Monday, September 21, 2009

Painting with light

I remember -- back when my children were little -- going into the Ben Franklin store (which was roughly equivalent to the five and dime store I grew up with in Cincinnati). I was there to pick up something for the kids, but my attention was captured on the way out by a painting of a lighthouse.

The painting was matted in navy blue with a gold edge, and sat in a simple gold frame; the whole thing -- though it was probably 16" x 20" -- was only $25. And I remember being really torn about it: I loved the image, and loved the price, but I knew my mother (an artist in her own right, and a terrible art snob) would be horrified to see it in my home, because... well, frankly, it was kind of tacky.

In the end I bought it anyway (and for a while I retired it from the wall of my bedroom every time my mother came to visit). Eventually I came to know that the artist, Thomas Kincaid, was known as the Painter of Light. He's still incredibly popular, of course; there are even Thomas Kincaid stores in malls. But at the time he was just starting out, and though I never was drawn to any of his other work, that painting hung in a succession of our houses until it suffered water damage from a broken water heater.

The reason I mention it here is that the word photograph comes from the Greek: Photo means light, and graph means to write or draw. Which means that all of use who are photographers are, like Thomas Kincaid, painters of light. Every photograph is a painting of light: without light, there would be no way for whatever it is we are photographing to make its way through the lens and onto the film or sensor.

As I think I mentioned earlier, my (somewhat arbitrary) Miksang assignment this week has been to photograph light. And thinking about that this morning I realized I haven't been photographing light, exactly; I've been photographing LIGHTS -- which is not the same thing at all. It's a simple enough mistake, and certainly the work I did falls into the category of light. But at the same time it shows how much a part of the process light has become, that I don't even see any more that I am painting with light; that all the qualities of light -- color, intensity, direction, etc. -- play a major role in any photograph I take.

So I decided to go back to square one, and select a photograph that's really just about light. And as I look at it -- at the soft patterns cast by the shadows of the nearby tree; at the highlight that emphasizes the sleek satin shine of the knob; at the cyan streak of refracted light that slices across the image; at the black shadow carved by the edge of the door and the bright invitation of that upper keyhole -- I can begin to see the power of light; that it is everywhere, and defines everything.

Light, then, must be the photographic or visual equivalent of spirit, or of love; surrounding us, coloring and defining everything we see, though we have as little awareness of it as I had before attempting to be conscious about taking it in. My mistaking lights for light is as foolish as our society's frequent tendency to assume that spiritual life only happens in churches, that the only spiritual people are nuns, monks and clergy, or that Jesus and God reside only in heaven, or in a statue.

And as I write, I see, reflected in the framed photograph above my computer, that the morning light is streaming through a window outside my office, and igniting the faces of the angels who lie on the shelf behind me. Yes, they seems to say: spirit, like light, is everywhere: we only need to open our eyes to see.

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