Saturday, January 26, 2008

Gilded with Light

When it's 110 in the shade, most people nowadays decide to enjoy air-conditioned activities, but as I've written before, photographers are sometimes an entirely different breed. So one HOT summer evening found me hiking solo (and sweating profusely) around the local park while everyone else was inside with an iced tea. And indeed, I must have been the ONLY soul out and about in the forest--even the elk had taken a dip in the lake to cool off!

I guess I didn't know much about elk, so I never expected to see them swimming, but there they were, including the largest bucks with the enormous racks of antlers. And what a magnificent sight it was! The sun was low in the sky, so the light was that special "golden" tone that photographers love and was sparkling off the ripples in the water. Because the elk were still in velvet, their antlers were glowing too, as if they were "gilded with light."

Once again, I can say that following the difficult path paid off for me. I think the photographs captured the moment pretty well. Of course, the images I have in my mind are more vivid still.

Some people claim that they can actually see auras, the energy fields that every living person supposedly produces. I myself have never seen an aura, and I don't know if I believe in them, but if they do exist, I would imagine them to appear very similar to the "glow" that I observed around the elk that sweltering but golden evening.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Spiritual "Grooming"

I don't know if bees do it, but birds (or at least ducks and geese) do. So do cats, dogs, chimpanzees, and many other mammals. Anyone who's ever been to a farm, a zoo, or a pond or ever seen a nature show knows it's true. And while it may seem contortionistic or perhaps, in some sense, "gross," it's a necessary survival mechanism.

I'm talking about the art of "grooming." Ducks, gulls, swans, geese and other water birds "preen" to evenly distribute the oils that make their feathers water-resistant, cold-resistant, and buoyant. Songbirds clean their feathers to remove any dirt or debris that might interfere with flight. Cats and dogs will lick their own fur to remove dirt and old, dead hair. Baboons and other primates take the art one step further, making grooming an act of cleanliness (removing insects, fleas, or lice, for example) and an act of social bonding. Instinctively, these animals know that even in the mildest of climates and most benevolent of habitats, they must care for their bodies if they are to survive.

As members of the "animal kingdom," human beings are no different. Over the course of history, we have discovered that certain grooming habits can make life more pleasant for ourselves: for example, brushing our teeth regularly can help prevent toothaches, gum disease, and other painful conditions. And we continue to learn, and teach our offspring, more and more about taking care of our own bodies.

But as many people believe, we humans are also spiritual beings and thus need to pay as much attention to our spiritual grooming as we do to our physical care. For some, this is not an odd concept: prayer, meditation, quiet times are routine parts of life, allowing the individual to connect with something outside her/himself, or to examine his/her motivations or actions, or simply to refresh her/himself with Divine Energy. But for most people, "care of the soul" is probably not a daily matter--we (yes, I include myself in this group) may attend religious services weekly, but in between we may never utter a prayerful word, never ponder a divine thought. Yet we expect to make spiritual "progress"--to get closer to God--and become frustrated/angry when we don't!

Perhaps it's only human beings (OK, some humans!) who expect positive results to arise out of thin air. It would never cross a duck's mind to think (as much as a duck can "think," according to our definitions) to neglect its daily hour or two of self-examination. And if animals have souls (and there are many people who believe that they do), who's to say that the duck's preening or the cat's licking is not also a spiritual exercise, is not also a method of calming the spirit in order to permit a perception of the Divine?

Can those of us who neglect our daily spiritual grooming really say that we're the more "spiritual" species?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Seeing What's Hidden

When hiking through the woods or across the meadows with camera/tripod on my shoulder, I try to tune in to any wildlife that might be nearby. Unfortunately for the photographer, but fortunately for the various animal citizens of our world, Nature has granted them the ability to blend in to their surroundings. So the photographer needs to move very slowly, in general, and to maintain a really close lookout--for baby elk blending into the dead fallen oak leaves, a turtle or frog covered with duckweed, a great blue heron disappearing into the shoreline reeds, or a nesting songbird. Can you see them all here?

Maybe some close-up views will help:

It's not easy, is it? Even with the aid of a zoom lens and some judicious cropping, it's sometimes tough to pick out the reality from the illusion.

Especially when the truth is hiding under a lot of muck!

But it sure is amazing once you actually discover it there! Once your eyes are actually opened to discern what's really there.

Spiritual seekers can certainly relate to this photographer's dilemma. Every moment of every day, we are bombarded with stimuli--things we see, hear, taste, feel. Messages that seek to reveal the truth and enlighten us, and messages that seek to hide it and fool us. We filter out a lot of these messages, just because there are way too many--but how do we know what we might be overlooking? And even when we do pay attention, are we able to discern Truth? Are we able to see the beautiful emerald frog hiding beneath the slime? As the great guru Jesus is reported to have said, "Hear, if you have ears!" Or if you have eyes, open them up and see!

Truth may not be pretty--it may be a plain brown toad sitting on a dead stick--or what we want it to be, or where we expect to find it, but it is always there somewhere, just waiting for us to discover it, like the tiny toad sitting quietly on the forest floor as we walk past and, if we're attentive or lucky, glance down for a moment of discovery.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Depicting a "Concept"

Nature photographers usually concern themselves with capturing what's in front of them, be that an ocean panorama, a trumpeting swan, or a bee gathering nectar from a tiny flower. The image is its own message--though one can use the picture to illustrate a particular idea, like beauty or conversation or industriousness, the application comes after the photo is made. And there will be as many "interpretations" of an image as there are viewers.

But how does one set about photographing a concept? One can take a picture of people who are loving one another, but can one take a photograph of love itself?

Once in the past I had an assignment to create an image of prayer. Not people praying, not actual prayers, but prayer itself--the actual communication of ideas with the Divine.

Realizing the impossibility of that specific task, the art director and I discussed images that might be able to symbolize prayer. What would people recognize and associate with the act of praying? We decided that we'd work from this passage from Psalm 141:

Treat my prayer as sweet incense rising;
my raised hands are my evening prayers.
(The Message traslation)

So we gathered some incense, looked for a suitable incense pot, set up the lights, and started "playing with fire" and smoke.

We made a number of images with which we were happy--they had the right atmosphere to suggest a sacred activity.
Which one would you choose? Or would you do something completely different?