A Frame Around the Moment

June 14, 2024

"Railroad Underpass in Fog" by Eric Rennie

“The whole genius of haiku is that they don’t mean anything,” wrote Frederick Buechner in an essay entitled “The Remarkable Ordinary” in a volume of the same name. Buechner gave as an example this little gem by the 17-century haiku master Matsuo Bashō:

An old silent pond.

Into the pond the frog jumps.

Splash. Silence again.

How could that haiku mean anything?  It describes a small moment and is told just as quickly — all of 17 syllables and then it’s done.  So what has transpired here?  A haiku, Buechner says, “tries to put a frame around the moment.”

Buechner starts small, with a simple haiku, but he then goes on to say that writing, art and music are all essentially trying to do the same thing: to put a frame around the moment.  But why?  Here Buechner makes a distinction between what the Greeks would characterize as chronostime, which can be measured by a ticking clock, and kairos time, or time as we experience it qualitatively. When a writer or artist or musician puts a frame around a moment, it is kairostime that he or she wishes to capture, as if to say, “Pay attention to this.”

Buechner does not mention photography, but it immediately struck me that capturing the moment is precisely what I do as a fine-arts photographer.  The cameras I use have all sorts of buttons and dials for adjusting the focus, focal length (depth of field) and such. But the adjustment I start with is the time of the exposure, which is calibrated in seconds or fractions of a second.  

Getting the right exposure depends on setting the proper shutter speed. Photographing a moving subject in low light without a flash is difficult, because the slower shutter speeds required to get the right exposure will result in a blurry image. Even a stationary subject may require a tripod at longer exposures due to camera shake if the shutter speed is slower than about 1/30th of a second. Getting the shutter speed wrong can result in an image that is overexposed or underexposed, depending on the level of ambient light.   

The way a fine arts photographer approaches his or her craft will differ from other types of photographers.  A crime-scene photographer is interested in facts.  A sports photographer is concerned with capturing action that is significant to the outcome of a game, akin to what photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as the “decisive moment.”  A fine arts photographer is aiming at something closer to the visual equivalent of a haiku, a small moment that has no significance beyond itself.  The exposure setting on my camera is calibrated in chronostime, just like the cameras used by a crime-scene photographer or a photo-journalist.  But the moment I seek to put a frame around is an expression of kairostime.     

My favorite example is an image by a Swiss-born photographer named Robert Frank, whose collection, The Americans, remains one of the most iconic works of the postwar era.  His subject matter was mostly small moments captured on the fly as he toured the country on a Guggenheim grant.  The photograph I have in mind was a bit different.  It was taken at the largest ticker-tape parade ever held in New York City, honoring General Douglas McArthur on his return home from Korea in 1951.  The image was shot from well back in the crowd along the parade route, with no particulars of the occasion beyond a bright snow shower of ticker tape cascading from the office windows above.  Several women hold up open compact cases, hoping to catch a glimpse of the motorcade in their mirrors.  MacArthur isn’t even visible in the photograph, and yet there is no mistaking the excitement of the occasion.  The moment Frank captured is pure kairos.

“The photographed world stands in the same, essentially inaccurate relation to the real world as stills do to movies,” wrote the late culture critic Susan Sontag. “Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.”  Sontag’s complaint was two-fold: first, that photographs present a slice of time, not a flow; and second, that they alter reality by putting a frame around it. “To photograph is to frame,” she wrote, “and to frame is to exclude.”   

You can certainly argue that Robert Frank’s image of the ticker-tape parade parade in New York City falsifies the event by excluding General McArthur.  But then, the photograph isn’t about General McArthur.  It’s about the women in the crowd excitedly holding up their compact mirrors to see over the crowd in a snow shower of ticker tape. It’s a small moment with a frame around it, and as such it is essentially no different from what any writer or artist or musician tries to do.  All of us are in the business of saying, in effect, “Pay attention to this.”  As a fine-arts photographer, I work in chronostime in hopes of capturing kairostime. And If the photo gods are smiling, the moment I put a frame around will be timeless.     

 


Fullness of Time

May 15, 2024

"Flyaway Hair" by Eric Rennie (2013)

English has only one word for time, plus many words for the increments thereof (hour, day, year).  The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos for time we can keep track of with a clock or calendar and kairos for what the poet William Blake once characterized as “eternity in an hour” — time that we lose track of altogether. It is this seeming paradox of timeless time that marks every manifestation of the divine.           

We are now so steeped in a sequential understanding of time that it may come as a surprise that it wasn’t always this way.  Indeed, as developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and others have documented, a child’s basic concept of time — chronos time — is not innate but is learned through his or her interactions with the world.  A small child only gradually comes to understand there is any other time besides right now.  My then 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter, for example, learned to calibrate the passage of days as the number of “sleeps” — as in, “Grandma and Papa are coming to visit in two more sleeps.”  

As it happens, aborigines in central Australia also mark time in “sleeps”; they say they will return to a place after so many sleeps, or nights.  The language of the Amazonian Amondawa tribe, which had no contact with the outside world prior to 1986, includes no words for time or increments of time, such as “month” or “year.”  Hunter-gatherer tribes generally might be aware of seasonal changes but, unlike sedentary farmers, they are not involved with annual cycles of planting and harvesting.  They therefore have no need to mark time in longer increments.

When our early ancestors needed to keep track of human activity beyond a single day, they looked to the night sky.  Neolithic bone carvings and cave art appear to show the waxing and waning of the moon in what may be the first primitive calendars that could be used for annual cycles of planting and harvesting.  Ancient civilizations — among them the Mayans, Babylonians and Greeks — were careful observers of heavenly bodies and developed methods for predicting solar and lunar eclipses.    

The invention of sundials and water clocks enabled the ancients to divide the days into hours.  This was often viewed as a mixed blessing by those who found their lives were no longer regulated by the sun but instead by these implacable man-made devices. In a speech attributed to the Roman playwright Plautus, a character exclaims, “The gods damn that man who first discovered the hours, and— yes— who first set up a sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits for poor me!”

The progress of chronos time from then until now has mostly been one of smashing the day into smaller and smaller bits.  Hours became minutes became seconds became nanoseconds  — each step made possible by advances in technology.  Medieval monks invented mechanical clocks because they needed a way to keep track of time in order to pray before the sun came up. Clocks were soon installed in bell towers to regulate the commercial life in the towns. Then railroad conductors and shop foremen began carrying pocket watches to keep things running on time. The technologist Lewis Mumford wrote that “the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.” He noted that “time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing.” Consequently, Mumford said, “Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.” 

We are so steeped in chronos time that we can only understand eternity as unending clock time.  But we are now in the realm of kairos time, which is calibrated not in hours or seconds or nanoseconds but in moments.  A moment, by definition, has no duration; it may last seconds or even hours, as such things are reckoned by the clock.  It is a moment in which we lose track of time altogether.  It is time as a small child understands it, a kind of unending now.   

Kairos has its root in the ancient Greek word for the exact right moment in which an archer releases his arrow in order to find its target.  Similarly, photographers like me refer to the “decisive moment” in capturing reality on the fly.  An example would be my image above, taken of my then seven-year-old granddaughter Alex and a friend at a playground in Brooklyn.  There is no way you can pose such a picture.  It's like stalking wildlife in their native habitat.  You've got to track your prey and hope you catch them at just the right moment -- a matter of dumb luck much of the time,

Even though the camera’s exposure settings are precisely calibrated in seconds or fractions a second, the actual taking of a picture is done in kairos time. The iconic street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who coined the term “decisive moment,” noted, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”  In that moment, which the photographer Walker Evans referred to as a “flash of mind,” color, form, texture, light and shadow come together just so to capture the image.  Click!  If everything goes just so, you have succeeded in putting a frame around a small moment of kairos time. 

To retrace our steps to when chronos time first gained traction in the realm of kairos time, it was when medieval monks began using mechanical clocks to wake up in the predawn hours to pray.  The irony is that they did this to sanctify time.  Western religions have long sought to sanctify time by setting aside specified periods for prayer.· This began with the Jewish Sabbath on the seventh day of each week to observe the day on which the Lord rested from his labors in creating the world.  Priests in the temple were also commanded to make ritual sacrifices each morning and evening, which evolved into offering prayers at set times every day. These practices were incorporated into the early life of the Christian church and later developed by monastic orders into an elaborate round of daily prayers known as the canonical hours.

In sanctifying our hours and days, by whatever means, we are anchoring time in the still wider framework of eternity.  Eternity is not so much timelessness but rather the still space in which time is contained, along with everything that transpires in time.  The canonical hours are an invitation to plant oneself in this wider space, to be reminded that we are in the world but not of it.  Eternity is not grasped in the passage of time but in a single moment that opens before us like a revelation.  There is no longer past or future, but only right now, and the realization that “right now” is all there is.

 


Submerged Sunrise of Wonder

April 14, 2024

Illuminated Dandelion 1 by Eric Rennie

You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.
-- G.K. Chesterton

Abraham Lincoln once quipped that God must really love the poor, because he made so many of them.  The same might be said of dandelions, which brighten suburban lawns unbidden every spring.  Dandelions are classified as weeds, perhaps because they require no cultivation and are not easily eradicated.  But what did they do to deserve such ignominy?  They have undeniable aesthetic appeal, albeit short-lived — hardly disqualifying in itself.  Plus, dandelions are edible, exceptionally rich in vitamins and minerals, and can be made into wine. They have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over a thousand years, and they remain a staple of various herbal remedies around the world.  Their lineage is impeccable, having been brought over on the Mayflower for their medicinal properties.  So, apart from their unfortunate tendency to trespass on well-manicured suburban lawns, what’s not to like?  

Small wonder that the essayist nonpareil G.K. Chesterton used the dandelion as emblematic of what he called the “submerged sunrise of wonder” in life.  A convert to Roman Catholicism, Chesterton was not afraid, as he put it, “to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.” He stated that “the primary problem for me… was the problem of how men could be made to realize the wonder and splendor of being alive, in environments which their own daily criticism treated as dead-alive, and which their imagination had left for dead.”  

Chesterton seized on the lowly dandelion precisely because it was despised, then held it up as a sacred object.  In his autobiography, he called attention to “the strange and staggering heresy that a human being has a right to dandelions; that in some extraordinary fashion we can demand the very pick of all the dandelions in the garden of Paradise; that we owe no thanks for them at all and need feel no wonder at them at all; and above all no wonder at being thought worthy to receive them.”  He added, “The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed."

As a landscape photographer, I generally do not seek out sweeping vistas.  My subjects are usually much closer at hand, including objects I can pick up and hold in my hand.  I often use a macro lens, which allows me to get in close, sometimes only inches away.  When your subject fills your viewfinder, it makes no difference whether there is only one of them in the world or dozens sprinkled across your front yard.  You are forced to see it for what it is, shorn of any context.  And if you are paying the least attention, more often than not you will be astonished.

One morning some years ago I was out for a walk when a Bible verse came to me out of the blue: "What God has made clean, do not call common."  The verse in context applied to Jewish dietary laws.  As an Episcopalian. I am not bound by such dietary restrictions – or at least none that my doctor hasn’t recommended to keep my cholesterol and glucose levels down. What could this verse possibly mean?  

I had been walking along a stretch of road that skirted a golf course near where I live.  It was early in the morning, and the sun had lit up some wildflowers growing by the side of the road.  I stopped to look, momentarily transfixed by their beauty.  I made a mental note of where to find the flowers again, so I could come back to photograph them.  They were just common wildflowers growing by the side of the road.  And yet, to borrow a phrase from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  I realized in that moment the Bible verse that had popped in head was more about what I should be seeing than what I should be eating. 

Chesterton had seized on the common dandelion as emblematic of all that was despised in the world.  But he might just as easily have held up the common rung of humanity, many of them poor and despised.  Lincoln was right in saying that God must love the poor because he made so many of them.  And he commands us to love them as well.  For starters, we must not call them common.  We must learn to see them for who they are, creatures made in God’s image.

 


The Beauty of Decay

March 15, 2024

 

"Cotton Hollow"(2015) by Eric Rennie

One of my images, entitled "Cotton Hollow," appear's in the Chateau Gallery's current exhibition entitled "The Beauty of Decay."  The image depicts a 200-year-old cotton mill taken in 2015 at the Cotton Hollow Preserve along Roaring Brook in Glastonbury, CT.  The show runs until April 1 at the Chateau Gallery in Louisville, KY. Here's a link to the exhibition: https://chateaugallery.com/exhibitions/the-beauty-in-decay.
 


Nature's Refrain

February 15, 2024

"Japanese Maple after Rain" by Eric Rennie

As I’ve gotten older, my world has gotten smaller — a not uncommon phenomenon among people my age.  You’d think this would be problematic for a landscape photographer who must be out and about to practice his craft.  I still mange to get out and about, just not so much nor as far.  At the same time, I find I’m more alert to subjects closer to home, sometimes no farther than my own front yard.

For some time I've had my eye on a Japanese maple outside my kitchen window.  When it rains, I watch silver droplets dripping from dripping from its rain-slicked reddish leaves.  A few times I’ve gotten out there with a camera and macro lens that allows me to photograph the leaves close up.  But I had not yet captured anything as good as what I see in my mind’s eye.  Then one day recently, the sun broke through right after a rain shower, and I thought my moment had arrived.  In short order I was parked under the tree with my camera and tripod.  I framed my shot and pressed the shutter.  Nothing happened. I checked my settings and tried again.  Still nothing.  My heart sank.  The camera’s battery was dead, and I had no backup.

Equipment failure — to say nothing of human error — is an occupational hazard among landscape photographers.  Not to mention to the vagaries of nature itself.  But it’s not as if my battery failed as Big Foot sauntered across my lawn.   I knew that my moment would come again; indeed, the sun broke through after another rain shower only a few days later.  As another Connecticut resident, Mark Twain, quipped long ago, “If you don't like New England weather, wait a few minutes.” 

Landscape photography makes you very aware of what naturalist Rachel Carson was getting at when she said, "There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter."  Dawn comes after night, and tomorrow it will be the same.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  And likewise the seasons, spring after summer, year upon year.  With such precision do they arrive — sunrise, sunset, summer and winter solstices — that you can time them to the second.  

All of which comes in handy if you’re a landscape photographer who must be out and about. It is one thing if I intend to photograph the Japanese maple in my front yard.  Then I have only to look out my kitchen window to see the lighting conditions.  But if I have to travel any distance, I may wish to consult an on-line app called an ephemeris.  Just plug in any date and time of day, and it will show you on a Google map the exact angle of the sun in relation to what you want to shoot.

Nature consults no calendar or timepiece, so how is it able to function with such uncanny precision?  The short answer is that the earth operates as a giant metronome that marks time for everything on it.  Since our planet started spinning 4.5 billion years ago, dawn has come after night some one trillion times, slowing by only 1.8 milliseconds per century during that time.  The earth is tilted 23.5 degrees on its axis with respect to the plane of its orbit around the sun, which accounts for the changing seasons as it tilts toward and then away from the sun on each circuit. 

All plant and animal life is governed at the cellular level by circadian rhythms (from the Latin circa diem, “about one day”) keyed to the earth’s rotation on its axis.  Individual cells react to changes in light and temperature from the resulting cycles of day and night.  These circadian rhythms ensure that everything is done in due season: the mating, the budding, the blossoming, the pollination, the nesting, the hatching, the birthing, the flowering, the molting, the migrating, the hibernating.  Humans are no exception.  Circadian rhythms control our body temperature, along with cardiovascular function, metabolism and sleep patterns. 

We begin to see why, as Rachel Carson said, we find the repeated refrains of nature so infinitely healing.  We do not exist apart from nature; it literally pulses through our veins.  From the earth’s orbit around the sun, to its ceaseless pirouette day by day, to the circadian rhythms that animate all life on this planet, we are all dancing to the same tune.

 

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