Of Ruth and Zen
A very receptive state of mind... not unlike a sheet of film itself - seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second's exposure conceives a life in it.
It was one of those serene mornings that yawn and stretch into life on the West Coast. After a day of rain, the weather had come to a standstill while the high rolled gently onto the land. A sense of expectation and an eerie calm had settled over everything. It felt like the weather was holding its breath.
I had meant to be up before dawn to follow the transition from night to day but I overslept and wasn’t ready until after 7am. I went out anyway.
As often happens for me, I wasn’t sure quite where to start, so I stood there and looked around, waiting for the image to come to me. The great American photographer, Minor White, once said “Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.” Over time I have learned the truth of what he said. Sometimes an image has to come in its own time and we have to be willing to wait for it. Rushing around will only keep it at bay. So I waited.
I went and stood down by the water’s edge. Ruth, the elderly whitebaiter in the deerstalker hat and bushshirt who has been coming down there for many years and continues to do so after the death of her husband, looked sternly at me.
” You should have been here earlier,” she said. “The light was really nice then. You missed a good show.”
I got the point. But the photograph was still eluding me, even though I sensed its presence nearby. I didn’t even know which lens I would use. No clues at all.
Then, as if accepting my contrition, the image began to show itself. I looked up at the sky and the early-morning clouds dawned on me. A jetstream far above was drybrushing the clouds into koru-shaped wisps that tumbled and frolicked like carefree children across the sky. At my feet the sky checked itself in the mirror-calm estuary. I felt as if I was standing on the edge of eternity. Land and sky had become one. Now I began to understand why Tane and his siblings might have wanted to push apart their parents, Rangi and Papatuanuku. All that eternity could get to you. The view was huge and wide and all-encompassing, and I felt at once elated, at once diminished by it.
I wondered where to begin. Then the scene told me what to do. It was both intense and panoramic, wider than it was tall. It seemed to go on forever and draw me into some sort of limitless zenlike being, where sea and sky had become one, and the only link with reality was a thin line of darker-toned land forming the horizon.
I went back to my vehicle and got my camera, the 24mm shift lens and my tripod. I slopped through the mud to the water’s edge and set up my equipment. As so often happens, no matter how hard we work to narrow the gap between what our eye sees and what the camera exposes, the viewfinder will often reveal a different truth. (I learned a long time ago to always look through the lens when there was a story to be told; the hard part is knowing which lens will best tell it). I wanted to make a stitch panorama with enough information in the file to make a really big work, at least A0, so I made two overlapping images, shifting left for the first one, then right for the second, and using identical exposures for both.
After working for several minutes, I stepped back, and Ruth, who had been obviously watching me, commented on how much effort I seemed to be putting in, and how she could have done it in much less time. Helpful soul.
Taking a break, we talked about the whitebait season (bloody terrible) and the spring weather (also bloody terrible) and the sandflies( becoming bloody terrible).
Then I saw her net.
It floated there, a drawn-out piece of material reality lying contentedly between sea and sky. Its gossamer tail rested, ethereal, sublime and serene, in the translucent waters, while its glowing, skeletal head basked in the morning sunlight. I went back to The Zone. Lost in another Place and Time, I roamed, making more images, using the same laboriously technical but absorbing shift-lens-stitch method.
When I returned to the Now, I looked around, hoping to talk to Ruth, but she had lost interest. Her back was pointedly turned away from me, the tails of her bushirt, flapping disdainfully, and she was bent over, fiddling with her spare whitebaiting equipment.
One day I am going to find Ruth. I want her to see this image.