According to yesterday’s New York Times, penguins are passé. With two high-budget documentaries in the works, Meerkats are going to be the anthropomorphized stars of 2007.
I think Gere should drop the penguins. That ship has sailed. If he wants to portray a monomaniacal photographer, might I suggest Snowflake Bentley.
Wilson A. Bentley
In 1885, when he was twenty years old, Wilson A. Bentley was the first person to photograph a snowflake. For the next 46 years, Bentley devoted himself to the snowflake. “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty,” he wrote, “and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.” Bentley shared this appreciation by producing over 5000 photographs of snowflakes.
But as with many passionate people, Bentley was considered an eccentric. In a profile on Bentley (The American Magazine, 1925), Bentley talks about the way he was viewed by his neighbors in Jericho, Vermont:
I guess they’ve always believed that I was crazy, or a fool, or both. Years ago, I thought they might feel different if they understood what I was doing. I thought they might be glad to understand. So I announced that I would give a talk in the village and show lantern slides of my pictures. They are beautiful, you know, marvelously beautiful on screen. But when the night came for my lecture, just six people were there to hear me…I think they found my pictures beautiful. I doubt, though, they have changed their opinion of me. They still think I’m a little cracked. I’ve just had to accept that opinion and try not to care. It doesn’t hurt me–very much.
Bentley’s passion paid off. Because of him, every school child is taught that ‘no two snowflakes are alike.’ While we’ve come to take it for granted, this really is a remarkable discovery. For Bentley it was a revelation, “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.”
Collage and self-portrait by Wilson Bentley
But like many revelations, Bentley’s discovery was touched by sadness. “When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost,” he wrote, “Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.” While he took great pleasure in capturing a snowflake on film, he truly despaired at all of the ones that got away:
We had one storm last winter which brought me perhaps the most interesting snow crystal I have ever seen: a wonderful little splinter of ice, incredibly fragile. That was a tragedy! In spite of my carefulness, the crystal was broken in transferring it to the slide. It makes me almost cry, even now.
This is the sadness of photography. There is something futile, almost pathetic, about the photographic quest to possess beauty.
I’ve always found it interesting that so many people try to link Zen and photography. Photography is anti-Zen. Photography is an attempt to stop time and possess the world. Zen is an attempt to live in the moment and relinquish the desire to possess. The two seem completely incompatible.
I recently discussed this with Brother Paul, a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Brother Paul is an avid photographer. His teacher, the legendary Thomas Merton, was also a photographer.
Brother Paul helped remind me that the great thing about Merton is his acceptance of paradox. He knew his life as a prolific writer was at odds with being a monk. “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop,” Merton mourned, “and he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.”
Merton could have been a ‘chicken.’ He could have given himself over entirely to the life of the monastery. He could have lived in the moment. But that would require putting aside the typewriter and the camera. Instead, Merton accepted the joy and despair of paradox. In the preface to a collection of his essays he wrote:
I have had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing far the fact, even to myself. And perhaps this preface is an indication that I have not yet completely learned. No matter. It is in the paradox itself, the paradox which was and is still a source of insecurity, that I have come to find the greatest security. I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me; if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.
Instead of Zen Photography, I suggest the pursuit of Paradox Photography. To make meaningful work there seems to be an inevitable encounter with success and failure, joy and despair.
This doesn’t necessarily mean epic drama. To be successful one needn’t die in a blizzard (like Penguin Zehnder) or from pneumonia after walking home in a blizzard (like Snowflake Bentley). One needn’t cut off an ear. But I don’t think successful art can be made without encountering the joy and despair of paradox.
Speaking of joy and despair, while writing this post I started humming the title (Meerkats & Snowflakes & Trappist Photographers) to the tune of My Favorite Things:
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things
But even in a corny song like this, we can’t be satisfied with pure appreciation. Appreciation is always rooted in sadness. The song ends:
When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad
Snowflake Bentley’s work will be exhibited until December 22nd at Davis & Landale in New York.
For more information on Bentley, go here or here.
There is an exhibition of Thomas Merton’s photos, A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton, at Loyola University until January 15, 2007
See a terrific portrait of Thomas Merton by Ralph Eugene Meatyard here