Light

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Pearly, shadowless images are becoming warmer as they begin to fill with color. Reds and oranges are seeping into the day, transforming this land and my feelings. Though still below the horizon, the sun has begun to illuminate the morning sky. The light filters through the forest of white pine and sycamore, and the surface of the pond glows, sepia tones shifting beneath my canoe. The water is still, broken only by the occasional movement of a fish or an insect touching the surface. Within minutes, the hot orange glow of the sunrise softens to a yellow hue. Shadows dance; images metamorphose. As the day unfolds, every object begins a journey of endless change, a shifting of form and appearance, revealing millions of faces, speaking in innumerable voices. At every moment, the trees, the pond, the reeds along the bank are alive, new, and fresh, image after image after image.

Suddenly, a blue heron glides into the picture. Her giant pterodactyl shape appears over the soft border of pond grasses. A six-foot wing span suspends her in space and time. With no apparent movement of her wings, she skims to the water’s edge and gently touches down with a slight bounce, barely creating a ripple. Without hesitation, she begins her hunting ritual, gracefully moving upstream toward my blind, an elegant and deadly ballerina. She is completely focused on the hunt, tuned into every whisper of wind on Long Pond, every stirring in the surrounding undergrowth. She senses a fish swimming around her legs, spears and kills it, then hoists it from the water and swallows it down, her slim neck stretching and undulating in the process. She is a shimmer of calm light, a hush of blue-gray and slate black-tipped feathers.

I lean closer to my camera, focus, take a light reading. Her movements stop. Have I been detected? As she freezes, I freeze. Her golden eyes are like both a telephoto lens and a magnifying glass. She’s able to read the entire landscape more thoroughly than I can imagine. But she returns to her hunger, and the pickerel, sunfish, and catfish that swirl in the warming water. Behind the butternut tree branch that reaches out over the water like a resting arm, I sit in my canoe and silently ask for permission to photograph. Just as she is poised to strike again I release the shutter. Click! She follows through with her lunge, spearing the fish, but then pauses, the wet fish dripping iridescent jewels of light. Satisfied that all is well, she swallows again, then resumes her hunt. I cock the shutter slowly. She spears another fish, and again I release the shutter. Click! This time the small sound shatters her confidence and startled, she catapults out of the water into the clearing blue haze of this June morning. I follow her flight with my camera, clicking the shutter as rapidly as possible as she passes right by me and, to my surprise, lands on a nearby tree.

I sheepishly move the canoe out from behind the natural blind. I scull closer to her perch high above the pond, amazed and cut through with gratitude that this beautiful being, known as extraordinarily cautious and difficult to photograph, is letting me into her morning so generously. After a few more exposures, I turn the canoe and head back to the landing on the far bank of the pond. Stroking the water as easily as I can, I hope not to disturb her any further. As I reach the canoe launch, the sun is just breaking over the jagged treeline beyond Tremper Mountain.

Minor White, my photography teacher, once said to a group of us at a workshop, “Try to photograph using light in such a way that it expresses a warm emotional feeling for some thing, some person, some place that is not necessarily the subject being photographed.” He said, “I can photograph a plow, and if the light is right, I’m making love—but not to the plow. If I give the photograph to someone, I’m giving them a gift of love. Try to be aware of the light,” he said. “Try to bring it into the photograph in some way. If you make a portrait, let the light show that the person is not only lovable, but edible. Or make a photo- graph that has a sense of love in it which you can give to someone as a gift.”

That assignment was the beginning of a very powerful three-decade long romance with light that has immeasurably enriched my art and my life. I am certain that I will never exhaust the possibilities of “making love with light.”

 

We Are All Constantly In The Midst of light. We are surrounded, bathed, and nourished by it. This miracle we call light can transform. It can teach, reveal, evoke, and heal. It speaks in many voices. We tend to see light as something that makes form visible, but light reveals much more. It reveals us. In the subtle, soft undulations of a snowscape illuminated by an overcast sky, in the raw presence of a backlighted, towering, ancient oak, both subject and photographer are revealed. Light makes visible the invisible. It can show us love where there seems to be only a rotting log or a solitary rock perched on a ledge. Sometimes the subject is illuminated by light, sometimes the subject is illumination itself. Then the subject itself glows; there are no shadows.

Light has the ability to reveal the many layers, the myriad faces contained in each form. Most often, we tend to see just the surface of a subject. We name it, identify it, and forget about it. And we stop seeing. Yet when the light changes, the subject changes, and what the subject has to show us changes. Unless we are ready to be patient and sit with our subjects, allowing the light to transform them, we see little more than their superficial aspects, and our art and our lives reflect that shallowness. If we are patient, letting go of thoughts and letting the mind settle down, then the hidden faces rise to the surface, and subtlety and richness return. A shift takes place, resonance appears. This allows for real intimacy with the subject.

Sometimes light is diffuse; the day is overcast and there is no localized light source. Everything is illuminated by the huge hemisphere of the sky and takes on a subdued, luminescent, and sensual character. Even craggy rocks become soft and delicate. When light becomes directional and there is a single, strong source of illumination, texture appears. Different aspects of the same subject come into view. The boulder that was once very soft under diffuse lighting now becomes hard and heavier looking. When the subject reflects the light, the reflections add another dimension; patterns begin to appear. Before sunrise the world is essentially black and white. You can still see things and they can be photographed, but essentially there is no color. The light is cool, shadows not apparent. Things are almost translucent. Unless we are really “seeing” and not just looking, it is easy to miss the richness of these subtleties.

Both what and how we see are intricately interwoven with our conditioning. We see what we have learned to see. If we come out of our house in midday and see a yellow barn surrounded by a forest, that image becomes a part of our memory. Later, at the end of the day, when the evening sun is sinking over the horizon and the once yellow barn and green trees have been transformed by the fiery orange hue, we may miss that change. Our tendency will be to remember the yellow and green unless a deliberate effort is made to see things as they are. In the glow of twilight the house may have a pinkish tone. Trees will turn purple. Yet our mind, if we let it be controlled and fixed by our memory, will only see the afterimages of the past.

Cameras and film add other challenges and provide other possibilities to our seeing. They are not burdened by the bias of memory. They always “see” the image from a camera’s perspective. Lenses and film types change the way color is recorded. Kodachrome “sees” differently than Ektachrome, which “sees” differently than Fujichrome. To see what the camera sees it is necessary to develop that camera’s vision. To “make love with light,” to consciously create the moods and feelings a photograph can emanate, means first giving our attention to all these technical factors. Then, we must see the subject fresh, new, in the moment of the shutter’s release. If we are awake to all of that, then we experience a sense of completion. The circle closes.

 

Towards Evening, I am back in my canoe floating silently on the pond. The light is beginning to warm up again, the reds returning, the shadows lengthening. An ethereal glow descends on the pond and the forest, and a slight mist settles in the valley, drifting onto the surface of the water. It suffuses the land- scape with a mysterious air, quieting thoughts, softening muscles. The clouds have pinkish hues, with subtle green and delicate violet shadows beneath. I sit here each evening and look at the same things, and each evening find that I see different things. The renowned Japanese Zen teacher and mystic, Eihei Dogen once asked, “Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?” His words come back to me again and again; ripples on the water expanding in widening circles, reaching out endlessly.

A large downed branch floats by, draped with veils of mist-speckled spider webs reflecting the waning purple skylight. I’m in love with all of it—from the damp pungent smell of the swamps to the delicate fragrance of the spring breeze, the shimmering summer rains and the winter blizzards that cover the scars of the landscape. I love each and every moment. I feel this love as a vibrant intimacy, involving my whole body and mind with the whole world itself. The illusory boundaries that separate animate from inanimate, cultivated from wild, self from other can’t confine this love; it propels itself with a natural power. I can feel it coursing through my veins tonight.

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Intimacy Is An Environmental preservation force that runs deeper and truer than any belief system, and is far more powerful than any legislative or scientific solution to our problems. Deeply attuned to this intimacy, Master Dogen asked us, “How can we return to, rather than possess, mountains and rivers and the great earth? How can we hear the 84,000 hymns of the valley stream? How can we find the real meaning, the true form of the spring pine and the autumn chrysanthemum?” In response, he pointed to the revealed truth, the experience of intimate days and nights, “These mountains and rivers of the present are themselves wise ones and sages.” What would happen if we all realized that intimacy directly and saw for ourselves that originally, and continually, there are no gaps between our life and the life of the natural world? Obviously there would be no need for an Environmental Protection Agency nor environmental legislation. There would be no hole in the ozone layer, nor oil polluting the harbors. There would be no endangered species, pollution in the air and water, no greenhouse effect, no depletion of natural resources. These problems are the self-inflicted wounds of a human race that sees itself as separate from the rest of the world. Human causes harbor human effects. This truth can only be realized by humans, and it can only be healed by humans.

For many of us, wild nature is an abstraction rather than a reality. The closest we may come to it is while visiting a zoo or a museum of natural history, or during an occasional trip into a manicured wilderness area. It is difficult to conjure up any passion or concern for something we barely know. We have to truly love to really care. We have to make the lives we care for palpable by letting them “enter” our life. But how can we realize this intimacy when we constantly reinforce the apparent discontinuity between ourselves and the natural environment? The words of Jack Turner in his The Abstract Wild open up an important possibility for addressing this: “Most of us, when we think about it, realize that after our own direct experience of nature, what has contributed most to our love of wild places, animals, plants—and even, perhaps, to our love of wild nature, our sense of citizenship—is the art, literature, myth, and lore of nature. For here is the language we so desperately lack, the medium necessary for true vision [intimacy]. Mere concepts and abstractions will not do.” Intimacy, love, compassion arise out of the realization of a sense of identity. When we enter nature intimately, nature becomes compellingly and absolutely personal. The body and mind involved is realized as the body and mind of the great earth itself. And we offer our words, images, and poems—indeed our life—to all life. We invoke the reality of “no gap,” the sheer and free wildness of things as they are.

 

My Heron Friend Is Back, making her perch on a cross branch of a looming sycamore tree. I paddle my way through the phantom dancers that the evening light has created from wisps of rising mist, searching for an optimal position to make an exposure. Twilight plays on the heron’s plumage: shocks of white, fine streaks of ebony and deep rusty umber. Perhaps tiring of my maneuvering to find a more advantageous position, she is suddenly airborne. The strong, deft beats of her ponderous wings palpable on my skin, she glides the length of the pond. The last photograph of the day: her fifty million-year-old form—a small mark on an infinite mountain sky—disappear- ing into the blackening greens of night above the river’s far shore.

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From Making Love with Light: Contemplating Nature with Words and Photographs. Copyright © 2000 by Dharma Communications.

NextZMM Residents Attend Teaching by Tenzin Palmo at KTD