Thursday, April 3, 2014

Spirit and Substance...

   All things have a dual nature...they are both spirit and substance.  Everyone recognizes the later, the material nature of things, but far fewer understand the former...the spirit contained within the object itself.

   Let's take the common toaster as an example.  We can easily see what it is, a device for toasting bread.  That is what it is, that is its substance and for most people it is nothing more.  But when we try to see into the simple toaster, when we try discern its essential spirit, we see so much more.

   Now, let me make this clear.  I'm know speaking of spirit in any religious sense.  We know that the toaster is an inanimate object...a non-living thing.  No, the spirit I am speaking of is the pure essence of its meaning; what it does in its most essential expression of its substance.  A toaster warms and alters bread; it does a job that is necessary and by so doing it is expressing it's meaning.  When it does it well, when its form fuses with its function, it is existing at its highest level which is why the Museum of Modern Art has examples of toasters in their collection.

   I came to understand this way of looking at objects through the study of Shaker design, especially their furniture designs and architectural forms, like the exquisite spiral staircase at Pleasant Hill Kentucky Shaker village.  The form of the staircase, its substance, is inextricably linked to its function and spirit.  I had traveled 1,000 miles last April to photograph that staircase.  It was well worth the trip.

   Walking down those stairs was a wonderful experience; my hand guided by a beautifully shaped and flowing banister, the stairs illuminated from natural light above.  All the years I had admired this staircase in pictures I was merely acknowledging its substance.  When I walked up and down it I was able to celebrate and enter into its spirit.

   When we are able to understand the spirit of a thing then we are far more likely to create meaningful photographs of it.  We are not merely documenting it's substance, it's "thingness", we are revealing in its spirit.  Simple still life and architectural photography take on whole new meanings when looked at it as an exercise of revealing the spirit of the inanimate object.  One only has to think of the pepper studies of Edward Weston to understand the way a gifted photographer can reveal the spirit behind the substance.


foxysue said...

I am learning so much from you, thank you for revealing the deeper meaning of form and function. x

Patricia Turner said...

Thank you Sue. I think it is important for those of us who want to embrace contemplative photography to understand the unique spirit inherent in all things. In the "man-made", perhaps that spirit is transmitted to the object through the hands and hearts of those who craft them. That's is why, I believe, people are drawn to the handmade object.

Mystic Meandering said...

What I am beginning to understand more fully through what you write is that contemplative photography is really about embracing Life! - embracing the *essence* of life, as you say - the "essential spirit" of life, or a "thing" - its "thingness" - and in that the essential spirit is revealed... (?)

Patricia Turner said...

Everything has an essential spirit that we can come to understand if we can move beyond its substance or manifest form. Some are content with that...a chair is a chair is a chair. That's how I felt about the staircase at Pleasant Hill, a beautifully designed "thing", that is until I actually climbed up and down it. It is the interaction with the form that reveals its spirit. It must be made through connection.