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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!]
I wish you all for thanksgiving what, in a sense, but only in a sense, we already have — a world of wonders. Or, rather, I wish that we would all enter into it more wholly. I wish that everyone, and certainly all photographers, knew and loved the following poem by Thomas Traherne (ca. 1636-1674). (Forgive me, Thomas, for having lost your indentations in printing this here! See how it should appear.)
How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled his eternity,
In which my soul did walk;
And ev’ry thing that I did see
Did with me talk.
The skies in their magnificence,
The lively, lovely air;
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
In my esteem.
A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But ’twas divine.
Harsh ragged objects were conceal’d,
Oppressions tears and cries,
Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes
Were hid, and only things reveal’d
Which heav’nly spirits, and the angels prize.
The state of innocence
And bliss, not trades and poverties,
Did fill my sense.
The streets were pav’d with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appear’d to me,
And every thing which here I found,
While like an angel I did see,
Adorn’d the ground.
Rich diamond and pearl and gold
In ev’ry place was seen;
Rare splendours, yellow, blue, red, white and green,
Mine eyes did everywhere behold.
Great wonders cloth’d with glory did appear,
Amazement was my bliss,
That and my wealth was ev’ry where:
No joy to this!
Curs’d and devis’d proprieties,
With envy, avarice
And fraud, those fiends that spoil even Paradise,
Flew from the splendour of mine eyes,
And so did hedges, ditches, limits, bounds,
I dream’d not aught of those,
But wander’d over all men’s grounds,
And found repose.
Proprieties themselves were mine,
And hedges ornaments;
Walls, boxes, coffers, and their rich contents
Did not divide my joys, but all combine.
Clothes, ribbons, jewels, laces, I esteem’d
My joys by others worn:
For me they all to wear them seem’d
When I was born.
[The ink painting above, by Sengai, pictures a scene from the famous Zen koan in which the Zen teacher, Nan-ch’uan, tells his students that he will chop the kitten in half if none of them can say immediately whether reality is (a) objective or (b)subjective. This picture and the one at the end of this post are from Zen Painting by Yasuichi Awakawa (Kodansha, 1970)]
The intellect is a tool with limited value, and without values. It’s a garden spade — it’s not soil, or water, or seed, or sunlight. As Zen Buddhists and others have tried to make us see, if you trust in the intellect, if you give it primacy, you’re simply inviting another emotional, spiritual desire, invisible to you, to control what you do to yourself and to others. You cut yourself off from feelings, sensations, and intuitions that might grow and feed life. To blindly trust in the intellect, to give it pride of place, turns you into someone like Lucky in Waiting for Godot, spouting nonsense that sounds impressive, but that isn’t connected to essential or fruitful reality. We see this in most academic and specialized writing on art, that drains and dries up the juice in its subject.
To give dominance to the intellect is like buying an alligator and giving it the run of your house, not understanding that the alligator’s actions will be driven by insatiable, individual appetite. That alligator will eat every other living thing and half of the dead things in your house, and, finally, you.
The earmarks of intellect when it isn’t the servant of more important things are arrogance, emptiness, and self-deception. We see it all the time. The categories used by the intellect – animals, Caucasians, neo-expressionism, modernism, enemy — are nothing more than provisional fictions, practical ways to get others to look in the direction of something that we want them to see, like pointing to a pastry in the cabinet when we don’t speak the cashier’s language. (Or, for that matter, as I am using “intellect” in this post!) To the extent that people take such terms for adequate descriptions of living reality, they usually do so for self-serving reasons, with sad consequences.
What’s important is the substance of the person wielding the garden spade, because the spade can be used to plant food or flowers, or it can be used to dig up and destroy what you plant, and what others plant as well. If you want to see how sterile and puerile the intellect can be when it rules, just consider most largely-conceptual art, in which the horse’s ass so often comes before the cart.