poetry, or any other area, is going to rest very deeply on your ability to see the strength and beauty of what you have. That is the dividing line between those who soar and those who don’t.
I’ve seen students who in the beginning are like shooting stars. You know, right away. It’s so obvious. You know, it’s so clear where they are. And others that will bump into every inanimate object there is. But, luckily I see people over a longer period of time and I get to see many of them at the point where they get their wings and they fly.
And the key element is that moment when they begin to give recognition to their gift – to say, “I am a photographer”. That belief suddenly fuels how far they’ll go with what they have. Talent — I’ve seen much of. Immense amounts of it.
But the most important technique is self-recognition. That and a prayer. And they’re not contradictory, because self-recognition is giving; is being gracious about the gifts that God has given us.
It’s not aout ego. It’s not blowing one’s horn. We only blow our horn and it’s only an egotistical act when we’re afraid of and feel insecure about what we have or who we are. But in terms of beliefs of oneself, to give recognition – to say “I’m beautiful. I’ve done something really nice here, really wonderful here.”
This is being gracious to the gift. Because we don’t own it, you know. We don’t own any of it. We don’t even own these bodies. We’ve rented these for a life span. That’s all. Dust to dust.
Judith: Amen. It’s hard to say anymore than that…