Critique – Part II – Photography as Engaged Acknowledgement as Humble Appreciation as Inspired Translation
We have received a number of great comments about our project that have helped to shape the direction and the trajectory of Black Lantern Synergy. We think it appropriate to expressly raise some of the critical comment we have received to open up the floor for the discussion of important issues that impact our project and the environmental movement as a whole. You can view the first such Critique post here.
Some of the criticism of our project centers on our use of photography. This critique takes a couple of forms–that our imagery in particular reflects a certain “masculine gaze” that seeks to over-power the viewer, and that the images in general cut out the context and connection of the natural surround, idealize beauty, and offer an overly visual representation that cannot be a substitute for actual experience in nature. One of my favorite authors, David Kidner, makes a similar point concerning our culture’s over-emphasis on visual forms of natural representation in his amazing book Nature and Psyche:
“[I]f we explore a landscape new to us, the visual sense–aided by cameras, binoculars, and postcards–is likely to overwhelm any more holistic, felt–or auditory–connection with the place, since the latter tends to become more established only within long time spans and a more open and subtle form of awareness. Vision, however, is ideally suited to gaining an immediate, atemporal impression of a place, not involving other dimensions that are less visible such as those involving historical, mythological, or ecological context. . . . [T]he visual sense, for all its immediacy, is not one that connects us to place in a more than superficial sense, nor is it one that demands that we open ourselves and expand our own boundaries to include what we are seeing. Vision in the Western world has developed in a away that tends to distance the “observer” from what is observed, and this style is particularly well suited to a life-world that assumes a separation between subject and object, and in which appearance is prioritized over other sources of meaning.”
This criticism has concerned me (because I recognize significant value in the critique), and I have given it a great deal of thought. I have always wanted to view this project’s naturalist photography and imagery as a transcendant form of expression, and I hope here to try to explain a bit about our work. [Disclaimer: Sometimes it isn't very enjoyable when artists I like talk about their work in a theoretical manner--I am about to do so briefly here, so feel free to avoid the following discussion.]
Recently, we took an overnight hike on a familiar trail in the Columbia River Gorge. I didn’t get my camera out right away as I might usually have done. I’ve hiked this particular trail a number of times, and it didn’t strike me as immediately as it had many times before. I felt a separation, both emotional and physical, that I needed a little time on the trail to begin breaking down: I washed my hair and hands and face in the river, soaked my feet on its shore, smelled its verdant breezes, felt its damp mosses. Before long, I was full under the spell of Spring. I began exploring the tiniest new growths in a sort of focused wonder and found myself mesmerized by all of the subtle and fantastic color tones, the veins in leaves, the variations, the glow.
When I engaged the little mosses and fungi and flowers on this latest trip, I paid attention to what I was doing and to how I was feeling. I noticed the strong sense of elatedness I had as I appreciated each micro and macro lyfescape. I had this humble, wordless dialogue with the plants and rocks and water through which I celebrated them as individuals and as part of amazing communities. I felt renewed in its renewal. I smiled and inquired. I try with each shot (as a part of the greater whole of the set of shots that we present) to breathe that context into the images and fill them with the impressive imagination of nature.
I hope the images on this site are a representation of the magic and emotion and connection that we feel when we are in active engagement with nature–that some of the spirit of the natural world glows in the darklight of the photos. Viewers may not get all that from our work. Some may see nothing more than incomplete representation or even outright misinterpretation. That could be a shortfall of my art–a reason, perhaps, to try to improve my translation skills–but I don’t see it as a very valuable indictment of the form. We are aware that the images conceal–that they hide what is beyond the lens–but the fern and the flower reveal and conceal as well. This is not a literal translation; it is visual poetry. The art is greater than the sterile perception of its product–it has a crucial process, too.
Some of this criticism devolves into a discussion of the very nature and use of representation as being destructive of the thing being represented due to inaccuracy and incompleteness. Any representation–language, painting, ideas–may run afoul of such a critique. What do we make of poems about nature, paintings, songs? Are these product of the same masculine gaze, dividing and isolating nature in forms of representation that are inadequate in the least and destructive at the worst? Bah. I think the larger context of our artwork should be considered, just as we must understand the larger context of nature in our consideration of and interaction with it. Our imagery is borne of a celebration of the natural–a reminder in the face of all the common images of loss that nature is still here and that a certain hope remains. And our integration in the show of the elements of natural sound, imagery, poetry, and song is a reflection of our understanding that remembrance of the forgotten may be triggered in a number of ways–giving in to that sort of natural saturation, even if in a space only designated for such a ritual, can be a helpful first step to livening that part of us that is dying. Kidner recognizes the value in vision, contextualized, that I hope we tap into:
“Although vision and its various metaphorical extensions have played a central role in industrialism’s colonization of the world, it still retains the potential for referring to and evoking a poignant anticipation or remembrance of a world that incorporates the integration lacking in modern industrial society . . . . But this integration must also occur simultaneously within the self, so that vision becomes part of a whole that also includes hearing, smell, and somatic feeling. . . . These felt images are whispers of possibilities beyond those offered by industrialism, visions of alternatives that point to a world beyond that of freeways, supermarkets, and television. They are also yearnings for something absent, and can be regarded as symptoms of a significant deprivation that can guide us toward reintegrating those dualistically separated opposites that structure the modern world.”