“The question,” as Thoreau once said, “is not what you look at, but what you see.” And we must look for a long time before we can see. Looking is not seeing. Seeing involves interaction, creativity, imagination. We should be changed somehow by what we see, at least as much as the object seen changes before our eyes. In the end, seeing requires a “readiness,” a receptivity to surprise and discovery, a willingness to be taken over by someone or something else. It’s work of a kind, but effortless and exhilarating when it happens unexpectedly.
A member of the Stony Brook Camera Club recently lamented to Doug Williams, Stony Brook’s director, that computers have ruined photography. He pined for the old days in which members were instructed in the efficacy of various lenses, the subtleties of developing film in a darkroom, and the importance of learning how to frame a subject by looking through a pinhole cut into a piece of cardboard. In effect he was saying that we have lost our ability to see, cheapened it in a way, because we can so readily take snap shots, save them to a disk or the cloud, “doctor” them via a series of pre-packaged Photo Shop filters, and post them to the web.
The Camera Club member may be right. However, even if the tools at our disposal have changed, the basic issue is still the same. We assume too much; we see only what we expect. To alter our perspective, a good rule to follow is that no object is too boring, too plain or inconsequential to examine. And a corollary to that is to limit the area being looked at: a square foot or yard, a single spot on the ground or in space, a specific subject or type, especially if unfamiliar. Another strategy is to move far away from what we are looking at, or get really close. To illustrate the power of this last, consider these photos of ordinary objects taken from an airplane and published in the Huffington Post website. Suddenly the mundane becomes spectacular; the obvious becomes a work of art!
Consider, too, this image of the stone wall along Stony Brook’s Sensory Trail. Is there anything more satisfying than boulders strewn together loosely into something so solid and enduring? Does anything become more beautiful with age or more elegant as it breaks down? “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost says, and to some extent he is right. Nature doesn’t parse the land this way; humans do. But walls like this don’t separate neighbors, don’t keep out or hem in. They are testaments to the past, decorative ribbons along the spine of the landscape, spattered wide with splotches of white mustard and emerald green lichen. With chinks dark and mysterious, they are the kinds of places you want to stick your hands into, but know enough not to. As such, they are humble reminders that not all great works of art hang in a museum.
Some images seem to defy categorization, are almost too magical and mysterious or unworldly to process. In such cases, it’s best to let go. These monsters that seem to rise out of a blue sheen like ice are neither squid nor some unearthly snakes. Not pinecones or pineapples stretched to their limits. They are corms, tubers that once served as the root system for water lilies, now torn up by swans unable to satisfy their hunger for the waxy white flowers. Native Americans used to bake them like potatoes and eat them for their nutritive value. Today they nourish the imagination and the soul. We shudder at their serpent-like quality and wonder from what depths inside us are cast similar floating flowers.
We shudder, too, at the catbrier which lines so much of our trail, its thorns nearly ½ an inch long and tipped in blood red as if to give warning to the careless passerby. More talon than brier, these stalwart tangles are the natural world reduced to its essence. Nature does not distinguish between life and death, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, matter and spirit, order and chaos, heaven and hell. One is a manifestation of the other. And so the menacing catbrier is a natural source of food for deer and birds and butterflies, a shield for small animals from larger prey: its tendrils a delicacy akin to asparagus, its extract a medicinal herb and a base for sarsaparilla.
Similarly this crusty lichen is a carapace for the rotting out tree beneath it. Neither shroud nor bandage, neither fungus nor algae, neither parasite nor host, the lichen typifies the mystery of Nature’s mechanics. Its symbiotic relationship is ever in question, reminding us how, at the most fundamental subatomic level, we cannot even say where or what an electron is. We put an elementary particle under the microscope and we change it. We assign names and positions and values to the stars. Do we change them, too? Is it reasonable, then, to think that what we call reality is merely conjecture?! If so, how bitter… and yet still so sweet!