Further Perspectives on Photography and Place

 For half my adult life, one of my most beloved places to camp and hike has been in the Four Corners area of the Southwestern US, amongst the formations of pink sandstone often pictured in traditional shoot-em-up Western films. The photo here was shot on its Northwest margin, near a geological formation called San Rafael Swell. I present the image because within it a number of ideas converge that interest me. They include photography as a portal to other worlds, weathering and decay as stimulants to imagination, and how the spirit of place impinges on consciousness. The latter I discussed from a different point of view not long ago in this post.

The Navajo Indian Reservation lies within the general area I refer to above, and this “homeland” is sacred to them. It’s easy to understand that because my explorations there have rendered it sacred to me, also. Deserts, of course, have always been seen as venues for spiritual pilgrimage. You can’t spend time in a desert area, especially one so rich with interesting geological features as this, without eventually feeling that you’re coming in touch with something ineffable and eternal. It’s not an accident that the American West has been mythologized, not only by Americans, but by people from all over the world.

The photo above expresses something of the spiritually evocative essence embodied by this particular area of the Southwest desert. To me it’s an example of what Carlos Castaneda characterized as a “power spot.” In case you aren’t acquainted with the work of Castaneda, he was an anthropologist who wrote a series of books in the late 60s about his life in Mexico as an apprentice to a Yaqui Indian shaman, identified as don Juan Matus. Since then Castaneda’s claims have been questioned, and his works considered by some to be fiction, but whether or not you believe the stories are objectively true, they are certainly evocative and emotionally credible. Having once read them, I’ve never been able to forget them or some of the truths at which they hinted. I also remember being uneasy about going outdoors at night for weeks after reading them. Such was their affect.

Castaneda never completely defined what a “power spot” was, other than it was a place you could discover by turning your vision inward and moving about until you settled upon a physical location in which you felt a deep comfort. Having done a lot of camping and hiking in my life, I’ve had experience with this feeling. Even before reading Castaneda, I was aware that some places felt better than others as camping spots, but early on didn’t give it much credence as anything but whim. With experience however, I came to believe that there was more than that involved. Not only are some places strongly congenial, but there are others that exude a spirit that makes me wish to actively avoid them. I’ve had friends that camped in particular spots in the Southwest that exuded such hostility that they felt compelled to get up in the middle of the night, break camp, and move elsewhere. In time I’ve concluded that the sense of recognition that I associate with certain places is authentic, and rather than attempt to logically or “scientifically” analyze it, I prefer it remain a sweet mystery.

A scientifically oriented person I know once mentioned hating the word mystery, arguing, in essence, that there is nothing in the universe that cannot sometime or somehow be explained. I doubt that, and wouldn’t want it to be true anyhow. In my view, it’s necessary to maintain balance atop a fence between one extreme, allowing science and logic to dictate everything or the other extreme of refusing to give credence to physically and logically provable fact. It’s the work of maintaining that balance that keeps life interesting and worth living.

Earlier, I made mention of photography as a portal to other worlds. Those worlds could be imagination, but possibly, in addition, there may be other dimensions and realms in our universe of which we are just not aware. Those of us who grew up more in the tradition of logic and science jokingly refer to manifestations of some such realms as “woo-woo.” That’s not a train whistle, but the sound young children make in association with ghost stories told around a campfire late at night. . . and some of the tales of Carlos Castaneda, which planted the phantoms in my imagination that sent chills down my spine when I went out in the dark. Photography is sublimely suitable as a portal because it enables re-configuration of the physically-seen universe in ways that make features evident that we may not normally notice, and which do suggest in some sense, “other worlds.” Castaneda, in his account of study with don Juan Matus refers to witnessing the “crack between the worlds,” which opens during occasional moments, especially at the hour of sunset. Photographic practice, when pursued assiduously, confers a comparable experience.

Kevin Jones