Friday, May 15, 2015

The Muse of Photos

Nora Lowinsky, photographer

The creative urge lives and grows…like a tree in the earth…
—C.G. Jung

Brooke Through Leaves

Turning a Passion into a Craft

I have often mused about my niece, Nora, what might she become? The fairies gave her many gifts and blessings as they gathered round her cradle: a vigorous mind, a fierce spirit, resilience, courage, entrepreneurial instincts, beauty, imagination, style, perseverance, wisdom beyond her years, a feeling for the mysteries and a fine eye for the image. As I watched her graduate from Berkeley—my alma mater—as I listened to her professors in the English Department—my major so many years ago—as I danced at her wedding to her wonderful young man, Sean, I mused what her direction might turn out to be.

No ketchup in Antwerp (Sean)

Nora, to my delight and my concern, has chosen the artist’s way—she is following her retro Muse, photography, the old fashioned way—using film. She is particularly passionate about shooting with black and white film. Though I can imagine all her gifts cohering around that art form, I’m well acquainted with the difficulties of choosing the way of one’s Muse—how to earn a living, how to get visibility, the highs and lows of inspiration and wrestling with one’s art to get it close to what the Muse demands. I’m also well acquainted with how alive with meaning and with joy such a path can be.

Here’s what Nora says about her choice:
I have always been a documentarian, using disposable film cameras, my phone and small digital cameras to track my every day life. So, I decided to pick up my film camera and pursue photography professionally because I had the tool in my hands, literally. I was gifted a Contax T3 by my husband and mom in law for graduation. So, I took a passion and turned it into a craft. I learned the basic functions of the manual camera by trial and error. I took classes in developing film to learn the lost art of processing and making my own archival photographic prints.
I Like the Shy One
I consciously chose analog photography over digital not only because there is a lost art to the medium, but there is also a sense of mystery and intention to film photography. As a film photographer, since it is so costly to buy film and process it, you do not click away as freely as you might with a digital camera. The evolution of camera technology forces film photographers to be more conscientious clickers and to view it possibly as more of an artistic endeavor. That's not to say that digital photography is any less art to me—I’m no purist. The mystery element to film photography really appeals to me. Mistakes while shooting and developing can help to create one’sartistic identity. 
I also like the concept of time loss in waiting for film. I view it as time gain. We live in a world of everything being accessible instantaneously— for example, if we have a question at the dinner table, we just google the answer. I like that with film photography there is quiet. There is not an easy, instant answer. I feel connected to my spiritual self when I detach from the now and take that time to process film. It's time I have to process my self too.

A Sense of Timelessness

Some months ago Nora asked me whether I’d be her subject in a photo shoot. She wanted to make images for her portfolio. I was flattered and intrigued. I’d been wanting a new “author photo” that reflects the environmental concerns that have become central to my writing. “Let’s do it outdoors,” said Nora. “Any ideas where?” The Berkeley Rose Garden leapt to mind. It is sacred ground in my childhood landscape. When my family moved to Berkeley in 1957 we lived for a year on Shasta Rd. Every weekday morning, in those much safer days, I’d walk down the Rose Steps, through the Rose Garden, past the tennis courts on my way to Garfield Junior High School—now Martin Luther King Middle School. I loved bringing Nora into that enchanted place. It has not changed very much in the almost sixty years since.

I remember the iconic view from the top, of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, before one descends stone steps, down the semi–circular swoops of thousands of rose bushes, down, down to a bridge over a little stream. There is bird song, there are butterflies, dragon flies, dancing light. The roses have surprising names: Knock Out, Jacques Cartier, Imposter, Rio Bamba, Las Vegas, Liverpool Echo, Sexy Rexy, California Dreamin.’

Lost Among Roses

What I hadn’t remembered—I probably never explored it—was the great forest of ancient oaks and pines to the left of the garden. They, of course, were almost sixty years younger as I made my descent at age 13. Nora began clicking away. I could feel her excitement and delight. We spent some time with the roses, but it was the trees that called us both.

Amazed by Trees

These photos are like poems—they say the unsayable, express the ineffable, transport us to some other realm that is at once familiar and uncanny. Nora says of shooting in Black and White:
What is not to love about black and white photography? Through B&W photography, we can look at the world and imagine it has not changed—that some basic humanity will remain or even pre-humanity. Time has stopped in a B&W photograph. B&W is also just so elegant. I am actually a lover of color film photography, but if you are a beginner, as I am, black and white leaves room for error. I do not feel that way about color film photography. I think it is much harder to get the results you intend and if not, frankly, it can look amateur. Black and white photography is the best filter in existence.
Over Arched by Trees

How does one take photos of an inner world? Nora did—mine. I had just been working on revising a collection of my essays for a book to be called The Rabbi, The Goddess, and Jung. I’d been thinking about the theme of trees that dances through many of those essays, from the “Lady Tree” of the first chapter, an image I drew as a child, which foresaw the meaning of trees in my inner world, to the magical trees in an Indian folktale to the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah. Among the Celts a poet, says Robert Graves, was an “oak–seer.” That afternoon in the forest of the Rose Garden, the phrase describes both Nora and me.

The Mystery of Trees

To quote myself from Chapter Two, “Of Magical Maidens and Trees:” Trees connect us to what is below, in the dark, in the underworld, in the groundwater, in the mulch and the minerals, and to what is above, in the heavens, in the winds, in the night skies. Trees transform our exhalations, our used air, into fresh air. Trees sanctify and beautify our worlds, harbor birds and squirrels, feed us their fruit, offer us their flowers to wear in our hair.


Rooted by Trees

Jung writes: “As the seat of transformation and renewal, the tree has a feminine and maternal significance.” Nora tells me her favorite subject is Woman/Nature. Her photos tell the deep story of how trees root us in our ancient nature, how they orient us to the three worlds: the underworld, the world of life on earth, the sky world. In the above photo I see the enormous power of the tree roots gathered in family—a circle of kin and mutuality—which, in a way is what this blog is about. My face pops up like a mushroom toward the bottom—a small, incidental human in the great life of trees. Nora’s photos play an ancient melody, a variation on the one played in Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” an instrument, we are told by the daughter of the Queen of Night, which was cut by her father from “the deepest roots of a thousand year old oak.”

I’m reminded of another version of this theme: the powerful presence of trees in Antonioni’s great film “Blow Up.” When Nora was at Berkeley she took a number of classes in film. Dan and I loved talking to her about them. Inspired by her we watched many of the great Italian classics, including “Blow Up.” What has stayed with me is the shivering intensity of leaves and the light in the trees. They seem to be characters in the drama, about a photographer who shoots in black and white and may or may not have shot an image of the murderer’s gun as it poked out of the foliage.

The mystery that Nora caught in black and white is not a crime mystery; it is a spiritual mystery. It is the mystery that spoke through Hildegard of Bingen when she married two words— “green” and “truth,” coining the word “veriditas” to describe the moment God heals you with a plant. It is the mystery that spoke through me when I was eight years old and drew My Lady Tree with crayons. It’s no surprise this mystery speaks through Nora. I remember visiting her and her family on the East Coast when she was five. She and I had a long animated conversation about witches and ghosts. She knew even then, that witches could understand other realities, and that spirits visited the living who believed in them. Here is the author photo she took of me:

Author Photo

Nora Lowinsky, Photographer.

You can see more of Nora’s work on her website and on instagram: