Friday, September 21, 2007

Remembering the Details

In twenty years (or more) of clicking the shutter, I've made thousands of photographs. While the number of images and variety of subjects is quite amazing, what really astounds me is that I can remember the location and time of pretty much every photo I've taken. This isn't because I've written it down; rather, the experience of the creative moment and the image have both imprinted on my memory.

So I know, for example, that I photographed this windflower in a certain garden in Annapolis, Maryland, one spring morning back in the early 90s (OK, so I don't remember the exact date!). It was a sunny but blustery day, a little chilly, some large puffy clouds sliding across the blue sky. This flower was nestled in the woods, deep in the shadows, and as I've written about earlier, I had to wait patiently for a calm moment between wind gusts for the petals to be still.

I remember the other flowers I photographed that day: enormous tree peonies, large yellow and blue and purple bearded iris, among my favorite flowers, and may apples. It was a morning when time passed unnoticed, when the present was all there was.

Maybe that's why I remember--because I was so "in the moment" that nothing else mattered.

This happens often when I'm out taking photos, and maybe this is why I enjoy nature photography so much. There is nothing outside of the immediate and present experience.

I wish to encounter all of my moments in the same way.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Spending Time with Wolves

I took the accompanying photo on my second visit to Wildlife Prairie Park in Illinois. Nothing unusual about that, but it was actually the second full day I spent at the wolf enclosure there. I might try to convince myself that the wolves began to accept me as another member of their pack, but it's more likely that they were so used to human traffic (or so focused on the neighboring elk and bison) that they never noticed I had returned for another eight hours with them. They were simply going about their wolf lives as normally as possible, following a routine that had become comfortable.

I, however, had stepped outside of my daily routine to visit the park, and I made the deliberate decision to spend as much time as I could with the wolves. Not only did I enjoy their company, but I also became familiar with their activities, their personalities, and their interactions. I was able to observe the details of their eating, drinking, running, hunting, playing, and sleeping, and I believe that my photos were better able to capture their essence as a result.

What worked with the wolves works for many other animals (elk, bison, turkeys, geese) as well, and it works for locations too--the more often I walk the trails of a certain park, the better I know that park's distinctive personality, the better I can envision what to expect, and the better (i.e., more true) my photos are. I believe the same principle applies to our human relationships, for the more time we spend with a person, the better we know her or him. I guess it's a matter of connecting with the spirit--of the wolves, of the park, of my companion--a connection that perhaps requires "time in" more than anything else.

Maybe we're deliberate about putting in this time, or maybe we're unconsciously filling a sensed need. It's easy to see how this might happen with our friends or family members, and they can give us cues to clue us in.

Sometimes the universe can send us clues too, signs that we need to reconnect with the Spirit. We might feel anxious, exhausted, overwhelmed, irritable, without knowing exactly why. For some people, such feelings indicate the need to "recharge our batteries"; others might say we've lost touch with our inner truth; still others might believe that we've allowed something to block our vision of God. Whatever metaphor one might use, the need to put "time in" with the Spirit remains.

How we do that is a very personal decision. Whereas one person might meditate, another might nap, and still another might listen to music, or read a poem, or watch the flowers grow in the garden. And some souls, like me, might even go visit the wolves.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

When It Rains...

Most people like to go outdoors when it's sunny, neither too hot nor too cold, clear with little humidity, with maybe a slight breeze. But photographers are a different breed. We know that good weather is not always a helpful "assistant." Technology has not yet been able to reproduce the human eyeball, and cameras (especially film cameras) see and record light in ways that can be quite peculiar. Photographers learn this quickly and, accordingly, can be found taking pictures in weather that would drive the most intrepid day hiker indoors.

Overcast weather is often the best for taking closeup shots of flowers: there are few distracting shadows, and the colors are extremely saturated and "rich." (The accompanying photo was taken on an overcast day.) During a rainshower, the countryside can be quite beautiful, especially in the fall, when the wet leaves glimmer and the reds, oranges, and yellows can really pop. Snowfall softens the light, sometimes creating scenes that are almost monochromatic. As paradoxical as it may sound, some of the best photographs are created under some of nature's most difficult conditions.

Sometimes, I think my spirit works this way too. When I'm pleased with the way life is going, I'm not very introspective--I don't question the meaning of what I'm doing, I simply enjoy the moments. But when my life is overcast or rainy--when I'm dealing with illness or conflict at work or financial troubles--that's when I wake up and ask myself, "Am I spending my hours the way I really want to?" or "Do my daily activities really have any purpose?" That's when I'm able to see myself in sharp, vivid focus. That's when I begin to do the difficult work of making sense of my existence.

Do I want to ponder such imponderables? Do I want to see my life that clearly? Do I have to go through tough times to know the truth of myself? It seems that maybe I do....

I'd rather play outside on a sunny day, but I know that sometimes a walk in the rain can be even more memorable, and more meaningful.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Doing Now

A few years ago, Rusty and I took a vacation trip to Las Vegas. As a break from the glitter and gambling, we decided to try a few adventures. We went to a gay rodeo (where Rusty saw someone he knew!), we visited Hoover Dam, and we drove to the western rim of the Grand Canyon. I had never been to the Grand Canyon and had always wanted to go; Rusty had been, but to the southern edge, not the western. So we really had no idea what to expect.

It's probably a good thing, because had we known, we might not have tried it, for we had to drive for several hours across the empty (and I mean empty!) desert just to get to the American Indian reservation, where a dirt road led us many more really bumpy miles through scrub brush and over flash-flood ditches and up and down roller-coaster hills. After more than an hour of bone-jarring driving in our (somewhat reliable) compact rental car (it was a little like being in a horse-drawn farm wagon--we couldn't go very fast at all), we began to see the multicolored walls of the Grand Canyon. More uncomfortable miles than we anticipated finally brought us to the rim, where we could walk right up to the edge of this glorious spectacle. The Canyon is absolutely huge, so deep that we were standing above the flight of the hawks, and so wide that we could only imagine how many dozens of miles across. The desert air was so clear that the colors were almost unreal--reds, oranges, purples, yellows, browns, blues, in amazing combinations. And it was incredibly quiet, our conversation being swallowed up completely by the grand silence. Of course, I took a lot of photos, but I think they're unsatisfactory portrayals of this special place--as is this word portrait.

After a time there, we began to notice the lateness of the hour, so we examined the map and determined to return by a different route--hopefully, one that was paved. Off we went, but what seemed like only a quarter inch on the map was really a three-hour drive across the reservation! And we didn't see a single person all that way (though we did encounter some very large elk and some very quick jackrabbits). It was dark before we got to the highway. We had been worried, but at least we hadn't run out of gas.

Like many people, I sometimes wish I could see into the future, perhaps to avoid difficulties, but more than that, to be able to prepare myself for what lies ahead. Yet there is a definite downside to knowing what is to come. Had we had foreknowledge of the rough ground we would have to cover to get to the Grand Canyon, for example, we might not have undertaken this adventure at all--we weren't properly provisioned, attired, or wheeled--and we would have missed experiencing one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Often, I worry about the hours and days before me, rehearsing alternatives and possible scenarios and outcomes and wishing I could see into the future. But the time I spend worrying is really a complete waste--I'll never get those minutes back, and anyway, next week will arrive inevitably, in a form I never would have envisioned. One of the great gurus said to his students, "Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes" (Matthew 6:34). Can I give my entire attention to this present moment, putting myself in synch with the Universe, allowing the Spirit to lead me wherever and however it wills? That's a tough one for a control freak (me!), but maybe that's the only way to paradise.

Besides, who knows what other Grand Canyons might be waiting at the end of another long and bumpy road?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Waiting for the Right Moment

Yesterday, I wrote about how much patience one needs to photograph flowers in their natural setting. But that, of course, is nothing compared with the infinite patience one needs to photograph animals, whether captive or wild. Have you ever tried to take a picture of your cat or dog or bird? Do they ever pose or look the right way or do what you want them to do--or even sit still when you point the camera in their direction? Now just imagine semi-wild animals at a zoo or animal farm, such as a leopard or a peacock--sure, their movements might be predictable, but you could still be waiting for a very, very long time for them to get into the position you want. Finally, think about animals in the wild--you might expect birds to appear at specific times of the day at your birdfeeder, but do you really know when wild turkeys or deer might show up? And when they do, will the light be sufficient or the animals accepting of your presence or the surroundings complimentary? "Hey, Miss Bison, can you move a little to the left so that the tree branch doesn't appear to be coming out of your head?" The next time you see photos of wild animals, try to imagine how many hours--or even days or weeks--the photographer had to sit and wait to get that perfect shot.

It's strange to think that we expect more cooperation from people than we do from animals--after all, we can communicate much more easily with people and negotiate what we want. Nevertheless, as we all know, relating to other people requires an incredible amount of patience, because their wants and needs don't often coincide with our own.

Now think about what we expect from the Universe. Let's say, for example, that I've decided it's time for me to change jobs; having made that decision, I expect the Universe to provide me with a fantastic position--immediately! But if the time is not right for me to move on, I'll have to wait until it is. That's not to say that I shouldn't search the classifieds and send out my resume to prospective employers--I have to do my bit too. But I have to remember that it may take a long while and may require a lot more patience than I knew I had.

In the meantime, I might as well enjoy the view from where I'm now sitting, because that bison might just meander where I want her, and I'd better be ready to click my shutter.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Spirit Blows

Anyone who has ever tried to photograph flowers or plants in their natural setting knows how much patience you need: to walk slowly and discover the small beauties at your feet--to adjust lenses and tripod to get the right angle and the best background and the perfect light--and mostly, to wait for the air to be still. Those who have never tried this are probably really surprised; after all, how often do we remark on a hot day, "If only there were a small breeze...." But stare at the fragile petals of a delicate flower through a closeup lens, and you'll be amazed at how long you'll have to wait before the wind really does stop blowing. Most days, the wind never stops at all, and I have to time the shutter release to catch the flower at that still point when it changes directions, or else hope that a faster shutter speed (at the expense of losing depth-of-field detail) can freeze the flower in its motion. Compromises....

It's still amazing to me how constantly the wind blows, and I usually don't even notice. I guess it's the same with the Spirit, the "wind" that moved across the waters, the "breath" that animated life, the energy that continues to drive the universe. It's not something we're aware of, unless we pay attention--and then we can't miss it, because it's everywhere.

Paying attention is difficult, because we have no time or even inclination to do this. We're impatient, rushing through the day without even looking around. But just stop for a moment: feel the breeze brush across your skin and through your hair, and feel the Spirit blowing through your soul.

Isn't that refreshing?