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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Life's Shutter

The farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved mile long driveway that twisted through the woods into a clearing. It was a simple brown two-story building you entered through the mudroom into the unadorned kitchen. Two large bedrooms and a full bath were upstairs with an open walkway between them that ran the length of the house and overlooked the great room downstairs fronted by a huge picture window which opened to a large slate patio and trees beyond.
The property was 150 acres of fine Pennsylvanian farmland with freshly mowed undulating fields, animal-filled wooden glades and four-acre private pond with a small dock and boathouse. You could walk around the property in any direction and find a distinct neighborhood. It was a little over three hours out of New York City and our weekend escape. It was where I fell in love with my husband. It was where we shared blissfully quiet hours side by side pursuing our individual passions interrupted only by nightfall when we shared mutual passion.
On the sunniest mornings we hiked over to the pond and climbed into our rowboat. I always had a book or two and he his camera. I would read aloud and do all of the characters voices. I remember reading LeCarre’s A Perfect Spy aloud and laughing like a jackal. It was so brilliantly clever and fun to read. We would float in the lazy heat across the water to a cluster of fallen trees that were the homes of our new turtle friends. We called it Turtleland and greeted each one by name. We baked and blinked in the sun with them.
One particular morning I went out alone early to bring some food and drink in a cooler to the dock to enjoy later in the day. To get to the pond required walking through a field of grasses that were about waist high until you came to a little gurgling waterfall that drained the pond down through a small stream. It was already heating up and I wanted to hurry back to the house to get more things. I strode purposefully forward and was confronted by a very loud screaming wild turkey. I screamed back. I don’t think I have ever been so startled in my life. I dropped everything and ran back to the house like a woman on fire. I had apparently gotten too close to her nest. I ‘m not sure which of us was more upset by the encounter, the turkey or me.
Another morning, just at first light, I was walking back to the bedroom from the bathroom along the long open hallway upstairs. I could see something sitting on the patio outside. It was an animal of some sort but one I had never seen before. I could only see its back. I tiptoed to get binoculars. I focused and adjusted the lens and still couldn’t figure out what this creature was. It appeared to be at least three feet tall, shaped like a fat fireplug and dark. It wasn’t covered in fur but it I could not believe that something that size and shape might have feathers. It was massive. The upper torso rotated to profile and I realized it was a giant owl. It had a snake in its mouth and was slurping up its nether half. I fell down in shock.
At sunset one evening we were sitting and enjoying the last light of the day on the patio. All at once the sky directly above us was pitch black and filled with an incredibly raucous flapping sound. It was unbearably loud and a sound I had never heard before. The darkness and noise remained above us a few very long moments and moved away to our left, over to the pond and the sky immediately went back to its quiet hazy twilight. Curious, we decided to explore. We went inside to get flashlights since nightfall was upon us and shuffled quietly through the tall grass. We climbed up through the stream and peeked through a cluster of trees to the pond. We could hear something rustling on the water. We turned on our flashlights and shone them across the water’s surface. Hundreds of wild geese were posed peacefully on the pond. Our lights startled them and they lifted off the water en masse headed to their next resting place on their journey south. It was both sad to see them leave and majestic to witness.
Many mornings we would leave at first light with backpacks stuffed for our journey. My husband carried a large format wooden antique camera on his back, which used precious individual 8x10 sheets of film, and I had my pencils and pads. We set out each day in search of new mystical and magical spaces. We christened them and held them apart. Nature was where we found peace and solace. God’s remarkable handiwork was proof of his existence.
There was a plot of land unlike any other part of the property that we were drawn to, especially on the hottest days of summer. The towering fir trees were over thirty feet tall and planted so closely together that sunlight could not penetrate and reach the ground. All of the branches at the base of the trees were bare. The floor was thickly strewn with dry pine needles and upon entering; the temperature dropped a perceptible 15 degrees. Looking up at the umbrella created by sheltering pine branches you couldn’t help but inhale the sweetest natural scents. It took several moments for your eyes to adjust to the diminished light. The softly diffused light peaking through created pinpricks of diaphanous light that moved as you moved. It was possible to believe in fairies here.
The family that owned the farm in the 1940’s intended to use it for a Christmas tree farm. They had planted several acres of baby fir trees to harvest for sale but the sons were drafted in the war and never came home. The trees were left to themselves as a monument to their loss. No one ever had such glorious headstones.
My husband spent time deciding where to place the camera, looking through the back and popping in and out of the black and silver blackout drape that I called his nun’s habit and adjusting the bellows. The camera was set up on an elegantly designed wooden tripod, the sheet of film placed in a slender metal frame and inserted into the camera, and then the shutter needed to be held open manually for the duration of the exposure to capture the limited light. Once he had finalized the position, he let me poke my head under the blackout cape that draped over the frosted glass back of the camera. The image was upside down and difficult to see and I had to move my head around to pick out pieces of forest in front of us. The camera firmly set, the shutter could be opened. We remained still and silent as the camera soaked in the beauty, barely risking breathing during the twenty-minute plus exposures. Nature was permitting us to capture a sacred moment. The silence was broken only by the sweet chitter surrounding us. It was indeed a holy place.
The power of camera shutters to control light and exposure are fascinating. They both limit and permit the subject to be captured, defined, and transformed. The shutter controls what we can see, how we see it, and alters reality for the viewer. Consider the stop motion work of photographer and scientist Edweard Muybridge. Using multiple cameras synced to capture images within pieces of seconds, Muybridge showed the trotting horse in flight, that moment when all four hooves left the ground and the animal magically flew. By constricting our vision, Muybridge expanded our sight.
Other artists have endeavored to capture the moment, most memorably the French Impressionists. Standing in front of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral Series at a wonderful exhibit in Atlanta, Georgia many years ago, I still remember thinking how incredible it was that a single subject could be reinterpreted and captured over thirty times. Each canvas was a different impression of the fa├žade capturing the mass and structure as well as the light and atmosphere of the time of day. Each painting captured that moment, that instantaneous opening and closing of our natural shutters. Each canvas was a testimony to the magical prism of light.
Last week I went to the Met to see the Francis Bacon exhibit with my son. He’s only 14 so we make deals when we go to museums. We look at what he’s interested in first and then Mom gets her choice. So this visit began in the munitions exhibit, guns and swords and crossbows galore. This being the Met, there are no bad exhibits and it was fascinating to observe the craftsmanship and handiwork that went into adorning guns that couldn’t shoot straight from the sixteenth century in Germany. The silver and pearl encrusted French dueling pistols in their satin lined cases were remarkable. The ornamentation on the swords was as delicate as filigree on the finest jewels. As a person who is both frightened and repelled by guns and any sort of weapon, these were works of art that appeared harmless. They were too pretty, belying their intent.
The Francis Bacon canvases on the other hand are violent raw images that assault your senses and are much more aggressive. He too manipulates time in his work. It is as if his eyes were a shutter providing multiple exposures of his lover’s face. There are some canvases that show his subject posed on a platform performing multiple contortions all at once and others, which peel back and open the flesh to carcass. They are more than a response to the horror of his time; they are a breathing, living, moving response to the pain of intimacy. The rhythm and movement is enforced by his astonishing sense of color. His juxtaposition of colors, his palette, lingered long after we left the exhibit and reappeared in my dreams.
Standing in front of a portrait triptych of his lover George Dyer, I asked my son what he saw in the paintings. He said, “ Hey buddy, I ‘m painting your picture and then he kicked the guy in the balls.”
Wow. I might not have expressed it in those words but yeah, that’s what they looked like. And with that I smiled and was back on earth with a quick click of my own life’s shutter.

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