Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Barry Lopez

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.

When I first moved to Alaska in the summer of 1987, one of the first books I read was “Arctic Dreams” by Barry Lopez, published in 1986, and winner of the National Book Award.  Lopez wrote with intensity and clarity of the northern landscape, the subtleties of the endless light of summer, and of the unspoiled landscape and our seemingly insatiable desire for the things the land possessed, which he used as metaphor for the ultimate dominion of man over nature.

Robert Adams  writes  that all true art comes from suffering—not a comforting thought to the young hoping to create art—but suffering is an undeniable part of the human experience, and is the force that drives us  to seek consolations—truth, beauty, love.

Yesterday, I listened (twice) to an interview on  NPR Fresh Air between Terry Gross and Barry Lopez, in which he discussed his childhood experiences as the victim of a pedophile,  a man posing as a respected doctor.  The entire interview is gut wrenching to listen to—not only was he subjected to sexual abuse, but he also speaks of the failure of other adults to confront the abuser. And near the end of the interview, he speaks of the consequences of his decision to publish the article—the mail he is receiving from others who have also been subjected to abuse—and his feelings of being unable to help—that he is just a writer, not a trained counselor, not an expert witness—and that he finds himself once again on the edge of the abyss.

Lopez has called the landscape of the Arctic “numinous”–the belief that places have spirits—not a common belief in the 21st century—but perhaps a ray of hope when gods and men have failed so profoundly to protect the body and soul of a child.

This morning, just after sunrise, I took my camera into the nearest numinous place I know, a mangrove swamp located several hundred yards west of where I slept last night.   And, using the only gift given me, I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving and anguish for the soul of Barry Lopez.   May  this place, and its spirit, and other places of beauty, heal and protect him, because we need every story he has the strength and courage to tell.

Mangroves, Cape Coral,  Florida, January 11, 2013

Mangroves, Cape Coral, Florida, January 11, 2013

I arrived in China with many preconceptions, some of which I was aware of, others I was not.  While there, I tried to photograph anything that caught my eye, pretty much without regard to why, which resulted in my accumulating about 6,000 files  on my digital camera—about 1000 images a day—an exhausting heap of pictures to sort through.  But in the weeks since my trip, I’ve discovered that significant parts of what I saw were not what I thought they were.

Ribbon Cutting for Fenglin Gorge Path, Yun Tai Shan Geo Park, August 2011

One of the first issues, and one I still don’t understand, is why I was there.  A group of ten photographers were invited to come to China, most expenses paid, to participate in a forum and a tour of the Yun Tai Shan Mountain Park.  We were told that the topic of our forum was to be “place”, a word that has resonance in the US because of the work of Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, and Robert Adams—but the topic suddenly morphed into “photography and tourism”—a topic that none of our group were completely comfortable with.   We were also told that we would participate in discussions with Chinese photographers, but the only interactions we had that were translated were our formal talks, and the many toasts at the banquets.   In the end, I think we were there largely to prove to the Chinese public that with some promotion, including the use of photography, western tourists would come to the fine parks the Chinese were creating.  We were paraded in front of several small crowds, told where to stand so we would appear in their press photographs—models of the hordes of western tourists that would follow, once they saw our pictures.   Maybe they are right—the places we saw were beautiful—worth  visiting—and I could find hardly any decent photographs of the park on the web.

Well Known Photographers--Mike Torry and Jamey Stillings--We came, we saw, we photographed

But even though the places were beautiful—mountains towering over small mountain streams with waterfalls and reflecting pools—in retrospect, most of the waterfalls (not all) were actually dams—apparently made of concrete colored and textured to match the surrounding rock—something I think I was somewhat aware of when I was there—but very obvious when looking at the resulting photographs.   In a park booklet, a picture of the “digital control center” for the park showed a bunch of men looking at computer screens—something that seemed incredibly incongruous when I saw it, but now seems like it must have had to do with control of the water flow out of the dams and into the streams.

Walking bridge over artificial waterfall, Yun Tai Shan Park, China

The city of Zhengzhou was even more bizarre—the first night, on the ride from the airport to the hotel about midnight, after thirty hours of flying, I noticed that there were huge apartment complexes that seemed largely dark except for a handful of rooms that had single fluorescent ceiling lights in them—my sense was that the people in the buildings were too poor to pay for the electricity for any more light—

Zhengzhou apartment building, midnight

One of the first things we did as a group was a short tour around the city.  It was raining hard, but we went to the “new city”, a place of tall apartment buildings, wild modern architecture, wide streets—but almost no people.  At the time, we attributed the lack of people to the rain and the fact that it was Sunday.  There were also huge apartment complexes still under construction, so that part of the city seemed to be growing at a tremendous rate.  A few days later, I took a walk in the early morning to the new city—it was a little more than a mile from the hotel—to photograph the new city under construction.  I’ve been around construction sites—mornings are when workers arrive en-mass—along with cement trucks and deliveries of materials—but these sites had almost no activity, even between 7 and 8 in the morning.  It really didn’t make much sense, but I didn’t think too hard about it at the time.  The old parts of the city, full of small shops and street vendors selling vegetables, were vibrant and alive in the morning.

Zhengzhou, New City Apartment buildings

Arts Center, Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

Construction Site, Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

Vegetable sellers and construction site, Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

After returning home, I discovered a story on YouTube discussing the “Ghost Cities” in China, which discusses Zhengzhou as a place where massive neighborhoods have been constructed with almost no one living in them.  Some of the pictures in the story are of places we walked.    My sense in being there was that Zhengzhou was becoming like Hong Kong, where hundreds of large, tall apartment buildings house the middle class residents.   My first impression was wrong–it wasn’t the electricity the people couldn’t afford–it was the apartments.

Some of the changes in China are very real—the people seem much happier than they did the last time I visited six years ago—and some of the illusions they are working at creating seem harmless—the parks are beautiful, even if the waterfalls are not natural—but some of the illusions are more troubling—why create housing for a middle class when so few can afford to live in these places?   What kind of place are they creating?