Diogenes was a Greek philosopher. He lived in a barrel.
Diogenes might have rejected the attribution of “philosopher” (with the rarefied and grandiose connotations we attach to the term). In fact, he didn’t even live in a barrel in the literal sense. (That would require an impressive feat of contortion.) He lived in large urn designed to hold wine, and compared himself to a dog: sleeping as the mood took him, eating, walking and even urinating as he pleased, in any place at all.
We don’t have to emulate Diogenes in every way to appreciate this metaphor: to live in Diogenes barrel is to carry nothing through this life, not even the conceit of being unusually wise. Whatever reputation, power, comfort or personal affection we enjoy are carried lightly, as aids to achieving an authentic life. In the Buddhist ethical system, the “authentic” life is a life founded on the realization that there is no separate “self” to aggrandize, and that all meaningful activity tends to promote that realization by other, illusory selves. The philosophical ramifications, the epistemological and metaphysical implications of this orientation have been elucidated with extraordinary, inaccessible intellectual detail by innumerable thinkers such as Nagarjuna and Tsongkhapa. The practical implication is clear: psychological “homelessness” is the bedrock of a meaningful life.
Diogenes’ barrel is an inspiration and a goal: an image of detachment from the cravings that consume our daily lives. These preoccupations hold out an illusory promise of permanent security, whereas the ultimate, inescapable reality is that “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58). We must put down the raft that sustains us through this life and swim in the ocean of boundless compassion for all life.
“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Luke 9:58
What is it that attracts us to decay? You don’t have to be a photographer to enjoy a medieval castle, a rusting car, or even a squashed orange peel, but it definitely helps.
Enjoy an Orange Today! (Credits Julian Pardoe)
Along this aesthetic continuum, photographers lean more to the right than most “ordinary” folk.
With wrecks and ruins (of the ancient kind) the appeal may be nostalgia or romanticism. The poignancy of yesteryear’s hot rod rusting on a verge is easily felt.
Visually too, tumble-down walls and rusty bumpers have their own unique textures and broken forms.
The aesthetics of trash are partly just an extension of these themes. What could convey transience and the poignancy of a lost past more directly than garbage? A rotting and chaotic rubbish-heap may provoke a search for hidden order.
Order out of Chaos
But rubbish has a special, surreal charm not shared by wrecks or ruins. Where else could you hope to witness the “chance meeting […] of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”?
My pictorial preoccupation with reflections borders on the obsessive. Working in downtown Chicago I sometimes find time to stroll about and snap a little. An extraordinary mix of Gothic and Glass gives the city a unique flavor.
Gothic In Glass
But while the architectural vistas are unsurpassed, it is the distorted and fragmented reflections of Glass in glass that possess me.
glass in glass
The juncture of the building that is and the building that isn’t is a nether-realm where the mind’s toe-hold on mundane reality becomes just a little more precarious.
the building that is
The ideal reflection image confronts the comfortable everyday reduction (“black building”) with an unsettling morphing of fluid space.
morphing of fluid space
Failing that, I’ll settle for some pretty patterns…
more pretty patterns
Surrealist Andre Masson coined the expression “Automatic Drawing” to refer to his technique for bypassing the rational mind and creating art that was a direct expression of “the unconscious”. It is hard to imagine the same concept applied to photography Photography is too grounded in the external world. Its innate surrealism arises not from the expression of “the unconscious” but from a clash between the claim to objectivity inherent in the medium and the reluctant recognition of the discordant fact that every image is in fact a subjectively framed “distortion” of reality. However, just as surrealists aspired to “step out of the way” and let the unconscious speak, perhaps we can step out of the way and “let reality speak”. Few contemporary photographers cling to the notion that their images can be objective in this sense. We all struggle with technology and against lethargy to capture the images we want to make, expressing the reality we want to reveal. But still the idea is tempting.
The antithesis of the carefully constructed image is the accidental image. Tie a camera to bungee, let it swing, bounce and twirl in the wind, fire the shutter at intervals dictated by radioactive decay. The experiment seems highly contrived. Whether the results are interesting will depend on the careful choice of location and other non-accidental factors.
I have discovered a more promising, if less authentically random, technique. Give your ten-year-old a heavy camera on a dull day in a fast-moving train, and let him snap pictures through the window to his heart’s content. Here are some of the results…
My in-law’s have a “place” on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin and it has become getaway spot of choice for our family too. The vistas, like our vacations, are pleasant in an undramatic way. There is no soaring architecture – natural or man-made – and definitely no gritty social reportage to stimulate the photographer: just leaves and waves and breezes – in the summer – and winds and ice and razor-sharp blue skies in the winter. To wander, to photograph, is a gentle pleasure. A close attention to nature heals the soul, as Rousseau conveys so lyrically in his Reveries Of The Solitary Walker. A dad on vacation with two boys, two dogs, his wife and in-laws cannot aspire to contemplative solitude, but this quiet countryside absorbs stress like a green sponge that is never saturated.
Here are some pictures from a short walk on a long weekend in August.
We start in the “garden”..
solitude is a fantasy..but who cares when the alternative is so sweet
and the woods are so absorbing
hound and human have earned a rest on the deck
but someone has a restless trigger finger
and there’s always something to catch the attention
Habitually, we think of photographs under two headings: the timeless image (“Art”) and the “snapshot”. We know of course that beautiful pictures can be created “accidentally” even when the photographer’s sole intent was to get a picture of Uncle Pat (or, more likely, his small children) on the beach: look at that lovely(underexposed) silhouette against the (unrealistically) red sky. Equally, all photographers (of my skill level) know how easy it is to aspire to timeless imagery only to capture a rather mundane moment of nothing in particular. But these are just accidental trespasses.
What I find more interesting is the type of picture I pretentiously call “photemeral”. Photemeral images are consciously constructed “artifacts”: representations of reality that aspire to isolate or reflect a moment of visual interest. However, they don’t aspire to absolute validity. Their aesthetic value depends on a context – sometimes of place, sometimes of “theme”, but above all of time. In a collection of pictures of Georgian doorways the value of each image is magnified by its neighbors. A photo-essay on the jungles of New Guinea is informed and enriched by the accompanying narrative. Sometimes a series of images, or even a single image, is significant (photemeral) just because it evokes a concrete singularity in time or place. We wouldn’t exhibit these images. We wouldn’t hang them on our walls. Even so, we feel our world is expanded by seeing them.
The ephemeral in the timeless
Online, “timeless” photographs are best showcased in a gallery. For photemeral images, a blog is an ideal medium. It reflects their conditional, transient significance. Every masterpiece was taken at a specific time and place, but without seeing some of the 99 images taken and not selected we frequently have no sense of the time and place. The photemeral image is happy to rub shoulders with its neighbors.
These three pictures are held together by place: the same beach in Door County Wisconsin. As individual images they express different “attitudes” to time. Juxtaposed, I hope, they are photemeral.