Sometimes an image has power. Beyond content, beyond form. And closely we will watch it to see what it might say. At such times it’s best not to search for words, for descriptions. You let the image drift and change, like clouds. But still, it demands a structure, a story, a frame. Something’s happening here. The past has collided with the present and a future has been spawned. Every image, no matter how fleeting, seems to tell you this.
“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.” ~ Henri Bergson
How does the vulture devour the future?
If sensation is already memory then what is a photograph but a memory of a memory, bottomless in its depths, like a fractal of infinite complexity?
Only the photographer knows. The photographer and the subject hold the meaning of the moment, its’ subjective truth.
I remember this day. Where I was before the shutter opened, and where I was after. I remember the quality of the air in that moment I pulled off the road, the peculiar quiet of the pasture, the strange quality of the bird.
This is my memory. But I want to make it yours.
The road was wet from Tule fog and there was no one around for miles. The two-lane farm road. Cow pasture on either side. Only a few miles from the sea so that the air was salted and charged with ions.
You see a bird in the mist. You see a fencepost, the wire. I see a rift in space and time. Because I was there and I remember.
A bird is a talisman; conscious, warm, alive. To meet one alone, in silence, is an invitation and a gift. A solitary messenger, a mute herald, a spirit animal who compels your attention. I was pulled to it like a compass needle. I had to stop my car.
The present moment drifts by unnoticed, churning the small wake of the past behind. The uncanny moment seems to stop time but it merely grabs our attention. The photograph can hold it.
The vulture called to me. But it was inaudible. It was a signpost in the morning of a day-long past; a day of no other significance than this. A blurred day. A lost day. Barely a memory exists. But there is this. This interlude. This strange meeting. A brief encounter with a symbol of resurrection. in a moment when I remember life had felt hopeless and I, dead.
So there is that, a chance reminder by the roadside pasture near the mouth of a river where it meets the sea. And you, stranger, would know none of this unless I told you. The picture is interesting but it’s not enough. I must be the lens.
I don’t believe the past necessarily devours the future. It often defines it but isn’t that a choice?
The past doesn’t exist, except as encoded in neurons, in memory. A collection of saved impressions, indexed by sense. The future doesn’t exist at all, though it too hovers within us as thought-forms, a collage of projected pre-memory composed of hopes and fears.
All that is real, and true, is now.
The vulture on the fencepost is an unadulterated now. It has been processed and preserved as I experienced it. Since that morning I have stared at this image a hundred times. As if waiting for something to happen. As if waiting for meaning to dawn, As if the bird would speak English or transform into a man. But the meaning of the picture, if there is any meaning at all, is not in what will happen next. What might happen. What could happen. The power of the image lies in the split second before the shutter opened. So in a sense I missed it. What I’m seeing IS what happened next. The frame of possibility. The explosion after the spark.
I can never capture with a camera the exact image that draws me in. By the time I raise it (the camera) that image is gone. At best it is an almost, a near miss. Most of the time I don’t even know what I’m seeing at all. What registers is something beyond light and form. A secret message in invisible ink that, much later, I might decode. And it is never a perfect translation. It is never complete. A ghostly pattern is the best I can hope for.
It’s morning in Sonoma County and the tamping fog muffles all sound. There are cows lowing in the distance, a warning for any passing ships. Somewhere in the pasture there is a hidden, secret death. The vulture waits for the car to leave. It will light upon the body and perform its earthly task, when the car is gone, but the man within insists upon this conversation. No words, just a brief exchange of reflections.
Some of your light for some of mine. Let me look at you closely, just for a moment. I want to learn the secret of your wings. I will trade all of my worldly wisdom for a single feather of truth. Teach me how to become the wind…