Scenes Encountered Along the Way

Preface to the book  Along the Way

If I hold any convictions at all as a photographer, foremost among them would be the belief that there are pictures lurking everywhere. They are concealed and camouflaged in the landscape that surrounds us, whether urban, rural, wild, or cultivated. The trick is finding those pictures. It is all the more difficult because they are right in front of us all the time.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that I do my best work, that is, I find my best pictures, when I’m either looking for something else, or when I’m not looking for anything at all. This requires a certain paradoxical (if not perverse) mental state when going out photographing. I know that I’m looking for things to photograph. Simply having a camera with me, whether it’s a 35mm hanging around my neck or a view camera on a tripod with all the attendant paraphernalia, makes that fact obvious.

But I also know that the best way to find what really interests me is to go out with my mind as empty as possible, and allow the pictures to present themselves when and where they will.

I can see that it would be easy to be skeptical of this approach. When I stop and think about it, I am skeptical of it. I consider myself a mostly logical person, and there is something irrevocably illogical about searching for something by “not looking” for it. But experience has taught me that when I allow myself to drift in “autopilot,” divorced from all my preferences, expectations, and judgments, my eye will eventually settle on some familiar scene, never quite seen before.

When it does, the recognition is both immediate and startling. Immediate because the “picture,” once perceived, seems so clear and evident; startling because I find it hard to understand how I had missed it prior to that moment. How can something so obvious go undetected for so long? Rather than ponder this riddle, the sensible thing is to graciously accept and embrace the contradiction, and go ahead and make the photograph.

Somewhere in the writings of John Steinbeck I remember reading his thoughts about taking to the road, and the sense of wonder and discovery that is woven into the experience. He contrasts the freedom of wandering with the tyranny of a destination. Steinbeck concedes that if it is the catalyst that propels one out the door, a destination can be useful. But once on the road, it loses its importance. The events along the way are what give the journey its meaning. The magic is in allowing the distractions and diversions to point the direction, and following the unanticipated detours as if they were the roads meant to be traveled all along.

This has everything to do with how I feel about the act of photographing, and what my photographs themselves mean to me. I have no intention of them providing the viewer with any answers. Answers are like destinations. They are narrow and effectively end the discussion. Whatever else these photographs might be, I consider them first and last to be the results of detours followed and discoveries made along the way to someplace else.

Mark Citret