Astonished, Opened at Last

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Stormy blue sunset in Morro Bay, California, United States.

Photo by Beth Sargent

Fallen in Love

by David Whyte

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.

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Art that Mirrors the Inner Essence

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Joyce Tenneson

I found this photo on the cover of Sun Magazine some years ago and fell in love with it. It’s from a book by Joyce Tennyson called Light Warriors, with photographs of 21 women from all over the world. The author writes in her introduction:

I was drawn to photograph the people in these pages because I saw something in them, an inner power or radiance that resonated with my unconscious. . . . By trying to reveal their essence, I want to celebrate the beauty and complexity of what it means to be a spiritual warrior–to offer oneself to the world authentically, to flex the courage muscles, to share what it means to be human.

The woman in this photo is Dasha, from Russia. She told Tennyson about a reoccurring dream in which a bird flew out of her heart. Tennyson had similar dreams herself. She tried to photograph the doves flapping their wings around her heart, but didn’t like the way it looked. Then unexpectedly the birds landed on Dasha’s shoulders and she was able to get one shot before they flew away.

Dasha says of herself: “I don’t know who I am, I’m just trying to figure it out. But for me, being a woman is about bringing warmth, beauty, and love from inside you to the those around you. In the United States, people don’t speak about the soul and the heart the way they do in my country. But they are always talking about the past now in Russia. There is sweetness and sadness and nostalgia all mixed together.”

This photograph, for me, beautifully expresses that warmth, beauty, and love inside her. I also see the courage, and vulnerability. I see her—the way she’s dressed and holds herself, the direct gaze, the doves—as an acolyte or priestess in training. Each photo in the book reveals some feminine archetype or psyche.

Tennyson did not pose the women. Instead she encouraged them to express themselves by providing “a safe place for them to be open, to let down their external shields, and to expose an essence or kernel of their being that is normally secret or hidden.” By doing this they were “holding up a mirror to the viewer’s own inner experiences.”

I was so taken with this photograph I saved it for many years, not knowing why. Perhaps because it did mirror some felt experience. But once I started painting I knew I would have to try to capture her in my artwork.

Recently I had an opportunity to do that for an art class project. While I always imagined doing so in soft pastel, I created the piece below in acrylic, not my best medium. Still I like the way it came out. The woman in my painting bears only a mild resemblance to the lovely Dasha, but for me she does capture the spirit of what I see in her and find so inspirational.

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Tennyson writes: “For me photography is a kind of visual diary–it allows me to probe emotions and inner realities that by their nature are invisible but are powerfully present in all of us nonetheless.”

I think that’s what I’m trying to do with my own artwork, my writing as well as my painting, and what I’m drawn to in other’s work.

Maybe we all are holding up mirrors to each other.

 

The Fabulous Island of Capri on the Amalfi Coast

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We spent several days on the fabled Island of Capri during our 30-day whirlwind trip to Europe last summer. It lies along Italy’s gorgeous Amalfi Coast, which I wrote about not too long ago. While fantastically beautiful, Capri seemed a little too polished and glitzy for my taste. Especially when compared with the old world charm of the city of Sorrento, which we visited by ferry while in Capri. I’ll be writing about that next.

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We start here with a few photos of the main harbor of Capri and then work our way up the narrow winding streets toward our hotel at the very top, with spectacular views looking down.

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Later we took a boat tour around the island, cruising through the landmark arches and stopping at the famous Blue Grotto, a playground for Roman emperors in times past.. The waters all around the island were fantastic shades of blue against the limestone cliffs.

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Here we are lining up to get into the Blue Grotto. Small skiffs would come out to the tour boats and take small groups of 4 or 5 through. We were all prepared to get out for a swim inside, but the trip through was just too fast and  crowded. While eerily beautiful inside, I felt like I was on a conveyor belt with all the boats moving so quickly in and out of the grotto with their passengers.

 

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One last wave goodbye to this fabled island with all its natural beauty, its fabulous riches, and its ancient history. Onward to Sorrento!

What Makes this Photo So Fascinating?

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Vivian Maier (1926-2009)

What makes a photograph great? What draws us to look again and again? What is it we see that fascinates us so?

These are the kinds of questions that haunt me, because they speak to the human condition, what makes us human, what inspires us and sets us on fire. Why we are drawn to some things, why do they whisper to us in a way that makes us feel that as if we could only ferret this out we will have drawn aside some mysterious veil that hides the secrets of our soul from us.

I want to get to the bottom of these things, to understand what excites me and why–in art, in music, in literature, in the simple objects that I find in my house that give me such pleasure when I look at them, take them in.

Where does this pleasure come from? Why am I drawn to look deep inside this mirror?

The photograph above by Vivian Maier fascinates me. Her story is fascinating as well. Maier is considered one of the finest photographers of our age, yet she was unknown in her lifetime. Her photographs of city life, thousands of them, were found after her death, as negatives, never developed, never printed. Yet it’s not her story that draws me to this photo. It stands by itself as an object of art, a moment forever stilled in time for our rapt attention.

I suppose what first captures the eye is the stunning beauty of the woman, like an Aphrodite of old captured in stone. We are drawn toward beautiful things, no matter what their nature: a woman, a man, a child, a sunset, a spectacular cathedral.

But there is so much more to this photo that captures and holds our gaze, that makes it exciting and evocative and a pleasure to look at, than the mere beauty of the woman’s face. There’s also the expression on her face, the sideways glance, the downward gaze, the dark arching eyebrows and melancholy mouth. Those eyes. There’s a mysterious Mona Lisa appeal that makes us look with wonder at her: who is she, what is she thinking, where is she going? We have some clues, and these too comprise in part what makes this photo so fascinating.

Behind her is an imposing edifice slightly out of focus, a courthouse I’m guessing, with steps leading down to the street, as if she has just vacated that space.  The strong central column leads directly to her, the soft pale gray stone in direct contrast with her shining dark hair. While the sharper, horizontal lines of the near stairs behind her also point provocatively toward her. She is caught at the apex of their meeting.

Surrounding her (almost like a parenthesis to enhance her significance) are the elderly women moving past and leaning toward her with their bent backs and grey heads. They too are slightly out of focus. Passersby in motion contrasting with her stark startling stillness.

Below her is a streak of white, slantwise and mysterious, a ghostly blur. It appears she is standing in the middle of the street, or perhaps on the curb, and the photographer is viewing her from the open window of a passing vehicle. That blur, that streak of passing time across her breast, of swift motion, contrasts sharply with her stillness and the sharp, clean details that freeze her in time: The pearl necklace and earring; the wings of her wide collar framing her face; the sharp, delicate sculpture of her collar bones; the dark hollow of her throat and gentle curve of her jaw; the feathering of the dark eyelash silhouetted against the white stone behind her.

She is a study of stillness against the motion that surrounds her, and without that surrounding motion, without all those revealing contrasts and details, she would not appear so alluring, nor would this photograph be so fascinating. Without all the lines leading toward her, framing her, setting her apart from all else; without her face being set like a polished diamond within the gray softness surrounding her; without that stunning stillness caught within a blur of motion, like a second in time frozen for all eternity, this photograph would lose its fascination. For me at least.

There’s poetry in this photograph, rhythm, rhyme, music. It speaks profoundly on the eternal nature of beauty and its fragility within a timescape that erases the very thing it  evolves. Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, Shelley’s Hymn to Beauty speak no more eloquently to that theme than this single image does.

There’s tenderness here, love, compassion, heartbreak and pathos, as well as a beauty beyond knowing, beyond time. Something we feel deeply and speaks movingly to what it means to be human shrouded in so much mystery. And that’s what I find so fascinating. How a single image, flashed on the fly, can capture all that.

The Insatiable Eye – Sontag on Photography

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Photographic Artist and Photogravure Printmaker Sally Mann in 1974.

Photograph by Sally Mann, Self portrait

In her book of essays On Photography, Susan Sontag speaks of the “insatiability of the photographing eye” in our image-obsessed society, and how it shapes how we see ourselves and the world around us.

While she wrote these essays in the 1970’s before the arrival of the digital camera, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the cell phone selfie, most of her observations ring true. Perhaps even truer than when she was writing, nearly forty years ago.

By Sally Mann

Photography as Social Rite, and an Elegiac Art

Perhaps closest to home for those of us who practice photography as amateurs, capturing images to share with family and friends on social media and elsewhere, are these observations. While offered as a critique of this practice, or at least a peeling back of its happier connotations, they provide food for thought.

[P]hotography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of it self–a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.

{P]hotographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal.

Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives.

[P]hotographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched by pathos.

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Garry Winogrand (1928 - 1984)

By Gary Winogrand

Photography as Acquisition, and Voyeuristic

This acquisitive and voyeuristic relationship to the world that incessant photography promotes is one I identify with and struggle against. I believe that these travel-trophies we bring home from our trips have positive as well as the negative consequences, as I wrote about in my last post. But I think we are well-advised to be aware of the addictive dangers of photography to ourselves and others and the world at large.

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To collect photographs is to collect the world.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge–and, therefore, like power.

Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.

The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing.

As way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it–by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.

[C]ameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009)

By Vivian Maier

Photography as a Mystery, a Grammar, and an Ethics of Seeing

This last subject is the one that interests me the most about photography, and about any art form, whether in its making or in the response of the viewer. Yet Sontag spends less time developing this topic, at least so far in my reading. Even so, her observations are acute and intriguing, and invite us to delve deeper.

Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern

A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a fire in a room, photographs . . . are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance.

The camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses.

[It] confers on each moment the character of a mystery. Any photograph has multiple meaning; indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination. 

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. . . .

There is a peculiar heroism abroad in the world since the invention of cameras: the heroism of vision.

Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees but neglects as too ordinary. Photographers were supposed to do more than just see the world as it is . . . ; they were to create interest, by new visual decisions.

[Cameras] changed seeing itself, by fostering the idea of seeing for seeing’s sake.

Клуб Foto.ru

By Henri Cartier-Bresson

Click here for more photographs by famous photagraphers.

Life through a Lens, What We Gain & Lose, Redux

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How much of our lives do we view through a narrow lens, whether through the lens of a camera, our own limited viewpoint, or the stories we tell about ourselves and each other?

When we walk through life with a perpetual camera around our necks, we are tempted to see everything through that narrow focus, framing everything we see–the city streets, the sunsets and landscapes, the people we pass, the objects that come into view. As we frame what we see and take photos, it helps us to notice things we may have overlooked otherwise, and to see these things in a new light. It intensifies our ability to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, and allows us to capture and preserve those visions.

But it also breaks the whole into parts, raw experience into the photo-worthy and not-so-much.  We experience things not as a participant, but an observer, a spectator or voyeur at worst, a curator of the significant at best.

Isle du Pins cropped1When we were sailing around the world, I wish I had done more of that capturing and preserving. There were no digital cameras then, and film was expensive and hard to store in a hot, damp climates. So now I have only a handful of photos from hikes through the enchanted valleys of the Marquesas. Three or four of our stay in legendary Bora Bora, a dozen from our three months in Samoa. Now I wish we had dozens more photos of each place to view and remember.

On the other hand, by the time my first grandchild was born we had a digital camera.  Because I saw him so seldom, when I was with him I photographed him almost continuously, following him everywhere and capturing every sweet smile, every cute incident, every new thing he did.

Until I stood back one day and realized that by indulging the urge to “frame” everything for posterity, I was missing out on now, on just being with him–soaking up his presence, our time together–in the moment, raw and unfiltered.

IMG_0429Now though, I do not regret all those photos I took. For I am able to relive those moments with greater clarity and in more detail that I might have been able to do so without them.

It’s all a balancing act, I guess.

As writers we do that too—viewing the world and our experiences through a mental lens, framing things for posterity, seeing images, events, interactions, as fodder for our stories. We couldn’t write without doing that, consciously, or unconsciously.

Public domainSand-Between-Toes_Woman-Feet__59016-150x150But we have to know when to see things through the writer’s mind, as observer, spectator, curator, and when to put away that lens and become a participant in the raw experience that evolves around us. To “step barefoot into reality” as the poet Wallace Stevens once evoked.

It’s harder than we might imagine, to put away all the filters through which we experience life, and just “be” it. Life itself. Unfiltered.

NOTE: I wrote this post six years ago, but it shows, even then, my keen interest in photography, and even more in how we capture and reflect experience, limit and distort it. As you know, I’m researching a new novel with photography and the creative endeavor at its core, and the reading I’m doing meshes quite nicely with what I wrote here. So I thought I’d share this, my own take on this subject, before sharing what I’ve gathered from others. 

On a Quick Walk to the Mailbox

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After so much rain this year on the central coast of California, the hillsides around our home are green and lush. The wildflowers are beginning to pop out in our neighborhood and the cherry trees are in full bloom.  Here are just a few quick photos from a recent walk to our mailbox.

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On Photography – Researching My Sequel

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I’m working on a sequel to my novel From the Far Ends of the Earth, mostly research and note-taking at this time. The sequel will be following the “missing” mother’s journey of self-discovery and re-invention through the lens of her camera as she travels through Mexico to the tip of South America.

The mother’s photography plays a key part in the first novel. It becomes an obsession for one of the main characters, the son, a struggling drug addict. He receives packets of his mother’s photos, black and white glossies, with no notes or explanations of why she’s sending these to him. They are stark, often disturbing images, wildlife mostly: a horny-head lizard, mean face, wicked eye, flash of tongue; a nasty looking rooster perched on top a fence post, its wings in a flurry, beak open, eyes wild and furious.  Another of a dead tree, all bare limbs, like outstretched arms, like someone shaking its fists at the sky, or trying to tear it to pieces.

He doesn’t know what to make of these and pins them on a wall to study. In his drugged haze, he comes to see the photos as pieces of his mother she’s cut from her own body and sent to him to put back together. If he does, she’s saved, and he’s saved, and she come home. If he doesn’t they’re both doomed.

I love photography but have never studied it professionally, so I have a lot to learn before writing this. I began my research by  foraging through all my bookcases, large and small, tucked in various corners of the house to discover any books I might already have on the subject. I was delighted to find a few gems:

On Photography, by Susan Sontag. A collection of essays about the art and its cultural significance and influence.

The Joy of Photography, by the editors of the Eastman Kodak Company. A 1979 guide to the tools and techniques of good photography.

Ansel Adams’ Examples -The Making of Forty Photographs. He describes equipment, techniques as well as the inspiration and vision that guided his art in making these. Fantastic photos too!

The Family of Children  A 1977 collection of photographs about childhood around the world  from the greatest photographers of the time. This is a sequel to the iconic The Family of Man collection curated by Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg published in 1955.

Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson. A visual perception workshop for film and digital photography.

In addition, I’m reading the The Age of Light, a novel by Whitney Sharer based on the life of Lee Miller, a fashion model who becomes a photographer, studying with the famous surrealist painter and photographer Man Ray. Eventually she becomes his muse and lover. She goes on to establish herself as a noted photographer as well as the first female war correspondent embedded with the Americans. She was there when they freed the concentration camps and took photos of herself bathing in Hitler’s bathtub, after his suicide.

I’ve also ordered a book by the photographer Sally Mann, Holding Still: A Memoir with Photographs. She caused quite a stir in 1992 when her book of photographs Immediate Family was published. Although highly acclaimed as one of the greatest and most influential photography books of the time, it was also criticized for the extremely intimate and personal photographs of her children, some unclothed.

My character begins her journey in the year 2000, before digital photography was popular.

What kind of camera would she have had? Could she create a dark room and develop her own film in the back of her camper?

How would she earn a living as a traveling photographer?

How would she advance enough over the course of two years to earn a cover story in the National Geographic, which she has done by the end of my first novel?

These are just a few of the questions I have. If any of you know the answers or can suggest other reading or research material that might help, I’d be most appreciative.

Doing research for a book is one of the easiest, most rewarding and inspiring stages in the process of writing a novel. I’m a little bit in heaven.

 

Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Beckoningly Unreal

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John Steinbeck once wrote that the Amalfi coast “isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” Having  visited it last summer, it still doesn’t seem quite real to me, but that dreamlike beauty does beckon.

For those of you planning next summer’s travel, or just wanting a taste of seaside sun now, here are a few photos that capture some of this magical place. Most are my own, but a few I’ve gathered elsewhere.

Amalfi, Amalfi Coast, Coast, Cliff, Campania, Italy

We start here in the town of Amalfi, where we stayed in the Hotel Residence, across from the waterfront and a sandy umbrella strewn beach.

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Around the corner from our hotel is a large plaza with steps climbing toward a striking Byzantine cathedral and a fountain where passersby fill up their water bottles. Narrow streets lead away through a busy shopping district into the foothills.

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The next day we leave Amalfi, catching a ferry to Positano, one of the most beautiful towns along the coastline. On the way we catch glimpses of other seaside villages and villas clinging to the rugged hillsides.

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Here we arrive at Positana, which grew around a Benedictine abbey founded in the 9th century. Now the tiled dome of the  Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunt is its most famous landmark.

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We walk along the waterfront, where artists have set up their easels and a marching band entertains us. and then have lunch with a view of the seaside.

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Later we stroll up into the hills to shop, and enjoy the spectacular views above and below us.

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Along the Almafi Coast lies the island of Capri and the city of Sorrento, which we also visited. But I’ll save that for another time.

Poem & Paintings, A Song

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The Sun- C.1912 -By Edvard Munch - Great Artwork By The Masters 20X26

Edvard Munch

The sun does not shine on us
but in us.

The rivers flow not past,
but through us,
thrilling, tingling,
vibrating every fiber and cell
of the substance of our bodies,
making them glide and sing.

german-expressionists: “ Wassily Kandinsky, Waterfall II, 1902 ”

Wassily Kandinsky

The trees wave

Gertrude Fiske (1878-1961) American Impressionist Painter ~ Blog of an Art Admirer

Gertrude Fiske

and the flowers bloom
in our bodies as well as our souls,

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida

Joaquin Sorolla

and every bird song,
wind song,

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Edward Robert Hughes

and tremendous storm song

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Edward Dulac

of the rocks in the heart of
the mountains

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JMW Turner

is our song,
our very own,

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and sings our love.
–John Muir