Waiting in the Mountain, Waiting in the Night

By coming so close to fulfilling our truest, most errant desire- the desire to stop time- photography encourages despair, leaving us to a world we can only fitfully love, it passing so fast. Such frustration! Nonetheless light is beautiful, and color and shape somehow console us. Even after the most affecting image nothing can be done except to continue on in confusion, wearied of our accompanying pictures. But here is one of a heron through a glass, another of a girl beneath a sail. What wonders, what purity.

All we have is change, nothing of what we need. Why hold up a sieve to the light? Why force images, memories, and emotions into artistic forms? Even thought and theory try to stabilize what is unstable, to shape what is passing and beautiful. They pretend to know better. We can’t help it. Photography’s failure is often the most poignant: as in, here is a face before everything changed.

Near Los Angeles, itself an ephemeral mirage, someone went into the hills with a camera. They exposed the film for half a minute or more. These photographs are different. Not that they alleviate our confusion or clarify our thoughts, far from it, but they lead us again to wonder about the strangeness of the world, which is the only good anything can do. At the very least we find this ­at the beginning of philosophy. Why not return again to the beginning, not knowing it for what it is?

The pictures were taken at night, when a camera is almost useless. The borders are stable but tense. Dreams, prophecies, and other winds seem to press upon the edge, an angel ready to break into the image, threatening blindness. Fortunately he restrains himself. A flashlight illuminates the hills erratically. Sometimes the land moves, as when someone sends a stone crashing down the hill. They were still for years, possibly since the harrowing of hell, and are still again.

A lot can pass in thirty seconds, not much of it seen. The clouds gather, the grass waits, night moves as if in a mass. Mostly such processes are absent. Time is of the process, and wind and rain. An otherworldly quality pervades the valley. In the pictures a gray shallow stream wanders over the stones, small in the dry endless hills. Its torrents blur into sensuous curves, more opaque where the current is strong. The sound is almost audible. So small are these pictures, no larger than the least stone of the hills.

Light changes in intensity, shade faints by degrees. Everything is unmoored even as it appears still. We see objects as they pass through time, nothing remarkable. And so the artists evade the vain accumulation of details. Nothing is wearier than the world of things. This is unjust, and our own problem.

Because of the duration of the exposure even distant stones are incredibly distinct, as in a van Eyck. The philosophers of his time believed that if someone fell for an instant from God’s sight he would cease to exist. The Recognitions claimed that this informed Flemish painting’s obsession with detail. All the objects assert their individuality for fear that God did not exist. What would happen to them if they were vague or imprecise? I forget if this has been refuted.

Different planes are present in the frames. Some of the stones shift in shadow, some never change. A lone light, guided by someone’s hand (such forms could not be random), wanders into the distance. There is nothing to indicate if these lines are more controlled or less controlled than a sculptor’s. The pictures seem full of symbols from an unknown culture, as if they document the unintelligible figures of its literary tradition. They are powerfully intact but only suggestive, a religion without a signifier, a people without an end. They affect us like the iceberg in Elizabeth Bishop’s The Imaginary Iceberg:

This is a scene a sailor’d give his eyes for.
The ship’s ignored. The iceberg rises
and sinks again; its glassy pinnacles
correct elliptics in the sky.
This is a scene where he who treads the boards
is artlessly rhetorical. The curtain
is light enough to rise on finest ropes
that airy twists of snow provide.
The wits of these white peaks
spar with the sun. Its weight the iceberg dares
upon a shifting stage and stands and stares.

The iceberg cuts its facets from within.

No home can be made here; the mind gasps as if in a prison.
Some details disorient. Nothing seems of this world. The setting of the pictures encourages this- night in a barren waste. Even Ecclesiastes would appreciate it. Varied and hopeful are the hills.

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