photography


{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

DSC07357.JPG{Another day in Lent, and another mug. Yes, it is a mug.}

This is the newest mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Joan gave it to me for Christmas, having chosen it from similar ones that weren’t quite as realistic. On the plus side, it IS realistic, and it’s insulated so it keeps coffee hot. On the negative side, look at the narrow bottom. But it’s not supposed to be practical. It’s fun!

And it’s so me. I’ve been taking pictures since I got my first camera for Christmas, maybe 1957? It was a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash. Then, an Ansco Color Clipper. And on to a variety of 35mm and digital cameras. Add the video cameras, and you can imagine how much fun it is to travel with me. If I can’t pause to capture memories…why even go?

My brother Kim is also a photographer, and is far more artistic than I, more creative, I could say without being redundant. Kim pointed out not long ago, in complimenting me on a Facebook-shared photo, that I had a way of seeing things in the moment, noticing the potential of a glimpsed scene, and capturing that picture on film, or digitally as is the case these days. Kim, too, has a keen eye for such potential. He can make a manhole cover into stunning photographic art. I agree that some of us do have a way of looking at things and seeing something special in the ordinary.

Isn’t that true of every artist? A certain grain in granite or mahogany inspires the sculptor or carver. The curve of the river suggests a painting. An iris’ soft color insists it be preserved by pastel chalks. Someone else just walked by and glanced (or didn’t), but the artist saw something enticing, and responded. The words occurred to the poet; the musician heard a rhythm. Pen, brush, shutter, chisel, chalk, fabric. A scene, a moment, a vision, a risk.

It occurred to me just now that I know many artists! Judy makes jewelry in her basement. Joan and Bill are musicians. Matt and Bob write stories and publish books. Carol, Joanna, and Kim are wonderful photographers. Jack is a fine poet. Some artists are twice blessed, now that I think about it. Joan is also a quilter and Matt is a musician. Oh, I could go on, of course. I don’t have room or words to list every person I know who has a way with words (Pat), music (Mike), or even flowers (David)!

I used the word “potential” in a preceding paragraph. The artist sees potential in a piece of metal, in the way light strikes the snow, in a chance encounter at the market. A pendant, a photo, a poem results. Potential: latent power. Art is power awakening. And the open-eyed artist is powerful. Art is political, and can change the world one perception at a time.

For me personally, photography and videography are usually just ways to preserve enjoyable times, as on vacations. I want to relive, remember, even restore the good times by looking at my albums, my computer files, my DVD “movies.” But now and then, and not often enough, I am startled to see some beautiful thing I had overlooked in the 1/60th of a second. The bee in the aster or the twinkle in the eye of a child. IMG_20170304_115812297_HDR[1109]Or, just recently, the color, the light, the angles, the sweatered dachshunds staring up at me in my daughter Wendy’s kitchen. It’s a memory. Is it art? Why not?

Imagination feeds art and art returns the favor. We see things in new ways, refreshing ways. Art enlivens us, informs us, inspires us. (Thus the essential National Endowment for the Arts, to help preserve that which so enlivens, informs, and inspires!)

Now, Kellam, how are you going to tie this into Lent? Look! During this forty day time of turning around, reflection, and preparation for the new life to come, isn’t it a good time to keep our eyes open to potential, to see old things in new ways, to imagine how a moment of insight might have lasting benefits? We needn’t have the ability to paint a portrait of Jesus in the wilderness, or to write a cantata for Holy Week. It may well be enough to glimpse a vision of peace. And to create the space or the energy in which that peace grows from potential to lasting wonder, when the Spirit moves…or muses.

During Lent, open eyes and perceptive creativity can lead us from shadows to Easter. Focus on that for awhile, that art is theological.