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.
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.
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.
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.
At the end of my last post, I promised you testimony to a particular power of art. The photo of mine above has a title relevant to my purpose: “The Power That Builds in Solitude.” Though I’ll talk about writing poetry, what I want to show you is the creative power that certain photographs can help to bring us, in writing poems, and, I believe, in other parts of our lives.
Good poets know that inspiration has to be courted patiently, has to come to the conscious mind from beyond it. So poets have developed strategies for diverting the willful mind, in the hope that it will open more readily to the gifts of the poetic genie, or, as we call her, the Muse.
One of the challenges in writing good poetry, and the need for methods to meet that challenge, comes from the fact that parts of our conscious minds, especially our egos, work against us in creative endeavors. The suspicious watchdogs and fearful censors in our mental life try to keep things “under control,” walling out the pesky or potent spirits that live in the dark beyond conscious awareness. We dismiss the inexplicable; we want to ignore, to protect ourselves, from what we seem unable to comprehend or command. As a result, we need ways to distract the guards at the bridge, so that the contraband of the imagination can be smuggled across the border.
Gertrude Stein would park at a crowded Paris intersection when she wanted to write. The noise of traffic and passersby would drown out more chatty, deliberate thoughts. Hart Crane wrote by candlelight, drinking wine, listening to jazz. An early teacher of mine, the poet W.D. Snodgrass, said that he continued to write rhyming poems because the task of searching for rhymes tied up his more calculating mind, giving inspiration the chance to slip the unexpected under his door.
And I developed my own kind of ritual for letting in the moonlight.