The Garden

Gestalten Veldt by Leanne Shapton

Photography as a verb, to picture.

An indecisive moment of radical contingency.

Tonight I tried to remember the plot of a fairy tale. My favorite bible story used to be the one about the loaves and the fishes. Then it was the raising of Lazarus from the dead. These days, it is the Agony in the Garden of Gethesame.  It’s an incredible part—Jesus fumbles, hesitates, he is more human than Jesus. He wants to be let off the hook, the cup to pass him by. His disciples are human too, they pass out, possibly drunk, all three falling asleep when their Lord asks them specifically not to. They let him down. I can almost see Jesus kick Peter’s foot. Seriously? You couldn’t stay awake an hour? Peter rolling over and snoring even deeper. A hollow howl of loneliness. God lets him down, too.  A drop kick. Off he goes, to be betrayed.

There’s this thing about pictures, sometimes. Before you love someone— really love them— you can’t take a great picture of them. Then, when you love them, better pictures start to emerge. Better in the sense that they resemble the person you see, the way you see them. They look like the person you know and love. I wonder if this is true of places, too. Is it easier to love places than to love people? Is it easier to frame places? Landscapes? To domesticate them? Do we love what we have a little bit of control over, even if it’s just a view? Or do we feel pity for it, eventually.

Walking. Thoughts come and go, unfinished:

You’ll heal. This is never going to heal.

Why now? Just sleep. Let’s talk in the morning.  

Stage left. I think you are somewhere you aren’t saying.

I was once loved, I am loved, the lover crows.

Low fever. When are you going to be home? Until you crest a hill and there is no language. The demons and ghosts vanish for a second. Silence. Breeze. Then they return. The child. How he’s grown, how. How he’s smart, how. How he’s pretty, how.

“Color is a verb.” My friend told me. He makes color, makes water-soluble inks out of rocks, dust, sap, nuts. His inks are fugitive, impermanent. The small batches are various, they fade and change, they contain no preservatives. This tests my ideas of permanence, duration, and value. My head warps. Like the first time I saw the scene in Fellini’s Roma where the frescoes oxidize and dissolve when the ancient tunnel is unsealed. What if everything in the Museum of Modern art in ten years time?  It might look so wonderful, the way Greek statuary, scrubbed over centuries of the original garish colors, is classically beautiful.

Tonight I tried to remember the plot of a fairy tale. Doing this, as an adult, feels like I’m rooting around in a drawer for a sewing kit I’d picked up in a London hotel. (A sewing kit with seven pre-threaded needles, in seven different colors of thread.) I swear it was in here. Why was the witch blind? Why did Hansel have a chicken bone? Was he given some chicken along with all the cake and candy? Why do villains talk so much? Why are good the silent types? Non-verbal. Gestural. Hansel bleeds into fable. The Fox and the grapes, the dog and the water and the bone. Bones.

The earth was creating. The green leaves, downy and smooth, broad and pointed, were already so dense that you could not see through them. They were all so young and joyful, full of mighty strength and life. It almost seemed possible to see them growing and breathing, to see grass reaching out to the sun from the warm earth. And everything in the garden reverberated with a deep hum, full of concern and passionate joy. It came from both above and below; whoever was humming and singing could not be seen, and it seemed to be the grass and flowers and high blue sky singing.

—In the Fog, Leonid Andreyev, 1902

Leonid Andreyev wrote expressionistic stories, novels and plays in pre-revolutionary Russia. He also took hundreds of color photographs, autochromes— a process involving potato starch, patented by the Lumière brothers in 1907. Andreyev took pictures of his house, on his beloved estate in Vammelsuu, outside of St. Petersburg. He took pictures of the rivers and lakes, the woman he loved and his children. The autochromes are grainy and the colors are gauzy. His sons glare at him, his wife reclines, a baby sleeps in a tangle of blankets, rosy. The pictures, in hindsight, are a dream of a lost Russia. Andreyev’s granddaughter recalls her father showing her the stereoscopic images her grandfather took, the disappeared world, while seated in his lap.


The logic of a dream. Baby poems. 

An oil pastel. An INXS music video.

A moment written by DH Lawrence.

The smell of books..

The smell of bark.

The curl of a fiddlehead.

There is a painting Gerhard Richter made in 1988, of his daughter, Betty. It’s a famous one, the back of her blonde head, hair tucked into a ponytail, tucked into the hood of a jacket covered in red flowers. She is turning away, looking, almost craning to the right. Two friends of mine, both accomplished fine art photographers, had babies at the same time. “Are you going to be one of those photographers who makes work about your kid, now?” Asked one, of the other. My friend, taken aback by the sneer implicit in the question, replied “I hope so.”

There is a scene in Death in Venice where Gustav Von Aschenbach is arguing with his friend Alfried about music and art and beauty. Aschenbach insists that art is “the highest source of education! The artist must be exemplary. A model of balance and significance.”

Alfried scoffs. “Significance? But art is ambiguous, always. And music is the most ambiguous of all the arts. It is ambiguity made a science.”

I think of this when I think of photographs and the science of photography. Not the darkroom, digital science, but the psychological science about how it works. The art form hasn’t been around as long as music. It’s embryonic in comparison, mitochondrionic. But I wager its power can be as ambiguous as music, despite its claim to be a reflection, a facsimile, the pencil of nature.