Cameras steal souls

I love doing digital portraits, and despite that I’m one of those peculiar people who believe cameras have the capacity to steal souls. Something I’ve thought about since I was in my early 20s.

Was reflecting on this only partly because of the death of Richard Pryor and reading a sundry comment here and there about his MS. One person wrote that would always be the first thought that would come to their mind, Pryor with MS, how bad he looked compared to the dynamic man of yesteryear, they couldn’t get past that.

Step in the camera that steals souls. We’re not just the high points of our lives in terms of public vigor. We’re the beginning to end round-up, tough and objectionable as that may be. But the camera leads many to believe in one moment of time as a person’s life, representing them, and sets up an ungiving standard of comparison. It’s not good at letting life flow through and on, unless one treats the snapshot and video as something quite apart from the individual. My father-in-law said once, what many believe, that the camera tells the whole truth. Which it doesn’t. Certainly not in respect of what he was talking about. A person’s face and body are complex, are thousands of muscles working in concert, what you see are multiple fractions of instants of the interplay of planes with light, and the camera never can get that just as neither can a movie take in the sum of a person, not even what’s up front visually. It’s why there are photographers and good photographers and a good photographer has the knowledge and intuition to seek to convey something of the heart and it’s hard going. Or forget the heart, instead the image may have nothing at all to do with the individual and everything to do with the person behind the camera, and I don’t mean just that what they capture may be their own creation, but that an archetype is a figment of the archetype’s own imagination.

Muhammad Ali cut a powerful figure in the 60s and 70s. He has Parkinsons, which was clearly evident at the Summer Olympics here in 1996. It was the same Ali, yet also not. You know, it would have taken a considerable bravery for Ali to do what he did, for how many people might be watching, he knew, that would say, “Sad, not the same as he was.” Though a number of people would also be watching who would say, “Not the same as he was. He is more.” In the modern, televized world it was a rare act of compassion, that Ali was selected to carry the torch when the Olympics celebrate physical achievement as our glory in the sun, when corporations and audiences demand record-breaking performances which may be available only at the expense of dangerous drugs, and beauty has been idealized to ridiculous surgically-sculptured extremes operating within narrow perimeters.

The other night PBS had this show in which motivational-inspirational guru was rattling off the usual tripe (someone Dyer, he wrote “The Erroneous Zones”), the whole business about you attract your life to you and was passing around a lot of stuff popular in AA which is similar to the Oral Roberts faith seed business. And then here was PBS saying to give (of course they’d like to use this guy during fund raising) and one of the PBS people even said to exercise your “faith” and give. Hmmmmmmm? Wha….? Anyway, I always wonder whether these guys have brainwashed themselves or are just good old regular charlatan businesspeople who so don’t give a damn that they don’t have to believe anything they say.

He held up quantum mechanics as proof that if you believe the universe is good you will attract the good and if you believe it’s bad then you attract the bad. The whole changing things by witnessing them idea. He overlaid it on his message and morphed it to mean….well…whatever…he’s a rubbery speaker.

He was also giving himself a way out by encouraging everyone to see the beauty in everything, including the homeless pissing in the streets.

He is wrong, I think, about seeing the beauty in everything. It’s compassion. Seeing with compassion. Seeing the beauty in everything is not the same as seeing with compassion.

He mentioned a book written by the psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor. I read the book when I was about 20. Anyway, he was throwing out a lot of cut and paste quotes from poetry etc. and finally this book. He said Frank had determined he must survive the holocaust and that he did so by seeing the beauty in everything. When a bowl of soup with bugs and a fish head was placed in front of him, he could see the beauty in the soup, and that made him survive.

Funny, what I remember from the book was foremost Frank’s guilt. He said that the best died in the camps. And he talked about finding meaning in a life restricted by external forces etc. Responsibility. I have the feeling he’d be a bit appalled by someone adding him to their “believe and virtually anything is possible for you” spiel. Viktor Frank talked about living responsibly in the moment, acting with empathy toward others, pursuing one’s heart as one can while also meeting the demands of the day. Basically. If I remember. I would have to read it again.

Everyone is restricted by external and physical forces. Some more so than others. Don’t know how one can ignore this when saying “Believe and virtually anything is possible, now send in your money.”

Seems if one lives their life focused on the realization of one passion then they will be less likely able to respond with unique self-awareness to every moment, and less likely to really listen to and interact with others. Like the salesman who’s always looking for a buyer.

Which is how the camera can steal souls as it sometimes thieves the potential of responding with unique awareness to every moment. The person who watches a video and expects the person of twenty years ago to be the same today and rues that they are not is denying life. And it can be difficult not to do this. Especially if one doesn’t know the individual and through knowing them can be aware of them as a person of corporate dimensions.

Life happens. We’re born and die living. To me the wisdom that is the Pieta is the mother holding on her lap the next generation born into this cycle of life and death and her compassion and pity for them. Michelangelo sculpted her young and rather dispassionate, observing and matter-of-fact. Later he sculpted her inseparable, struggling.

I wrote the following a while back in a private email to a friend. It suits the subject.

The Vatican Pieta is quieter and more idyllic–Mary is a young woman holding the body of a dead son who is a full grown man (when young, I was so accustomed to a certain iconography of images that the import of this didn’t occur to me until later), and her posture is suggestive of an offering to humanity in a gesture that speaks more to associated archetypes than the artist having a full personal acquaintance with the emotional challenges the archetypes embody and carry. Whether or not Michelangelo’s ultimate intention, the Rondanini, left nearly featureless, is more personal, and, in contrast, the Rondanini depicts instead an elderly Mary unable to support her son’s body–Michelangelo stated this himself, but this is known without resorting to his words, apparent in the work. Mary’s left hand is uncertain.

As to whether Michelangelo was dealing with a crisis of the soul while sculpting the Rondanini, certainly his relationship to the subject matter had changed in accordance with his age and experience. To me, with the Vatican Pieta he is “presenting” the subject, where in the Rondanini he has become the subject and melded with it. Nearing death, his physical strength diminished, coming and going, it is awe-inspiring he was able to work as he did, but he must have felt his mortality represented in the question mark of the perished Christ, as well as in Mary, Michelangelo’s physical body unable to support him any longer. Indeed, Mary’s legs are almost only apologetically present, diminished, and she leans forward in such a way, Christ’s arm upon her thigh, that the longer one looks the more one may get the impression that it is instead the dead Christ supporting and even carrying his mother. Then again, they seem as though two bodies grown of the same tree trunk.

It’s a strong work because of the contrasts. That uncertain hand of Mary, distant in that it is unable to support, and yet crumbling into the body of her son so that they are melded together. Had the work been “finished”, polished, it would have been untrue. I think it was finished and that Michelangelo continued to hack at it because he was alive and by then was using his artistry to keep from undoing the truth of the piece with each strike. And that if the sculpture seems tortured it’s because the truth of the Pieta had embraced him wholly, which is why it is also a gentle piece, transcendent, generation after generation collapsing into each other as they move on to–what?–leaving for the earthly observer the remnant material, the chrysalis, which is the only physical knowledge permitted those who have not moved beyond the mysterious veil.

Being Christian, Michelangelo may have kept in mind the physical resurrection of Christ while he worked, but in the piece he communicated what he saw in nature.

And so it goes.

As Vonnegut says.

Summing up with a quote from Viktor Frankl:

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

4 thoughts on “Cameras steal souls”

  1. I remember the first time I saw the Vatican La Pieta at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It was alone in a huge room with a golden light and though the polished marble had a luster, the piece still had a lot of pain in it. When the piece itself was attacked by the man with the hammer that knocked of the tip of the mother’s nose and the her index finger, I remembered how I saw it whole. Just sad. Very moving.

  2. My daughter Eve is taking a b&w photography course, old-fashioned, with darkroom work and everything, and her end-of-course entry into the photo competition involving of all the photography teacher’s classes was a portrait of me, looking very craggy, like Clint Eastwood. It was not at all how I perceive myself from the inside, though Eve thinks it captures something, and no doubt she is correct–and it’s interesting that the word “captures” is not so far from the word “steals”. Eve is happy because her photo was one selected for the end-of-semester show. I am pleased for her success but have ambivalent feelings about this representation of my ongoing/momentary soul.

    Interesting post. I liked it, especially the insights about the two Michaelangelos.

  3. Jim, I’m assuming that when Eve was a wee little thing that you and Kay took photos of her doing really cute things, like potty training. I think you can consider being caught in craggy Clint Eastwood mode (which made him millions) and featured in an end-of-semester show pretty easy payback. 🙂

  4. —-Everyone is restricted by external and physical forces. Some more so than others. Don’t know how one can ignore this when saying “Believe and virtually anything is possible—–


    Here’s a quote for you :
    “That’s just how it goes, but remember, it goes the other way too..”
    ~Clarence Whirly

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