Dancing with a Camera in the Presence of Light — Part 1: We are literally Made of Stars
Some experiences are so powerful that they need a symbolic image to represent them
After I retired, I immersed myself in making wildly experimental digital photographs, as a way of doing something completely unlike anything I had ever done.
After a decade, I collected 75 images, along with some writings, in Dancing with a Camera in the Presence of Light, a $2.99 ebook available through Apple Books and Amazon Kindle.
Because few people find that book, I am publishing it in parts on Medium because I love these pictures, the experience of creating them, and the writing that comes with them — and I hope others will, too.
Near the end of this excerpt, you’ll find a hint of how I made these images, and the ebook — as well as a later excerpt — will give more details.
The writings sometimes relate to the pictures directly, sometimes they relate in a general way. And sometimes, they are just, well, things that had been on my mind, sometimes for decades.
Always at the Crossroads
Living in a body on this earth, dependent for our daily survival on so many things beyond our control, we are profoundly vulnerable. Yet in that vulnerability lies our strength.
We are at every instant forming and changing, reaching out and reached into, separate but commingled, co-caused with every interaction, yet clearly our unique selves.
We are Not Two, and We are Not One
It is our nature to experience ourselves as in some ways separate, yet always in relationship.
As apart, but interdependent.
As a product of the energies that make us up; and as a vital part of those energies ourselves.
If we seem at times to be an interpenetrating convergence of changing light, it is the light of a vast, extrapersonal, innocent and exuberant joy — the joy of a universe where birth and destruction, light and dark, form and chaos, life and death co-create one another in the great songs that sing us into being.
The emptiness that can swallow you in the huge hollow hours before dawn — this is almost as large as the arcs that reach across it, interconnect it, and fill it with what we can only think to call love.
Here that love is a heart of fire overcoming separateness.
But love is the separateness, too.
“Emerging” came out of a single photograph of lights, taken with a moving camera and long exposure. I selected, cropped, and mirrored the image onto itself to bring out new patterns. To explore what was inside it, I made more than 150 variations of this one image. (Some of them actually worked.)
This piece kept waking me up to tell me that it needed to be BIG — big enough to call to you quietly from the other side of the room — where it looks like a few calmly scintillating columns. (The largest version so far, made with color copies and pushpins, was 7 by 12 feet.) — Big enough that, when you come within a few feet of it, it sucks you in and fills your vision with the swirl of creation and destruction, of interpenetrating but independent forms, a suggestion of the eternal dance of energy and matter whose unending flow maintains us as it passes through to create other things.
I love “Emerging” for suggesting the swirl of energy at the border between chaos and order that gives out and takes back everything we can imagine or experience or know. Including what we so tenderly know as one another. And as ourselves.
We need categories that interpenetrate — where in and out take place at once, birth and death include each other — where our ideas of joy and suffering, perfection and raggedness, eternal and ephemeral, allow us to experience ourselves as we are — emerging.
Full Moon Rising Over Vero Beach
Some events are so powerful that they cannot be shown as themselves but need a symbolic image to represent them — like the moonrise, which so dramatically changes everything when it appears — raising the land itself in tides of sand.
In this image — made from a photograph of the moon combined with a lit-up patch of nearby beach— I tried to suggest the feeling of the waves, the surge and suck of the surf, the way the unapproachable, unavoidable light pulls at every fluid in your being, creating tides inside us, hurling us into a huge cavern of mysterious light, reminding us of our separateness yet uniting us with the axis of the universe — the full moon rising as clear and simple as a paradox.
A Struck Bell Never Stops Ringing
If you follow the fading of a bell, at some point you can no longer hear it — because it has merged into the subtle ringing where everything touches everything else, and is touched by it.
This picture celebrates those people whose touch started your own life ringing in a way that will continue forever.
To make some images, I cropped a portion of the original photograph and used Photoshop to mirror it onto itself to form a symmetrical pattern, as in “Struck Bell.”
“A Walk in the Sky,” however, appears just as it came out of the camera. It is, in some sense, a photograph of things that were really there.
When I retired from college teaching in 2009, I wanted to recapture some of the freedom I felt as a boy playing with whatever came to hand. That turned out to be an inexpensive digital camera, so I set out to see what I could make it do — because that made me happy.
The resulting images came about through a secret process I will divulge only to you. (You won’t tell anyone, will you?)
I go somewhere at night where there are lights — you know, holiday lights, street lights, traffic lights, house lights, lights from malls, pools, signs, stores, sidewalks, flashlights, reflections, security lights — even the moon.
Then I take a long picture of the lights. That’s it! — Well, almost: While the shutter is open for a few seconds, I move the camera. — Maybe “move” isn’t quite the word. I, well, sort of, you see, dance with the camera.
I dance with the camera in the presence of light.
The technique is as simple as drawing — where you just place a pen on paper and move your hand. But it’s reversed: You move the paper (the camera) while the colored pens (the lights) stay still.
It’s a humbling process, marked by an almost unending succession of failures. But in that “almost” are images that shine. Or images I can work with, pulling out their features, mirroring and multiplying them, or blending them into other images.
I use the camera in an unusual way, but I do not invent these images. They are pictures of things that are really there. We are surrounded every day by images like these — the magic the eye sees before the mind makes it known. You just have to persuade a camera to show it to you.
These images come from a part of me playing in pure, unthinking, childlike delight. But it takes effort, practice, focus, skill, intelligence, and technique — to stay out of its way.
I spent long periods wandering around inside these images, communing with them, learning what they are, how they came about, what they might tell me — sometimes turning those thoughts into words.
Art invites this kind of contemplative unknowing — unplugging from the mind’s endlessly helpful categorization — untheorizing, visiting a space prior to thought, at the cusp of a mystery grand and beautiful that had till now seemed to be something merely known.
In a few pictures, I find a hint of what it feels like to be alive on this amazing earth in those moments when you sense the incredible energy of the universe pouring through all things, interpenetrating and interconnecting everything, sustaining the vibrant reality that makes existence possible.
But I could never say that, because it would sound even more ridiculous than I must look waving that camera around in the dark. Except maybe to whisper it, just to you. You won’t tell anyone, will you?
These are photographs of
(what are all photographs of?)
For months, I made these images without thinking, and without thinking about them. They were byproducts of a technique of having no technique. Much about them was uncontrolled, intuitive, unconscious, so I did not feel like their creator. I was the doorman, helping them come through.
Making images without thinking started a dialogue with thoughts I had pondered, on and off, my entire adult life — I was over 70 by then— about what it means to be one little person vanishingly insignificant among the comings and goings of billions of people, on a tiny planet among billions of planets, every part made of trillions of atomic and subatomic particles, in a universe so vast that nothing of human scale can begin to grasp it.
How do we live with such knowledge?
The images seemed to come from the deep, dark place such brooding thoughts emerged from — and they came out singing with joy.
We are Literally Made of Stars
A few years ago, I was moved by an article about how the Hubble telescope is showing us the immensity of the universe. With our sun one among 50 billion stars in our galaxy, among more than 50 billion galaxies, it is easy to think of ourselves as lost on a speck in space.
Indeed, one common outcome of modern education is the widespread feeling that we humans are forever separated from the rest of the universe by unimaginable distances, and that the forces operating in the universe are utterly alien to us.
Spiritual traditions give us ways of feeling connected with the universe. I want to remind you of another, scientific, way of feeling connected to the stars.
The same science that reveals to us the vastness of the universe
also tells another story: Astronomers explain that most of the elements heavier than helium originated inside stars. The carbon
in the ink on a page was created in the heart of a star, long ago, as that star shined by fusing hydrogen. The iron that carries the oxygen in your blood as you read this, the silicon in glass and microchips, were created when a star, in its dying phase, collapsed and exploded.
You and I are not merely separated from the galaxies by unimaginable immensities of space; we are also connected to them by unimaginable immensities of time. We are literally made of stars. We are their descendants. The only difference between stars and us is time.
I don’t know how this way of looking at things strikes you, but it raises in me an absurdly wonderful sense of celebration, and I look at the night sky not with a sense of hopeless separateness, but with a feeling of kinship: There shine the origins of every element in our bodies. Because stars exist, I exist. The processes that created those billions of unimaginably distant galaxies also created us.
Those galaxies are not merely distant — they are distant cousins.
With this in mind, I urge you not to miss the nightly wintertime rising of Orion in the southeastern sky, followed by the star, Sirius, flashing red, blue, and golden light. Or the summer rising of Scorpio across the southern sky, with red Antares burning at its heart.
That is a kinship worth celebrating.
Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor. More at longleaf.net. Images at gerald-grow.pixels.com. The ebook, Dancing with a Camera in the Presence of Light, is $2.99 on Apple Books and Kindle. Watch for additional excerpts on Medium.