Category Archives: My Photography
Li Bo, how
could your heart keep
to the moon?
Yes, the word “camera” is italicized in the original text of this passage from “The God of the Living” by George MacDonald. The word opens an entrance into these thoughts as a revelation of what photography, at least great photography, in its essential, not its merely “definitional” nature, is and aims and serves to do. Those with ears to hear, eyes to see, will understand:
“Let us first ask what is the use of this body of ours. It is the means of Revelation to us, the camera in which God’s eternal shows are set forth. It is by the body that we come into contact with Nature, with our fellow men, with all their revelations of God to us. It is through the body that we receive all the lessons of passion, of suffering, of love, of beauty, of science. It is through the body that we are both trained outwards from ourselves, and driven inwards into our deepest selves to find God. There is glory and might in this vital evanescence, this slow glacier-like flow of clothing and revealing matter, this ever uptossed rainbow of tangible humanity. It is no less of God’s making than the spirit that is clothed therein.
“We cannot yet have learned all that we are meant to learn through the body. How much of the teaching even of this world can the most diligent and most favoured man have exhausted before he is called to leave it! Is all that remains to be lost? Who that has loved this earth can but believe that the spiritual body of which St. Paul speaks will be yet a higher channel of such revelation? The meek who have found that their Lord spake true, and have indeed inherited the earth, who have seen that all matter is radiant of spiritual meaning, who would not cast a sigh for the loss of mere animal pleasure, would, I think, be the least willing to be without a body, to be unclothed without being again clothed upon. Who, after centuries of glory in heaven, would not rejoice to behold once more that patient-headed child of winter, the meek snowdrop? In whom, amidst the golden choirs, would not the vision of an old sunset wake such a song as the ancient dwellers of the earth would with gently flattened palm hush their throbbing hearts to hear?
“All this revelation, however, would render only a body necessary, not this body. The fulness of the word Resurrection would be ill met if this were all. We need not only a body to convey revelation to us, but a body to reveal us to others. The thoughts, feelings, imaginations that arise in us, must have their garments of revelation whereby shall be made manifest the unseen world within us to our brothers and sisters around us; else is each left in human loneliness. Now, if this be one of the uses my body served on earth before, the new body must be like the old. Nay, it must be the same body, glorified as we are glorified, with all that was distinctive of each from his fellows more visible than ever before. The accidental, the nonessential, the unrevealing, the incomplete will have vanished. That which made the body what it was in the eyes of those who loved us will be tenfold there. Will not this be the resurrection of the body? of the same body though not of the same dead matter? Every eye shall see the beloved, every heart will cry ‘My own again! – more mine because more himself than ever I beheld him!’ For do we not say on earth, ‘He is not himself today,’ or ‘She looks her own self;’ ‘She is more like herself than I have seen her long?’ And is not this when the heart is glad and the face is radiant? For we carry a better likeness of our friends in our hearts than their countenances, save at precious seasons, manifest to us.”
On the front page of The New York Times for Saturday, April 21, 2018, there was an article titled “Over 700 Children Taken from Parents at Border.” It began:
On Feb 20, a young woman named Mirian arrived at the Texas border carrying her 18-month old son. They had fled their home in Honduras through a cloud of tear gas, she told border agents, and needed protection from the political violence there. She had hoped she and her son would find refuge together. Instead, the agents ordered her to place her son in the back seat of a government vehicle, she said later in a sworn declaration to a federal court. They both cried as the boy was driven away.
For months, members of Congress have been demanding answers about how many families are being separated as they are processed at stations along the southwest border, in part because the Trump administration has in the past said it was considering taking children from their parents as a way to deter migrants from coming here.
From The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 19:
14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
From The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 18:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
I’ve titled this image “Prominence.”
Every word has an infinite number of meanings that depend, in part, on the context of its usage and the capacities of the one who receives it. “Prominence,” for instance, has a physical, spatial meaning. It has a societal meaning. And it can, more uncommonly, relate to comparative importance or value in a more absolute sense.
“[The] notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
— William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Children in a playground at the edge of the vast and bountiful and mysterious and increasingly-dangerous sea (“increasingly” thanks to our stupidly-heedless “play”) — with glory stretching away, above and beyond. Given, in part, what is happening these days, and what we should expect in the year to come, I decided to put a print of this image on my workday office wall.
Recommendations in this context: Reread Moby Dick — skip the whaling-industry stuff, if you like — and watch Peter Wier’s The Last Wave. As profound and prophetic and poetic as you could want!
And here is a pertinent poem by the great, late (d. 1994) Norwegian poet, Rolf Jacobsen, translated by Robert Bly:
Sssh the sea says
Sssh the small waves at the shore say, sssh
Not so violent, not
So haughty, not
Say the tips of the waves
Crowding around the headland’s
They say to people
This is our earth
And, lastly, and particularly with Christmas in mind, a short poem of mine:
or not, the well
But you must fall a long way
And from there,
must draw you up.
I love to quote this from Tiny Tim on many occasions, but never more than on Christmas:
“God bless us every one.”
Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
Could but thy soul, O man,
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.
– 15th Century
With President Obama’s imminent departure from office in mind, I thought of a photograph that I’d taken back in 2003, before I’d ever heard the name “Barack”: “Mr. Lincoln’s Sympathy Viewed with Suspicion.” If I’ve ever captured what Cartier-Bresson called a “decisive moment” (when “one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart [join] on the same axis”), this is evidence of it.
I was sitting on a bench in the Town Square of Stamford, Connecticut, waiting to see what the world would bring my way. Across from where I sat was the statue of Abraham Lincoln that you see in my photograph. Abe sits, leaning forward, forearms on his thighs, head tilted downward, thoughtful, maybe melancholy.
Slowly, another critical element came into view, crossing the square toward the statue: a heavy older woman with frizzy white hair glowing, backlit by the summer sun. She wore a tight, hot-pink T-shirt with a picture of Minnie Mouse dressed as Carmen Miranda. She lowered herself carefully onto the front of the concrete slab that supported the Great Emancipator. Then she set down beside her a couple of plastic bags and a cup of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee. Certainly, this, too, was an American presence.
She looked around suspiciously, squinting at passersby with a wary disapproval. And I started to think, “Oh, please, please, please, let her look at Abe’s face in just that way!” I began, as covertly as I could, taking photographs of her and the statue — wishing and hoping all the while. At the twelfth exposure, not only did the moment I prayed for arrive, but something else, entirely unforeseen and felicitous, had happened in the meantime. Four pigeons had settled on the corners of the concrete plateau, surrounding Lincoln and his sour companion. So, at the moment when I got the desired image, it also featured those avian sentinels, witnesses to the less-than-happy encounter.
(For a better view of this photograph, see my website at: http://www.lawrenceruss.com/index/C0000HrILmRgUq4A/G00004_tcloQpRik/I00006jzaFm0FQaw
I voted for Barack Obama in two presidential elections. In my hopefulness, I’d been struck by his admiration for Lincoln, and by my sense, a sense shared by many other people, that Obama, too, had uncommon intelligence and uncommon concern for his fellow humans. In the end, I think that most of us who supported him are disappointed that his Presidency didn’t come to more. Yes, some of us think that he should have realized sooner what intransigent selfishness and malice he faced from Republicans, and that he should have confronted them with the central issues of “economic inequality” more directly and forcefully. But we can’t justly blame him for the ruthlessness and heedlessness of his opposition. Sitting on the sidelines, we can’t know if and how he might have accomplished more of what we wanted. And we can’t know the pain, frustration, and sorrowing disbelief that he must have suffered while trying to swim against a terribly cold and unrelenting tide.
What I do believe is this: that part of what thwarted Mr. Obama as President, in addition to the racism, the unconscionable greed, and the lust for partisan power, was that so many people are blind to honest virtue when they see it. They’ve strayed so far from it, and society and its media have cast it in such a disdainful and worldly light that when people meet earnest good will, they frequently view it as weakness, simple-mindedness, or deceitful posturing. Too many people just could not believe, given his seeming difference from them, that Obama did not wish to cause them harm. Suspicion and projected selfishness faced our all-too-soon-to-be-former President whenever he came to the public square.
I drove by the site late one day and took a few photos for my final-stretch planning. After dinner, when I looked at the photos on my computer, I did a troubled double-take. In the few days since I got the property owner’s consent, the very tree whose “pose” I intended my wife to imitate had disappeared.
Perhaps the owner had thought that the trunk was so close to breaking that it would be a hazard for us. In fact, on the day of the shoot, as I was setting up, he came out to talk for a couple of minutes and warned me that the trees were not in sound shape and might have to be taken down, so we should be careful.
I have to say that my experience, and my trust in God’s will and the gifts of the Tao, give me decent equanimity about such turns, knowing that however they first appear, they can lead to something better than what I’d planned. As I believe this one did.
I got the idea that I might also try having my wife kneel in an attitude of prayer or supplication for the photos. After all, those were not exactly friendly-looking trees in that yard. Part of my sense of the desired image had to do with the brutish look of those trees, and the brutish nature of our world, which in turn made me think of Moses’ statement that during his exile in the land of Midian he had been “a stranger in a strange land.” It struck me, looking at the remaining trees, that a kneeling posture would more closely mirror their verticality.
The Unforeseen apparently took this as an invitation to make still further improvements on my scheme. Not only had I not planned on the alternate pose for my model, but I didn’t anticipate that when we tried the kneeling poses, a wind would rise to blow her hair sideways and to make her move her head and hands a bit during a few exposures, so that. Seeing them later, I would feel that those effects had given my wife’s appearance an added sense of urgency or distress, which I believed was affecting.
I also didn’t plan or foresee that during the kneeling shots that I liked best (with my wife’s palms turned pleadingly upward and the wind blowing her hair), an intensely-red sky would appear behind her. Without the emotional and visual force of that sky, my “final” image would not be nearly as compelling as I hope that it is. Here’s the photograph, “In the Land of Strangers” (please view it at larger size and better visual quality on my website, by using the following link – it’s Image # 6 of the “Marion under the Moon” portfolio within the “Fires in the Night” collection):
But there was a still-deeper element to the work of Mystery in making this picture.
While we were engaged in the shoot, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the fact, and my wife did not know, that about three weeks before that I was given news that caused a crisis in my life. I didn’t want her to have to suffer while awaiting its outcome, so I kept it from her in the meantime. In such a time, under other circumstances, I would have wanted her to pray for me.
Two days after our photo session, I was able to tell her what had been happening, and that there was no longer anything to worry about.
The next night, as I was intensely engaged in editing the new “Marion” photograph, I realized that by having her adopt the pose that I had, and having shaped the image as I had, I had essentially drawn her into praying for me without her having to know about it or the reasons for it – except insofar as she might have prayed for the success of the photographer’s present, complicated efforts.
And when I consider who and what gave birth to this photograph, I have to remember that part of my idea for “Marion under the Moon” is that each photograph in it should in some way reflect another aspect of my wonderful model-wife. If she were not as loving and caring, as spiritually profound as she is, would I have made this photograph as it now stands? Would I have thought to put her in the pose that I did? Was I unconsciously or half-consciously calling on her prayerful strength without having to disclose my troubles to her? If none of that had been the case, if she were other than she is, if she were a lesser or different kind of inspiration to me than she is, could I have made this photograph? I don’t believe so.
And did her posed prayerfulness contribute to the happy conclusion to my trial? How can I know? We live among mysteries. And sometimes we receive help, with our photography and more, without asking for it or even being aware of it. There are more things and allies in heaven and earth and art, in anything that “we” achieve, than are dreamt of in our philosophy or vanity, Horatio.
There is a virtually-unkillable part of us that, when anything we’ve touched is considered successful, wants to proclaim to everyone in earshot (even if that’s only us), “Mine!,” “I did that!” Especially when we’re feeling shaky about it, we stake such claims in order to argue, “I am valuable,” I am special.” Almost invariably, that means “I am superior to you.” Sometimes the “you” is a sibling or fellow photographer, sometimes a fantasized parental ghost, sometimes a distorted idea of someone’s ethnic group.
But we do nothing “by ourselves.” Certainly not if by “self” we mean only our conscious mind and will. Certainly not if we mean the Gollum wretch within us, clutching his “precious” ring of power, calling it “Mine!” Poor, vicious, pitiable Gollum. So let me acknowledge unaccountable gifts.
In the winter of 2014, I was driving near my home, when my attention was seized by a group of trees in a yard along the street. I’d never seen trees like those before. They had fairly slender trunks and were of modest, barely-more-than-human height. But whether naturally or through cultivation, they were topped with bulbous, bristly knobs of wood, like the bludgeoning ends of maces, or like dark cells corrupted by a virus. I thought that perhaps they were dead; I certainly didn’t think they’d be growing leaves again. I immediately thought that I’d like to find some interesting way to photograph them, but I didn’t yet know how. In the days that followed, I began to have a vague notion of using them in an image for my “Marion under the Moon” series.
In April of 2016, I took a casual shot of them from the street, as a kind of notebook entry:
To my dismay, though, I soon saw that they’d sprouted leaves! How dare they? That didn’t suit my photographic purpose. Not at all.
As is often the case, though, it may have been for the best that I was forced to wait and let the tea of my imagination steep a bit longer. Over the summer, my idea for a photograph emerged from the rising mist. I would use portable flashes to light the trees and Marion, my wife, individually, knocking down the ambient light by speeding up the shutter speed, so that the background would be dark enough to be taken for night, but waiting until the daylight was low enough that I could shoot at a shutter speed below my camera’s synch speed of 1/200th second. That would give me far more useable flash power than I would get using the flashes’ high speed sync function or my PocketWizards’ (radio flash triggers’) HyperSync.
I thought that I’d have Marion adopt a kind of modern dance pose, with fists raised at differing levels, suggesting both participation and grief in the group of strange, brutish trees. Her pose would mirror that of the almost-horizontal, second tree from the right in the photo above. I wondered, though, if she’d be able to hold the pose without falling over. Well, I figured, we could adjust it as necessary.
Every now and then, I’d drive by to see if the trees had shed their leaves yet. They certainly hung on stubbornly, long past the time that most trees had already given up their greenery. Finally, one day on a weekend in November, the trees were bare except for two or three leaves on a couple of their crowns. Weather predictions had said, however, that snow might fall within a week or two. So right then, I parked on a side street, walked up to the house’s door, rang the bell a few times. Finally, to my relief, the owner opened the door. Thanks to his hospitable nature, I really only had to tell him my name, that I thought his trees were extremely interesting, that I’m an exhibiting photographer, and that I’d be grateful for his permission to set up lights on stands and take some pictures of my wife among the trees whenever the weather and our schedules permitted. I assured him that I would do no harm to his property. He said “Alright.”
The next week was Thanksgiving, and when I saw that the one day of the weekend that would be dry and partly sunny would be Sunday, I planned the shoot for that day, knowing that the next weekend after might be too late. I just hoped that the trees’ owner wasn’t going to have family visiting for the weekend, who might be frolicking in the yard on Sunday afternoon. Then the unexpected began to have its say again, intruding on my artistic control!
[TO BE CONTINUED!]
Photographers, or artists of any kind, are probably more aware than most people are of fortuitous coincidings, of happy or regrettable appearances and disappearances: “I could kick myself for not having shot that scene the first time I saw it, and now it’s gone!” Or: “I sure am glad I photographed that building with the graffiti last month, because they’ve knocked the whole thing down!” And, especially around Halloween, both great and popular artworks engage us with unseen forces, unexplained happenings, intimations of malevolent or benevolent magics.
Earlier this year, a bit of such elvish fortune occurred (as it does from time to time) in my photographic life. Certain friends of mine who know my work would not be surprised that it would happen, as it did, around evening, in the woods. (Evidence for such a view might be taken, for instance, from my website’s “To See in the Dark” portfolio.)
In late winter, the ground was beginning to thaw. I was walking near twilight in a small wood near my home, when I happened on an abandoned livingroom couch. It lay at the edge of a dirt path, flat on a wooden pallet. I snapped a few pictures, as notes, thinking that perhaps I could have made something from it if at least I’d had a couple of flashes with me. Even so, I thought it somehow fell short.
But walking back that way a month later, I found that someone or someones had, whatever their intention, arranged a gift for me. The couch had been dragged about twenty feet from where it had been, onto sloping ground near the base of a tree. Its bottom raised up more, the bulky couch tilted at an angle had now struck a livelier pose. The biggest surprise, though, was my discovery that neighborhood spooks, vandals, or photography sprites had painted in big black letters on the fabric skirt below the seat this single word: “FLYing.” Had I missed it the first time? What did its author intend? No way to know, but it was certainly good fortune for me.
I hurried home and returned with three Speedlites and a couple of light stands. Dark woods, digital darkroom, and here it is:
The felicity continued. I wanted to submit the photograph for an exhibition, and the A Smith Gallery in Texas was soliciting entries for a juried “Habitat” show. What could be more homey than a livingroom couch? (Although, of course, mine was not in a comfy frontroom.) Almost without thinking about it, just recognizing that I needed a good title and didn’t want something as obvious as “Couch in the Woods” or “Flying,” it popped up as if from behind a tree: “At Home in the Secret.” (I hope that you like it, too.)
A little twilit magic in it all — which continued when the “Habitat” juror, Julie Blackmon, chose the photo for the exhibition, and the Gallery’s owner, Amanda Smith, gave it a Director’s Honorable Mention.
My friends and fiends, in case you don’t hear from me again before Halloween, I’ll wish you happy hauntings now and hope that you like my darkling photograph. And I won’t warn you not to walk in the woods at nightfall.