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.
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.
[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.