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.
“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu
Post 1 of 2: The Photograph,
From time to time in these posts, I’ll write about an image that has caught me in its spell. No, my present subject isn’t the sorcerous tree above, which is mine. My flimsy excuse for putting it here (not that I need one — hey, it’s my blog) is that it led me to discover the superb artwork below – “Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu, a young Vietnamese-American photographer — because both were included in the recent “Seeing Seeing” exhibition at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut. (The obviously-discerning juror was Felice Frankel, a celebrated science photographer.)
A little .jpeg, especially one that’s sized to fit the confines of this column, and especially if it’s a long panoramic, can hardly do justice to its original . The framed dimensions of Van Chu’s exhibited photo were 24 x 74″. So I’ve also provided a larger .jpeg of the image, which you’ll see if you click on the one below.
The first thing that happens to me when I immerse myself in this image is that I feel its spatial depth, its large apparent scale, which results from its atmospheric perspective, from the way its clouds seem to thin out as they retreat toward a distant horizon, from the backward tilt of the body of liquid at the bottom of the frame, from the difference in sizes among the smaller shapes rising at its center and the enveloping cover of cloud above them. And then, looking more closely at the work’s details, I enter into the rhythms of floating and curling and wavering shapes, of darkening or brightening spaces, of shifting areas of turbulence or calm.
Then we home in on the points of sharpest focus, especially the three vertical “trees” at the bottom center of the frame, which seem to grow upward from a relatively calm expanse of liquid. They draw our attention not only because they’re centrally placed and comparatively solid, but because they’re backlit by the brightest area in the photo. Yet even those three more definite shapes are calligraphic, somewhat unstable and insubstantial, as though they’re not just growing from some kind of ground, but still in the process of coming into being. The suggestive title increases this impression (and yes, I do appreciate titles that actually do something): “Mushrooms & Trees 5.”
Our first reaction when we compare the title to what we see is likely to be “Wait a minute, there aren’t any real mushrooms or trees in this photo.” Our next thought may be “Well, I guess you could say that those shapes are the beginnings or the ghosts of mushrooms or trees,” leading us to think that what we’re witnessing is a stage in the spectral creation of living things. We think of mushrooms as growing in the dark, and certainly this image is pervaded by a dark, mysterious, brooding atmosphere that brings to my mind the words “and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . and God divided the light from the darkness.”
But our view is also affected by our presence in this year 2011 A.D. (the photograph was made in 2010). Which of us can see this image and not think at least briefly of, say, the natural disasters we’ve seen this year, the roiling clouds from which tornados grow, or the “mushroom clouds” of nuclear explosions. Or we might see oil in those viscous black shapes, the oil of devastating spills, or the enormous billows of smoke from burning wells in post-invasion Kuwait or Iraq.
At the same time, the image remains a dance of drifting, curling, flowing shapes, of delicious gradations of black and white, of implied motion as in a Jackson Pollock “drip” or “action” painting. But Pollock’s rhythm is more likely to resemble that of boxing, with flurries of punches, jabs, hooks; Van Chu’s rhythm is more like the rhythms of Tai Chi, flowing and curving like the motions of water in a trance.
If we’re open and attentive to our experience, we can see that the whole of it or any part of it may play its role in any moment. A vivid dream or nightmare can color our feelings for hours after waking. A stray piece of scrap metal seen on the beach may bring to mind war or societal waste. A song may flood us with emotions that we felt during the year in our childhood when we first heard it. Van Chu’s photograph, as good art does, opens us to a concentrated vividness and variety of associations, to a greater-than-usual wholeness in the moment.
But the qualities of Van Chu’s imagery don’t summon up only a host of contemporary and personal evocations; they also recall and revive the artistic and spiritual tradition that inspired Van Chu: of the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist painters of inkbrush calligraphy and landscapes, a tradition that blossomed late in the First Milllennium, in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties of China. I hope that you’ll follow me into the realm of Quo Xi, Ni Zan, Ma Yuan, and their descendant Van Chu, in Post 2 of “A Story of Creation.”