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. 


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