While growing up in San Francisco in the seventies, I rarely traveled very far outside the boundaries of the city. Instead, my two older brothers and I ventured into our imaginations as we braved the wilds of the city streets or played in the relative peace and quiet of Golden Gate Park or the Presidio Army Base. So when our parents figured out how to take the Golden Gate Transit bus to the Point Reyes National Seashore in northern Marin County, I felt, during each of those trips, like I was traveling to another country. We would board the bus in the dark of morning, take the long ride out to the park, and spend the day hiking up or around Mt. Wittenburg or wandering along the coastal stretch of Limantour Spit and then later come home on the last possible bus, which would return us back to San Francisco in the dark. And thus began a tradition of sorts for my brothers and me. Indeed, “The Reyes,” as we still often refer to it, eventually became a pilgrimage-like destination, a spawning of sorts that calls us to revisit and to reconnect to that wonder that we developed for those hills, forests and shorelines that we first discovered during those early visits. Over the past thirty years, whenever my oldest brother comes back to the Bay Area for a visit, we always go for a walk along one of the beaches and talk about philosophy, poetry, films or any other subject that strikes us as worthy of such a dramatic backdrop. And now that I live in Marin County, less than an hour drive away from the park, I visit the seashore often. During the winter and spring, after a good rain has settled but the clouds have not yet left, you will often find me surveying the shoreline of Drake’s Beach— seemingly attached to my camera and various gadgets— so that I can look for yet another way to experience and photograph this stretch of beach where land ends and the sea begins– or, if you wish, where the land and the sea simply meet, that shoreline bringing to mind the boundaries on a map where the blue of the water is separated by the color of the land mass. These are the kinds of thoughts that I often ponder as I wait for the seconds to pass into minutes during the long exposure photographs that I work on during each visit. Indeed, gazing out into the sea, I often revisit a certain quality of silence, a silence that I hear in between the sounds of the sea, a silence that I only seem to discover in and through solitude, one that, ultimately, reconnects me to the wonder and awe that I first developed for nature as a very young city dweller given that first opportunity to witness such beauty so many years ago.
Long exposure photography is a curious trick, one that allows me to capture something that is not immediately perceivable: a condensed slice of time, if you will. While the creation and the perception of any photograph are inextricably linked, an unavoidable gap exists between the initial perceptions of its creator and the eventual perception of a viewer. The photographer, or if you wish, the artist, sees what unravels in front of him or her and looks for a way to preserve it, to capture it, even to contain it (or interpret it). Every camera, in a very real sense, slices, thinly, that subject being captured and forever separates it from the actual moment. In other words, an image, no matter how hard you try to preserve everything or anything about a given object or moment, is never the actual thing that you have photographed. It is entirely, by its very definition, something other, something left over, something that can never truly and objectively recreate the actual, yet that thin slice retains a certain something from that specific moment when one clicked that shutter. And whatever essence lingers in that image that you have sliced, it will be interpreted differently by each viewer no matter how hard you try to infuse your personal interpretation into that object and/or moment. Long exposure photography complicates this further but does so in wonderful ways that open up the ambiguity of image making by blurring even further the line between what is there and what is revealed, and, in a sense, the line between intent and realization— and, by extension, whatever we mean by meaning.
A typical exposure is a fraction of a second, a conscious and unconscious slice of time— the intent of most photographers, typically, being to catch a memory or an accurate-as-possible representation of the actual thing itself (be it a cute kitten, a portrait of a girlfriend, a house, a food dish, an interception, a boat on the water, a sunset, a shoreline, a flower, a guitarist doing a solo, etc,). However, keeping the shutter open for, let’s say as long as thirty seconds or longer, is a different process, one that represents the specific intention to not capture something exactly as it is/was. You are, of course, still keeping that specific focus on a something; however, you have chosen to condense that thirty seconds or more into a single frame, a frame that seems to still express movement— but every second of that very movement has been pressurized, squeezed and altered– and, for all intensive purposes, it has become something else, something beyond those moments. From a purely visual perspective, in a long exposure image, one typically sees both the relative sharpness of the immovable objects and the blurring of the moving elements: the stillness of water, which always moves ever so slightly with the tiniest of ripples and or undulations, now appears to be as still as ice or glass; the constant ebb and flow of the tides are rendered and flattened into cotton-like wisps of fog, transformed into plains of smooth, milky white presence, or reduced to textured and mottled patterns of sea foam and the bluish grays of water; the movement of clouds are captured as long, static streaks that effortlessly express their motion through the now still lines; traffic on a freeway at night is preserved as curving lines of white and red. In other words, a long exposure– like all photographs– is primarily static, but like any photograph that captures movement, it still expresses that motion that was sliced away from the original scene. In a long exposure image, however, the seconds and even minutes of motion have all been recorded and then condensed by this sleight of hand trick, this strange alchemy-like process that transforms the ordinary into something strikingly out of the ordinary. The viewer still, of course, brings his or her imagination and experiences and sees or imagines or interprets that motion as he or she sees fit, for that gap between artist and viewer can, at best, only be bridged but never joined as a whole. That said– there is a certain quality, a certain mood, a certain tone, a certain feeling that manifests itself in a typical long exposure photograph, one that further blurs the line between the actual of the thing you have photographed and some other that you may be seeking to communicate— and even if the viewer can never fully experience and feel what the photographer felt, these moods and tones and stories open up a world of possibilities for that viewer to bring to each image as he or she sees fit.
For much of my work, that other is silence and solitude and the actual is the sea and or rocks I find along the shoreline– and from time to time I insert myself into the scene as a way of reflecting that wonder often found and expressed in and through solitude. And for the past few years, the place has often been Drake’s Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a place that inevitability, with each visit, takes me back to my childhood experiences from those first summer visits forty years ago.
Lately, I have been thinking more and more about what both Emerson and Thoreau had to say about solitude. Both of these nineteenth century transcendentalists wrote about their relationships to nature through the experience, the mindset, of being by oneself. Our early twenty-first century perceptions of being alone are often tainted with a sadness and melancholy and depression fueled by our desire to feel like we belong to something— further manifested by our longing desire for others to both return and reflect our need to feel connected to something outside of ourselves— but neither Emerson nor Thoreau spoke of solitude as a kind of loneliness; rather, they wrote about solitude in the light of a particular kind of awareness, a particular kind of connection to the natural world, ones that they realized and expressed while being alone in nature so that they could see, truly see. When considering this quality of solitude, particularly how it may relate to experiencing nature, I often return, over and over again, to this remarkably strange passage from Emerson’s essay Nature:
“There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
Intellectually and spiritually, I don’t think I have ever really settled on what these words exactly mean, nor do I think I necessarily have to. In our jaded twenty-first century, post-modern understanding of the world, poetic metaphors easily fall to the wayside. That said– to really engage the possibilities of what Emerson is suggesting, one has to realize that he had faith … and lots of it. At the very least, he expresses a deep, spiritual connection to God through nature as if, perhaps, nature is his church, his place of worship and ritual, a place where he and God become one, a place where he sees God in all his glory. I lack this faith in a God or any particular divine presence, so, from that perspective, I struggle to enter into any truly personal connection with these words. However, Emerson also speaks of experiencing nature, of seeing it, of simultaneously seeing AND experiencing it.
This I can relate to.
Early in his essay, Nature, Emerson writes, “The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence,” a claim which suggests not only that one can choose to open oneself to that influence in order to see that connection with nature, but that nature itself awakens something in us that makes it possible. Emerson invites us to consider the reverence and awe that we experience when we see a truly star-filled evening sky, a sight that leaves even the most jaded city dweller at least noticing the scope of such a sight, a sight that makes us aware of how tiny and insignificant we really are in the larger picture of a universe, a sight that reminds us that we are in the presence of a very significant other that expands well beyond our scope of understanding and experience. And, again, while I do not experience any religiously-bound divine connection that Emerson speaks about, I can most certainly relate to the sentiment of witnessing and recognizing some kind of an other in nature— an other other than myself— but it is still something that I can witness, experience, see, and understand, something that is outside of me, but I am somehow part of, or, if one wishes, is part of me (or even both). Whenever I stare out into the waves along the shoreline at Drake’s Beach— their rippling retreat over the lines in the sand, their undulations that resemble a kind of dance— I often experience, as the poet Elizabeth Bishop once so eloquently observed, the nervous interview conducted between the light and the water, that sunlight that so often bounces off and moves along with the swirling of the sea. In such moments, I come to a wordless understanding of what Emerson meant by “all mean egotism vanishing” and becoming a “transparent eye-ball” and, thus, becoming, in a sense, nothing. Naturally, Emerson never meant this literally; instead, he was speaking of a mystical connection with nature. And while I am unable to fully commit to such a supernatural connection– being far too grounded in the empirical observations that shape my understanding of the world– I have, on some level, had this experience. When Emerson writes that he becomes a “transparent eyeball,” he is playing with a pun on the words I and eye, on letting the self, the ego, perhaps even the thinking mind, fade until he is, in a sense, no longer physically there, until he is simply being, simply existing, simply seeing. And this, it would seem, is when one can truly see and truly connect and be truly influenced.
This is a connection that resides beyond any language that we have available to fully explain it, for such things reside in that which is ineffable, that which is experienced but cannot necessarily be explained. So, in this case, even though I am fully vested in the necessity of the scientific method, I leave such mysteries and feelings to the realm of what is entirely unexplainable and forgo the need for concrete evidence and full understanding. I can name it as experience. I can even describe it. But, ultimately, I leave this inkling and its glimpses, entirely to the fact that they merely are. Indeed, I invest my wonder in the ambiguities and potential deceptions of such metaphors.
Such understandings and possibilities resonate with me deeply– both as one who witnesses nature and one who photographs it. About half way down Drake’s Beach, a rock formation splits into two separate jigsaw puzzle pieces that will never fit together— the gap that separates them ever widening with the never ending, erosive delivery of the ebb and flow of the tides. Just watching the waves roll in with their foamy insistence and then retreat to meet the next wave leaves me mesmerized— no matter how many times I have watched this same scene in this same place over and over again. Indeed, I have visited this beach over sixty times in the past three years just so that I can find a slice of time to myself in order to work on my long exposure photography, to be alone with my thoughts, to find solitude, to simply be. Emerson writes that to find solitude one “needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.” Perhaps, this is part of why I make the nearly hour-long drive to this beach so often. Each visit, I always look at and often photograph these same jigsaw puzzle rocks— unless they are buried in the sands— and realize that each time, each individual experience, is entirely different. The quality of light is never the same— sometimes the sun shining brightly, other times the clouds passing by, other times the sun hidden in the thick fog (and sometimes it breaks through for mere moments only to be shrouded again). The tides and winds and rains bring constant change. Rocks that are exposed by the winter rains are soon buried by the sand delivered by the tides until, in the summer, nearly all the rocks have been covered as if they were never there.
Indeed, when one stands in this single spot, one witnesses, in a sense, the flux of time itself. And long exposure photography strikes me as a wonderful and unique way to explore this.
When one is attuned to this kind of solitude, this kind of seeing, one begins to notice the presence of so many other creatures that might have flown, swam, or scooted by with barely a whisper, or the sounds of cliffs eroding and the waves crashing, or the feel of the cold wind, or the heat of the sun warming the right side of one’s face as it sets over the cliffs in the distance. All moments that may have passed unnoticed to those that are not open to the experience, but for those who are open to, as Emerson says, “their influence,” it often feels like whole other worlds contained within worlds coexist with the one we live in. In his chapter about solitude, from Walden, Thoreau writes that “the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object.” In other words, Thoreau, in his solitude, never felt alone because he was surrounded by whole societies of trees, animals, leaves, rocks, etc. In fact, Thoreau intentionally addresses those who might ask if he was lonely by responding that he has “a great deal of company in” his “house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.” At first, such words seem paradoxical— that one can have company when nobody comes to visit— but Thoreau is not speaking of connections to other humans (though he most certainly found such connections very, very important as well as having visitors from time to time); rather, he is referring to the connection that one has with nature— that nature itself, with all of its sights, sounds and experiences, is its own companion, and, most importantly, solitude itself is its own companion. Indeed, Thoreau writes that he has never “found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Solitude in nature, after all, is not merely moments spent alone— though, most certainly, that is part of the experience. To be alone with nature is to experience whole societies of sights, sounds and things, and to be in the presence of some kind of other that, rather remarkably, is also very much part of all of us. Mary Oliver, in her wonderful poem “Sleeping in the Forest,” writes about the kingdoms of insects and flowers that come out at night, revealing a deep felt awareness that one is never entirely alone when open to the experience of experiencing nature. Indeed, in many of her poems, she sees beyond the very actual, the very ordinary, and reveals a heightened awareness of her connection to the natural world through these things, a connection that is felt and realized in solitude. This is, after all, a role that the nature poet willingly plays.
This is also often the role of the photographer who wishes to open him or herself to that way of seeing. Each photograph I take is consciously born from such ideas and ruminations, but, all of this said and considered, no image I have ever taken can possibly fully express such things— and certainly not in the very personal ways that I see them— for I cannot reasonably expect any viewer to have more than the slightest glimpse behind the curtains of my mind’s eye; nonetheless, these ideas and possibilities are very much at the center of every image I take. Such things, such experiences, are thrown into the mix of elements that are being pressurized along with those seconds and/or minutes of time being condensed into a single slice during a long exposure. This solitude I have spoken of is key to understanding what I am after in each image I set out to create— from the actual experience of taking the photo to the processing of it and then, finally, to those lingering glimpses of this overall experience— which are left behind in the finished image like the wind-scattered, blackened remains of a log that burned down to its embers and had been later forgotten about. So while precious little of any of this will ever be realized by those who look at one of my images, I can still hope that some of that silence, some of that solitude, some of that nostalgia for childhood wonder, still lingers within some of the pixels.
I also often ruminate over the wonder that any of this, or anything at all, even exists or is even possible. Emerson also writes in Nature that “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing.” Of course, Emerson is not saying that adults are incapable of physically seeing nature; instead, he is suggesting that many of us do not have a very deep connection with or interest in such things (or, perhaps, that many do not choose to open their mind to such influences or spend much time out in the natural world). And, indeed, many of us no longer seem to possess or express that wonder that we had as children, that seemingly insatiable curiosity that leads many a child to unravel instance after instance of the sheer joy of discovering one new thing after another. Whenever I consider these ideas, I cannot help but revisit how the Romantic poet William Wordsworth pondered similar ideas in his poetry. For example, in his “Ode: Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” he writes:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By Night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
In these lines, Wordsworth realizes that he can no longer see nature through that “celestial light” as he once did— clearly recognizing that he had lost touch with that particular way of seeing and experiencing (what remains of it being left to the inaccuracy of memory). However, Wordsworth also recognized that as adults, we, in a sense, reconnect with some quality of that lost innocence by visiting nature. And while that sweet state of childhood innocence is forever gone, our memories of those days continue to affect us, continue to shape us.
In “Tintern Abbey,” a young Wordsworth revisits the Banks of Wye and recollects his memories of a visit five years previous. Such memories come with a touch of melancholy soon followed by his recollections of how such moments were experienced without thought, without knowledge of the human condition, and were a far different kind of engagement than any experience he might have as an adult:
… And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.–I cannot paint
What then I was … (65-76).
Wordsworth realizes that he can no longer experience the world through the “coarser pleasures” of his “boyish days,” and such realizations must certainly come with, at the very least, a touch of sadness, a touch of loss, and a healthy dose of nostalgia, but in the next stanza he realizes that, as an adult, he has learned to understand and experience nature in a different way:
… For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused … (88-96)
… Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being … (102-111)
Such realizations are about engaging nature with the intellect, about rumination, about always being aware of the often lyrical sadness of the human condition, about recognizing that nature is not simply a place of wonder, but a sublime landscape, one that elicits awe and fear. And by invoking the sublime, I am referring to the nineteenth century conceptions of those painters, poets, and philosophers who recognized that nature impresses upon the mind a powerful sense of grandeur and awe and fear and, as a result, veneration.
And, indeed, with each visit to Drake’s Beach, I return to a childhood past that can never be anything more than a lingering memory, a brief flash of a, at best, fuzzy image, a fleeting recollection of a feeling that tells me lies such as— every moment I spent at Point Reyes during those childhood summers was blissful even though I most certainly felt discomforts and dissatisfactions during each visit– and, likely, as a child’s mind tends to do, I probably failed to notice wonderful detail after wonderful detail as I ran to and fro, taking in the excitement and failing to notice the intricacies and patterns of the designs that met me at every turn. Still, it is that feeling, that sense of reckless free association, that lingers in the nostalgic bubbles so many of us enjoy, even cling to. And most certainly much photography is tied to such faulty, inaccurate memories whether we are speaking of the many recollections that we might bring to the familiar places that we choose to photograph— or the inaccurate, lingering reminiscences that are associated with the experience of taking a photo and later looking at it after much time has passed and realizing it contains precious little of the actual experience– or that what little it contains is fuzzy and spotty or transformed by how we selectively wish to remember the moment. Indeed, every photo, by its very nature, can never be the actual moment– and the memories that linger can only be realized by either those that had the experience of taking the photo or those that were there when the photo was taken (and each will have a different view, a different faulty memory of what the experience actually was).
Still, I cannot deny that, faulty memory or not, such nostalgia plays an important role in not only why I return to Point Reyes so often but also how I perceive such a place. “The Reyes” most certainly serves as a kind of Mecca for me, an escape from a world of responsibilities and difficulties that inevitably build and take a toll on my nerves. In fact, whenever my wife sees my stress starting to bubble to the surface, she often says, “Go to the Reyes.” With each visit to Drake’s Beach, as I wander down the shoreline, I bring with me a myriad of experiences, whether addressed or not, and each sojourn has yielded a number of images that, when considered together, represent an ongoing chronicling of fleeting moments. The long exposure, perhaps, complicates this further because, again, one is condensing seconds and moments into these odd recreations of what occurred during these fleeting passages of time– such as the movement of the waves, the shifting of light with all of its contrasts, and the passing of clouds or the sifting of the fog. In other words, one is condensing seconds and minutes of memory, experience, light, movement, and, yes, wonder, into a single slice— a very, very, very thin slice that is entirely incapable of recreating or capturing that moment as it unraveled, only leaving behind a lingering, pressurized slice of time.
This state of wonder and innocence that Wordsworth spoke of reminds us of how a toddler is forever amazed by the fact, the very fact that there are concrete, specific objects all around us, and how wondrous it is that all of these many, many, many things encountered from one second to the next even exist in the first place. Indeed, look at a toddler and notice how surprised and curious he or she is by the minutest of details. The poet George Oppen, who wrote about a similar but entirely different sense of wonder, experiences a sense of awe, surprise and amazement in his poem, “Psalm,” in which he writes about encountering deer that are bedding down in a forest. His wonder, which is infused with an almost religious-like intensity, is expressed through his amazement of the very fact that these animals are even there, that they even exist. In a later poem, “World, World–“, he writes that the self— that who we are— is not the real mystery of existence; the real mystery is that we even are at all, or, more importantly, that anything even is.
This wonder for the fact of things is essential to how I perceive anything. My photographs are intentionally simple, intentionally reduced, intentionally not flashy or fancy or filled with bells and whistles that are set up to make one say, “wow.” I very consciously focus on what I choose to focus on because those things reveal, for me at least, the wonder that these things even are. Oppen begins his long poem “Of Being Numerous” by noting that there are many things around and among us and to know those things is to, ultimately, know ourselves. Such an observation suggests that we can understand ourselves by and through our understanding of everything that exists around us– a possibility that I explore in my work by focusing on the sea, the rocks, the waves, the foam, the debris, the seabirds, the cliffs, the sand– and all of the things along this stretch of beach that I revisit over and over again. Indeed, as I wander along the shoreline of Drake’s Beach I often ponder how the many things of the beach, including my reactions to their existence, reveals in a sense who I am—always remembering that the real mystery is still not what these things reveal about the self, but that any of it even exists in the first place. In other words, to know the things around us and by extension to know something of ourselves, is to truly engage the wonder that anything exists in the first place.
Annie Dillard, in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, reminds us that grace and beauty happen all around us whether we sense or notice them or not (or whether we are even present when they happen). Perhaps photography provides us a way to capture grace and beauty in a light that we may not have noticed when we first composed the image in the moment; indeed, we might not discover such moments until after the fact when we look at the image that we have preserved. It is, after all, about how we see when we see and what we notice or what slips by unnoticed. At best, all we can do is slice such things ever so thinly so that, later, we can view some if its elements removed from the fact of the things themselves. A long exposure not only operates within this vein but also reduces it further by condensing, by abstracting. When working with long exposures, you can plan for a certain feel or mood, anticipate a certain tone or quality of light, but you will often be surprised when you see what condensing those thirty or more seconds into a single image yields. Moments of exceptional grace and beauty, for those who are lucky enough to experience them, simply occur entirely and completely unplanned. Indeed, such serendipitous moments, by their very definition, can never be planned for nor anticipated. While the watched pot always does eventually boil, serendipity is no longer serendipity if you stand around waiting for it or if you take the stance that beauty is what you make of it or how you choose to interpret it. Indeed, these are the moments that simply just occur regardless of whether you successfully capture them or not.
I have a very vivid memory of being at Drake’s Beach on a fairly bright, sunny day, the most unfavorable conditions for long exposure photography because it yields such flat tones and contrasts to work with. I was standing, during a fairly high tide, on a long thin rock that juts out into the bay, and I was thinking about a variety of things– and probably wishing that it was cloudier or that the light was more interesting, when I, for no particular reason, turned around to look down the shoreline and suddenly witnessed the arrival and movement of a thick, fast moving fog, its cottony, silky fingers sifting over the cliffs and down to the shoreline and out into the water. As remarkable as this moment was, it was all the more beautiful because it was a moment of transition, a moment that seemed to signal a thin border between worlds, the lingering light of the sunny day refusing to entirely give way to the sift of the fog laying claim on the landscape, the sunlight piercing that wall of gray, insisting that its light was of the greatest importance before finally yielding to the fog’s intentions and settling somewhere behind its fabric-like presence. I stood for several moments before I even set my composition and arranged my filters. Initially, such beauty was beyond photography, being the stuff that only my eyes in those very moments could truly experience— and it seemed to me, at the time, taking a photo would only cheapen the moment and rob it of all its simplicity and grace, its grandeur and wonder. How, after all, could I slice such a thing? But that movement lingered long enough for me to complete a gasp and a sigh and set up my camera and capture at least some lingering quality of its continued unfolding— to condense thirty seconds of such beauty into something that entirely failed to capture its impact, its beauty and its grace.
I am, in all honesty, not capable of taking such a moment lightly. I am no New Age devotee, nor do I see this as a blessing provided by the earth , a gift granted by a universe that can bestow such things, or as the grace of some god, yet I do see it as a blessing and a moment of grace or even as a gift— and especially as a profound reminder of the wonder that these things even happen, that these things are even possible. However, in my conception of things, such moments merely happen when they happen and if you are there, if you care, if you look, then you will see. And, naturally, the best way for me to ponder such things, to experience and come across or upon such moments, is to find solitude. I like to think that my photographs reflect such things. All of these thoughts once again being condensed, being pressurized. In other words, a long exposure photograph condenses not only the seconds and moments of time that pass in that exposure— the shutter left open to observe as if a third indifferent eye— but also the experiences that are bound to a place, to a moment of time as well as the very fact of this wonder that I have already spoken of– and, of course, all of it is tied to those fleeting memories that are both infused into and integrated with the joys of our faulty memories.
I work on a variety of themes and subject matter, but the theme that expresses my yearning for solitude, for quiet moments, the most effectively is my series of self portraits. Originally, this series was born because I had nothing else to put into the frame and did not think that a simple picture of the shoreline would be compelling enough to build a series around, so I walked forward and placed myself off center in the frame. Soon, however, I began to include myself in a variety of settings because I wanted to capture, in addition to being just alone, those moments of contemplation that many of us experience when we are by ourselves on a walk along the beach, a jaunt through a forested area, a slow saunter through the desert, or a hike into the back country of the mountains. Through these images, I want to remind the viewer of those moments when we stop, when we stand still to gaze out into whatever unravels before us. One is not sad in such moments. One does not feel lonely. Once again, as Thoreau said, “no companion is as companionable as solitude.” Such moments are the cornerstone of contemplation, of thinking, of emptying thoughts, of simply being. These are the states of mind I wish to express in most of my photography, moments in which the eye of the I, and the I of the eye, become one and the same: moments when the self and the eye become transparent, both sharing an absolute relevance and an absolute irrelevance, for they are moments when one can simply just be, a state that often seems impossible in our technology and social media driven world— a world where we so often reach out to everyone that we can in the hopes that we can feel less alone.
Indeed, many profoundly wish to feel connected, to feel appreciated, to feel wanted and listened to– and, most certainly, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, in the evolution of communication, it makes perfect sense that we would use our technology to reach out to others, to use every method possible to connect to both those that we know and those we would like to know, but this is all, obviously, entirely different than the experience of, to borrow from Emerson, being alone outside one’s “chambers” and away from one’s “society.” After all, to be alone and content with one’s thoughts is as inherently human as wishing to connect to others, yet many of us become creatures who crave constant connection, constant communication.
As a result, many see my self portraits of an individual standing on a rock that juts out into the sea— that figure seemingly looking out and into a kind of infinity— and they see only a wistful loneliness. Even though I recognize that such a reaction is inextricably tied to the desire for connection to others, such interpretations strike me as odd because they are so profoundly removed from my perceptions of and thoughts about existence, about what it means to be, to exist in a world of mystery and wonder. Often, when I visit Drake’s Beach, I have the entire shoreline all to myself or only the occasional beach-goer wanders by. I find joy in such moments. I find an unspoken pleasure. Then again– I find a pleasure even in melancholy because, for me at least, wistfulness does not stem from depression, angst, despair, or being overwhelmed and giving up; rather, melancholy is a thoughtful sadness— one that accepts, one that realizes, one that instructs, one that reminds that life is filled with difficulty and struggle. Sad songs, surprisingly, can often make me feel content and even sometimes happy. The minor chords are melodic reminders that a vein of sadness courses through all experience, and such realities stir something in my heart every time I hear a dirge or a sad song. And not because I am inherently sad. No. It is merely my awareness, my acceptance, that sadness inevitably permeates the human experience. So even if the solitary figure in my images elicits a wistfulness, I always imagine that it is a thoughtful one, one that invigorates the mind and the heart— one that is open to a way of seeing, to a kind of reverence, to a deeper connection to the patterns, rhythms, and melodies of nature. They are moments infused with the lingering wonder of childhood memories and the ever present wonder that anything exists at all. They are nostalgic. They are lies. They are the stuff of art.
With all of these thoughts in mind, I often gaze out into the sea or let my eyes roam the shoreline, always refocusing my attention back to the subject matter I wish to photograph— to the sea, to her seemingly never ending rush forward and then quick retreat from the shoreline, to the rocks that she pours over and around in a gentle but forceful caress that slowly erodes them— and I then aim my camera at the various compositions I see unfolding before me as I try to preserve the light, that ever present light, be it full in all its radiance or partially blocked by the movement of clouds or left to implication because it is quarantined by walls of fog or thick storm clouds or, perhaps, muted to the subtlest illuminations nearly swallowed entirely by the dark cover of night. And while, on many levels, experiencing nature through one’s eyes in the moment– and viewing a photograph of it later– are both dramatically different perspectives and experiences, they are still bound to the same essence of what it means to experience something and then later recall it— and those moments and the experience of them having passed, something that is clearly of them still lingers, but such lingering has been left to the inadequate faulty mechanism of the mind and even the images you have preserved are little more than slices of moments that bear only the faintest glimpse and similarity to what once happened. This, for me, is essential to the experience of solitude, to photography in general, and, most importantly, to how I perceive the solitude of photography.
One can, as Emerson suggests, open one’s eyes to the experience of nature, and, perhaps, even make a connection, but these are, at best, fleeting moments that pass in the many flickers of light’s ever shifting intensity. These moments are, in a sense, already on the way out before you even finish experiencing them. To experience nature, no matter how extensively you open yourself to her, is to merely witness the transience of time, its impermanence, which has been unfolding for billions of years and will presumably continue to do for billions more. So when I catch a composition based on the geometry of a rock slicing into the sea, the light and shadow dappling its corners, I am preserving, in a sense, the briefest memory of those moments that I spent, alone in my solitude, moments in which I opened my mind and my eyes (or mind’s eye/I) to the influence of nature, and for those brief, fleeting moments, experiencing the many societies of things I coexist with (even if I do not always notice them). And the long exposure condenses this fleeting passage of time and preserves only the faintest slice of what it was, so faint, so personal, that it is impossible for me to expect anyone to even have the slightest understanding of what I was after or what I was thinking. Yet, such thing are no less important to me. With each visit to Drake’s Beach, I leave with the inherently inaccurate images preserved by my mind and by my camera, neither of them ever standing the chance of being fully understood in the light of how I perceived them. Indeed, each image is captured through a meeting, a conversation, an expression of the I and the eye—the resulting image, even though it has been further processed within and through that relationship, containing neither. Perhaps, I treasure them— both the experiences and the images— all the more because of this. After all, I know that I will be back to witness such experiences again, all of these memories and images becoming many pieces of a collage that I never feel the need to paste together, to ever see as a whole, their individual elements far more satisfying than any whole.
All I can truly hope for is that, after I have passed away, someone will encounter my photographs and feel— or if I am really lucky and I have infused my images with my intent successfully— see the silence that I once saw.
water. time. condensed in light.
silence sliced thinly.
— nathan wirth, 2013 —