Interview with Shalom Ormsby
John interviews leading photographers about the future of stock photography and other important issues.
Visioning the Invisible,
An Interview with Photographer Shalom Ormsby
I know you as a photographer who is cutting-edge in your approach, not just to photography, but life as well. Your work is dramatic, sensitive and polished.
Shalom: Coming from someone as talented and inspiring as you are, that means a lot to me. Thank you. I’m honored.
You were one of the first core group of founding members of Blend Images, even coming up with the name of the company. You have always encouraged me to venture into new territory and develop my creativity.
Shalom: That’s because I love your work, John. I was overjoyed when you decided to take the leap and co-create Blend with us, and you’ve been a major contributor to the success-story that Blend has become.
Can you share a bit with us about your journey that brought you to where you are now as a photographer?
Shalom: What I strive to do with my work is to “vision the invisible” – to use the physical, material expressions of people, animals, plants, and places to reveal whatever mystery it is that animates them, that gives them life, vitality, and character. I’m not referring to an effort to see something that’s beyond appearances, but rather, to reveal what’s within appearances. This has the flavor of a koan for me – a Zen riddle that can’t be answered logically, the purpose of which is to snap the mind out of its habitual mode of operating. This transition, from the habitual mode of thinking, seeing, and operating to embodying a clarity and freshness of being that’s naturally playful, improvisational, and free… this is my daily commute. Sometimes, for whatever reason, I’m not able to make this commute for days, weeks, or even longer. This happens when I get mired in a mental and creative version of “business as usual.” This is a hard and vulnerable time for me. I can think my way out of this freshness of being in an instant, but I can’t think my way back into it. Nor is there any formula to follow that can produce it. That’s why I use “visioning the invisible” to describe what I do these days. It’s a reminder to myself to stay fresh and loose and to make that essential commute, upon which my vocation depends.
Are there any photographers who have helped shape your approach or whom you particularly admire?
Shalom: There are so many – photographers, painters, sculptors, architects, poets, dancers, comic book artists, designers, physicists, mystics, musicians, and friends. It would take a book to list them all and describe how they’ve moved me… and that book would need to grow every day, because there’s such an amazing explosion of creativity happening now, everywhere around us. Here are a few major inspirations, in no particular order – Leonardo DaVinci (for countless reasons), Egon Schiele (for the fearless gusto of his line), Stan Lee (for birthing the comic book characters that inspired me to start creating art), George Lucas (for sparking my spirit with The Force when I was young), the Wachowski brothers (for the profound, wild ride of The Matrix), Benoît Mandelbrot (for his work on fractals), Byron Katie (for the radical way in which she serves the liberation from confusion), the haiku and brushwork masters of ancient Japan, and the Buddha.
None of these people are photographers, but they’re all powerful creators of images and insights. This is what gets me fired up. Photographer Glen Wexler (another inspiration of mine), once said – and it always stuck with me – that his work isn’t about taking pictures, it’s about creating images. Anyone can take a picture, but it’s a rare skill to be able to create images that touch something real and alive and unknown within. So it’s not really about the image – it’s about what the image helps us access within ourselves. The invisible.
Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht is a photographer who’s also a physicist. I see him as “visioning the invisible” in a striking way, using snowflakes as his subjects. We all know that no two snowflakes are alike, but his work truly brings the magic of this fact to life. He goes out into the field and catches snowflakes in flight (like butterflies) and shoots them with powerful magnification and crisp, contrasty light, revealing their ornate crystalline structures. Some of them are so beautiful that they take my breath away. His book, The Art of the Snowflake, is filled with images displaying countless expressions of organic, sacred geometry… and these are just a few hundred snowflakes. What explodes my head is thinking of all the snowflakes that have ever fallen throughout all of time, all the fleeting masterpieces of design, each one entirely original. This expands my awareness from the beauty of each individual snowflake to an appreciation of that mysterious creative force from which the snowflakes originated. The invisible.
And that’s just talking about snowflakes! When we expand by several orders of magnitude to talk about plants, animals, and people, of course, the same thing is true – each one is absolutely unique, the only one of its kind in the entire history of the universe. Each plant, when looked at in close enough detail, ceases to be just a “plant” – it is a mysterious entity with a vascular system that smartly shuttles liquids, minerals, and photosynthetic products throughout the system. Its knowledge of how to convert light and carbon-dioxide into energy and oxygen (which it shares with others of its kind, and which it transfers from generation to generation), provides the essential, foundational support for life on earth. When we increase the level of complexity and look at human beings… this is where I get speechless…
It’s easy to forget what a colossal, mysterious, miracle each human being is… because we’re constantly surrounded by them. We all become habituated to the miraculous, which makes the miraculous mundane. My job is to make the mundane miraculous again. The invisible and the visible, alive within each other, each helping to define the other.
I know you have an interest in 3D. Do you plan on incorporating that into your imagery? I know you have been getting your feet wet with footage. Can you tell us about your experience thus far, and what role you see motion playing in your future?
Shalom: I’d like to answer these questions together, because for me, they’re related. They both involve additional dimensions, relative to traditional photography. 3D adds apparent depth to otherwise flat images, and footage adds to still images the dimension of movement through time.
One of the things that you certainly know about me, John, is that I’m very excitable. And the idea of extending my work into the third and fourth dimensions can get me so worked up that I can sound rather absurd, as I probably have on our photography forums. So I’ll try to maintain a sense of sobriety about this, which I’ll probably fail to do.
[A little aside about an insightful man who I “met” on Twitter named Marvin. He recently tweeted that “The secret to success is to bite off more than you can chew and then to chew like hell.” When I read this, I saw that without consciously realizing it, this is what I’ve been doing for most of my life… and I’m doing it now with 3D and footage.]
Moving into the third and fourth dimensions feels like a natural, inevitable evolution for me because it feels like such an expansion of one’s creative palette and storytelling ability. What I’ve found is that with each added dimension, with each expansion of creative possibility, the complexity increases by an order of magnitude. Therefore, whereas my creative ability is expanded, there’s also a tremendous amount of information and tool-sets that I need to learn, and whole new ways for things to go wrong. So regarding 3D and footage, I’m in the process of making lots and lots of mistakes. This doesn’t trouble me… actually, I expect this to happen. I simply try to make new mistakes, rather than repeating old ones. That’s how I learn (chewing like hell).
In addition to making lots of mistakes in 3D and footage, I’ve created some things that really excite me, many of which are still under wraps, or are just sketches of things that I want to further develop. There’s a goldmine of ideas and inspiration in this realm that I’m eager to explore. My challenge is to wisely allocate the resource of my time and energy so as to be keep my personal work balanced with my multifarious, countless inspirations and inclinations, balanced with my bill-paying commercial work.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Shalom: I have no idea where I’m going to be five hours from now, so that’s a tough one. I can say this: I’m grateful that my present life isn’t constrained by my vision of the future I’d wished for five years ago. That said, I think that it’s an important practice to frequently reflect on this question… and also, to take it one step further and to reflect (as often as possible) on the immanence of death. Not to be morbid or to freak anyone out in any way; just to recognize that our time here is limited, and that our candles only burn for so long. Seeing this cultivates within me an appreciation of the most precious resource in the universe: life. Sometimes, it takes something really drastic to awaken this awareness within us. Sometimes, the grace arises that enables us to spend hours, days, or even longer inhabiting this awareness, and living lives that are expressive of the unlimited potential of our noble human birth.
So five years from now, my wish is to find myself even more deeply immersed in everything I’ve been talking about with you. Talking is easy. Walking the talk – that’s my plan for the next five years (and however much longer I have on this beautiful planet). I also have pragmatic goals, such as helping to further develop creative community, to help create abundance for myself and for others, to co-create with visionaries who are helping make the world a better place. I’d also like to drive a Tesla. I’m very inspired by what Elon Musk and the Tesla team are doing with Tesla Motors, and feel that they are helping leading the way into a new, sustainable, virtuous paradigm for our economy and nation.
Teslas aren’t cheap. So in order to be able to make such a contribution to the stimulation of the new economy (and of my personal aesthetic), a skillful balance is required between creative output and income. Ultimately, I would like to have my fine art and my commercial, bill-paying work form an integrated whole. Actually, this has already happened, to a large extent. But I still feel as though I’m just getting started. I feel restless and eager and dissatisfied with what I’ve already created. I feel humbled by the all the amazing, breathtaking work that’s out there – by the work of the other Blend photographers, by the work of fellow Getty photographers, by lots of the images on Flickr, Found, and Enjoys things… by the visual creativity that’s flowing through every thread of the web. It can be totally transfixing, overwhelming, humbling, and paralyzing, witnessing that much creativity… unless one maintains adequate mental and creative hygiene. For me, this includes a firm commitment not to compare myself or my work to others, but rather to appreciate the beauty and drink in the inspiration of all the creativity that’s out there. This also includes being discerning about what I ingest, giving a wide berth to dissonant frequencies so that I can surf resonant ones.
You have a new blog. How do you see social media fitting into your plans?
Shalom: I see social media as one element of an epochal shift of power away from traditional, centralized, top-down communication (driven by corporate interests and the prioritization of profit above all else) to a new paradigm, which is in the process of being developed and defined as we speak. Right now, the new era appears non-traditional, decentralized, and bottom-up. The barriers to entry that previously kept individuals from addressing vast audiences have been shattered. Almost anyone can publish their own blog… and if the content is interesting or valuable enough, anyone’s blog has the potential to reach audiences that can rival the reach of the major networks. Although this must frighten the traditional media establishment, there’s never been a more exciting time for creative individuals who enjoy using emerging technologies to share their visions, images, and ideas with the world.
The purpose of my blog is to serve as a resource for people who want to give, receive, and share resonant inspiration and creativity. Like frequencies resonate, creating something greater than themselves in the process. My job is to serve this, both by creating images that reveal the invisible within the visible, and to create a community space where other creatives can connect and have meaningful, inspiring contact that can gain momentum and depth over time… thus creating a virtuous cycle of inspiration feeding creativity, which in turn catalyzes even more creativity.
Any thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
Shalom: A short story, since I’ve been so long-winded. At the end of a talk the Dalai Lama was giving about true happiness, he was asked what was the happiest day of his life. The Dalai Lama smiled and said softly, “That would be today.” May today be the happiest day of your life.
Shalom’s portfolio and blog can be viewed at http://shalomimages.com