Love at First Sight

May 14, 2017

"Phragmites 3" by Eric Rennie

My work is loving the world.  So wrote Mary Oliver in the opening line of her poem, “The Messenger.”  Asked in an interview what she meant by this, Oliver replied, “Loving the world means giving it attention, which draws one to devotion…”  I was struck by her answer, because she might also have been describing my own vocation as a photographer.  To love the world does not mean you always find it lovable or even tolerable. Loving the world, as Oliver says, means paying attention to it. I don’t know that I am normally any more attentive than anyone else.  But I have a job to do, and when I sling a camera strap over my shoulder or shoulder my tripod, I am all business.

One is drawn to devotion, Oliver says. The Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil was getting at the same idea when she wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.”  One might conclude that paying attention must mean directing one’s thoughts to particular object --  but in this case, no.  Weil goes on to say, “Attention consists in suspending thought, in leaving it available, empty and subject to penetration by the object.”  She added that “thought must remain empty, awaiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that will penetrate it.”

For a photographer, as well as for a poet, the truth is not expressed in generalities but in its particularity: in a particular moment, a particular place, a particular light; and often in its granularity, in its textures and shapes and facial expressions.  I like to make photographs so clear and crisp that you can almost step into them.  A photograph or poem may point to something beyond itself, but there is no getting around the thing itself.  As the Depression-era photographer Walker Evans once expressed it, “If the thing is there, why there it is.”    

Christian contemplatives have often been deeply suspicious of the world.  Medieval anchorites were walled up in a cell for the rest of their lives after the bishop performed a funeral rite to signify that they were henceforth dead to the world.  God himself was not so inclined. According to the biblical creation story, God created the heavens and the earth in six days and judged them to be good. The Hebrew word translated as “good” in the Genesis account literally means “that which gratifies the senses and derivatively that which gives aesthetic or moral satisfaction” -- beautiful, in short. The adjective is used seven times in the first chapter of Genesis as God contemplated his handiwork and pronounced it beautiful: first the light, then the earth and the seas, the plants and the trees, the separation of light from darkness, the sea creatures and birds of the air, the wild animals of the earth and the cattle of every kind. Finally, he beheld everything that he had made and found it to be beautiful.  In short, his work had been loving the world.  I would like to think that in another incarnation God might be a photographer.