I am an amateur nature photographer. What pleasure it is to walk in the woods, swamps and city, letting the camera help me pay attention to what I see. It’s an instrument to help focus on patterns and colors, identify birds or plants, compose landscapes.
On many levels, the camera helps me process what I’m taking in and then express it with a personal touch. I love doing that.
When I was younger, I used to take wide landscapes. I was trying to include as much as possible of what I could see in the photo. My wife pointed out to me that as I’ve aged, my photography focuses more on particular things and small details. I think she is right.
So what? Bear with me, because I think something is going on that has an interesting lesson about not only aging but becoming an elder.
When younger, I was aware that there was far more that I was seeing out there than I could “capture” in a photo. I was missing far more than I was getting; and my way of dealing with the pressure of everything that was missing was to cram as much possible into the photo.
That corresponds to the “hunger for experience” of our younger years: We want to take life in big gulps, do it all and see it all, live life extravagantly.
There’s the nagging sense that a lot is happening and I’m missing out on it. I remember the first years of the Spoleto Festival, for example, when I was in my 30s, I felt physical hunger to take in everything, the whole works.
The aging process has changed that. In part, it’s the limitations imposed by an aging body, but I know something else is going on, too. It’s the awareness that the value of experience is not measured by quantity or volume but by quality.
From being an intrepid traveler, I have come to feel that to dwell deeply in a place, developing an intimate relationship with the place that becomes your place, makes it a gate of Paradise. Seeing one thing with quiet understanding is more gratifying than scanning many things superficially.
A photojournalist interviewed on NPR on April 4 spoke of her approach to her craft. Others photograph the long lines of refugees escaping Myanmar, she said. And that’s important to show the scale of the disaster. But her project is to show the magnitude of the tragedy in one human being by following one woman, staying with her, experiencing her experience with her, and that is what she photographs, she said.
In elderhood, many people move from being wound up by measurable quantities (salary, titles, honors, mentions in the newspaper) to valuing meaningful qualities, including what we love. And that changes our schedule and focus. Instead of being all things to all people, we are drawn to be who we really are.
To use the photo analogy, instead of trying to capture the whole panorama in a wide shot, we want to let something simply express itself through the lens of our openness to it. Less is more in the art of living into elderhood. Just as one street scene can express the life of a city, or one suffering refugee the plight of a people, or one lone pine the solitude of a desert, so one authentic act or gesture can reveal what’s most true about a life.
Poet Christian Wiman became an elder not by aging but by living, fully awake, with an incurable, but unpredictable cancer. In his memoir called "My Bright Abyss," published in 2013, he notices the way a photograph, like all art, can reveal even things invisible, like qualities.
He writes: "What you feel in amateur photographs ... is the pressure, or the lack of pressure, actually, of all the reality missing from the picture, which is really just a chopped-off piece of life. An artist, on the other hand, makes you feel just how much missing life is contained within a given image: It is as if the image is surrounded with, enlivened and even created by, the invisible, the unknowable, the absent.
"It’s not accurate to say that someone who has learned to see like this has forgotten that there is a lens between himself and life. It’s more that the lens has become so intuitive and fluent that it’s just another, clearer eye."
When we meet an elder, and they are among us at every turn, sometimes we detect a wholeness that seems to be enlivened and even created by the invisible, the unknowable, what does not lie on the surface but shapes the person from within.
Wholeness does not mean perfection, far from it. Being whole means the person, the elder, has become more real by internalizing a lifetime of joy and struggle, loving and loss, labor and laughter, and suffering, too; and it’s all there in the image you see, as though created by an artist.