Last night we watched an hour and a half Oregon Public Broadcasting fundraising program about the photographer Jim Brandenburg, blissfully shortened through the magic of our PVR (personal video recorder), which took out all the fundraising moments. Brandenburg is a highly successful nature photographer who felt burnt-out after twenty years of traveling the world and working for National Geographic and other magazines.
Searching for a way to rekindle his passion for photography (and, we must presume, life), he decided to do something amazing—for a professional photographer, at least. Rather than taking hundreds or thousands of photos a day and culling through them for the best shots, he decided to take one frame a day for ninety days and publish the results. Time: from the beginning of fall to the beginning of winter. Place: the wilds of northern Minnesota, where he lives.
Laurel saw a mention of this program in the OPB guide (we’re members, which allowed us to fast forward through all the dreadful fundraising pitches with no qualms). I reluctantly passed up my traditional Sunday evening taping of “60 Minutes” for what I thought would be a typical nature show. But “Chased by the Light” was anything but. Brandenburg brings a Zen sensibility to his photographic artistry, and limiting himself to a single photograph a day meant that whatever moment he chose to capture had to be just the right moment.
You can see his 90 photographs on his website. Last night we heard him describe how many of the shots transpired, which gave them much more meaning. His philosophical observations were equally intriguing. Consider the photo of Day 5, “Raven Feather.” Brandenburg said that on this day he had two choices (I seem to recall him saying that the sun was setting, so a decision had to be made quickly about that day’s shot). There was a beautiful rainbow over a lake, what he called “a calendar shot.” Safe, grand, familiar. And then there was the raven feather that had fallen on a rock. Brandenburg chose the risky, quirky, unique shot. He didn’t regret it. The road less traveled...
Brandenburg is an artist with a tremendous eye. Yet it is his “I” that makes possible his remarkable vision of nature and animals. He doesn’t imitate. Brandenburg is an original. As I watched the 90 days unfold I kept thinking, “What if I could see one ‘frame’ of life every day with the same freshness and passion that this photographer brought to his quest? What is my eye, outer or inner, not seeing because my ‘I’ is occupied with second-hand visions?”
This morning I got out “The Spiritual Emerson” and re-read Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance” along with a related essay, “The Divinity School Address.” Here are two excerpts from the essay on Self-Reliance that reminded me of Brandenburg’s central message: be your own “I,” and see with your own “eye.”
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty…Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today.”
This is the gift of Jim Brandenburg who, like Emerson and Thoreau, finds the hand of God in the tapestry of nature. Most of us can’t see what Brandenburg sees, though we all have eyes like him. What is different about Jim is that he doesn’t have a borrowed “I” as most of us do.
May we all become originals rather than copies. Life is so much clearer and sharper when we aren’t trying to see through someone else’s lenses.