Photographing Things "For What They Are and for What Else They Are"

October 12, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The great mystically minded photographer Minor White claimed that "one should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are."

Photographs invite us to see the ordinary things of everyday life in a fresh way.  They can be arresting, stopping us in our tracks. They disrupt our routine, casual ways of seeing and being present to the world.  Something as simple and common as a strand of seaweed floating aimlessly in dark water beneath a dock suddenly appears as something quite beautiful. And for a brief spell at least, it's hard to go back to seeing seaweed the same old way we always do.  Part of the power of photography as a medium is its faithful, unforgiving, relentless depiction of the things as they are.  There is a clinical exactness to the medium not commonly found in other art forms. This clinical exactness draws us more deeply into the thing, inviting us to see details in it that we might otherwise overlook.  A photograph connects us to a thing in its unrepeatable particularity.  Kelp, No. 2 is not about seaweed in general; it is about this strand of seaweed floating in this water at this moment bathed in this quality of light.

And yet, Kelp, No. 2 is about more than this particular strand of kelp.  It is a study of lines and curves, of subtle gradations of tone that create depth and dimension, and of textures set against a glassy smooth background.  Here, I think, is the "something more" to which White was referring.  These lines, curves, tones, and textures bear witness to the deep structures of being itself. They touch the metaphysical beneath but always manifested in the physical. Ours is a world expressive of order, of an underlying purposiveness. Ours is a world of rhythms, harmonies, and creative dissonances.  When we experience these dimensions of a beautiful thing, we are experiencing something objectively real about the world. When we experience this it evokes something powerful in us.  It evokes a sense of rightness and well-being. We sense that the world in which we live is not a cosmic accident governed by fortune and chaos. We sense that this world is right, that it is as it should be, and that there is a place within it for us to flourish. And while ours certainly is not the central place, it is nonetheless a good place where the forces that bear us up in grace, hope, and love are ultimately greater than those that bear down upon us in tragedy, evil, and suffering.

When experiences of beauty attune us to a sense of cosmic rightness and well-being, they ultimately anchor us as moral selves. Before we can sense injustice, be angered by unfairness, or commit ourselves to a moral cause, we must first sense dissonance -- the dissonance between how things are and how the cosmos intends them to be.  Experiences of beauty thus assure us, often more affectively than cognitively, that "the moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice" (Martin Luther King, Jr.). It is only out of this felt experience that moral motivation and commitment emerge or are sustained over time.  When our pursuit of the good is disconnected from our pursuit of the beautiful, the moral life becomes the merely moralistic life that soon withers and dies from lack of spiritual nourishment. We need to sense that our moral strivings are not simply our moral strivings but participate in a deeper ontological force that exerts a persistent momentum toward cosmic rightness and the well-being of all creatures.  

In the end, seeing a little seaweed from time to time may well rescue us from self-righteous, self-serving do-goodism.


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