You know what they say, right?
No risk, no reward.
I suppose the tricky thing, however, is knowing when to take those risks.
I read it when it first came out, Uncontrollable Beauty by David Shapiro and Bill Beckley. I was recently out of graduate school, and had some questions left unresolved. I knew that I valued beauty in photography, but wasn’t totally convinced I had a handle on just what that meant to me.
It must have been early January, and I was driving home from my darkroom late at night. I was living in a small college town at the time in Western New York, and the town was empty because of the winter holidays. I kept a darkroom on the college campus. As I drove home, there was a hard, hard snow falling, a complete white out.
I got in my car to head for home. The streets were empty, and there was no appearance that the snowplows had yet arrived. I drove about 5 miles an hour, creeping through the abandoned streets of the village. There was an orange glow to the sky, as the thick storm clouds reflected the lights back down to the village. I gripped the steering wheel of the car tightly, afraid the car might slip out of control
I turned down my street, and as I rounded the corner a herd of deer appeared suddenly before me. I was driving so slowly that I stopped simply by removing my foot from the accelerator, no braking necessary. There must have been a dozen deer, running across the road in a line, staggered just a little. More than running, they lept and jumped, to clear the piles of snow. I watched them go by me, one after the other.
Strangely enough, this felt so beautiful, even sublime. I was engulfed in silence, a thick snow, and a beautiful warm glow from the village lights. The deer seemed to dance to me, practicing a sort ballet I’d never before seen. It felt like my heart stopped, in that way it does when you take in so much beauty you simply can’t respond. It seemed mystical to me to watch them run so effortlessly through the orange glow and the silence of such a winter storm. Everything was in order, and everything was beautiful.
At the time, I was working on two different studies of landscape. I was new to teaching, and trying to find my voice in both these pursuits, as a photographer and a professor.
We’d been lying together under the stars for hours – talking, kissing, being together. I sat up on my knees, and looked down at her. She lay stretched in the “grass,” her arms reaching above her head. Her knees were drawn together, and bent to one side, giving her whole body a subtle ‘S’ shape. Her shirt tails rode up as she stretched her arms above her head; I could see the soft white skin of her belly.
The cool night air, a clear look at the stars above. The warmth of time we’d spent together. The wonderful shape of her body. I was struck profoundly by her beauty, the beauty of the moment.
Today, I feel much more resolved with my work as a photographer and professor. I’ve been photographing for years, and yet I am still struck by how powerful such simple things can be. In Uncontrollable Beauty, one of my favorite essays is by Agnes Martin:
When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds, there is an awareness of perfection….
All artwork is about beauty; all positive work represents it and celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives. When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind. It is a mental and emotional response that we make.
Some things about Martin’s essay don’t necessarily fit with my own thoughts today, but I love the idea that beauty is a mental or spiritual drive to make the world seem whole, and offers us a fleeting sense of perfection, a connection to the people and world we know.
So I remember it like it was yesterday, though at this point it is hard to say when exactly it happened.
It was a late night in early May, just about this time of year. It was cool that night, and there was an intermittent light rain, more like a thin mist than rain, really. We got together later in the evening, she and I, and decided to spend our time together outside. The rain was more a pleasure than a distraction.
We were together for hours, but it is really one moment in particular etched in my memory. There was a time we lay together side by side, our faces just an inch apart, staring into one another’s eyes. I don’t know how long we lay together like that, but it seemed like a profound connection. Her eyes were almost lost in the darkness, but still open and warm, inviting. She was unashamed when our eyes locked like that, as though she let go of any vulnerability. It went both ways, I felt like she saw me for what I am. I was swimming in her eyes, that cloudy night under the stars.
It might have for just a moment, and I know it was really just a sliver of the whole thing, but I also know for that moment I got to see a piece of your soul, or at least something that essential.
Really during my sophomore and junior years of college, I was obsessed with James Joyce.
Reading Joyce was an awakening for me, a revelation into personal experience, art, and the occult.
…A faint glimmer of fear began to pierce the fog of his mind. He pressed his face against the pane of the window and gazed out into the darkening street. Forms passed this way and that in the dull light. And that was life. The letters of the name of Dublin lay heavily upon his mind, pushing one another surlily hither and thither with slow boorish insistence. His sould was fattening and congealing into a gross grease, plunging ever deeper in its dull fear into a sombre threatening dusk, while the body that was his stood, listless and dishonoured, gazing out of darkened eyes, helpless, perturbed, and human for a bovine god to stare upon.
It’s been a while since I’ve thought of Joyce, but this particular passage crossed my mind today……
I got inspired by a friend, and went for an early morning walk.
I woke around 7, had some coffee and watched the Spuns/Warriors highlights, and then drove out to Foster Lake, a small man-made lake just outside the village of Alfred, NY.
I got there around 7:30, parked my car and let go of myself for an hour. And I had one of those brief but wonderful moments of the natural sublime.
The lake isn’t large, maybe a mile to a mile and half to walk its circumference. Trees run close to the shore line, and there is a small island across the water, annually home to heron or geese.
About a quarter of the way around, I came to a little clearing, and the trees receded from the water. I had an open view, and squatted down next to the water to take it all in.
Across the water, I saw two geese, about 30 meters apart – one paddling behind the other – and they were engaged in some kind of song or mating ritual together. They squawked out some kind of hocket, in perfect rhythm, but still with enough syncopation to make it dynamic. Mostly they each had one tone, but the one following from behind would change pitches every 5th or 6th beat. This went on for maybe a minute and a half, maybe more.
I sat as still as could, not wanting to add any sound of my own. There was a clear but hazy light on the water as yesterday’s rain continues to burn off, making the light diffuse but clear. In the tree canopy above, there were the high and melodious whistles and chatters of various song birds.