Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Experiencing Eternity

"When you realize that eternity
is right here now,
that it is within your possibility
to experience the eternity of
your own truth and being,
then you grasp the following:
That which you are
was never born
and will never die."

- Joseph Campbell (1904 - 1987)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Striving Toward the Infinite

"The sublime is that in comparison with which everything else is small. Here we easily see that nothing can be given in nature, however great it is judged by us to be, which could not, if considered in another relation, be reduced to the infinitely small; and conversely there is nothing so small which does not admit of extension by our imagination to the greatness of a world if compared with still smaller standards... Nothing, therefore, which can be an object of the senses is, considered on this basis, to be called sublime. But because there is in our imagination a striving toward infinite progress and in our reason a claim for absolute totality, regarded as a real idea, therefore this very inadequateness for that idea in our faculty for estimating the magnitude of things of sense excites in us the feeling of a supersensible faculty... Consequently it is the state of mind produced by a certain representation with which the reflective judgment is occupied, and not the object, that is to be called sublime... the sublime is what even to be able to think proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense."

- Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Only Seeing My Thoughts

"What does this think about that?
Nothing thinks about anything.
Does the earth have consciousness
of its stones and plants?
If it did, it would be people. . .
Why am I worrying about this?
If I think about these things,
I’ll stop seeing trees and plants
And stop seeing the Earth
For only seeing my thoughts...
I’ll get unhappy and stay in the dark.
And so, without thinking,
I have the Earth and the Sky."

- Fernando Pessoa (1888 - 1935)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Skye: Not even a Thousand Pictures

"Use a picture.
It's worth a thousand words."

- Arthur Brisbane (1864 - 1936)
(This aphorism is usually ascribed to an old Chinese proverb,
although it has been 
traced to an instructional talk given by Brisbane
to the 
Syracuse Advertising Men's Club in 1911)

I have no deeper words of wisdom to impart in regard to this photo than to simply echo Brisbane's admonition. I could say that it was a photo taken at Trumpan (Skye, Scotland at some precise lat/long coordinate), on July 4, 2016 at 10:13 local time (as one might guess, the sun sets very late on Skye in the summer), looking to the north west toward the isle of Harris, and that the ambient temperature was hovering near a comfortably cool 54 deg F. I could write some words to convey a sense of the mysteriously "dynamic stillness" that the slowly dwindling light infused the "air" with. I could wax poetic, and conjure some lines to describe the forms and colors of the evanescent clouds that so transfixed my wife's and my attention with their phantasmagorical - mystical - undulations. I could even evoke the faint, but soft accompanying symphony of mooohs and baaaas of Skye's - and Trumpan's - omnipresent cows and sheep, now cloaked by darkness, to provide a (dare I say it: synesthetic) dimension to the experience of seeing a sunset from this particular spot in space and time on our planet.

But none of these incantations come close to matching the power of a simple "picture." And yet, even the picture is inept (as would be any other I could insert in its place), and woefully inadequate to express the feeling of what it was like to be actually like being there in that moment, a short walk away from our little rented cottage, a warm meal in our bellies, kids safely by our side (though more engrossed in their flashlight-lit books than the aesthetic wonders surrounding them), knowing there are two full weeks still awaiting us on our vacation, looking out into the distance, just meditating on, and enjoying, the simple beauty spread before us.

"Use a picture; it's worth a thousand words" - yes, all true - but even a thousand pictures will fall far short of conveying what it is really like to experience the preternatural riches of Skye.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Interior of the Soul

"There is one spectacle grander than the sea,
that is the sky;
there is one spectacle
grander than the sky,
that is the interior of the soul"

- Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Skye: Secret Eyes

"In a few moments he came into the core of himself, where he was alone, and felt strangely companioned, not by anyone or anything, but by himself. The rejected self found refuge here, not a cowed refuge, but somehow a wandering ease; as if it were indestructible, and had its own final pride, its own secret eyes.

That's the way it went...the way. No one could see the end of the way, but of the way itself, in insight, in understanding, there could be no doubt. For man could experience that, and know its relief, and know its strange extended gladness. That was the beginning... if the lure of transcendence, of timeless or immortal implication, came around, pay no great attention, but move from one step to the next, and look at this face and stay with that... and let what would happen in the place where happenings and boundaries were."

- Neil M Gunn (1891-1973)

Postscript: Although I rarely include people in my photographs (I can echo Ansel Adams' retort to the criticism that he never took pictures of people: "Well, that's not my style!"), I have a fondness for capturing my wife in Friedrich-like poses whenever we travel. In this instance, while I was bent over my tripod looking for something interesting to shoot at my feet on a beach somewhere on Skye, I noticed how my wife's small solitary figure dwarfed - yet mysteriously, somehow also perfectly balanced - the spectacularly expansive and desolate, landscape we were immersed in. Micro and macro, momentarily fused into a state of perfect boundary-less clarity.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Skye: Hidden Beauty

"Poetry lifts the veil from the
hidden beauty of the world,
and makes familiar objects be
as if they were not familiar."

- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

Postscript: an attribute of which - i.e., of "...lifting the veil" - one might reasonably well also ascribe to photography. It is almost an inconsequential fact that the triptych consists of, respectively, from left to right: some reeds nestled near the shallow end of a small loch near Trotternish's Old Man of Storr, a few pebbles found on the beach near Elgol, and some gentle patterns in water captured by the pier at Portree, the capital of Skye. Paraphrasing Borges' narrator (in "Pascal's Sphere"), who is quoted to have said that Pascal's image for the universe is an infinite sphere, "the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere,” one might say that beauty is infinite, "revealed everywhere, and centered nowhere." And nowhere is beauty made manifest, when visible, in quite as rich and sublime a form than on the Isle-of-Skye.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Skye: Grandeur of Quiraing

"When I consider the multitude of associated forces which are diffused through nature — when I think of that calm balancing of their energies which enables those most powerful in themselves, most destructive to the world's creatures and economy, to dwell associated together and be made subservient to the wants of creation, I rise from the contemplation more than ever impressed with the wisdom, the beneficence, and grandeur, beyond our language to express, of the Great Disposer of us all."

- Michael Faraday
(1791 - 1867)

Postscript: this shot was taken not too far from the parking area for The Quiraing on the Isle-of-Skye's Trotternish peninsula’s east coast. It is a spectacularly vibrant symphony of majestic - and labyrinthian - cliffs and grassy valleys. It is also arguably the largest landslide on earth.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Skye: Eternal Delight

"In this moment there is nothing which comes to be.  In this moment there is nothing which ceases to be. Thus there is no birth-and-death to be brought to an end. Wherefore the absolute tranquility is this present moment.  Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein is eternal delight."

- Hui-neng (638—713)
Quoted from Alan Watts, In my Own Way

Postscript: this shot was taken near Armadale castle (on the Isle-of-Skye, Scotland), looking out across the Sound of Sleat toward Mallaig (Jon Schueler's initial stay on Skye, as mentioned in an earlier post).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Skye: Suffused with Wonder II

"...reason has tended to collar intellect in our time... For reason knows that we all want to have reason on our side. But once we have seen reason plain, we can use it as the wonderful tool that it is, and then get on with the real business of being alive along the way whose milestones are momentary or timeless experiences of being whole - mind, body, and hand - in the delight that is memorable and breathe an immemorial air...

...And then you become aware of your self there, aware of rare self, the rare self that interpenetrates all, sees and knows with a final certainty. I know some such self has been splelt with a capital S, just as the word certainly has been called Truth or Reality. But I Don't want in this practical exercise to use capitals, or words like Mysticism, Transcendence, and so on. There is no need; only a little application, persistence, failure and more persistence. The way is open. But one must go along it far enough for thought to get blocked and the void of no-thought to open out, for only then can enlightenment come."

- Neil M Gunn (1891-1973)

Postscript: astute readers of my blog will have noticed that I have recently (since my return from Skye, Scotland in July) quoted heavily from Neil Gunn. For those of you who have not heard the name (I had not heard of him prior to my first trip to Scotland in 2009, where I "discovered" his writings while browsing through one of Scotland's many fine second-hand bookstores), Neil Miller Gunn was born in 1891 in Dunbeath, a small fishing and crofting community in Caithness, in North East Scotland. Arguably among the most important Scottish novelists of the first half of the 20th century (he wrote 20 novels between 1926 and 1954), Gunn's unique gift was the seemingly effortless manner in which he captured in prose the - physical and spiritual - essence of Highland life. His final book, published in 1956 was The Atom of Delight (from which the passage above is quoted, along with a few others in earlier blog entries). It is a profoundly moving, deeply spiritual autobiography that traces his interest in Zen Buddhism (his interest in which was ignited when he read Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery, the same book that, coincidentally, also jump-started Henri Cartier-Bresson's pursuit of the "decisive moment'). I find his writings a perfect complement to (and/or, prose-based analogue of) the feeling that Scotland, in general, and Skye in particular, instills in me.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Skye: Suffused with Wonder

"But it's the next and final step that the difficult one - and really quite impossible to describe because of its unique nature... In the end thought itself gets choked and the mind becomes a void. It's at this point that the miracle happens, and the void, the void itself, gets lit up: the light spreads, burgeons; it is suffused with wonder, delight, a miraculous sense of freedom."

- Neil M Gunn (1891-1973)

As I've mentioned repeatedly on these pages since my return from last month's trip to the wondrous Isle-of-Skye in Scotland, Skye is a paradoxical mix of majestic landscapes, seascapes, and clouds - that are almost too overwhelming in their cosmic scale and intensity to appreciate fully - and a sublime timeless stillness that permeates and infuses even the smallest elements with an transcendent ethereal glow, elevating the merely physical into a spiritual dimension.

There are some who believe that "reality" is but a thin - mostly illusory - veil separating one invisible realm, that defines the "seer," from another, that defines what the seer "sees" (without diving into deeper ouroborian realities!)  Nowhere else does that veil seem quite as thin as when it is rendered momentarily visible on Skye. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Skye's Evanescent Moods

"The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water."

(1909 - 1994)

Sometimes the most revealing shots of all - that record otherwise invisible rhythms of light and mood - are the simplest, requiring the least effort. As I've already written about in previous blog entries, Skye's one constant is its evanescence. One minute, one is enveloped in a cool mist, or is pummeled hard by cold rain; a minute passes, and rays of bright sun light up a valley that was all but invisible an instant ago; another minute passes, and the clouds magically transform into a symphony of light and shadow and - inexplicably - wondrous color that seems to simultaneously come from nowhere and infuse everything (the act that so transfixed and inspired the abstract artist Jon Schueler); then, suddenly, a mysterious, imperceptibly soft, wind, stirs away the magic, and renders Skye's secrets invisible once more, leaving only the soft "moooos" and "baaaahs" of the omnipresent cows and sheep in place to remind one that Skye's evanescence is fundamentally defined by an endless - irreducibly complex - play between the real and the surreal; with neither giving up its secrets easily.

The image at the top of this blog entry contains a short sequence of the same photograph, captured from the same spot (my position at our breakfast table, with me looking at our cottage's south facing window) and at the same time, but on different days during our stay. While not a fine-art masterpiece - it is nothing more than a quick "pick up the camera, steady the view, click, and go back to munching on the bagel" shot - the sequence provides an unadorned glimpse of Skye's alluring shifting moods and light. The specific images do not matter, as does not matter the order, nor the fact that the images were all taken on different days. I could have conveyed essentially the same meaning by capturing arbitrary images throughout any relatively short interval of time on any given day. Skye's "reality" cannot be captured by focusing on the details of how its moods and light change, but only by appreciating the constancy of change. On the other hand, Skye's "surreality" cannot be captured by a camera at all, and is best simply experienced

And that, perhaps, is Skye's second deepest lesson and mystery (the first mystery was mentioned in an earlier post: how - despite the incessant drama of Skye's landscapes, and unending froth of light and shadow - Skye nonetheless manages to impart a spiritually infused fantastical sense of quiet): while photography can be a powerful tool for self-discovery, its utility for this process can - paradoxically - sometimes be at odds with a photographer's ability to "discover" external truths. The ability to do the former precludes, to a degree, the ability to simultaneously to do the latter (echoes of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle?) For me, this certainly appears to be the case on Skye, where I can either: (A) capture certain aspects of Skye's shifting "lights and moods" with my camera (in a "fine art" / documentary manner, that focuses attention on the specifics of Skye's shifting "lights and moods" but ignores - because my camera's digital sensor cannot capture - deeper spiritual dimensions), or, (B) explore and become increasingly aware of richer levels of aesthetic and spiritual understanding by directly experiencing Skye's shifting "lights and moods (sans camera). But I cannot do - Skye does not permit one to do - both simultaneously.

On the other hand, I may be over-complicating matters, as is my penchant to do, for as Lao Tzu reminds us, "The Way to do is to be." Ultimately, whatever distinctions may or may not exist between "doing A" and "doing B" are mine, and mine alone. I can experience Skye, I can capture (aspects of) Skye with my camera, I can be on Skye, but these seemingly disparate acts are all just "me being me" on Skye. Skye itself remains blissfully evanescent and eternally ineffable. And that is why I can't wait to go back to "me being me" on Skye.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Skye: Full of Wonder

"Have you ever, as a small boy, wandered farther from home than you meant to or were aware of - say, up a strath or valley - until you found yourself in a place where you had never been before? All at once you realize that you are in this strange place. Stock still, not breathing so that you can listen, you stare at grey rocks with whorls of lichen on them like faces, tree-roots like snakes, the trees themselves heavy with leaves and silent. Your heart comes into your throat. Quietly, very quietly, you get back onto the path, then take to your toes for all you are worth. This may have been the first experience of panic fear - the first meeting with the old Greek god. But you also met someone else there, much nearer to you than Pan: you met yourself..."

"...Normally at this point one gets back into the old familiar places as quickly as possible. But if the surprise, the shock, of finding oneself in such new and surprising scenery is great enough, there may be induced the involuntary reflection: That I should be here! I - here - amid the strange and bewildering! At such a moment, if the shock has really been astonishing enough, the 'I' has a new feel, a new taste. It is in a way as if one had never really met this 'I' before..."

"...For the real point of the experience is that one comes upon oneself, the 'I', as one may never have done before, almost as though it were outside oneself, in a detachment evoked by the strangeness of the scene and the moment. In this sense it is objective not subjective. One apprehends one's presence there as one might the presence of a stranger. And the experience is incredibly refreshing, cool as birch-scented air, and full of wonder."

- Neil Gunn (1891 - 1973)
Passages quoted from John Burns, A Celebration of the Light

Monday, August 08, 2016

"Drive-by shooting" in Skye

"Who forces time is pushed back by time;
who yields to time finds time on his side."
-  The Talmud

What is a "fine art" photographer (meaning: a photographer whose bills are paid by activity not directly related to photography) to do when, faced with extraordinary visual/compositional opportunities, but only relatively short bursts of photography are allowed? Or, to ask the question more directly, how does one balance a family vacation (with two teenaged boys in tow) with fine-art photography?

The truth is that the "constraint" I have just alluded to (of having only short bursts of photography) is mostly illusory. Certainly, in my case - and I've been taking photographs for well over 40 years at this point - the truth is that I take photographs whenever and wherever I can for as long (or short) a time as I can get. A few minutes here, a few hours there; and on rare occasions, day-long dedicated safaris (such as when I took a full day off work to have Luray Caverns all to myself). This has been my method for as long as I can remember. Whether I'm on my own, prowling around with my camera at a nearby park on a lazy Sunday, hiking around with my younger son (who is an SX-70 photographer), or on vacation with the entire family at some remote part of the planet, my process of doing photography is essentially the same. It is opportunistic and quick (well, "quick" in photographer's parlance, meaning - objectively - anywhere from a few moments to a few hours, as recorded by non-photographer-observers), and is seldom, if ever, shaped by specific "goals." I capture what captures me, so to speak. 

The overarching meta problem on Skye was that I was captured by everything! Skye's breathtaking beauty made it virtually impossible to look away, and not take pictures; impossible to just slow down and wait for the picture to reveal itself (my preferred method). Our stay in Skye can be best described as a continual struggle to maintain a balance between capturing Skye's Wagnerian-scale landscapes that the eye is inevitably first drawn to - particularly in a place seldom frequented and that has such dramatic mountainous forms and displays of light and shadow to offer - and yielding attention to the quieter, more intimate - often only subtly visible - elements of those same landscapes. Time was hardly ever sufficient to do real justice to the second - and as far as fine-art photography is concerned - most important class of images (if something beyond simple "postcard" impressions of a place is being sought). As my dad taught me throughout his life as an artist, one cannot hope to find (and reveal, whether by traditional means using  a canvas, in his case, or via photography, in mine) anything of lasting value in nature if one is not on the most intimate terms with her. Whenever my dad would encounter a meadow or forest or one of his beloved "болото" (Russian for "swamp"), he would spend hours, often entire days, just wandering around, hands clasped behind his back, and easel, paintbrushes and canvas quietly tucked away in the trunk of his car. This was his "getting to know a place" meditation time; his dialectic with an - as yet - unknown/uninternalized environment. Only when my dad gained a sense of unity with - of a belonging to - a place, a Goethian-holistic "feel" of the dynamics in play around him (and an implied - soulful - invitation for him to engage with the dynamics of a landscape), did he finally set up his easel and start to paint.

Of course, the ability to engage in these dialectic meditations is not always possible. On Skye, "drive-by shooting" was the norm: while cruising along some one-lane road (there is a detailed etiquette on dealing with approaching traffic on one-lane roads in Scotland), just "enjoying the sights," I'd suddenly exclaim something like, "Whoa, the light! We've got to stop!" My ever patient wife (who did all of the driving) would just as suddenly screech to a halt at the first available side of gravel, and - jumping out of the car with camera and tripod already in hand (an instinct honed and nurtured over years of practice) - I'd proceed to look, look again, run towards some spot my visual cortex deemed "best" (as I automatically extend the legs of my tripod), set up my camera, rifle off a few shots, and run back to the car with a thanks to my wife (and an apology to the kids, who would invariably still be rolling their eyes in the backseat at the temerity of "yet another stop for dad"). Run the clock another 20 or so minutes and repeat.

Though this "process of doing photography" may appear either silly or unrewarding (or both), in truth, with only minor variations (the major ones being that, when not traveling, I'm usually the one both driving and stopping and the kids are back home playing their video games), it is how most of my photographs are captured. To be sure, there are times when I do have the luxury of time to "get to know a place" before training my lens on it. But more often than not - for what I consider my "best" images - I "get to know a place" not by wandering around for a few days without a camera, as my dad once did without his brushes; rather, by repeated visits, accumulated over a long time, months, years even, enabled simply by virtue of living close enough to a place of interest to be able to do so. And it is the wisdom (if I can call it that) that these repeated visitations to local places has instilled in me that - when traveling abroad, with far less precious "getting to know a place" time available - I rely on to instinctively guide my eye to parts of an otherwise unknown environment most prone to harboring "quiet secrets." I am not always right, and I certainly prefer to discover these secrets in a more deliberate, circumspect way. But 40+ years of keeping my eyes and soul receptive to nature's gifts goes a long way; or so I keep telling myself as I rocket out of the car with my tripod and camera, and run toward what I'm sure is another "special, quiet place."

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Scotland, Skye, and Schueler

"I wasn't sure if it was a place or a mood or what it was, but there was something I was looking for .... As I approached the sea near Mallaig and the Sound of Sleat I could see these massive forms like the Isle of Eigg and the southern tip of Skye and Rhum, and I could see these things sort of glowering in this kind of wild light that took place that day and the Geiger counter just went berserk. I'll never forget the excitement."

- Jon Schueler (1916 - 1992)

Those were words written down by abstract artist Jon Schueler after arriving in the remote fishing village of Mallaig in western Scotland in 1957, overlooking the Sound of Sleat and toward the isle of Skye. Except for the time and specific place (in my case, in 2009 during my wife's and my first trip to Kyleakin, Skye, and, more recently, last month, as our whole family arrived in tow to Trumpan, Skye - the northern part of Skye's "second finger" - including our two teenage boys), I could use Schueler's words to describe my own reaction to the preternatural splendor of Skye's landscapes and skies. It is a wondrous place that somehow exists both inside and outside of time; where shapes, textures, and colors appear, and disappear, fleetingly and constantly, that one swears have never before appeared anywhere else on earth; where so much Wagnerian-scale drama unfolds in its undulating land, sea, and cloudscapes during even that ephemeral instant between involuntary blinks of an eye, that one's aesthetic senses are delighted and overwhelmed. Oh, but what a magnificent symphony!

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting images as I "develop" them, and that I somehow (inexplicably) managed to capture in between slack-jawed exclamations of "Ooh!" and "Ahhh" and the occasional, "Just extraordinary!"; as Skye sporadically allowed hints of its ineffable mystery and beauty to enter my camera's lens and viewfinder.

Again, I cannot improve upon Shueler's own words:

"When I speak of nature, I speak of the sky, because the sky has become all of nature to me. And when I think of the sky, I think of the Scottish sky over Mallaig. It isn't that I think of it that nationally, really, but that I studied the Mallaig sky so intently, and I found its convulsive movement and change and drama such a concentration of activity that it became all skies and even the idea of all nature to me. It's as if one could see from day to day the drama of all skies and of all nature in all times speeded up and compressed. I knew that the whole thing was there. Time was there and motion was there - lands forming, seas disappearing, worlds fragmenting, colors emerging or giving birth to burning shapes, mountain snows showing emerald green; or paused solid still when gales stopped suddenly and the skies were clear again after long days of howling sound and rain or snow beating horizontal from the sky."

Perhaps Skye's deepest mystery, is how - despite the incessant drama of all of its basic forms, and unending froth of light and shadow - there is a deep, deep, spiritually infused fantastical quiet that envelops the senses (when the moment is right and Skye has chosen to briefly reveal that side of herself).