Rainer Maria Rilke on patience (and street photography)…
In a conversation a while ago among fellow Observe members, Jason Reed made an interesting comment regarding his move from London to the English countryside and how that affected his photography: “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years since leaving London is that patience is as important in this game as luck.” That caught my attention for its timing, as I had been reflecting on that matter after re-reading parts of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” – a correspondence between the Austrian author and young officer cadet and poet, Franz Kappus.
It’s been said before about how street and documentary photographers are able to create their own luck (a matter of attention, of being alert and open to the possibilities at all times). However, one should also be aware of patience in a deeper level. Not only the patience required for the long hours spent wandering and shooting – but also the time required for the work to develop and evolve. In one of my favorite passages of Rilke’s book, he writes: “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
I guess the reason that brought me again to Rilke’s words was a need to reflect on what I had accomplished in the last 4 years (the time since I got back to photography after a long hiatus) and on what to do next – a transition of some kind. I had edited my work for a new website, and took the opportunity to evaluate it, leaving room for uncomfortable questions, like, for example, about whether or not I had found my voice.
The process of finding one’s voice, though, is something that can only happen naturally. Therefore the importance of turning photography into a “habit”, according to one’s work schedule and daily commitments. Not all street photography practitioners are able to shoot everyday. Most, like Jason, don’t have enough opportunity to go out and shoot. In these cases, he notes, the process of finding a voice should happen at the pace that one’s shooting allows. “It can’t happen any faster than that”, Jason said. “Even if I wanted it to. I guess that’s patience and acceptance.”
I could relate to his thoughts on being patient as opposed to going insanely trigger-happy. “It would be tempting to wander off and shoot everything in sight”, he said, “possibly ask people to repeat a gesture, or even make images of random obscure scenes, then label it country street/fine art. In other words, explode the limits of the genre into something completely different to justify what I was doing. I won’t have it. I think we all need to stick to the essence of what started us down this road. And that takes patience.”
As Rilke would have said, yes dear sir. Jason seemed to be talking about patience as much as about trust, and the Austrian poet also wrote of how one should always trust oneself and one’s own feeling at all costs: “If it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing.”
I guess we should all search for a (re)birth from time to time. Since that conversation took place, I decided what to do next and left home to go on a long trip. It’s something I feel very lucky about, to be able to go on such a journey, mostly to take pictures. However, even in the privileged situation of being able to shoot everyday, I feel I should be patient sometimes, in order not to wander off, like Jason said. Inevitably, the time comes when shooting street photography randomly starts to feel empty, and the desire to be out in the world diminishes. It may not happen to everyone, I suppose, but it does to me. In those moments, I trust myself to slow down and go on a little retreat, wherever I am, to evaluate what’s been done and what might be ahead, to lay the camera down and be with my own thoughts for a while, or read a good book. The need to go out and photograph must be present, and it can only come from the heart. However, I believe the need can/should be fed. And silence and good books – not only photo books! – are two things that come in handy for that. I believe they may slowly feed the desire to go out to that point when it becomes urgent. And the fun may begin – again.
Speaking of good books, “Letters to a Young Poet” was first published in 1929, and since then it has inspired not only writers, but anyone who has ever felt the urge to create something. In what is perhaps its most famous passage, Rilke begs Kapuz to investigate the reasons that bid him to write: “Find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”
Yes, momentary pauses to reflect on new directions are always helpful. Be that as it may, the practitioners of candid/straight photography must (italics on me now) go out and shoot. Shoot as much as he/she is able to. Above all, though, shoot as much as he/she needs to. As Rilke taught, it’s the necessity to write shoot that will move us toward something truthful: “A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other.” As long as that need exists and is constantly fed, all one has to do is to keep going – with trust and patience.