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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
[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.