Timelessness

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

~Ludwig Wittgenstein

My relationship with photography began, as affairs of the heart often do, with mindless lust. I wanted to play with beautiful machines, to see spectacular things, and to make the kind of tantalizing photographs I saw in glossy magazines and coffee-table books. In time, lust blossomed into love—a committed and intimate kinship, founded in intimate familiarity, implicit acceptance, and mutual respect. Short-lived infatuations don’t produce such depth of appreciation as love, which must evolve at its own pace, with ongoing investment of care and attention, through times of bliss and despair, not avoiding inevitable conflicts but in spite of them. No matter how passionate initial encounters may be, before anything may be considered as love, time has to pass.

Works of significance and beauty often and aptly are described as timeless, although the implications of such characterization often are not fully acknowledged—such works are, literally, without the dimension of time: their meanings not bound to any anecdotal event, their relevance not limited to just some period, their importance not dependent on any fleeting fashion.

Like all amorous affairs outside of storybooks and sappy movies, so is my otherwise blissful union with photography plagued with a few complications, pet peeves, and impure thoughts, admittedly originating most often from my own failings and eccentricities, one of which is the fact that I am one who takes great pleasure in prolonged meandering contemplations. I revel in streams of consciousness, and often allow them to flow unimpeded. I am interested not only in ideas, but also in the sensation of the evolution of ideas; I relish time spent imagining possibilities and scenarios, often for things having no practical implications to me; I mind every aspect and every detail of any creative endeavor I am engaged in, not only for the sake of control (another of my eccentric obsessions), but also as a way of extending my joy in being immersed in such experiences, delaying on purpose their inevitable culmination, even when I can complete them in shorter times with the same quality of output.

When working outdoors, I may stay in one place for hours, sometimes days, watching the light move and transform, revealing and obscuring elements. I hate being in a rush when working. If some ephemeral perfection unfolds when I am not ready to photograph it, I’ll pause to appreciate the experience, knowing that frantic camera work would only diminish it. I like to consider and visualize every perspective available to me; every way I may select, arrange, juxtapose, and fine-tune elements in my environment; and estimate whether I may be better off returning at another time, in different light, in a different season, or in a different state of mind.

When I do pay attention to the camera (always configured as to eliminate the possibility of any beep and buzz it is capable of, that may interrupt my flow of thoughts), I take time making sure my tripod is at exactly the position I need it to be; I take pleasure in studying the finder image, and in the tactile feel of buttons, rings, and dials—their smoothness, precision, and resistance being as important criteria in my choosing them as any optical or technical quality they may possess.

When processing my work, I also take my time. I mull over every decision, consider every possibility, and stop on occasion to just examine the image-in-the-making and to visualize possibilities. I check and double-check for possible technical imperfections, and I work every last pixel to perfection—not for perfection’s sake but because I enjoy the process of getting to it.

I avoid anything requiring swift action, and (to the extent that I can help it) I aim to unburden my work of any strict time constraints. I never cared for competitive sports; I have no particular desire to drive a fast car; I prefer driving to flying, even if it adds hours or days to my trips.

Photography is not always tolerant of, and does not always yield to, “unproductive” mindfulness, however enjoyable. Oftentimes, she is abrupt and decisive, demands rapid responses, limits my windows of opportunity, insists on finding some significance in ephemeral moments.

I enjoy seeing my labors coming to fruition, and I take pride in a finished work as much (perhaps not as long) as anyone. But the reason that in three decades I have not given up on photography is not my desire to keep expanding my archives, but my joy of being immersed in such states as flow and mindfulness as I am engaged and involved in doing my work. In my experience, this state of all-consuming involvement cannot be confined to moments, to detached observations, or to ephemeral appearances, disconnected from a greater and more lasting (creative) experience. When consumed in compositional meditations, thinking, refining, adjusting; as my subject remains mostly static, and little other than my thoughts is changing—when a photographer like Henri Cartier-Bresson would likely have died of boredom waiting for some “decisive moment” to occur—I recognize in hindsight that I have lost track of time in the same sense that I do when sleeping; that I have been so elated and enraptured in the throes of experience, that the click of the shutter sometimes feels like waking up from a dream.

If indeed the practice of photography fails to elicit such sensations for some, it may be because so many unquestioningly adopt the attitude of hunter-gatherers, always on the lookout, ready to pounce, waiting for some random decisive impression—significant or otherwise—to  raise its head for a moment above a steady stream of otherwise mundane and insignificant events. But one doesn’t need to wait for such ephemeral things to present themselves at random. Instead, one may find—better yet, create—ongoing, ever-unfolding, meaning by adopting an attitude of constant contemplation, wonder, and fascination with the world (both within and without), and on occasion realize means of setting some poignant aspects of it in a visual, musical, written, or other created work, not because some moment has stood out as significant from the stream of time, but because the stream of time has sufficiently crystallized some idea to a point of being worthy of expression.

Is it not our role as artists to influence and enrich reality—others’ and our own—rather than to submit to it passively and to record the occasional highlight it throws our way? Would it not be better to have the capacity to create at any time, in spite of time, without regard to time; rather than to be at the whim of serendipitous circumstances occurring randomly in time? Certainly, photography as a medium lends itself to either mode, and more so to the latter, but what about photography as art?

Timelessness

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2 thoughts on “Timelessness

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  1. “Most artists look for something fresh to paint; frankly, I find that quite boring. For me it is much more exciting to find fresh meaning in something familiar.” – Andrew Wyeth

    In essence, Guy, I agree with and celebrate the notion that the act of creating art is timeless in the sense of flow. In nature/landscape photography, unlike the slow development of a painting or sculpture, one captures a sketch of a moment. Whether returning to a scene a dozen times for an hour or reveling in a scene’s transition for several hours at a setting in the pursuit of finding/relating one’s personal impression, be it emotive or metaphoric, ultimately one is looking to capture the sketch of a moment. For me, it is what follows after recording that time-fractional, mechanical sketch, in bringing the fullness, and/or wonder of the moment from the sensor to the screen/print, that time becomes suspended … in much the same way you have expressed. I believe that it is art if it has captured the ‘aboutness’ of the moment, to borrow a familiar phrase.

    As always, your thoughts spark introspection in search of expression.

  2. Indeed, Jerry! To be fair, your thoughts play into some of those impure thoughts I’ve been having about photography as sketches of the moment, as opposed to the more immersive experiences of painting and other media. I’ve read opposing views from the likes of Alfred Stieglitz (defending photography) and Edvard Munch (who was an avid photographer but famously also said that “The camera will never compete with the brush and palette until such time as photography can be taken to Heaven or Hell.”)

    My instinct is that it comes down to attitude and discipline, but I can’t say I can defend it with certainty at this time.

    Food for thought for future writings 🙂

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