I was procrastinating this morning, thinking of ways to avoid going out into the -2.9 degree weather (citing the temperature in tenths of a degree gives it dramatic effect) to shoot or run errands, when I stumbled across a really fine New Yorker article by George Saunders about Grace Paley. I love reading how great writers describe other great writers. Their talent and familiarity with the craft offers a far deeper, more meaningful acquaintance than I could ever hope to get on my own.
Initially, I clicked through on the article because Paley was a Vermont-based writer (the state’s Poet Laureate from 2003-07, she died in her home in Thetford, Vermont), and because I have not read her enough to know her.
What I liked about the overview was Saunders’ summary of Paley’s art (emphasis added):
Paley’s approach is to make a dazzling verbal surface that doesn’t so much linearly represent the world as remind us of its dazzle. Mere straightforward representation is not her game. In fact, she seems to say, the world has no need to be represented: there it is, all around us, all the time. What it needs is to be loved better. Or maybe: what we need is to be reminded to love it, and to be shown how, because sometimes, busy as we get trying to stay alive, loving the world slips our mind.
It struck me (because we are all self-referential, right?) that this could be the guiding mantra of landscape photography. At least for me.
I get turned off when someone captures a beautiful image of some place, then needs to edit it up with HDR or special effects to make it seem more brilliant, more contrasty, more dramatic. If that is being done for artistic effect, okay, fine. But most often I sense it is being done just because software lets us do that now. I feel that is misguided.
Like the quote above, I don’t believe that we need to show the world to be über-beautiful, to mask out imperfections, or to dress it up. And it hardly needs our help to represent it in all its glory. For my part, what I try to do as a landscape photographer (as a photographer of anything, really) is to remind people of the world that is out there, to help myself and others better love the world when our daily busy-ness causes it to slip our mind.
For that, I certainly look for beautiful places, serene lookouts, dramatic times of day, but I don’t manipulate the beauty I find by over-processing the image. Instead, I use post-processing tools to come as close as possible to capturing and representing what I saw with my human eyes, as well as what I felt in that place at that time.
One of the first discoveries one makes when taking up photography is how truly powerful the human eye is. It captures a range of color, light, field of vision and motion that is simply astonishing. Sometimes trying to capture our world with a DSLR camera can feel like viewing a circus through a straw. But, as with poetry, limitations can be empowering. A frame not only includes, but excludes. Flattening the world from four dimensions into two is both a limitation and a license for artistic expression.
Let me conclude by sharing Saunders’ superb conclusion about how Paley uses language. At first I was going to try to shorten it, because it is a rather long quote. But then I realized that would do both authors an injustice.
A writer as good as Paley helps us (at least) know our world by modeling a certain stance toward it that is so pure and distinctive that it makes us go back into the world and take a harder, fonder look at it.
Paley’s model advises us to suffer less by loving more—love the world more, and each other more—and then she gives us a specific way to love more: see better. If you only really see this world, you will think better of it, she seems to say. And then she gives us a way to see better: let language sing, sing precisely, and let it off the tether of the mundane, and watch the wonderful truth it knows how to make.
To see better means: more joy, less judgment. There is a roof on our language that holds down our love. What has put that roof there? Our natural dullness, exacerbated by that grinding daily need to survive. A writer like Paley comes along and brightens language up again, takes it aside and gives it a pep talk, sends it back renewed, so it can do its job, which is to wake us up.
Seeing better means more joy, less judgment. I think that’s my new photographic mantra.
Now I am going to gird myself up and head out into the cold.