The Thing Itself
Every once in a while I see some pure organic form; a tree, a rocky outcrop, a body of water, a hillside, which makes me pause to regard it just for its own sake. I read the history it suggests, look at the scale it has achieved, or lost, over time, and during this consideration I sometimes get the sense that I am witnessing, “the thing itself”.
‘The thing itself’ is a wonderful photographic idea, one I learned about from John Szarkowski when he was director of the photo department at MoMA, where it came up a number of times in conversation and in his writings. It is the distilled essence of something, whatever it may be, that shows itself to us as yet again another version of the magnitude that objects may possess. This tree did that for me!
When I wandered into this ancient Roman church’s grounds I first was stopped by the sheer size of the trunk of this Plane tree. Maggie and I linked arms to see how far around it we could reach – yes, two tree huggers – and calculated that it would take five of us to encircle it. Now that’s a tree! And how long had it stood near that old pile of stone, probably just a fraction of the time the building has been there.
I felt again, as I often seem to experience, a sense of awe in the company of whatever it is that calls my attention, and maybe that is the deepest part of my photographic behavior; the willingness to give myself over to simple awe. Finally, as I turned from the tree I saw the figure of the tree not in the photograph; the arching limbs casting their shadows over the old wall. Again, a moment to really look hard at simple things; those dusty, burgundy buds promising a springtime of flowers while winter light warms up old stone.