I’ve never seen the Mona Lisa. At the Louvre, I shuffled in among the crowd and funneled down close to it. There, in my fear of the passing moment, I took a picture of the canvas. It must have been fifteen feet from me, but I never actually looked directly at the masterpiece. The photograph, a duplicate worse than I might have found online, became my only experience of the Mona Lisa.
Photographs create a permanence that can counter the beauty of the instant. However, they take as much as they give (no more, no less).
This truth we deny: moments pass.
And part of the glory of that passage is its proof that beauty will continue to wash over us after this moment goes. On the other hand, a dogged, desperate stranglehold of permanence closes us off from trust and peace. As Anthony Bloom wrote, “The moment we try to be rich by keeping something safely in our hands, we are the losers, because as long as we have nothing in our hands, we can take, leave, do whatever we want” (Beginning to Pray 41). To choose pictures at the expense of the present moment is to chose the image over the reality; an idolatry of blessings instead of a grateful reception.
By now, I have lost half my audience to the impossibility of the thing. Am I suggesting that photography is a vice? No; photography is a blessing and has its own role. Yet, the carelessness with which we adopt it into our lives concerns me. Instead of having experiences, we take pictures. I recommend that we might, by contrast, do both.
In C.S. Lewis’s essay on criticism, he distinguishes two ways of reading which might just as well be ways of photographing. In one way, the reader “uses” the book, perhaps for entertainment, for class, for instructions, for posturing. Those who use books are utilitarian in their approach. The other way of reading is “receiving” a book, such as one reads spiritual or classical literature. This reader puts himself under the tutelage of the book. In the same way, we might create photographs for purposes akin to these two ways: we might create them to use them later or we might create them for the beauty of the photograph, itself. Instead of the photograph being utilitarian (for instance, by anxiously nailing down a fleeting moment), a “receivable” photo might strive to be beautiful in itself. Such is the best way of photography, and some uses are legitimate, as well. Others, less so.
The sober realization that I had never seen the Mona Lisa is matched by a friend’s tale of forgetting to charge her camera before a trip to the MoMA. The first half of her experience was carefully chronicled in images. Then, the camera died and freed her from her enslavement to the permanent. The second half of her visit, she saw art.
Moments are like floral gifts. A wife never wants fake flowers from her husband, but real flowers. Real flowers have this distinct advantage: they die. They offer radical and astonishing beauty for a short time. They leave her on the edge of her seat as they curl up and brown – now, he has the opportunity to bring her flowers, again. To desire fake flowers is to mistake flowers for jewelry. The entire function of flowers – and of moments – is to kindly step aside, giving way to the next.
There is something astonishingly refreshing about the acceptance of the impermanent for what it is. As Annie Dillard puts it, “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”
This post is not to suggest that photography is evil, any more than fake flowers are evil. It is simply a call to question our stranglehold on moments. As with anything to which we apply a deathgrip, holding onto them too tight ultimately means having none at all.