Thoughts on intersections between poetry and photography, jotted down while sailing down the edge of Megapolis: a photoblog by River River Photography Editor David e Bell.
I was a photographer first, and looking back poetry has always been there filling in the gaps. Perhaps photography has been providing the structure upon which I have created a series of poetic universes.
In my world, photography is reactive, reality bounded, while poetry is reflective, unchained to any particularly reality. The photographer is limited by the physics of light, the limits of his software, and a moment frozen in time. Poetry is timeless, bound only by the texture of language and the poet’s ability to work that texture, to weave images that exist only in the mind.
I write this as I head south on a voyage whose destination is unknown, a bit like the poetry I write. My son and I departed on the first of November, 2015 aboard the sailing vessel Evening Light. The first jump was small geographically, just a few miles down our River under the Tappan Zee Bridge to an anchorage to wait on the tide. The sun reached the meridian. The tide turned. We dashed down the harbor, through the narrows, across the bight and into open ocean.
We have very few photos of this phase of the journey, that time after departure when everything is new, and strange, and demanding. Weeks later, during a lull in the journey I found myself wondering why we took so few photos in this phase of the journey.
Photographer as Witness
Photography, as I practice it, is the act of witnessing moments. It’s the light, a person’s expression, or the contrast of objects that speaks to me in a singular moment. For that moment I have to step outside the world, observe and record, disturbing what I witness as little as I can. Take only photos, leave only footprints, goes the motto, and I avoid footprints whenever I can—mostly.
When I was a photojournalist I stopped here. At most I would adjust exposure and crop to remove distracting elements. There is a school of photography that insists that this is the correct way to witness the world. And they are not wrong, yet I am not comfortable with those restraints.
I am not comfortable with those restraints because the camera is an imperfect tool. It does not capture the world as my mind sees it. The camera captures an image. I want to capture the moment, and emotional texture I experienced in that moment, something the camera is ill-equipped to do.
The captured image is raw material, a point of departure. This is where the poetic and photographic world overlap. The wonderful software we have available today allow the photographer to modify color, sharpness, contrast, not to mention bend reality itself to accomplish the capturing of a moment.
Poetry in Context
After our run down New York Harbor we passed through the Narrows, past Sandy Hook and into open ocean, and storm. We rode that storm down to Atlantic City where a combination of calm and a cranky engine forced us to harbor for a couple of days, to recover and repair. On the evening of the second day the wind began to rise so we took our leave and began our run to Cape May. Land and day fell away behind us leaving us in a wonderland of stars and moonbeams dancing.
Down moonbeams in the dark
falling on silver
Sails full and hard
cutting wake down that
highway through the dark
under the curve of the night
the stars, turning
I wrote this nearly two months after the moment, and the writing time-traveled me back to a moment that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) step out of to witness as a photographer.
Cape May, low, sandy and green emerged in the dawn, the water still silver, night-remembering. Drained, we plodded up the channel and found our way to the dock. We had been here before, but arriving by sea makes it a place different, as does time.
Photography provides an illusion of reality, but physics and chemistry can only capture the fall of light transformed by the things it touches. Moments frozen, falling forward in time. Poetry’s illusion is much more subtle, and unfettered by the beat we call time. There is no E = MC2 for poetry. Poetry can slide sideways across time, looping back on itself in ways only the human mind can imagine.
The clock ticked and our voyage moved on. A gray-on-silver, windless day saw us motoring from Cape May to Ocean City, Maryland. We arrived as did a cold front and wind veiling the harbor in a curtain of horizontal rain, a new place, a new culture and moment.
I had hoped to photograph wild horses running in the surf, but weather and external concerns have postponed that shoot till spring, or next fall. For now only the poetry of imagined hoofbeats in the surf. Winter riding on chill air, descending.
Ocean City calls itself the White Marlin Capital of the World, and the sport fishing boats are as large as the fish stories. Our boat is small, tiny in even the smallest slip. They treated us well none the less. I left one of my River River bags as a thank you gift to the harbormaster, with a story to explain.
Evening departures are the best, if you can get quickly off shore so your boat can run free, unfettered by land. The day leaked out of the sky, the stars exposing, and the great city stretching from Maine to Virginia hung like a necklace, a collar on the night in the ocean reflected. (The image of lights hanging as a necklace is much easier to describe than to capture in a camera. It is a serious technical challenge. Vincent Lafloret has done a wonderful job of meeting this challenge in Air.)
The departure from Ocean City began in beauty, then became challenging in the early hours of the morning. The wind rose. The waves built into turbulent confused foothills as we got further offshore. The night dragged on, becoming a battle of endurance that ended long after daylight. We oozed into Hampton, Virginia, exhausted and changed by the voyage but not defeated. The magic of the turbulent ocean deposited us in another strange land. A low lying land where trees, building, and ships dominate the landscape, and there seems to be no word for hill.
Tidewater Lands (1)
Brick pavement, history oozing
from burning on burning
only the gravestones
in the cold cold
I took a long pause at Hampton for Thanksgiving. First time I have had the time in this journey to just wander, listen to people, and take pictures. Here are some of the pictures I took, having had the time to witness.
Tidewater Lands (2)
not yet dawn light
the night fading
a church bell
in call and response
over the water
the pace marking
through the fog
down the creek
and the moment
as the chorus
of foot falls
fade into the growing
The Dismal Swamp
On through Norfolk to the Great Dismal Swamp (by the time you read this I will already be through, I hope) and more thoughts about the intersection of poetry and photography as we wander southward.