Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Looking, Seeing and Beholding...

It's not what you look at that
matters, it's what you see.

-Henry David Thoreau

Behold...A Blanket of Yellow Covers the Earth
   One could say that that phrase gets at the very core of contemplative photography.  We look at things in a very cursory way.  We do it so we don't walk into telephone poles.  To see something is to give it more than a passing glance.  It is to regard it with focused attention. But in this post I want to suggest that there is another level of attention...to behold your subject.  Behold is an old fashioned word, one we rarely see anymore but it is, for me, the level of awareness that is one step deeper than seeing. It is one, unlike looking and seeing, that involves the heart as well as the mind.  It is a fusion of deep association with the observed that links it to us personally.  It is the kind of seeing I strive for when I'm in the landscape.  At this level of regard, one can no longer be a dispassionate observer; a detached eye behind the lens.

   If you divide the word into its syllables, it has even more import.  BE...the essence of contemplative photography.  Stop "doing" and just be.  It recalls my 4 Be's as well, Be Still, Be Present, Be Patient, and Be Persistent.  Many photographers are constantly busy with their craft... so obsessed with the technical and aesthetic considerations that they miss the experience of it all.  The field of yellow canola plants near the abbey in Kentucky was jaw dropping.  I stopped and studied it several times the week I was there.  I finally made a photograph of it and later, when I looked at it I thought, at first, "Darn, that telephone pole is awkward!"  But then I had to smile to myself...that was the mind, the great and critical judge talking!  When I was there, truly beholding the field, I never saw the pole.  I was looking at the field as a lover would "behold" his beloved...lovers don't see the flaws in the loved one.

   HOLD...this implies a more committed relationship with the landscape. To hold hands with it, as it were.  It is an intimate, physical gesture.  It also asks us to cradle the experience...first in our heart and then in our photographs.  I'm reading a wonderful book, the writings on nature by Thomas Merton...When Trees Say Nothing.  It talks about his early training, with his Father the landscape painter, in beholding.  It also illustrates his growing consciousness as an environmentalist, long before such a term was even bandied about.  Nothing can speak to the need to form this intentional, heartfelt relationship with the land than this Merton quote.  In this day of growing environmental awareness and urgency it may be well to remember...

We will not save what we do not love.

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