These photographs are about entering. Some are more literal, like the photo above and some are more metaphorical. Some may not make sense to you but they might to someone else. When I photograph, if all goes well I enter into a relationship with what’s around me, a relationship that unzips the strictures of thought and lets the moment bloom. This is what keeps me coming back to the camera – this entering into the particulars of place, this being absorbed into all that my senses perceive. Later on, the pleasures of looking at, reworking, and sharing the images I make are an extra happy byproduct of those times when it all goes well.
Entering, we embrace the particulars
of the timeplace –
(call it the placetime if you prefer).
We attend to a play of light, a certain hue
or shade of green, the fading trill of a bird –
not any bird, but this bird. We notice
the precise angle of the torn edge
on a vandalized billboard, the oddly sharp scent
of the air passing under our nose.
This entering into the wherewhen
(call it whenwhere if you prefer)
is tied to attention,
It springs and spreads into awareness
from a liminal space
between eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin, and brain matter.
Senseorgans, brainmatter, attention, and entering –
like tide and shore.
There is no apartness wherewhen
we dissolve the tangles
It was a morning in early summer. A silver haze shimmered and trembled over the lime trees. The air was laden with their fragrance. The temperature was like a caress. I remember – I need not recall – that I climbed up a tree stump and felt suddenly immersed in Itness. I did not call it by that name. I had no need for words. It and I were one.
A one-way road traces a two-mile loop around the perimeter of Washington Park. Most visitors take their walks on the pavement and with few cars and varied scenery, it’s a very pleasant outing. But I prefer the tangle of trails that weave around and beyond the loop road. I pull into a rough parking place along the road, stash my backpack in the trunk, check that I have what I need in my pockets, and plunge into the woods.
Within minutes, the forest gives way to meadows and rocky outcrops with seawater views to the southwest. The golden light filtering through the trees here is as welcome on a winter afternoon as it was on summer evenings.
Here’s the lay of the land: in the center of the 220-acre park, dozens of campsites are scattered under a tall conifer forest. On the park’s north side a boat ramp and a small beach beckon families and boaters and along the western edge, a cement stairway leads to a rocky beach with a stretch of forested cliffs. My favorite part of the park is on the southern edge, where the land slopes down to the water in a series of mounds and ravines. As the terrain dips and rises, views of blue-green seawater appear and disappear. On sunny days, the light bouncing off the channel warms the trunks of rugged, weathered trees that tell stories of a landscape where the summer sun beats mercilessly and winter windstorms batter the hills with rain.
Difficult conditions make interesting habitats. The poor soil supports tiny, odd ferns in the rock crevices, a wealth of lichens, and meadows full of flowers in spring. When the summer drought shuts down the flower show, tufts of dried grass color the meadows gold. For a few months, the landscape is so parched that every step crunches something – dried leaves, sticks, grasses, lichens – even moss crumbles underfoot.
Then the autumn rains return and the landscape wakes up. Emerald green Licorice ferns uncoil, mounds of reindeer lichens puff up like clouds, and the Madrone trees glow in a rainbow of russet, orange, and lime green. This is when I like to roam the trails. With the flowers gone, twisted, contorted trees and intricate collections of detritus on the ground capture my attention. I slow down. The circuits in my brain fire up and my senses are alert to darting birds, a tapestry of color, and the play of light across the trail. Just being here is enough.
But you know I have my camera.
This post fits into two categories that I use: Local Walks and States of Being. To see more posts in these categories scroll way down and click on the category. More posts about Washington Park are here and here.
*Excellent photos of the plant and lichen in #11, photographed in Washington Park by my friend Richard Droker,are here.
This post is one in a series I call “States of Being.” Other posts in the series include “Curved”and “Absorbed.”
I like seeing what comes to rest on the beach when the tide goes out. It’s a tenuous kind of rest – soon the water will climb back up and rearrange everything. But at least for a few hours, the serendipity of random arrangements can be enjoyed by anyone with a curious eye. I’m going to call these arrangements natural still lifes. (Spellcheck doesn’t like ‘lifes’ but it’s correct in this case!)
Below, strands of eelgrass loop around smooth pieces of driftwood, like festive presents. Sometimes stalks of kelp look like hastily penned notes, legible to those familiar with asemic writing. Or torn bits of sea lettuce are scattered across the sand like confetti. Speaking of sand, sharp eyes will notice ghost-pale, wavy patterns of sand grains on the smoothest parts of the beach. They’re a record of each pause between the slow breaths of gently receding waves. Or are they abstract drawings? In #4 below, a group of thick kelp stalks curved together in a surprisingly orderly fashion. The tide must have been strong enough to push them together but not so strong that they were tangled up. Just so.
States of rest on tidal shores seem especially precious to me because of their ephemeral nature.
After the wind has whipped the water and its contents into great, tortured piles and dumped them on the beach, odd things can be found. Tiny treasures resting in the jumbled tangles of marine life might be revealed to the curious beachgoer. In #5 you can see the holdfast of a kelp plant that grew over a barnacle instead of a rock, which is what kelp plants are normally anchored to. A storm ripped the barnacle off something and sent it for a wild ride on tossing waves. There it was, in a mass of soggy kelp and seaweeds unceremoniously dumped ashore. In #6 there’s another oddity I found: a small marine invertebrate called a Bristly tunicate or a Hairy sea squirt. It was still clinging to an odd lump of orange substance that I can’t identify.
And buried deep in another knot of kelp and seaweed, a tiny white starfish, or sea star, glowed like a star that had lost its way and tumbled down into Neptune’s dark realm.
These bits of marine life might be back in the waters of the Salish Sea by now, riding the waves until they come to rest again.
Torn from maple trees during a storm, wet leaves came to rest on the leathery salal bushes that grow along the trail. The nature-made leaf collage was topped by a single rust-colored Douglas fir needle, released from a tree branch after the summer drought. I wonder how long the needle and leaves remained at rest like this?
For a long time, I’ve been intrigued by the way leaves fall and land on one another or are caught somewhere before reaching the ground. In a California Redwood forest, I noticed a Redwood leaf stalk woven into a Maidenhair fern frond. Just think: it had to fall at precisely the right angle and rate to have landed like that. Maybe a gentle breeze helped. A small wonder.
An odder sight was a stray chunk of Northern elephant seal fur shed by a seal during her annual molt. How it got up into the wildflowers, I don’t know, but the beach where the seal rests while renewing her coat is often windy.
Inanimate objects can come to rest for a very long time. Take the old truck seen below. It’s been in the patch of wet woods for so many years that it’s grown a coat of thick moss. Maybe a tree will sprout there.
Heaps of plastic or fabric that have been abandoned always interest me. Sometimes a pile of material is unintentionally draped as gracefully as the folds of fabric in an Old Master painting. That was the case with the nets below that were used to protect apple trees from insects. I saw them in a garden, where they probably had been left for a short time before being stored somewhere safe from the ravages of winter.
Once I found a mannequin that was used on a photo shoot resting in a random heap with other props. The props were probably put away soon after I came across them. Finding the mannequin was pure serendipity. He seems to be contemplating his future – an interesting one, I would think.
What about people at rest? Rest allows the parasympathetic nervous system to come on board and do what it’s made to do: slow down the stress response that’s activated so often by modern life. When we rest, the immune system is strengthened, blood pressure comes down, the heart rate slows, food is digested, and the mind relaxes. That’s good stuff! But rest isn’t always easy to find.
Big museums never seem to have enough places to sit down. The single available seat on the bench below was probably taken within minutes. A street musician in Ghent, Belgium, caught my eye as he took a cigarette break. He seemed to own his resting spot! One evening as I walked around lower Manhattan after work, a fisherman stepped away from his pole to contemplate the view. Just watching him watch the water eased my mind.
Rest is a relative term – how still is anything really? We know that motion is constant but rest balances motion.
It’s a grace period in this twirling, whirring life.
There are all kinds of curves in the world, but one curve keeps coming back to me. It dwells in my body as a gesture, a wide, arcing swing of the arm that lifts the air. In yoga class I enjoy big sweeps of the arms; I never groan inwardly the way I might during challenging poses. Wikipedia says that “Intuitively, a curve may be thought of as the trace left by a moving point.”* I like this idea of implied motion and I was surprised to learn that it originated with Euclid over 2000 years ago.
So curves aren’t static. They’re traced by all sorts of things besides my arm, of course, and when I slow down enough to notice the world with care, I might find the particular curve that I like almost anywhere. A fond familiarity arises when the curve catches my eye. There must be a neuronal pathway – or more likely, many pathways – where this curve is repeatedly recognized and appreciated, a kind of mirroring of the internal and the external. When I see it my eyebrow might arch in pleasure, yet another gentle curve!
Often a camera is at hand so I make a photograph.
Curves slither through my LightRoom catalog, showing up in old images of gourds and grass or in more recent photos of buildings and Bullwhip kelp. There’s a curved wood relief I made in 1972; the photo of it reminds me that the preoccupation with curves is nothing new. I suspect it has deep roots, perhaps even mythical, or at least back to my first days on this planet when my mother’s breast was the curve of life.
I visualize the curve moving outward and upward more than inward and downward. It feels open-ended, generous. It stands alone or is tangled up with other curves and if it’s tangled, the disorder is harmonious, not fraught or tight.
A curved line suggests an indirect way to get from point A to point B. That appeals to me, too. Give me the back road, the side path! The very act of taking a route other than the straightest or most direct implies that there’s more to life than getting from A to B. And when it comes to solving problems, a roundabout route may not be the fastest one but it could turn up discoveries that shed new light on the issue. Physics tells us that gravity causes light to travel in a curve near large bodies. Did you know that there is “a flight simulator for multi-connected universes” called Curved Spaces? It’s freeware you can download that is supposed to enable inhabitants to “see their universe’s contents repeating in a crystalline pattern.”** I haven’t tried it and perhaps I’m rationalizing but it seems to me that there are many reasons to love a curve.
Here is a series of curves I’ve seen and photographed.
It’s the day before we leave for our first road trip since the pandemic throttled our travel plans. I have forgotten how to get ready for a trip. Everything requires more thought and seems a little harder. And it’s spring, my favorite season, so I’m distracted by the flashes of color everywhere, all vying for attention after a long, quiet winter. Part of me wants to be walking outside, looking for early wildflowers and inhaling the fresh air. Another part nags about packing and remembering the chargers and sunglasses. I check the weather in southern Utah for the second time today; the forecast seems to have changed again. A few days ago I thought we wouldn’t need warm clothes, this morning it looked like we would, now I’m not sure. I remove a T-shirt and substituted a long-sleeved, insulated shirt, a beanie, a warm scarf, even gloves. Maybe I need to rethink it: space is tight.
As I’ve been preparing for my trip the earth has been preparing for the season when reproductive tasks must get done. Flowers push through the cool, damp earth, woodpeckers drum love songs on hollow trees, and yesterday I watched harbor seals whack their flippers hard on the water and twirl in circles as other seals looked on, hopefully admiring the show as much as I did. One very unusual mammal (for this area) is preparing for the next stage of its life; a two-month-old elephant seal born nearby is getting ready to enter the water. I believe he’s the first elephant seal to be born on this island – most Northern elephant seals are born in California. When he’s ready he’ll swim down the long Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific, perhaps heading for deep water off Alaska. He needs to teach himself to dive deep for fish and squid. That’s the way it works with this species – they’re on their own after they’re weaned. Once he leaves we may never see him again. A few weeks ago I became a marine mammal volunteer to help protect the pup from human interference, intentional or otherwise. I learned a lot in a few short hours about the intricacies of the human/wildlife interface. In a word, it’s fraught.
The last few weeks have been full of distractions, making it difficult to concentrate on my own preparations, but gradually, I got my head into it and made some progress. By mid-afternoon yesterday, I was ready for a break: a trip into town for one more errand and an espresso. As I stepped outside I felt a chill but also had an urge to stop and admire the daffodils that opened yesterday. They’re late again and their numbers don’t seem to be expanding; I planted them under a tree where the sun barely shines. At least they’re protected from the landlord’s overzealous mowing. Looking up, my eyes paused at the sight of fat Bigleaf maple buds, ripe with the green energy that busts them out of their tight winter jackets. I thought I should document the yard today so I can compare it to the way it will look when I get back. All week I’ve been thinking about how different everything will be after the 13 days we’re away – this is a time of great change.
With my head full of such musings, I wandered over to my car and got in. Joe had parked at the opposite end of the driveway from his usual spot in front of me. I backed up, turned to my right to avoid the telephone pole, and let my foot off the brake. A heartbeat later I heard the startling, eye-squinching crunch of metal on metal. Worse, I was a little slow to stop because I haven’t slept well lately. A remark Joe made just minutes before sprung to mind: he said we seem to be getting things under control.
Maybe not. I got out, inspected both cars, frowned, and called him. He rushed out to assess the damage. Quickly apologizing, I said I’d take care of both cars when we get back home. Thankfully, Joe had the grace not to let loose with the first thing that must have come to his mind.
On the way into town I told myself to wake up or there’ll be a bigger accident. Deep breaths. I took care of the errand and made my way to the bookstore/cafe. It was pleasantly busy: familiar faces behind the counter and eager customers on the other side. Studying the baked goods neatly displayed in their glass case, I ordered my usual macchiato, but with a third shot. While I waited I saw a front-page article in the NY Times about a White House photographer from the Trump administration who’s been taken advantage of by Trump – it’s about money, of course. I read a few paragraphs and moved on to the Arts section, where there was a piece about the Whitney Biennial, a New York art world staple that I used to look forward to. It’s morphed over the years and is back now after a pandemic hiatus, with a less flashy, more thoughtful, perhaps darker-toned show. I opened the paper to the double-page spread, full of dark images. That prompted a passing thought about my own propensity for darkness in my photos. I wondered if there’s a connection between how I photograph the world nearby and the state it’s in. Or is it a coincidence?
The coffee tasted good. Browsing the shelves for a minute or two, I moved from art to fiction to the travel section. A used book called “The Names of Things” caught my eye. It’s beautifully written but it wasn’t a good time to buy a book so I made a mental note of the title. Suddenly the caffeine teased the neurons in my brain and I felt that bright light of inspiration, thanks to Susan Brind Morrow’s words. In the back of my mind, I’d been wondering if I would post anything before I left or during the trip. Now I had an idea – I’ll just describe my day, trying to include passing thoughts as well as observations.
Exiting the store, I got in the car, backed up (carefully), and headed back home. The sky was gray and white but not flat. The cherry trees were as frothy as a strawberry milkshake, magnolia flowers were opening bit by bit, and the willows weren’t weeping, no, they were rejoicing in their swaying, lime-green skirts. As I drove down R Avenue I glimpsed the soft blue silhouette of the Cascade foothills to the east through the dull gray repeating diamonds of a chain-link fence: it was a pleasing graphic image. All the way home I saw trees in bud, chomping at the bit of spring, ready to break into song. Preparing for the next thing.
We’ll fly to Las Vegas today, then drive to Utah, where we plan to visit Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and other less well-known places. With any luck, I’ll have a few photographs to post when I get back. I hope you’re enjoying spring in your own way, wherever you are on this great, turning planet.
This week I was thinking about the quality of being absorbed in an activity. I wondered about the origin of the word so I googled it. In an online etymology dictionary, I read that the English “absorb” comes from an old French word that derives from Latin. Breaking it down, “ab” in this case means “from” and “sorb” comes from the Latin sorbeo, to suck in or swallow. These combine into “absorbere” or “absorbeo” – to swallow up or devour. The Proto-Indo-European language root was “srebh.” I can really hear the sound of sucking in that word! I wonder if it ultimately derived from the sound of a nursing child.
In German there is absorbieren. A related German word, schlürfen, sounds to me like someone slurping beer. 😉 In Dutch there’s slurpen, in Italian, assorbito. The Welsh word is amsugno; perhaps Graham will explain how that fits in. Or doesn’t.
At any rate, by the 18th century, absorbed also meant completely gripping one’s attention. When we are absorbed we incorporate and assimilate with full attention (again, think of a nursing child, oblivious to everything but the task at hand). The idea of complete attention is important. To be absorbed in something necessitates an absence of distraction. It’s almost a refusal of incoming sensory information, except within the narrow field of engagement. When I think about being absorbed I sense a unity, a lack of boundary between what we call the self and the object of our attention. The separation that our minds create between ourselves and the rest of the world is useful for functioning in daily life but when we’re completely absorbed in an activity the separation recedes. Some of these ideas are my personal associations with the experience of being absorbed. Isn’t it interesting that we humans communicate by using agreed-upon word meanings but we each have a whole host of subjective associations attached to words as well?
This state of absorption is akin to flow, a concept developed by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His interest in creativity and happiness led him to assert that being fully absorbed in something for its own sake, or being in the flow as he called it, enhances our feelings of well-being and our creativity. Csikszentmihalyi talked about the importance of a balance between skill and challenge in the flow state. He recognized that motivation in this state is intrinsic, not external. The theory of a flow state isn’t exactly the same as the concept of being absorbed in something, but active focus and a sense of timelessness are characteristic of both.
This state of flow or absorption is a very human quality, something we all experience. As photographers, we’re pleased when we sense the dropping away of day-to-day worries and concerns and become fully absorbed in what we’re doing. Truth be told, we often hope that when we get home we’ll find an image that reflects the way we felt, even if it doesn’t convey the full experience. Looking through photographs that I made in the last month, there are hardly any pretty blue skies. The fullness of spring is just a dream. But even in less than optimal conditions, when inspiration doesn’t come easy, it’s possible to enter into a meditative state of absorption. And whether a pleasing photograph results or not, any time spent being absorbed in something is its own reward.
Whether it’s a small detail, a wide vista, or something in between, being absorbed in what I see is one of the best things about being human on this earth. It goes without saying that music, touch, and all of the senses offer the possibility and pleasure of full absorption into the moment. I hope everyone experiences at least a few moments of absorption today.
No, I’m not one of those super-organized people, never have been. My parents were well organized. There was my father, the disciplined, German-American chemical engineer with a steel-trap mind, and my mother, who put balanced meals on the table promptly at 6, made sure all three kids were properly cared for, and still had time to run the Parent-Teacher Association. Her advice was that I should try to form “good habits.” I thought to myself (but didn’t dare say) “What’s good about a habit?” Spontaneity has always been more my style.
That being said, there is something comforting about organization, isn’t there? If you know where things are and when things are supposed to happen, you feel more secure and you can get more done. Even observing examples of organization around us can be comforting: neatly laid-out buildings set on grids of streets, symmetrical patterns, charts. They resonate with something deep inside our brains – even mine. Perhaps in these days of pandemics, climate change fears, and political uncertainty, the predictability of order in the environment is especially valuable.
As a hypersensitive person whose sense organs never seem to dial back a notch, I get overwhelmed when there’s too much input. Don’t seat me at the restaurant table that’s halfway between two sound systems playing different tracks: I won’t be able to eat. And how did I ever get through that summer job at a noisy factory where Hai Karate aftershave and other strongly scented products were packaged? Ugh!
Sensory overload is inevitable in this world but introducing a little organization into the environment can lessen the sting. A rhythmic body movement like foot tapping, stacking loose papers so they line up neatly, arranging clothes according to color, making lists – I’ve used those and more tricks to corral an overwhelmed nervous system. No wonder I respond so strongly to patterns in nature. And architecture, a natural vehicle for introducing organization into the surroundings, can quiet frazzled nerves with its square angles, gentle arcs, and repeating patterns.
A keen appreciation for the visceral pleasure of buildings’ square-framed spaces may have begun when I was around 9 years old. A small development of new homes was going up near our house. On weekends I could wander through the just-framed structures by myself, soaking in the neat order of repeating right angles, inhaling the fragrance of freshly-sawn wood, and imagining how the finished rooms might look. Later I took great pleasure in the grid of streets that makes Manhattan so easy to navigate: north is uptown, south is downtown, east side, west side – it all makes sense. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate breaks in the grid, I did (and do!). But I relied on that grid when I lived in the city to help me organize my life.
Even humble buildings can have an attractive aura of balance and symmetry – architectural aesthetics don’t reside only in classic Greek temples or modern masterpieces. I saw this building on a country road in southeastern Georgia and photographed it head-on to emphasize the symmetry. It must be long gone now because that was around 1967.
Have you ever noticed how shadows can organize a space?
The Judd sculpture is arranged in a mathematical sequence, an imposition of order on the materials. I’ve played with positioning various grids in front of the camera lens as a way to illustrate the push-pull that I experience between ordered space and disorganized space, for example, in a flower garden:
Symmetry, order, and repeating patterns can be found everywhere, perhaps more obviously in human-made things but also in nature. The design below borrows from nature.
I’ve been extolling the virtues of observing order in our surroundings but don’t expect me to give advice about being organized – that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to set before you a visual buffet that illustrates one person’s notion of observed order. If this sparks a new thought, creates an island of pleasure in your life, or even a modicum of inspiration, I’m happy.
Sometimes early in the morning, I pick up the camera and make a few photographs right where I am, which is often in the kitchen. I might wander through the house then, looking for more possibilities. Using the camera before the day’s sensory impressions flood my brain can yield interesting results. The mental filters aren’t all in place yet. The mind is a little more open, a little looser. Often the photographs aren’t particularly good, but results aren’t everything – stimulating one’s aesthetic muscles can be just as important.
Since I can remember a keen appreciation for form, light, and color has characterized the way I look at the world. Like most kids, I enjoyed making pictures and as I grew older I kept drawing, leaning more and more into art, in spite of an expectation that I would hew to tradition and attend a liberal arts college. But that route held no interest for me. After a few blind alleys and bumps in the road, I enrolled in an art school. That was a gift; plenty of people who would thrive in a creative environment never get the chance to experience it because finances or obligations prohibit it. Art school was invigorating but after graduating I had to make a living, which meant relegating art to the sidelines of my life. Having a child left even less time for making art.
But I never stopped looking and thinking about what I saw. Wherever they appeared, colors and textures were noted and analyzed, shapes and forms were admired, and lines were studied. Whether it was a landscape, a piece of clothing, a chair, a face – anything could be a vehicle for appreciation and consideration. Even the simple act of arranging objects in the house satisfied the aesthetic urge. However busy or preoccupied I was, the art gears kept turning.
Over the years I moved frequently and learned to invoke a feeling of home through the basic activity of putting things in places. Maybe the human instinct to arrange objects into some kind of order goes beyond practical necessities. The way we locate the things around us can satisfy deep aesthetic needs. Even in temporary spaces, setting down a few objects can transform a corner into a personal expression of beauty.
Vignettes of found objects can reflect the moment, rooting current preoccupations into place. The objects I handle remind me that wherever I am, a core set of interests informs my identity. Making photographs exercises the same aesthetic urge.
As I gathered photographs for this post the story shifted from one about how the act of arranging and photographing one’s space keeps the artistic fires burning to one that considers the rolling narrative of experiences in various places where I lived and evolved. The unifying thread is the act of paying attention, of recognizing the beauty inherent in the everyday. Some photographs date from the 1970s and are worn with age, some are documentary, some reflect aesthetic concerns. The stories they tell you are surely different from the stories they tell me. We all see the world differently. That’s a good thing.
“Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.”
Fallen objects tend to have negative associations, but is that necessary? A tree falls and begins a new life as a support for moss, fungi, insects and other life forms. Fruit falls from the tree and you pick it up; maybe you take a bite. A ship falls to the bottom of the sea and becomes a coral reef, sugar falls to the bottom of your cup, you stir it, and sip.
And what is this notion of a fall from grace? How about a graceful fall and a new beginning?