Uncanny Ability

November 14, 2021

Photograph of Dead Matador Manuel Granero (1922)

With the writer Ernest Hemingway, what is left unsaid on the page is as important as what is. In "Death in the Afternoon," his 1932 book on bullfighting, Hemingway writes this terse caption for a photograph of a dead matador named Manuel Granero laid out on a slab in an infirmary: “Only two in the crowd are thinking about Granero. The others are all intent on how they will look in the photograph.” As a photographer, I could not have left it unsaid better myself: the camera's uncanny ability to make every scene about itself.


October 14, 2021

"Nooks Hill Road Underpass in Fall" by Eric Rennie

One of my long-standing projects as a landscape photographer is to shoot subjects within walking distance of my house.  You might argue that I am at least partly making a virtue of necessity.  Given my age (mid-70s), my globetrotting days are mostly behind me, to the extent I ever trotted around the globe to begin with.  I admit I am sometimes envious of spectacular images shot in exotic locales by fellow landscape photographers.  But then again, I have found that I never lack for subject matter in allowing the world to come to me, as long as I keep my eyes open.

In this and in other things, I take my cue from that noted homebody, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in one of his journals, "The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself.”  It’s not that Thoreau never left home.  After all, his first book was entitled, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  But he is best known for his next work, Walden, in which he extolled the virtues of staying at home — in this case, a shack in the woods that he built himself.  Thoreau wrote, ”I have traveled a good deal in Concord.”  He saw no need to set out to discover the world, preferring to sit by the hour at the door of his little cabin and let the world come to him.
When I was young, I saw no particular virtue in staying put, whether by necessity or otherwise.  And yet looking back, I find that is exactly what I have done without ever quite intending to.  I came to Connecticut in 1965 to attend college and have never left.  I have lived in the same small town since 1974.   I worked in the same company for 30 years until I took early retirement at age 55.  I have been going to the same Episcopal church since 1975 — the same denomination I grew up in. I have lived in the same house — one my wife and I built ourselves, although not in the woods like Thoreau -- since 1986.  She and I recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary.
You could make a strong case that my life to date shows a serious lack of initiative — but only if you confine yourself to external circumstances.  I long ago realized that the fewer distractions the better if you mean to get on with the serious business of life.  To that end, I refer you to Marty Rubin’s observation: “There is nothing to seek and nothing to find.”  This may come as news to those who fancy themselves spiritual seekers.  In the first flush of spiritual discovery, we might imagine there is some spiritual practice or some exotic teaching or some guru that can provide a sure pathway to God.  If you happen to be a Buddhist or Hindu, your seeking can take many lifetimes.   However, every legitimate spiritual tradition I am aware of winds up leading to the same destination: right back where you started from.  Here I defer to T.S. Eliot: ”…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

On his second missionary journey, St. Paul stopped off in Athens — a city that reputedly housed more gods than people, with temples and shrines dedicated to every deity imaginable.  This, of course, would have been a sore provocation to an old Pharisee like Paul, who would have been steeped in Jewish abhorrence of idolatry in any form.  But Paul also saw an opening to instruct the locals in a better way.  "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” he told them. He added, "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man.”  Now came the clincher.  Paul quoted one of their own philosophers, Epimenides, to make the case that God was not to be found in any temple:  “They fashioned a tomb for thee….But thou art not dead, thou livest and abidest forever. For in thee we live and move and have our being.” 

Spiritual seekers all suffer from the same misapprehension: that wherever God is to be found, it must be somewhere else.  They are like fish who set off in search of water — not the least because they often swim in schools.  The last thing they want to hear is that they are already immersed in what they seek (…in thee we live and move and have our being).  

Paul is sometimes taken for a pantheist for saying things like that.  He was also partial to locutions featuring the preposition “in,” as in, we are “in Christ.”  He used the phrase no less than 89 times in his epistles; add to that “in the Lord” and “in him” and the total comes to 165. But Paul was not technically a pantheist; the proper term for him is “panentheist.”  The difference between the two is this: a pantheist believes that God dwells in rocks and trees and everything else in creation, whereas a panentheist believes that everything in creation dwells in God.  In the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, God is “the ground of being.”
If you truly understand yourself to be rooted in God, it no longer makes much sense to go looking for him elsewhere.  Where in creation can you go that will bring you any closer to God than where you are right now?  Is there a shrine or cathedral somewhere that is holier than your own abode?  You not only don’t need to set off in search of God, it is not even necessary to let God come to you.  He is closer to you at every moment than your own breathing.


Taking Our Minds Off Our Existence

September 19, 2021

"The I Is Not an Object" by Eric Rennie

We can only exist by taking our minds off the fact we exist.
— Thomas Bernhard 

“The ‘I’ is not an object,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote.  Wittgenstein was famous for turning overblown philosophical abstractions into bare facts and exposing them as essentially nonsensical.  He advised his peers to stop thinking and to start looking.  On most subjects, the less said, the better.  As far as the self— or the “I”—was concerned, there was really nothing to discuss, since the self tangibly existed only as subjective awareness and not as the object of one’s awareness. Or as Wittgenstein put it,  “I can objectively confront every object. But not the I.” 
Wittgenstein, an avid photographer, might have appreciated this illustration.  It is impossible to take a self-portrait where you are looking at yourself through the viewfinder of a camera.  You can photograph your reflection in a mirror or set up your camera on a tripod to take a picture using a timer and automatic focus.  But you cannot be on both ends of the camera at the same time.  If you are looking through the viewfinder, your actual face can’t also be in the frame.

Wittgenstein's point is that we often think of ourselves as if there were two of us, the “me” that thinks thoughts and perceives the world and the “me” that is the object of those thoughts and perceptions. You can trace this strange bifurcation of self to what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan first identified as the “mirror stage” of child development, when toddlers fall in love with their reflections in a mirror, signaling the emergence of self-awareness.  This is the point at which the self becomes both the subject and object of one’s awareness – a condition that the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer regarded as “the most monstrous contradiction ever thought of.” 

“How I wish I could separate myself from my body,” Narcissus sighed upon seeing his own reflection in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  In a sense, that is exactly what we do when we become self-aware.  We turn ourselves inside out, simultaneously seeing the world from the inside and yet viewing ourselves as if from the outside.  And if you want to make people feel self-conscious, just point a camera at them.  Most people reflexively put on a “camera face” whenever a camera is pointed in their direction, a faintly pained expression that passes for a grin in photographs.  I find this to be true even when I am trying to take my own picture.  There seems to be no way to avoid viewing myself as if from the outside. 

As a photographer, I much prefer shooting people when they are just being themselves, which is usually when they are not aware I am taking pictures, if only in the moment when I am pressing the shutter.  Their features may be the same either way. But there is always some essential quality that is absent when they pose for a picture. Actors or models learn to present a convincing impersonation of themselves; still, it is a mask. The soul is eclipsed by our self-consciousness.

The paradox is that you can only truly be yourself when you are not self-conscious.  In Buddhist terms, the person I think of as “the real me” is an illusion.  This does not mean I don’t exist.  It just means that the thoughts I have about myself are just that: thoughts. The “I” I think I am is “a mirage that perceives itself,” to borrow a phrase from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter.  Even as a serious photographer, I find that I cannot take my own picture without reflexively striking poses. 




Freeze Frame

August 27, 2021

From Stainless -- 42nd Street, Video by Adam Magyar

In Adam Magyar’s video series, Stainless, the camera pans slowly across a long line of commuters frozen in place on a subway platform at the 42ndStreet station in New York City as they wait for a train to pull in. But what appears at first to be a startlingly lifelike high-definition still image turns out to be something else altogether. As the camera scans the faces of the commuters standing motionless on the platform, there appears to be the slightest movement from one of them.  Did that woman just blink?  Did that man’s hand move ever so slightly as he tugged on the strap of his shoulder bag?  It turns out this is no still photograph but a panoramic sequence filmed in hyper-slow motion using an industrial video camera capable of filming at up to 100,000 frames per second. At such a rate, played back at normal speed, a moment becomes a minute, and an 11-second clip of a train pulling into the station becomes an 11-minute video.   As a result, the world is revealed in ways that normally escape our notice because they happen too quickly to be comprehended.

I am reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ecstatic description of a photograph in an article he wrote for The Atlanticin 1861.  He was describing a stereopticon slide of a street scene along Broadway in New York City.  This was still in the early days of photography, and until then exposure times had been so slow cameras couldn’t capture motion at all.  A photograph of a busy street scene would have appeared empty.  Yet here was a street scene bustling with life, the way you would see it with your own eyes – except nothing moved.  “All is still in this picture of universal movement,” Holmes wrote. “Take ten thousand instantaneous photographs of the great thoroughfare in a day; every one of them will be as still as the tableau in the ‘Enchanted Beauty.’ Yet the hurried day's life of Broadway will have been made up of just such stillnesses. Motion is as rigid as marble, if you only take a wink's worth of it at a time.”

Holmes might well have used the same words to describe Magyar’s video of passengers on a subway platform, a tableau made up of tens of thousands of stillnesses captured on a high-speed industrial video camera.  Motion indeed appears as rigid as marble if you take it a wink’s worth at a time, even if you are shooting video.

Time and motion vexed philosophers long before photographers got in on the act.  The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides insisted that all appearance of time, motion and plurality were illusory.  His student Zeno sought to prove it with a series of logical paradoxes, the most famous of which involved a race between Achilles and a tortoise. Zeno postulated that if the tortoise were given a head start, Achilles could never overtake him.  In the time it took Achilles to close the gap between the two, the tortoise would advance some distance farther on. And once Achilles had closed the gap again, the tortoise would have advanced still farther -- and so on, ad infinitum.  There would always be a gap, no matter how infinitesimal; hence, Achilles could never overtake the tortoise.  Zeno concluded from this that motion therefore must be illusory.

We could well imagine Magyar filming such a race.  It would start at normal speed with Achilles rapidly closing the gap with the sluggish tortoise.  But then Magyar’s high-speed industrial camera would kick into overdrive, and suddenly it would appear that the two were frozen in place, with the tortoise still ahead by a nose.  We are now viewing the race in what Magyar calls “in-between time.” At 100,000 frames per second, the blink of an eye on video would take more than six minutes to play back at normal speed.  A ten-second race would last over 11 hours.  And yet, Zeno notwithstanding, is there any doubt that Achilles would be first to cross the finish line?  

Since no sane person would ever bet on the tortoise in a race with Achilles, we might well conclude Zeno’s paradox is disproven by reality. If motion is real, then something else has to give.  And since time and motion are the two variables in question here, the only alternative is to conclude that time itself is illusory.  How can this be?  Time obviously exists as an abstract measure of change.  The problem comes with instantaneous time, those discrete instants when time is frozen to reveal Achilles straining to close the gap with a sluggish tortoise he can never quite overtake.  

But what if there are no instants in time?  A young theorist from New Zealand named Peter Lynds argued as much in a paper published in a physics journal in 2003. He wrote, "With some thought it should become clear that no matter how small the time interval, or how slowly an object moves during that interval, it is still in motion and its position is constantly changing, so it can't have a determined relative position at any time, whether during a interval, however small, or at an instant. Indeed, if it did, it couldn't be in motion."

Plot each instant on a line representing the flow of time, and something else becomes apparent.  An instant, by definition, has no duration, any more than a point has dimension.  And, as we all learned in geometry class, no number of points will ever add up to a line.  Similarly, no number of instants will ever add up to a flow of time.  Yet we all have a sense that time is passing, even if we can never point to exactly what it is that passes.  Lynds believes temporal progression is no more real than instantaneous time. “It's something entirely subjective that we project onto the world around us,” he writes.

St. Augustine, curiously enough, arrived at a similar conclusion in the 4th century.  "I say that I measure time in my mind," he wrote.  "For everything which happens leaves an impression on it, and this impression remains after the thing itself has ceased to be....When I measure time it is this impression that I measure." In modern terms, Lynds maintains that time is a neurobiological process, principally a "persistence of vision," that causes the mind to string together a series of impressions to create a perception of movement, much like still images threading rapidly through a projector to make a movie.

Magyar’s subway panorama forces us out of the flow of time into an in-between place that appears to be neither movement nor stillness.  He says, “I’m extending the moments—the present, the now—because as humans we live only in the past and the future. But the only existence we have is now, and that is something that we don’t even consider.”   This in-between time that Magyar presents is not the same thing as an instant – a slice of time in which all movement is brought to an absolute standstill – nor is it the normal persistence of vision in which we are swept along by the unblinking currents of time.  For want of a better term, call it eternity -- or the closest we can come to a graphic depiction of eternity. 

Theologians – Augustine among them – have long argued that God exists outside of time; he is the “high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,” as the Prophet Isaiah once put it. This characterization was no doubt meant to place God well beyond the reach of time-bound mortals.  Except now it turns out that we mortals may also inhabit eternity, whether we realize it or not. It is in plain sight in the interstices between past and future, between memory and expectation.  It may be found in what the philosopher George Santayana once called “the essence of nowness [that] runs like fire along the fuse of time."

We live eternally in the present moment, yet we think in time; indeed, we have no alternative except to think in time.  It is literally embedded in the grammar of our thoughts, each thought carefully segmented into past, present or future, like the still frames of a motion picture.  So if it is God we seek – the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, as the Prophet Isaiah put it -- then we must likewise inhabit eternity.  Yet it is not as far as we think; in fact, it is best not to think at all. Then we might just find we can get there in no time at all -- or perhaps I should say, we can get here in no time at all.


July 19, 2021

"To Wither into the Truth" by Eric Rennie

My photograph, "To Wither into the Truth," appears in an online exhibit entitled "Color" at the Photoplace Gallery in Middlebury, VT.  The juror was photographer Arthur Myerson.  The show runs from July 23-August 13, 2021.  The image is part of my illuminated flower series.  I borrowed a line from a W.B. Yeats poem as the title of this photograph, which captures the flower in its death throes.  I was struck by the delicate colors and the blossoms folding gracefully back on themselves.

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