Dean Potter

Photography isn’t enough for me anymore.

It pains me to say this but it’s entirely true. In the past, when I was younger, I lived and breathed photography. I still do to some degree, but after “retiring” from professional photography I have been afforded the opportunity to look around a bit more. Literature, art, travel, spirituality, philosophy and a range of other things have suddenly landed in my lap, forcing me to aim critical thought in these directions. Don’t worry, I’m no yogi, so my thoughts are never in one place for a long time, which is why I wanted to share this film, and this guy, with you. I’ve never met Dean Potter, but I’d heard about him for years. In the climbing, base jumping, slack line worlds, Dean Potter is a legend(not without controversy.) This film is the first of a five part series, so feel free to watch all five to round out the coverage if you will. I also think this post is a bit of foreshadowing for the types of things I’m hoping to post more about in the future. Yes, photography will remain the backbone of my site, but I want to branch out a bit more.

Potter, as you will see, is different. He does things that most of us would never even dream of. Watching this film my hands began to sweat and after a few more minutes my FEET began to sweat. I literally had to take my shoes off.

I’m not sharing this film because I want to go out and do what Dean Potter does, nor do I think most of you have any desire to do these things either, but I think we can all learn something from him. What I took from Dean and this film was the idea of mindfulness and meditation. I know ZERO about meditation, so my questions were along these lines.

  1. why does he meditate?
  2. what does meditate mean exactly?
  3. how does it help him?
  4. how could it help me and my photography?

Several weeks ago, while I was shooting a wedding in The Turks and Caicos Islands, I was on a boat with a local guy who was telling us about a woman who set the world freediving record on the Caicos Reef. “She does a special meditation where she is able to slow down her heart rate to thirty something beats per minute,” the guy said. He kept talking but my mind was frozen. “Wait, what do you mean slow down your heart rate to thirty beats a minute,” I thought to myself. I’ve been intrigued since, so this Dean Potter film was a second reminder of something I need to explore. I don’t know about you, but whatever meditation is I feel like I’m a million miles away, and for some reason I don’t want to be that far away anymore. I’m ready to learn.

What Potter does in this video is mind blowing to say the least. His life is literally on the line. Yes, his endeavors are being filmed, but he is basically alone or with a few very close friends, so I don’t see this as a stunt of any kind, far from it actually. It seems that there is something inside of him that drives him to do these things, and this is a feeling I’m very familiar with. I can’t tell you how many times other photographers, friends or my family have asked, “Why are you doing all these things and then never doing anything with the work, or showing anyone the work?” Obviously, I’m not walking a slack line 3000 feet off the ground, but I THINK the drive is the same. I don’t really feel like I have a choice. I HAVE to do these things.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend who was on vacation. He was poolside somewhere, reading, hanging out and when I thought about what he was doing it felt completely foreign. My friend has a “normal’ job, does really well, works hard, but when he walks away at night he is AWAY. When he leaves, takes trips, goes on vacations, etc, he is GONE. He isn’t producing anything while away, looking for anything or having to work in any way, which is the opposite of how I’ve spent my entire life.

I think what being away from photography has allowed me to do is step away and then turn to look back on my life, seeing how the “piece” of photography fits into the larger puzzle.
I have to tell you, it feels grand. And now I’m turning to the idea of the mind and what that can do for me, my photography and the other essential parts of my life. I think a lot of us dabble in these mental areas, but few really take it beyond. I’m looking to take it beyond. Can I do it? I don’t know. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Photographers have spoken about mindfulness for decades, but I want to see for myself. We know what zen did for motorcycle maintenance. Perhaps I can find my mind and reduce my photographic heartbeat just a little bit.

33 Responses to “Dean Potter”

  1. “Why are you doing all these things and then never doing anything with the work, or showing anyone the work?”

    I ask myself that same question very often. I work on a project, sometimes a small local one, and one year later I find out I haven’t done anything with the images. Or I do another visit to that location or person months after the first visit and shoot some additional images before showing or publishing the work. Sometimes the work is finished, sometimes I’m not satisfied. It’s a struggle, every single day.

    • Smogranch says:

      Serge,

      One of the things that changed about photography over the past few years is that a lot of photogs are spending WAY more time marketing than they are actually making the work. We now have all these means of marketing, promoting, telling people about our work, but man, at some point enough is enough. I had a designer tell me the worst thing he ever did was friend photographers on Facebook. He said it’s nothing more than a relentless stream of “look at me.”

      For me, for whatever reason, I just don’t feel right doing this. My relationship with photography is about being in the field and making the images. After that, I’m not that concerned, nor do I feel the need to be known as a photographer, especially today.

    • Serge Van Cauwenbergh says:

      Daniel, true. Although I don’t spend much time on marketing, mainly because I don’t like it very much, but also because I’m not very good at it.

      I’m ‘wasting’ much more time worrying if my work is good enough for the story I want to tell; or when I get home worrying if I couldn’t photograph some particular situation in a better way and if so how; or worrying why some self-initiated projects are so difficult to get started, etc. That’s more my daily struggle.

  2. alison says:

    SHAME …………….its blocked in the UK on copyright grounds . Maybe I can find Dean talking somewhere else ?

    NOW I WANT TO WATCH IT MORE THAN EVER !!!

  3. Chris Fuller says:

    This post, as with many others, resonates so well with my own journey over past three years. I can pinpoint when it all began: the morning at the north rim of the Gramd Canyon when I joined other photographers for a morning photography program. Like a sheep I joined everyone else at the same location (already made famous by Ansel Adams), jostled for a position to set up my tripod, and took dozens of pictures of the same thing hoping for that one moment where the sun was just right. In meantime I missed the experience of the sunrise. During this same time, my wife was wandering around with her Panasonic consumer point-and-shoot, took one picture, and it was better than any of the shots that I had taken. I realized then how stale my photography had become and how much of the experience of the moment I was missing. Thus, began the stripping away of my equipment and a journey toward greater simplicity.

    Like you, contemplation and meditation has been a foreign experience for me for many years. Yet, this is where this journey has now taken me. We just finished six days at Glacier National Park and I took maybe a third of the shots in those six days that I took on that one day at the Grand Canyon. But the experience was so much richer.

    For contemplation, I recommend the work of Thomas Merton. Not to promote his religion (Catholic), but his method which integrated meditative practices from other religions as well. He also attempted to channel his contemplative methods into photography.

    Finally, my wife has noticed this change in my photography for the better.

    • Smogranch says:

      Chris,

      Really cool how you know the moment the changes began. For me it took a while of looking back and then realized that a few coincidences kept happening. It forced me to ask myself what the Hell I was doing and why. Now I’ve found an explanation of sorts.

  4. First off Dan, WOW. Dean Potter. I watched all 5 parts of the film on youtube and WOW.
    It got me to thinking about my own process of how I create. It reminded me how I approached taking pictures. The pictures I really care about. I was reminded that being comfortable in the process is DEATH. If your not nervous or sweating or afraid of getting hit then just go home. Only in that zone of uncertainty, at least for me, is where the magic happens.
    I don’t know how to meditate either. It’s something I want to learn how to do desperately. I think it would be a great help for me.

  5. LionelB says:

    Anything with the broad tag ‘Lifestyle’ seems to flourish in the fertile soil of California, which makes me start by stepping back and reaching for the ruler marked ‘common sense’. Wanting to dance with death is maybe just as unhealthy as being in denial about it. Nevertheless what I experience with slow camera in hand, stalking the visual features of a place is that time blurs and extends and distant sounds crowd in, my heart beat slows and I begin to notice rather than just look at or look toward. At those times I am engaging in meditation, without a doubt.

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,

      Yes, exactly. I think, just guessing here, but when you look at his face when he is in the middle of the real run you can see that his world is about ONE thing and one thing only, the task at hand. NOTHING else exists, which is what I’m guessing medication is about. I just wrote a post about this type of thing happening to me, but perhaps not in a positive way.

  6. LionelB says:

    Oops. Medication and meditation. Stay off the pills for sure.

  7. Sid Pai says:

    When I saw Man on Wire, I thought I had seen it all but this guy takes it to a whole new level.

  8. Sean says:

    I have a big pile of photographs that I took in Cambodia right next to me now and to be completely honest the only thing I want to do with them at the moment is show a few of them to the kids that my wife and I teach English to.

    Really looking forward to seeing hey your blog develops!

    • Smogranch says:

      Sean,

      I love making the images, editing and printing but don’t feel a real push for anything beyond that. I certainly don’t want to spend my time trying to convince anyone of their importance or greatness. I’d rather ride my bike.

  9. Jason Timmis says:

    So under the heading of (as Eric said it) ” what you talkin ’bout Willis” I am the only one that caught how you tried to slip by: “Several weeks ago, while I was shooting a wedding…”?

    First you’re not shooting weddings anymore, then you’re riding your bike and shooting at the same time, then you’re are shooting weddings but trying to walk across canyons to feed your need to get your heightened awareness fix even if it kills you…..next you’ll be telling us you took a job with a small local paper but that you are only going to shoot a DSLR so it doesn’t count.

    You take a chip, you dip it once, and you END it. :-)

    • Smogranch says:

      Jason,

      Just wait. I have a wedding related post locked and loaded. It’s probably not a cheery and shiny complimentary post, in fact I KNOW it’s not, but it’s based on yet another encounter with someone who was looking for a “photographer” and ran into the gauntlet of the modern wedding masses. It was ugly and I couldn’t help them. I did shoot a wedding, the final chapter in a book that needed to be closed. I had great clients in a great location and am still buzzing from the trip.

  10. Mind blowing. And some of his words really stuck. Power of will. I made it happen. As pure as it gets.
    That is very key.
    I like how he describes being that driven, that most people would call it crazy and I relate highly to that. Also the need to do extreme things to feel the emotions he feel.

    Doing what you do because you have to, are driven to and no one understands it. But making things happen and trying to unclutter, simplify the life and soul to what matters, in his case, only one thing matters when he’s on the slack line, that’s what it’s all about. Pure.

  11. Harold says:

    I’ve resisted, apparently unsuccessfully —to not comment on this but here’s another perspective. l lived in So Cal during the late 60’s I saw lots of meditation and even tried it myself. Didn’t help. My conclusion after many years of consideration is that there is no formula, meditation or program that will yield predictable results; at least helpful results. We are way too complex for that. At some point you have to ignore the critics and do what you do. It may be genius or it may fall flat but it’s yours and you are no less for having done it whether anyone agrees with it or not.

    Among creatives I see two dilemmas that crop up over and over. One, is the person who is overly self conscious and tries to second guess themselves all the time. This usually results in very low production of actual work. Second is over adherence to a rigid dogma of what is legitimate.

    Beyond learning technique you are who you are and no other person will ever produce or see what you see.

    Doing the work is the main deal and not whether you have touched all the guru-ism bases out there.

    I think of it this way; when Hemingway was sitting in those Paris Cafe’s he was learning/creating and not worrying about his “brand”.

    just my 2 cents, your milage may vary.

    • Smogranch says:

      Harold,

      We might be talking about two different things. I’m not searching for anything predictable. I’m curious about how someone uses medication to reduced their heart rate from 70 beats a minute to 35 and what that ability could possibly do for me. I don’t see needing that kind of extreme, but what I am thinking of is simply mindfulness, which I find one of the most lacking aspects of our culture today. Many of the people I meet have a Blackberry in one hand, coffee in the other and are sitting in front of laptop screens with a glazed and frazzled look in their eye, sitting up late at night, in the darkness, pouring hours of their lives into social media so they can feel “connected.” I think this lifestyle actually makes it almost impossible to connect with anything other than the internet.

      As for Hemingway, I think he was troubled by his brand, but didn’t refer to it as brand, at least at that time. I think doubt and insecurity were rife in those circles, as it is today. A few months ago at SPE Sally Mann spoke to the sold out crowd and said doubt was overpowering. She would emerge from the darkroom not to say, “This is an interesting print,” but instead asking “Is this good enough compared to what has come before?”

    • Harold says:

      Could be, which is or was partly my point. We interpret things according to our own talent, needs and experience.

      I do get the frazzled thing. Even here surrounded by cows I’m too much in front of this thing. When I lived in the big city it was worse. It saps energy and time that could be spent on real work.

      In many of the matters I am clearly at a disadvantage.

    • Smogranch says:

      Harold,

      I have periods where I just can’t look at a computer. One reason why I’ll never be a mega blogger.

    • Harold says:

      Yes I get that, Mega Blogging is not in my genes either.

      Mindfulness is really the word that sticks with me. Sometimes my brain sort of goes to mush and I lose direction. I get these dumb images and wonder why did I take that. I think having that internal conversation you mentioned is a good idea. I’m gonna work on that.

  12. LionelB says:

    I have been looking at an old documentary interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson. Although I admire him, he is at the same time a little too painterly for my taste. Too many Goya references. Shown in action, he is very clipped, formal and aloof. Concerned that he might get his shoes muddy. That is at one with the formality of his style but it certainly questions the idea that to take take great images you have either to be very mellow or be immersed in risk.

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,

      I don’t think you have to be anything other than connected to make great pictures, at least a body of work over a given period of time. I’m not sure if HCB was aloof or was acting aloof, a big difference. My wife has told me many, many times, “People are afraid to talk to you because you are aloof.” I’m not but I use that card when I need to if it helps me get where I need to be.
      One of the places I’m working right now required me to be somewhat sheepish in my initial approach, and also silent, both things that are the opposite of how I normally work. It’s a dance, an act, a game of charades most of the time and each scenario requires it’s own ingredients. Body language is HUGELY important in documentary work.

    • mike a says:

      Yes Daniel, body language is huge in documentary work. I tell people sometimes a press pass gets in some places and thrown out of others. How you approach people can make all the difference.

  13. LionelB says:

    The dance comment is interesting. For the most part he walks around stiffly like a very out of place senior civil servant but at the allotted moment he fidgets on tippy toes like a ballet dancer and then lunges like a mantis.

  14. hannah kozak says:

    Daniel, I discovered Kundalini yoga in the early nineties. It immediately resonated with me because I found a science that helped me quiet my thoughts, my mind and I learned how to breath correctly. I was a backwards breather as most stressed people are. The mind follows the breath. Little did I know back then how much this would help me as we come into an age where we are assaulted by so much information coming at us daily. We are receiving more information now in one week than our great great grandparents received in a lifetime. Our nervous systems are not meant to keep up with the constant bombardment hence Kundalini yoga is a wonderful tool not only for photographers but anyone seeking some relief from the outside world. There are scientific recipes designed to help you find your peace inside of you. It’s a spiritual discipline to develop consciousness, awareness and character while finding bliss and it’s the mother of all yogas. If you are interested in trying a class, here is a link that may interest you.

    http://www.soulyoga.net

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