Sehnsucht

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This is one of my favorite photographs ever. Not just because of whatever merit it may have in composition or execution, but for what it represents. To me it is art—and I truly don’t mind if you disagree or think it’s banal. I think it’s as close a photograph I have that looks like a painting straight out of the camera. In fact, it is more than art for me, it is my youth, and a metaphor for longing.

The shot is a reflection of a La Jolla sunset not far from where I grew up on the coast north of San Diego. The window was part of a cabana next to a shuffleboard court in an otherwise idyllic setting. Look closer at the lower right hand corner of the window and you can see the reflection of a man in a hat walking along the cliffside path. The park is here in this Google map.

The image is from a time when my passion for photography was beginning, probably around 1968 or ’69 and long before many who would read this were even the idea of parents that are now my age or older. I was about 16 then, and happy enough to be in that time and place without really knowing how good it was.

It does take me back. I can’t count the hours I spent looking out to the horizon. There’s something about the inexorable presence of the ocean that makes it difficult to describe to those that haven’t spent years on the shore. If you look a little west by northwest, there really isn’t anything except the vast reach of the ocean between you and Japan. It’s as if you’re on a spaceship, with only that fragile metal skin that prevents your doom. I took a lot of sunset photographs. So many that I eventually burned a small hole in the fabric screen shutter in the camera. I got it repaired, and went right back to taking photos of sunsets.

But it’s true we can never go back. I don’t really want to actually, unless that miracle included going back in time with what’s in my head now. Even if I wanted to migrate back westward, it’s just not feasible now with the outrageous cost of living and overpopulation. You have to be a doctor or lawyer to live within 20 miles of the coast. My mom was worried to death in the early 60s at the prospect of coming up with a $125 a month mortgage payment for a $12,000 house that was three blocks from the beach. (My miracle time travel back to that age would include buying up lots and lots of real estate.)

I’ve been in Dallas now for nearly 30 years. I still don’t like it. It’s ok, but I’ve always had the impression that Dallas tries to present itself as something it’s not. And it’s not San Diego, which is ok. There are wonderful people here and I have a lovely life with an incomparable family.

[Note: We are now, since 4 years ago, in the mountains of Colorado on the Western Slope at some 8,000 feet above sea level.]

But back in the day I would go surfing or bodysurfing almost every day after school or after work. I could see the mountains on a clear day from my patio. There is no topography in Dallas and the nine-month long summers are brutal. That compromise however, giving up a semi-arid and temperate paradise, has given me more than I lost in the bargain. Some of you have seen this picture of my bride. The image doesn’t show all I’ve gained—it’s a gateway image; it represents just a small portion of what my good fortune entails and has been in our marriage of [now 35] years.

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A note on the first image and camera: The Minolta SRT101 35mm SLR was a gift from my brother, purchased at a PX in Vietnam while he was serving there as an army grunt. The image was shot on 35mm Kodachrome 200. The slide was scanned with an Epson photo scanner as a 600 dpi TIFF which resulted in an image rendition of 5100 x 7779 pixels at 227 MB in size. You’re seeing a much reduced size image converted to .jpg here. Otherwise your web page might never load.

The image above of my bride was taken with a Nikon D300 with a 50mm lens at f/1.8 and 1/250 second aperture priority in RAW format. Original image is 2852 x 4303 pixels at 35 MB in size.

The title is a reference to an elegant German word that means more than mere nostalgia. The sense of the word is imbued with yearning, a longing for something lost, or not yet found. I read the word for the first time many years ago in the autobiography of C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy. He was describing his conversion experience and was overcome suddenly by an intense longing while reading an epic verse retelling of the Wagnerian Opera—The Ring of the Niblung. It was a two volume edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham. In the second volume, titled Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods he came across the following image, and was struck with an overwhelming sense of sehnsucht.

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I have that two volume set. It’s a beautiful work of art. I use the word occasionally in a secular way, probably the way it was intended. But I understand what Lewis meant.

 

 

Note: This was originally published in September 2008 at Open Salon in the early days of that artistic experiment. Sadly, Open Salon has vanished as a presence on the web, though bits of it still linger in searchable web archives..

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