Looking through a viewfinder somehow changed my perspective. It’s difficult to explain how or why. In fact, I don’t think I can. What gives a situation or a scene or a thing significance? Why does a collection of objects or a location caught at a specific point in time have meaning at times and other times not? I ask myself these questions all the time. In the very first set of shots I took, there was this image of the sky seen above. It’s just a few white clouds against a background of winter-bare trees. I made the shot while trying to see if it were possible to focus on a vapor trail (nope). Nothing else was intended. Yet, a week or so later, when looking at the image, I was struck by the color of the blue sky, and even more by the barrenness of the trees. That juxtaposition evoked an art class, I think in sixth grade, where we were tasked with painting a winter scene, and in Ohio, winters are gray, brown, and dull. My painting had a brilliant blue sky, just like the one in the image. And from viewing this image, a cascade of memories came forward— my sixth-grade teacher, whom I greatly admired, hot chocolate on very cold days, and friends long since lost to life and death. All from a single image.
A few days later, on a trip across town, I passed a cemetery, some parts of which were overgrown to the point of disappearing, others were right next to the road. It was jarring. Why? I have no idea—I’ve seen many cemeteries. I had to stop and spend a moment, and that moment stayed with me, a lingering sorrow until I went back with a camera.
Perhaps, the viewfinder narrows the world down to a graspable size, one where life makes sense within that small confine. Maybe, being a window, the viewfinder is another way to pull up a seat on a porch and look out onto life from a distance that is entirely under one’s control. Step closer and become a part of the scene, step all the way back, and simply experience the image. Or recognizing the uncertainty of fickle memory, the viewfinder is a sympathetic window and the image captured, a view out that window that one can carry along for a lifetime, revisiting a place and moment that is otherwise unavailable.
Looking at that casually taken image with the vibrant blue sky allowed me to be 12 again. Going back to the cemetery with a camera relieved a sorrow that I still cannot explain. What I do know is that since those incidents, life is different when seen through a viewfinder. What is captured exceeds what is seen with the eyes alone, and the need to understand and delve cannot be disclaimed or quieted and shapes my art.
The Shape of My Art (Apologies to Sting; Listen*)
He picks a lens as a meditation
Considers a pose, then selects
He doesn’t care for money or prints
He doesn’t shoot for respect.
He fires the shutter to find the answers
The sacred physics of light mid-prance
The hidden chemistry of colloidal emulsions
The apertures need to dance
I know that colors are the tools of an artist
I know that f-stops are controllers of light
They say pixels are key parts
But that’s not the shape of my art.
I bought a camera to take better pictures of the garden. Looking through the viewfinder has taken me far beyond that goal. To where exactly remains to be seen.
Shape of My Heart, Ten Summoner’s Tales, 1993. Sting