Dazzled by Color Patches

November 14, 2015

"Scrollwork" by Eric Rennie

I used to try to figure out precisely what I was seeing all the time, until
I discovered I didn't need to. If the thing is there, why, there it is.

                             -- Walker Evans

I was in a sitting room recently outside a small chapel next to the main sanctuary of the church I attend.  I glanced over at the tall window on my left as I was passing through and was struck by the morning light streaming through a lace curtain.  It was all enfolded scrollwork in pale ivory, casting intricate shadows on the sloping sill beneath.  I reached into my shoulder bag for my camera and began snapping pictures. 

Had you asked me at that moment what caught my eye, I would, of course, have been able to answer in so many words, much as I am doing now.  But there really were no words for what caused me to reach for my camera, because the impulse was entirely visual.  I am reminded of a passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in which she describes the reaction of people who had been blind from birth and later received their sight as a result of pioneering cataract surgery in the 19th century.  “For the newly sighted,” Dillard writes, “vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.”  The world for them is a “dazzle of color patches” without any sense of form, size or distance.   You might say I was dazzled by color patches on my way through the sitting room that morning.

Often when I return from a photo expedition, my wife will ask me right away if I got any good pictures, and I never know how to answer.  I know what I saw, but that is no guarantee I got a good picture.  I have to see the results on my computer first, and even then there is usually much work to be done before I know for sure.  The camera I had with me that morning was not the one I normally would have used for a still life, and a tripod would have come in handy to steady the shot.  I took fewer than half a dozen shots of the lace-curtain window, both horizontal and vertical.  Once I had a chance to see the images on my computer, I selected one of the verticals and went to work using Photoshop and various add-ons.  I did some cropping and aligned the edge of the windowsill to the bottom of the frame.  I made some adjustments in contrast and lightened one of the folds so it was more uniform with the others.  The photograph overall was slightly lighter in tone than the original to accentuate the translucence of the curtain material.  My most significant modification was to realign the fold on the right edge of the picture so it hung straight down rather than veering off to the upper right, which would have created a slight imbalance in the finished work.  As a final step, I did a little digital sharpening, even though the image was already in focus.
Some people think you are falsifying an image by altering it in any significant way, and that might be true if I were documenting a crime scene rather than creating a work of art.  My intention was to recapture my experience glimpsing that lace-curtain window on my way through the sitting room that morning.  And if I were halfway successful in this undertaking, perhaps I can get you to see what I saw, as if we were newly sighted and seeing the world for the first time.

A squared-off version of the image above is one of 18 works on display from November 27, 2015 through December 31, 2015 at the Midwest Center for Photography in Wichita, KS in an exhibit entitled Ten X Ten.  Each photograph is ten inches by ten inches and sells for $100.