Photography, Creation and the Source Perception
….. to KNOW
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without…
Paracelsus – I Paracelsus aspires
The sea today is almost eerie in its flat, grey stillness. But the slight haze hanging over the water gives the air a bright, pearly quality, and the struggling sun, making the sea sparkle occasionally, just saves the scene from bleakness. A few seagulls stand at the water’s edge, looking out to sea, waiting for something to happen.
”What are you doing, if you don’t mind me asking?” Surprised by the voice, I turn to find a man standing next to me looking at my camera. “Only, the light's not very good for photography today is it?” “No...” I agree, “...it's not very clear this morning, but there's a nice atmosphere”. “Oh... atmosphere, yes…”, he says, nodding uncertainly, looking out to sea. “The sun’s trying to get through of course…” he adds. Then he turns and walks off along the shore.
I've been coming regularly to photograph on this beach, off the Dutch coast, for some years now, and I have to admit that even I sometimes wonder what I'm actually doing here. I can see that it must be a strange sight: me pointing a camera out into empty space. I mean, there’s really no scene; no attractive island, no shipwreck, no sunset. So I can understand the man's puzzlement. He's looking for the object; trying to see what I see and wondering where it is. But, if I'm honest, I have to admit there's really nothing there; hardly even any weather. So how to explain what makes this so fascinating?
Love is a big part of it of course. I love the beach in all seasons, but especially in winter, when the tourists and holiday-makers disappear leaving only a wilderness behind. Then, there's only me and the brooding, stormy, sunlit skies, the atmospherics of approaching storms, the exhilarating energy of wind and waves, the antics of gulls and the company of occasional dog-walkers. Then I'm in my element, and perhaps it's this element I've been trying to capture. But whatever it is I'm doing, it's clear that it's not entirely about photography.
Photography is a passion which began to dawn on me when I took early retirement. After the first couple of courses I was hooked, and I've been an enthusiast ever since. But, fascinating as it was to learn about depth of field, shutter speeds and the qualities of different lenses, I've always sensed there was another, deeper inquiry going on. Often, I've had the feeling that I'm very close to something that I just can't seem to see; as if what I'm trying to photograph is just beyond my reach. At times like these I really empathize with Wittgenstein's frustration when he exclaimed: “How hard I find it to see what is right in front of my eyes!” Perhaps it was this tantalizing sense of something revealed, yet simultaneously inaccessible, that kept me engaged with photography. Perhaps I was hoping that the camera would eventually help me penetrate the mystery once and for all.
Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, I actually did finally see with a clarity I'd not known before but I wasn't at the beach with a camera in my hand, in fact, I was standing in the middle of the local supermarket.
I'd left home and walked to the supermarket in the normal way. It wasn't until I got inside the shop, picked up my basket and began walking around the vegetable section, that I noticed something out of the ordinary: everything around me seemed to be suffused with light. It wasn't a brilliant light; everything was just bathed in a soft, gentle radiance.
I looked from the cabbages to the pumpkins, and then across to the apples, trying to work out where the light was coming from. Instinctively, I turned round and looked out of the window, then up to the ceiling lights. But this light wasn't located anywhere. It had no source.
Actually, it's not even really accurate to call it “a light”, because it was felt as much as seen, and the feeling was one of lightness; pure relief and refreshment. So profound was this sense of relief that I was walking around with tears in my eyes, breathing out huge sighs of relief.
The lightness was actually a kind of knowing; not an intellectual knowing, but the deepest intuition, which told me that, whatever this lightness is, it is wholly intrinsic, and that no effort is required. The deep sense of relief arose from realizing that absolutely nothing had to be done, or could ever be done, to get this. The tears which sprang up spontaneously, like water from a living source told me that this being-at-source just is; the essence of who I am.
As I continued to walk around doing my shopping the light gradually faded and everything seemed to return to “normal”, but the knowing of what I'd experienced did not fade.
A few months after that day in the supermarket I noticed that I wasn't doing so much photography any more. I seemed to have lost the taste for it, so I took a break from it for almost a year in order to reflect more deeply on the role it has been playing in my life, and, in particular its relationship with that source perception.
What has become clearer to me now is that photography was probably always being driven by a search for belonging. What I was so desperately trying to see through photography, was my oneness with Life. All those years spent photographing at the beach were ways of trying to see my own lightness; trying to realize what eventually became clear in the supermarket: that all this just shines, and that I can't not shine along with it.
Of course, the belonging I'd been searching for could never be found outside in the world of forms as object, because it is the essence of the subject. This doesn't mean, however, that photography had played no role in facilitating that perception. It had, for example, given me the opportunity to immerse myself in a passionate, living, involvement with nature. Out on the beach, with the sun on my back, the cries of circling gulls in my ears, wind in my hair, sea-spray on my face, photography brought me back to my senses, and, in doing so, opened a way, through the senses, to that lightness which is being completely at source.
Another thing which becomes clearer now is that my delight in photography actually arose as much from the process, as from the product. For a long time I had assumed, naturally enough, that photography was about the making of images. However I now see how my concern with the end product, (the pleasure and excitement involved in producing a good print), had the capacity to obscure my appreciation of the fact that, for me at least, a deeper pleasure was to be found in the looking; in the way in which the camera drew me into contemplation.
Photography, like meditation, had been a training in concentrated attention. It led to a kind of monastic withdrawal from the world while, at the same time, allowing me to remain immersed in the world. The camera acted as a conduit, opening a way of being which is regardless of time. It's almost as if, through the lens, “I” merge with a fourth dimension, which is, actually, nothing other than self-forgetfulness. Behind the lens, absorbed in the flow of the elements, the normal turbulence of mind comes rest; the photographer disappears to herself; past and future vanish. It is, as the photographer Annie Leibovitz has observed: “The camera makes you forget you’re there. It’s not like you are hiding but you forget, you are just looking so much.”
What was perceived momentarily that day in the supermarket – the source-perception – was, I believe, nothing other than the natural outcome of those years spent immersed in the deep pleasure of self-forgetfulness.
So, on reflection, it's perhaps not surprising that I'm not doing so much photography any more. The reason is clear: the effort of trying to realize complete belonging is no longer driving it. That particular search is at an end. Photography has, in one sense, served its purpose. It has not stopped completely, but it no longer maintains its old shape as an activity which I do. The art now, is perhaps less the art of photography, and more that of deepening trust, handing myself over at source, and unlearning habitual patterns of trying. There is less speed now, more loving kindness and less concern with results.
Being aligned with life-at-source, creation arises naturally and there is a growing confidence that whatever has to happen, creatively or otherwise, unfolds in its own fashion. When photography arises now, the images are seen to come and go. What is made of them, what is produced, now seems less important than immersion in the source-being from which they arise.
Absorbed at source, being and doing are one. Whatever role photography has played in my life in the past, it is now being dissolved in the radiant source-being which we all are. This I know; more than this I am content not to know.