Category Archives: Admired Photographs
I don’t know how many “favorite” photographs I have, but I know that one of the frames in my sanctum of photographic love holds Imogen Cunningham’s “The Unmade Bed.” It’s clicheish to say that you could look at a particular artwork every day of your life and never grow bored with it. In fact, though, I can pretty much say that truly of “The Unmade Bed.” A postcard of it has been pinned to the corkboard that’s hung in every office I’ve occupied since I got my last diploma. Whenever I see that card, it draws me away, into its lyrical silence.
Why do I love it? What our conscious mind grasps and can tell about such things is only the fractional edge of an ocean that stretches out endlessly, through our experience and emotion and ideas and who-knows-what-other-kinds-of-causes. Still, I’ll try to describe at least some of the features and factors and facets of my ardor for “The Unmade Bed.”
Its atmosphere is the first thing that absorbs us. The contrast in the print is moderate, like music turned low. The scene feels private, intimate. Most of the bedroom is dim or dark, and the light is softly diffused. There are plenty of curves, but no right angles or sharp-cornered shapes in view. And we’re alone in the room. We see no person, just clues to who was there and what may have happened before we looked in.
As our view moves outward toward the edges of the frame, the light diminishes gradually, the bedsheets and blanket grow darker. What we see most clearly, the folds of the upper sheet and especially the flat sheet below, are like the space inside the periphery of attention in a loving gaze or in making love; everything outside tends to blur or vanish.
The smooth transitions between shadow and light evoke a feeling of gentleness and, in this case, even tenderness. At the same time, the curving folds of the upper sheet remind us of sexual movements, of the curves of the female body that we imagine has recently lain in this bed, where a woman has left a few hairpins on the sheet.
Those hairpins, though small, are the center of our attention. The waving folds of the upper sheet surround them as hills surround a small cluster of houses in a valley. The pins are the most sharply-defined objects in the scene, showing all the more clearly because they’re placed on the brightest area in the image. They make us think of a woman unpinning and taking down her hair, for sleep or for love. The number and size of the pins imply (at least to a “layman” in matters of female grooming) the luxuriance of the hair that they held. And their lying together as they do suggests the care that the woman must have taken in laying, not tossing, them down. Our response is subtly affected as well by the pins not lying dead center in the scene, but “modestly” to the side, cradled by the upper sheet that surrounds and rises behind them.
All of these things make for an experience of sensuousness, not sensuality; of savoring, not ravening; of grace and quiet and attentiveness.
You feel, indirectly, the loveliness and gentleness of the woman who was in this bedroom just a while ago.
In part, I love this photograph because for me it’s a mirror in which I see my wife’s reflection. When it comes to why we love certain works, we can’t overlook their reach into the personal particulars of our lives and our selves. In a poem of mine (“The Wedding Poem”) that was first published in the year after my wife and I were married, I quoted another artwork that I love, a poem by the 9th-Century Chinese poet, Chang Hu (translated by Witter Bynner), that’s the literary kin of Cunningham’s visual image. Both works are sexy without being showy, and both embody an irresistible tenderness of spirit in the artwork’s maker as well as in its subject.
And beneath your talk I could see
the woman of that Chinese poem that I love:
When the moonlight, reaching a tree by the gate,
Shows her a quiet bird on its nest,
She removes her jade hairpins and sits in the shadow
And puts out a flame where a moth was flying.
I’m gratefully moonstruck, as I have been for years, by the lovely folds, dim light, and loosed pins in Imogen Cunningham’s photograph; by Chang Hu’s compassionate heroine, removing her hairpins by a moonlit window; and by the glorious, unpinned hair of my own gentle beauty, pictured below, glowing in a new scene of moonlight and shadow:
Society works to make us believe that we’re small, insufficient, that we have to run on the fumes of worldly ambition, that we’ll be doomed if we don’t buy what it sells and strive for its peer approval and prizes. On the other hand, countless religious texts, artworks, books of psychology and philosophy throughout the centuries have tried to tell us what a crushing load of crap that is. Yet despite the fact that in books, in films, in history, we see the story of our deeper and grander struggle, and even though we smile or applaud like mad when the movie hero or heroine triumphs, we fail to see ourselves — I mean, really see ourselves — in those dramas.
Don’t we realize what’s being shown about us when Luke struggles to believe that he’s strong with the Force, or when Neo flinches from the notion that he’s really The One and not just some corporate cog named “Mr. Anderson”? (And it isn’t so much a matter of “believing in yourself” as it is of believing what is in you and what you are in — what your self truly is.) Most of us never escape that cage of socialization and skepticism. We’ll nod our heads as we watch Julius Caesar or read the Gospels, yet we’ll still refuse to heed our spouse’s intuitions or the warnings in our dreams: We’re like Julius Caesar, continuing on his way to the Capitol despite Calpurnia’s alarming dream. We’re like Pontius Pilate, ordering the strange Galilean to be scourged and crucified despite Mrs. Pilate’s warning not to harm “that just man” because she had “suffered many thing in a dream because of him.” We’re too worldly, too sophisticated, too afraid of embarrassment to turn aside just because a still small voice speaks to us out of the shadows.
For some of us, it might be valuable enough that certain photographs can help induce a state that leads us to write an inspired line of poetry. But that’s not the end of the matter, not the limit of what is tapped when we can summon the genie from the invisible spaces inside the bottle. Many of the most important successes that I’ve had in legal practice weren’t born from deductive analysis or legal research. While I could explain why a strategy might work, or, afterwards, why I thought it had worked so well, the plan had simply come to me — while shaving or driving or thinking about something else — just as a line of poetry might.
Most of us have heard the stories from science and technology, too, about great discoveries that came through one of those sudden flashes from Who-Knows-Where. The ground that proves fertile may have been watered with study and training, but the plant works its way up, unseen, in darkness. We’ve all had moments of inspiration, and if you’ve paid attention to them, you know that they come to you as much as from you.
Not from just reading, but from my own experience, I know that the state that I keep describing, the state that certain photographs can help to induce, is brother or sister to states arrived at in other ways as well: by Zen meditation, by Tai Chi practice, by intense surrender to certain works of music, by sustained contemplation of the forest or the sea. Such states are sought and used in order to help Japanese businessmen solve corporate puzzles, to help hospital patients to endure their pain, to help wu shu practitioners break piles of bricks without injury to the hand or head that delivers the blow.
But the danger of this kind of “practical” testimony — about things that you might become able to do — is that it can become a kind of spiritual materialism. As Zen masters sometimes say, the meditative state is the goal in itself. That state of deep calm and tender alertness and rich satisfaction is both a door and a corner of the great hall into which it leads. It’s a part of the antidote for war and cruelty and greed. To the extent that we can find joy in the sound of wind through the woods or breath through a bamboo flute, or glory in a green pepper edged with light, we won’t feel impelled to murder others in order to multiply wealth that we already have, or to beat up strangers or foreign countries in order to prove that we’re “real men.”
One of my favorite photographs is a Bill Brandt portrait of the writer Robert Graves, seemingly caught in the state that I’ve described, disturbed in the act of artistic creation. The image rivets me. I recognize what’s happening inside it. Look at those eyes. They’re pointed at the camera, but they’re still staring elsewhere, wide with seeing or searching for marvels.
At the end of my last post, I promised you testimony to a particular power of art. The photo of mine above has a title relevant to my purpose: “The Power That Builds in Solitude.” Though I’ll talk about writing poetry, what I want to show you is the creative power that certain photographs can help to bring us, in writing poems, and, I believe, in other parts of our lives.
Good poets know that inspiration has to be courted patiently, has to come to the conscious mind from beyond it. So poets have developed strategies for diverting the willful mind, in the hope that it will open more readily to the gifts of the poetic genie, or, as we call her, the Muse.
One of the challenges in writing good poetry, and the need for methods to meet that challenge, comes from the fact that parts of our conscious minds, especially our egos, work against us in creative endeavors. The suspicious watchdogs and fearful censors in our mental life try to keep things “under control,” walling out the pesky or potent spirits that live in the dark beyond conscious awareness. We dismiss the inexplicable; we want to ignore, to protect ourselves, from what we seem unable to comprehend or command. As a result, we need ways to distract the guards at the bridge, so that the contraband of the imagination can be smuggled across the border.
Gertrude Stein would park at a crowded Paris intersection when she wanted to write. The noise of traffic and passersby would drown out more chatty, deliberate thoughts. Hart Crane wrote by candlelight, drinking wine, listening to jazz. An early teacher of mine, the poet W.D. Snodgrass, said that he continued to write rhyming poems because the task of searching for rhymes tied up his more calculating mind, giving inspiration the chance to slip the unexpected under his door.
And I developed my own kind of ritual for letting in the moonlight.
“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu
Post 2 of 2: The Tradition,
The brief artist statement on Van Chu’s website, http://vanchuart.com confirmed my initial impression that his photograph reflects the influence of Chinese calligraphy and, even more strongly, of the inkbrush landscape paintings of Guo Xi, Ni Zan, and other Chinese masters of that medium.
Commenting on the calligraphy of the Princess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the character Yu Shu Lien notes coyly how much the handling of the brush in calligraphy is like the handling of the saber in wu shu (commonly known as kung fu) swordsmanship. Or, she might have said, like the movements, simultaneously meditative and martial, in Tai Chi. There’s a pleasure and a meditative effect in following the fluid movements and the variations in density of ink in Chinese inkbrush painting — and in Van Chu’s photograph. Van Chu achieves his patterns by dropping ink or acrylic paint into water and blowing on the water (and then photographing and compositing the effects), rather than by mixing dry ink with water in a bowl and then applying it to silk with a brush. But Van Chu’s purposes and end results bear a distinct kinship with those of his artistic forebears. And neither the purpose nor the desired results are merely physical or philosophical.
If you’ve ever done Tai Chi in something like the way that it should be done; if you’ve ever done Zen meditation for a substantial while; if you’ve sat in a quiet room and done nothing but listen to shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) music or certain pieces by Chopin, Scriabin, or Takemitsu; or, for that matter, if you’ve ever become quietly lost in the making of a work of art, so that when you stopped at last, you were shocked to see how much time had passed — then you’ll know something of the state of mind (and of more than mind) that the Taoist- and Buddhist-influenced artists of China sought, and sought to induce in readers and viewers of their work. Not a philosophical belief, but a state, a certain quality of being alive.
In Chinese inkbrush painting, parts of the silk or paper surface are left unpainted, and such spaces may stand in place of sky or sea, river or plain. There is something deliberately incomplete or partial about the completed works. And those blank spaces also stand in for a number of vital intangibles: for the continual changing of the world, impossible to capture and freeze in a painting; for the infinity that lies beyond the frame (one of the most famous scroll paintings is called “Mountains and Rivers without End”); for the ongoing nature of creation. They wanted to give, not hide, evidence that the artwork, like the rest of reality, was part of a never-completed process of creation. For those Chinese artists, the creative force behind the artwork’s creation was a part of the same creative force that is constantly making and reshaping the world beyond the painting, part of the never-ending dance of being and non-being, as described in the Tao Te Ching. (Here in the West, Dorothy Sayers of detective fiction fame set forth in The Mind of the Maker her belief that the main way in which God created man”in His image” was that He gave us creative powers of our own.)
For most Western writers, being and non-being are mere philosophical abstractions, but although the two aren’t actually separate (their relatedness and wholeness being expressed by the famous yin-yang symbol), what they point at (as almost all language merely points) are not intellectual categories. Let me suggest an exercise.
There is a reference, don’t ask me to remember where, in Zen literature to “chasing the tiger’s tail.” For ten or fifteen minutes, stop doing anything active, try to quiet whatever space you’re in, and listen attentively to the sounds around you, picking one to follow at a time. What you’ll experience will be something like what Christ described some 2,000 years ago: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it came from and you don’t know where it’s going.” And he added, “So is everyone who is born of the spirit.” I think that classic Chinese painters like Quo Xi, Ma Lin, Ma Yuan, and Xu Daoning, and now the photographer Van Chu, would agree with that description and that assertion, and I believe that their hope would be that the viewer would receive at least an inkling of such things from their art.
The 11th-Century artist Guo Xi wrote: “. . . haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.” (As it happens, that describes pretty well what appears in his masterwork, “Early Spring,” an ink painting on a hanging silk scroll, dated 1072 A.D.)
“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu
Post 1 of 2: The Photograph,
From time to time in these posts, I’ll write about an image that has caught me in its spell. No, my present subject isn’t the sorcerous tree above, which is mine. My flimsy excuse for putting it here (not that I need one — hey, it’s my blog) is that it led me to discover the superb artwork below – “Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu, a young Vietnamese-American photographer — because both were included in the recent “Seeing Seeing” exhibition at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut. (The obviously-discerning juror was Felice Frankel, a celebrated science photographer.)
A little .jpeg, especially one that’s sized to fit the confines of this column, and especially if it’s a long panoramic, can hardly do justice to its original . The framed dimensions of Van Chu’s exhibited photo were 24 x 74″. So I’ve also provided a larger .jpeg of the image, which you’ll see if you click on the one below.
The first thing that happens to me when I immerse myself in this image is that I feel its spatial depth, its large apparent scale, which results from its atmospheric perspective, from the way its clouds seem to thin out as they retreat toward a distant horizon, from the backward tilt of the body of liquid at the bottom of the frame, from the difference in sizes among the smaller shapes rising at its center and the enveloping cover of cloud above them. And then, looking more closely at the work’s details, I enter into the rhythms of floating and curling and wavering shapes, of darkening or brightening spaces, of shifting areas of turbulence or calm.
Then we home in on the points of sharpest focus, especially the three vertical “trees” at the bottom center of the frame, which seem to grow upward from a relatively calm expanse of liquid. They draw our attention not only because they’re centrally placed and comparatively solid, but because they’re backlit by the brightest area in the photo. Yet even those three more definite shapes are calligraphic, somewhat unstable and insubstantial, as though they’re not just growing from some kind of ground, but still in the process of coming into being. The suggestive title increases this impression (and yes, I do appreciate titles that actually do something): “Mushrooms & Trees 5.”
Our first reaction when we compare the title to what we see is likely to be “Wait a minute, there aren’t any real mushrooms or trees in this photo.” Our next thought may be “Well, I guess you could say that those shapes are the beginnings or the ghosts of mushrooms or trees,” leading us to think that what we’re witnessing is a stage in the spectral creation of living things. We think of mushrooms as growing in the dark, and certainly this image is pervaded by a dark, mysterious, brooding atmosphere that brings to my mind the words “and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . and God divided the light from the darkness.”
But our view is also affected by our presence in this year 2011 A.D. (the photograph was made in 2010). Which of us can see this image and not think at least briefly of, say, the natural disasters we’ve seen this year, the roiling clouds from which tornados grow, or the “mushroom clouds” of nuclear explosions. Or we might see oil in those viscous black shapes, the oil of devastating spills, or the enormous billows of smoke from burning wells in post-invasion Kuwait or Iraq.
At the same time, the image remains a dance of drifting, curling, flowing shapes, of delicious gradations of black and white, of implied motion as in a Jackson Pollock “drip” or “action” painting. But Pollock’s rhythm is more likely to resemble that of boxing, with flurries of punches, jabs, hooks; Van Chu’s rhythm is more like the rhythms of Tai Chi, flowing and curving like the motions of water in a trance.
If we’re open and attentive to our experience, we can see that the whole of it or any part of it may play its role in any moment. A vivid dream or nightmare can color our feelings for hours after waking. A stray piece of scrap metal seen on the beach may bring to mind war or societal waste. A song may flood us with emotions that we felt during the year in our childhood when we first heard it. Van Chu’s photograph, as good art does, opens us to a concentrated vividness and variety of associations, to a greater-than-usual wholeness in the moment.
But the qualities of Van Chu’s imagery don’t summon up only a host of contemporary and personal evocations; they also recall and revive the artistic and spiritual tradition that inspired Van Chu: of the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist painters of inkbrush calligraphy and landscapes, a tradition that blossomed late in the First Milllennium, in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties of China. I hope that you’ll follow me into the realm of Quo Xi, Ni Zan, Ma Yuan, and their descendant Van Chu, in Post 2 of “A Story of Creation.”
What I’m about to say to you is, in a sense, simple, though its ramifications are not. This will be an essential foundation for much that I’ll have to say in future posts, and it’s crucial for truly understanding art photography and the other arts.
Yes, many forces and purposes go into an artwork’s making, like the urges for self-expression or self-discovery, and motivations both conscious and unconscious. But the finished work, in the way that ultimately concerns (or should concern) the one who makes it and the one who receives it, is the shaping of a medium or media in order to create an experience in another person. Once it’s made, the work can be rightly perceived, understood, and valued only by giving yourself to that experience and knowing first-hand (in the metaphorically-Biblical sense, you might say) what that experience is and what it does to you.
The measure of a work of art ought to be how much life it brings to you, in the present and for the future. How often have people said of great photography that it teaches them not just to look, but to see? And I think, for instance, of the opera conductor who declared that the two hours he was spending each night watching Maria Callas in Tosca were far more real to him than anything else going on in his day.
The psychologist Carl Jung wrote that we all have, to differing degrees, four basic modes of orienting ourselves to reality: physical sensation, emotion, intellect, and intuition. Isn’t it interesting to note how close this is to the Old Testament’s exhortation to love God “with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all they strength, and with all thy mind”? An artwork that is whole employs all four modes to good effect, not just one or two.
I’ve seen many, many photographs that are very little more than striking color patterns or geometric designs, with perhaps a bit of pleasing texture. I see too many inexpressive closeups of peeling paint, especially on old cars. Though I’ve taken those kinds of pictures myself (and you probably have, too — why not?), I’m unlikely to exhibit them in public. My vote is with Van Gogh, who wrote in a letter: “I’d rather be an honest cobbler than just a magician with colors.”