The Only Known Photograph of God

April 14, 2021

"Sky Hook" by Thomas Merton

Trappist monks follow a rule of silence when they enter the monastery, but there is nothing to stop them from taking pictures.  The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, author of the autobiographical Seven Storey Mountain and numerous works on contemplation, acquired a camera in the last decade of his life and learned to incorporate photography into his contemplative practice.  One of his photographs sticks out.  It shows a large metal hook hanging from a rope or cable in the foreground, with open countryside beyond it.  The picture is framed in such a way that it is not possible to tell what the hook is dangling from. The photo is entitled “Sky Hook,” and Merton called it “the only known photograph of God.”

Various commentators have attempted to understand what Merton meant by his comment.  Mostly they have nibbled around the edges of an interpretation.  His reputation as a contemplative is such that they assume he intended something profound.  However, Merton was attracted to photography precisely because “no explanations are necessary.”  He framed the shot so it appeared to be a big hook was hanging from the sky, labeling it “the only known photograph of God.”  He obviously knew how to tell a joke.  

Merton took up what he described as “zen photography” in the early 1960s, around the same time he began a serious inquiry into Eastern spirituality.  In a letter to John C. H. Wu, translator of the Tao Te Ching, he reported that he had grown uncomfortable with “mystical writings.”   Photography gave him a method to express himself directly, without the mediation of words.  “Instead of seeing things and facts as they are we see them as reflections and verifications of the sentences we have previously made up in our minds,” he wrote in Zen and the Birds of Appetite. “We quickly forget how to simply see things and substitute our words and our formulas for the things themselves, manipulating facts so that we see only what conveniently fits our prejudices.” 

Visio divina (Latin for “divine seeing”) is a contemplative practice far older than photography.  Originally it was used to meditate upon some visual object, such as an icon, painting or stained-glass window.  There is a formal process for contemplating an image that is designed to bypass the intellect and appeal directly to one’s inner sense of things.  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself an avid photographer, summarized the method most succinctly when he said, “Don’t think, look.”  His comment was directed at his fellow philosophers rather than at contemplatives, but the same principal applies.  As he explained in his Philosophical Investigations, we must do battle against "the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

As a photographer, I understand why a contemplative like Merton found the medium so alluring.  With a camera in my hand, the visual cortex takes precedence in my mind, and I am less prone to the bewitchment of the intellect that Wittgenstein warned against.  When seen through the viewfinder of a camera, the world becomes nothing but color, shape, texture, light and shadow.  It is a world without names, unframed by any thought.  Such thinking as I might do is purely mechanical: focus, exposure, composition and the like, much of it done almost reflexively.  I find myself on sacred ground.

St. Francis de Sales described contemplation as "a loving, simple and permanent attentiveness of the mind to divine things.”  When we hear the phrase “divine things,” we tend to think of angels and the Hallelujah Chorus.  But we are not in the realm of thinking here.  The writer John Howard Griffin, Merton’s friend and fellow photographer, remarked that Merton would often pass over “superlative” shots on his contact sheets and print seemingly ordinary ones, like the dangling hook.  In his letter to John C.H. Wu, Merton explained that “mysticism flourishes most purely right in the middle of the ordinary.  And such mysticism, in order to flourish, must be quite prompt to renounce all apparent claim to be mystical at all.”

Attentiveness to divine things is less about what you see than how you see it.  St. Paul talked about having “the eyes of our hearts enlightened.”  That sounds highfalutin, but it’s really very simple.  All you need to do is to pay attention.  Instead of thinking you’ve seen it all before, see things as if for the first time, as a newborn would.  If it helps, do as I do and pick up a camera.   I can’t promise you will find God, but you may just discover that you are seeing the world as if through God’s eyes.                             



Night Vision

March 14, 2021

"View from Notre-Dame" by Brassaï

One of the small ironies associated with the City of Light is that one of its most iconic photographers is mainly noted for images that plumbed the darkness.  Gyula Halász — better known as Brassaï — arrived in Paris as a young man in the early 1920s.  He was a Hungarian-born former art student who initially earned his living as a journalist.  He only picked up photography because he earned more by supplying pictures with his articles.  He initially disdained photography as an art form but was awakened to its possibilities by a fellow Hungarian emigre, André Kertész, who himself became a noted photographer.  

Kertész had mastered many of the techniques that Brassaï would later use to document his nocturnal peregrinations around the city.  Brassaï described himself as a “noctambulist” — one who walks by night.  Night photography was — and remains —technically difficult, especially with the photographic equipment available at the time.  Largely self-taught, he relied on trial and error to arrive at he proper exposure, using a lit cigarette as a timer.  The long exposures necessary to take pictures in low light often resulted in blown-out (overexposed) images or halos around bright light sources like street lamps.  Brassaï learned to work around that by shooting in rain or fog, which diffused the light and gave his street scenes the haunting atmospheric look that has come to be identified with his outdoor work.

Brassaï never adopted the more versatile 33mm Leica camera favored by many of his contemporaries, which allowed them to shoot on the fly.  He stuck with a Voigtlander Bergheil plate camera, which was reasonably compact but required a more elaborate setup.  For his indoor work, he used a tripod and flash. There could be no candid shots, so he had to win the confidence of those he photographed.  Given where he managed to gain entry, the results were remarkable.  He seemed equally at home in an elegant soiree at Maxim’s or a dingy brothel.  The subjects found in a 1968 retrospective of his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art included the rich and famous, equestrians, assorted artists and writers (many of them his friends), street vendors, dancehall girls, hoodlums, pimps, streetwalkers and transvestites, With few exceptions, the common denominator is that they were creatures of the night.

“Night does not show things,” Brassaï said, “it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime.”  He was stating truths about his photography that also have a spiritual application.  We associate God with blinding revelation, such as St. Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, forgetting that Paul was, in fact, blinded by the encounter and remained in darkness for three days.  Likewise, the Lord first revealed himself to Moses in the Burning Bush, but when Moses later returned to Mt. Sinai, he is described as drawing near to “the thick darkness where God was.”  Why darkness?  Just as Brassaï could not directly photograph street lamps using long exposures without risking a blown-out image, Moses was told he could not look directly upon God’s face and live. Had a photographer been along on that expedition to Sinai, he would have done what Moses did and hidden himself in a cleft in the rock as the Lord passed by.  Then, if he were lucky, he might have grabbed a shot of God’s backside. 

Spiritual adepts have long maintained that God is not revealed by the light of reason. Theologians can tell you all aboutGod but cannot apprehend God directly. At best, the theologians of the via negativa can tell you what God is not.  God cannot be grasped by the intellect.  He is like nothing in the created order, like nothing you can see or otherwise apprehend with your senses by the light of day. To find God, we must enter into the “deep but dazzling darkness,” as the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan called it.  But how do we find our way?  Here we might take our cue from Brassaï: Night does not show things, it suggests them.  We learn to make our way, as Brassaï learned to take pictures, by trial and error.  Mystics sometimes speak cryptically of “second sight,” which is just another way of saying you must learn to see in the dark.       


Vesper Light

February 14, 2021

"Vesper Light" by Eric Rennie

Medieval monks sanctified time by setting aside specified periods during the day for prayer, which they called the daily offices.  In much the same way, landscape photographers are attuned to the advance of light and darkness in the natural world, since that is their subject. Their world is not cloistered, and there are usually no bells to summon him to prayer.  But at its best, their work becomes a form of prayer, only they sanctify light rather than time as such.  Much of my work is done at first light, a period the monks would call prime.  Here I am working at the other end of the day, during the period the monks refer to as vespers





Newness of Life

January 14, 2021

"Behold, I make all things new." (Rev. 21:5)

I am old.  Once you get to be my age, there is no denying it, unless you are “in denial,” as they say.  And I would rather be old than just be an old fool.  Being an old fool robs you of one of the chief compensations of age, which is wisdom.  The reason wisdom comes with age is that you have seen it all before — or at least enough of it to avoid making the same foolish mistakes all over again.  

Part of me identifies with the world-weary author of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, who first observed that there is nothing new under the sun.  “All is vanity and a striving after wind,” he wrote.  Tradition holds that the author was King Solomon, although biblical scholars think otherwise.  Whoever he was, he talked like he had seen it all before.  Life is a wearisome business, he maintained. He has pursued pleasure to no good end.  Wealth has provided no satisfaction, and even wisdom has brought only vexation.  He has toiled ceaselessly with wisdom and knowledge and skill for riches that will eventually go to someone who did not toil for them and may be a fool besides.  In the end, the wise man dies just like the fool, and both are soon forgotten.  Solomon  long anticipated Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who lamented, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!”

The sun has risen more than a million times since Solomon allegedly said there was nothing new under it.  Pleasure, wealth and hard work are presumably no more worthwhile now than they ever were.  Even wisdom proves unavailing if it does nothing more than reveal that all is vanity and a striving after wind.  But if I am able to step out of my dull routine and pay close attention to life as it actually unfolds from moment to moment, I am astonished to discover that each moment is still sui generis.  

There is a biblical phrase that describes moments like this: newness of life.  At my age, the adjective “new” rarely springs to mind when discussing my life.  After all, the sun has risen more than 26,000 time since I saw my first sunrise.  So what could possibly be new under it?  And yet I find, especially when I have a camera in my hand, that the world can still appear brand spanking new.  

As a landscape photographer, I am often out and about at dawn’s early light.  At such times it hardly matters that I am hobbling about on arthritic knees, or that I only see clearly because I have had cataracts removed.  When the sun spills over the horizon, I often feel like I am privileged to be eyewitness to the dawn of creation, with birds singing like the morning stars that sang together and the heavenly beings that shouted for joy when the Lord laid the cornerstone of the earth in the Book of Job.  At such times I know what Marcel Proust meant when he said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”


December 14, 2020

"Alex Among the Lilliputians" by Eric Rennie

This photograph is one of 41 images selected by writer and curator Elizabeth Avedon for a juried competition called "Portals: Windows, Mirrors and Doors" at the PhotoPlace Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont. The show runs toguh Deceber 26, 2020. The charming little subject of this photograph is my then five-year-old granddaughter Alex, who was on an expedition to the Kid City Museum in Middletown, CT.  exhibited at the A Smith Gallery in Johnson City, Texas and at the Darkroom Gallery in Essex Junction, Vermont.

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