Moments of Grace

by Ann de Bruyn

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I strive to undo my reactions to civilization’s syncopated demands and hope that inner peace, quiet, and lack of concern for specific results may enable a stance of gratitude and balance—a receptiveness that will allow the participation of grace. This meditative form of inaction has been my true realm of creative action..~ Paul Caponigro

On a recent winter hike, I arrived at the rocky summit of a small desert mountain—one not even impressive enough to merit its own name but that still afforded a grand view of a little-visited portion of the Mojave Desert. I’ve made the long drive here a couple of days earlier, feeling stressed and emotionally depleted, as much by recent personal setbacks as by the dispiriting effects of the long, cold winter.

On a recent winter hike, I arrived at the rocky summit of a small desert mountain—one not even impressive enough to merit its own name but that still afforded a grand view of a little-visited portion of the Mojave Desert..

The view before me was vast: undulating hills stained in beautiful pastel hues, stratified cliffs, endlessly branching alluvial washes, broad plains covered sparsely in desert brush and large boulders, all glowing in the low winter sun, stretching as far as I could see. With temperatures dropping below freezing each night, and no significant winds in the preceding days, the air was almost completely free of haze. Everything, from the small plants at my feet to the distant mesas on the horizon, appeared crisp and as detailed as my eyes could resolve. Far below me, I could hear a wild burro braying. I have seen him on occasion on each of the previous afternoons, arriving in the vicinity of my campsite just before sunset to bed among the creosote bushes.

I removed my pack, made myself comfortable and retrieved the lunch I prepared earlier, before leaving camp. It didn’t take long for a pair of curious ravens to approach. I watched them circling me, cawing on occasion, their gaze fixed on me, likely deciding if it would be worth waiting for my departure to see what morsels I may leave for them to feast on. Every few moments, one of the birds would flip upside down mid-air for no obvious reason other than just having fun.

Aberration

Sweaty and huffing from my scramble, I removed my jacket and sat with my back against one of the larger rocks, savouring the pleasant mid-day warmth. After eating my sandwich and sipping some water, I scooted a bit to make myself more comfortable, closed my eyes and turned my face toward the sun. Suddenly I felt a familiar sensation as if I had woken up from a prolonged anxious dream that, up to that point, I did not realise was a dream. A great emotional burden I had carried with me in the prior weeks, suddenly ceased for no reason I could point to. At once, everything around me seemed more beautiful and peaceful—a familiar and welcome state I remembered vividly from prior occasions, but that I had not felt—or remembered I could feel—in a long time.

Admittedly, I am not one prone to flowery prose. Terms like “grace,” at least when used in certain contexts, often bring out the cynic in me. But perhaps this is as good a reason as any why someone like me—a philosophical materialist and obsessively analytic thinker—should attempt to reclaim, at least in part, the idea of grace in the name of fellow platitude-averse, soft-hearted curmudgeons who may likewise find value in it. There is a reason, after all, that despite our prickly exteriors, dry humour, and stoic attitudes, we still revere art and spend much of our time in pursuit of inspiration and beauty, and experiences such as I’ve had on that lonesome desert peak: moments of grace.

Suddenly I felt a familiar sensation as if I had woken up from a prolonged anxious dream that, up to that point, I did not realise was a dream. A great emotional burden I had carried with me in the prior weeks, suddenly ceased for no reason I could point to.

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In photography, as in many other areas of life, many place great importance on productivity, often unbalanced by other forms of reward to be found in our experiences, in the pursuit of photographs, in striving to engage with the world in meaningful ways. These are common intuitions to many photographers: “I’ve invested time and effort; I’d better have something to show for it—a photograph, a piece of writing, a tangible artefact.” The more, or the more popular, products we create, the more we feel that time, labour, and expenses needed to produce these products, were justified and worthwhile.

This attitude, when it becomes innate and implicit, comes with the risk of becoming the dominant—or only—way we experience the world. We begin to measure the value of our experiences in terms of the quality or popularity of the photographs we make, sometimes not realising when the balance had tipped: when we begin to favour photographs to qualities, depth, and richness of experiences. Photographs become the only worthwhile outcome of any trip we make, the justification for money spent on expensive gadgets, the “proof” that we are “serious,” the indisputable evidence that we had not “wasted” our time. It is only when a moment of grace presents itself unexpectedly that we are reminded and become aware of how much poorer a life is that does not also reward in intangible, emotional, inner-directed ways. It is in such moments that we realise, jarringly and vividly, how much more ennobling and profound such feelings as gratitude, calmness, and freedom from distractions and anxieties are than any photograph or other material creation on its own can be.

Dictionaries define grace in terms like elegance, refinement, poise, and finesse—qualities that, at least in the realm of art, can be thought of as antithetical to qualities such as triteness, banality, dullness, and gaudiness. To be sure, the judgment of these qualities is primarily a matter of personal taste, for each of us to consider in our own work and life, by our own sensibilities. I mention them not as objective measures of artistic or photographic merit, but as things worth considering and striving for consciously, in the ways we experience and engage with the world, and in the ways we approach making photographs. In this sense, aspiring to feel and to express grace in our photographic work stands in contrast with some common attitudes toward photography, such as trophy-hunting, preconception, competition, imitation, or striving for no higher a goal than to just “get the shot.”

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The experience I refer to as a moment of grace is perhaps best described as a jarring realisation of finding oneself unexpectedly in an unusually elevated state of being—a state where troubling and mundane considerations if they not entirely absent, seem of lesser importance and become easier to set aside in favour of worthier feelings, loftier ideas, deeper thoughts, more intensified emotions, and greater clarity of mind. A useful way to define such experiences is in contrast with some better-defined states, such as awe, sublimity, flow, and mindfulness.

Awe is commonly defined as the experience of profound reverence mixed with a sense of fear. Likewise, the sublime is characterised as an encounter with something astonishingly grand and at the same time mortally dangerous. Grace, on the other hand, while still possessing the same elements of encounter with great beauty and power, does not involve fear of dying, but rather the comfort and promise of deeper, richer livingness. I believe it is the feeling Dostoevsky referred to in The Possessed when he wrote, “There are seconds—they come five or six at a time—when you suddenly feel the presence of the eternal harmony perfectly attained . . . This feeling is clear and unmistakable; it’s as though you apprehend all nature and suddenly say, ‘Yes, that’s right.’”

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Compared with other elevated states, like flow and mindfulness—which involve one’s attention being overwhelmingly consumed for a time when immersed in some prolonged experience—moments of grace make one acutely aware of the importance of a singular, present moment. Among the defining characteristics of a moment of grace is surprise: the sudden realisation of how long it had been since the last time one had felt such a moment; how much time was spent up to that point in lesser preoccupations, more tedious concerns, duller and less inspired feelings, more prosaic thoughts.

In a moment of grace, one does not necessarily feel compelled to any action—creative or other—but rather to appreciation, to satisfaction, to hope, and to acceptance. However, when a moment of grace does happen to coincide with a creative idea, it can rightly be considered a moment of inspiration—a moment when one not only feels grateful and elevated, but also is moved to express these feelings artistically, to render them in some aesthetic way by use of some medium, so that others may also share in, and be moved by them.

Another defining characteristic of a moment of grace, is a sense of immense gratitude for the reminder that there is more to life than mundane frustrations, more than anxiety, more than cynical wit, more than dissatisfaction with other people, more than discontentment with whatever petty or unfortunate events may unfolding in the world or in one’s life beyond the present moment, more than concern for producing some tangible artefact to “prove” to others that one had been working—gratitude for the affirmation that one is capable also of loftier, nobler, more exalted, and more beautiful feelings, and that these feelings are worthwhile in themselves even if no one other than you even knows you had experienced them.

A moment of grace is not necessarily a moment of creative epiphany. In a moment of grace, one does not necessarily feel compelled to any action—creative or other—but rather to appreciation, to satisfaction, to hope, and to acceptance. However, when a moment of grace does happen to coincide with a creative idea, it can rightly be considered a moment of inspiration—a moment when one not only feels grateful and elevated, but also is moved to express these feelings artistically, to render them in some aesthetic way by use of some medium, so that others may also share in, and be moved by them. I believe that one of photography’s greatest powers as a medium for expressive art comes to the fore exactly in such moments. Photography’s immediacy and availability to be employed with no elaborate preparations, and with little reliance on materials requiring specialised skills and conditions, narrows the gap between inspiration and expression more than any other artistic medium.

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In a moment of inspiration, photography allows a creative artist, not only to visualise or to conceptualise a work of expressive art but to instantly engage in the production of it—to accomplish at least a considerable portion of it while still in the throes of grace, with the raw emotions still vivid and visceral, rather than recalled later from the few anecdotes one retains in one’s imperfect memory.

Beyond momentary rewards, states of grace also have a wonderful dynamic: they self-replicate. Every such experience shapes one’s attitude, making the mind more attuned and predisposed to seeking and striving for them.

There is no need to stretch a canvas, no need to mix pigments, no need to scribble words or musical notes, no need to hammer away for hours at a chunk of rock before it begins to resemble a finished piece. The work begins to take form immediately.

Of course, not all works of creative artistic expression ensue from moments of inspiration—from the fortuitous convergence of grace and creative epiphany. (Indeed, some notable artists have expressed outright disdain for the idea of inspiration as a necessary precursor to artistic expression.) With some exceptions, independent of any other merits (which may be impressive and important in their own right), and conceding this to be an entirely subjective judgment, I admit I generally find such works to be aptly characterised as graceless.

Beyond momentary rewards, states of grace also have a wonderful dynamic: they self-replicate. Every such experience shapes one’s attitude, making the mind more attuned and predisposed to seeking and striving for them. One becomes more sensitive to circumstances and nuances that may yield more such experiences. I think Minor White was describing this effect when he commented in an interview, “Watching the way the current moves a blade of grass—sometimes I’ve seen that happen and it has just turned me inside out.”

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