Monday, March 26, 2007

Transitory Impermanence

The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary informs us that the word "transitory" comes from the Middle English word transitorie (and from Anglo-French, from Late Latin transitorius; from Latin, of or allowing passage, from transire); and means tending to pass away; not persistent (or of brief duration). Yet, as with most things (and particularly processes) in this world, even this seemingly iron-clad "definition" is not without some ambiguity and a sense of mystery.

At first sight, what we see here is the very epitome of transitory reality: water, flowing over monolithic rock. The effervescent fluid is full of life and energy, and is demonstrably and obviously impermanent. The boulders are classic symbols of stability and permanence. But is either element really such a stalwart exemplar of the class of being that it purports to be?

Are not the rocks, if viewed in their natural context, more of an impermanent reality than the water, as they slowly, but inevitably, succumb to the rushing water's punishing power? Is not the flow of water (rather than its substance), in fact, a much longer living entity; one destined to outlive even the strongest of rocks? How many years had the "rocks" that are no longer part of the Grand Canyon withstood the inexorable onslaught of the Colorado River's persistent flow?...

...and what is the analog, I wonder, of the "rushing water" to our seemingly permanent (but, in truth, merely transitory) "reality" as living, sentient, and soulful creatures? How many years will go by before life itself becomes a distant memory? ...before it turns into an organically eroded gorge, carved into oblivion by the methodical, uncaring flow of time?

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.
- Buddha

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Rejuvenating Metapatterns

It has been quite some time since I've posted any new images; indeed, it has been quite some time since I've captured any. While an unqualified virtue of being a devout "amateur" photographer is that I am (for the most part) able to focus my attention on the kind of photographs I like to take (rather than shoot for clients and cater to their needs); the downside is that my "day job" always has priority; and the past few months have been particularly busy.

So, what does this amateur photographer do when he finally finds a few precious moments to prowl around with his camera?
He ventures off in search of the primitive metapatterns (identified a few years ago by my then 6yo son as forming the core of his dad's "eye"): rocks, leaves and water.

Of course, these metapatterns both arise and persist mostly due to happenstance as I can travel only so far from home for my "safaris" and usually wind up taking short nature walks at local parks. On the other hand, these metapatterns are also almost always (as noted by my son) those that I turn to first after a long period of relative inactivity. I have learned from experience that these simple, timeless, themes rejuvenate my soul, and refocus my mind from equations, computer code and technical reports to more artful pursuits.

What is fascinating to me is how much "rust" I always find in the artful part of my brain, even after what (objectively speaking) is only a relatively short time "away" from the camera. Photographers (likely all artists!) know precisely what I mean by this. It is not that I have forgotten the technical aspects of my craft (f-stops and such); it is simply that what is usually an effortless act of unconscious composition, is, for a time at least, anything but effortless. I feel the process, as though my eye/I is moving through molasses. The same is true for any craft, of course (even physics: though I find that I must be away from that for a considerably longer time to feel the same degree of "rust"). But there is something subjectively different about art; in that the artist's rust seems to appear virtually simultaneously with the artist losing his/her engagement and total immersion.

A less convoluted way of saying the same thing, I suppose, is that our muse simply wanders off when we lose attention. Hardly a surprise in hindsight, and something I always relearn as I try to reconnect with my muse.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Four-Dimensional Photographer

Stephen Shore, the well known photographer (and teacher; who, among other things, was the first living photographer to have a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY) has recently updated his classic meditation on the Nature of Photographs. Recommended to all aspiring (and working) photographers, the beauty of this book is the density of its distilled wisdom.

You will not find anything here on f-stops, film speeds and lenses, nothing on the darkroom (analog or digital), nothing on the raging "debate" whether to pick up an 8 megapixel DSLR or a 10, and no instructions - at least explicit ones - on how to take "better" pictures. What you will find is the crystalline essence of Shore's lifetime's worth of thinking about the nature of the photograph. His short, Zen-like prose-poem musings pierce the proverbial bullseye like an archer's arrow; and leave the reader both enchanted and haunted by their eloquence and wisdom.

Shore reminds us that amidst the infinity of potential images, both real and imagined, the photographer has four - and only four - formal tools for defining a picture's content and organization: vantage point, frame, focus and time. Stop and think about that for a moment. With all the wonderful technology underneath our thumb as we prepare to press the shutter, with all the different ways in which we can image ourselves "taking" a shot, and all the different images that can conceivably exist, the photographer really only has these four fundamental "creative dimensions" with which to work, and no more! Where do I position myself; what do I put in the picture and what do I leave out; where should I focus my attention; and how much of a slice of time do I want to include?

Every picture that has ever been taken, and every photograph yet to be captured - from Adams' shots of Yosemite, to Cartier-Bresson's visual etudes on the "Decisive Moment," to visual realities created by some future technologies - is "reality" as aesthetically transformed by the four-dimensional human creative filter!

Yet somehow, miraculously even, this suffices to provide (however brief) glimpses of an infinite dimensional world of meaning and beauty. That is the magic of photography!