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.
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.”