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:
Irony: don’t let yourself be controlled by it, particularly when you are not actually writing. In the moments when you are are, try to use it as one more means of getting at life. When irony is used as a pure instrument of thought, it is pure, and there is no need to be ashamed of it. But when you sense it is becoming too intimate, and distrust the growing friendship, then embark on great and serious matters, in the face of which it becomes puny and helpless. Try to get at the depth of things – that is one place irony never goes down to. . . .
– Rainer Maria Rilke
When Robert Bly quoted this passage in his magazine, The Sixties (originally, The Fifties, and later, The Seventies, etc.), much of the poetry favored by the New York publishers, The New York Review of Books, and the Northeastern academics was dry, intellectual, allusive, ironic. In the same issue of his magazine, Bly published his influential essay called “The Dead World and the Live World.” He contrasted the favored poetry in English unfavorably to poems that breathed deeply, poems that brought us “news of the universe,” poems like those of the ancient Chinese and Japanese, or of modern Europeans and Latin Americans like Rilke, Trakl, Jimenez, Lorca, Neruda, Transtromer. Poems with music, insight, imagination, tenderness and humility, passion and compassion.
The poetry he was challenging was ego-bound, rationalistic, showily cultured, culturally smug, and sometimes emotionally violent.
Well, we are, for instance, more multi-cultural (though not necessarily at any great depth) in the world of photography these days, but what I’ve just described from the world of mid-20th-century British and American poetry has its reflection in what is currently favored by the movers and shakers of Chelsea and the hipper centers of photographic academe: the allusive or “sampled,” the post-critical and anti-“modernist,” the self-consciously diffident and “sophisticated.” We have too many artists whose work and conduct seem to say, “Hey, I’m existentially and spiritually shallow — and damned proud of it.”
We see far too much work based more on so-called ideas than it is on anything else — ideas that frequently are thin to say the least, sometimes positively (or negatively?) sophomoric. Like the idea that to photograph yourself dressed up as a member of the “opposite” sex is to raise “important issues of gender and identity.” Or the idea that to make a completely uninteresting photograph in superficial imitation of a great photograph is to raise important “questions” about values or culture, about the etiology of the image or the ontology of its author. A few years ago, when my wife interviewed young photographers chosen for “25 under 25,” some of them were quick to tell her that the ability to write a provocative description of what you claimed to be making was more important to success than was the quality of the images themselves.
We need to appreciate the implications of Rilke’s observations about irony and depth for our world of contemporary photography, just as much as the literati of the early Sixties needed to take them to heart and soul themselves. Oh, forgive me, I forgot that those latter “concepts” are out of conceptual fashion. As though fashion is ever anything but a passing breeze at which the frivolous and ambitious snatch.
“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.)