March 26, 2008
There are many teachers
who could ruin you.
Before you know it,
you could be a pale copy
of this teacher or that teacher.
You have to evolve on your own.
I don’t believe there is a particular photographer that I have a desire to be like, at least in style of photography. I do have an urge to take after a few photographers in certain of their modes of using a camera. I wish I was the type, for example, who would photograph every day, without fail. I don’t. I wish I was one who naturally pushed myself to experiment, even quite radically, with how I photographed–how I tilted or moved the camera, how I composed (or didn’t compose) my images, where I placed myself when I went looking for images. I have an urge to be like those who carry their camera everywhere. Everywhere.
But as far as wanting to photograph in the style of another is concerned, I don’t feel called. While I’m less and less clear about what my own style is, or, more accurately, whether or not I even have a style, I’m perfectly content seeing through my own eyes. It seems like too much work to do anything else. And to me, photography isn’t about work. It’s about play. Even when I’m working.
February 28, 2008
A good photograph is knowing
where to stand.
A few days ago I had a weekend engagement in Houston. Looking out the window of my hotel on Sunday morning, I was surprised to see fog. I asked the man at the front desk about the day’s forecast. “The weatherman says the fog will burn off very quickly.”
With no time to drive anywhere, I stepped out the front door. Fifty yards to the west was an expressway. Fifty yards to the east, an often-used railroad track. To the south, a busy city street. That left just the north, where the day before I had seen a nondescript stand of trees, with refuse scattered about. I sauntered northward through the fog.
In almost any other light, this woods would have been hardly worth looking at. The photographic possibilities were constrained by the terrain—standing water was everywhere, making it impossible to move more than a few steps, since I had no boots.
So I simply planted myself here and there over the course of that next hour. I watched and waited. Every now and again I tripped the shutter. The resulting images show nothing of the cars whizzing by on my left, or the two freight trains that lumbered past on my right, or the construction debris that lay at my feet.
I could have been in the middle of a virgin forest, far from civilization. For an hour, I suppose I was.
February 21, 2008
The state of mind of the photographer
while creating is a blank.
It is a very active state of mind really,
a very receptive state of mind,
ready at an instant to grasp an image,
yet with no image pre-formed
in it at any time.
Such a state of mind is not unlike
a sheet of film itself—
seemingly inert, yet so sensitive
that a fraction of a second’s exposure
conceives a life in it.
I photographed after a heavy snowfall. The woods were dense enough, and the snow deep enough, that I was never quite sure what I’d find when I walked from the road, lowered my head beneath those first branches, and stepped into the middle of that timbered canopy. I took seriously Minor White’s observation about maintaining a state of mind that is as blank as possible.
I have learned that when I try too hard, the “goal of blank” becomes too much an active goal and the blankness too easily recedes. Then just when I think it may be gone, and I turn to walk out of the woods, it sometimes hits me—a sudden appearance that says, “Hi!”
The click of the shutter is my way of saying “hi” right back.
February 16, 2008
In my view
you cannot claim
to have seen something
until you have photographed it.
I spent several days in northern Michigan earlier this week at my brother Mike’s cabin in the woods. Near blizzard conditions the day before I arrived had deposited almost two feet of snow on forests and fields. Photographs beckoned everywhere.
One afternoon Mike took me to a small bridge over the Pere Marquette River. It was quite lovely—smooth, dark water sandwiched between two smoothly curving lines of snow. I made several images, but something was missing. I think what was missing was me.
So I stumbled down the steep embankment and made my way to river’s edge. Mike watched me carefully from the roadway as I stopped here and there, turning, looking, photographing. Once he shouted, “Don’t go any further!” Later he told me that the ground I thought I was standing on was actually thin ice.
But being next to the river, quite near the water, up close to the floating pancakes of ice, was the only way I could visually interpret that sight. It took me fifteen minutes of moving and stopping, waiting and watching, to see, finally, that languid river and those snowy banks for what they were—a darkness channeling its way into a quiet whiteness. Even then I could have stayed until sunset and seen what was there more clearly and with greater appreciation. And I know, I’m sorry to admit, that I would have walked away still having seen incompletely. I photographed this sight, but I still hadn’t truly seen it for all it was worth.
February 13, 2008
Sometimes we work so fast
that we don’t really understand
what’s going on in front of the camera.
We just kind of sense that
“Oh my God, it’s significant!”
and photograph impulsively
while trying to get the exposure right.
Exposure occupies my mind
while intuition frames the images.
One afternoon last week I stopped my car on a country road, eyeing a row of trees stretching across a wintry field, shrouded in a light fog. “Maybe,” I said to myself.
Leaving the motor running and without taking the time to grab my tripod, I stepped toward the field. The snow was deeper than it appeared; my boots disappeared into the wet whiteness. I hesitated, then struggled up the incline toward the trees. With each step, more snow found its way into my boots.
Once on top, I said, “I think so.” But my boots kept slipping, my body was shivering, and the motor was running. So I slid to my knees and quickly exposed this image before starting to slide back down the hill, involuntarily. Intuition did the framing, not I.
Back in my digital darkroom, I was grateful intuition had its way.
February 11, 2008
Writing is a solitary occupation.
Family, friends, and society are
the natural enemies of the writer.
He must be alone,
uninterrupted, and slightly savage
if he is to sustain and
complete an undertaking.
I do not doubt what Jessamyn West writes. People can be the natural enemy of the writer. I know that to be true. More than once I lived alone in a single-room hermitage in a woods, without any human conversation, as I labored on a book. I suppose what she described is true—anyone who would act in this way must be slightly savage. While I wince at accepting that word, I understand the underlying truth.
I’ve been a photographer almost as long as I’ve been a writer, so I confess to dual savagery. While some photography depends upon having other people around, the type I do calls for naming the natural enemy and running in the opposite direction.
There is another way of describing this, a friendlier way. It’s the need for aloneness, for solitude. The need to see through your own eyes, not someone else’s. The need to have your own visceral responses to what you come upon, not checking to see if anyone else feels the same way.
So yesterday I drove to Chain O’ Lakes Park, thirty miles northeast. Except for a couple of ice fishermen, I had all those hundreds of acres to myself. I don’t believe I could have photographed that silence, that pale winter haze, those barren branches in the same way if others were nearby, however benign their presence.
September 18, 2007
The guerrilla must move among the people
as a fish swims in the sea.
This is my confession:
I am a guerrilla prayer.
I never intended to become one.
But one day I felt this strong call,
and after receiving it,
I’ve remained steadfast
and not backed away.
Like most guerrillas in the news these days,
I blend in to the surroundings.
Then I suddenly pop up in unexpected places,
at unpredictable times.
I do what I have felt called to do,
after which I disappear into the background,
watching for my next opportunity.
Airports are a common site
for these guerrilla acts of mine.
So are downtown sidewalks.
Sometimes I take advantage of the roads
where I happen to be driving.
As I sit somewhere, I latch my eyes on a person
who’s walking along or sitting nearby.
I get the barest sense of who they are,
then I begin praying for them.
Usually I keep my eyes open and on them
as I pray.
No two prayers are ever alike.
“Lord, surround her with love.”
“O Divine, be with him now in his stress;
may peace come over him in due time.”
“Holy One, protect this one;
she needs it.”
Some prayers are longer
should I be close enough to learn more
about what is going on in a person’s life—
if I overhear a conversation, for example.
Once I O’Hare Airport,
I prayed for a woman the whole time
she sat crying into her cell phone
ten feet away from me.
My words to her would have been inappropriate,
as would have been a touch on her arm.
So I chose instead the stealth tactic
of sudden, silent prayer.
It’s surprisingly effective.
August 27, 2007
I left Duluth at 5 a.m. that spring day,
at the end of a long, lonely conference.
Although the journey up had taken twelve hours,
I planned to return in eleven.
I wanted to be home.
Three hours later, somewhere in Wisconsin’s midsection,
the morning mist began to transform before me.
It turned into an unquestionable fog.
I slowed my driving, for safety’s sake,
but also to enjoy the beauty
of the shrouded countryside.
It was more than lovely.
I said to myself,
“There are things more important than travel time.”
Then I turned off the interstate
and found a county road that was heading
in the same southerly direction.
I wanted to be able to pause,
if pausing was called for.
I drove for a few miles in the quiet.
Then a place on the left beckoned.
A stream, a few trees, the shifting fog,
and there in the middle of it all,
the sun wrapped in haze,
dropping its reflection in the water below.
I took my time setting up tripod and camera,
breathing in the quietude that was everywhere around.
After making a handful of images,
I stood there for some time,
witnessing the fog as it crawled gently away.
It goes without saying
that I did not save an hour
getting home that day.
Or did I?
August 23, 2007
Most cathedrals did not stand alone
when they were originally constructed.
They were one part of a larger monastery complex.
The other parts included the monks’ residences,
a dining room and kitchen facilities,
meeting rooms and storerooms.
In the middle of this compound, uniting it all, was the cloister.
Usually this was a four-sided, semi-enclosed structure,
built around an open garden.
The cloister helped keep the monks secluded from the world,
while giving them access
to a bit of the natural world.
The cloister also protected them from the elements
as they moved from one part of the monastery to another.
Not uncommonly monks used this space for quiet contemplation.
This photograph shows one corner of the cloister
at the cathedral in Norwich, England,
its windowed door opening out.
The original door would have been very heavy,
made of thick, solid wood,
serving to both protect and isolate this area inside,
as well as whoever used this area.
What are we to make of today’s flimsy door?
Is it designed to let the outside in?
Or is it readily releasing what’s inside
so it can infuse the world?
I hold that if you gaze into this photograph long enough,
August 20, 2007
I happened upon a small Catholic church
in the Italian village of Panzano.
I was taken with its design immediately.
A series of rounded arches appeared both left and right,
receding into the near distance.
I returned to the large front door
to see if there was a sign prohibiting photography.
There was none.
So I proceeded to photograph those arches,
slowly, carefully, all alone in the silence.
An hour or so later,
feeling I had exposed all the images I knew to expose,
I sat in one of the wooden pews,
my camera nestled beside me.
I took in whatever was there
as I sat with my eyes closed.
The front door opened and closed.
I heard footsteps to my left.
A man walked, then stopped, then stood still.
When I looked up, he was staring at me.
I looked away, and he moved on.
Ten minutes later, as I departed,
this same man was waiting outside.
He was the priest of this church,
and he was not happy.
“Why did you photograph inside my church?”
I’m sure he was saying,
but I knew no Italian, and he, no English.
He spoke loudly;
his face reddened;
he waved his arms dramatically.
I tried to explain that I was sorry,
that I saw no sign prohibiting photography,
but I could tell he didn’t understand.
I stood there wondering what I should do.
I considered removing the roll of film from my camera
and placing it in one of his fast-moving hands.
But I just couldn’t do that.
I kept remembering this image that was stored there,
this image that said so much to me,
this image that captured no sacred artwork,
no holy treasures, no precious antiquities.
It was just a series of arches.
I stood there in the afternoon sun
and gave him a weak smile,
shrugged my American shoulders,
offered my meek English apology,
and shuffled down the steps.
When I looked back, he was still watching me.
I’ve since made my peace with having kept the film.
I cannot speak for the priest.