Bewilderments of the Eyes
I came across the following lines by Plato years ago (though I can't claim to have read The Republic in its entirety). I wrote a piece in my book Asking which begins with the quotation as an epigraph. And it pops into my head still, quite often.
"Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light."
I think of these words when I'm shooting into the light or 'contre-jour.' How we see so utterly depends upon where the sun is in relation to the thing we are looking at and also upon where we're standing and how we position ourselves, our bodies.
I also think about the quotation when I'm walking down the street with the dog, and I see someone in the distance. In the early morning light, I'm often not sure for a while if that person is coming toward me, or moving away. I need to squint, look away, and then look again.
I put this into practice in my day job, working at the library. When I meet someone who is unsteady or squinting (metaphorically or literally), I attempt to ascertain if they are coming from a dark place and if they are finding it difficult to see their way to a brighter one. A conversation might be a cross between a reference interview and the application of a sort of spiritual first aid. Are they feeling unsteady as they go from a dark place into a bright one? Is their vision perplexed? Are they bewildered by the dark or by the streams of light in which they find themselves?
And here is another truth. We all carry a light inside of us. The following poem is by Anna Swir from her book Talking to My Body.
There is a Light in Me
by Anna Swir
Whether in daytime or in nighttime
I always carry inside
In the middle of noise and turmoil
I carry silence.
I carry light and silence.
I wish I could show you
when you are lonely
or in darkness
the astonishing light
of your own being.
How is it that some people understand that they have this light inside them, and others do not? Or, we have been sitting in the light, and then darkness comes, and we forget, and cannot fathom how to return. Or, two people are sitting side by side and one is in a beam of light, the other in shadow. We see that time is a factor, and luck, and yet often we do not move.
There are a lot of people who are better photographers than I am. I'm not being modest, but the more I improve at some aspects of digital photography, the more I understand my shortcomings. I take this to mean I'm making some small progress, and not really even so much as a photographer, but as someone who is looking, seeing, trying to absorb light and in that way learn from it. As a writer, this part of my practice is invaluable. But I've also been surprised to learn that my photography practice also makes me a better library assistant (my day job), and perhaps a slightly better human being.
The photographer Ernst Haas said, “A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?” In a practice of photography, one cultivates an inner light. I don't suppose I can really prove that statement but it seems true to me. For the impression of a photograph to come through to the viewer, it's something the photographer had to wait for, to create, to seek out. If the light is not in us, how can we recognize it?
As someone who takes photos, I have learned so much from observing and trying to capture the light. I've learned to wait for it. To move toward it. To run out of my house in my pyjamas if I have to, to capture it. To position my subject nearer a window, whether the subject is a person or an apple. To remember when the golden hour happens to be and to get out into it, and bathe myself in its particular glitz. Sometimes I hold my camera above my head and shoot blind, hopeful. And at other times I kneel on the grass, elbows on the ground and meet the light there.
I try to remember to put my soul in the way of light. And I try to remember that it's possible to nudge an apple or plum from a shaded area of the table, into the true and steady beam of light that eases onto the table at certain intervals.