The Biography of a Photograph

The Biography of a Photograph
Charles Sawyer

Narrative. June 18, 2010, 8:10AM, the sunroom of my home in Boxford, Massachusetts, USA. A rectangle of light appears on the Venetian blinds covering the glass door onto the deck. It contains the shadow of a piece of lace stretched across the skylight above. I feel I am witnessing a small miracle.
The lace, of Bulgarian origin, is there to soften the bright sunlight. Every sunny day the patch of light moves down the wall, then across the floor before disappearing, until the next sunny day when the show repeats. Cloudy days are days off for this pageant.
The movement of light is never the same from one day to the next because the sun’s path changes with the seasons. I’m more accustomed to seeing the light fall on a nearby print of a Josef Sudek photograph, one of his most famous, of a window bathed in rivulets of dew, with three rose blossoms in a vase, and a conch shell on the windowsill. How appropriate that here, in my sunroom, the sun should march across Sudek’s window from another century.
As it happens my sunroom has a conch shell, too, hanging from the drawstring of the blinds. I stare at the shell, marveling at its subtle amber and ivory shades against the bone white of the blinds. The razor-sharp shadow of the shell seems as substantial as the shell itself. But most remarkable is the pattern of the soft lace shadow. The hands that fashioned that lace probably a century ago made a pattern that now spreads across the narrow bands of the blinds. I snap a few frames with a point-and-shoot digital camera.

I study the images on the digital camera display. They are reminiscent of Sudek’s work, but the palette is too bland and the geometry too plain. The possibility of making an homage to Sudek is thrilling but can I hope to capture the subtly with a digital camera?
In the 1960s and 1970s I was as serious about photography as I’ve been about any enterprise in my life. In the last phase of that period I was mostly concerned with large format photography. My camera of choice was an Eastman Kodak Graphic View Camera, a studio camera, not a field camera that uses 4”×5” sheet film. That camera is now somewhere in the chaos of abandoned careers, unrealized ambitions, and tarnished dreams that haunt my house. It’s been 20 years since I last fired its shutter. Should I try to unearth it now?
I stare at the patch of light. Do I resurrect that camera, go back in time to my life as a serious photographer? Large format photography is rife with frustration, not something to embark on whimsically. However, the impulse to take the photo is anything but whimsical: part of me is still a photographer. I musn’t let this ordinary miracle pass without trying to capture it.
As a child I was taught that Saint Anthony is the patron saint of people searching for lost things. Lost your baseball cap? Pray to St. Anthony. Now I submit all such prayers to my wife, Cherie, finder of lost items. True to form she unearths the view camera, tripod, and changing bag. Finding it is one thing, remembering how to use it is another. To use it well requires a higher discipline that I never quite acquired, which may explain why the camera was packed away.
In a few days time I have all I need to photograph the daily miracle on my blinds but now I have to solve the problem of the too pale palette and the too flat geometry. Beside the blinds is a begonia plant with serpentine stems topped with graceful leaves, green with white spots on the topside, deep red on the underside. The plant joins the conch against the blinds.
Thus begins a daily obsession to catch the light when it falls on my blinds in just the right way to throw the pattern of the lace across the conch and leaves.
Discoveries. I discover something about the physics of optics: the projection of the lace depends on the way the trees outside obscure the sun. When tree branches block out most of the direct sunlight, the light source approximates a “pin hole” and the pattern sharpens to trace the shape of the lace on my blinds. Even a gentle breeze causes the shadow to sharpen, and move across the blinds.
To achieve sharp focus over the whole image I need a small aperture and that means a long exposure, f/22 and 0.5 to 1.0 seconds for the film I have chosen (Ektachrome 100 VS, asa 100). However, during the one-second the shutter is open the shadow may move creating a blurred image. Maybe the lace pattern is too volatile to capture.
For days I watch and wait, shutter release in hand, watching the lace shadow flutter as the branches move in the wind. I catch a few images with each day’s try. They get better with time but one thing troubles me: the begonia leaves overlap awkwardly. If only I could view the leaves from the side, I could see their individual shapes, but an oblique angle of view will destroy the parallel lines of the blinds. The frustration of the view camera is all too familiar.
Then I remember the special features of the view camera that solve this problem. I move the camera to the side, then slide the lens to the left and the film plane to the right. I have my sidelong view and keep the parallel lines.
By this time a month had passed and the path of the sun has moved so far that my composition is nearly gone. I realize I am done, at least for this year, with this sun and its position relative to our planet.

Discovering the metaphysics of the pattern. My pursuit of the illusive pattern brought to mind my study of the ancient philosophers Thales and Heraclitus. Both philosophers were looking for a theory of everything, an explanation of the world that would account for all there is under a single principle. Thales said that ultimately everything is water, whereas Heraclitus held with fire. Thales saw the world as supported by a stable substrate, making change an illusion. Heraclitus saw that flux was the only constant thing of this world, that reality is flux. Watching the pattern of the lace come and go, get clear, then fade as the wind blew, I begin to think Heraclitus was right, the world is in flame, nothing stays the same from one moment to the next.

My musing on the pattern didn’t stop with the ancients, it went straight to my own search for meaning in life, which owes much to one author, Somerset Maugham, and his best known book, “Of Human Bondage”. I was 31 when I read this book and it filled me with a conviction that come what may, I would be the author of my own biography, I would choose my path, not leave it to chance or the dictates of convention.

Maugham’s autobiographical novel tells the story of Philip Carey’s search for meaning in life after losing his naive Christian faith when his prayers to cure his clubfoot went unanswered. In Paris Philip meets Cronshaw, considered a guru by artists and poets. Philip asks Cronshaw what is the meaning of life. Cronshaw sends him to a museum to look at an ancient carpet to find the answer. But Philip finds no answer in the carpet. He presses Cronshaw, who replies “The answer must be discovered. Telling you would destroy the meaning.” After Cronshaw dies the answer comes to Philip: as the weaver makes a pattern in his carpet, so we all make a pattern in the way we live our lives. It is only for the pleasure of the pattern that the craftsman weaves his carpet and so do we each weave our life story.

I found Maugham’s resolution to the perpetual mystery of life’s meaning less satisfying than his fictional alter ego did. It seemed to me back then to be more literary device than serious philosophy. Now, standing on the threshold of old age, I begin to appreciate the utility of the pattern metaphor. Reflecting back over my own life’s narrative I am satisfied. I pondered that idea as I stalked the pattern of the lace on my blinds, struggling with the camera, watching the light creep down toward the floor. Several times I thought that this experience is just the latest piece in the pattern. Had I disposed of my Graphic View when I abandoned it I would now have to be content with the digital image I took on first seeing the pattern of the lace. Instead, I am reconnected with photography, wielding the massive camera for the first time in 25 years, trying to capture a pattern on my blinds. The pattern, it seems, is more in the taking of the photograph than in the way the sun projects the lace on the wall.

I think I am done taking the photograph, but then I wonder how the leaves would look when the sun shines in through the blinds from outside. I find out: the leaves, not the lace shadow, became the subject. The lace pattern is gone, entirely. But the shell, turned around to reveal its lip, becomes a lantern.

Again I think I am done and again I am wrong. As the equinox approaches, carpenters remove the entire door during renovations. When the old door goes, the blinds go, too, but something new appears: a blue plastic tarpaulin, tacked to the walls and ceiling to form a protective wall against the dust from the renovations. Now when I look up from my table I see a great shining, shimmering blue wall, which actually breaths as the air pressure fluctuates on either side. I say “shimmering” because the light from the skylight spills down across the plastic sheet. And what a light show!

Am I done now? Is this blue tarp the last in the series? I think so, but I am wrong again. Another miracle appears, on my head, literally. I look up and realize the shadow of the lace casts its pattern across my head, hands, and lap. I reach for the digital camera, hold it at arm’s length and take this final, yes final, shot in the series. Thus the artist becomes the canvas on which the shadow of the pattern is cast and the hand that made the pattern in a previous century has painted it on my very nearly bald head.

This much I learned: the world is in constant flux, the pattern comes and goes, the wind in the trees is at least as important as the sun, you can never take the same photograph twice, and, Maugham said something useful when he said the meaning of life is found in the pattern you make of it.

Did I capture the greatness I thought saw in the beginning? Time will tell. That’s what Sudek said to me when I told him one of his photographs was beautiful. Time will tell.

© Charles Sawyer, 2011

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