28 November 2006

To photograph, or to take photos?

Interesting post over at Shards of Photography. I quote it in its entirety:
"To photograph" is to talk, to sympathise, to open up to people, to interact and to share your emotions with you[r] subject, and hopefully vice versa. The actual act of tripping the shutter is only second to that. This is in contrast to "to take photos", where a photo is "taken" without "giving". When photographing, the subject gives a part of himself to you in response to your giving your attention, your showing interest, your sympathy. It's still not an equal deal as you gain income, fame or whatever you think to gain from your photographs. The subject most likely doesn't benefit materially from this deal unless he (or often she) is a model posing for you. Often the subject, however, is left with a positive feeling, a sense of importance or just had a pleasant interlude in an otherwise boring day.
I think this is very important, as a Christian and a photographer. Creating art with my camera, when it involves a human subject, must involve my relationship with the person I am photographing. I am guilty of "taking photos" when I've shot pictures of charming looking natives in foreign countries where I'm traveling, all from the safe distance of several yards, with a telephoto lens so the subject doesn't even know she's having her image "taken." I am realizing now that, aside from being somewhat unethical (you are supposed to get a person's written permission before publishing a photograph of him anywhere [though I've never published any of these surreptitiously "taken" photos], and in certain cultures having your photograph "taken" is akin to have your soul captured), it is not a very Christian way to do photography. As someone who has been touched by relationship with the Almighty God, I should be ever more keen to engage relationally with the world and the people I photograph. This post by ShardsOfPhotography has really got me thinking.

25 November 2006

Shutter & Palette

This past week G. & I spent our Thanksgiving Vacation in Washington, D. C. In addition to running around looking at the monuments at night (in the freezing cold), touring the Capitol, sitting in the empty House gallery listening to a police officer give his rather leftist interpretation of the intricate workings of the U.S. government, and going hungry because of the atrocious cost of food in our capitol city, we whiled away several afternoons in the excellent Smithsonian museums. I’d like to take a moment to talk about the photography was saw in two to them, and to contrast these to some of the paintings we saw.

Well, first of all I’m wondering what makes a good photograph. Yes, of course, I know this is one of those unanswerable questions, like What is art and Why is this awful piece of music so famous and My 6-yr-old could paint like that what makes it worth hanging in a museum. Right. But I was a little baffled by some of the sharp contrasts we encountered. I’d like everyone to answer, of course, but I’d also like to direct you to Rosie’s photo blog for you to view some contemporary photography & maybe bring it into this discussion.

First of all, we saw a collection of photographs of NYC at the National Gallery of Art. Here are highlights. I was confused by this exhibition. I couldn’t understand why these were worthy to hang in the first art museum in the US of A, why they were supposed to be good. I mean, I’m no photographer, and I know that photographers love to mess with traditional settings, etc., but these were just out of focus, poorly arranged or not intentionally arranged at all (like aleatoric music, perhaps), oddly cropped, and so on. I felt like any hack with a camera could do better. Yet here they were, hung all neatly in their lovely rows, with plaques pronouncing how revolutionary and profound and gritty and full of the sense of life they were. Well, fine, but I didn’t get it.

Then we went on down the road to the Museum of Natural History (or, as we young-earth Intelligent Design Creationist like to call it, the Museum of Unnatural Fiction). There we were swept breathlessly away by a fantastic, gorgeous, stunning display of photographs from the current exhibition of winners from a nature photography contest. Wow! These were just wonderful. Picture after picture, crystal clear, vivid color, astonishing poses, stories printed on the sides of courageous photographers risking their lives to get the perfect picture. Take a look at this one of a giraffe at sunset, or this one of a polar bear afloat on ice. These struck me like the great sky-scapes of Tuner. Then there were astonishing compositions, like this one of an alligator’s snout above & below water. There was one of clownfish, not presented on the website, in which the camera was placed below bright orange seaweed where brilliant orange-and-black clownfish played, and the leaves of a mangrove tree were clearly visible above the water in the sky beyond! Wow. And eagles in their nests, and snow monkeys frolicking in the snow, and owls & bears & flowers. G. asked why these shouldn’t be hung up the street in the National Gallery of Art. And I had to ask the same question. What made these beautiful, carefully crafted pieces “Nature Photography” and what made those fuzzy, haphazard NYC photos art?

Well, of course, it doesn’t really matter. We had our various enjoyments in each building. And people who would be, perhaps, scared away or bored by “Fine Art” were thrilled and blessed by those photos of Creation. So that’s fine.

And then here’s another contrast we experienced. There was one particular image of a bald eagle which became the icon for the entire exhibition. When we viewed it, 5’ long & 3’ high, in stunning color, G. said it looked like a painting. We were shocked that something in nature could be that vivid, that bold, that perfectly posed. The head looked carven, as if out of wood, and painting with sharp contrast. So that was our highest compliment to these photographs: that they resembled paintings. Well, the evening before at the National Portrait Gallery, we had done just the opposite! There was a starting painting of Toni Morrison by Deborah Feingold. When we walked into the spare, primary-yellow room, her figure clad in black & grey, with a determined expression on her face, leapt out at us from the bright white canvas. Unfortunately, this image is not available online. You’ll just have to go to D. C. to see it for yourself! But we could not tell if it was a photograph or a painting. We stood looking at it & guessed before we looked at the caption. One of us thought it was a photo; one, a painting. It was a painting, but you’d be startled to know that. She was coming right off the canvas at us! Her shoulders were a good five inches away from the white background, her hands and elbows and breasts curved outward towards us; and all this in two-dimensions. It amazed me. Here’s the link to the web site of an acquaintance of mine, friend-of-a-friend, who does photorealist paintings. Again, they amaze me.

Of course, you see where I’m going with this. We gave our highest praise to the eagle photo by saying it looked like a painting; we gave our highest praise to the Toni Morrison painting by saying it looked like a photograph. Why is this? Is the goal of visual art, then, to fool its viewers into thinking it’s something it’s not? Or, to put it in different terms, is mimesis primarily a deceptive practice?

And then what about art, specifically photography, that does the opposite: that achieves its artistry by giving an image of something that could occur nowhere outside its borders? I’m talking about “avant-garde,” or specifically “surreal” works, those fantastical images of random (or not-so-random) juxtaposition like this one of paper clips and cows by Rosie.

I have not even begun to talk about the ideological or spiritual implications of these questions. It seems obvious to me that an artists could incorporate surreal elements as religious statements that there’s-more-than-meets-the-eye, or that some people could take offense at what they see as the deceit of some art, or that comments could be made on social interrelationships by visual juxtapositions, or that photography & painting can slide in and out of one another as multiple visions of the way things are & they way they should be & the way the artists sees them & the way they could be.

Feel free to speculate.

20 November 2006

Short thoughts on contemporary fantasy

I was just informed by one of my students today that Eragon is "The best book ever." I wonder if any of my readers share that opinion? I haven't read it yet, and will try to do so before The Movie comes out in December. So I'd love to read your thoughts on this book -- no spoilers, please!

And then let's expand the conversation a bit further. You Harry Potter fans: what's so good about it? Does Rowlings stand up to Lewis & Tolkien, think you? Are her books "great literature," whatever that may be, and will they find a place in the Canon, whatever that is & whoever decides what goes in it?

And (thanks for doing my research for me), I'm wondering who the other heirs of The Inklings' imagination might be? I plan to talk about this at the end of my current course on MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, & Charles Williams. I'd include Dorothy Sayers, Christopher Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Walter Wangerin, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, Mervyn Peake, Phillip Pullman.... Who else would you include, and why? I'd love recommendations, reviews of these books/authors/movies, links, and all intelligent thoughts on -- what shall we call it? -- spiritual fantasy?

I'll try to chime in more profoundly at some point.

12 November 2006

"Performing" Scripture -- The Lord's Supper

In a comment on an earlier post, I wrote:

Do we "perform" Scripture in a way when we read it into our lives and re-enact it in worship? Are we the actors/musicians, and our pastors and biblical theologians the directors/conductors? Can there be multiple different valid "performances" Scripture? And the big question: who (or should I say Who) is the audience?
I probably tipped my hand a bit too much by that parenthetical comment. Yes, I do believe God is the audience when we "perform" Scripture in our lives and worship. Not that the text of Scripture is some kind of script that we follow blindly as if our lives are completely choreographed in advance. But the stories of the biblical narrative are played out again and again in our families and communities, the psalms and anthems are sung in our worship services, and when we celebrate communion we are re-enacting the Lord's Last Supper (Catholic theologians would go so far as to say we are re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ).

As to whether there can be multiple different valid "performances" of Scripture, I think there can. Let me just take the eucharist as one small example to show how. Until I was in my 20's I had rarely experienced a communion service that had differed in substance from any of the others. They were all simply a matter of going through the motions, passing around the same little trays of individual cups of grape juice and broken bits of crackers, hearing the same words of institution from the man behind the communion table, doing in unison with everyone in the congregation an act which had practically no meaning to me other than as a simple reminder of what Jesus had done. Only once in my young life do I recall anything other which I was allowed to participate in. It was an Episcopal or ecumenical service where there was a common cup served at the front, and everyone filed up to receive it. That made an impression on me. More because I was grossed out about the possibility of picking up someone's germs, but that's just the mind of a kid at work. The point was, it was the first time I'd experienced something substantially different -- and thus ultimately memorable -- in a celebration of the Lord's Supper. It was to be the first of many. The next one I remember was at a Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, WA, which I visited with a friend. They had a special Maundy Thursday communion service one year. There were several stations set up around the sanctuary with tablecloths and baskets of bread and a common cup at each table. The room was in darkness except for some candle light. People gathered around the tables in groups and served the bread and the cup to each other. That communal aspect of it was very significant to me.

At Regent, the introduction of real wine instead of grape juice was a welcome change from my prior experiences of communion. We always have the option of grape juice at one of the stations, for people who are constitutionally incapable of having wine or prefer not to. But I almost always choose the wine (unless that line is too long), because there is something more powerful to me in the symbolism of real wine. I believe any liquid can work, and of course one has to use what is available given cultural limitations and all. I heard about one church in Africa that uses Kool-Aid for communion because wine and grape juice are not available. They cannot drink the water without boiling it, and even then it has a funny flavor, so they use Kool-Aid it to cover that. One time there was no Kool-Aid mix to be had, so someone had bought Jell-O powder, thinking it would do the same trick. But of course once you boil water and add Jell-O mix and then add ice cubes to cool it down, it turns into Jell-O, so it was an interesting communion service, to say the least. "This is my blood of the new covenant., slurp ye all of it."

I have experienced so many memorable communion services with the Regent community. There was the one which took place on a weekend class retreat. About 60-80 of us sat for our final meal at picnic-style tables that had been arranged in the shape of a cross. The Lord's Supper was celebrated as part of the meal, with bread and wine that we would finish consuming with our meat and salad, just as Jesus and his disciples would have done with the wine and bread he used as symbols on that night 2000 years ago. I loved that very down-to-earth aspect to it. Another memorable communion service was the time when the words of institution were given by someone who had grown up in a church where guilt was the motivating factor: you had to repent before approaching the table because otherwise you were not worthy to receive the elements. But of course none of us is ever "worthy" to receive the elements, and Donna told us, with tears in her eyes, that it wasn't until she got to Regent that she realized communion was a gift to us, an invitation from Jesus to the unworthy, Jesus who loved us while we were still sinners. She had never experienced communion as God's grace before.

While I agree with Sorina's comments below mine in that aforementioned post, that there can be productions that are so far away from the text that they are no longer valid (for example the controversial "milk and honey" feminist communion service at the "Reimagining Conference" in 1993), I think there is lots of room for variation in how we interpret Scripture in our "performances" of it in worship and in living. And it is such a rich text, that we will never exhaust all the possibilities. I think God, as the Audience of One, enjoys the creative ways we seek to be true to his Word while injecting newness and memorable qualities into our worship.

11 November 2006

Announcing new photo blog

Come visit my new photo blog, Space For God. It is a place for me to explore the beauty of God's creation, slow down enough to make space for God in my life every day, and bring some rest and inspiration to travellers who stop by.

01 November 2006

November Poem of the Month

I'm starting a new tradition, inspired by my fellow Pennsylvania poet Barbara Crooker's website, of a "poem of the month." We'll see if this really does become a tradition! Meanwhile, here's one to start with. Commentary/critique is encouraged, even requested!

The Taste of Words

To R. L., who lost his hearing at the age of seven

I have almost forgot the taste of words. They slide
As thin as colors past my tongue like light
On eyes and eyelids, or shadows gliding by
Beneath their mirror clouds, cirrus slight,
Reflections twice reflected: once, like sight,
Shone smaller in your eyes, then back in mine:
So I speak ribbon words between my ears and mind,

But barely in my mouth. I should take time to round
My palate to their shapes, their moons and ponds
Of vowels; clench their sudden curtain sounds
In stifled yawns; and run my tongue along
The lone serration at the edge of speech: a long
Delicious lingering while words melt, smooth
And butter-sweet, oh, slowly, like the way a blue tune

Seems to haze the air its own shade, and almost flavour,
Smoky, transient, intangible. You inhale no melodies,
Alas; or is it sad, or does your mind find windless pleasure
In its lagoon depths, without clamour? No screams,
No enharmonic dissonance, just what you see
And what you say, and that formed solid in the dark
Architecture of your teeth & throat, if not built in your heart.

~ Sørina Higgins

Creative Commons License
"The Taste of Words" by Sørina Higgins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. This means that you can copy and distribute the work if you will not receive any commercial gain; that you can use the work in a new creative way (song lyrics, dramatic production, visual display), again, if you receive no commercial gain; and any other use that does not make you any money--as long as you do not change any of the words of the original text. Also, the author would like to be notified of any uses of her poem. Thank you.

"Art is God made visible"

Listened to: Revival in Belfast (Robin Mark CD)

I'm reading a book called House of Belief: Creating Your Personal Style by Kelee Katillac. It's an interior designer's ideas on how to make the decor in your house reflect your personal beliefs and values. She feels it's important to do this because what we see around us reinforces what we believe. In one chapter, "The Church of the Home," she tells of how in times past, cathedrals provided those "visual affirmations" for believers. Describing a visit to Notre Dame, she writes, "the vaulting, the very architecture of the place--the great church in its physical form--suggests man embracing God. The central hall, or nave, with its right and left wings, forms the shape of a human body with torso and arms stretched outward--arms open to receive divine inspiration, baring the soul to receive the secrets of creation. [The shape of a cross, too, I might add, which not coincidentally happens to fit a human body.] Like priests performing a transforming ritual, the craftsmen forged their beliefs into works of artistry. Wood and stone were transformed into a body of belief with a rib cage of great buttresses, leglike pillars, and a heart of carved altars. All around me...I could see...evidence of God, not as remote or detached but as present and active, communing with man in a sort of divine collaboration....There in the brushstrokes of a mural and in the deep carvings of marble statuary I could see something of God's own creative nature as it has been emulated through artistic expression. Art is God made visible."

This is another example of what Admonit was talking about in her Embodied Theology post.