Monday, June 9, 2008

Photographer as Seer

Though the sun is out now, it's been a classic misty gray Northwest day today; perfect for sitting indoors, curled up in front of a fire and reading; perfect for photographing damp driftwood (when all the colors come out) or looking for beach glass. When I first moved to Shaw Island, fresh from a more than full-time job, I had lots of time on my hands, and did all these things.

I found my beach glass collection recently when we cleaned out the garage; I had so much time back in those days I had it all sorted by color. And I still love to read, though I rarely take time to do it except at bedtime. And it was those photographs of driftwood that launched me on my career as a photographer. Though I rarely sold those pictures, they were always my foot in the door at the galleries because they were so deliciously artistic... and then, inevitably, the gallery would begin to ask for more sale-able art: sunsets, boats, local scenery.

It wasn't until years later that I learned that Thomas Merton also photographed these bizarre wood formations, and there was this wonderful sense of recognition when I saw those images of his. Now I have two books of Merton's driftwood pictures, and still the galleries ask me to shoot something else.

There's a part of me that grumbles about that. I suspect the artist in me, that doesn't want to photograph on command, is not so different from the former CEO who would rather starve than work at MacDonalds. Is it a matter of ego? Or is it a matter of conviction: this is what I was born to do; why should I have to do THAT?

If I were completely zen, I would do whatever it is I need to do to survive, and pour my whole being and energy into whatever task was given me. But I am not completely zen; I have this quirky individualism, so common among those of us raised in the Christian faith, this sense that I was born to something else.

Which is probably okay, as long as I don't demand to be rewarded for that. Because doing what I was born to do --my avocation -- is really its own reward, and that needs to be enough. It is only when I want to be paid -- my vocation -- that I need to do what others ask of me. And it seems to me that I always get into trouble when I try to mix the two, because inevitably my ego kicks in and I start resenting the gap between what I love and what I have to do to get paid.

Perhaps that's why I love blogging so much. It's my opportunity to display exactly what I want to display; to show off the images I love that will probably never sell. And, of course, to talk about them; to explain what I see, and why they mean so much to me.

This image is NOT one of the ones in the three albums full of driftwood pictures I collected over those years on Shaw; it was actually only shot a little over a year ago. I don't even remember where I was when I took this picture, which is odd, because I could tell you exactly which beach I was on for almost all of the 900 plus images in those albums. This one has just been lurking quietly on my computer, forgotten in a file. I found it almost by accident this morning.

It's here, now, because, just for a minute, looking at it, I was reminded of a very snowy day in Cincinnati, when I was barely 11, and a truck full of pigs skidded and rolled on the icy road below our house. I remember standing, looking out the three staggered porthole windows in our front door, me, my mom, and my dad, watching as the driver, several policemen, and a bunch of other passers-by tried desperately to round up all those loose pigs before dark.

For whatever reason -- and I don't expect you to see it -- this picture reminds me of the closeness of that evening, the three of us all standing at the door, arm in arm, giggling at the cold spectacle that lay at the foot of the very long hill that was our lawn. It was, quite possibly, the last time our family felt whole and safe, the last time we were all totally in agreement, the last time my place and role in life seemed perfectly clear, totally natural, and fully ordained.

I think that was always why I liked those driftwood pictures. I -- and everyone else who looked at them -- could see whatever I needed to see; they were like a crystal ball or a Rorschach inkblot, speaking like a seer, an oracle, or a psychotherapist,not of what is outside, but of what lies within and beyond. If, indeed, I am a contemplative photographer, then it's no wonder this is where it all started.

But NOW the trick is to photograph that which is familiar, predictable, and purchasable, but from that same perspective. So that even if it is a sunset over Point White, or Frog Rock, or Waterfront Park, there will still be something in the image that speaks of more, that serves as a reminder that life is so much deeper and richer than what appears on the surface.

And if I can bring that kind of energy to the work I am PAID to do as well as the work I LONG to do, THAT would be the best of all possible worlds -- and very Zen, of course. Hmm. Perhaps I should worry about that. After all, Thomas Merton died just as he was working to bring about a connection between Christian monasticism and Zen monasticism...

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