To know the Dark.
To go into the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the darkness too, blooms and sings,
And is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
.I was surprised the other day to find that what I had thought to be an ordinary photograph taken on a dark day late last Fall could be described as a challenge to all things legitimately photographic. I should have expected this.
This image was part of a set of photographs taken on a heavily overcast day, spitting with rain, just after the first big south-east storm of the season had rolled over a beach on Vancouver Island . Piles of seaweed and tossed driftwood, dead seal pup and heron, and this image, caught by panning quickly, of a Oyster-catcher flying against grey water, dark, blurred islands and a grey sky.
It was questioned if the moment, the time and place, the mood itself, was legitimately expressed within such a grey, blurred, flat toned image. That really it was a poor image by accepted standards of photographic practice. The same argument could be made about any other piece of creative work: can a disturbing topic be expressed in an ugly way? That good form is needed to express even nasty ideas. And that does make sense, good communication should always be tied to excellence in how the subject is expressed.
Then, thinking about my oyster-catcher imagery, what would have been a correct form within which to express the cool logic of an early winter storm that weeds out the unprepared and the young and old indiscriminately? A nice range of values from white to black, ( and if so, taking this image on a different day entirely)? A sharper, closer depiction of the bird itself so it is identifiable as an Oyster-catcher? No, I am not making this image as a wildlife photographer within the understood confines of 'good wildlife photography' nor am I concerned with some standard ideas about good photos. It is the darkness of the day, the dispassionate power of the wilderness, that is my subject here.
My personal set of parameters say that there must be a correlation between the subject and how it is expressed though the image's design. The reality of the place and time and my perception of it rejects some version that is sharp and bright and 'correct'. So I have actually been thinking very carefully about form and function, about communication, more than that maker who leans always on ' the right formulation'. We all need to give our heads a shake and see for ourselves, not through the medium of accepted practice but by way of our own ideas, developed over time and congruent with our own personal perspectives. Seeing comes first and expression follows naturally if we are fully open to the possibilities.
But what of the viewer, it could be argued. Who would be attracted to this flat, blurry, grey image? If the photograph is not attractive in a decorative or superficially aesthetic way no one will stop to look or to buy. And that is the point: is it my job to sell, to produce product that will move? In a commercial gallery setting the answer would have to be yes if pretty or stylish is the criteria for sales. So I do need to ask myself to whom I think I am communicating. I have to think big questions like why I take photographs and what does this highly specialized kind of image-making mean to me. Why am I so cussedly insistent on the value of this dark vision of Autumn's first clean sweep after the soft days of summer.
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the above quote from Wendell Berry, where he lays before us the possibility that using light to explore darkness is self-defeating, and that darkness has its own special qualities. Of course the poem can be read as being about light and dark in a psychological sense. Perhaps there is much to be gained in the development of a personality by allowing the darker sides of life to express themselves in a creative way. If we find that repression of 'the not so nice' leaves the darker side that we all possess unformed, under-developed and hence frightening, then we must see that if it is allowed to participate in a creative way, if it is given a role to play, darkness can 'bloom and sing' and we would find in darkness a useful creative guide.
That photograph? It is for me a message from my dark side asking for admission, that I should claim it and give it legitimacy, take the guidance offered and move along my own path allowing the dark to provide a counterpoint to the light. That co-operative path, in the final analysis, is the artist's journey.