Setting Off the Beauty Bells
This morning, I read a thoughtful essay on beauty in photography. The author, Laura Valenti, made the point, “Beauty is a quality that exists outside of the subject of any photograph.” I also think the passion to create beauty must come first from within.
I live in Eugene near Delta Ponds, an urban wetland. I have walked and photographed the same five mile loop for twenty years. I have seen the ponds and their familiar denizens season in and season out. My subject matter in a way never varies: cormorants, eagles, great blue herons, wood ducks, hawthorne, cottonwood, water, sky, and light.
There are (rarely) dull days when I never take a shot, but more often than not, I see a new behavior, an angle, a slant of light that sets off the beauty bells in my head and makes me lift my lens.
I was privileged once to be shooting with the great Ansel Adams. We were high up on a hill at sunset looking down over the National Bison Range in Montana.
He talked to us then about two things.
One was a “mature image.” “Everyone has seen a picture of a bison backlit by sunset light,” he said. “Your job is to see past the familiar to the strange and beautiful with fresh eyes.”
The second insight came as we all stood around with our cameras on tripods, eyes to our viewfinders, looking down at what was truly a magnificent tableau of animals, dust, and glorious light. “Stop,” Adams said, “Don’t shoot yet. Look. Ask yourself, ‘What is it about this scene that I love?’ Then compose for that.”
I have never forgotten that advice as I go about photographing my quotidian world. The photo above is the July grass by the ponds turning brown. What I love about it is the shape made by the grass heads as they make almost a heart shape. I love the angle of the grass, and even though it was getting really hot out, I love the light.
There is a part of me that has worried about my drive to select for beauty and to leave out the ugly–the slime-slicked rocks as the ponds dry up, the nearby mall structures–or if I do, I try to find a way to make them beautiful, too–but I am resigned to have a capital “R” Romantic imagination. I have tried, but I don’t have the eyes of a documentarian or even of a good street photographer.
I walk the Beautyway as my spiritual practice, and Valenti’s thoughts affirmed that path for me here this morning.
Today may I walk out in beauty.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty around me, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
–Navajo Beautyway Prayer