It was a cheap, beat-up camera abandoned in an Army exit center. I took it to college with mewhere, funded by the G.I. bill and stunned by the grim outcomes of war, I threw myself into CulturalAnthropology and decided to try Photography—both in hopes of understanding a bafflingworld.
Among my first classes were Belief Systems and—no surprise—Introduction to Photography.In the former, I was assigned to observe religious rituals. In the latter, I was almost laughed outof class for my pitiful camera with its clunk-clunking mirror and soft-focus lens. I took on extrahours at my night job and bought a used Nikon with a fast, wide-angle lens. It came just in timeto photograph my first subjects: faith-driven snake handlers.
The experience shook me to my core. I saw trembling men drink poison and kiss rattlesnakes. Iheard a preacher tell the attendees that fear could cost them their last chance to be saved. Isaw that same preacher killed when a snake bit him.
I was horrified. But I felt driven, almost desperate, to understand that level of faith.Inspired by Minor White’s words, “The external can be used to reveal the internal,” I pointed mycamera everywhere, exhaustively documenting all kinds of people and places—civil rightsworkers, nightclub denizens, Meals on Wheels recipients—in hopes of internal glimpses. Imanaged to find a few.
But meanwhile, photography overall was changing fast: from film to digital, then from objectiveto abstract, and my fascination with documentary images began to expand.
At the same time, my eyes began to change, not just in how they worked, but also in how I sawthrough them. More and more, common objects began to fascinate me—the more minuscule,the better. Even common dirt, shot in close-up, became fascinating.
I moved to a Georgia barrier island and pointed my camera down. I dug my feet in the groundbeneath and sensed it talking to me.
I understood what William Blake meant when he wrote of seeing “a World in a Grain of Sand.”At the edge of the ocean, where life began, eternal forces form endless images. The worldspins, the tides change, and the winds blow where they will, forming ever-changing patterns inthe tidal pools and in the sands and in our minds. We too have been formed by Earth, and inour ancient, animal brains, she speaks to us still.