One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after . . .
to behold the beauty of the LORD… (Psalm 27:4)
Then Elisha prayed: “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw . . . (2 Kings 6:17)
In 2008, I decided to purchase a camera for myself. I certainly had no ‘philosophy’ of photography which was driving me. I wanted to take pictures of things I enjoyed looking at, and my first interest was the trees. I was then and am now a walk-by shooter. I take photos of whatever catches my eye. Excuse the pun, but I have no focus in my photography.
I discovered however that photography changed me. It made me pay more attention to nearly everything – from color to light, from the smallest of things to the big picture of landscapes. I became more alert to sounds and smells as well as shapes, shades and sizes. Patterns interested me and texture, and I realized that sometimes photos told stories. I realized that unlike language which one has to know to communicate, photos are a somewhat international language which people can understand and appreciate no matter what their native tongue.
I’ve never even risen to the level of being an amateur photographer, for the root of that word means “a lover of …”. And I know that while I have enjoyed photography, I’ve not loved it so much as to study it or learn how to improve my skills. I do a lot of trial and error and don’t remember the lessons.
I read Jan Phillips’ book, GOD IS AT EYE LEVEL, with the hope of gaining insight into how to be a better photographer, but realize I probably will always be the walk by shooter and will never take the time to learn the art of photography or the science of the computer which the digital camera is. I was intrigued by Phillip’s comments on art and creativity, somewhat because I do not share a lot of her values or experience about life, art, photographs or photography. She writes:
“A creative act is a process of conjuring up something visible from the invisible, of transforming a thought or experience into a form that can be perceived or encountered by another. Creativity is a universal human urge. We each yearn to express our experiences in such a way that others can know them vividly and sense their significance. Art emerges out of this urgency to share our lives, our visions and voices, fears and passions, and every work of art reveals something intimate about the artist.
Her words above are different than my inner life. I remain an introvert and shy. I have no yearning to express my inner experiences, no urge to be creative and show off my ‘art.’ I’m amazed when anyone pays any attention to what I’ve written or photographed. My works are not original, but trying to frame what I see and hear and read – things that stand out from the world around me and all created by someone else. I find her image of “conjuring up something visible from the invisible” intriguing, but see myself only drawing attention to what is visible, but perhaps overlooked.
When I look into a mirror, I see my face, my body, the form of my being. When I look into my images, it is my soul that I find reflected, parts of myself that cannot be revealed in language. I could tell you about myself in puffed-up words, exaggerating my abilities, emphasizing my strengths, leaving out my flaws and failings, and you would walk away with a certain notion about who I am. If, instead, I handed you a box of my photographs and said, ‘This is the essence of who I am,’ your understanding of me would be truer, undistorted by language and interpretation. My photographs are a direct line to my inner world. They are the shortest distance between my soul and yours.
While I believe what she says is true, my photos do say something about me, I don’t see them as revealing me as much as they show to what I pay attention. I’m far more interested in the world outside of myself. Every one of my photos is an enigmatic photo of me exactly because I’m not in them. I like to be invisible and so prefer being the photographer than the photographed. And unlike Phillips, I think even photographs are interpreted so they are always seen through the lens of the experience of the beholder.
Again Phillips writes:
Even more important, my photographs are a direct line between my soul and me. As much as an image speaks of the things seen, it speaks also of the person who photographs it. In Photography of Natural Things, Freeman Patterson writes that ‘the finest images- the images that stir our souls- combine documentation of natural things with a sense of what they mean to us.’ My take on a desert dune or a redwood forest is not only different from any other photographer’s but reflects where I am emotionally and spiritually on the day when I’m shooting. If I am feeling fearful in the face of an oncoming storm, my image will contain a sense of that. If I am standing on mountain top, awed by the grandeur, my awe will be reflected in the photograph I make. I listen for what my subject is saying to me, and once I know that, I can make a photograph that expresses both what it is and who I am as I see it.
The above comment is definitely one way in which I fall short as a photographer. I don’t always think about what the subject or the scene means to me or what I feel about it. I’m certainly guilty of allowing myself to view life only through the camera and not enjoying or experiencing what is right before my eyes.
I don’t try to capture awe or fear in my photos though I think the idea is right. I am not as convinced as her that my take on a subject is all that different than others. I’ve seen the photos of my family members of a given place or event which we all experienced. We often focus on the same thing, though granted there can be variation on what each was trying to capture in the moment.
Minor White said that the goal of the serious photographer is ‘to get from the tangible to the intangible, to render the image in such a way that it becomes a metaphor for something else- usually the photographer’s state of mind.'” (Jan Phillips, GOD IS AT EYE LEVEL, pp 91-92)
I wonder, can I see myself in my photography?
It seems to me that for Phillips “art” as just an expression of what is in the person, individualism, the person creates the art. My sense of art is that it reveals what is there to be seen, especially the beauty. Is that just another dandelion – another pesky weed, or is there something beautiful that we can see? Can we see beyond the visible to the invisible Creator of beauty? I think we can.
The difference in how we see the world is the difference in understanding between a Transfiguration in which Christ suddenly reveals His divinity like a nuclear blast to His disciples, or one in which the disciples are the ones transformed – everything that prevents them from seeing reality is removed from their eyes and now in the transfiguration they finally see Christ as He always is.
Phillips in her book writes about “self-discovery” and what a thing or the the thing she photographs “means to me“. I think what art is really about is discovering the other, the not-me, so that I find my place in the world, in God, my relationship to all that is, because all that is is not my creation or just a way to find me or just what it means to me. In discovering the other, I learn to think beyond the self, to open myself to love – loving the other and being loved by the other. I realize their is an entire created order which I did not create but has a real Creator. Self-discovery can quickly disintegrate into self-love which is the opposite of love, which is always oriented in the full meaning of that word – exactly other directed or directed toward the other. Love gives us direction, it orients us!
The beauty of photography is not what it reveals about me, but that it reveals beauty is beyond me, not limited by my ideas, but a window into the eternal Creator which can be seen by all. The photograph gets me to stop for one second and realize the beauty of truth and the truth of beauty.