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A friend, an 89 year old woman, lost a son to cancer this week. I never met the man, but her grief is intense. She is a very private woman, and has refused visitors during this time, even though she is too old and frail to travel to be with her family gathering around the body.

Pond and Rain, 2005

When she told of us of his rapid decline and likely death, two weeks ago, my wife and I sat in stunned silence. This friend is one of the most composed and elegant people I have ever met, but she has seen death and madness before: her husband’s family fled the holocaust in Germany, her husband died of a heart attack at 48, and her mother was murdered in her bed, a crime that remains unsolved decades later. And now the death of her son. Words fail.

View from my kitchen window, 2008

A few months ago, this friend led a Sunday morning service at the small church we sporadically attend, and she read a poem, attributed to Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

It is a lie
any talk of god
that does not
comfort
you

Thinking about that poem, I started looking at my photographs of the Alaskan Landscape in a different way.

Summit Lake

For some years, I have been consciously thinking about numinous landscapes, places where spirits exist, a term first suggested to me by Barry Lopez. In the landscape, I have sometimes felt myself to be in the presence of something that opens up and reveals itself to me, sharing secrets. I have tried to respond to this by saying thanks to the place, to what spirit I do not know, as I put my camera away.

Snow, Murphy Dome

Now, looking at my photographs, some of them seem to contain some ineffable presence that comforts. Perhaps it is no more profound than the headset offered by the dentist doing a root canal—a way of looking away, putting your mind in another place during a painful moment—but I’d like to think it’s something more. More than eye candy—perhaps as strong as morphine—something to soothe the pain.

Tasinia River, 2005

Robert Adams speaks of the purpose of art as “consolation”—a term very much associated with comforting those in times of death.

 

Tanana River, 1994

Of course, visual images have been part of religious worship for a long time. In my home, I have a Greek Ikon I found at an estate sale a few years ago—a picture of the Madonna and child—something that doesn’t hold much meaning for me. (Every time I look at it, I think of the Dylan line “my grandma prays to pictures that are pasted on a board”.) So perhaps the idea that some photographs can invoke thoughts of the divine is not so absurd.

In the Jewish tradition, a family sits in mourning for a week after a death, and receives visitors. These visitors are advised to be silent, to bring small gifts of food. Since our friend is refusing visitors, I’m trying to honor the tradition by sending her photographs by e-mail, one a day, each morning. I call it “sitting digital Shiva”. I can only hope it is a comfort.

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