Slow Seeing

On July 31, 1870, the geologist Joseph LeConte got up ‘at peep
of day’ to see the sun rise from Glacier Point on the south rim of
Yosemite Valley. He and his students from the young University of
California had left the Bay Area 10 days before. They traveled by
horseback, camping along the way, even though railroad service most
of the way there had recently opened. LeConte went alone to Glacier
Point to watch the sunrise, and after ‘about one and a half hour’s
rapturous gaze,’ he went back to the camp for breakfast. Then, he
reports, the whole party ‘returned to Glacier Point, and spent the
whole of the beautiful Sunday morning in the presence of grand
mountains, yawning chasms, and magnificent falls.’

How long does it take to see something? I’ve wondered about that
for a long time, watching people stroll through art museums, or
stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon for a few minutes or so, then
turn around to whatever’s next. If there’s one thing our culture’s
given us, it’s the opportunity to have something else that’s next,
or just multitaskable right now. The way one casually meets people
at parties is how we mostly meet the world’s places nowadays. But
LeConte’s long vigil on the rim of the valley represented a desire
and then perhaps a realization of that desire to know the place
more deeply.

I too have been spending time in Yosemite, working on a project
with the photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe for a couple of
years now, and one of the singular pleasures has been sitting
around while they make photographs. Because of the technical nature
of the work, we spend from a couple of hours to a couple of days at
each location, and while they’re working I’m mostly doing what
LeConte was doing, the hardest thing to do in this culture, that
thing often only done when sitting in a stalled car or waiting for
the doctor to see you: nothing. Of course anyone who’s ever tried
to do nothing knows that you can’t do nothing, but you can slow
down and pay attention.

In LeConte’s time, even those who could afford to have lots of
next things they could be doing were good at doing nothing, or
rather at doing something very slowly, as he himself did on the rim
of Yosemite Valley. The great fad for panoramas and dioramas of the
late 18th through the mid-19th century came out of a visual
appetite that didn’t need anything to happen: There was a lot of
scenery you paid admission to see, and when you got in you looked
at it. In Europe these theaters were often 360-degree spectacles —
the I-Max of their day — that viewers walked around; in vast new
America people sat in their seats as mile-long rolls of canvas
painted with the Mississippi or some other appropriate

subject rolled by. No car chases, no emotional dramas, no
uplifting moral, no narrative, except to the extent that travel
itself, space itself, is narrative. It was as though they inhabited
a world in which nothing was enough, as long as it was
beautiful.

Of course the perception that nothing is happening usually means
that the observer is moving faster than the observed; something is
always happening, even if it’s on the timescale of light changing,
trees growing, rocks eroding. Only in paintings and photographs is
there real stillness, but up in Yosemite we have been pursuing the
changes between one photograph and another, the exacting art of
rephotography. Mark and Byron are rephoto-graphing some of the
definitive photo-graphs of the place, an astounding technique for
understanding what Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Ansel
Adams, and Edward Weston were up to, and how the ecology has
changed in the time between their pictures and ours, down to the
trajectories of individual trees.

I say ‘we’ because I work on scouting locations and logistics
and because the meaning of the project comes out of our
conversation; but once the tripod is up, I am idle. That is, I am
doing nothing. And the form that nothing takes is looking. Or
perhaps we need distinct words for looking and seeing, just as we
do for wistful envy, whereby I wish I had what you do, and seething
jealousy, whereby I wish you didn’t have it.

Looking might be the business of glancing at things long enough
to take them in as information; seeing, the art of soaking them up,
of letting them sink in, of feeling them. For what I found during
our slow photographic sessions is that afterward each place had
imprinted on me — it wasn’t that I could recall the place with
some sort of photographic accuracy, but that it had become part of
me, that when I thought of it there was a definite feeling, not an
image of place but a sense of place. Imprinted: One could think of
the mind as akin to photographic paper. It takes time. It takes a
long exposure, generally, for something to make an impression,
which suggests that we who are so busy go around blank,
unimpressed. Painters, photographers, fishers, and birdwatchers,
among others, seem to have developed their pursuits in part as
sidelong strategies to do nothing, to be in a place long enough to
see it.

I’ve been equally interested in how long it takes to see a work
of visual art, since few artists outside advertising make their art
for someone to pass by at a slow saunter, the pace that museums
seem to dictate (and the more popular the show, the more necessary
it is to keep pace with the rest). Last spring, teaching a group of
writing students at the visually spectacular, acoustically
challenged San Francisco campus of the California College of the
Arts, I took them far and wide in search of a quiet place, and
toward the end of the semester we ended up in the school’s gallery,
where artist Roni Horn’s close-ups of the Thames River were
showing.

A few years ago, I had strolled past these photographs in their
more conceptual version, with tiny footnotes in the ripples
corresponding to a long series of accompanying texts, and I’d
strolled through this new exhibition as well, but the images didn’t
seep in until we lingered with them. Around us on every side as we
sat on the concrete floor and read aloud and talked — not so much
looking at as coexisting with these photographs of the green
surface of the Thames — they came to life, throbbed and churned
with power, pressed in on us, alluring and threatening.

There’s a political aspect to this, naturally: Factory workers
used to protest or strike with a work slowdown, a refusal to keep
pace with the management’s profit pace; as the world comes to
resemble a factory more and more, every act of lingering, of deep
engagement, of doing nothing, of neither producing nor consuming
according to any marketable rate, is a metaphysical work slowdown.
A good consumer should have a short attention span, forever
requiring the next thing. But beyond politics is pleasure, and
perhaps this slowness is the discipline of pleasure.

Rebecca Solnit is a recipient of the 2003 Lannan Literary
Award. Her project with photographers Byron Wolfe and Mark Klett is
the subject of a forthcoming book. From
Orion (Nov./Dec.
2003). Subscription: $35/yr. (6 issues) from 187 Main St., Great
Barrington, MA 01230.

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