Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In search of meaning every day.

I've recently finished reading a book whose premise revolves around the idea that Christianity is not what Jesus was really all about. That he himself would not recognize the institution that was built upon him. I've read variations of this argument before and surely it is missing something. Obviously Jesus was not a Christian and the ideas that are expressed in the Bible, both in the Old and in the New Testament are part of a set of ideas that adjusted to changing contexts over a very long time. If we focus on one man and one time, if we freeze the frame, we are missing the larger context. The interesting aspect for me in this debate are the changes within a suite of ideas over time, the work of many creative people and how they have then influenced their societies.

The story of the long history of religious thought is full of ideas that stepped out of the box and reinvigorated the societies within which they were embedded. Paul (Saint Paul) took the ideas of a shunned sect and reframed them for a larger audience. He didn't ruin the central concepts but universalized them. The artists and poets and writers who followed enlarged and helped it reach into the heart of every moment down through the centuries, a continually updated dialogue. The creative thought and practice of so many people helped this particular religion become adaptable to change through time. For example, one thinker in the last century, Carl Jung, when asked if he thought God existed said that if believing helped one in life, gave meaning, then why wouldn't one do so? A pragmatic but creative response in an cynical age aimed at finding meaning in an individual's life. A psychological perspective. Another, C.S. Lewis, usually viewed as a religious writer, created a mythical word in his 'Narnia' series of books. His concept was that the world of imagination was more useful to people psychologically than a 'scientific' view based on 'no meaning'. That societies as a whole need a set of creative ideas set within creative forms to work with that will allow them to develop and prosper. Ultimately, tangential though they may seem at first, this continuing process of thought and action is the advancing front of religion. And this idea is found in all religions, just as in other areas of human cultures. If a set of ideas can no longer speak to the present moment it is discarded, but re-framed in the language of the present it can live on to enrich our lives.

Picasso, talking about art, said there were no new ideas, no evolution from bad towards better, but that it always exists in the present, and that only the context of ideas change and the way of expressing them. Apply this way of framing to religions and we can see that there is no such thing as more evolved, higher religious ideas, just people through time expressing universal thoughts within the conditions of their present moment and using the ideas from the past as building blocks in new contexts. The Animist in his jungle clearing has a set of beliefs that work for him, the Zen master in a monastery in Japan is not superior but just well adapted to his culture, the Christian or Jew or Islamist has a set of ideas that enrich a certain cultural context. They are not in competition for first place or more 'true', but are adaptive to their culture at the present moment. Religious ideas can have a 'useful' element; - they perform a transformative function for the present. They explain our lives.

Back in Galileo’s day in Renaissance Italy, it was possible to have an unsystematic set of ideas, one could look at the universe and see that the earth was not the centre of everything after all and yet believe in many aspects of religion. Over time though, that new 'scientific' perspective has lead us to try to have one comprehensive world view. If one is true, then the other cannot be so. We live in a conceptual straight jacket within one suite of related ideas or another.

A perspective I found in Joseph Campbell's book, 'Transformations of Myth through Time' was illuminating: the Buddhist concept of the Idam , a deity that an individual has chosen. It has no existence, it is a picture, a concept, and has life only insomuch as I make it the guide for my own life. So, if I choose an aspect of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Moses or Thor or Thunderbird and make the ideas resident in that to be my life's guide I will have accomplished Jung's idea that there is a useful psychological aspect to belief, but I can also admit a rational understanding; it is possible to live within a 'rational' mind set and yet to access religious ideas.

I choose my 'Idam', I exemplify those principles over the span of my life and thereby give them consciousness. I am making meaning, not taking, receiving or rejecting it. I am participating in that long tradition of reconstructing perennial ideas in the context of my time. My beliefs are my art and my art is my life.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Forming images without a camera.


Yesterday evening I was meeting my wife off the ferry, a dark and rainy scene, not good camera weather one would say, in fact I had not brought my camera with me. As the ferry approached, its lights reflected off the sea's surface and I caught myself planning how I would take this photograph, how to get a fast enough shutter speed, without simply raising the iso sensitivity too high. I was doing a dry run with the leisure to think through the process without having to quickly raise the camera and take my shot. This is really part of everyone's process, from athletes to the military; running scenarios in the mind, so that the real thing when it arrives is already thought through. In this case I was able to not only think of the mechanical camera needs of the moment but to consider my philosophy of imagery and to think far beyond that into the realm of the imagination.

There are times when a written description actually seems more appropriate than a photograph anyway. The other day I saw ducks rising out of the fog and passing overhead against the dark grey sky . That would be difficult, but not impossible to photograph, but the important part for me at the time was my interior feeling and the ideas that the scene engendered. No photograph would be able to accurately convey what my specific reaction was. Turns out that we are all good at creating images in our minds as we hear or read stories, and those images, converted from words to interior imagery, are just as powerful in their effect as a photograph would be.

I watched the ferry slide past in the rainswept darkness, its lights reflected in complicated patterns. It was present in all it mechanical might and moving through space and time. The light was very beautiful, the thoughts it engenders took me from this place, from the rain and my physical self and led me towards abstract thought that was no longer specific to the here and now. What I was doing on this cool, dark evening was thinking holistically; logically and imaginatively, - everything combined in that one moment in time.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Spirit Soars

My spirit soars.*

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable stream or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

The Wild Swans at Coole. William Butler Yeats.

Yesterday evening Heather and I walked down to the valley below our island home. A low mist gathered over the farm fields in the rapidly cooling air. It is late Fall, the leaves have left the trees to clog the streams, which are themselves awakening at last from the long sleep of summer drought. Out of the fog rose flight after flight of mallards, urgently gaining height in the dark sky; so purposefully, so focused on their mission. Were they simply moving over for the night to a local lake or were they outward bound on a long night flight further south? I say something like, “I wonder where the people are headed this evening?” and then stumble and try to correct myself, “the tribe..., I mean the ducks.”

That, I realized, was a natural enough mistake for me to make; I don't differentiate easily between species and, as in the folktales from the past, I think of all the other beings around me in this rural setting as different tribes, each with their own vital lives to live. My spirit soars with those night travellers.

This capacity for empathy is not so strange; do we not relate to our pets more personally, more openly, than with other humans? In fact do we not relate to inanimate objects as well, whether that is familiar landscape or some piece of memorabilia left behind from the lives of our ancestors? Do we not need that sense of connection and does it not have practical survival value for us as individuals? A sense of self is a precious thing; loose it and we loose the will to live, neglect to tend it and we slowly fade away.

When I consciously acknowledge my relationships and expand the range to include my cousins, those dark, eager shapes against the grey evening sky, I am tending my Self as well. Not I, but we, are living and experiencing the world.

*When I pray, I pray for all living things.
When I thank,
I thank for everything.

My Spirit Soars. Chief Dan George

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Filtered light and adjusting the final image.

The dualism of reality and appearance – “Your knowledge of things is the way of your direct experience of appearance”. Correspondingly, the experience of reality and the medium are a 'dual experience': feeling into nature and feeling into the nature of the medium. - a work should be a world in itself.
Hans Hofmann*

*Color creates Light – studied with Hans Hofmann. By Tina Dickey
(In our Saltspring Island library)

The other day I walked along the shoreline at Indian Point at Fulford Harbour. A foggy day, these were perfect conditions for photographing in the filtered light that laid an even, if grey, cast on everything. On a sunny day, the direct sunlight would have created strong contrasts, bright highlights and dark shadows that the camera, unlike the human eye, would have had difficulty coping with: burnt out highlights and impenetrable shadows. Now though, the highlights were dulled and shadows lightened. Even in the deep shadow areas the light seeped in. I took some super images ( no false modesty please) and later loaded them onto my 'Lightroom' program. It was here that I was able to analyze them more objectively. To move from capture, to final image. These are not at all the same thing and it is here on the screen that I made some important changes that took my photographs from 'as recorded' to finished image.
Yes, it was a foggy day, and that gave the basic theme to my images, but a flat, grey, dulled final image was not what I wanted either, so I set to work to make the minimal adjustments possible and yet still be true to my subject. Now, it would have been possible to go wild, to move the control sliders far to the left or right but I worked carefully, making changes only where I felt it necessary. Necessary? Somewhere I had an ideal conception of the day and the place and was taking the image to meet that. The final image was my creation, my communication of 'foggy day', not an exact replica.

Garry oaks.
It took some trouble to find a point of view that created the repeating rhythm of the trunks, showed the beach and point and the receding of the shoreline into the fog. “Think, line everything up just right, click.” In the computer though, as I thought it would, the camera 'saw' this much more flatly than my eyes had. I must compensate to bring it back to my original view. I sharpened, brightened slightly and increased the contrast of the closest trunk, and a bit of the second but left the rest to fade into the fog. A minimal change, but such a difference to how the image presented itself. 

The snag.
Shooting from under the alders, towards the fallen maple trunk at the edge of the water, was a lighting challenge, ( from dark to light) but the repetition of forms between the sticks in the foreground and the snag was too good to miss. Only in this filtered light would this have worked, would the detail in the shadow area have been visible. Later though, I could see that the water detail had been lost, thereby loosing some important visual information, so I 'brushed' in just enough detail to show ripples in the water. On impulse I brightened the fringe of alder leaves at the top of the picture and decided to leave it that way, at least for now.


The cobweb.
On a day like this, cobwebs were picked out from their surroundings by water droplets. Almost too easy and too commonplace unless I could find something reasonably original to 'say', and when I saw the curled tree root among the driftwood there was a 'resonance' between the forms; - like some restatement of a musical theme in another key. Later I had to work on the web to bring it up so it would be more visible and work with the wood in some kind of balance.

Besides showing myself photographing with filtered light and making adjustments for the final image I hope you can see that I do not work with 'rules' when making pictures. Rather it is a familiarity with my subjects and with the medium, and participating by, as Hofmann writes in the above quote, “feeling into nature and into the nature of the medium”.