Steady attention

Caroline Littell Photo edited

“If you are truly present for an orange,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh once remarked, “the orange will be present for you.”

I was reminded of that remark when viewing the recent exhibition of sixty black-and-white photographs by the photojournalist Caroline Littell (1939-2015) at Alfred University’s Herrick Memorial Library. Entitled “Camera without Borders: The World of Caroline Littell,” this wide-ranging exhibition was curated by her husband, the travel writer Alan Littell, and their son Harry Littell, Associate Professor of Photography at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

As variegated as it is accomplished, Caroline Littell’s work spans several decades and the multiple continents she visited during her lifetime. Her beautifully rendered photographs, nearly all of them predating the digital era, were taken in countries as diverse in character and terrain as Burma, Botswana, Thailand, Colombia, Scotland, Turkey, Canada, and the United States. Many portray indigenous inhabitants, singly or in groups. Others depict landscapes, public squares, churches, monuments, and wild animals in their natural habitats. Diverse as they are in subject, however, the photos evince two consistent qualities, which together convey a strong sense of presence, whether the subject is a rhino in Tanzania or two young men astride their motorbikes on a street corner in Bangkok.

On the one hand, the photos achieve, time and again, an effect of spontaneous immediacy, akin to that of a snapshot. Unstaged and uncontrived, they capture a fleeting moment just as it was. In one stark but subtle photo, taken in Metsovo, Greece, two elderly women in black headscarves and long black dresses climb a sidewalk against the backdrop of a white stone wall. OneĀ  follows the other, but although they are in step, each appears engrossed in her own thoughts. Here as elsewhere, the photo creates the sense of the moment unfolding, unhindered by the medium or the will of the photojournalist to control what she is encountering.

At the same time, Littell’s composition is artfully balanced. And even in her most kinetic images, a sense of the transitory moment is countered by a feeling of sustained attention. That is particularly true of her panoramic renditions of unpopulated landscapes, which range from the Scottish Highlands to the Sussex Downs to a snowy field in Alfred, New York. Viewing these tranquil images, their quietude enhanced by their monochromatic medium, I am left with an impression of steady, unhurried observation.

Of the many photos that join a sense of the world in continuous motion with that of poised, relaxed attention, one of the most memorable is a picture of fishermen in a boat on Inle Lake in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. I first viewed this photograph in the late 1980s, when it appeared in print in conjunction with a travel article by Alan Littell. The image impressed me at the time, and viewing it again, nearly thirty years later, I find it no less compelling.

Against a faintly discernible horizon obscured by a dense mist, three Burmese fishermen are at work on a narrow boat resembling a dugout canoe. Two are attending to large conical fishing nets. On their left stands the oarsman, his left foot planted on the stern and his right leg curled around a tall wooden oar. He appears to be rowing–or about to row–the long boat with his leg, as is the custom on Inle Lake, where the heavy vegetation on the water makes a seated rowing position impractical. The oarsman’s dark reflection shimmers in the slightly rippling water. Although the boat appears to be in motion, and the men are busy with their labors, this symmetrical, unruffled image is imbued with a mood of contemplative calm, reminiscent of Asian minimalist painting. Though firmly embedded in time, it has the timeless character of a haiku.

“What you look hard at,” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his journal in 1871, “seems to look hard at you.” As her choice of subjects indicates–she was an explorer and documentarian, not an investigative journalist–and as her posthumous exhibition amply demonstrated, Caroline Littell’s approach to her subjects was more intuitive than hard, more empathic than interrogatory. But in her unending curiosity, her openness to experience, and especially her capacity to wait for the instant when the character of a person, place, or thing might disclose itself, she allowed her subjects to speak for themselves. Patiently present for the world’s ephemeral forms, she made them vividly present for her viewers.


* Molly Steere, summer assistant at Herrick Library, helped to install the exhibition, which ended on July 16. The photos will eventually be available in a book compiled and edited by Alan and Harry Littell.

Photo: “Inle Lake,” by Caroline Littell.

Fragrance_Garden_-_Brooklyn_Botanic_Garden_-_Brooklyn,_NY_-_DSC07926In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years? Continue Reading »

Wooden monkReading a brochure from the Laz-y-Boy company the other day, I came upon the claim that Laz-y-Boy, Inc. is “being mindful” with respect to the environment. I was heartened to find that reassurance, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the company was voicing an authentic concern or merely striking a fashionable attitude.

Over the past two decades, the practice of mindfulness has assumed a prominent place in American life. In the vernacular of our times, mindfulness has gone mainstream. American corporations, particularly those situated in Silicon Valley, have embraced the practice, chiefly as a means of reducing stress and increasing productivity. So have the military academies, the health-care system, the prison system, and, more gradually, public schools and higher education. Yet, as the practice has gained in acceptance, it has sometimes lost sight of its origins in Buddhist meditation, and a central component has often been left behind. Continue Reading »

Allan Lokos

Allan Lokos

In the Parable of the Burning House, a revered text in the Zen tradition, a grand but dilapidated mansion catches fire. At the time, the wealthy owner is standing outside the gate, but inside the mansion, his three sons are playing with their toys, oblivious of the encroaching conflagration. Rushing into the house, their father implores them to get out, but they ignore his admonitions. To entice them, he promises to give them jeweled, ox-drawn carts if they will leave. By these “expedient means” he achieves his purpose, and his sons escape “the burning house of the threefold world.” Soon afterward, their father presents them with magnificent carriages adorned with gold, silver, and pearls and drawn by stalwart, pure-white oxen. Released from the burning house and their former attachments, his sons enjoy safety and freedom.

I was reminded of this parable while reading Allan Lokos’s new book Through the Flames, which recounts Lokos’s experience of a horrific plane crash and his near-miraculous survival and recovery. In December, 2012, Lokos and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were enjoying a ten-day holiday in Mynanmar. On Christmas Day, they boarded a short flight from Mandalay to Inle Lake. As their low-flying plane approached its destination, it struck electrical wires, burst into flames, and crashed in a rice field. Susanna jumped to safety from a side exit, but Allan, who was just behind her, caught his foot on something and suffered burns to a third of his body before he could escape. In the anguished days that followed, doctors in Myanmar, Bangkok, and Singapore informed Susanna that her husband, whose burns were massive and bone-deep, could not possibly survive, let alone recover. Continue Reading »

Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. Continue Reading »

156. The Book of Janet

730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. Continue Reading »

155. O great mystery

Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. Continue Reading »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,116 other followers