Tell me — why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality? I mean, is Mount Everest more real than New York? Isn’t New York real? I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! Isn’t there just as much “reality” to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest? You see, I think that not only is there nothing more real about Mount Everest, I think there’s nothing that different. Because reality is uniform, in a way. So that if your perceptions — if your own mechanism is operating correctly — it would become irrelevant to go to Mount Everest, and sort of absurd! . . .
. . . I agree with you, Wally! But the problem is that people can’t see the cigar store, now. I mean, things don’t affect people the way they used to. It may very well be that ten years from now people will pay ten thousand dollars in cash to be castrated, just in order to be affected by something!
~ Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre
I saw My Dinner With Andre when it was released in 1981. It was cinematically audacious (as my main man Roger Ebert wrote at the time) because it was 110 minutes of screen time filled with two friends talking — two friends “alive on the screen, breathing, pulsing” as they work their way to a philosophical consensus of sorts.
My Dinner With Andre and . . . Photography
It was always the above piece of dialogue that stuck with me. But what relevance does any of this have to photography, nature — or the photographing of nature? I came back to thoughts of My Dinner With Andre again, after some time in the field with my camera. Not everyone can spend five years in a spiritual quest, as the character Andre Gregory did, hallucinating over clouds and picking blueberries. But all of us ponder existence, relative to our own experience. And sometimes, that experience — camera in hand or not — results in circuitous realizations of purpose.
When Wally says, “if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out!” — from a photographer’s POV, that couldn’t be more cogent. Give me a Raynox 150 and some raindrops, or rust or popcorn kernels and consider my brains effectively blown out.
But in a way, that’s the counterpoint to how I used to photograph — with an insatiable drive and purpose. So driven, in fact, that I lived on five hours of sleep most nights, chugging five gallons of Major Dickason’s every week. I believe (I hope) I ventured outside fully clothed every day, but as lack of sleep dissolved the brain cells, I can’t be certain I was always lucid and zipped up.
When I first realized the power of my new telephoto lens combined with two boots on the trail, my enthusiasm for capturing the moment was overwhelming. My early wildlife archives are filled with poor compositions of animals turning their faces into the shadows, or figments of birds in flight, blurry, indistinguishable. It took more than a year for that fire-in-the-lens to subside — to morph into a more deliberate and restrained shutter release.
I honed my photographic chops, for sure. But what was I missing in my singular focus? Quite a lot, actually. Nature has always been my medicine, my God — my sanctuary, my inspiration, my grounding. And yet, because of my newfound passion, I was juking past my spiritual anchors . . . to get the shot.
My turning point was a walk I took with Hugh and a dear friend. I wanted to get some photos of Sandhill Cranes which, up until that point, I’d never photographed. Our friend suggested a hiking route that would place us where the cranes would be, right about the time the cranes would be there. Perfect. But a slight miscalculation led us in circles. When we finally reached the spot where the cranes normally dance at dawn, they’d already left — and taken with them my enthusiasm for the jaunt.
Sure, the whole reason we were there was to see the cranes. And missing them was a huge disappointment. The unexpected arrival of hunters across the river, dropping ducks left and right in front of our eyes didn’t raise my spirits, either. But my reaction to the cranes’ departure forced an internal double take: Here I was, intent on the “getting” . . . when the “being” — the experience of meeting two friends in an unlikely synchronicity of place and schedule, in the rose-quartz light that is dawn — should have been a time enough. With gunshots shattering the peace over the river, the cranes airborne, the Teal and the Canvasback and the Speckled-bellies cowering behind reeds from the human assault — my goal-driven ideas of photography dissolved in an instant.
We have a strong thread of point-based thought and theology — utilitarianism, consequentialism, Puritanism — which can lead to mechanistic ideas of how we humans interact with our environment. Kierkegaard said, “far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.” He was alluding to the state of busyness people employ to fend off boredom — boredom which arises from a limited perspective, one that won’t allow for appreciation of the mundane. As the bar rises on what constitutes excitement, success, marketability, purpose — being blissfully idle becomes tantamount to evil. But, like, Kierkegaard, I believe the precise opposite is true. We all love white space on the page . . . to break up the clutter. Idleness is like the white space of life.
The Existentialists were right about some things — or all things (if you’re an Existentialist).
“It may very well be that ten years from now people will pay ten thousand dollars in cash to be castrated, just in order to be affected by something!”
I think Andre’s line here is as relevant as ever . . . particularly where nature is concerned. There’s subtlety in sitting deep in a field of fescue — or on a Pacific bluff in the winter — not needing to feel anything but the damp brume across your face. There’s a soulfulness and mindfulness in seeing a dove or a bobcat or a blacktail before your eyes and not wanting to do anything but watch — or even turn away, just knowing he or she is there. To simply let her be.
Those experiences do affect people — at least the first time. They’re just so easy to forget when the societal measure of “aliveness” becomes stimulation and engagement, as Andre suggests, as opposed to the profound sense of “aliveness” that comes from hearing the nothingness and feeling the intangible.
I once took a class based on the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a practice known as “mindfulness” training. The classes are often recommended for people dealing with chronic pain or stress, but the techniques, like any meditative or spiritual practice, help bring people back to this place of inherent wholeness. You’re taught to feel the blood surge through your heart’s chambers, to bore down to the core of physical pain and reduce it to a series of sensations, to taste every morsel you put in your mouth and be, well, “mindful” of everyday, rote actions with heightened senses. Had it not been for a pernicious instructor my friends dubbed “The Fascist Buddhist,” I might have been an exemplar of peace by now. But I did leave that class with a new framework for reality — what constitutes my reality.
“. . . is Mount Everest more real than New York? Isn’t New York real?”
At the end of My Dinner With Andre, Wally takes a taxi home and sees his own spiritual anchors in the street scenes of New York. He comments on how there’s not a place in the city that isn’t connected to him through memory. It’s the coda to a conversation that embraced everything from talking apparitions to airline passengers with animal faces to meditators negotiating verbally with insects. That was Andre’s reality, as he traveled the world seeking himself. But was Wally’s experience, entrenched in New York, any less spectacular? This coda is what I liked best about the film — that it refused to assign intellectual superiority to Andre’s quest for meaning.
I know plenty of street photographers who think bird photos are banal — in a world where graffiti and urban decay exist in tandem with squeaky-clean modernity. That’s a spectacular palette, no question. I also know a few nature shooters who wouldn’t notice a wall of Banksy art if an Andean Condor were perched on top. And I understand their drive to photograph outside the confines of urbanity. I’ve also met a few fortunate souls who have the means to shoot self-portraits next to penguins in Antarctica . . . on their way to the Red Sea for a swim . . . before settling in their Brazilian treehouse for the night. Who wouldn’t want to share that reality for a while? If you live by public validation, the latter — the exotic — definitely elicits a popular reaction.
From a photographic perspective, though, there is no subject more real or valid than another. There’s a magic that arises from abandoning one’s preexisting ideas, and turning the eye — and the lens — away from one’s personal Mount Everest, and toward the mind-blowing life in the cigar store next door. There’s also a serenity that comes from setting down the camera and simply being with life — outside the frame and the pixel.
As a younger, pre-Rolling-Stone-interview John Mayer once wrote:
You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes,
It brought me back to life,
You’ll be with me next time I go outside,
No more 3×5.
Okay, so someone had to take this picture while I was just “being.”
Related Post: Wildlife & Nature Photography Ethics