thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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Where does the time go?

The present momentarily connects past to future

The present momentarily connects past to future, but quickly passes by

On the radio a psychologist pointed out the illusion of the present, which normally we perceive as a relatively stable and unchanging background to our own protagonist lives, experienced as a connected thread of people and places and things along the path of life. We make plans, dream dreams, and follow the aims we intend. On the one hand, there is the past which can’t be changed. On the other hand, there is the future which is yet to take final form. The thin film between what could be and what already happened is where the present exists; a very thin place indeed. And yet as children it sometimes feels like the time between breakfast and lunch is enough time to cross the continent. And between bedtime and rising in the morning is a vast unknown space. Later we perceive the days passing more swiftly, until each one is a blur that speeds past and we look at the year as a set of months that quickly come and go, the season making their appearance in due course and the transient flow of people and events come to be heightened in our minds.
Photographers perhaps think about time more than most people, at least when it comes to stopping motion with a suitable shutter speed, or revealing things that human eye can’t see unaided by strobe light or high speed recording. Going the other way, a photographer can express blur and contract the moving subject to the unmoving context by choosing a shutter speed slow enough, but too slow as to blend all features into undefined mush. Timing is everything in comedy, in rocket launches, and aircraft carrier landings. And the rise and fall of the sun and moon, and the shift from daylight to twilight to artificial light, not to mention the special properties of the golden hours and the blue hours, all attract the eye of photographers and videographers, not to leave out visual artists unaided by a lens and chemical or digital recording medium.
And so the question remains from the title, above: where does the time go? If we live in an endless series of “becomings” with unplayed out future finally taking final form and thus relegated to the past, then perhaps the way to see a lifetime, or a single day, or a solitary breath, is not as a protagonist moving against a static background of other people and contexts. Instead the present is the position we occupy in relation to the future-becomingness; that is, we are something like a glass-blower handling molten material. In the brief time and space we occupy, there is quite a bit of molding we have the power to do. But all too soon the window of opportunities closes and the lump of glass we held now is unworkable and static, possibly transformed into beauty, or maybe not a lot changed from when we pulled it from the source.
Shakespeare’s words about the seven ages of a person are still true today; indeed, we are moving subjects, never the same person who went to bed the night before. But in addition to embracing our fleeting selves, it is perhaps more accurate to perceive the present not as something we control, or own and consume. Instead we are just links on the bucket brigade of the generations, handing the water to the next person in line. We are stewards who can engage with the people, creatures and plants all around us; we are in the middle of becoming something else, but so are all of them. The impression of unchanging order is just not so. Our lives are less a set of frozen moments (like a still camera creating pages for an album we cherish) than a series of composing and capturing those moments of beauty or significance around us. It is the doing and what happens in-between the shutter release where the present time can be found.


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The figure to ground relationship – where are you in the picture?

Are you the figure (subject) or ground?

Are you the figure (subject) or ground?

There are times when one strides through the landscape, mostly unaware or unconcerned about the processes and purposes all around in that seasonal moment, time of day, or ecological context. Instead, everything becomes static background to one’s own narrative spreading across the year or forming one’s life trajectory. But by slowing down, or through aging, infirmity, or meditative discipline, there comes to be less self and thus more space to see, hear, smell and touch the textures, patterns, and rhythms all around. What once was out of focus background now becomes the main subject. What once was fly-over country, now becomes the center of the universe, at least for a moment. One’s self then blends with the larger process, metabolizing right along with everything in sight. At one extreme perhaps one’s physical self can be perceived as a literal background for the myriad small dramas played out on the skin’s surface or internal micro biome!


And so, the selective focus of self (close-up lens that gives a shallow Depth of Field) can be alternated with the slow exposure times and very widest depth of field to capture everything from near (self) to far (background). The result is a richer lived experience, less about action and achievement, and more about being part of the bigger picture; not a star performer, but an ensemble player in the complete cast of characters.