About the Selections for The Wilkes Art Gallery

This Fleeting Instant

Aldo Leopold Wilderness

Autumn Grasses, Aldo Leopold Wilderness, NM

The literature of "the now" is long, arcane, sometimes technical, often tedious, and only occasionally insightful. Precious little of it elicits those heartbreaking moments we suddenly, completely apprehend that the instant between the onrushing future and the escaping past is upon us. "The now" exists in a fleeting instant, yet it is always "now." Why do some instants affect us so and so many others go unnoticed, unremarked, unlamented? Those moments when we are acutely aware that now, especially now, at this very instant, the world is poised between past and future are the subjects of this collection.

We are aware of the now when we are confronted by the sublime. "In the presence of extraordinary actuality, consciousness takes the place of imagination," wrote Wallace Stevens. Many of the photographs in this collection are commemorations of encounters with the sublime. One feels the world take hold and fumbles with the camera to try to get something, anything, enough of this very instant onto film (or CCD). When a lake of glacial ice flashes that ineffable blue in an interval of sunlight, or a snow squall walks off the shore of Wester Ross and over the sea to Skye, or for eight brilliant seconds the Moon passes in front of the Sun, all you can do is try to get it down.

An aching sense of the now is also elicited by acute awareness of personal circumstance: loves lost and loves won arrest the passage of time. Some photographs made in response to this sense of "the now" are best shared in their own good time or not at all. It is hard to know whether they evoke or only remind. The act of showing some photographs is not without cost: some images, shared, are diminished, others enriched. It's a puzzle. "Winter Grass" is an experiment. So are the photographs from the North Carolina woods. I would not have had the opportunity -- or perhaps the inclination -- to make them but for extraordinary (and extraordinarily different) personal circumstances. Those circumstances unavoidably inform all these images (for me), but does the sense of urgency or of wonder with which they are invested contribute to the finished image? Let's put them on the wall and see.

The Scottish photographs were made in the company of an American expatriot, a writer who lived five years in Argyll before being forced to seek a drier, warmer home by chronic pneumonia. Shortly before returning to America, she invited me to come along as she revisitted favorite places in the highlands of her adopted country. For different reasons, we both wanted good photographs under November's brief and cutting light. "The Now" in the form of never-to-be-repeated moments lurked for her around every twist and turn.

The astronomical images are necessarily locked to particular instants, not by human perception but by the geometry of the cosmos. When Venus passed in front of the Sun for the second time since the invention of photography, the sky over North Carolina cleared for just two minutes during the hours-long event, and I was there to see it. When sunlight breaks through valleys on the rim of the Moon, it changes faster than second by second. A triptych of an annular eclipse over Friendship, North Carolina, is the merest shorthand for the miracles I have seen in the sky.

A few of these photographs have been published; none has been previously exhibited; and most have never been printed before this show. In many cases, I have simply held the negatives or the digital captures, waiting for computer technology to allow me to adjust an exposure, suppress film grain, heighten a sense of place, or better evoke an interval of extraordinary light. The technology to get these moments right exists at last. Now.

David Cortner
December 2004