About the Contributors #2

June 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Highlights from monograph Volumes 3 (John Dugdale) and 4 (Cy DeCosse) of The Journal of Contemporary Photography.

The Pilgrimage of Lazarus
(After the photographs of John Dugdale)

A blackbird skimmed the weeds at the field’s edge,
Dragging its shadow. But Lazarus saw beyond
Mustard and witchgrass, beyond the tattered hedge
To those shadeless, gilt-edged petals and the fronds
Of perfect palms, saw even the saxifrage
Leave heaven’s shale unbroken – then he turned
For one more look behind him. From its thicket
The blackbird sounded a last, imperfect note.

If heaven is fulfillment, think of Lazarus,
The knowledge of that blackbird in his head,
Walking the well-made fields of paradise
Where birds no longer ravish the ripe seed
Nor wasps plunder the lilac, where an gels drowse
In the languor of perfection , and discord
Is the longing for that flawed syllable
At the field ‘s edge, which no heaven can fulfill.

like a black feather dropped in a field of white
Flowers, that syllable still haunted him,
Vexing the pure petals, fierce as appetite –
So Lazarus turned away from the seraphim,
From those blossoms and the untasted fruit
That decked each gilded bough, and traced the psalm
Of the blackbird raging through the flawless air,
Backward, toward the kingdom of desire.


A Prayer for John Dugdale

Saint Ludwig, pray for me. I am going blind. Just as you went deaf. Even as the light fades around me, I see you as if for the first time. You move along a street in Bonn and it is easy for those who do not understand to say that it was all inside your head anyway, that you could hear the soaring of voices in your Ninth Symphony just as surely as if the universe had not laid this sensual martyrdom upon you. But I know that what you lost was precious and it was irreplaceable. Surely you listened with a fierce keenness to all the seemingly irrelevant sounds about you. The scuffle of hooves in the street, the barking of a dog, voices down a passageway, the turning of a wheel, the whisper of the clothes of people passing. You did not stand beneath the heavens and catch your music whole. Saint Ludwig, forgive this presumption, for my own art uses sight, not sound, but as I go blind I understand that you found your cosmic voice in the semiquavers of the commonplace. Which is never common at all. Not when we have these fierce senses. Another saint said that God is in the details. I know this is true. The whisper of the clothes: perhaps that is my own sound. Much of what I know of things resides beneath that sound. The body. These are the details of God through the eyes he gave me to see: a. naked man blurred in desire holding a flower; another holding his own arms, cut by a still expanse of water; on a wood-plank table a water glass, a scattering of cards, the sweet dimpling of deltoids; a bed in a soft chaos of covers, empty as the pictureless frame, empty from a death whose blue grace lingers here. Did you hear the body, Saint Ludwig? I think so. The music you created but never heard, the voices that rise together in joy: they sing of the body, of one body leaning gently over another and offering a hand. Touch. Like God and Adam on the ceiling. Touch. We were once one and we can be so again. I saw the visible world with a ravishing clarity. I can create images still. But now I wait upon the details again, the connection. Touch. I would touch you, Saint Ludwig. Reach to me. My fingertips await. I can see you clearly.

Flowers, Fruit, Music, and the Mystery of Beauty

Why do we love flowers? Why do they look beautiful to us? What is it that makes certain photographs of them – Cy DeCosse’s Queen of the Night, for example…For that matter, what makes a beautiful woman beautiful, and why can a song by Richard Strauss make some of us cry or the Dies Irae of Mozart’s Requiem make us shiver? (I bring music into the discussion for two reasons: first because Cy DeCosse is a passionate and accomplished musician himself, a flautist, and because the response to music seems the most enigmatic yet the most powerful of all our human responses to art and beauty.)

It is perhaps impossible to understand what we clumsily call our “aesthetic response” to the things that move us because they are beautiful; the response is certainly elicited by many different things for different people and is impossible to measure or predict. Maybe that is why, in this age of the quantifiable, it is suspect or even incorrect in critical circles to mention the beauty of a work of art. And yet I believe that our response to beauty is one of the most important qualities that we humans can have – not very far below loving kindness – in terms of the joy and meaning it can bring to our lives, so it is worthwhile to consider some of the possible or likely reasons that things might seem beautiful to us.

Perhaps at its deepest level, the appreciation of beauty is biological, something that is built into us as a species – an attraction to the things that we need to stay alive or to perpetuate the species. This is currently a very popular kind of explanation for many human tastes, and it can be quite convincing…

Addressing the idea of beauty more directly, it is quite easy to argue that certain qualities of feminine beauty – smooth, unblemished skin, glossy hair, the full and tender lips of youth – are universally admired (at least by human males) because they signal (to the males) a female who is at an optimum age and level of health for bearing children. All this possibly seems very far from the question of why flowers seem beautiful to humans, but I think that even flowers can be shown to satisfy a deep biological need…

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