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Grasping

Recently Iíve renewed my interest in photography. Iíd like to use the word rejuvenated, but thatís more in the realm of what I want than of what I experience yet. Photography has been one of my main interests nearly all my life, and at times a passion. Thereís something about the process of looking at something or someone and capturing the experience of that moment that pulls at me like, for some people, I guess, the taste of chocolate. I can look at other peopleís photographs and feel moved, even awed, by the eloquence of their work. I seldom feel that about my own photos, but the emotional impact is often far greater, just because of my relationship with either the subject or the experience, or both. Iíve become aware lately of a desire to again have more of that kind of experience.

Having bought a new camera as part of that return to those earlier feelings, I discovered something quite different. Sometimes I look at my new toy and wonder, "What am I going to do with it?" Thereís no automatic urge to grab the camera and go off on expeditions to record the world. Oh, I have used the camera both to accustom myself to its operation and to accomplish some photographic task that came up in the course of other pursuits. But those arenít it. I wrote to an old friend the other evening about this new venture and expressed a desire to see the world in the very special way I did fifty years agoóto recapture my old eyes. I have vivid memories of once seeing much more intensely, of looking more closely at the shape and shadow of everything.

It occurs to me that perhaps thatís what I really want, rather than the photographic experience itself. Itís almost like someone looking at his wife and wishing he could feel again the magic of those first glorious months of the relationshipóthe feelings of mystery, of discovery, of the excitement of uncertainty, of the treasures not yet explored. I doubt that one can truly recapture the feelings of innocence. But it ought to be possible to "clean oneís glasses," so to speak, to look closely once again at a world Iíve allowed to streak past me in my rush to "succeed" in life.

Having retired from the workforce a few years ago, Iíve adjusted my acquisitiveness toward material things to more realistic levels. I no longer look at new automobile advertising or the promotional pictures of far away places. Iíll never be able to afford to cruise among the Greek Islands in a yacht, soak up the beauty of tropical vistas, or dine in expensive hotels overlooking the beaches on Waikiki. I donít mind that. I donít feel the desire for expensive things nearly so strongly as I once did. But now Iím wondering if my desire for the magical experience I associate with photography is but a desire to return to younger eyes, with all the ramifications of that. After seven decades of life, am I seeking only the mythical Fountain of Youth?

Thatís not how I feel it. What I want is to be able to look, and see anew. That seems attainable. Iím not wishing for a young manís body, or even a young manís mind. The fact that my eyes are deteriorating along with the rest of my body is sad, perhaps, but I donít grieve over the loss. Seeing is much more than looking.

Lately Iíve embarked on a path, as they say, to seek more wisdom and a more comfortable relationship with the universe. I want to stop grasping at things. I want to see things just as they are: transient, mostly unsatisfying, and often meaninglessóand glimpse, somehow, the meaning in all that. It includes me. I want to be easy with my own mortality. I want to accept the tiny part I have played in the larger process. An important part of that path is learning compassionófor myself as well as for others. This yearning for a different sense of seeing is not a bad thing just because it represents grasping for something I donít now have. It just is.

A long time ago I told a psychologist, who was testing me for an employment situation, that I thought my interest in photography was a need to spy, to observe others without risking my own vulnerabilities. I said I was hiding behind my camera because I was afraid to expose myself. He said, startlingly, "Thatís bullshit." I didnít believe him then and I donít believe him now. However, Iím a lot more comfortable with my assessment now than I was then.

That does seem to offer a clue to what this exploration is all about. The act of peering through the viewfinder of a camera is looking at something in a different way. It concentrates the attention, squeezing the view down to not only a manageable size but to an intimate touch. If what I want from my new approach to photography is to see things more clearly, if what I want is to rediscover the excitement of truly seeing, then Iím not just putting on a pair of rose-colored glasses, Iím stopping to appreciate the rose itself.

A great discovery I made twenty years ago, looking within myself, was how much I wanted intimacy with people. For most of my life I had stood back and watched other people from what I thought was a safe distance. I was aloof, not because I looked down on others but because I was afraid of rejection. (The psychologist was wrong.) In a marvelous environment of a supporting community, I took the risk, and for the first time really experienced a close, touching, connection to people. It was a lesson that Iíll never forget.

It seems to make sense that what Iím seeking in my new/old approach to photography is to experience intimacy again, this time in my visual relationship with the world. Just as in learning how to be intimate with people I found that "they" are not alien to me but in a profound way are me, perhaps what I seek now is to expand that intimate relationship to what I can see. That may start out seeming to be a grasping, but maybe it will also reveal a new identity of my self in the universe. It may beóactually, whatever the result, it will beóanother step along my path.

 

Donald Skiff, March 7, 2003

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