I’m taking a photography course. My third in about 20 years. I continue to be a beginner at a lot of things, partly because of my scattered attention span, which I like to think of as Endless Curiosity and the Enduring Lure of Shiny Objects. I am a chronic dilettante, and my brain functions more like a kaleidoscope than telescope.
Starting in the early 1990s, I took beginning pottery three times. I always felt like a newbie each time I sat down behind the wheel, daunted by the attempt to make art out of mud. Every lump of clay is different; every moment of wedging, of trying to keep the lumps centered and pliable (but not too smooshy) on the wheel, of glazing, firing and waiting ~ is a lesson in patience, concentration and stick-to-it-iveness. It’s like the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” You get better at something by … doing that thing.
“Do your practice, and all is coming.” ~ Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Bringing beginner’s mind to tasks that might seem intimidating or overwhelming or otherwise unpalatable is useful, even for an experienced practitioner. It can ward off boredom and burnout, for starters. (Speaking of Zen, one of my pottery teachers encouraged us to kill our uglier babies, to smash our less successful pots against the cement-block wall of the kiln building. This I could not do. My lessons in nonattachment remain ongoing.)
“Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that gives it value.” ~ Master Po in the TV series “Kung Fu” (paraphrasing the Tao Te Ching, chapter 11)
I try to remember to keep beginner’s mind in yoga, and I try with varying degrees of success to take my yoga off my mat into the realm of All Life Is Yoga. Every day is different, every downward-facing dog is different, even if it’s my thousandth. And my practice and teaching are no good if I’m an asshole to the Kroger checkout lady or my husband. The point is, as I tell my students, to notice what you notice as you practice. You don’t have to necessarily change the situation or even make a decision about it (unless acute pain is involved, of course) or, god forbid, strive for perfection; just neutrally take stock, file the thought or feeling away and move on without getting attached to your: Oh, tight shoulder or: Yay, loose hamstrings or: What’s for dinner?
Photography, like yoga, writing and so much else, is also about paying attention, about noticing what you notice. I’ve enjoyed taking pictures since I was a kid, especially with the nearly-instant-gratification Polaroid. I loved the View Master, with its cardboard wheels of images that came fully to life inside the machine. Click. Click. Click. I’ve especially grown to like “macro” photography, trying to capture close-up images ~ mostly of things that don’t move, like flowers, leaves, shells, sand, patterns. The minute details of life ~ Still Life.
Some of my favorite toys as a kid (besides my Johnny West cowboy set ~ yes, that barbed-wire fence in the 1981 Polaroid is for the horses we had) were Magic Windows, those clear-plastic ovals filled with colored crystals, and Lite-Brites and Colorforms. Somewhat passive “toys,” I suppose, but soothing and pretty. I love color ~ I used to just stare at a new box of Crayola 64s, opening the top to draw in the smell of the wax, feeling sad about messing up the pristine points of the crayons (OCD much?). But as our photography class instructor, Ted Salamone, is showing us, our cameras don’t “see” color, so we need to train ourselves to see shadows, gradations of black and white. Color distracts from detail, he says. I find that kind of tragic, but I can see what he means.
“Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen
When taking pictures, I often find that while concentrating intently on the metaphorical trees, or one tree in particular, I miss the larger forest. I know it’s there; it’s just not as interesting to me. Everyone knows what a forest looks like, but what about the veins on the underside of leaf? The striations in color, the endless shades of green that are possible for a human eye to behold? But I sometimes feel weird sticking my nose and lens where they have not been invited, even in an otherwise public place. (This is probably one of many reasons I became an editor instead of a reporter, but that’s another story.) Gently trespassing, I figure I can ask for forgiveness later rather than permission first. Do I dare disturb a rose, a cotton field, a neighbor’s yard?
“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?”
~ From T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“
Yes, I dare, to try to get the shot I want with my limited technical skills and often over-caffeinated limbs while not leaving too much of a disturbing mark: I want to capture a moment, not to create it or affect it. My feet, my knees might leave impressions in the grass or mud. I might stir something to life under its begrudging awareness of me. At the same time, while hoping that I remain invisible, I try to remain aware of the metaphorical forest around me and possible dangers to me and my camera ~ traffic, runners, slippery slopes, rain, seaspray, spiders, snakes. I try to follow the Hippocratic oath, the ahimsa of first-do-no-harm, while wondering how much my observing affects the observed.
For last week’s class assignment, I stopped by one of my favorite places to photograph, the rose garden at the Raleigh Little Theatre. I’d been there one rainy day the week before, in between light showers, and got a few auto-mode shots of beads of water on the many vibrant, intoxicatingly sweet blooms still on offer in early October, so I figured some worthy subjects would still be there. Our assignment this week was to play only with the ISO settings for indoor (400) and outdoor (100) shots, changing nothing else. Ted wants us to see how different settings affect exposure, how we can learn to control the computer in the camera to get the shots we want.
Baby steps. Wedge the air out of the clay. Play scales on the black and white keys. Learn to see the world, your subjects in black and white. Snap the shutter. Fall short, fail upward. Repeat. Try to kick up into a handstand. Fall short, fail upward. Repeat. Rest, study and try again. Explore the gray areas, the pauses between expenditures of willful effort. Study the results. Adjust.
So, per Ted’s directions, with my husband’s Canon PowerShot G12 on “P” for program and the flash off, I set the ISO on 100 and went for a wander among the rows of towering rose bushes ~ the red, fuschia, pink, violet, lavender, yellow, orange, peach, cream and white flowers luring me in. It was again a cloudy day, about 4:30 in the afternoon. As I began to wrap up my visit, I noticed a tiny spider under a petal in a pale pink rose at the end of a row. I tried to focus the lens on it, which is hard, given my granny eyesight and the limitations of the LCD screen, even on a cloudy day. I looked at the first shot I took and noticed two skinny green triangles poking up on the other side of the petal.
Huh. Look at that. A dumpster-diving grasshopper, its head and most of its body burrowed deeply into the center of the flower. My eyes had zoomed in on one thing; the camera showed me what I’d missed ~ the bigger picture.
“Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.” ~ Minor White
In my first photography class, back in the pre-digital Dark Ages, the instructor said that our eyes can see far more than any camera. I continue to prove him wrong. I was the only one (person) in the garden the entire time I was there, about a half-hour. As I saw the green legs sticking up, I caught my breath. Excited with my ~ or the camera’s ~ discovery, I tried to sneak up on the insect, raising the lens up and over the flower, since it was as tall as I. After a few shots, the grasshopper rose up out of the rose. I thought, Oh, now I’ve done it, he’ll hop off with whatever “Eff You” a grasshopper can manage, probably in French. But no, he slowly and deliberately ambled down a petal and perched on the edge. I don’t know if he even saw me. If he did, he clearly didn’t care. It was funny to have this relatively little but exquisite bug tower over me.
“And I have known the eyes already, known them all —
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?” ~ “Prufrock“
I took a few more snaps, not really able to tell if any were truly in focus. Eventually the bright-green thing made its way down the flower and burrowed underneath a lower petal. I took a few more snaps and made my way out of the garden, exhilarated by the unexpected gift. The shots are meh (unlike like these here) ~ the color isn’t totally true, and the overall effect is flat. But I felt such a mix of things when I saw the grasshopper ~ surprise and delight, but also the sense that a decision needed to be made: I could passively enjoy the experience as it was unfolding, or actively document it. Plus, it was as if I was twice invading the insect’s privacy ~ by sticking my nose in its face and then the camera’s nose. It was not a difficult call to make.
What’s so alluring and magical to me about photography is the evanescence of it. It’s about the attempt to freeze a moment in time, a singular instant that has never happened before and will never happen again, because Now never happens again. It’s about the perhaps sometimes misguided but nonetheless heartfelt attempt to make the impermanent permanent, to record and preserve something meaningful.
See, look: I stopped time, and this is what I saw. Do you see it too?
Arrogant as it may be, it’s thrilling to try to capture more than my eyes can see, or more than I think they are seeing ~ to try to shape and capture an image, an irretrievable moment that occurs during an irretrievable second of light, preferably one that looks better and truer than what my own rods and cones show me. If I can just learn how to use the tools, to take the time to become still and focused, I may become more skilled at being able to receive and perhaps share moments of pure grace. Even if they come in the form of a grasshopper.
Master Po: “You are the new student. Come closer.”
Boy: “You cannot see.”
“You think I cannot see.”
“Of all things, to live in darkness must be the worst.”
“Fear is the only darkness.”
“Never assume that because a man has no eyes he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear?”
“I hear the water. I hear the birds.”
“Do you hear your own heartbeat?”
“Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?”
“Old man, how is it that you hear these things?”
“Young man, how is it that you do not?” ~ “Kung Fu”