The End of What It Looks Like

Photography, Vision and the Heart

Here is a challenging reflection on photography, by David DuChemin, whose work I have been following for a while now and whom I greatly admire for his emphasis on “vision”, not mere “pictorialism” (if I can coin a word).

“The calling of the photographer is to see the invisible and to show it to the world, and those are the things we see not with our eyes so much as with our heart.”

— David duChemin

His words hit me hard, as I have myself written about striving to “reveal glimpses of the hidden, unseen Monastic Way, through visual means.” It is both paradox (so beloved by Orthodox Christianity) and challenge, one which I do not claim to have risen to, but to which I press onwards, striving to fulfill.

Perhaps someone might ask, “Why?”

Because, as an Orthodox Christian, I believe in “Vision.” We even have a theological word for it: “Theoria.” Even if I do not attain it in either my life or my photography, yet will I press forward, hoping that my efforts may help inspire others to do so.

So, I hope you enjoy this article and David’s challenge to go deeper. He writes of the heart, from the heart, and I have appended a few closing thoughts at bottom on this heart of the matter…

See also my posts:

The End of What It Looks Like

by David duChemin, August 30, 2016:

duchemin-img_1147-864x864
Cloud Front, © David duChemin

A couple years ago the number being floated around about photographs on the internet was this: 1.8 billion images a day were being shared on social media channels. All of them showing us what every minute corner of the world looks like. It is safe to say that there is little – if anything at all – that remains to be shown. Do a Google search for any conceivable thing, place, or person and there’s a good chance you’ll get more images than you can use. This used to be the job of photographers, particularly the so-called professionals: to illustrate. To show the world what it looked like.

In order to show the world what it looked like the photographer had to use a rather technical means, had to understand the physics, the chemistry, the optics. Owning and using the gear required was not easy. This was the means by which the photographer accomplished his craft and remained relevant. And that, for generations was the task of most photographers – to use complicated gear to show the world what it looked like.

Can you see where this is heading? Something only has value when it’s needed. When it’s scarce. And you can say neither about the use of the camera nor the need for more illustrative images of a world in which 2 billion photographs are shared, not to mention the ones not shared, every day. Before you despair or rush to the ramparts to defend this craft, let me say that I believe more than ever in the value and need for photographs. It just isn’t where it once was, in illustration.

“There is a world of difference between focusing a lens and focusing attention.” — John Paul Caponigro

The extraordinary opportunity now available to photographers is not illustration but interpretation. Of course there have been photographers for the entire short history of the craft that have done this, transcended craft and made art, showing the world not only what it looked like, but what it felt like, and – to some degree – what meaning could be found there.  But they have been fewer. We need them now more than ever.

This is where we will find relevance. The world already knows what it looks like. It has seen itself from every angle. What it needs now, more than ever is to see itself in new ways. Ways that give it hope. Ways that don’t let us flinch and look away when we see the bits we don’t like. Ways that show us, also, the beauty. Ways that engage us and stir our imaginations.

Vision, as Jonathon Swift reminded us, is the ability to see what is invisible to others.

We need photographers now to stop seeing their cameras as their tools. They aren’t. The tools of a photographer are the tools of visual language, just as the true tool of the writer is not the keyboard but the words themselves, all of them combinations of the same 26 letters. The magic of the writer comes not in her ability to pound the keys but to form words and sentences that say something, that transport us, that stir imagination, that light a flame in our heart. It is not that they can write something, it’s that they have something to say.

Our photographs may be worth a thousand words, they might not be worth the paper upon which the words are written: what matters is what is said. So why are photographers so late to pick up on this? Well, for one, they aren’t. Not all of them. We have a rich history of people, both men and women that have used the camera with such courage. But for what is arguably the vast majority of photographers it is this: it takes guts to put yourself out there. It takes risk. It takes having an opinion in the first place and it takes an attention to the soul of things that is so much harder than just learning the Zone system. Our history is full of voices telling us to shoot not what it looks like but what it feels like. It’s time we paid even more heed to these voices.

We need to expose our hearts and souls more than we expose our film or sensor. We can’t show the world what it feels like until we feel the world deeply ourselves and have the courage to share that.

It’s very, very noisy out there. The noise is only getting worse. And the only way to cut through that noise is with signal: with something to say. And the more human that thing is, the more it will connect, because that humanity and connection is the rarest of commodities. Our calling, as my friend John Paul Caponigro reminded me recently in an article he wrote on Abstraction is so much more than craft: “there is a world of difference between focusing a lens and focusing attention.” To do this we need to experience the word deeply, to live and love deeply, to commit to something, to open our eyes so wide it hurts. Vision, as Jonathon Swift reminded us, is the ability to see what is invisible to others. The calling of the photographer is to see the invisible and to show it to the world, and those are the things we see not with our eyes so much as with our heart.

I don’t know how you’re going to do it, the “how” has been the struggle of every artist for as long as art has stirred in the human heart and imagination. But I do know that for most of us, if we want to be heard, we need to find a way to dig a little deeper, we need to expose our hearts and souls more than we expose our film or sensor. We can’t show the world what it feels like until we feel the world deeply ourselves and have the courage to share that. That is how we cut through the noise. That’s how we remain relevant. The world knows what it looks like. It’s time to go deeper.

— David duChemin


Closing Thoughts: On the Heart and Vision

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (MT 5:8)

Dawn Through TreesThe Lord’s familiar words, in this one brief saying from the Beatitudes, gives us who would see, a guide for how to do so.

Blessedness (sometimes translated “happiness”, from the Greek “makarios”), is the inner condition of those who have attained the Vision of God. But to “see God” is not attained by esoteric methods of meditation, nor by physical techniques, and certainly not by mind-altering substances. Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that it is through “purity of heart” that one prepares to receive the grace of God in order to see Him.

“Purity of heart” is the lifelong call and struggle of Christians, for to “see God” is the goal of our existence, what the Church Fathers call “theoria”, or even more radically, “theosis”, “divinization.” It means to experience the presence of God by and through His grace. To even become by grace, as the Apostle Peter writes in his epistle, “partakers of the divine nature.”

“Purity of heart” and the vision of God do not just “happen.” This is why Jesus urged the Pharisees to “cleanse the inside of the cup.” This cleansing of the inside of the cup, the heart, refers to the ascetical practice in the Church of slowing down our thoughts, of “taking every thought captive” to the obedience of Christ. It involves knowing oneself, regular confession of one’s sins and inner thoughts, being a regular participant in the life of the Church, and a regular communicant of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ. “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” writes the Apostle Paul.

The struggle to cleanse the inside of the cup and attain purity of heart, that we may “see God,” is an ongoing excavation project. It involves the whole person, for we are called to love the Lord with “all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

This is the life of blessedness, through which we may come to see God.

FrSeraphim-BishopNektary
Fr. Seraphim Rose with Bishop Nektary, ca. 1980 (public domain.)

Hieromonk Seraphim Rose wrote and spoke so often of the need for “more heart” in our Orthodox Christian faith, that it is surprising he is not more revered for this warm, fervent, and loving message. In his words:

“How much our American Orthodoxy needs more heart and not so much mind!”  — Letter to Fr. Alexey Young

“Theology is life; the true words of God which speak to the Christian heart, raise it from its sloth and negligence, and inspire it to struggle for the eternal Kingdom, which may be tasted in advance even now in the life of grace which God sends down upon His faithful through His sanctifying Holy Spirit.”

— From the Preface to The Sin of Adam and our Redemption: Seven Homilies by Saint Symeon the New Theologian; St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA, 1979.

For us Christians, we are called by the Lord Jesus Christ to “be perfect, just as [our] heavenly Father is perfect.” St Luke’s Gospel recounts the saying as “be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful.” The saints grew into this state of being merciful, and developed a humble and broken heart, attaining great love for their fellow man, for the lost and perishing world. St Silouan the Athonite prayed to the Lord for the world, “That they may come to know Thee by the Holy Spirit.”

This is love and mercy, from a pure heart, a heart alive with the love of Christ.

Now let us look at David duChemin’s closing words with perhaps a deeper awareness of how they apply to us as Christians:

“If we want to be heard, we need to find a way to dig a little deeper, we need to expose our hearts and souls more than we expose our film or sensor. We can’t show the world what it feels like until we feel the world deeply ourselves and have the courage to share that. That is how we cut through the noise. That’s how we remain relevant. The world knows what it looks like. It’s time to go deeper.”

Whether we are photographers, artists or writers, whether priests or laity, grown or children, teens or mature, let us resolve together to “go deeper” in our Christian faith. To “remain relevant.” To “cut through the noise.” To have a heart for the perishing world, and find ways to share our love — the love of Christ Himself — with those around us.  ~ Amen.

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