India from North to South

Over many years I have had multiple chances to explore the amazing cultures of India.  It has over a dozen languages and an amazing smorgasbord of classical music to sample across the country.  Here are just a few highlights from my journeys there:



Another amazing Andes mountain country I recommend visiting is Ecuador.  It has two amazing destinations with a great variety to discover.  Quito and the surrounding mountains are breathtaking.  And thanks to Charles Darwin, the islands far off the coast where he studied the effect of species isolation on the evolution of the native fauna is a completely unique destination in its own right.

Down in front!

I always thought that it was funny when people would exclaim “Down in front” in large audience settings. It’s an interesting plea for the front-stander to average out the larger group’s spectating opportunities toward a lesser personal perspective and an implied greater group perspective. It engages a shaming mechanism, alleging that the front-stander is unfair if they don’t comply. Naturally the rear-stander expects that group social pressure is going to magnify the plea until the rear-stander’s will is achieved.

I haven’t ever employed the tactic. But I realize that it applies to the photographer’s craft in a couple of ways. Many times I have seen the perfectly framed shot, and being too slow on the shutter, another subject enters the frame spoiling my intended photograph. In this moment, the resulting photograph is transformed from a landscape into a portrait. It becomes about that person’s narrative, about why they are in this landscape, which is now mere backdrop.

The presence of trees in the landscape just makes the frame of vision more pastoral and we can transform our thoughts as spectators to the abstract and non-immediate perspective. It’s the presence of a sentient being specifically that affects this awareness change. A dog, a tiger or a person traversing the landscape creates a story in our minds. Our psychology is transformed in that moment by animal habit as our thoughts shift instinctually to analyzing how we should relate to this new presence.

When your photograph is transformed in that instant into something altogether different from what you set out to photograph, one can get that sense of frustration of the audience rear-stander. Do you click the shutter, or wait?

Over time I have shifted my thinking on this. Rather than avoiding the shot, I take it. More opportunity to see would be lost by waiting for the perfect purist landscape shot. And over time I’ve appreciated the narrative of people’s presence in the shot more even if it is different than my intended perspective.

Conversely, as camera phones become ubiquitous and everyone becomes a photographer, I’ve also seen an increasing awareness of the cone of camera focus. Passers-by go out of their way to step around a wielded camera phone for fear of interrupting somebody’s perfect photo. It’s like we’re all constantly afraid we’re going to be an annoying front-stander for some unseen future audience of that photo.

The idea of the ideal view of the lens is now a socially respected and protected space by the principle of down-in-front. On this aspect, I also think we should not alter our behavior. Perhaps the photographer needs you to be in the shot. Maybe they are trying to capture a scene, or the narrative where we happen to be included.

I say we should stride confidently in front of the photographers and pay no heed to the unspoken down-in-front plea. The whole frame is the art, not an idealized unpopulated version of it. We should give up the idea that it’s in the common good to remove ourselves from the scene in the name of an idealized art.

Du, im Voraus verlorne Geliebte

There is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that I read many years ago that haunted me.  “You, the beloved that was lost from the start.”  It’s a poem hinting at a kind of asynchronous connection between two people who never actually meet but who are tied together somehow by the knowledge of the fact of each other’s existence.

Travel photography often reminds me of this poem.  I sometimes photograph just to remember and look back on my experiences.  Sometimes I photograph just to see better.  But sometimes I get the sense that I’m photographing so that other people, who may never have the chance to travel, will also see.  And hopefully, some of my photos will inspire others to travel to these same places as well.  So there has long been for me this sense that at the time of the photo it wasn’t just me looking through the lens.

It’s an odd and inspirational sense that someone has to take the photo for tens of thousands of people to see afterward.  It’s as if we are avatars of the entire human consciousness that is to come after.  In Neal Stephenson‘s book Seveneves you get a sense of the trickle down legacy of actions of individuals that later affect millions.  My blog may never be anything other than a few bytes of memory on a web server.  But on the other hand, I may be able to document something that is lost through the ages.  (Like the former monuments of Kathmandu which were lost in an earthquake.)  Or I may have a chance to inspire others to take up the pen or take up the lens to further broaden our culture of vagabond storytellers who create the web.


Rilke’s poem:

Du im Voraus verlorne Geliebte, Nimmergekommene,
nicht weiß ich, welche Töne dir lieb sind.
Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommende wogt,
zu erkennen. Alle die großen
Bildern in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,
Städte und Türme und Brücken und un-
vermutete Wendung der Wege
und das Gewaltige jener von Göttern
einst durchwachsenen Länder:
steigt zur Bedeutung in mir
deiner, Entgehende, an.

Ach, die Gärten bist du,
ach, ich sah sie mit solcher
Hoffnung. Ein offenes Fenster
im Landhaus—, und du tratest beinahe
mir nachdenklich heran. Gassen fand ich,—
du warst sie gerade gegangen,
und die spiegel manchmal der Läden der Händler
waren noch schwindlich von dir und gaben erschrocken
mein zu plötzliches Bild.—Wer weiß, ob derselbe
Vogel nicht hinklang durch uns
gestern, einzeln, im Abend?


Translated as:

You, beloved, who were lost
before the beginning, who never came,
I do not know which sounds might be precious to you.
No longer do I try to recognize you, when, as a surging wave,
something is about to manifest. All the huge
images in me, the deeply-sensed far-away landscapes,
cities and towers and bridges and un-
suspected turns of the path,
the powerful life of lands
once filled with the presence of gods:
all rise with you to find clear meaning in me,
your, forever, elusive one.

You, who are all
the gardens I’ve ever looked upon,
full of promise. An open window
in a country house—, and you almost stepped
towards me, thoughtfully. Sidestreets I happened upon,—
you had just passed through them,
and sometimes, in the small shops of sellers, the mirrors
were still dizzy with you and gave back, frightened,
my too sudden form.—Who is to say if the same
bird did not resound through us both
yesterday, separate, in the evening?