Amble Towards Epiphany – copyright 2012 — Paul Vreeland
“I know something is there. I just haven’t found it yet,” he explained. I was watching a video of a talk given by Scott Kelby at a photographer’s conference hosted by Google+. Kelby, the author of several how-to books, and host of www.kelbytraining.com, is a well-known name in the world of digital photography. The title of his talk is “Crush the Composition” and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the art.
Scott was talking about “working the scene”. “Try this, try that. Create a shot list. Shoot wide, shoot tight. If something makes you stop, there is something there. Your job as a photographer is to find it.” He was offering another stop-and-think-about-what-you’re-doing slow movement dictum. “It’s our nature to want to go on to the next thing—shoot the next shot. Once you’ve done a lot of shooting, stop, sit down, look at the back of your camera and start going through your shoots. Make sure you’ve shot it every way possible.”
Every morning on the way to work, I pass Andrew’s Pond and Wright’s Bridge. The transformation wrought by the change of season on the foliage overhanging the water was remarkable this year. For several mornings I drove by, glancing over my shoulder at the crimsons and oranges bowing towards the dark water. Each time I drove by I knew the foliage would diminish both in intensity and in mass. I knew the lighting would change. I knew that if I continued my habit of getting to my desk as quickly as possible and diving into my comfortable routine, I would miss the shot, whatever that shot was. I stopped and I shot. On three consecutive mornings I stopped and I shot. Are you expecting to see the results? Keep reading.
Sometime during the past year, or maybe two, Alanna and I watched a film set in the middle east. A foreign movie with English subtitles, the plot had something to do with a two men making a road journey across a hot hard-scrabble and treeless terrain. I’m sorry, I can’t remember the reason for the journey, or the title of the film, but what I do remember is one scene in which the driver of the dusty white automobile, who happens to be a photographer, is taken by the beauty of the landscape. There is something that he sees that makes him stop. Scott Kelby would have told him, “There is something here. Your job is take your camera and find it.” We watch as the driver looks out the car window assessing the view, knowing that he will never return to this locale. His partner senses that the photographer’s talent has been tempted and he asks, “ Do you want to take a picture?” It is a moment of decision—a moment with little in the way of dialogue, and much in the depiction of self-betrayal. The photographer doesn’t get out of the car. He doesn’t take up his camera, and he doesn’t honour what his eyes have been blessed to see. He puts the car in gear and drives on. (If you know the name of the film is, please leave a comment.)
Perhaps the image of the landscape will haunt him for some time. If he retains the image, even if it is confined to his imagination, isn’t that enough, you ask. At least he has that.
Would it have been enough for Michaelangelo to “know” that his David(1501—1504) was confined to a giant block of Carrara marble—a block that had first been worked on by Agostino di Duccio and later by Antonio Rossellino, and then neglected for twenty-five years? Michaelangelo is reputed to have said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” – a statement that echoes Kelby’s suggestion that when he is attracted to a scene, “I know something is there. I just haven’t found it yet.”
The character in the Middle-Eastern road trip film is not a great photographer. He wasn’t as well-know a talent as Michaelangelo was a Renaissance master. But I don’t believe that this matters. The question is this: what of the writer who doesn’t apply his pen? What of the photographer who doesn’t use his camera? While we and millions of others have benefitted from Michaelangelo’s talent, isn’t it also true that Michaelangelo—something of what he discovered about himself as an artist, and as a human–was imprisoned in the stone until he brought forth his David. Maybe, for a writer, it’s not so much about the event of publication, as it is creative process of discovering who it is that is writing, who it is that is self, mirroring glimpses of the divine. Maybe, for the photographer . . .
A few weeks ago I was sitting in an all-day meeting and a thought came to me. I need to express the idea in those words; I wasn’t daydreaming; a thought came to me. Much in the way that an artist is visited by the muse, a memory visited my consciousness–a memory of a book I had read a few years ago, of how successful the first sentences were in hooking my interest, and how the author went on to describe the moment of an autumnal New England paradise. That was the opening, and the narrative was constructed around its loss. The thought came to me. Not the name of the author, nor the title of the book. I was more successful in retrieving that information than I was in relocating the Middle-Eastern film. The book was Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone (1999). I later found a copy in the Confederation Centre library and scribbled down those first sentences that had so impressed me, and put the book back on the shelf.
It’s odd, I suppose, that when I think back over all that happened in that terrible time, one of my sharpest memories should be of some few moments the day before everything began. Seemingly unconnected to what followed, this memory is often one of the first things that comes to me when I call up those weeks, those months—the prelude, the long, beautiful, somber note I heard but chose to disregard.
A day or so later I began to wonder about the Edenic New England setting that Miller had created—a setting that spoke to me because I had grown up in rural Connecticut where the steeples of Congregational Churches rise above the trees surrounding the village greens. (Did I write “Edenic”? The name of the village is Adams Mills.) It speaks to me because it is autumn now, and Miller’s opening image works like an easy grapple dredging up my eager-to-be recalled memories of fishing on the Housatonic River. I’ll quote a portion here, but if you would like to take the risk of getting hooked, the entire first chapter is online. ( http://www.randomhouse.com/features/suemiller/chapter.html )
It was a Monday. The day off was always Monday, because Sunday was Daniel’s busiest day at work and Saturday was mine. Monday was our day of rest. And what I recollect of that Monday, that fine fall day, is that for some long moments in the boat, I was suddenly aware of my state, in a way we aren’t often. That is, I was abruptly and most intensely, sharply aware of all the aspects of life surrounding me, and yet of feeling neither part of it nor truly separated from it. Somehow impartial, unattached-an observer. Yet sentient of it all. Deeply sentient, in fact. But to no apparent purpose.
If I were trying to account for this feeling, I might say that it had something to do with the way I was half lying, half sitting on several pillows in the bow, the way the curving walls of the old rowboat framed a foreground for my view as they rose away from me. I saw them, these peeling wooden inner walls, and then my husband’s familiar shape. Above him there was the flat, milky-blue sky and sometimes, when we were close enough to shore, the furred, nearly black line of the spruces and pines against it. In the air above us swallows darted-dark, quick silhouettes-and once a cedar waxwing moved smoothly through them. Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the walls of the boat.
As a result, let’s say, I felt suspended, waiting. Between all these worlds and part of none of them.
But this isn’t what I really believe; I think the sensation came from somewhere within me.
We feel this way sometimes in adolescence, too, surely most of us can call it up. But then there’s the burning impatience for the next thing to take shape, for whatever it is we are about to become and be to announce itself. This was different: there was, I supposed, no next thing.
I had felt something like this every now and then in the last year or so, sometimes at work as I tightened a stitch or gave an injection: the awareness of having done this a thousand times before, of surely having a thousand times left to do it again. Of doing it well and thoroughly and neatly, as I liked to do things, and simultaneously of being at a great distance from my own actions.
Or at home, setting the table, sitting down with my husband to another meal, beginning our friendly evening conversation about the day-the house quiet around us, the old dogs dozing under the table or occasionally nuzzling our feet. A sense suddenly of being utterly present and also, simultaneously, far, far away.
Jo Becker, the protagonist, is like a block of marble that contains a mystery; her past will be chipped away in a process of revelation. “Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the walls of the boat. As a result, let’s say, I felt suspended, waiting. Between all these worlds and part of none of them.”
Perhaps the fragments of memory that visited me were transported on vision-breezes of the custard and cadmium coloured leaves fluttering on the poplars and birches outside the meeting windows. The import of visitation was this: I have to re-read the book. It isn’t finished with me yet. Why? Is it that Jo Becker has something to tell me? Does her condition mirror my own? “Layers of life above me… waiting. Between all these worlds and part of none of them.”What is it that is in this book that brings back the memory and my need to go back? “There is something there. Your job is to find it.”
I returned to the library and discovered that the book had been checked out. Well, that wouldn’t do, so I walked a block of two to the Bookman, a used bookstore on University Avenue. “Can I help you?” the owner asked. “Sue Miller,” I said. “While I Was Gone? Yes, we have it, if that’s the one.” How did she know?
I’m taking my time re-reading (or slow reading) While I Was Gone. As I am with Christian McEwen’s World Enough & Time: on creativity and slowing down (Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 2011) mentioned in an earlier post. I re-read chapter 4: In Praise of Walking. “Solvitur ambulandogoes the Latin tag: ‘You can sort it out by walking,’” McEwen notes, and then goes on to talk about Wordsworth, the poet who walked, and walked, and walked, in order to be, and in order to compose. “No wonder that Wordsworth’s maid, when asked to indicate the master’s study, said that his library was over there. ‘But his study is out of doors.’” I give McEwen credit as she ruminates on writers for whom Nature is essential to existence: Hazlitt, Thoreau, Robert Louis Stevenson; and as she gives credit to those who found inspiration in lunch-time city walks, particularly Frank O’Hara.
Solvitur ambulando. So true. During a walk in the national park I realized (the idea came to me? Another visitation? Muse-stricken?) my most recent chapter of the unfinished novel needed to be re-written. While the narrative may have been true to me as the writer, it wasn’t honest to the characters. The encounter between Mary-Ellen and Zach begged to be more emotionally charged. They begged to be revealed as who they really were. I went back to the keyboard, and they had a fight, which is what they wanted.
Solvitur ambulando. True too because in writing this, I have come to an understanding of the photo that introduces this post. It is as though that understanding is something outside of me, something that I had to journey towards. Something that promised that as long as I stayed with the journey, that I would arrive at the place where it is, and that it would reveal itself to me.
So here we are at the end of this post. Where are my photos of the Wright’s Bridge foliage you ask. Yes, I did say keep reading, and here is the answer. I do hope to post a photo of the foliage, but I won’t now. Why? The images are too fresh; they need to simmer. I need time before I can consider them with a more critical eye. Having a life of their own, they aren’t ready to be offered up. That’s just another aspect of “slow photography” and the “slow movement”.