I marched along the winter beach in Montauk, camera in hand, searching. The day, as is often the case in March, was gray, flat, featureless. As, normally, I am very drawn to dramatic light and color -- qualities that are generally in abundance on the East End of Long Island -- it would have been easy to be disappointed with what I was presented. Fortunately, while I perhaps have taken only 4 courses in photography over the course of my life, I had one teacher in particular who impressed upon me two very important points:
- a professional photographer cannot just throw up his or her hands and say “we’ll have to wait for another day;” and,
- there is ALWAYS something to photograpThe lesson: keep your eyes open; adapt; improvise; overcome.
Another lesson, learned by accident, is that often what you think is the perfect composition is not. In fact, that perfect composition is dead behind you. So I always make sure to turn around. On this day, I ended up looking in another direction: at the universe beneath my feet.
I am an avid follower of the filmmaker Christopher Nolan -- not only are his films entertaining in the extreme but from the beginning he consistently has investigated the theme of time. And “time” and its relationship to photography always has been of acute interest to me.
I recently re-watched INTERSTELLAR, Nolan’s most recent film on DVD -- a package which included on a second disc many fascinating mini documentaries on the science behind fiction of the film’s universe -- specifically with the notions of traveling through time via wormholes. These reminded me of the great Carl Sagain long-ago tv series COSMOS and some mind-bending theories about time, the likes of which I’d never heard before. Of course, Einstein and his original notions built upon Newton are discussed as well.
I am certainly no scientiest or physicist or engineer but the ideas of bending and folding time, of gravity-created waves and ripples in the continuum of space are things that have fascinated me since I was a young teen being unapologetically entertained by what would later be revealed as the terrible terrible movie version of TIME MACHINE based on H. G. Wells early sci-fi novel. (It starred Rod Taylor and the gorgeous Yvette Mimeux, who I had an awful crush on).
INTERSTELLAR also depicts an oft-repeated sentiment, heard ever since astronauts started heading up into space: that once you get off the planet and look back to the blue orb that is our home floating in a sea of nothingness, a world that has no visible boundaries, a perspective is granted that shows just how small and insignificant we are.
So there I was, more or less aimlessly walking along this beach, hoping for inspiration, thinking about INTERSTELLAR and Einstein, looking down at the sand . . . and there they were! Beautiful stones, enhanced as they can be when damp. revealed by the waves of a receding tide. More exhilirating was the fact that the stones were leaving wakes of wild color in the sand that made it seem as if they were hurtling through space. Other stones, left where wind and time had evaporated tidal pools, demonstrated the most incredible of patterns.
My mind did this leap, almost as if I could feel the synapses firing in hyperdrive. The correlation to all of the thoughts I had just been having was unavoidable. By instinct, the camera came off my shoulder and into my hands, fingers flicking at the controls for speed, exposure length and f-stop as I began maneuvering around, hunched over, searching for the right compositions.
And then the magic really happened. There are no words I can conjure that will adequately describe the sensation -- it was a feeling and a sensation that is beyond language. The recollection makes me appreciate that these ever-so-brief instances like these are the reasons I do what I do. In short, it was Transcendant.
What happened was this:
As I mentioned, I saw these first few stones. I made some images but I was missing something. I continued to walk in the direction I had originally been headed -- to the West. While I began to see more appealing compositions, I also realized I seeing fewer and fewer stones. Then I remembered that not too far behind me in the opposite direction, to the East, was a section of the beach that was like a small rock field. So I turned back and headed there. As I got closer, I knew it was on the right course. I began to photograph some more.
Then I felt the presence. It was as if I was being watched. I looked at the ocean. And it seemed like the ocean was looking back. A low spreading wave washed up next to but not on my feet. It was exactly as if the wave were a brush stroke, and a collaborator was saying “How about this?” And what remained was a beautiful image. Another wave, another brush stroke came up a few feet further and it said “Over here!” It was like a duet. Some of what was on the sand assumed the texture of the cave paintings at Lascaux. Others were sheer abstraction. Whatever, it was magic.
While I felt the sensation, and was laughing aloud at the time, I also was concentrating intently in participation and on getting the work done. And that’s the way it had to be --- had I stopped to “think,” I sense that the dance would all have evaporated like vapor. It is only with retrospection that more waves, this time of emotion, wash over me and I realize what a revelational experience it was.
Almost as confirmation of this, later when I was importing the images into the computer, I realized just how much more was going on than I realized at the time. There were things there that I had not seen, that I had missed entirely. This is not the first time that has happened. It is these things that make you realize the channel that is coming through you. That there is always this participation and collaboration. I once heard Roseanne Cash describe songwriting in a similar way -- a composer doesn’t write the songs. The songs are there and a composer is pulling them out of the ether.
When I got the images onto my computer screen this is what I saw: in addition to the rocks, and the shadows of the waves, in some images there were faces, and in others hands grasping and holding the stones. They were like ghosts, distorted through the warp of time and space. I had not seen any of this while I was there at the beach. Indeed, at the computer I didn’t really see these ghosts until I rotated the image. It was a head-shaking mystery.
A few hours later, I pulled onto the road to head back to Connecticut. I got the Overlook on Montauk Highway where I rarely stop because I have done so on countless other occasions. But I had to pull over into the parking lot for a minute because a beautiful sunset was about to occur (I hadn’t even realized the time). I got out of my car. And fortunately I turned around. The full moon was rising in the East. So, using my cellphone I made a quick panorama photograph -- Moonrise in the East/Sunset in the West. It was an exceptionally beautiful sky. Then I drove on.
I learned a few hours later that at about that time, terrorists in Belgium were setting off their bombs. And I thought of that panoramic photo, those scenes from outer space in INTERSTELLAR, and the rocks in the wake of Einstein’s Beach. I couldn’t help but wonder “Why?”