I have become more of a human being since taking photographs daily. More satisfied, centered in the moment, less opinionated of what and whom I experience. Photography offers an intense personal experience while also requiring objectivity, a distancing. It asks me to abandon restrictive thinking and give myself over to a finer sense of things, the gravitational pull of life around me. Order can be created even if there seems to be little–or exposed and higlighted. And it takes discipline, which is something I enjoy.
At the start–ages ago, back when I got my first basic Brownie camera around age nine–it was just about capturing a moment in life as it was happening. It gave me a taste of control and power to frame and steady my hand, trigger the shutter. Polaroid cameras, which developed the picture in moments, were too expensive so I had to take a roll of film to the pharmacy and wait for a couple of weeks to see what I caught on film. Sliding the shiny pictures out of the envelope brought a thrill of excitement. There were people I knew, there was my house, my yard or the park, the neighborhood’s goings-on. I could tack them on my bulletin board or in my scrapbook for safekeeping.
I didn’t understand much, even though my father had a scientific bent and explained the rudimentaries. I couldn’t get past the fact that my eye saw things upside down and so did a camera, then turned them right side up again. I did realize photographic images are two-dimensional, not three. Still, it fascinated me that I could make something occur, cause a moment in life to hold still and be made to last forever with a picture. But I had to be careful; I couldn’t waste pricey film. Taking pictures was meant to be something special. I do muse over what my father would think of digital photography: here now, gone the next second. No visible errors, less idiosyncrasy. There is much to be said for the intrigue of irregularity and for permanence. Ten years after my first camera I got to develop my own film for a class. The alchemy that could be rendered chemically, visually and emotionally was spectacular.
In later years, my parents travelled overseas and my father dragged along his beloved Pentax and additional lenses. That meant hundreds of photographic slides upon their return. I remember hours of being riveted by pictures of Europe projected big as life on a white screen. My parents narrated their journey with anecdotes and laughter. The pictures seemed so akin to real places and events that I could interpret the atmosphere, absorb diverse colorations or foreign designs of topography and architecture, nearly hear people chat as they ate at outdoor cafes and shimmied through narrow passageways. I felt I had gone along, had prayed within Chartres cathedral, visited Mozart’s birthplace, savored tea and biscuits at an Irish bed and breakfast. For me, pictorial images were like a magic carpet. Whatever I could see–in fact, often just visualize–took me right there.
As a child and young adult, I was results-oriented: I wanted to see the fruits of my labor, have picture souvenirs of my North American trips. It wasn’t the process that mattered so much as the result: memories, little bits of them frozen in time. But I have changed. Now when I leave the house with my humble pocket Nikon and good Fujifilm Finepix S cameras in hand, I set out to be surprised and inspired. Moved, startled, intrigued. It is a bit like playing detective: I have an urgent need to know more, to deliberate over scraps of information, to search for and gather evidence of the multitudinous layers of reality, as well as what may yet be hiding. I want to be present within the essence of life, this planet I inhabit, even the universe as it reveals its mystery moment by moment. At the very least, I want to clarify my own truth. Get to the core of things. Be attentive.
Writing has done this for me well over fifty years and sometimes I wonder how I can use up an hour or two a day taking pictures when what I need to be doing is writing. But one flows into the other seamlessly. What my vision brings to me can be made into a complex picture, then a bigger story. Walking into the world with camera in hand unlocks secrets to which I would not otherwise be so privy. I closely observe the way shadow changes rhododendron blossoms. I watch how a couple leans toward one another in the spring light, then the man turns sharply away. I see a child poke a muddy puddle and talk to himself about frogs and other beings unnamed. Over there is a house with an extravagance of foliage and two empty chairs. Who steps out in the dusk to sit there with the quieting birds? Photography uses a different part of the brain than language; it enlarges my reservoir of skills and ideas, stimulates possibilities.
Photography stops me in my tracks. Ruminations, selfish self-regard, and odds and ends of worry all pause. It wakes me up to the variety of humans and other creatures that roam the earth and with whom I share it. I am not ever lonely when I take pictures by myself; I feel connected to everyone, often deeply. It is another way to become more aware of what is sacred in this living. If nature mimics universal design and our bodies and souls reflect the cosmos as well, what is not sacred? How can I not see God, camera or no camera? It strikes me that God is the Eye of all and we are both the seers and the seen; that thought cheers me. And I am excited my humble camera can do its small part.
There is a wealth of design out there. An old friend of mine, an artist, once said that good design was her religion. I pondered over that for, while it isn’t mine, it is certainly part of what I believe in and value. Whether natural or human-made objects, my eye seeks a contiguous whole made of intricate, often minute, pieces. Design requires proportion, light, space, perspective, materials. It requires mathematics and intuition, a feel for composition that will impact the environment and ourselves a little or a lot. We are altered by harmonious, innovative design (or a lack thereof) within our cities, our neighborhoods, our homes. We even design our own daily lives, and its signature shows up in the degree of our well-being.
My neighborhood affords me such loveliness and fascination that every time I walk, I see things anew. The light, the weather, the time of day and angle at which I take the picture–it all matters so much. And these streets are lined with historical houses. The trees are varied, mammoth, many. Gardening is a full-on activity here, so I have the pleasure of appreciating every bit of effort people put into their yards. Our climate is good for growing things and all year nature displays her virtuosity. I count myself fortunate to be surrounded by such beauty.
As much as I adore this visual art, documenting life as I experience it, I can’t say I have any expertise. I still feel new to it; there are volumes to learn. Still, I persist.
I have always believed being a witness is important, to whatever is unjust, turbulent or painful but also victorious, balanced or full of love. There is a part of me that wishes I had been able to become a globe-trotting photojournalist. When I was a mental health and addictions counselor I was a witness to chronic suffering, but also healthy transformation. As a writer I am witness to vagaries of the human spirit and a plethora of story that defines this world and us, both here and gone. With my camera I can discover a moment or it, me, then crystallize something of it. It takes patience but that is something I cultivate. I have the opportunity to be right there, up close. And a small revelation will unfold before my eyes. Then I can carry it home to savor the beauties. Mourn any losses. Study its lessons. Share my world with yours.
(Other than the Wikimedia photo, these are my pictures. If you are interested further, please check out my blog Visionary Views, which is linked to this main blog.)