Saturday, March 08, 2008

Quote of the Day: Willa Cather

"What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, -- life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?"
That's from Willa Cather's 1915 novel The Song of the Lark, specifically from a scene in which the character Thea Kronborg, taking a bath at the bottom of a canyon near Southwestern cliff dwelling ruins, is struck by the above thought. It continues:
"The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and held it on one's breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals. "
It's hard not to think of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" after reading that: a moment frozen from an ancient time and beheld again by another.

On a more emotional level, it reminds me of a photograph I saw in the first art history textbook I ever had for a class, Duane Michals' "This is My Proof":

The handwritten part of the piece says:
“This Photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon, when things were still good between us, and she embraced me, and we were so happy. It did happen. She did love me. Look see for yourself!”
This is in turn reminds me of a scene from The Great Gatsby, in which Gatsby's father, talking to the narrator before the title character's funeral, takes out a photograph of the house they are standing in front of:
"Jimmy sent me this picture." He took out his wallet with trembling fingers. "Look there."

It was a photograph of the house, cracked in the corners and dirty with many hands. He pointed out every detail to me eagerly. "Look there!" and then sought admiration from my eyes. He had shown it so often that I think it was more real to him now than the house itself.
The last two examples take nostalgia to the point of creating small, false worlds; symbolic places in the mind represented by pictures that capture not moments, but feelings. And those worlds of feelings are private, unshared.

I found an article about Duane Michals in which he's quoted: "I don't want to catalog images. I want to get into something that I can't truly describe. I might fail in the process, but it's where true creativity is born."

So seldom do photographs come ready-made with their own captions. (Though the idea must come from Magritte's paintings; the artist was a big inspiration for Michals.) If a picture is worth a thousand word, as the cliche goes, what is the worth of one that comes with its own words? Michals said:
"Photographers tend not to photograph what they can't see, which is the very reason one should try to attempt it. Otherwise we're going to go on forever just photographing more faces and more rooms and more places. Photography has to transcend description. It has to go beyond description to bring insight into the subject, or reveal the subject, not as it looks, but how does it feel?"

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