• The Secret Books
    The Secret Books
    by Jorge Luis Borges, Sean Kernan
  • Among Trees
    Among Trees
Teaching and Lecturing

Looking into the Light is available at the iBookstore now

See the book here, at the iBookstore now.

Creativity is not something we do so much as something we are.

This radical workshop-in-a-book takes photographers right back to their experience of creativity when they were stunned by a photograph they took. This unusual approach to creativity and photography comes from more than 30 years of work and innovation by the author, well-known photographer and pioneering teacher Sean Kernan. It presents a way of working that moves far past technique to focus on seeing and presence, to working with what happens up to the click.

The book lays out a program of exercises that take readers to a direct experience of their own creativity. They reawaken the kinds of awareness that children use to discover themselves and the world. They lead to deeper seeing ... and to photographs that are awake and alive. The practice that the book lays out is for photographers of every level, and it has been particularly useful to professionals, reminding them why they went into photography in the first place.

The exercises come from many areas besides photography—music, theater, writing. They require no prior experience. Anyone can use them to understand and invigorate their inborn creativity, and to make better photos, or just to be more present in the events of their own lives. The book is illustrated with works by the author, a number of students, and a disparate group that includes John Paul Caponigro, Greg Heisler, Paul Cezanne, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sol LeWitt, William Kentridge, Dennis Darling, Cig Harvey, and Edgar Degas.

There is a companion site at, where you can read chapters, see videos, look at several of the exercises, and upload your own photographic responses to them.


I'm changing the location of this blog.

I have set up a new blog in conjunction with my website, and that's where I'll be posting from now on.

I will leave this blog up for a good long time, since people know where it is, and since there are  some good things on it, but eventuall I'll close it down, probably at the end of 2014.

Meantime the new blog is here:

Please vist me there.


A few words from Francis Bacon (and a few workshops.) 

Sometimes pictures take us…the good ones seem to, anyway.

In spite of that, people often approach the picture-taking process as a matter of bringing the elements–our cameras, our subjects and light, our workflow–under control. We increase our skills and hope our vision will naturally follow.
But what if that is knocking on the wrong door?  Francis Bacon–he of the Screaming Pope, one of the most disruptive and influential artists of the last century_struggled to twist out of the grip of his own control in order to let his real work pour forth. And pour it did, rather like hot lava.
In an interview, Bacon talked about how he would try to slip past whatever his intentions for a painting were, knowing that beneath his conscious impulse there was a much more powerful and sprawling thing that could manifest, something that was “very much better than I could make it.
“When I was trying in despair the other day to paint that head of a specific person, I used a very big brush and a great deal of paint and I put it on very, very freely, and I simply didn't know in the end what I was doing, and suddenly this thing clicked, and became exactly like this image (in my mind) that I was trying to record. But it didn't come out of any conscious will, nor was it anything to do with illustrational painting.
"Is that an accident? Perhaps one could say it's not an accident, because it becomes a selective process (deciding) which part of this accident one chooses to preserve.
“What has never yet been analyzed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one's trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly.
“So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.”

Return the onlooker to life.  What a great aspiration for us all.
Bacon's reference to illustration as against  capital-a Art set me to thinking about the difference, and a definition that I found was that illustration refers a viewer's mind primarily to a story that lies outside the work, while in Art, even though it may have outside referents, the work is the story. And it made me think that in those wonderful photographs we do from time to time that make up our "best work," the power is really in the work itself.
In the past I spent lots of time getting the photographic process under control. I even got compliments on my printing from Ansel Adams, no less.
But during this time I was also becoming aware of how much of the real work, the artistic work, begins before we do anything at all about taking and presenting the photograph.
This is not to say that the stuff of making of a photograph is unimportant. It is perhaps like taking vigorous and poetic imagery and setting it down clearly, grammatically (as needs be) on a sheet of paper that has no coffee rings or food stains on it. This making is important for clarity, but it’s not where things begin.
And I started looking for actual exercises to get myself and others to venture into the state of awareness that is Creativity where they can begin-or resume-working on creative photography.
It works! And it keeps on working, on me for one. I'm more stimulated by teaching than ever, and each workshop takes me somewhere new. Participants too.
And this is the obvious place to say that here’s my workshop schedule going into the Fall:
Santa Fe Workshops, Creativity and the Photographer, March 17-21, 2014,  Santa Fe, NM. I'm looking forward to being back in Santa Fe, and to being with the wonderful lively students who come there.
Pacific Northwest Art School, Creativity and the Photographer, June 21-25, Whidbey Island, WA. This is a new venue for me, but I've talked with a few of the participants already, and if the students make the class (which they do) this is going to be a good exploration.
Maine Media Workshop, The Portrait Doorway to Creativity, July 27-August 2, 2014, Rockport, ME. I've wanted to work with a class in the places that the portrait takes us to for a while now. And here we go!
Maine Media Workshop, Creativity and the Photographer, August 3-9 2014 Maine is the place I keep going back to, both for what I get to do there for others and for what it does for me. That's a great exchange!
Calcutta/Bhutan, Photographic Exploring, September 25-Octpber 11, 2014. This unusual trip combines the peace of Bhutan and the energy of Calcutta. More about it as it gets closer.



Creativity and the Photographer, the book.

I've been working on putting everything I know, 30+ years of inquiry and experience, into book form, something that people can work with on their own or in groups. It gets closer and closer to ready, and here is the opening. (if you want to know a bit more about it, here are the opening chapters.

This Book

is about waking up.

And seeing.

Not just photographs.

Seeing what is all around us and what’s

inside us, and letting it all show fully in

our photographs.

It is about letting our minds be quiet

and spacious, moving out beyond what

we think and then making work from


It is a basis for a creative practice, in

photography or anything else.

I looked for this book for years, but

was unable to find it. So I’ve had to

write it myself.


Who is that on cover of Greg Heisler's book? Luís Saría, that's who.

Greg Heisler is one of the most accomplished portrait photographers living today, and one of the most published. He has I don’t know how many Time covers to his name and has photographed some of the highest-profile people on the planet, with a life list that includes Muhammad Ali, Mikhail Gorbachov, Bruce Springsteen, Tiger Woods, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Michael Bloomberg, and on and on. You get the idea.

And, of course, Luís Sarría. You can see Sarría’s haunting face, full of life , full of past and presence, on the cover of Greg’s new book, 50 Portraits, a survey of the best of Greg’s work.

 So why isn’t Bill Clinton on the cover, or Springsteen or Julia Roberts? Why not have gorgeous Liv Tyler looking out from bookstore shelves at customers? Surely the marketing department would love that. And if the cover were a great something-or-other, wouldn’t that say that Greg was a great photographer?

So why Luís Sarríå? And who was he anyway?

Sarría was  a part of Ali’s coterie, his masseur, trainer, and corner man throughout the great boxer’s fighting life. He was one of any number of people who would accompany Ali to the ring or sit at his training table. He was completely and closely involved in the fighter’s efforts, but if you saw him he’d be a figure in the background.

And yet here he is on the cover of the book, while Ali and other world figures are tucked inside. Why is that?

Here’s my guess: he is transparently human all the way through to his soul, and he let’s you see that. Lots of the other portraits in the book approach this kind of clarity, but almost all of the subjects are public figures–actors, politicians, music stars, sports stars–and they project some fairly known quality that identifies them at once. And even though Greg may be trying to slip behind the façade to find what is human in them, we know it’s still Liam Neeson or Hugh Grant lost in thought. And you know that they’re probably not all that lost. Even if they’re not pushing out persona, we viewers push it for them.

There are a few other anonymous people in the book but the Saría photo is different. Greg tells the story of making it. He was on assignment, went to the man’s house, and was greeted by his wife, who had bad news. The man had some kind of infection on his lip and was too embarrassed to come out, let alone be photographed.

After a hushed conversation the woman went inside to tell her husband that Greg was the most caring of souls, and that he would never, ever embarrass a subject.

This time Saría came out, and sure enough his lip was distended on the right. He only spoke Spanish, so there was no way to chat him up and change his mind. But slowly  and unthreateningly Greg set up a light and moved in with a camera. Instinctively the man covered his bulging lip with his beautiful hand and cradled his head with the other.

Greg shot a close-in Polaroid and showed it to him. Greg’s heart must have been pounding–mine would have been–because he could see on that Polaroid that something amazing could possibly happen, if only the man would say yes.

And he did. Greg made a few more exposures…and done.

So there it was, the photograph that Greg would use to speak for his life’s work. Of a man who was in discomfort. Of a man with whom Greg couldn’t speak. And the elegant hand gesture came about, not because he was posing or because Greg was directing him, but because he was trying to conceal something, his distended lip.

But I think that one of the main things about the picture is that the man projected for professional or ego reasons. He was just there, no persona out front. Greg saw this and left it as it was.

And things came gloriously together.

So if you think you have to have everything under control to make a good photograph, well, it helps. But when your plans fall apart things that are uncontrollable and complex and unpredictable, wonderful stuff can start to happen. And the very unpredictability can bring us to a state of hyperawareness (at the same time that we might be wanting to bang our head against the wall). And in this state we can do work that better than anything we had in mind. It’s something to pray for.