(Sometimes it’s tough to feel at home in your own city. Which is why I’ve given myself a challenge: each day, for forty days, I’m going to find *one* thing I love about this place. And then I’m going to tell you about it. If you want to follow my journey, start here. Today is Day Eight.)
I have a mind that moves in fits and starts:
It surges forward.
Sometimes I joke that, behind my tailored exterior, there’s a rat’s nest in my skull. But something about a mountain trail untangles all the knots in my neural pathways. Which is yet another reason why I love this place. Southwestern Virginia is crisscrossed by hundreds of trails, most of them climaxing at a high peak with a hundred-mile view.
It is a good place to think deeply, if you’re not afraid to do so. And if you’re willing to take the time.
What is happening here is going to take some time.
I’ve been thinking about Georgia O’Keeffe a lot lately.
Something about her aesthetic appeals to me right now: her close-cropped view of the world. I came across this snippet of her words the other day, in which she speaks of her formative years as an artist. It kicked around inside my ribcage and just wouldn’t leave:
“I decided to start anew — to strip away what I had been taught — to accept as true my own thinking. This was one of the best times of my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing, no one interested, no one to say anything about it one way or another. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown — no one to satisfy but myself. I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any color until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white. I believe it was June before I needed the color blue.”
On Sunday, Thomas, a friend and I hiked the Roaring Run trail out past Eagle Rock. It’s an easy path through the woods, a slow climb that hugs the stream and culminates at a lacy cascade.
We spent our journey snapping photographs. My beautiful friend had a fancy DSLR with a chromed-out filter that set the fall foliage on fire. I had my trusty iPhone 4S, its little camera set to my favorite black-and-white.
I followed behind her, watching the way she stalked her shots, the way her eyes searched the canopy for color. The way she spent time on the grander vistas: the overlook where you could see the mountaintops. The waterfall with its wild roar over rocks.
Meanwhile, I was in a different place, looking for different things. The jagged edge of a fern frond. Drops of water beading and falling over stone. I spent a lot of time on my knees, my face pushed right up to the subjects.
This is where I am now — I cannot bear to shoot the loud loveliness of a waterfall. I am overwhelmed by the chrome colors of the canopy when it’s full of light. My eyes are always searching for spare lines. The smallest, simplest things.
I began photographing things for the first time this summer — my own body, mostly, trying to see it differently. To love it anew. I photographed the sun cupped in the hollow of my clavicle, or splashing down the angle of my jaw. It was a brave subject, that. And maybe someday I’ll show you a little of my work from that time.
But I was also trying to learn this thing, photography, in a broader sense, albeit without any serious aspirations. The thing is, I didn’t want to just go to a class and learn how to use a camera. I wanted to learn to *see* the world thoughtfully – light and shadow and line, and also, something deeper than that. I wanted to train my eye and my heart, not just gain a technological skill.
So I limited myself to black and white, and I began with my iPhone, not the DSLR that sits on my closet shelf. I resolved not to use any technological tool until I absolutely needed it, to take every shot as if it would never be cropped, and to edit nothing.
It was June when I began with the simple shapes of my own form. The light falling in clear, perfect bars through the blinds. It was September before I could bear the visual cacophony of the woods, the wild frenzy of fluttering leaves.
It is almost November now, and I am just beginning to yearn for my bigger camera, its depth of focus.
Just beginning to hunger for color.
In the two and a half years since I moved to the Star City, this place has felt spare to me. I have walked around hungry for certain kinds of relationships I can’t seem to find, certain kinds of cultures and experiences that elude me. These things have been missing from my life for a long, long time now, and there are days when I feel the absence like a presence, an emptiness with heft and weight.
And yet, in this spare season, my soul has grown sensitive. I am soft enough to notice the small things — to be moved by spiderwebs and bits of broken glass.
And this is a blessing.
Even when it’s a burden.
Because it is a burden — it is. Sometimes I feel it’s been so long since I lived in a place where I fit, it’s like I’ve been walking a hundred miles in the tundra, the whole world a wash of white, and if someone crested the next snowdrift wearing a crimson parka, I swear, the color would explode through my chest like a gunshot.
And that’s a sensitivity I can use, even when it hurts. I can, and I will.
A year from now, I hope my life is fuller and richer and thicker than the one I have now. I hope I’m more rooted, more sure of my place in this town. I hope I see my city with loving eyes.
But I also hope I don’t lose this, this sensitivity. This love for the small and the simple. The shadow and the light.
I’ll leave you with one more thought from Georgia O’Keeffe, just to show you what I mean:
“Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time… So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.”
Here’s hoping we both go and look at the world around us low and slow and close and patient, today.
Contemplative photography is my Life! What I SEE, is my ‘crimson parka’.
If you are curious, this is where I started: http://seeingfresh.com/users/angelique . I never use a camera to achieve technical excellence; I use it only to try to create what I see, that which feels like a ‘gunshot through my chest’ as I happen upon it.
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I can’t wait to check out where you started!! 🙂 Thank you for sharing … I knew you were a kindred spirit. For now, though: to bed…
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Ditto to all that.
Your wording and inspiration is just as perfect as it gets.
Now to check out Jennifer Upton…..
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Thanks for directing me to this post and giving me such an insight into your beginning(s). You’re a natural!!! I’m so glad you discovered the camera was your “thing” and how that makes you take the time to connect with and observe your surroundings. I like how your self-portraits are the same unfolding journey as learning about the medium of black and white you are working in. That you are your art…and working with what you have. That’s the best! As well as I like the concept of breaking out of what others are doing and reaching for your raw unedited results as O’Keeffe was describing. I’ll definitely be checking your evolution of photography and portraiture more!