Monday, November 21, 2005

Through The Looking Glass

I have a new lens, an ultra-wide angle lens. It's a used lens, actually, a 14mm f/3.5 Sigma, and it's battle scarred: the printing's worn, and there's a long crack in the window of the focus scale. It's heavy, a beast of a lens, and the front glass is bug- eyed and bulbous, practically exophthalmic. I bet it's seen a lot in its day. If only it could speak.

I came into the weekend peevish and tired. Work's been rough, and I've been on call more than usual. As of 8 am Saturday I was finally off call, but multiple obligations would preclude long stretches at the river. Nonetheless, come 8:30, I rushed out to squeeze in a walk before the dentist at 12. I hated being on a timetable, hated wearing my watch, hated having to keep track of time. I was, as I said, peevish. I brought, of course, the camera. I was anxious to try out the Beast.

It was cold and bright, and there was some frost on the grass. I scanned the familiar terrain through the viewfinder. It was, to say the least, disorienting. The world receeded, stretched, bowed away. Distances increased. The greedy, hyperthyroid eye was drinking in everything. This was not the closer-and-closer-up photographic world I was used to. I was vertiginous, in freefall. I squatted and squinted ino the camera, trying to coax a delicate weed into the foreground. The beast would have none of that. The whole background screamed for attention. My neck began to hurt. I felt, for lack of a better word, nervous.

I remembered an experiment I'd heard about in medical school. Volunteers were given glasses to wear, special prisms that would invert the world. Initially they were completely disoriented, and staggered about trying to adjust to feeling upside down. Eventually they adapted, and were able to negotiate the world effortlessly again. Finally, when the glasses were removed and they were returned to their usual visual relationship to the world, they were disoriented afresh.

This would not do. I was risking brain damage here. So I detached the Beast, and replaced it with My Favorite Lens, my Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro lens. I felt better immediately.

The Tamron is a splendid lens. My copy is an older, used version, handsome and better preserved than The Beast. At 90mm it's a short telephoto as well as a macro lens so it's versatile, usable, as they say, as a portrait lens. I suppose I do take portraits. Weed portraits. Like of this pathside helleborine I've observed since last summer when it was covered with beautiful orchid-like flowers. It's still beautiful, regal and dignified as an ancient grande dame.

The lens lives up to its reputation of having beautiful bokeh. What's bokeh ? I thought you'd never ask. Bokeh (I learned recently) is the blurred background behind a photographic subject.

And with a macro lens set to a wide aperture, the depth of field, or the area in focus, is small -- sometimes vanishingly small -- so there's plenty of opportunity for bokeh.

The nebulous buff and blue and green background complements the cascading greens and purples and browns of the aged helleborine leaves.

I look. I see form; I see color. I know the trajectory: colors run, blend to a uniform, murky brown. The striped, billowing skirt-like leaves decay to a dull, brown paste. Everything tends to sludge and slime, to a dull pap that feeds the ground's hidden seeds.

The slime is where my hungry eye averts. It so prefers form, however bedraggled, and colors, however subtle. Slime is just not visually interesting. It is, however, metaphysically fascinating. And -- I admit -- horrifying.

Today, back at work, I was buried by an onslaught of tasks and demands. Late afternoon, sitting at my desk and writing, I suddenly came to. There I was, sitting there, looking at my hands as they wrote. What were they ? Who was I ? It was one of those awful, disorienting moments of Sartrean nausea, keener than usual. I felt poised and teetering on an abyss; a small panic fluttered inside. The Big Lens -- the wild, wide, all-seeing, goitrous eye of the Beast -- had turned inward. "I" dwindled to a grassblade in an enormous, ravening meadow. The world, viewed through the backside of the Beast, loomed large, extra large.

My pulse quickened. Bold, fascinated, I tried to follow the feeling where it was leading, to sustain it and investigate it. This was the crack though which I could slip into and out of the world. This could the Mobius path to enlightenment. This was my golden opportunity !

Or, I thought, I could become insane.

That would not do. I had progress notes to write. Email to send. And, furthermore, back at home, there was laundry to fold and put away and the dishwasher to unload.

I wrenched the Beast out of its socket and looked across the room. There was my pile of charts. There was my nurse on the phone. Things were neither too bright nor too dark. What was near was near, what was far was far. I pushed my glasses back up my sweaty nose. There. That was better.

Things were, for the moment, back to 50mm. Back to normal.

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