Tuesday 26 July 2016

The Usual Seen Unusually

The starting point for today’s posting comes from the late American photographer, Beaumont Newhall: “We are not interested in the unusual, but in the usual seen unusually.” I’m not sure who the “we” is in this quotation, but I do know that Newhall (1908-1993) was an influential photographer, curator, critic, and author, best known for his still popular book The History of Photography. As I understand his philosophy, he was more interested in insightful images of the ordinary than in seeking out the exotic simply because it was exotic. In this approach to photography, Newhall echoes the Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson who once wrote that photography “means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

The philosophy of both of these photographers strongly resonates with me. My instinct is to zoom in on the tiny thing, the telling detail, the micro image that normally gets lost in the grand parade. My dear husband, Bill, once asked me why I preferred close-ups to sweeping landscapes – an excellent question, which I really hadn’t thought about until he asked.

And I’m not totally sure of the answer, except to say that I love exploring the micro-world around me at any given time – the pond in the backyard, the sculpture in the monastery, the flower in the garden – rather than climbing mountains in search of grand vistas. It’s the same approach I took to choosing scripts for the Middle School plays I directed for many years at Havergal College: the best plays were the ones that fully explored and celebrated a character’s daily lived experience; under that microscope, the universal truths could then emerge. For me, great truths are rooted in daily lives.

I’ve been taking photography seriously for about two years now, and one of the clearest themes to have emerged is my preference for tiny, intriguing details. When I record and share these details, I believe that I have contributed – in a small, humble way – to the search for truth.

Here are eight images that I have recorded over the last eighteen months that in my mind celebrate the ordinary while illuminating the universal.  I hope you enjoy them.

A pail of fabric that Bill dyed recently at the Haliburton School of Art + Design, Haliburton, Ontario.

Green onions in our kitchen.

A cabin hiding in the woods in Warkworth, Ontario.

A blue knife and green dye in our kitchen.

A red umbrella in the snow near our house.

Blue chairs stacked at a Canadian Tire store in Haliburton, Ontario.

My friend Frances’ computer.

A headless duck in Primitive Designs, Port Hope, Ontario.

Thank you for reading my blog. Your feedback and comments are always welcome.

Until next time.

Monday 18 July 2016

The Usefulness of Beauty

As the the experience of my contemplative workshop percolates through my veins, I’m focusing today on something that a workshop participant said casually, almost dismissively, when she looked at the image of a beautiful flower: “Oh, that’s just a tourist shot.” That line has stayed with me, mostly because it annoyed me. The idea that beauty can be discounted as something you merely glance at while passing through on your way to other things is worrisome.

And so today, I want to briefly explore the usefulness of beauty. And, yes, I know that our concepts of beauty are culturally determined and rely on individual life experiences. Yes, yes to that. But the issue here is the usefulness of beauty.

When thinking about beauty, I consulted the American poet Mary Oliver, something I’ve been doing more frequently of late. This quotation leapt out at me this morning:

“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”

For me, those words embody the usefulness of beauty. When I see something beautiful, it sends a sweet ping of empathy through my heart and delights me. It needs no further utility. My perception of it is “built entirely out of attentiveness.” When we are attentive to beauty, we begin seeing it everywhere.

Photography – both my own and that of others – is expanding my experience of beauty. In some ways, it’s a matter of training the eyes to see that which they used to pass over. Being surprised by beauty in unexpected places is a joyous experience.

In the last few days, I’ve recorded about two hundred images. When I looked at them on my computer monitor last night, there was beauty at every turn.

The lily at the top of this posting is a favourite. Thank you to Dave and Donna of Frankford for letting me record the photo on Saturday at their Frankford home.

Similarly, these geese fill me with delight. I saw them in Prince Edward County yesterday on my way home from Picton. They were in a pond by the highway, all staring into the distance. Beauty, pure beauty:

This sculpture outside the Crystal Palace on the Prince Edward County Fair Grounds in Picton reaches upward beautifully:

The roof of the Old Boys’ Memorial Entrance to the Prince Edward County Fair Grounds in Picton has its own elegance and beauty:

This red pond lily in our backyard, lovingly cared for by Bill, shares its beauty only briefly before closing up again:

This skeletal tree in the middle of the Trent River north of Frankford has a wild, unpredictable beauty:

Finally, this rusted equipment north of Lock #6 on the Trent-Severn Waterway at Frankford is not everyone’s vision of beauty, but I love it:

Beautiful objects, beautiful images. For me, they all bring that “sweet, empathic ping” that Mary Oliver wrote about. Useful? Absolutely!

Thank you for reading my posting.

Until next time.

Friday 8 July 2016

My Neighbour Is Suffering

As this marvellous Quaker Gathering in St. Joseph, Minnesota, winds down, I have to write about what has happened in the United States in the last three days, for these events have reached deep into the hearts of the 1000 Quakers at the Gathering. The tragic deaths in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas have shocked the gentle Quaker community to its core. It even reached into my beloved workshop: Philando Castile, who died in St. Paul on Wednesday, was a parent volunteer at his son's school. The husband of one of the workshop participants teaches at that school and remembers Mr. Castile as a warm, loving father. Similar stories are being told about all - ALL - of the other people who died.

As the American poet Mary Oliver has written, "It is better for the heart to break, than not to break."

The United States is going through an utterly wrenching period in its history. Looking ahead to the November Presidential elections offers no relief from the pain. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such utter tragedy, especially as a Canadian looking on - with immense sadness - from north of the border. I will need time to process all the feelings that have been unleashed in the last few days.

However, there are three things that I do know for certain.

1. The suffering that is igniting this wonderful land is real. My dear, dear American Quaker friends are are in deep despair.

2. I will no longer laugh at Donald Trump - for me, his wretched rise to the Republican Presidential nomination is no longer something to joke about. It is, instead, a symptom of a profound malaise in the United States.

3. Only love can heal the wounds. 

I ask you to hold the United States of America in your prayers. 

Thank you.