29 December 2010

Magic and light

This is an anecdote about an experience I once had which impressed me, but which I have never known exactly what to make of. I always think about it at this time of year, near the solstice, when sunlight is at minimum, and shadow length is at maximum. It is related to a topic in academic philosophy, phenomenology, and I am sure that if I understood my Husserl and my Heidegger a bit better than I do, I could make a much more systematic presentation of it than I can here. With that disclaimer, here is the story.

Several years ago I had a hobby project of photographing cemeteries and old churches in New Orleans. I had taken a photography class and one of the tips which the teacher offered us was on the subject of outdoor photography: take your pictures within an hour of sunrise or sunset, the longer shadows at this time of day make the subject more complex and interesting. The way I scheduled my project was every Saturday and Sunday I would walk the streets of New Orleans at sunrise and at sunset and photograph the most interesting church scenes or cemetery scenes I encountered. There are a lot of neighborhoods that I constrained myself to the sunrise hour for consideration of personal safety; many of the most beautiful old churches there happen to be in the middle of impoverished gangster neighborhoods.

In the course of a few months I explored a large fraction of the city. Eventually I discovered a small old weathered church in the Bywater neighborhood at the intersection of Dauphine and Saint Ferdinand. By "weathered", I mean it needed paint and it needed some maintenance work on its yard which was overgrown by weeds. In the yard was a six-foot-tall statue of the Virgin surrounded by one-foot-tall statues of cherubs which were barely visible through the weeds. The moment I saw this particular church, I decided it was my best subject yet and perhaps ever. I shot all my film on this one building, went home, and decided that was where I was going to concentrate: I would shoot it at sunrise, at sunset, on fuji, on kodachrome, on black-and-white, on my tripod, until I had my most flawless shots of it. (This was before we all went digital.)

A couple of weekends later I got to the black-and-white session. I got up early on Sunday morning and returned directly to where I had just been the previous night at sunset. I spent about twenty minutes composing and shooting black-and-white shots from various angles and had shot about half the roll. After one shot I pulled my eye from the viewfinder and was struck by a vision: hundreds of lavender wildflowers appeared in the weeds before my eyes, and I felt like one of those characters in the cartoons who sees stars in front of their eyes after getting a whack on the head. They had bloomed at daybreak and were there all the time I was shooting, but I was thinking black and white and had totally ignored them up until that moment when they suddenly appeared to me, as if out of nowhere.

I quickly went home for color film, but by the time I returned the sun was too high for long shadows. I returned at sunset. I was late for work on Monday as I had to return to the church for a sunrise session. Then after work I went straight to the church for another sunset session. I was also late for work on Tuesday and Wednesday until I shot up all the film I had in stock. To assure myself it was not a hallucination, I compared all the shots after they were back from the lab and indeed it was true: I had somehow shot six rolls of film with no wildflowers, and just when I thought I was finished, hundreds of wildflowers took their seasonal light cue and bloomed in the midst of my subject.

To this day there are only two photographs on my living room wall. They are both photographs of the church, the statue of the Virgin, the barely visible cherubs in the weeds, and hundreds of small lavender wildflowers.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.