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A metaphysical field guide for photographers


"If my eye is to discern color, it must itself be free from all color. The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love." . ~ Meister Eckhart


drop_Eternity is in love with the productions of time." So wrote William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, perhaps the best-known literary witness in the West to the reality of nonduality, that rarefied realm where subject and object forever incestuously join. Given a moment's meditation, one can see in this allegation a fairly accurate description of the art of photography, taking as its substance that utterly indestructible (hence, eternal) medium: light.

Light is indestructible because

  1. visible light is a form of energy and, according to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor be destroyed; and
  2. as Einstein postulated, and subsequent experiments have shown, time does not exist for light. Light lies in Forever, existing in a moment utterly perpendicular to the flow of time as you and I witness it.

Every unit of light (photon) illuminating everything that exists is the emissary of eternity to that universal object, nudging her however slightly with the brute force of forever, imparting as with a horsehair bow across a string some of the virile quality of infinity to her—thus Blake's other well-known maxim: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." And that living object will never, ever be the same as she was in the unique one-sixtieth or so of a second that shutter was open to capture her image. Photography lies, therefore, squarely at the intersection of forever and now, and at the site of the collision between the subject (the photographer) and the object (the model).

If all goes well, that 186,282-mile-a-second collision produces a corpse, the static image on emulsified paper or electrified screen, possessed of some measure of symmetry, proportion, harmony, and rhythm: an object of Beauty. This transient object, otherwise the plaything of time, is rendered into a state of relative duration, and the miracle is that now the object can, should she choose to, take the place of the subject and view herself in her corpsified state, as though having an out-of-body experience right there in the studio.

Death, like photography in fact, is the coerced reckoning of a being with itself. (The only difference is there's no Photoshop for death.)


Back to our friend the photon: can you imagine a totally static reality, utterly changeless, such as what light must experience there in its seat in Forever? I can't, so I borrow from an old friend, by the name of Nietzsche, a rhetorical crowbar by which to pry apart the changeless (from The Gay Science):

What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’ If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

Since the total absence of time is literally beyond conceiving (because the act of thinking itself takes place within time and is bound by it), I find it useful to defer the question and "map" it onto an infinite series of repetitions of the same events. Caveat videor, however! There is a very big difference between the Eternal Return and its well-known second cousin nicknamed the Groundhog Day: it would be as if Bill Murray's character was robbed even of the option of doing things differently each time he awoke in that same motel bed. So, you'd better get it right the first time around, because in eternity there are no do-overs.

Is the image good enough to be reproduced an infinite number of times? Does the shot need to be re-taken? How many times until it's right? But then it's too late, the shoot is over, the studio is closed. Time to go home.  But, oh, how you'll keep coming back to that print over and over and over again, thinking maybe you missed something the first dozen or hundred or thousand times you looked at it, hoping that your perspective or headspace has changed or, against the laws of physics, that somehow it has morphed into the Perfect Picture, or might even do so before your very eyes: a sleight of hand, sleight of mind, sleight of matter which, though once possible, is no longer. The quantum wave function has collapsed. This is Hell.

A corollary of eternity is the ubiquity of uniqueness: no matter how often the same event is repeated, it will be fresh because you, the subject, are also repeated, fresh, as though washed in the blood of Christ every time. And every time, the devil will reach into the nethermost parts of your being, grab your guts and rip them out and toss them into the air, and you'd best "f/8 and be there," as any photojournalist (time's photographic vanguard) will tell you, or your guts are forfeit mid-air, undocumented, and eaten by avian paparazzi in the bargain. If you don't get the shot, you'll have no guts.


But you did get the shot. (If you did not, kindly recompose section II until you do.) There your guts are, forever suspended as though in crystal against the clear blue sky, stark and naked as the day you were born—or, better, as naked as the day you died (death's intimacy trumps birth's by a light-year).

The Perfect Picture will be possessed of a universality by virtue of the fact that in it, subject and object have merged as thoroughly as lover with beloved in simultaneous orgasm. The lens which once divided them has fulfilled its promise at last as reconciler. Extra lucem nulla salus (outside of light there is no salvation).

And where every subject is erased, having become transparent to time, there lies an objective beauty in state: the archer has hit his mark, the shutter has bitten off a chunk of Forever, creation has been redeemed. Heaven and Hell have consummated their union, and the Resurrection of the Body is finally and irrevocably accomplished upon waves of light embedded on an archival-quality print in a small gallery in Soho, and please turn the light off on your way out, thank you.

Woman, in the picture-language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation.

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces


The Sleep of Ondine DSC_1449_900 Home The Stare DSC_9010_cropped_b&w_900 DSC_6862_900 DSC_9006_900 DSC_4602_900 DSC_5579_900 Redwaterserpent. DSC_4908_900 DSC_5060_900 DSC_5049_cropped DSC_2086_cropped_900 Our Lady of the Hourglass DSC_4460_900 Salomean Narcissist Persephone. DSC_0036_900 Zeno's Paradox DSC_7541_900 Chlorophelia. DSC_0346_900 DSC_1401_900 DSC_8006_900 Raw00011_900 DSC_6060_900 Imaginary scene DSC_1584_900 DSC_0283_900 Narcissa DSC_7397_900 DSC_8364_900 DSC_9193_900 DSC_5115_900 DSC_3626_900 DSC_9186_900 DSC_5906_900 Imaginary scene DSC_7189a_900

All photography copyright © 2009 Michael Lujan.


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