A photograph captures a moment in the world, and represents it upon a surface. The world’s four dimensions (three spatial and one temporal) are reduced to two. For the greater part of its history, photography was limited to the shades of grey between white and black, thus collapsing the three dimensions of the human perceptual color space into one. Despite or because of these limitations, photography has become an important and meaningful art form. The viewer can construct the missing dimensions of the world, or marvel at the order revealed when its abundance is reduced.
Lee Friedlander’s photograph entitled Kyoto, 1981, beautifully conveys the idea of a photograph. A carp swims in a shallow pool. This is probably located in a Buddhist temple; Kyoto is a city of temples. One can imagine the fish’s red and gold, the colors accentuated by a movement, which has recently disrupted the pool’s surface serenity. The outline of a tree is reflected upon the water. Its branches are not yet fully leaved. Perhaps it is spring and the branches are arrayed with blossoms. In Japan, the season of the cherry blossoms is a time for contemplation. Above the tree are clouds, some of which are dark. Sunlight is breaking through; it has probably just stopped raining.
Some residual drops of water, perhaps disturbed inadvertently by the photographer, have fallen from the tree upon the pool. Upon contact with the water, the drops are struck by the light, and become momentarily as bright as the sun. When the photograph is printed the drops appear as openings in the surface of the water. Through these holes one sees nothing. If one peeled away the surface, the world would vanish. One is reminded of the Buddhist idea of sunyata: the eternal emptiness behind everything that we perceive. In the Heart Sutra, the first teaching of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Understanding such cryptic comments comes not easily to the Western mind. The teacher is suggesting that how we experience the world – as multivariate and transient – is wrong. The true form of the world is single and unchanging.
B) Headstone and Lichen
Time is an essential aspect of photography. Some photographs allude to times beyond the moment of their capture. Brett Weston’s photograph Headstone and Lichen, 1970, was taken in Japan. The writing on a gravestone notes the essential information of a person’s life: the name, the date of birth, and the date of death. Most of us shall only be remembered by the numbers that denote the brief span of our life. Ultimately our name and numbers will also fade. Indeed, all that remains intelligible on this particular stone are the dates. The striking aspect of the print is how the contrast has been adjusted to show the texture of the lichen and to leave the stone in darkness. Our eyes interpret this darkness in terms of depth: the lichen appear to float on the surface of a pool. The calligraphy on the stone, visible in distorted form in the lichen, is invisible in the darkness. The marks we leave on stone endure but briefly.
Weston included this photograph in his 1975 book Voyage of the Eye. As well as the photographs, the book reproduced Hart Crane’s 1926 poem Voyages. The fourth section of the poem is placed on the page facing the photograph Headstone and Lichen. Crane’s poem is an expression of a wildly romantic love, a love that grasps for immortality. Among its lines are:
No stream of greater love advancing now
Than, singing, this mortality alone
Through clay allow immortally to you.
Weston’s photograph comments more austerely on our transience, on our hope to last forever, and our need to be remembered.
Lichen is an intriguing form of life: a fungus combined symbiotically with either algae or cyanobacteria. The fungus provides a structure in which the algae or bacteria can live, and they manufacture through photosynthesis the nutrients on which the fungus survives. Unlike us, lichens can live for thousands of years. The passage of time can be measured by the diameter of a colony: “lichenometry” is sometimes used to determine the age of an exposed surface.
Stonehenge is lightly covered with multiple different lichens. Some have been carried there by the recent winds, but some may have begun thousands of years ago when the monument was built. Paul Caponigro’s photograph Inner Trilithion through Circle Stones, Stonehenge, 1970, shows the variegate surface of the ancient stones caught in the early morning light. The photograph revels in the play of light upon the surfaces. The most striking aspect of the print, however, is its form. The strength and structure of the stones is vividly recreated in the dark masses standing in the light. We, who live but several scores, can find great comfort, and even a sense of safety, in stones that have stood for centuries.
Stonehenge was constructed with due regard for the passage of time and the marking of the seasons. The monument was probably used for memorial or spiritual celebrations. Its builders lived in wooden buildings a little distance away. Wood was the material of living, and stone the stuff of lasting.
In his 1986 book Megaliths, which presents his photographs of many neolithic monuments in Europe, Caponigro describes some of his feelings while photographing the stones:
I felt at times that I could grasp the imagination and aspiration of the ancient ones who worked with the stones and the forces of the earth. Impressions I received in the presence of the stones opened gateways that led me to a profound sense of harmony.
To me, the compelling quality of the stones is that they contain one of the greatest of all mysteries: that which can never be brought to physical manifestation, yet is discernible to our innermost consciousness. Locked in the silence of these stone complexes lies a link to the world of the unutterable.
Toward the end of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbevilles (1891), Tess and Angel are fleeing from the law. They travel through the night across the Salisbury Plain. Exhausted they pause within the circle of Stonehenge. Tess rests on one of the fallen stones as the night comes to an end:
The band of silver paleness along the east horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near; and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day. The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun-stone beyond them; and the Stone of Sacrifice midway. Presently the night wind died out, and the quivering little pools in the cup-like hollows of the stones lay still.
Thousands of miles away from the Salisbury Plain, and centuries later, the Pueblo Indians set up adobe homes on the mesas of New Mexico. Within each Tewa community a “kiva” provided a space for spiritual rites and political meetings. The kiva was an enclosed space typically half underground and entered by descending a ladder. Morley Baer’s photograph Kiva, San Ildefonso, 1973, represents a kiva in Northern New Mexico. The eye is immediately drawn to the curve of the sapling ladder. This resonates with the stepped wall of the kiva and the shadow of an opposing wall. The sun is behind us. The sky above the kiva has been darkened by filters: we see it as deeply blue. The adobe surface of the wall has a texture as complex as the sky is clear.
The photograph below (adapted from Wikipedia) shows the kiva in San Ildefonso in 2014. This will allow you to see the nature of the light and shadow in Baer’s photograph.
Morley Baer’s image alludes to an earlier photogravure by Edward S. Curtis, The Kiva Stairs, San Ildefonso, reproduced in Volume 17 of his compendium The North American Indian (1926) and illustrated on the right. The two photographs have different goals. Curtis was documenting the way of life of his subjects; Baer is making a more general statement about their search for spiritual sustenance.
In his 1979 book Room and Time Enough, Baer presented his photographs in the context of the words of Mary Austin, who wrote passionately about the spiritual aspirations of the indigenous people of the west. In Land of Journey’s Ending (1924) she noted
… long before men set up an anthropomorphic deity, there was a state, easily met among the mountains, called holy, being whole with the experienceable universe.
This state can be sensed in the curve of the ladder in Baer’s photograph.
San Ildefonso and the nearby Pueblo of Santa Clara are famous for their black pottery. The pots are fired in a reducing oven (with very low oxygen) which renders them black. Their surfaces are then burnished with a smooth stone to give a deep gloss. San Ildefonso pottery is often characterized by black-on-black designs, where glossy and matte surfaces alternate. Santa Clara is famous for its deeply incised black pots. These ceramic forms are brothers-in-art to Baer’s black-and-white photography. The illustration on the left shows a Santa Clara pot by Stella Chavarria, with an incised “avanyu” (water dragon).
Almost all of Baer’s photographs were taken with an 8 by 10-inch Ansco view-camera. The camera is mounted on a tripod. The photographer views the picture on a ground glass screen. The aperture is then closed, the film inserted and then exposed. Many of his prints are “contact” prints: the image is directly transferred from the film to the paper without the intercession of an enlarger. A photograph (by David Fullagar) of Baer with his camera is shown at the right.
Most of Brett Weston’s photographs were taken with a similar large-format view-camera, though later in his life he used various middle-format cameras. View cameras require that the view be set up and framed at leisure before the film is exposed. They are perfect for recording the stillness of unchanging. Lee Friedlander and Paul Caponigro mainly used small handheld cameras, that are designed for the moment when things change.
Although photography can portray the lasting aspects of our life, it is essentially an art form of the moment. The camera’s aperture opens only briefly. Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the first great photographers to take pictures of the unrehearsed and never repeated moment. He used a small Leica camera, with a lens having a focal length of 50 mm, and using rolls of 35 mm film. His first Leica is shown below in a photograph by Stewart Wallace. It is the antithesis of Baers view camera.
One of Cartier-Bresson’s first images with his new Leica was entitled Hyères, 1932. A spiral set of steps descends from the second story toward a street that curves downhill to the left. The view is framed by the walls on either side of the steps and by the house on the other side of the street. All this geometry is beautifully rendered, but what immediately grasps the eye is the cyclist who passes through the picture. He is blurred by his movement, but captured just before he exits the frame. The photograph is momentous: the cyclist is on his way somewhere, perhaps to change the world.
Taking such photographs requires a different expertise from using a view-camera: an ability to recognize the passing moments rather than the lasting harmonies. Cartier-Bresson commented on his compositional technique in his 1952 book The Decisive Moment:
If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of forms must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.
We look and perceive a photograph as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glance. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.
In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment on the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.
He summarized his philosophy:
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.
The book’s title in French was Images à la Sauvette, which translates as “Pictures on the Fly.” The English title has had a much greater impact. The book’s cover (illustrated on the right) was based on a collage by Henri Matisse, which uses pieces of colored paper cut and pasted to suggest life and change.
Cartier-Bresson’s approach requires a painterly evaluation of the geometry of the scene in which an event could unfold, an alertness to what is happening, a sense of what might happen, and a complete knowledge of the camera so that any adjustments can be made without thinking. The exposure is then triggered almost automatically. Much of this is similar to being “in the zone” in sports. Although everything occurs instantaneously, the athlete or the photographer feels that time has slowed down and actions are aligned to some greater force. As Suler remarks in his online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche the decisive moment is
not unlike the fully aware, spontaneous, unpremeditated, and undesired letting lose of the arrow that Eugene Herrigel described in his classic account of Zen in the Art of Archery
Although Cartier-Bresson’s photographs are made in a moment, they thus have the same resonance with a deeper reality as evidenced in the other photographs we have considered.
Roman Loranc’s photograph Absolution, Lithuania, 2002, was taken in a deserted and neglected church in Eastern Europe. Loranc was born in Bielsko-Biala in southwestern Poland and immigrated to the United States in 1982. He often returns to his homeland now that it is no longer under communist rule. He photographs using a 4 by 5 inch Linhof field-camera in the style of Edward and Brett Weston, and Morley Baer.
In an interview with David Best in Black and White Magazine (April, 2018), he commented on photography and time:
Photography is a very powerful tool. It captures a moment in time, saving that instant for longer than it existed. I love being able to express something that captivated me. When I am out shooting, I am unaware of the passing of time. I am completely absorbed by the subject I’m trying to capture. Hours can go by without my realization that they have passed as I concentrate on seeing what is before me. Then being able to examine and interpret that segment of time and space later is an amazing thing. And to share this moment in time, which I’ve captured on a piece of paper, with other people when they look at my work—that is truly the best feeling in the world.
Loranc is fascinated by the ancient churches of his homeland. Most of these are in disrepair after the years of communist rule. On his personal website he states
These are holy spaces where millions of people have prayed for hundreds of years. They are places of great humility, and remind us how brief our lives are.
The sacrament of penance in the Catholic Church is the process in which a believer confesses his or her sins to a priest. If convinced of the sinner’s contrition and desire not to persist in sin, the priest then decides what should be done as penance. Ultimately, the penance is completed and the sinner is absolved. This most powerful of the Christian sacraments provides hope and freedom: the sinner can return to life without the burden of guilt. Worries about what should have been done are changed to promises about what shall be done.
This photograph was the last photograph that I obtained for my collection. I first saw it a few years after it was taken. At that time, since prices for photographs had risen and I had retired from clinical practice to do research, I did not buy the photograph. Fifteen years later, I did.
Loranc’s photograph was taken in an old church, deserted and fallen into disrepair. A confessional booth still stands. Inside it one detects the ghostly form of a priest. The exposure time for the photograph was prolonged. The priest (or more likely the photographer) was only in the booth for part of the exposure time. One can see the floorboards through his cassock. It is probably morning – the light billows in from the Eastern end of the nave. It is probably cold – one can see the condensation from the breathing of the ghostly confessor.
The idea of using prolonged exposures goes back to the beginning of photography, when it was necessary because of the low sensitivity of early film. In the photogravure of Francis Frith entitled Interior, Jedburg Abbey based on a photograph from the 1850s, one notices that the person contemplating the ruins is partially transparent. Though him can be seen the outline of the grave he stands before. The person is likely the photographer who opened the camera’s aperture, strode into the field of the photograph, stood still for a while, and then returned to close the aperture. The illustration below shows the photogravure and an enlargement of the photographer.
We are only here for a brief while. We are not perfect. The grave awaits. Before we leave our life, it would be wonderful to be absolved of what we have done wrong.