Monday, January 18, 2016

In Light and Life

Being a photographer has been somewhat of a spiritual journey.  I’m no professional.  I’ve made close to $0.00 on my photography through the years despite the constant admonition from family and friends that I should sell my prints.

I became seriously interested in photography as a pursuit after reading Wendell Berry’s The Unforeseen Wilderness back in the mid-Nineties. Wendell wrote of the difference between the Tourist Photographer and the Artist Photographer and his book featured some intriguing black and white large format photos by the late Gene Meatyard.  Those few black and whites still influence my eye as I travel under the sun and through the shade of trees and rocks.

Pockets of Resistance

Early on as I hiked around the Red River Gorge with my $10 point and shoot camera I sought out scenes and views that were hard for the average person to come by.  I took the postcard photos that a Tourist Photographer would be satisfied with mainly to add to my library of images, but what I truly labored after were the unique and “unseen” images that only someone who styled themselves as an Artist Photographer would produce.

What I’ve lacked through the years is the finances to purchase a good quality camera and lenses and the technical skills to realize the images I see in my head.  I’ve gotten better in both regards, though I still have not attained mastery in either respect.  And the other obstacle I face is my inherent impatience.

The best images I've captured have either been completely spontaneous—just being in the right place at the right time—or they have been the result of a determined effort to be patient and slow and to execute the photographic process with intent and forethought.  Obviously those images are in the minority.  My best photos really are mostly just pure dumb luck.  I’ve lost so many good photographic opportunities because I didn’t want to stop and set up my tripod or that I didn’t take the time to think through my camera settings and angles.

This photographic journey really reflects my life as a whole.  The best moments have not—for the most part—been a result of careful and intentional action.  I realize in both cases…that I could greatly benefit from slowing down and taking my time to realize my vision.  This is not easy for me.  It seems like it should be, but my synapses don’t fire the way they should, and each moment of my life is a battle to stay on top of the waves of thought, and impulse, and drive.

Written in Stone

I know that a mediocre image can be fantastic with a simple change in the angle of the sun.  Like showing up at 9am instead of noon… like crossing to the other side of the road…or even just getting out of the car instead of shooting while driving (guilty!). 

Too many times I’ve felt guilty for not giving moments and issues in life the appropriate amount of attention.  I feel like I gloss over things that are too important to gloss over.  I feel like I forget too many things that would make life easier or at least more enjoyable if I would remember them. 

These days my body feels like a knotty mess of muscle, nerve, and synapse.  I can’t relax.  This was not a problem when I was younger, but with the perspective of years comes concern about things that didn’t used to matter.  I can’t lay flat on my back and find relief.  It is my soul that does not conform to the air around it or the earth beneath it.  I’ve lost my space in the universe and am cramped by some shadowy feelings of inadequacy, dread, and fear.


I know that if I could find a way to slow down, meditate on life, and extricate myself from the rat race and the constant datastream that bombards me every waking moment that I might begin to carve out a space for my tortured mind and body again.  And I know that if I let it, the photographic process could act as the introspective therapy that I need so badly.

Wendell Berry describes the Tourist-Photographer like this:

“He has photographed only what he has been prepared to see by other people’s photographs.  He has gone religiously and taken a picture of what he saw pictured in travel brochures before he left home.  He has photographed scenes that he could have bought on postcards or prepared slides at the nearest drugstore, the major difference being the frequent appearance in his photographs of himself, or his wife and children.  He poses the members of his household on the brink of a canyon that the wind and water have been carving at for sixty million years as if there were an absolute equality between them, as if there were no precipice for the body and no abyss for the mind.  And before he leaves he adds to the view his empty film cartons and the ruins of his picnic.”

And because of this idea I was opposed to the inclusion of people in my photography for years.  I even offended a good friend once when she tried to pose a group of friends into an image I was composing. “I don’t like people in my pictures!” I said angrily and insensitively.  I still regret that I didn’t just take the snapshot that I was vehemently opposed to at the time.

But Berry also talks about the Artist-Photographer, and in equally compelling language he describes him/her thus:

“His search is a pilgrimage, for he goes along ways he does not fully understand, in search of what he does not expect and cannot anticipate.”

And he continues…

“The camera is a point of reference, a bit like a compass though not nearly so predictable.  It is the discipline and the opportunity of vision.  In relation to the enclosure we call civilization, these pictures are not ornaments or relics, but windows and doors, enlargements of our living space, entrances into the mysterious world outside the walls, lessons in what to look for and how to see. They limit our comfort; they drain away the subtle corruption of being smug; they make us a little afraid, for they suggest always the presence of the unknown, what lies outside the picture and beyond eyesight; they suggest the possibility of the sudden accesses of delight, vision, beauty, joy that entice us to keep alive and reward us for living; they can serve as spiritual landmarks in the pilgrimage to the earth that each one of us must undertake alone.”

I know it’s all lofty, fluffy words but it resonated with me as a young man. They still resonate in me and I feel it all the more strongly in a body more attuned to the stresses of life.  I need a focus that I can’t find.  But perhaps if I could develop a discipline through photography then maybe I would find the thread to pull that would lead me to the focus I seek. 


Finally, in one of my favorite passages in any writing, Berry speaks of the photographic vision of his Artist-Photographer:

“It is an endless quest, for it is going nowhere in terms of space and time, but only drawing deeper into the presence, and into the mystery, of what is underfoot and overhead and all around.”

I won’t quote the “Journey of One Inch” passage (yet again) because it truly is my favorite quote of all time, but it is summarized in that last quote which speaks of a journey of discovery with no travel involved. 

It’s that stillness I desperately want but cannot attain.

1 comment: