Amid the stresses of returning from sabbatical, Covid-19, the culture of protest that is emerging in the United States, and preparing the parish I serve to reopen for Mass this past weekend, I felt a clear need in my life - Find a way to give my brain a mental break! There are many things I enjoy that allow for such a break ranging from music, art, and star gazing. This time around, however, I had the wonderful opportunity to virtually attend OPTIC 2020. OPTIC is an annual photography conference, typically held in New York City, but this year, in light of Covid-19, the conference was held virtually and was made free to the public.
The conference was impactful, exposing me to some of the most talented modern professional photographers. I was drawn into wonder by the beautiful, ethereal landscape/self portraits of Elizabeth Gadd. Her photography took my mind and heart away from the stress of the world and created a peaceful disposition of heart.
Listening to Lizzy discuss her photography, it became clear that the heart of her imaging is to tell a story of healing, capturing some of the most beautiful places in creation while also sharing her life story through landscape portraits. In short, Lizzy is looking to "frame life" in a way that is peaceful, loving, beautiful, and accepting. For examples of Lizzy Gadd's images, click here. Here is a brief video of Lizzy explaining her photography.
Another photographer that inspired me was Lisa Langell. Given my growing love of bird photography, I was hoping to simply learn how to better capture some of my favorite feathered raptors. What I received were insightful tips on editing images to be turned into large prints for someone's home. Lisa challenged us to think outside of the box, editing images that were less focused on a realistic depiction of our favorite feathered friends and encouraged us to ask, "Where will this image live?"
From that starting point, I quickly saw how Lisa is looking to "frame life" from the perspective of how images create not only a sense of style in our living rooms, but contributes to our sense of home. For examples of Lisa Langell's photography, click here. Here is a brief video of Lisa explaining how to approach editing nature photography with the walls of your home in mind.
The ethereal mysticism of Lizzy Gadd and the interior design influenced edits of Lisa Langell made me start to think - How am I to "frame life" and tell my story through images? I immediately thought of my love of astronomy and what I write for all of you. I grabbed my camera and departed for the the parking lot of St. Raymond's Church in Brackett, Wisconsin.
This parish is one of my favorite to image, first, because it provides me fairly dark skies for imaging the heavens. Second, this was my first parish assignment after a long stint of being a classroom teacher. The joys and challenges of my time at St. Raymond's returns every time I drive past this Church. And with the galactic core of the Milky Way rising right over the Church, I tried to "frame life" from the perspective of the things I love: My faith and my love of the night sky. It is nowhere near as impactful as the visual stories of Lizzy Gadd and Lisa Langell, but it is my story. A story of my need to step away from the stress of life and find peace and joy.
A third photographer that left a deep impact on me from the conference was Pete McBride. Pete focused primarily on how he strives to tell the story of what is happening to our environment. He demonstrated this by sharing images he has captured for National Geographic of damage done to our common home.
There were two images that grabbed me the most. The first was a cow that was looking for food amid a garbage heap that was on fire (click here to see the image) and the second was an image of what once was the watery delta between the Colorado River and the Gulf of California (click here to see the image). Now, this delta has become a natural etching in dry soil of a past reality that no longer exists.
These images enflamed my heart with passion to "frame life" in terms of our need to care for our common home. It's not a pleasant experience to view images of how we lay waste to creation. However, we need to revisit these visual memoirs of our past mistakes in the hopes of avoiding them in the future. Below is a brief video of Pete McBride describing his experience at an historic event that occurred in 2014 where water was released to mimic the Colorado River Delta's watery past.
The ethereal mysticism of Elizabeth Gadd, the creation of a sense of home with Lisa Langell, and the hard truth of the damage to our common home told in the images of Pete McBride. I couldn't imagine a better mix of examples of how to "frame life" that impacted me during OPTIC and inspire me to do my own framing of the world I live.
As I've shared with you in the past, I am a big fan of George Lindbeck's post-liberal, cultural linguistic approach to theology. When exploring faith traditions as different language systems, striving to express eternal truths that constantly escape the grasp of the human tongue, we discover a theological density of truth found in the differences and complexities of faith traditions in contrast to simply reducing all expressions of faith to a refined and sanitized common denominator.
When Br. Guy shared with me that "science is a language," that, too, resonated deep within me, seeing that science tells its own type of story of the physical world we live. The stories faith and science tell are quite different from one another. Both can look at the same object, say, my picture of St. Raymond's Church with the Milky Way in the background, and focus on very different aspects of the image. However, both are necessary to tell the story of the world we live. We need, in this day and age, to discover the ability to reverence the density of our differences instead of letting those differences drive wedges between us as a people, society, and world. We need to reverence the multiplicity of ways people choose to "frame life" as their authentic self, encouraging us to do the same.
As an example, let's say Lizzy Gadd, Lisa Langell, and Pete McBride got together one day at a beautiful vista for a photo shoot. They all are gazing into the same vista, but the stories they would capture with their cameras would be very different. Lizzy would look to capture the ethereal essence of the composition while connecting the image to her life experience. Lisa would ask "where will this vista live," conceptualizing what the composition will be like in someone's home. Pete McBride would look for signs of a forgotten past and potential injustice done to the vista, seeking to share the blunt truth the land tells. Same vista, three very different approaches to tell its story.
Which story is true? Which story is the best way to "frame the life" of the vista? Which story is best connected to the human experience? From a cultural linguistic standpoint, all three images are necessary. All three interpretations are essential to fully appreciate the vista. To exclude one would be to mute an essential voice in the language of existence. Therefore, it is best to let all three tell their own story in their own way, making it easier for their stories to speak to the depths of our hearts.
In short, OPTIC gave me exactly what I needed. It helped me "reframe my life" through a rare opportunity to step away from the work and stress I feel and find peace doing something I love. In a real way, OPTIC helped me to find peace of mind and heart so I can share those gifts with my parish, assisting them to understand how to frame their lives in a way that brings joy and peace into their lives.
Spiritual Exercise: How do you "frame life" these days? Is it a frame of beauty, ugliness, joy, struggle, happiness, grief, or a mix of everything? Regardless of what that answer is, let us ask God to present us with creative imagination to conceptualize a world that is far from the struggles we face. And then may we have the wisdom, knowledge, and fortitude to pursue that world and bring that concept to reality.