The “Eye”

Call it the result of 35-years of working in television.  Call it artistic inspiration.  Or call it a character defect.

Whatever you call it, about a decade ago I unexpectedly discovered that I had the “eye.”  For some reason, I could point a camera at something interesting, click the shutter, and people often ooohed and aaahed at the result.

Just like you, I stand in awe of those with true artistic talent.  Whether it’s acting, singing, painting, or chainsaw sculpting, there’s something about the work of a true artist that makes you glad to be alive just to be near it.

“If only I had that kind of talent,” we say, and we mean it.  But we don’t mean it, not really.

The price, nearly always, is more than we would choose to pay.

Take photography, for example.  It’s not enough to have an instinct for interesting composition and the ability to select exposures and filters on the fly.

Artists create great things because they are constantly and intensely studying the world around them.  But it’s an internal intensity, best achieved by becoming more or less invisible.  The less you notice the artist, the more the artist can study you.

This technique works great when I’m quietly approaching a close-up nature shot, but not so great when I’m serving as the default photographer of all family gatherings.  For several years after discovering my passion I happily clicked away during birthday parties, Christmas mornings and major milestones.   And seeing the final product was wonderful—the eyes widening at the instant of surprise, the spontaneous hugs.  I was capturing the pure moments of life.

I was not, however, living them.

Some of you know what I’m talking about, but many of you won’t.  It’s just this:  we all know how fake “staged” events look (which includes every selfie ever taken).  But capturing real life, unfiltered and utterly honest, requires the photographer to fade away in the background so that life can play out in the foreground.

Believe it or not, this takes a slow but steady toll.  It took several years before the feeling of being a stranger in my own family began to override the sense of accomplishment that came from getting all those wonderful snapshots of people I love.   I realized what I had never before considered; that I didn’t want to be the family’s artistic-grade photographer.  I wanted to be the dad, and the husband.

So I’ve cut back on the camera clicks.  Sure, I still take family shots, but I put the camera away a lot sooner than I used to.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard.  At our last family reunion, I opted out of the epic water balloon fight so I could take pictures of it.  The shots were hilarious and enjoyed by everyone, but I still wonder if it would have been better to put down the camera and let a grandchild or two have the joy of beaning Grandpa in the face with a big gob of water.

They would have loved it.  But think of the shots I would have missed.

This is why you don’t really want to be an artist, even if you think you do.  When you possess the talent to create something meaningful, you feel like you’re letting God down not to use it.  (I’m not exaggerating on that point, by the way.)  But to produce the art, you must, to a surprising degree, detach.

Detach enough, and the time will come when you’ll realize you’ve detached too much, and you’ll discover how hard it is to reconnect.

When my wife and I are walking through the woods, or through a new city, I’m forever drifting back to grab a shot of something that catches my eye.  Usually I let her know when I’m stopping, but sometimes I don’t, and sometimes she doesn’t hear me when I do.  She’ll be walking along and then suddenly realize I’m not there.  She’ll turn around to see me snapping the late afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees.  She tolerates this because she loves me, not because I deserve it.

For which I am forever grateful.  Compulsions, even the good ones, must be managed.

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