Catch the Light

My grandfather died when I was very young. My memories of him are indistinct and coloured by age; most of what I know about the man has been based on what other family members have told me. I can only guess at how his voice sounded or what aftershave he wore, if any. My main conduit to the man is a collection of photographs and paintings – his original work – now treasured by the family he left behind. There’s an album of photos he took of me when I was a baby; I see my infant-self looking back at me, knowing I was looking at him when the shot was taken but having no memory of that moment. The photos are full of little glimpses of the house where I first lived, people I knew, pets and toys I dimly recall playing with. They tease at my brain but can never quite pull the memories free.

He loved music too; orchestral and big-band jazz and swing among other things. Given my own love of music (including the same types of music he loved), painting and photography, I wonder if he wrote anything, or longed to write. I don’t know if we would ever have shared any of these things had he lived longer. I’m not sure why we seem to share them now; nature or nuture, or some other reason like coincidence. I don’t even know if it’s important. I just wonder.

The Gilded Sea

Anyway, photography is my leading distraction from writing at the moment (if you don’t count having to go to work five days a week). I enjoy trying to create an image that’s more than pixels on a page, more than just what I or the camera saw. Some of my photos are useful to me when it comes to writing descriptive passages; they serve as a visual reminder of what a landscape had in it, how a scene looked at a certain time of day, what flowers were blooming. Sadly, photos have a lot in common with some forms of unimaginative or lazy writing I produce, in that only one of the reader’s five senses is stimulated. Take my sunset photo here – the light is lovely but where are the sounds the waves made when they thumped into the rocky headland, the dry rustling of the nearby Pandanus palms, the smell of all that salt spray on the cold wind and how dry my mouth was just looking at all that undrinkable water? For me, it always seems to be about the light – in my photos and in my writing, I seem to be fixated on how the light looks, how it plays off surfaces, what colour it is, how brightly it shines. It’s another thing I have to watch for when I’m editing; too many references to the light and not enough effort to engage the reader in other ways.

There’s no need to go overboard, of course. No need to spend pages describing every little detail. As with the paintings of the Zen masters, it’s about using those two or three very vivid features that will transport the reader into the scene, all the while avoiding the use of cliche. Photography is helping me with that too, showing me the world again, letting me walk about in it with wide-eyed, childish wonder. I’m learning to experience things in a more real, more visceral way than I’ve felt in years. Recently, I found myself hoping I would get caught in a downpour without an umbrella just to feel what it’s like to be drenched in chill winter rain. It didn’t happen that day, but they’re predicting a wet spring for south-east Queensland this year; I may get my drenching yet.

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