Bound to remember

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Filling notebooks with sketches, photographs and words, I discover the way I record something affects how I remember it.

There must be something to the notion of sitting on a rock in quiet contemplation because whenever I do, I’m compelled to make a record of it.

The north shore of Lake Superior holds a certain power over me. No trip there is complete without spending a quiet hour or two alone with a camera or a notebook. Any rock along that shore is sufficient to send me into a dreamlike trance, a meditative wakefulness that inspires art and thought for the small price of a sore butt and a few pins in my legs.

Sometimes I make photographs, other times I sketch or write my observations in a journal entry.

When I turn to a journal entry, open my sketchbook, or look at photo I always remember something about the moment it was created.

It wasn’t until a recent trip that the differences became apparent to me.

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Even when I try to slow it down, the photographic process can still feel hurried.

The boy in the photograph had jumped into the lake once so I climbed down to a rock ledge with my camera where I waited and waited for him to do it again. When he finally went, it happened fast. I was turned away so I swung around and shot this one frame and by luck, instinct, or both I was able to make a nearly perfect composition.

When I look at the image I feel a personal sense of freedom and adventure. It makes me think of the future and reflect on the past. It reminds me to face my fears. In fact, so does every other photograph ever made of a person taking a leap.

The photo accurately recorded everything I saw: the turquoise water, the endless sky, the wave-worn rock.

What the photo fails to record with any fidelity is what I was feeling that day.

I still love the image — how my mind jumps in and out of the photo as I think about that moment in the context of my life outside the borders of the frame.

The fact is, the moment I made the photo was not peaceful, contemplative or serene. My family was eating lunch at a picnic table a hundred yards up the shore. The kids were catching tadpoles in the tide pools; splashing, laughing and falling in to get wet. It wasn’t pandemonium but it wasn’t as uncluttered as the photograph would lead you to believe.

The power of the photograph as a record is it’s ability to exclude the noise and focus only on what is in the frame.

The same could be said for the sketch. As the artist, I can choose what to include and what to exclude. I can even change reality to better suit my needs.

For instance, in this sketch I made later in the day on that same trip, I excluded the people I considered clutter (my own children in fact, though I still love them dearly) and selected only a few key rock features to record with accuracy while filling in more interpretive strokes of the light and shadows in between.

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The process of sketching is much slower than photography. I am not a fast sketcher. Unlike some talented artists who can sketch active moving subjects, I prefer things that sit still while I figure them out. This forces me to spend much more time with a subject than photography does.

Sketching is much closer to writing in that I am observing details in a way that I don’t with photography. As a photographer, I see how light affects a scene and once I make the decision about how to use light I no longer consciously think about it. With a sketch, I am always thinking about the light and the shadows. I observed the shadows that outline legs of the person in the foreground. I studied every rock and how they each played with the light in a different way.

With sketching I am describing the details of a scene as I interpret them. The decisions I make in a sketch point to the truth of what I saw, despite their intentional inaccuracy.

When I sketch, my mind is able to wander more than it does with photography. I don’t need to think about the changing conditions of apertures or shutter speeds — our vision makes all those micro adjustments automatically and unconsciously. I am free to think about anything that enters my mind, related or not.

Writing as recording, gives my mind the most freedom to wander. I can make simple observations: the iron-rich water is reddish brown, the day is June 24, 2001, the Brule River cuts deep through the grey rock. But unlike sketching, these simple observations often lead me to other thoughts and I can write these down too: how I felt at that moment, what my fears were on that day, what my hopes for the future were.

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I can write all those thoughts down but it doesn’t mean I always do. However, it doesn’t mean I forget them either.

When I went back to read this particular entry — the first I ever wrote while sitting on a rock along the north shore — I was certain it would say something about anxiety I felt over my job at the time or include a passage about how for the first time I really fell in love with the place or my plans to wake early for a hike so I could find a quiet place to watch the sunrise.

Instead, I write about how I’d like catch a trout or a salmon on a fly rod but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I guess that’s a detail I wanted to remember and yet it was a detail forgotten until now.

Twelve years after that first journal entry I realize I needn’t worry about how I make a record, only that I take the time to make it. The act of recording is an act of capturing details, bringing them together, changing them, keeping some and washing away others. The act of recording is the process for binding details into memories that stand the test of time and therefore the process for making a memory is no different than the process for making the rocks I sometimes sit and think on.

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    About Kevin Tobosa

    Creative strategist and author of Creative-Constructs.com, a blog for everyone seeking tools and techniques for super-charging creative output.

    Comments

    1. Hi Kevin, I just found you through ThinkTraffic.net and I clicked over to your site. This post kinda made me look at things in a different way.

      I like what you’re doing with the blog.

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