Friday, February 4, 2011

The Self. Who is that masked man?

The self is the sun shining in the sky,

The wind blowing in space; he is the fire

At the altar and in the home of the guest;

He dwells in human beings, in gods, in truth,

And in the vast firmament; he is the fish

Born in the water, the plant growing in the earth,

The river flowing down from the mountain.

Katha Upanishads, II.2.2.

For the past month I have been using the many rainy days to work in my studio and one of my projects has been to continue practicing with lighting and the human body. Not having a lovely female model to work with I substituted the next best thing, myself. Oops now wait, I was not bragging here about my elderly male figure but stating a kind of truth all the same. Female nudes are actually fiendishly difficult to do if one is to avoid a kind of voyeurism and yet say something even faintly original with this all-to-familiar subject matter. Oneself, however, presents a different set of problems: who am I, where am I going? The subject is oneself and it is equally difficult to make a photograph that gets below the surface smile, the social face. In a self portrait, the mind that thinks is split between the photographer and the model and, with that disconnect, what emerges can be unsettling. “Who is that masked man?”

Partly, the fact that I am using a 10 second timer on the camera shutter is a help because in the time it takes to press the button and jump into position there is no time to smile at the camera. There is no person at the camera anyway to relate to and one`s mind is busy getting the right angle for this new set of lighting directions. The photos have a preoccupied air, the eyes are focused and the mind attached behind them is busy and not thinking about a nice smile. That kind of piercing look in public makes people shudder and turn away. It does, though, achieve the first important step toward a self image that is deeper than ‘a nice portrait’.

One dark overcast day I move my tripod and camera out under the still darker shadow of some big cedar trees. I will pose against the trunk of one while setting the flash unit to bounce off another trunk nearby. The light will come from the side, 10 second timer is on, I leap into position and turn my head just so and perhaps just because I am bored with the standard pose I cross my hands on my chest. Is that Tolstoyesque person really me? Next I cross the path to a bank of salal undergrowth. This time I use a big white reflector board to bounce the flash and dive into the salal. I have been visualizing a photo like this for a while. Flash! Oops, I was nearly out of the frame and somewhat out of focus. Next time I burrow into the salal right in front of the camera. Perfect! Well focused, well lighted. Only later when I can see these two images on the computer screen do I decide to choose the first. There is my dead self partially covered by the undergrowth, faded and shoved off into a corner. Lost and forgotten! A much more powerful image and one I had not seen coming. Unsettling is good.

Yesterday I lugged my big tripod down the path to Indian Point. I now have a battery for my remote shutter release so I can set the camera up, choose a focus point, and then stroll down to my chosen position on the cliff edge and trigger the shutter by remote control. This is really civilized, but unfortunately the face in the image is my social face again. No pressure, I revert to nice. Next I turn away and stare out to sea and, who knows why, I rest my hand on the long oak branch beside me as the shutter fires. The result is powerful though, and I could be anyone, so now that I am back on track I move to the beach which is wet from recent rain. The green sea swishes gently up the granite pebbles, a brown log lies at an angle and behind it all is my favorite cliff of rock, rain-varnished in exquisite detail. I set the camera and tripod, walk up to the rock-face, carefully step into the water, turn, and lie on the beach facing the log. Click! Here, in these two beach photos the tree has reached out to me to take my hand in unity and Bill on the beach this time is more impersonal, a sea lion perhaps, big and brown, who has come ashore for a snooze, an element among several in the composition.

It takes something dramatic to break through the social mask; fierce focus, a unpremeditated dramatic step beyond the ordinary, a kind of death of my public self. What I have found is the Self behind the self. The one who lives in all things as the Upanishads say, is the tree and the rock , the sea and all its creatures and somewhere above the clouds the sun himself.

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