how quietly i begin again
Be Still in Haste
by Wendell Berry
How quietly I
from this moment
looking at the
clock, I start over
so much time has
passed, and is equaled
split-second is present
moment this moment
is the first.
* * *
Recently I began creating diptychs with my photos, mining old, forgotten ones in my flickr archives from as far back as 2006. I did not realize when I began doing this how completely engrossed I would become in the process of putting two images together in order to make one new and altogether different image.
But before I elaborate on this, I feel obliged to mention my longtime friend Amber, who has little by little, over a thirteen year friendship, influenced me very profoundly in this area. I am not a skilled photographer by any stretch of the imagination. It is sad that for the most part, I still use my camera as a point-and-shoot and persist in doing so year after year. I suppose that if this really bothered me, I would have found the motivation years ago to take a photography class or at least check out a lousy book from the library. But I think that the reason I have not done this is that photography only serves a very narrow purpose for me. That is, I take lots of photos that would be largely easy to overlook and unimpressive to most people, but which for me satisfy a certain need to see the world in a certain way– a way that is more meaningful for me personally and maybe more beautiful, even if the photos themselves are not stunning. I started carrying my camera around with me years ago as a way of coping with life in what to me was a very ugly town which was moreover under siege of winter for a large part of the year. I needed to find beauty in things like peeling paint or a warm square of sunlight cast across a blank wall. Having a camera as a way to crystallize those moments made them more real for me, and that was helpful for simply getting through the day, or, in the case of February, the month.
What I didn’t realize while I was doing that for so many years was that I was leaving in my wake a large, unwieldy collection of visually underwhelming photographs. I have left a trail of dozens or maybe hundreds of these kinds of images. While I love looking back at my girls’ baby pictures, I confess that all the other pictures in between kind of bore me.
But after some time spent experimenting, I finally realized that in the case of diptychs, boring is better. Amber explains this really well in a tutorial on her blog about making diptychs. She expresses these concepts that I was only beginning to stumble upon without being able to explain it to myself. When I saw that she had written a tutorial, I thought it would be a technical, step-by-step guide for putting two photos together in Photoshop, but I should have known better. She wrote a perfectly eloquent explanation of what constitutes a visually successful diptych. My favorite concept among the ones she mentions is that diptychs can function as mini stories, with each image supplying information about the other as the eye travels back and forth between the two.
I really believe that my friend Amber is a born artist, while I am more of a pretender, dabbler, and imitator. I am not saying this to dismiss myself altogether, as if I have no aesthetic sense whatsoever, but I do think that my real confidence has always been and will always be primarily with words–prose– not images. A visual artist possesses an almost inborn visual language, and I know for certain that I do not. For example, I knew that Amber and I were wired differently when she confided in me one time that for her, each day has its own particular color, that she sometimes daydreams about colors, and that she goes through phases in which she has an affinity for one particular color, and notices it everywhere. And, internally she can assign colors to her feelings and moods.
To that I can really not relate, and this is why I will never be the art director for a graduate theological school / academic press, with a trail of gorgeous book covers behind me. (Check out this small sample of Amber’s book covers, for which she is practically famous in certain circles. Yes, she’s my friend and I’m proud.) But that said, I get excited about words and sometimes think lovingly about the sounds they make together, and while I do not daydream about colors, I think I can honestly say that I really get excited about images when they function in a way that is similar to words. I think that this is why I am currently so enthusiastic about diptychs. Their storytelling and meaning-making potential inspires me. This may explain why I can sit in a mesmerized state for indefinite periods of time working on them. And it helps that most of the images at my disposal, taken by yours truly, are so dull that they lend themselves perfectly to the task.
The diptychs that I have put up with this post are all of a particular kind. They all combine an old image from my years in South Bend, Indiana, with a newer image that I’ve taken in the last seven months here in Georgetown, Washington, DC. I’m convinced that Georgetown must be among the most beautiful neighborhoods in America. And the beauty is of an entirely cultivated, intentional, man-made sort. I mean, yes, flowers belong to nature and are not man-made, but when you have an army of landscapers working the tiny plots surrounding all of these mansions on Q Street, you are going to wind up with a very cultivated kind of natural beauty–far different than the kind that I kept my eye out for under the wide-open skies of the Midwest, where sometimes it was only the sky itself, during a dramatic summer storm, that provided a beautiful spectacle.
Somehow bringing forward my humble old photos from Indiana and pairing them with photos from our time here in DC is a very meaningful activity for me. It feels as if I am integrating two very different phases of my life and allowing one to leaven the other. A little leaven, after all, leavens the whole lump.
And don’t hate me when I say that I will be back with more diptychs on Friday.
|The mosaic here is in the patio area beside the Great-Gatsby-like pool on the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks.|
|The bleak, weathered clapboard of an abandoned house in the countryside of South Bend combined with the blossom-laden steps of a townhouse in Georgetown.|
|Windows, former and current.|
|Aforementioned dramatic summer sky above; border grass covered with cherry blossoms below.|
|Nothing really needs to be said about the Budweiser roof; the lower image is the inside of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.|