Friday, January 27, 2012

A Photographic Entr'acte

The Imaginative Power of Forms in Light

I often wonder whether the suggestive forms that I see, photographed "straight" (point-and-shoot if you like, though framing and vantage point are not considerations that many point-and-shoot photographers are wont to think of before pressing the button) will convey what I hope for.  Digital cameras are very good now in capturing the really neutral gray of a paved street or a concrete sidewalk; they even get the greens of plants and the lavender of agapanthus.  Also, as many are discovering, the little miracle in the new iPhone is just that, miraculous.
Opposite my house, in the parkway (i.e., the grassy or flowery area between the sidewalk and the curb) there is one of the tallest pin oaks (or swamp oaks or red oaks, all current names) in the neighborhood, where the oldest houses are now nearing a hundred years.  No true oak tree, even if not the noble quercus robur, can get by in a parkway no more than a meter wide.  All over the older neighborhoods in southern US cities, the Department responsible for gutters and drains and the like has industriously cut the obtrusive roots back.  They look like parts of carcasses badly mangled.
Often, besides, they recall to the mind's eye mankind's own creations, in art.  Not always.  Today, after being soaked by two inches of constant rainfall, this one (above), which I called snarly and gnarly in the Picasa album,  immediately made me remember the Shang bail-handled bronze vessel in the shape of a tiger or a bear (depending on the interpretation) which is swallowing a man.  It also evoked all the most powerful Guardians of the great Chinese and Japanese shrines.  When the root is half dry, and the colors are differentiated, the suggestion is strongest.  That the 'head' seems to strain against the mossy stretched bark only makes it more like a living thing.  Of course, what it evokes for each viewer depends on his or her previous visual experience and how great its effect has been.  In my case, Prof. Otto Maenchen-Helfen's course, Art 1D, a survey of the art of India, China, and Japan, was the initiation.  In 1953, there were not so many picture books readily available, and, a Freshman, I had never seen Asian art, except for a few bamboo paintings reproduced in women's magazines—not even in Art News.*  I continued taking his courses, eventually even graduate seminars, though eventually I had to choose between Greece and China.  Professor Maenchen was a mysterious idol to his devoted students.  He came from Vienna.  He had spent time in a Tibetan monastery.  He invited his graduate students to meet in his home (in fact, near the end of his career, he had a weak heart).  He treated us with interest and respect.  What I never guessed until I ran across it several months ago in a Note in Mary Gabriel's biography of Karl and Jenny Marx was that he had been the co-author of one himself, years before he came to Berkeley.  Not only did he never discuss political ideologies with us, such a life episode could not compare with his knowing everything, it seemed, about the Huns, for example.  He seemed far above any politics!  I shall never forget him; he was the most wonderful person and scholar imaginable.  So I think myself most fortunate to see Asian images in other things.
In the warm and humid atmosphere a few days ago, when I walked around to the other side of the same tree, standing on the sidewalk and seeing a bit of the pavement beyond, without having any notion of its "standing for" anything other than spreading roots and a dry fallen twig, I had a visual feeling about it that reminded me of Japanese gardening and of album-leaf paintings.  Literally, it is just another plain photo, unaltered by any post-processing, with no additional cropping (since I had seen what I wanted, though if I had wanted a square image I'd have cropped, of course).  Aesthetically (the Greek verb, aisthanomai means to perceive through the senses), it is for me something quite different.
It was a good afternoon's taking pictures for me.  You can find them all, dated Jan 22, in the same album as the snarly, gnarly root.

*Actually, so long as the gallery was in existence, C. T. Loo had a full page advertisement in every issue of Art News.  Some of the best ones were for Shang and Zhou ritual bronzes.  I had had that periodical for several years (as I related above, a bill collector who had to give up on my mother took pity on the 12-year-old who had stayed home from school, and brought me a stack of Art News).  I kept them for years and pored over them.  Indeed, I had them until 1973.  So it is remarkable that only when I took a course in Asian art, and had a boxful of University Prints to go with it, did I pay serious attention to C. T. Loo (Sherman Lee's big Asian equivalent to Janson's History of Art was still a decade in the future).  C. T. Loo keeps recurring, most lately in Edmund de Waal's Hare with Amber Eyes.  Nothing given to an observant child is truly wasted.  If only one is fortunate to live long enough it all comes together to enrich the decades when hiking all over the world's great cities is too difficult (since true aesthetes seldom get rich).