Crash! I can't see the waves before me, I can only hear them - their dull intermittent thunder like the beat of a solemn drum. There, in the dark, I remove my shoes. Warm, like the body of some giant animal, the sand presses around my toes as I move toward the water. I find myself stepping softly so as not to wake it.
Crash, crash! The drum of the waves beats on. I am not counting the steps yet, somewhere in my brain, I am aware how many I have taken. At step seventy, my heel hits in soft sand but my toes find the edge of the wave line - sand wet and cool, coated with a few bubbles left from the last retreating surge. Still without my sight, I turn ninety degrees and head north - along the wave line, the edge, the confluence of sea, land and sky. I love this beach; feel so comfortable here; know it so well.
As I walk there in the dark, the wave's thunder slowly shifts - no longer the mantra of a drum, now a soft knock on an inner door, "Let me in. Let me in."
What happens next is difficult to explain and difficult to write. I guess I simply open the door. In an instant everything is changed and yet nothing is changed. I am still walking but here, on the edge, for a moment, there are no walls. I am part of the confluence. Old boundaries and definitions blur. I feel fear, then great beauty, then peace. I don't know how long I walk in this state.
Finally a wave, just slightly more powerful than the rest, thrusts the edge of the Pacific around my calves. The shock sends me scurrying like a sand crab back to "reality". My body shudders. I spin around twice, just to make sure where I am. I realize I am smiling and shaking my head unhurriedly back and forth. Predawn light has turned the beach into the subtlest of color landscapes. I jog back toward the car to get my cameras.
As I shoot that morning I keep thinking of my walk on the edge. It isn't the first time I've been in that state. Nor am I the only one who has been there. Stephen Graham described it beautifully when he wrote, "...as you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of a forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens."
I hope some of you reading this blog know what I'm talking about. I believe this kind of experience is the result of seeing deeply and, for me, that's what photography is all about. I love to look at things and my cameras give me a socially acceptable way of staring. The more I look, the more I learn to play the edge, the edge between analysis and simply merging with what's before me.
Years ago I moved from Marin to the town of Petaluma in Northern California. Every evening I’d walk around my new town just looking, filling my lens-eyes with the miraculousness of everyday things. On one level I was getting to know my neighborhood. Maybe I’d even find a photo or two. But these walks were really for internal not external photography. Just walking, seeing, playing the edge - waiting for that door to open.
One night, as I returned from my walk, the sun was setting over the hill behind my house. Delicate pastels of pink shimmered in the sky to my left. Directly in front of me a mercury vapor light atop a lamp post glowed a soft yellow green. To the right the sky was fading from indigo to black. It wasn't a photograph, it was just a moment. One silly moment in my life, no different than a million others except that in this moment, subtly, thunderously -- once again the door opened.
I stopped and stared. Behind my eyes, tears welled up.
Annie Dillard's words filled my head, "I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.” That night, under the lamp post, I don't know who saw who, but I resounded.
When the door is open, we make images not on our sensors but on our souls.