19 June 2014

Standing Still and Learning to Be Astonished — Can We Open Up to Beauty?

—by Elaine Fisher
Since 1965, Elaine Fisher’s work has been shown in over 150 exhibitions in 27 states. She has earned a Harvard University Master of Design in Computer Studies, a Carnegie Mellon University Bachelor of Fine Arts, and has studied with the renowned photographer Minor White.
One Artist Shows include the LIGHT GALLERY in New york, the IMAGE GALLERY in Stockbridge, MA, the LIGHTFANTASTIC GALLERY in East Lansing, Mi, & the UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA GALLERY in Charlottsville. two & three Artist Shows include the recent BELMONT ART GALLERY in MA, the CARPENTER CENTER GALLERY at Harvard, & the CATSKILL CENTER FOR PHOTOGRAPHY in NY.
Elaine is a Chancellor Professor Emerita of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where she was awarded Scholar of the year 2000; was elected Chair of the Design Department for 5 years (until she came to her senses); was appointed the first Head of Photography; and taught Senior undergraduate and graduate majors in Photography from 1973 to retirement in 2008.
WomenExplore FOCUS LECTURE / May 23, 2013 —Elaine Fisher
Thank you ...and thank you all for coming here today.
For those of you who are new to this forum, the Focus Speaker is usually one of the WonenExplore members who presents the topic from a very personal point of view. Here’s mine:
It all started with BUBBLE GUM ...but I digress! After all, the topic today is, Standing Still and Learning to Be Astonished — Can We Open Up to Beauty?
It takes guts, intelligence and spirit to be actually present in life, to occasionally look with a simple, awake eye, to see the easily missed moments of beauty that shine like liquid diamonds in a fast flowing river.
In our Age of Addiction in America, it seems insanely perverse, or at least unpatriotic, for me to derive endorphin-filled pleasure from simply watching a midday sun pattern slowly inch its golden path across my living room floor. After all, what does my personal, hedonistic delight in actually experiencing the earth move on a cosmic scale do for the Economy ...or my Resume?
We are constantly beset with overwhelming societal norms intent on numbing our mind and spirit:
with Food clogged with corn syrup and irresistible chemicals;with Internet Communication so dense and time consuming
it can suck up your life with the illusion you’re somehow 
in contact with millions of friends, instead of only the handful most of us can manage;
and, of course, with Money, Sex and Power, fully loaded onto 924 cable channels where Beauty Czars dictate how we should envelope ourselves with stilted perfection. By the way, if you are flawless, you’re not only boring, but slightly dangerous, and certainly exhausting to everyone around you.

We’ve become satiated with symbols of happiness, rather than happiness itself. Not a good sign. What could possibly go wrong?
And yet, millions of tiny, thrilling observations, scattered like brain confetti throughout the day, can at any moment converge into a cohesive mosaic of Beauty if we simply look with interest at the ordinary.
Although WomenExplore ordered a digital projector over a month ago, it has not arrived in time for my presentation. So I will hand out original images. One set is for the left side of the room, and a duplicate set is for the right. please pass them along reasonably quickly so that those in the back can see them in a timely manner.
My first image is entitled, CROSSING THE STREET. Its companion image is entitled. RETURNING.
Much of my work is framed in terms of couplets. I enjoy the brevity and emotional succinctness of Haiku, and see my images as a kind of visual counterpart. Dating from 9th century Japan, Haiku is a way of looking at the physical world and seeing something deeper. http://beforeabeyondz.com/tag/japanese-poetry/
Obviously, in these two images, one is not exactly going for an ordinary stroll. Since I spend a lot of time watching untold numbers of science documentaries on the Universe: how it began, what it’s made of, how it behaves, how the earth came to be, what the cosmic future might hold, this interest naturally comes into play in my work. I like to combine it with my desire to photograph the invisible. Photographing the invisible is quite difficult for a photographer --unless metaphor is used. For me, these two images are a metaphor for a spiritual journey.
An Haiku by Issa, 1762-1826, seems to parallel my feelings:
A lovely thing to see:
through the paper window’s hole, the galaxy.

Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine I’ve been floating in the dark/ light of the universe for millions of years. After relaxing into the feeling for a few minutes, I open my eyes suddenly for just a second, and immediately close them again.
What a shock of beauty. Everything is beautiful. Everything. Anything. It doesn’t matter. An outrageous joy in the ordinary wraps me in its riveting excitement. At those moments I feel a calmly intense gratitude for consciousness itself. Whether God exists or not, whether we exist after Death or not, whether there’s any sense at all to life, still, despite all the uncertainty, I feel a breathless gratitude to be able to be aware.
Sometimes my metaphors are not based in concrete reality at all. Sometimes they involve something actually invisible.
Such was the case with an image entitled, DREAM, and its companion image, NOBODY’S CHILD.
A while age, I was making plans to visit my (grand)mother, whom I had not seen for several years. She had raised me and I think of her as my mother. Although I was a woman in my mid-thirties, it was with a very young excitement that I looked forward to seeing her.
These feelings provoked me to make this photograph. I decided to use two negatives, one of her face, and one of a diffused environmental barrier. This process felt similar to the remembering of a dream. I printed her face twice. Dreams have a way of repeating important images. This duplication also created a sense of moving in space, which seemed emotionally correct --she was coming towards (or leaving?) me in an indistinct atmosphere. I also printed in the wide black panels on both sides to show the different worlds, the difficulty of reaching each other over so much space and time.
If I had felt young in my enthusiasm to see her again, I also felt young as I watched the print emerge. It was as if I were a child again, and wanted her to change the darkness I was in. It was as if we were the same person, the way very young children make little distinction between their mother’s identity and their own.
Four days before I was to surprise her with my visit, she died.
NOBODY’S CHILD is my reaction to her death. It is made up of two torn xeroxes, one of which was copied and re-copied numerous times until it felt as raw and disintegrated as the pain in my heart.
An Haiku entitled, Death, by an English woman named Nicola, feels emotionally relevant:
Silent horizon
Winter thickening blanket Blackness deepening


Love does not need to be excessively demonstrated to be beautiful.
Shao Lin, my 19-year old brown and tan, domestic short hair rescue cat, was never extravagant with her love. Were I to swoop her up in my arms to nuzzle, she would usually thrust her paw straight out in a stiff gesture of rejection that would land on the tip of my nose. Her glare conveyed the unmistakable command, Back off, Big Unfurred One.
Shao Lin, who had far too many opinions, is exemplified in an Anonymous Cat Haiku:
the rule for today:
touch my tail, i shred your hand. New rule tomorrow.

On rare occasions, however, she would stomp across the living room rug, scrutinize me through squinty, green eyes, then finally decide to leap onto my defenseless belly, where she would appraise me thoroughly, and, if I were not found wanting, would settle down for a snooze, whiskers faintly twitching as she made herself completely at home. I would know then I was tolerantly forgiven all recent love transgressions.
Sometimes, she would even grant me the privilege of her affection.
One evening, as I sat on the couch watching TV, I noticed she had lovingly placed her paw on my shoulder. I smiled, reached up, caressed her, and said, Ahhh ...yes ...scratch my ear, Big, Unfurred One ...At last you’ve understood! I realized with a little surprise that I was not speaking for myself, but for her. Well, not exactly for her. For just a moment, I became Shao Lin. my whiskers faintly twitching, much as I had with my (grand)mother.
Understanding, analyzing or empathizing with someone else is actually quite different from, just for a moment, becoming someone else.
It felt familiar. It felt very much the way I am when I create a photograph.
When beauty feels like an extension of your being, when you embody it, you become Beauty.
Now, I shall digress back to, oh yes, BUBBLE GUM!
I was 12 years old when my father left my mother, who, in her misery and loneliness, passed her pain on to me when she took me from the grandmother who had raised me since birth, with the lure of, you can have your own room. This disruption necessitated my taking two cross- town busses to get from grammar school to my new home. At the point of transfer between the two busses, was a little newspaper shop that sold, yes, BUBBLE GUM! Not being excessively gifted with self- control, I would stuff my mouth with HUGE gobs of it like a starving, greedy hamster with bulging cheeks of booty. I was at an age where no consideration, or even a passing thought, was ever given to decorum, especially when experiencing the triumphant joy of that sticky goop splattering on my face when the humongous pink orbs exploded with a pop. I was not remorseful.
One day I noticed a new brand that proclaimed in bold letters on the label: MAKE YOUR OWN MAGIC PICTURES. With great excitement, I tore open the wrapping to find a tiny negative and a few small sheets of Magic paper tucked in with the gum. The instructions were to sandwich the two and hold them up to the sun for several seconds. Voila! The negative produced an image on the paper! Ecstatic, I used up the whole stash of paper before my next bus arrived. Several days later, I sent a letter to the manufacturer, inquiring what this wonderful, Magic Paper was. They actually answered. Turned out, it was aptly called POP, or Photographic Printing Out Paper.
Remembering that once I had noticed a small photography store in downtown Newark, I eagerly hopped the bus to get some magic. The salesclerk provided me with a small package of POP paper, and I hurried home with my treasure. After a while of creating pictures from my own negatives, I lamented the fact that, in time, they would all turn a cloudy, dark crimson. So when I used up my supply, I returned to the photo store to find out if it were possible to stop my pictures from disappearing in that way. Smiling, the salesclerk introduced me to the TRI CHEM PACK, tea bag sized packets of Developer, Stop Bath, and Fixer. Holing up in a dark bathroom at night with little bowls of stinky chemicals lined up in the tub, I could not have predicted that sweet, pink, delicious, explosive bubble gum would eventually launch me into my adult career!

Clearly, Beauty that’s Life, with Benefits! creates a happy spark of Serotonin in your brain ...and glee in the Coronary Arteries of your heart!
We all have an Expiration Date.
So take your Training Wheels off of this 
Precious Life and go for a Wild and Beautiful Ride