We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked how I achieved a particular look for photos I post on Facebook.
It’s interesting that in the digital age this question comes up often. “How did you do that?”
In my reckoning, it was not so in the age of film, despite the fact that prints from film were heavily processed. Back then the photo seemed to speak for itself. We’ve become so technologized today that we just assume a photo has been manipulated in some way.
I’ll answer the questions in the next few posts by writing about my workflow which results in the look I’m trying to capture. But there are a couple of prior steps and I don’t want to ignore them.
Photography as Prayer
For me photography is more than the sum of techniques and technical skills. It’s an experience. It’s the act of creating art.
Sometimes it’s a spiritual act.
I once produced a video on at-risk teenage Native Americans. In a class on crafts, a wise grandmother told the kids, “When you do something that’s creative and constructive, it’s a prayer. You pray with more than words. You pray when you dance, when you sing, when you work with your hands.”
Photography can be a prayer.
She also told them that they should never do creative work when they are in a bad mood because that spirit will enter into the outcome. “Even if you’re making soup for someone who is feeling bad,” she said, “you should not make that soup if you’re not in a good mood. Your bad feelings will enter into the soup and it won’t be healthy for them.”
My photography is my soup-making. It’s both an experience and the act of creating.
Creation is Beautiful
I don’t try to achieve an effect so much as to capture the beauty that I see before me, and to share it online with friends who have the same appreciation for the natural world as I have.
Often I’m awed at the simplest of things that I see; the flight of a common bird, the shape of a leaf on a tree, the shimmer of light on water. I know some think this is naive, and others mere sentimentalism.
But it’s how I feel and what I see.
Sometimes nature, especially landscapes, lead me into a meditative state. How wonder-filled is the earth that we call our Mother?
Sometimes nature is, by human judgment, cruel. We’ve seen examples. Birds of prey are graceful but merciless. They are killing machines. Large cats, muscles straining, attack the young, weak or old in a herd. It seems an unfair match.
These are pieces of the whole reality, and they challenge the perception of an idealized natural world. It’s not all beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
Never the less, it always comes back to beauty. The Creation is a beautiful thing. It nurtures us and feeds our souls.
It calls us to protect and preserve it. We need reminders of this call, and we need to visualize it.
The Hunger for Beauty
In her excellent newsletter Brainpickings, Maria Popova quotes the poet John O’Donahue on beauty. “We can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us,” he writes.
“The human soul is hungry for beauty,” says O’Donahue. “When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.”
He goes on to say we feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful because it meets the needs of our soul. It brings a sense of completeness and sureness, says O’Donahue.
Nature photography—birds, animals, landscapes—isn’t simply about the photos. It’s about the pursuit of beauty, about our wholeness, about coming home.
It’s a prayer.