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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