Letters, Numbers & Symbols

October 14, 2023

"Aunt Mildred's 100th Birthday" (2008) by Eric Rennie

My image, "Aunt Midred's 100th Birthday," has been selected for a juried competition at the Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis, MN.  The exhibition, entitled Letters, Numbers & Symbols, runs from October 21, 2023 until November 11, 2023.  The juror is photographer Dallas Crow.  The image was taken at a family birthday party in 2008.  At the time of her death at age 106, my Aunt Mildred was said to be the oldest resident in the state of Maine.  

Ordinary Things

September 14, 2023

"White and Pink Chrysanthemum" by Eric Rennie

To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as
in its greatest, is to possess a rare and sublime faith.

             — Jean-Pierre de Caussade

My world has gotten smaller as I’ve gotten older.  This is not uncommon for people my age (I am in my mid-70s at this writing), but it can be a limiting factor if you are a landscape photographer.  I am not likely to go trekking in the wild the days; then again, I never did.  I was already pushing 60 when I became a serious photographer.  Although I have made up for lost time in many ways, that has not included any globe-trotting expeditions.   I am still able to get out and about.  But there is only so far I want to go lugging heavy camera equipment.  And after I took a bad fall while tramping out in the middle of nowhere, my wife made me promise not to venture too far from the beaten path. 

My work these days is mostly been taken close to home; in fact, one of my long-standing projects is to find subjects within walking distance of my house.  A few years back I began photographing wildflowers I found growing by the side of the road when I was out walking.  In some cases, I have exhibited photographs of trees and flowers taken in my own yard.  

My world has gotten smaller in more ways than one.  I would bring back those wildflowers I picked by the side of the road and photograph them in a darkened room under an intense white light. I would use a macro lens, which allows me to get in very close.  The result sometimes is a single blossom that fills the entire frame of a picture.  I take my inspiration from Georgia O’Keefe, who explained that she painted flowers big because it was the only way she could get people to pay attention to them. 

The largest-grossing sci-fi movie in the 1950s was called The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who also wrote episodes of the original Twilight Zone on TV.  The protagonist is a man who is exposed to a strange green mist that causes him slowly to get smaller — much smaller.  As he shrinks, the objects and creatures in his house grow proportionately larger and more menacing.  He is threatened by a household cat now many times his size and fends off a black widow spider with a sewing needle.  His house becomes his prison until he is so small he can pass through the wire mesh of a window screen.  

My macro lens allows me to photograph ordinary objects as they might have appeared to the Incredible Shrinking Man when he was only inches tall.  These lenses do not reveal anything that is not plainly visible to the naked eye.  But they enable you to hover right next to your subject, like a bee buzzing around a flower, making it impossible to ignore what appears in your viewfinder.  You quickly discover you have gained a window into a whole other world nestled inside the one we usually take for granted.  Even at its most granular level, the world that God made is beautiful — not just here and there but seemingly everywhere you look.  God is indeed in the details.

Why do we take it for granted?  I’m reminded of Emily, the young woman in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, who has died in childbirth and is allowed to return to her former life for a day.  She is dismayed at how distracted everyone seems.  "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize,” she laments.  “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"  No, for the most part we do not, and there are sound reasons for this.  In evolutionary terms, we risk our survival if we ignore the pressing business of survival in order to stop and smell the flowers — or photograph them, as the case may be.   And so our minds are always looking down the road to where the next meal is coming from or where a predator might be lurking or where we might find a mate.  Like Emily, we discover too late that people have become so distracted by the humdrum of everyday life they can no longer see what is staring them in the face. 

In the 8th-century BCE, an Israelite prophet named Isaiah had a vision of God seated on his throne. with seraphs (angels) chanting, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  Listen to what those seraphs had to say: the whole world is full of his glory.  We assume that some beatific vision is required to see God’s glory in the world.  But those angels hovering around God’s throne were merely stating facts. They revealed nothing that is not plainly visible by the ordinary light of day.  We just have to pay attention.  

Lying in Wait

August 14, 2023

"Dead Man's Swamp in Fall 1" by Eric Rennie

Sometimes I get the uncanny sense that the subject of my photograph has been lying in wait for me to take its picture.  I say “its” because I am primarily a landscape photographer, and my subjects do not normally smile for the camera.  The photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson advised that “your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you,” as if there were an active collaboration between artist and subject.   Similarly, the ceramicist Mary Caroline Richards once said the artist’s task is to “allow the centered clay to live into a form which it would itself declare.”  Was she suggesting that an inert lump of clay was somehow giving shape to the vessel formed at the potter’s wheel?

As with any visual arts medium, photography is not about trying to impose an idea upon one’s subject – in fact, it is more nearly the opposite.  As Richards says, you are allowing your subject to declare itself to you. I get the sense sometimes that what I see though my lens is what I am being shown. Not that my subject is nudging me and whispering, “Hey, look at me.”  It’s more that the act of seeing and the fact of being seen are one and the same. There is no longer a sense that the photographer stands apart from what is perceived.

When you look through the viewfinder of a camera, it’s easy to objectify what you see through the lens.  The world exists “out there,” and you’re in here looking not at the world itself but at an image of the world captured on your camera.  In effect, there is not one world but two – or three, if you count the image in your mind’s eye.  However, quantum physicists would tell us there is no real boundary between what we normally think of as the exterior world and the interior world of thoughts and perceptions. “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived,” wrote physicist Erwin Schrödinger.  “Subject and object are only one.”

English philosopher Owen Barfield concluded we are deluded in thinking “the mind of man is a passive onlooker at the processes and phenomena of nature.”   He theorized that human consciousness is evolving and has reached a stage he called “camera civilization.”  Like the workings of a camera, we believe “the mind is something which is shut up in a sort of box called the brain” – a “mere recorder of an external world, not a participant in its creative life.” 

According to quantum theory, subatomic particles exist in an indeterminate state until they are observed. In a classic double-slit experiment, you can shine light on a barrier with two slits that allow the light to pass through to a photographic plate on the other side. If you position photon detectors beside each slit, the light will behave like photon particles, passing through one slit or the other and leaving two parallel lines on the photographic plate on the other side. But if the photon detectors are absent, the light will pass through both slits simultaneously and leave a striped pattern on the other side characteristic of a wave. It is as if the light had decided to smile for the camera when the photon detectors were in place and appeared as particles. 

The late John Wheeler, the physicist who coined the term “black holes,” believed the same game of peekaboo between subject and object may be playing out in the macroscopic world as well. He theorized that we live in a “participatory universe” in which consciousness is not a bystander to physical reality but is an essential element in its formation. In a sense, you could say the world comes into being because we are here to witness it.  It is as if every time I snap the shutter the world is taking a selfie.


A Flash of the Mind

July 14, 2023

"Hyrangea after Rain (2022) by Eric Rennie

Photography had been around for nearly a century before it began to be taken seriously as an art form.   Photographers were essentially viewed as skilled craftsmen. They worked with mechanical devices, after all.  And while it took some expertise to operate a camera, especially in the early days, the only talent required was knowing when to press the shutter.  Nowadays, of course, any idiot who knows enough to remove the lens cap can take technically competent pictures, because cameras are basically nothing more than a computer with a lens attached to it.  Smart phones make it even easier to take pictures, and people do so bythe trillion.  As anyone who has scrolled through the images posted on social media will tell you, most aren't worth a second look; indeed, many aren't even worth a first look.  Granted, they're usually not intended as works of art.  Most are essentially snapshots that might once have been destined for family albums but are now immortalized in cyberspace.

So what separates a work of art from more pedestrian imagery?  Hint: it has little to do with the camera per se— and never did.  Sure, fancy lenses might come in handy if you’re photographing wildlife or sporting events.  But there are plenty of hobbyists loaded down with expensive equipment who think this alone will guarantee exceptional results.  It rarely does.  Nor does mastery of Photoshop or other add-ons for digitally manipulating images after they are taken.

The masters of photography will tell you, as Alfred Eisenstaedt did, "The important thing is not the camera but the eye."  The pioneering street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson chimed in: “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera. They are made with the eye, heart and head.”  Walker Evans, best known for his Depression-era photographs of Alabama share croppers, put it this way: “Photography isn’t a matter of taking pictures. It’s a matter of having an eye.”

What does it mean to have an eye?  For a marksman, visual acuity is everything; not so much with a photographer.  An eagle can spot a mouse from three miles away, but that doesn’t mean an eagle would take a decent picture, even if the bird knew how to operate a camera.  Having perfect vision is no more a guarantee of taking a good picture than owning an expensive camera.  As Cartier-Bresson noted, photographs are made with the heart and the head, was well as with the eye.  For purposes of discussion, we might refer to this collectively as the mind’s eye.

In the end, it all boils down to knowing where to point the camera and when to press the shutter.  There are rules of thumb about what makes a good picture: composition, framing, depth of field, exposure and the like.  But in practice, your subject is rarely going to hold still while you run down a checklist.  Even if you are shooting a landscape, the light can change from one moment to the next.  When heaven and earth are in alignment — in this case, photographer and subject — you have to be ready to capture what Cartier-Bresson referred to as the “decisive moment.” He said, “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.”

With a camera, it’s all or nothing,” Walker Evans added. “You either get what you’re after at once, or what you do has to be worthless. The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine.”  There is a certain amount of hand-eye coordination involved, which comes with practice.  Granted, there may also be a bit of luck involved.  But essentially, the whole business of knowing when to press the shutter comes down to that little interior spark that Evans calls a “flash of mind.”

It occurs to me that the practice of Zen archery has much to teach us about how all this works.  Years ago, long before I had taken up photography, I read a little book called Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel.  Herrigel was a German philosophy professor who taught in Japan before World War II and studied archery there under a Zen master.  As might be expected, the Zen approach to this discipline was full of apparent contradictions.  Herrigel was told that letting go of the string correctly could not be mastered until he had first learned to let go of himself.  Even more inscrutably, he was taught that to hit the target, he must learn to stop aiming.  "How can the shot be loosed if 'I' do not do it?" a bewildered Herrigel asked.   His teacher's reply: "'It' shoots.”

I am no Zen master, and I take enough bad pictures never to think of myself as a master photographer.  But I know a good picture when I see one, and I have taken enough myself to understand what it is required.  I can imagine a Zen photography teacher telling a pupil that to take a good picture he must first let go of himself.  “How can I shoot a good picture if ‘I’ do not do it?” the bewildered pupil asks.  And the Zen master’s reply: “‘It’ shoots.” That’s what it comes down to in the end: When heaven and earth are aligned, and a flash of mind occurs, the picture takes itself.     



June 09, 2023

"Duck Swimming in Fog" (2016)

I live near the Conncticut River, so we get a lot of fog early in the morning, particularly when the days are warm and the nights cool.  I was taking pictures down by the river soon after sunrrise some years ago, when a solitary duck swam into view.  This is the result.  The image has been selected for an exhibtion at the Decode Galery in Tucson, AZ called "Blue."  The show runs from June 10, 2023 to July 1. 

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