In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she leads us, chapter by chapter, via essays about being alone in the woods to species extinction, to all the meanings and implications of being lost.
The book begins with Solnit describing her first experience getting drunk, as an eight-year-old at a family celebration of Passover, the annual Jewish holiday that celebrates an escape from slavery in Egypt. She describes a particular part of a Passover Seder, a time during the service where you are supposed to invite Elijah into your home, and in doing so, open the door to the unknown.
In an opening passage, Solnit shares a quote by one of her students, which supposedly came from the pre-Socratic philosopher, Meno. “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” This question begins the journey of the book with the consistent suggestion that it is a complex phenomenon, to be lost, and one in which there is much to be found, and possibly reclaimed, from the experience.
What I discovered was not only a truly incredible translation into words of what I have felt, and tried to communicate with my own imagery, but also what our job, or purpose should be as artists, in opening the minds and imaginations of our viewers while also providing a safe haven of their own to be lost.
Solnit writes, “It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, 'live always at the ‘edge of mystery’—the boundary of the unknown.' But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe the role of an artist.
She describes the origin of the term “lost,” as “coming from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.” She talks about how now, the presence of wildlife in suburbia is more prevalent than children and wonders what this next generation will be like, having grown up “under house arrest.”
The more I read, the more I could relate to all the experiences she describes. Much of my work is about being lost and in particular, Displaced, is about losing control and venturing into the unknown. I am a perfectionist and control-addict. At the end of my marriage, after years of faithfully staying on some invisible course—building equity, building trust, and sculpting a life—I didn’t want to let go, I didn’t want to face being lost. There is one image I have in that series titled Entrance to the Cabot Trail that depicts the internal struggle. It was 6am, dark with a horizon line erased by fog. I was in the midst of health struggles, even to the point of not being able to drive comfortably. But, I had made the 4 hour trek up to Cape Breton by myself to then drive 6 hours around the Cabot Trail. But, seeing that dense blanket over the roadway, I had an out. I didn’t want to keep going. I pulled over, afraid, alone, and uncertain about what to do. I just stood there for minutes, outside the car, in the dark silent cold, figuring that a few moments embedded in it might give me some answers. Then, out of nowhere a car drove past on the other side. It emerged and disappeared so quickly, I wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it. I scrambled to get my camera out of the car—it's curved grip becoming an unexpected comfort in the absence of a live hand. This image was, to me, as close as I can get to documenting the moment of embracing what it is to be lost.
I can relate to the struggle that we all must feel nowadays, to leave our computers, phones and Facebook behind for inevitably, the question prevails, What am I without them? Do I have an identity tied to the physical environment anymore?
I wrote a question in the margin. “Is it in the gaps of understanding where I find solace in the work?”
In chapter two, "The Blue of Distance," Solnit goes on to describe the process of longing. She writes of seeing the “deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky”—or the space and beauty that is at once wanted and unattainable for we can never really occupy, own or possess—a horizon.
She makes a case for embracing the feeling of longing as opposed to continually trying to satisfy thirst for whatever is the object of desire. She writes, "…often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and blue instead tints the next beyond."
Immediately I think of the pages in the books of photographs I have worn down over years of handling. I think of the sheer pleasure that comes in the anticipation of turning those pages—almost as much, or more than arriving at the subsequent images. There is a moment, and it is similar to walking through an exhibition when you’ve ended your acquaintance with one image and move to begin a new one, when the excitement and thrill of what will come next? outweighs the actuality of what lies ahead.
And we rarely acknowledge those feelings at all in the process of viewing art. Maybe, it is that which is in between, the anticipation of the unknown, that is the most important part of seeing.
I've written another question in the margin. “Maybe that’s why I emphasize movement in and out of a picture along with moving around the frame?”
I haven’t been able to verbalize why, but in my pictures, I tend to emphasize movement into the frame, as if you were walking straight into the picture, along with movement within the frame, or from edge to edge. Maybe I like that bond that is formed between viewer and the horizon, the context of edges that help define the unattainable. Maybe it is the sustained awareness of that which is unavailable to us, what can never be owned. I'm really not sure why I do that, but I make a point of not blocking movement from the interior of a photograph to the exterior. I believe, it is the realization that there is a stopping point, when you must turn around and exit the picture, or back-track the way you came in, that gives the image mystery despite it's surface of formality. It's knowing you will never be able to walk into it, and the longing that comes with that experience, that I hope gives viewing the image a longer lifespan.
While there are some passages that stray beyond the tangible, if it were up to me, this book would be at the top of the list of every art school curriculum. Never, aside from maybe Robert Adam’s Beauty in Photography, have I felt a stronger attachment to a book as I have formed with this one.
I’ll leave you with this last quote.
“Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”