Category Archives: The Artist’s Life
For his wonderful collection of short, imaginative poems from world literature, called The Sea and the Honeycomb, Robert Bly rewrote Frances Desmore’s translation of a Chippewa poem. And I think that it’s crucial to notice, in these days of promoting esteem for a misconceived and egotistical “self,” that the poem’s last line does not read “I am flying”:
Sometimes I walk about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.
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.
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.
My unhappiness with my website provider had grown ever since it was taken over by an outfit specializing in wedding mementos. Of course, the new owners assured us innocent client-lambs that the quality its website services would not slip, but would, rather, reach new heights. They announced a plan to create new templates that would benefit us in ways that the existing ones never did.
At the same time, for some mysterious reason, the images on my site began suffering from cases of the jaggies, visible pixelation at the edges of objects and in human flesh tones. The tech support people denied that what I saw happening was happening. Not only did that “nonexistent” problem never get solved, but it got harder and harder to get responses from tech support to any of my questions or pleas for help with the trial version of the new templates. In addition, the wonder-templates were plagued with problems.
Finally, an immediate circumstance made it critical that I show my art off to better advantage. So I fled the broken pixels and promises. After researching other website providers, I packed my domain name and moved to PhotoShelter. So far, I’ve been delighted with almost everything about it: its templates’ many features, its speedy and useful tech support replies, its online help files — and, most of all, the great leap upward in the resolution and size at which my images are now displayed. So I hope that you’ll feel moved to explore my new site, at the same URL as my old one: www.lawrenceruss.com .
If you do, you’ll find that for the first time, I’m displaying in public a portfolio (in two parts) of my oldest, longest-running photography project, comprised of images taken at Devil’s Glen in Weston, Connecticut. The place is a kind of sacred site for me, despite its name (though the name’s not irrelevant to my feelings about it or to some of my experiences there). I’ve exhibited a number of my photographs from the Glen. “The Power That Builds in Solitude,” for instance, accompanies the July 20, 2011 post (“Summoning the Genie’s Power – Part 1” of this blog, was published as a Merit-Award winner in COLOR Magazine, was selected for juried exhibitions in Oregon and Vermont, and has been written about as part of an “ideal bachelor pad” — not the way I ever saw it, but there it is — in an online design mag called HOUZZ. Until I launched my new PhotoShelter site, however, I’d never shown a group, much less a portfolio, of images from the project, as I have here: in “God and Nature in Devil’s Glen,” Parts 1 and 2, in the PLACE AND PRESENCE collection tabbed on my site’s home page.
Yes, I know I’ve laid out more territory on the current site than anyone is likely to explore in one visit, but I hope that you’ll get lost in it for a while, and that you’ll want to return to it more than once for further adventures in various kinds of forests.
What follows is the preface of a book that I’ve just had printed, featuring a fifteen-image photographic poem of mine, The Arcane Machine. The book is 10×10″, 34-pages long, including this preface, the photographs (with their titles on facing pages), and bio notes. It has a matte hard cover, and it can be ordered through my photography website, http://www.lawrenceruss.com , by “ordering” the last image (which is of the book’s covers) in the Portfolio named (you guessed it) The Arcane Machine. (The portfolio on the website contains only a selection from the images in the book.)
ABOUT THE ARCANE MACHINE
I’d be lying if I said that I came up with some idea for this portfolio. The machine in the title of this book was once used for hauling boats out of the water at a tiny boatyard with a single dock. I’d photographed the machine before and seen it many times. But until this summer, most of the machine, including its motor, had been covered with a large sheet of canvas. One day in July, I went to the boatyard with no artistic purpose in mind. Still, when I saw the whole machine uncovered for the first time, with its intricate, archaic motor, I was intrigued. Before I had any conscious thought of it, this series had begun, almost of its own accord.
I didn’t spend much time at the yard that day, but before I left I snapped a few full-length and side-view shots of the machine in daylight. When I viewed the digital files that night, the images were dull, but I thought, Hmmm, let’s see what might come if I light the machine with flashes. I returned with more gear: a Canon 5d Mark II with a 17-40mm lens, a Canon 5d Mark III with a 70-200mm lens, five Speedlite flashes with PocketWizard radio triggers, a few short light stands, some flash modifiers. My interest in the subject grew as I saw, moment-by-moment, what resulted and what might be possible, as I stood, sat, lay, or crouched (getting a bit nauseated from my cramped contortions), taking photos a few inches or feet from the machine.
What you see in this book isn’t what you could have seen with just the human eye in natural light. For example: without a wide-angle lens and the upward angle at which I aimed it, only a foot from the subject, the cover photo of this book would not have had the sense of space and size, of an expanding “universe,” that I believe it evokes. Without using flashes to light the machine, you’d see only a small fraction of the color and texture that the flashes revealed. The flashes also made minuscule specular highlights, which I’ve mostly left, like little stars.
What matters most, though, is the end result — the experience that these photographs create in you.
Too often, we say things like “just a machine” or “just a dumb animal” or “just an ordinary man.” Too often, we think only “beautiful things” are beautiful. In thinking such things, we can make ourselves bored, disappointed, prideful, even dangerous. For me, this broken-down, corroded, obsolescent machine proved an inspiration. The images that grew from it partake of the machine’s components, the components of my past and my psyche, an array of texture and color and shapes, an atmosphere of shadow and silence, and who knows what else from art history, outer space, or the spirit — and now, from whatever gifts you bring to these images, whatever they give back to you.
Okay, forgive me. I’ve “borrowed” and recast this title from the short poem that W.B. Yeats wrote for his tombstone: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” You know, when you’ve been the greatest 20th-Century poet writing in English, there’s at least a decent chance that the epitaph you labored over will in fact be carved on your stone. But even in a case like that (and Yeats did get his wish), there’s no guarantee. And you might say that certain kinds of common and commonly-worthless guarantees (what you might call social signifiers of value) are my subject in this post.
Some of us were loved very little by our parents, some not at all. Most of us weren’t loved by them nearly enough to satisfy our needy childhood hearts. What’s more, most of us never fully wake up to that painful truth, because the things that it seems to imply about our worth, our ability to inspire love, and our chance of surviving are unbearable to us.
But the degree to which we won’t wake up to that gnawing reality will be the degree to which we go on “looking for love [and satisfaction] in all the wrong places.” Most of us, in self-defeating self-protection, project our futile desires and delusions onto the world around us. We want the approval of anyone who looks like a parental figure and we want to be vindicated in our projected delusion that we can trust them, that they care about us, that we can replicate our family home in our marriages or in our work or in our social group, but that this time we’ll have a happy ending. We’ll get what we want and what we really deserve.
And even though cynicism has grown from the revelations of scandalous misconduct everywhere from Wall Street and the Oval Office to the Vatican and the ministry of Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker, we continue, on the whole, to expect the holders of high office to be well-informed, worthy of their positions, and concerned about us and the general well-being. We expect experts to be expert and professionals to be professional. In our realm of photography and the other arts, most of us expect that prizewinners deserved their prizes, that prominent curators and gallerists know great art (and awful art) when they see it. We have to get over these assumptions. Yes, sometimes such people have indeed earned their honors and merited their good reputations. But only sometimes.
Though it places a greater grief and responsibility on us than we may want to shoulder, we have to do our independent best to look beyond the medals and titles to what lies behind them. I always feel a combination of rueful amusement and sadness when I hear a fellow artist puzzling in dismay over why some artist who appears to be meritless, even ridiculous, has been given a famous award or had one of his works sold for an absurdly grand sum of money. Hey, really, why, for instance, would Christie’s or Sotheby’s take out a full-page ad in the New York Times to show us the ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp, produced by the Jeff Koons factory, on which the distinguished auction house placed an estimated selling price of $10-15 million dollars?
I have two things to tell you, for your benefit (I hope), from my fairly wide-ranging experience with different fields and with people at different “levels” within those fields: in academia, government, business, law, poetry and photography; with FBI agents, prize- winning authors, governors, and Teamsters.
Shadows or darkness, fog or cloud, curving shapes, blurred or fantastical objects. Why should photographs with elements like these help to bring on that state of deep calm and heightened sensitivity that makes the Muse more inclined to visit?
I think it’s partly because they mirror conditions and circumstances outside the artwork that bring us to the border of our deliberating, daylight minds: walking through the streets at night or through woods in deep shadow, letting our sight and hearing absorb whatever comes in our solitary quiet; or lying drowsy in our darkened bedroom, drifting into daydreams or sleep. Art is one way that we can see what lies beyond the flashlight’s beam, reach into that invisible or half-visible place where so much is born and so much is decided.
Research has shown that people who make an effort to remember their dreams right after waking, especially if they try to write them down, will remember their dreams more often, and will remember more of what happened in them. But we don’t need scientists to prove to us that doing a thing repeatedly makes us able to do it more readily or easily; that muscles and memory — and, I believe, intuition and imagination — grow stronger the more they’re used.
I believe that this is also true for repeatedly visiting, experiencing, giving yourself to the kinds of art that carry us into those mysteries of the unconscious or whatever we might better call it. In Norse mythology, the king of the gods, Odin, who had the gifts of vision and poetry, rode a magic eight-legged horse. That steed, Sleipnir, could carry him across the borders between the various realms, of gods and frost giants and fire demons and the dead. As with anything else, the more we ride that border-crossing horse, the better we ride it, and the more swiftly and farther it’s likely to take us.
And why do I care so much, why should you care about riding across those borders? Because that place across the shadowy bridge is where we can discover our greater selves, our greater lives. After all, what do we think those gifts and treasures in the folk tales are all about? Over there, in the forest of intuition, in the scenes of paintings, in our dreams, is the place where the mythical creatures live and act out our battles with each other and with monsters and tyrants. If we see the vampire or the Cyclops clearly “over there,” we may recognize them in our “daily life” (we’ve all met them) and may be more likely to escape the temptations and dangers that they bring. In that place (though, of course, it isn’t exactly a place) is the soil in which our most powerful fears and desires, our most glorious insights and revelations are rooted. It’s the universe, the universe that stretches out from where we stand, from the little place of our planning and striving.
(If you click on the image below, you may even be able to see the plane’s noselight a little.)
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.”
[Although this first post is addressed mainly to my fellow artists, I hope that this site will interest anyone who loves art, anyone interested in the topics that I take up here, and anyone whose singular curiosity or wayward impulse draws him or her to this corner of the Web. This first post will continue to be available under the “My Purpose Here” tab at the top of this site’s home page. I hope that you’ll join me here again – and join in – soon.]
Yes, in some ways what you’ll find here will be like what you find on other sites: descriptions of gear and techniques that were used to produce a particular image, reviews of exhibitions and books, meditations on admired work by famous or little-known photographers. But you’ll also find types of writing and subjects that you may not find elsewhere. I hope that when I write, say, on the death-longing that shapes certain kinds of commercial photography, or on the reasons why beauty makes Edward Burtynsky’s “ugliness” more powerful, you’ll find that we’re swimming in deeper waters than usual, or climbing farther into the mountains.
If you’ve been graced (burned, inspired, or deranged) by the art-making fire, then you know that keeping it going, stoking it, trying to spread it, is like being a resistance fighter in occupied territory. You have to cope each day with the assaults of a society whose values are aggressively opposed to your efforts, that aims to stifle any voice calling into question the value of its trinkets and trash. You have to resist the bribes for turning a blind eye to official wrong and mass delusion. You have to bear up against outer voices telling you that what matters dearly to you doesn’t really matter at all. You have to fight the inner voice insisting that you don’t have the know-how, the gear, the courage to carry out your mission. (If you want to see this story on film, try Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician.)
Even genius (and sometimes genius least of all) fails to bring immunity. I think with sadness of Tu Fu, one of the greatest poets in literature, who spent most of his years as a civil servant in exile, far from friends and cultured society, his poems known only to a few fellow writers. Or I think of Edvard Munch (whose work my wife and I, then living in Chicago, drove through the mountains in a blizzard to see at the National Gallery in Washington). He was brutally persecuted for his gorgeous, ground-breaking works by the bourgeoisie of late 19th-century Norway. No doubt you have your own essential list of such examples.
We say, “It’s a miracle that real art gets made at all.” I like that cliched sentence because it says not only that the odds against us are great, but that what happens despite them is indeed a miracle. Such miracles, time and again, sustain us. As I hope that this site will also do for you.
I’ve worked not only as an art photographer and poet, but as a lawyer in private practice and in public service, and as an arts administrator and advocate, dealing with deceitful corporate executives, corrupt public officials, sexual predators in federal agencies and in the ranks of feted (or is that fetid?) poets, members of the Mob, and other such fellow creatures. I know that what happens in novels and movies happens outside of them, too. But all my experience in the alleged “real world” hasn’t shown me that art is frivolous or inconsequential. Quite the contrary.
In this site, I’ll bring to bear not only my experience in the arts, but my encounters in those other societal realms in order to make my case for what matters. In my social battles, as well as in my artistic labors, works by Beethoven, Balzac, Coltrane, Kurosawa, Bill Brandt, and Robert Frank, among many other artists’, have guided and strengthened me.
Art doesn’t sit on a shelf apart, and it shouldn’t be judged as though it did. It has its life and its force in the heart of the world that so often belittles it.
I hope that what I bring to this site makes you, too, want to bring more sustenance to me and to your other fellows here, in our ongoing conflicts and luminous engagements. And I hope that I can do here what the best art does: open doors to the fact that life is greater than its representation in reality shows and political harangues, that it still contains visions, demonic seductions, inexplicable power, mysterious danger, and miracles, both within and beyond the borders of art.