Tag Archives: Photography

Stealing Souls

Sunday is my writing day.  If I’ve been having a really good week, and my schedule and my brain have been cooperative, then I spend part of the day putting the final touches on my weekly blog post.  All too often, these days, that time is spent in a mad dash to get my ideas down in a form that is at least partially digestible to my unsuspecting readers.

However, sometimes things do not quite work out, and I find myself trapped in a Monday morning staring contest with that blank page on my screen.

And here we are, waiting to see who will blink first…,

…,

It’s my own fault, of course, that I am in this predicament.

You see, A friend called me on Saturday night, begging me to come out on Sunday morning to take some photos of her for a family project.  She hates having her photo taken and had, as a consequence, put things off until absolutely the last possible moment.

I could have declined, of course, but a half-day photography session actually sounded like a lot of fun, and I honestly believed I would get home in plenty of time to meet my self-imposed Monday morning publishing deadline.

And so, as Sunday dawned, I gathered all my equipment and headed off for a day of “soul stealing”.

Soul Stealing is a private joke of mine, referring to the old superstitions that used to accompany photography.  In the past, certain folks believed that in capturing an image of someone, you were also taking from them a portion of their soul.

I suppose the other reason that I think of it that way, is because, on some level, I’m not all that comfortable taking pictures of people.

I love doing landscape photography, and shooting architecture and even animals, but it’s different with people.  Shooting people ‘feels’ intrusive to me, even when the subject wants to be photographed.  It really does feel as if, on some level, I am taking something away from them.

And when I watch one of the most outgoing and self-assure people I have ever known, transform into someone shy and anxious, when I see an incredible natural radiance suddenly obscured by clouds of loathing and self-doubt, I wonder about the true power of the camera.

I know people who hate being in front of a camera.  I am one myself, which is why I most often plant myself firmly behind the lens rather than before it.

Others are in love with the camera.  They seek out that space in front of the lens, and when there is no one else there to take a picture, they will do it themselves, sometimes at risk of life and limb (because, why wouldn’t you take a selfie while driving, right?!).

And then there is the fact that ours is the most photographed culture in the history of the world.  We are constantly in front of a lens (or ten).  We are filmed and photographed everywhere we go, in every business, on street corners and intersections, and when all else fails, there are all those cameras floating around in orbit.

Is a photo just an image, simply a collection of dots on a page recording the light which bounced off the surface on an object at a particular point in time and space?  Or is there more to it than that?

In some ancient cultures, it was believed that to possess an image of a person or creature, provided a conduit to its power or a measure of control over its being.  When we look at a photo of a departed friend or family member, do we not feel a closeness with them?  Does the cult of celebrity, which as much as any other force, turns the wheels of our economy, not depend upon the power of the photograph?

Is there a real power there that we simply refuse to see?

Or is it just all in our heads?

In any case, it was a pretty good Sunday.

We got a late start, the light was intermittent at best, my friends dog was far more interested in running around than posing for the camera, and we were racing a cold front, but we got a few workable shots.

 

Stolen Souls

Not my best work, to be sure.  But then, I’m pretty critical of myself behind the camera as well.

Obviously, my writing got put off until Monday morning.

Which brings us back to the staring contest with the blank page.

I wonder what I’ll write about.

Maybe stealing souls.

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Filed under About this Blog, Culture, Modern Life, Photography

A Curious Absence of Saints

I have wandered the hills and valleys of Ireland, driven along its rocky coasts and roamed the quiet midlands.  In my travels, I have stopped to explore every monument of stone and ruined churchyard to be found along my path, often altering that path considerably in the hope of encountering some new mystery to explore.

Along the way, I have taken several thousands of pictures.

While I am careful that the photography not intrude upon my more visceral experience of a place, I strive to document each location to the best of my ability.  The photos are touchstones, reminders of places I fear I may never see again.  And in that spirit I try to be as thorough and faithful to the place and time as possible.

I was therefore, quite surprised to learn, as I went scanning through my photos just the other day, that my collection suffered from a curious absence of saints.

Saint Patrick?Saint Patrick, in particular, was nowhere to be found.

I only went looking because I noticed that my next blog post, the one you are reading now, was due to publish on March 17th, and it occurred to me that I really should write something about St. Patrick’s Day.

Not feeling particularly motivated, I thought I would dig up some of the photos I’d taken of his various statues in Ireland, and use those for inspiration.

Click…click…click…scroll…scroll…scroll…, nothing!

I sat back from my screen, perplexed.  That couldn’t be right.  I mean, I know for a fact that there is a statue of St. Patrick standing near the entrance to the Hill of Tara.  I’d photographed every inch of that ancient seat of kings, as well as the little churchyard that sits next to it, during my first visit in 2005.  I remembered walking past that stark white statue with the little metal fence around it, not once, but twice!

And so I checked again: hills, grass, tower, graves, passage tomb, sheep, standing stone, circling ravens…, no statue.

Church at Tara

Okay, so then where else?  I searched my memory for other encounters with Ireland’s patron saint…, a-ha!  there was Saint Patrick’s Cross which stands among the mighty ruins on the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary.  Surely I had a photo of that, and even if it’s not really a statue, it would give me something to work with…,

Scroll…scroll…scroll…, nothing.

View from Rock of Cashel

“How,” I wondered aloud to myself, “can this be.”

I tried to think back to all the other cathedrals, graveyards and ruins that I have visited.  Surely there had to be…, I know that one had a statue…, Maybe there was a plaque…,

Nothing.

The Rock of Cashel

There are no monuments to Saint Patrick, no statues or shrines, recorded anywhere in my camera-rolls.  And I think the reason for this must be because I just don’t see him.

I’ve heard his story again and again, since childhood, but it has never really made any lasting impression upon me.  

I was taught that I should like St. Patrick because he was ‘the’ Irish saint.

But was he, really?

There is nothing in the mythology surrounding Pádraig that touches me or even rings true to my ears.

I have tried to see the young man, captured, bound and sold into slavery, only to give himself over to Christianity and escape his captors, led across the wilds of Ireland and back to the sea by a mysterious voice.  Yet it seems as if I have heard that story before, attached to other names and places.

And then there is the great teacher, who is said to have stood upon the Hill of Tara among both the greatest kings and wisest Druids of that land, and explained to them the mystery of the Christian Trinity through the example of the wild shamrock which grew unnoticed underfoot.  Strange, that they should be so easily won over, these wise men, when triplicate gods and goddesses were already known throughout the land, and the shamrock already known for both its symbolic and medicinal qualities.

Then, of course, there is the mighty “warrior for god” who appears in the later tales.  No meek teacher this Patrick, he duels his enemies with holy magic, tossing them into the air like some midichlorian pumped Jedi Knight.  

Let’s not even mention the thing with the snakes.

Over the years I have seen him first as a saint, then as a villain, and now he hardly seems important at all.  From what little we truly do know of him, it seems clear that almost nothing which has been believed about him is true.

So why then, should we celebrate the anniversary of his death (if indeed we even have that detail correct)?

More than once, I have been told that celebrating Patrick’s Holy Day is an important part of my Irish heritage, and that, as a grandchild of the diaspora, I should do whatever I can to maintain those cultural links with my distant kin.

How much honor do I bring to my ancestors by pretending to celebrate a Catholic feast day?  None, I think.

The truth is, I don’t need Saint Patrick, whoever he was, to help me celebrate my Irish heritage.  I do that every day.

I think I’ll get by just fine without the silly parades and the mass inebriation, which have become the American standard in holiday celebrations.

Yeah, I’ll wear the green – but I do that once a week (at least) anyway.  I like green.

And you can be sure that I’ll raise a glass, to you and to yours, and to bridging the miles that lie between myself and the one place I’ve ever known that truly feels like home.

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Filed under About this Blog, Holidays, Ireland, Photography, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Traditions, Travel

Live the Moment • Tell the Story

10% of all the photos ever taken were shot in 2011.

Over the past few months I have noticed this statement, in a few variations, appearing all over the web.  Most recently, it’s been used by Western Digital as an advertisement for media backup solutions, but as near as I can tell, it originated in the September 2012 issue of Fortune magazine.

I’ve been unable to lay my hands on that issue to see if the person making the claim had numbers to back it up, but it feels true.

Ten percent of all the photos ever taken, throughout history, eclipsed in a single year.

I think it safe to say that, by the end of the decade, we’ll have captured more images than in the entire history of photography.

It’s an amazing thought.

It’s also a little horrifying.

“Why horrifying?” you might ask.

Is it because of the sheer volume of poorly composed dreck that is flooding the web?  Am I really so repulsed by the thought of a million million women making the duck-face at themselves in harshly lit bathroom mirrors, or the myriad badly filtered images of uneaten plates of food, or the seemingly endless parade of bare feet, knobby toes firmly planted in the indistinguishable sand of beaches both exotic and mundane?

No.

Okay, yes – a little (I mean really girls, the duck-face thing is in no way attractive).

What I’m really talking about here is a shift in the way we experience the world and how we relate those experiences to others.

What I am noticing, more and more, is that we are not living in the moment so much as we are interposing a camera-phone between ourselves and the moment with the hope of either capturing it for later, or disseminating it to others, instantly, via social media.

Yeah, that’s neat.  Now stop it.

I mean it.  Just stop.

Yes, I see the blurred and jerky video you took while at the concert.

Now put it away and tell me the story.

Tell me how you felt the music move you and how you moved with the music.  Tell me about that moment when it seemed like you made eye-contact with the lead singer and for a moment it was like he was singing to you.  Tell me about the energy that boiled around you from all the other people who were grooving and dancing and sharing in the power of the moment with you.

Can you do that?  Can you tell me that story if you were standing there holding a phone up between you and the band, watching the thing happening right in front of you, all around you, on a tiny little screen?  Tell me, while you were filtering the experience through bits of metal and plastic, were you really even there at all?

We’ve stopped telling each other stories.  We’re out of practice.

We used to do it all the time.

We lived by the stories we shared.

They defined us, our experiences, our culture and our history.

The pictures were always there for us: crude drawings on cave walls that held within them the secrets of creation, waiting only for the right storyteller to release them.

Later, we began writing things down, and that was better because the stories could be preserved longer, even if they did lose a little of their life and spontaneity in the telling.

Still, the pictures were there, and later the photographs, to lend support to the tale told.

When did we turn the world on its head?

When did the story become the thing that was there to support the photograph?

When life presents you with the extraordinary, try living within that moment instead of just documenting it.  Your memory is worth a thousand pictures!

When life presents you with the extraordinary, try living within that moment instead of just documenting it. Your memory is worth a thousand pictures!

“I saw this amazing thing this morning, here, let me show you.”

No.

Stop.

Put the phone away and tell me about the amazing thing you saw.

Tell me about it because I want to know how it looked to you, how it sounded, felt, smelled or tasted.  Tell me about it because if it was so amazing, I want to know that you experienced it and were not just there to take a picture of it.  Tell me about it because, if you can do that, if you can tell a story about the thing you experienced, it means that you thought about it, that you used your mental faculties to string the events into a narrative which means something to you and is something that, in the telling, may mean something to me.  Tell me about it, so that you will tell the story again better the next time, and the next, and the experience will live on, instead of becoming just another neglected pic in your cluttered camera roll.

The best way to share joy is to have experienced it.

The best way to share joy is to have experienced it.

Live the moment.

Tell the story.

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Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Philosophy, Photography

Guinness in a Plastic Cup

“You don’t take enough time for yourself.”

Friends and family remind me of this from time to time, usually as I am hurrying from one unfinished project to another while fretting over a dozen more which seem eternally out of reach.

They are not wrong.

We all need to give ourselves a little break from time to time, which is why I always look forward to our yearly trip to Fair Park in Dallas for the North Texas Irish Festival.  It’s nice to just roam around with my camera, taking in an afternoon of music, shopping and people watching.  And so for the moment I shall take a step back from my weekly musings and allow you to share, just a bit, in my yearly indulgence.

The best part of the Irish Festival is the musical talent of new artists putting a modern spin on traditional favorites.

Truly, the best part of the North Texas Irish Festival is to be found in the music!  Everywhere you go there are talented of Celtic artists putting a modern spin on traditional favorites.

Kids and dogs are always a magical combination.

We were talking to a vendor who was working the festival for the first time and his impression of what made this one different from other conventions was summed up in two words: “Dogs and Beer.”  The show is certainly a dog-lovers treat with every possible breed roaming the grounds to the delight of adults and children alike.

Animal rescue groups of all sorts (from cats and dogs to wild raptors) are very popular at the Irish Festival.

Animal rescue groups of all sorts (from cats and dogs to wild raptors) are always a popular attraction and make for some otherwise rare photo opportunities.

I sometimes refer to the Irish Festival as “Guinness in a Plastic Cup”.  The obvious reason is that this is how beer is served at the festival – something of a crime against nature.  The metaphor runs a little deeper, though.  There is an almost artificial quality to much of the show.  It’s easy to look at the show with a cynical eye and see crowds of “Plastic Paddys” glomming onto a culture they know little about while buying all manner of shamrock studded ticky-tack.

At the same time, there is a rich, wholesome quality to the show which the cheap plastic packaging does nothing to diminish.  Everywhere you look there are craftsmen, dancers, artists and musicians, who could no doubt make more money in conventional pursuits but who struggle daily to make ends meet for the love of their art and the desire to share it with others.  Many of us who attend have a genuine pride in their Celtic heritage and a desire to preserve that deeper connection with their history and their ancestors.

Visiting the North Texas Irish Festival may not satisfy that deep yearning for the homeland which many of us feel.  Think of it as instead as the biggest “support group” you could imagine, meeting on the first weekend in March.  It’s therapy, with beer and food and music.  Who cares if it comes in a plastic cup!

NTIF2013a

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Sunrise and the Forest Lord

Sometimes I think that we are, all of us, hunters of time.

We stand on some lonesome plateau, small temporary things with spears at the ready, and the moments go stampeding past us in their infinite multitude.  They pass us by without so much as a glance in our direction.  We are no threat to them.

They are forever, and we shall soon be gone.

Once in a while though, if we are careful…,

and quiet…,

and lucky…,

we may just take down a few of those passing moments.

I am taking a bit of a break from the blogging this week and instead I’m thinking back to my vacation to the Pacific Northwest back in September.  It is difficult for me to believe that it has already been a couple months since I was hiking those high trails.  Time is fleeting and the moments move very quickly this time of year.

I have yet to fully examine all the photos I took while there, but I thought I would share these with you.  Sunrise on the slopes of Mt. Rainier.

Moments stolen, which I am willing to share, but will never willingly give back.

And then there was this moment.

Finding myself face to face with a great elk and not more than a dozen yards of open ground between us.  He turned to look at me just as I released the shutter, capturing the moment but not the feeling of awe in my heart.

As I lowered the camera he held my gaze for a moment more and pawed at the earth, warning me to approach no closer.  Saying a silent prayer to the Forest Lord who’s very image seemed to stand before me, I backed away, quietly.

Moments like these are rare.  We must savor them while we can.
And then be watchful for those that will follow.

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