Bob Dylan & Inspiration For Photographers

Bob Dylan 1966 Photograph ©Jerry Schatzberg 

It’s true that inspiration can come in many forms and strike at any time. These past few weeks have been anxious and stressful for everyone. Some of the most inspiring stories come from the heroes working the front lines at great risk, so that many like me can stay safely self-quarantined to minimize the risks from the pandemic. 

As a photographer, I often look to other photographers for help and guidance, but much inspiration comes to me via other arts, visual arts, literature, film & television and of course music. I love many genres of music and I’ve always been fascinated with Bob Dylan, a genius in our midst and though I’m likely not his biggest fan, his work inspires me. 

And so too did the recent interview with the author and historian Douglas Brinkley in the New York Times. Mr. Brinkley has an on-going relationship with the media-shy Nobel Laureate whose new album Rough and Rowdy Ways was released this week. 

The interview was a thought-provoking and  entertaining read with lots of inspiration for me as a photographer. I’ve taken a few passages from the interview and added my thoughts on how I connected what Mr. Dylan said to my life as a photographer…

Mr. Brinkley: 

Charlie Sexton began playing with you for a few years in 1999, and returned to the fold in 2009. What makes him such a special player? It’s as if you can read each other’s minds.

Bob Dylan: 

Charlie is good on all the songs. He’s not a show-off guitar player, although he can do that if he wants. He’s very restrained in his playing but can be explosive when he wants to be. It’s a classic style of playing. Very old school. He inhabits a song rather than attacking it. He’s always done that with me.

A photo that allows the content to shine through without bringing too much attention to itself through technique or enhancement is a similar idea. The camera always looks both ways and the photographer will be there in every photograph. But the images I like most bring me straight to the content. They are not about the cleverness of the photographer nor the bravado of post-processing. When the viewer’s first reaction is, oh, extreme wide angle or wow, look at that over-saturated color, beautiful as it may be, those images often leave me cold.  I think compelling, creative pieces like a great Dylan song, often come from a place of modesty. Talent is not something you can take credit for. Work you can.

Out of all your compositions, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” has grown on me over the years. What made you bring it back to the forefront of recent concerts?

Bob Dylan: It’s grown on me as well. I think this song has something to do with the classical world, something that’s out of reach. Someplace you’d like to be beyond your experience. Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain. That you’ve achieved the unthinkable. That’s what the song tries to say, and you’d have to put it in that context. In saying that though, even if you do paint your masterpiece, what will you do then? Well, obviously you have to paint another masterpiece. So it could become some kind of never ending cycle, a trap of some kind. The song doesn’t say that though.

I think this sentiment reminds me to never stop creating. You’re never there. Always strive to push boundaries and do more. When you think you are “there”, there is no where to go. Risk. Strive to reach a place you haven’t quite got to yet and see where you end up. Bowie advocated going a little out of your depth, a place where your feet aren’t quite touching the ground. That is where you make great work. So what do you do when you get there? 

“Well obviously you have to paint another masterpiece” says Dylan. 

Artistic growth and growth of any kind never has to stop. Seems obvious to me that Dylan feels that, reflected in the work he has created this past sixty years. Robert Frank did The Americans and moved on to new pursuits as an artist for the next masterpiece. 

There is a lot of apocalyptic sentiment in “Murder Most Foul.” Are you worried that in 2020 we’re past the point of no return? That technology and hyper-industrialization are going to work against human life on Earth?

Bob Dylan: Sure, there’s a lot of reasons to be apprehensive about that. There’s definitely a lot more anxiety and nervousness around now than there used to be. But that only applies to people of a certain age like me and you, Doug. We have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. 

It’s all about perspective. We can upend that. Artists have something to say and what you have to say often comes from life experience. Ignorance can also be bliss. When you are young; talent, idealism, imagination, observation and hard work can combine to create great art without the benefit of much life experience. But maybe the most profound art comes from personal experience?

Bob Dylan:  We have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. Youngsters don’t have that tendency. They have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything. In 20 or 30 years from now, they’ll be at the forefront. 

When you see somebody that is 10 years old, he’s going to be in control in 20 or 30 years, and he won’t have a clue about the world we knew. Young people who are in their teens now have no memory lane to remember. So it’s probably best to get into that mind-set as soon as we can, because that’s going to be the reality.

Most of us haven't attempted to get into that mindset. But maybe it’s the best idea for creativity after a certain age. If we can find a way to live “in the moment” as creators, we can’t be stopped. Or shall I say we won’t stop ourselves by talking ourselves out of things that experience has taught may not work out. Fact is, the future is unwritten and does not have to be the negative pre-conceived notion we sometimes think it will be. Maybe it's about striving to half-fill that glass. 

Bob Dylan: As far as technology goes, it makes everybody vulnerable. But young people don’t think like that. They could care less. Telecommunications and advanced technology is the world they were born into. Our world is already obsolete.

Another vote for living now, in the moment. Be smart but be bold. Embrace and learn technology. We can do it. 

Are you able to be musically creative while at home? Do you play piano and tool around in your private studio?

Bob Dylan: I do that mostly in hotel rooms. A hotel room is the closest I get to a private studio.

I can relate to what Dylan says here, maybe you can too? When it comes to making photos, I need to be out in the world to create. But that applies to my edit and the brainstorming of ideas for projects. It sometimes helps to be in a different physical space from my home; a place that differs from my familiar environment, with fewer distractions and personal baggage. There are times in my home office I can be “in the moment” and it doesn’t matter where I am physically. But it’s not always easy to find that place. On the road it can be easier. Planes, trains and hotel rooms offer that quiet oasis conducive to creativity for me. Or just getting out of the house to the local coffee shop can work too, when that possibility becomes a reality again. 

Talking about jazz…

Bob Dylan: Has any of it ever inspired me? Well yeah. Probably a lot. Ella Fitzgerald as a singer inspires me. Oscar Peterson as a piano player, absolutely. Has any of it inspired me as a songwriter? Yeah, “Ruby, My Dear” by Monk. That song set me off in some direction to do something along those lines. I remember listening to that over and over.

This tells me to drink it all in. Seek out work that inspires you and learn and be inspired from it. As you grow it will infuse into your process in a positive way. It will help shape your vision and inspire you to tell a similar but different,  more personal story. 

“I Contain Multitudes” is surprisingly autobiographical in parts. The last two verses exude a take-no-prisoners stoicism while the rest of the song is a humorous confessional. Did you have fun grappling with contradictory impulses of yourself and human nature in general?

Bob Dylan: I didn’t really have to grapple much. It’s the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses and then leave it alone and come pull things out. 

Photography is so much about exclusion. Pulling things out through the compositional dance to get to the right camera position and include what is necessary within the frame. It’s about deciding what to leave out.

Bob Dylan: In that particular song, the last few verses came first. So that’s where the song was going all along. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state. Most of my recent songs are like that. The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors. The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.

It may not be true of all genres of photography, but with street, Cartier-Bresson has said, "You must think all the time, but when you’re photographing, you’re not trying to push a point or to explain something or prove something. You don’t prove anything. It comes by itself. I never think. I act quick".  In other words, you can’t force a message on the viewer,  those images look contrived and obvious. Personally, I mostly try and take Mr. Bresson's advice and not overthink, but act. What the image does for the viewer for the most part "comes by itself". It’s the magic. 

Once again in this song you name a lot of people. What made you decide to mention Anne Frank next to Indiana Jones?

Bob Dylan: Her story means a lot. It’s profound. And hard to articulate or paraphrase, especially in modern culture. Everybody’s got such a short attention span. But you’re taking Anne’s name out of context, she’s part of a trilogy. You could just as well ask, “What made you decide to include Indiana Jones or the Rolling Stones?” The names themselves are not solitary. It’s the combination of them that adds up to something more than their singular parts. To go too much into detail is irrelevant. The song is like a painting, you can’t see it all at once if you’re standing too close. The individual pieces are just part of a whole.

The sum is greater than the parts. You don’t have to connect the dots for everyone or even understand exactly what your instincts are telling you, just shoot, feel right about the edits without overthinking and let it go. One image can express a thousand words it's true, but the right combination of a series of images can express so much more. So too can the right arrangement of a group of strong images.  1 +1 can equal three. A dyptyque with images playing off each other can communicate so much more than each on its own. A photo story has even more power to communicate. The right sequencing can build momentum and create a more powerful narrative. You can build that photo narrative as a song is built. As Mr. Dylan says, "The song is like a painting, you can’t see it all at once if you’re standing too close. The individual pieces are just part of a whole”.

A few years ago I saw you play a bluegrass-sounding version of “Summer Days.” Have you ever thought about recording a bluegrass album?

Bob Dylan: I’ve never thought about that. Bluegrass music is mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. Just because you are a great singer, or a great this or that doesn’t mean you can be in a bluegrass band. It’s almost like classical music. It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood. If you ever heard the Osborne Brothers, then you know what I mean. It’s an unforgiving music and you can only it stretch so far. Beatles songs played in a bluegrass style don’t make any sense. It’s the wrong repertoire, and that’s been done. There are elements of bluegrass music for sure in what I play, especially the intensity and similar themes. But I don’t have the high tenor voice and we don’t have three-part harmony or consistent banjo. I listen to Bill Monroe a lot, but I more or less stick to what I can do best.

The photographic take-away for me here is I know what I do and I do what I do best. I know what I’m not and don’t try and be that. I have my passions and push in those directions. Doesn’t mean I don’t push boundaries but I have my realizations based on life experience and I don’t have to do it all. 

Bob Dylan: Robert (Johnson) was one of the most inventive geniuses of all time. But he probably had no audience to speak of. He was so far ahead of his time that we still haven’t caught up with him. His status today couldn’t be any higher. Yet in his day, his songs must have confused people. It just goes to show you that great people follow their own path.

It’s hard to go it alone. The more personal you make it the more universal it becomes. Emulate? Sure, and learn from feedback and critique and apply that insight along with everything else you learn to future work. Take the driver’s seat and don’t listen to back seat drivers. Follow your own GPS…

Does having the Pacific Ocean in your backyard help you process the Covid-19 pandemic in a spiritual way? There is a theory called “blue mind” which believes that living near water is a health curative.

Bob Dylan: Yeah, I can believe that. “Cool Water,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “How Deep Is the Ocean.” I hear any of those songs and it’s like some kind of cure. I don’t know what for, but a cure for something that I don’t even know I have. A fix of some kind. It’s like a spiritual thing. Water is a spiritual thing. I never heard of “blue mind” before. Sounds like it could be some kind of slow blues song. Something Van Morrison would write. Maybe he has, I don’t know.

I never heard of “blue mind” either. I think most of us would agree with Mr. Dylan; there is something calming and spiritual being near water. Photographers too are attracted to making images of and near water. One of my first projects was a lake in Alberta said to have healing powers. 


©Steve Simon from the book Healing Waters: The Pilgrimage To Lac Ste. Anne

"I believe in the water because water is God to us; without water there is no life".  Alfred Billette   Dillon, Saskatchewan


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