A storyteller’s Journal #3

Phil Hossack


A Storyteller’s Journal…. 

Sandhill Cranes and Turtle Mountain – from the series, “Source of the Pembina”  – ©Phil Hossack 2020


I don’t get a lot of my inspiration for photographs or projects from other photographers, “Instagram” or photo books. At least not all of the time. Curiosity is my key tool in developing ideas for photographic projects.

‘Why add to the Pile’

Today the ever-growing mountain of images being produced around the world can sometimes feel overwhelming. So why become a photographer and add to the pile?

I ask myself always, how do I want people to “feel” when they look at my work; how do “I feel” about the subject when I’m working a project? Then, how do I convert those feelings and my emotion and passion into the visual narrative?

Ideas perfectly expressed through visual narrative, stories poignantly told, are rare in that pile of pictures and not as easy to come by.

Much of my visual inspiration comes from the written word.

I have several well-thumbed paperbacks by the American author *Barry Lopez. He has been a consistent source of inspiration for me since I first stumbled across his book, “Field Notes” while at Ryerson University in the mid-70s. A self described “traditional storyteller,” Lopez maintained his motive for writing was “to help.” He said writing is not about yourself, it’s about culture, and your job is to help. 

A British writer Robert Macfarlane — who has written on “landscape and the human heart” — summarized Lopez’s prose this way: “Throughout his writings, Lopez returns to the idea that natural landscapes are capable of bestowing a grace upon those who pass through them. Certain landscape forms, in his vision, possess a spiritual correspondence. The stern curve of a mountain slope, a nest of wet stones on a beach, the bent trunk of a windblown tree: These abstract shapes can call out in us a goodness we might not have known we possessed.”

* * *

I mentioned in my last post that,  […] “Common thought would have us believe it’s difficult to find suitable subjects in our own back yard, perhaps that train of thought is more a lack of commitment to explore deeply and to find potential through repeated effort, learning, and by asking deeper questions.” […]

‘Deeper Questions’

The concept of “asking deeper questions” stayed with me and is at the root of what I strive for.

I returned once again to these deeper questions after recently reading an introduction Barry Lopez wrote to his book, “About This Life”, a collection of his nonfiction essays.  Lopez was asked by a fellow traveller what instruction he should give a daughter dreaming of becoming a writer.

This query made me think of the countless times I’ve been asked by students — and by sons and daughters — how to get into photography as a profession.

Lopez and his deeper questions — perhaps with an assist from Macfarlane — inspired me to get outside and not only “look,”  but to explore with the goal of actually “seeing.”

Seeing is something used by skilled practitioners of any art — writers musicians, dancers, photographers, journalists or painters. These artists forge their art with their sight.

Barry’s descriptive powers are some of the most reliably inspiring to me. Lifting a “Lopez” out of my bookshelf is always spiritual and gratifying. He continues to connect the dots to my experience of this world and the people around me. 

Sandhill Cranes near Turtle Mountain – from the series, “Source of the Pembina”  – © Phil Hossack 2020

John Freeman** wrote .“He (Lopez) wasn’t speaking to you from a perch, but a porch somewhere deep inside his mind… reminding us that imagination enters when there is a gap between knowing and not knowing. This gap exists constantly in Lopez’s work; it’s where wonder emerges. It’s where hope exists.”

Find Out What You Truly Believe

Now back to that inquisitive traveller, for whom Author Lopez was measured and clear in his response:

[…] Tell your daughter to read, …tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she is reading is trash. …She may be paying attention to things in the words beyond anyone else’s comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind.

…If she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn’t come out of those beliefs she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need. So, help her discover what she means.

…Finally, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.

“Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar in order to appreciate and love the familiar.” […]

I’ve come to appreciate this practice of going away from the familiar and then, upon my return, seeing the familiar with new eyes.

Harrison Milling, Holmfield Mb. ©Phil Hossack 2021

*Barry Lopez (75) died Friday Dec 25, 2020

Sign up here or at www.philhossackphoto.ca to receive these journals.

**John Freeman is the founder of the literary annual Freeman’s. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He is currently an artist-in-residence at New York University and executive editor at Knopf.

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