With Your Own Eyes

May 19, 2022

"Parking Garage Roof at Night" by Eric Rennie

Years ago I took a night photography course in New Haven.  We made a field trip to the roof of a parking garage that offered panoramic views of the city after dark. Since it was after hours, there were only a handful of cars on the top level.  I was so absorbed in taking pictures that it was a while before I realized there were no other students anywhere nearby, even though there were spectacular views in every direction. I looked back to the far end of the garage and saw that my fellow students were all clustered around the teacher. Weren’t we supposed to spread out? I wondered how they would ever learn to take decent pictures if they were content to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  I may not have realized it at the time, but I was already on my way to becoming a real photographer.

“Insist on yourself; never imitate,” Ralph Waldo Emerson advised in his essay, “Self Reliance.” He exhorted, “Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”  Of course, young people don’t have much life experience and are still searching for their own vision and their own voice.  But I didn’t take up photography until later in life and just needed the technical skills to capture what I saw — enough of a challenge in itself.

Emerson, of course, could never be accused of following in anyone else’s footsteps.  “Thou art a law unto thyself,” he wrote in his poem, “Gnothi Seauton” — a sentiment that was bound to provoke trouble if you were a clergyman, which Emerson was early in his career. Invited to address the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, he complained that we “worship in the dead forms of our forefathers.”  He insisted, “We need direct access to the divine instead of the second-hand religion taught in the churches.  God is in the beauty of nature around us and in the moral law within ourselves.”  Not surprisingly, it would be another 30 years before Emerson was welcomed back to Harvard. 

From the first, Emerson insisted on seeing things with his own eyes in the most literal sense.  In Nature, his first published work, he recalled walking across a common:

Standing on the bare ground - my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egoism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God.

Needless to say, once you know yourself to be a part or particle of God, you are going to have trouble seeing things any other way. “Our age is retrospective,” Emerson complained in the opening paragraph of Nature.  “It builds the sepulchers of the fathers.”  He continued in this vein: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.”  Emerson, of course, came along before cameras were invented.  But in his insistence on seeing things through his own eyes, he might have made a good photographer. 

 


Trees

April 29, 2022

"Rails" by Eric Rennie

My photograph, "Rails," appears in a juried competition called "Trees" that opens April 30, 2022 at the A. Smith Gallery in Johnson City, TX near Austin. The juror was photographer Kevin Tully, co-director of the gallery. The e-mail announcing the results noted that my image was one of 55 acceptances out of 1,093 submitted. No doubt this was intended to make me feel part of a select group. But it merely drove home to me just how hard it is to get one's work accepted in any show. I have suffered rejection often enough to know there are thousands of excellent fine-arts photographers out there producing first-rate work.  The exhibition runs until June 9.
 

 


To Take a Picture

March 15, 2022

Alex with Camera

On a visit when she was 10, my granddaughter Alex borrowed one of my old cameras and began taking pictures of everything in sight.  She wasn’t the least bit intimidated by all the dials and buttons on a high-end SLR camera.  I set it on automatic, and she just banged away.  Nothing seemed to escape her notice, including the overhanging tree branches seen by looking straight up through the skylight in our living room.  They were duly captured in a photograph.  Since the camera was digital, I had no qualms about letting her shoot to her heart’s content, because there was no expensive film to process.

 
My granddaughter instinctively embraced advice a photography teacher once gave to my class: “Don’t be afraid to take a bad picture.”  I thought back to when Alex was barely walking, and she grabbed everything within reach.  You had to hover close to make sure this little omnivore wouldn’t put something dangerous in her mouth.  Now she was taking pictures omnivorously, which was the best way to learn.  There was no need to hover close. She could click through all the pictures she had taken and delete the bad ones herself.

 
I’ve given some thought to what is meant by “taking” a picture.  The word “take” is one of the most common in the English language and can have any number of meanings.  Do you “take a photograph” the same way you “take a look”?  Yes and no.  In both cases, you can dispense with the word “take” altogether, and simply use “photograph” and “look” as verbs and mean the same thing.  But as any photographer can tell you, taking a picture involves far more than the mechanical act of pressing the shutter on your camera.  If you want to photograph another person, you have set in motion a subtle transaction that involves taking something that belongs to someone else.  This is why it is usually considered polite to ask for permission to take someone’s picture.  It’s also why you can’t use such images for commercial purposes without compensating the subject or at least obtaining a release. 

Small children who start out grabbing everything in sight must learn not to take what does not belong to them.  Photographers are similarly constrained not to take pictures of everything in sight.  This was a lesson I learned the hard way in the aftermath of 9/11 —and the resulting security crackdown.  I tried to take pictures of cranes along the waterfront in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn and was told my camera would be confiscated if I didn’t stop immediately.  In France, copyright law covers any man-made object, including buildings.  The Eiffel Tower is now in the public domain, but not the lights that were installed on the structure in 1985.  As a result, photographs taken of the Eiffel Tower at night may not be reproduced without permission of the copyright owner.  Similarly, the Pebble Beach Company has trademarked the Lone Cypress, an ancient tree perched on a granite outcropping along the California coastline, south of Monterey.  A  sign warns tourists that any photographs or renderings of the tree for commercial purposes are forbidden without written permission of the Pebble Beach Company, which uses the tree as its logo.

“There is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography.  Those who live in the public eye — athletes, entertainers and the like — are acutely aware of this and expect to be compensated for any commercial use of their images.  Courts have likewise ruled that private citizens have a reasonable right to privacy, although not if they are photographed in a public space.  

Some years ago the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia was taken to court over an exhibition of large-format photographs of pedestrians on a sidewalk in Times Square. The subject of one the pictures, an Hasidic Jew, came across his image in an exhibit catalog and filed suit.  He claimed that his privacy had been invaded and that the photograph violated religious strictures against the making of “graven images.”  The judges in the case conceded that the plaintiff may have found the photograph deeply offensive on religious grounds. But they ruled that diCorcia’s right to free artistic expression under the First Amendment trumped the plaintiff’s privacy rights.

One does not often encounter the biblical injunction against the making of graven images in a civil court case over intellectual property rights.  The commandment reads: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  As broadly interpreted by the plaintiff in the diCorcia case, this stricture would put every photographer in the world out of business, since it would preclude all subject matter in heaven and earth, as well as in the water under the earth.  It should be noted, however, that this sweeping injunction is followed by the words, “…you shall not bow down to them or serve them.”  In context, the commandment would appear to forbid worshipping those images, not taking them just to put on Facebook or Instagram.
  
The word translated as “image” in the Old Testament first appears in the biblical creation story when God says, “Let us make man in our image.”  The word (Tzelem in Hebrew) can mean either “likeness" or “idol,” depending on the context.  In sense, you could argue, as the plaintiff in the diCorcia case did, that God owns the copyright to everything in creation, since he made them — especially those litigious creatures he fashioned in his own image.  As a practical matter, people should be entitled to some control and compensation for the use of their own images.  This is especially true of people like me who make or take such images.  Yet I would hope I never forget where those images ultimately originated, even if I am the one who snapped the picture.  


Traces

February 02, 2022

"Cotton Hollow" be Eric Rennie

My photograph, "Cotton Hollow," is one of 35 images accepted into a juried competition at the Photoplace Gallery in Middlebury, VT.  Its subject is an abandoned 19th-century cotton mill still standing along a creek in Glastonbury, CT.  The exhibition, entitled "Traces," runs from February 3 to February 26, 2022.  The show is curated by Jeff Curto, a photographer and emeritus photography professor.    
 


The Light of the World

January 14, 2022

"Sunrise in Fog" (2016) by Eric Rennie

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

                                             ― Marcel Proust

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite…

                           —William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”


A photographer must be a student of light.  Granted, you can set your camera on automatic and bang away without giving it much heed.  But most likely you will wind up with a generic shot.  This can be perfectly appropriate, given the right lighting conditions.  But if you really want to do justice to your subject in every light, you need to use your camera’s built-in light meter and make the necessary adjustments in exposure and lens aperture.  After all, the word “photography” literally means “writing with light,” which suggests you should understand the medium you are working in.    

As a landscape photographer, I mostly work with natural light, which varies dramatically according to weather conditions, season and time of day.  Early on, I realized that if I was going to shoot outdoors, I needed to get up early.  The quality of the light soon after sunrise (and at dusk) is particularly conducive to outdoor photography.  The sun is lower to the horizon, and its light travels farther in the atmosphere, emphasizing warmer tones on the color spectrum, reds and yellows, while blues are more diffused.  The result is softer light and a golden glow that flatters everything it falls upon.  Also, photographers are able to shoot directly into the sun, which at any other time of day would result in a blown-out image.

We can thank the Impressionists for the insight that they were rendering light first and only secondarily the objects that light illuminates.  Once they began painting en plein air, they realized just how changeable lighting conditions could be outside the studio. With his Haystacks series in the late 1880s, Claude Monet began painting the same subject matter under varying lighting and weather conditions, often working on multiple canvasses in succession at different times of day as the sun moved across the sky.  For his series depicting the cathedral at Rouen, he set up his canvases side-by-side in rented space by the front window of a lingerie shop across the street.  He worked from dawn to dusk over two years (1892 and 1893) on ten paintings in succession as sun and shadow played across its pale stone façade in brilliant yellows, reds, oranges and blues. He thereby demonstrated how transformative it can be to depict the same scene in a different light.

Light has long been a metaphor for spiritual transformation.  Moses saw a light, a bush that burned but was not consumed. He turned aside to see, and his life took a radically different turn.  St. Paul was blinded by a light from heaven as he traveled to Damascus, and he quickly joined forces with those he had been persecuting. Jesus Christ wasthe light, according to various gospel accounts, telling his disciples, “I am the light of the world.”   This was not just a metaphor.  At one point, Jesus and three of his disciples ascended a tall mountain where "he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light."  This episode became known as the Transfiguration. 

Numinous experiences are often described as “otherworldly.”  But as Jesus made clear when he proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom, he wasn’t talking about another world; he meant this one, the world as God created it.  When Jesus said, “I came into this world that those who do not see may see,” he had more in mind than the recovering of sight to those who were born physically blind.  From the moment he first wandered out of the wilderness to begin his ministry, his message was always the same: “Repent, he said, “for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  By “repent,” Jesus meant something far more radical than merely renouncing sin.  The literal meaning of “repent,” or metanoiain the original Greek of the New Testament, is a change of mind -- not simply to think different thoughts or to act differently but to see the world with new eyes.  The change Jesus had in mind was so absolute that he likened it to being reborn.  “Unless one is born anew,” Jesus told people, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The German theologian Rudolph Otto coined the term “numinous” to characterize such events, from the Latin numen, signifying a divine power.  The Eastern Orthodox use the term “created light” to describe these transfigurations, in contrast to the natural light I work with as a landscape photographer.  According to St. Gregory Palamas, a 14th-century Greek monk and theologian, uncreated light exists in the eye of the beholder.  He wrote, “Take note that eyes with natural vision are blind to that light,” he said. “It is invisible, and those who behold it do so not simply with their bodily eyes, but with eyes transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

If the kingdom has come, as Jesus said, why don’t we see it?  The short answer is that we are looking in all the wrong places. We assume that finding God’s kingdom requires a change of scenery, either in this world or in the next. The last place we would ever look is right here, which is the only place we will ever find it.  "The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself," Thoreau declared.  We can take “excommunicate” in this case to mean separating oneself from God’s presence.  In the end, we don’t need a change of scenery; we just need to view the same scene in a different light.

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