Discover more from Morgoth’s Review
Some ruminations on a chance encounter with a photographer
As somebody who loves to spend time in the great outdoors wandering with a dog, the advent of autumn means pulling out the woolly hat and more often than not getting rained on. Recently, on a woodland walk the heavens opened, and rather than doing the usual crouch under bushes technique I spotted some distance off a bird hide and decided to shelter there.
It’s a curious thing, some readers and viewers have asked me to lighten the tone a little recently, to dish out something a little optimistic and upbeat. The problem is in political terms I have nothing at all and I won’t pretend to have. Yet, away from the internet and the news cycle, life isn’t really too bad if you simply learn to enjoy the smaller things. I also think that I have a typical Generation X cynicism and dark humour. Everything is fake, everything is there to be deconstructed, not built. Authenticity is a larp, or a cope. And so on. Likewise, to consciously Turn Away from the madness, to remove one’s self as much as possible from hypermodernity and the incessant noise and psychological intrusion seems to be an impossibility, a fiction.
Or is it? Can we really step back and become what is contemptuously called a ‘‘Normie’’? And what even is a normie when everybody has their own poles of truth and grounding systems of belief? I like to think when I wander through woodlands and coastlines with my dog I can feel the tendrils and electronic nodes of life shriveling up and that in some way, rusty wiring was being removed from my brain.
With such thoughts on my mind, I entered the bird hide and inside it, I saw that there was another man already. Middle-aged, dressed in the garb of the comfortable urbanite outdoors. He was standing behind a tripod with a large camera fixed to the top and focussing out onto the small lake that the bird hide was built to view. After a little bit of small talk, I looked through the gap where you view the birds and asked him what he was looking at. He pointed across the water and vaguely I could make out some kind of seabird airing its wings. A comorant I thought.
It was, he told me, the Great or Continental Cormorant. And he had driven three hours to be here in order to get photos of it.
As a subculture, bird-watching, and amateur photography occupy weird niches within the wider zeitgeist. They’re both very ‘‘white’’ pastimes. Many people would say a waste of time unless you can make money off it anyway. In fact, even the idea of a hobby or pastime implies that you have a gap to fill between doing what matters for the system most, which is working or at least in some way being productive. Your time, our time, has been calculated as has your so-called ‘‘free time’’ and reduced to fit into a schematic. Hobbies are the indulgence awarded to the good citizen, and the prize time allotted to the productive subject.
I don’t know anything about cameras but when I looked more closely at the Birdwatcher’s setup in the hide I got the impression that this fella meant business. We chatted a little more and he uncoupled his camera from the tripod and showed me the pictures of the cormorant he’d taken so far. They were, exquisite, where I saw an ungainly fat bird in the distance he had captured a creature of pure poetry, raising its beak into the rain with small water droplets running down its wings and feathers all perfectly visible. I could see its eyeball looking upwards into the sky.
Seeing that I was obviously impressed he went and pulled out another camera with a larger digital screen and switched it on. It seemed like he was opening a case of medals he’d won in many previous battles or adventures. I saw kingfishers in whatever the highest definition is, frozen in time at the precise second they’d entered the water. He had spent nights outdoors waiting to catch barn owls looking into his lens or swooping through the early morning mists. Harriers and buzzards snapped midwinter flying through fluffy snow. Stags on mountaintops in fog or staring mysteriously through dank forests straight into the camera.
His personal favourite was a photo of geese flying across a frosty landscape which surprised me because geese aren’t that uncommon or hard to find.
I asked if he sold them or if he did this for a living, he had sold a few but mainly it was a ‘‘hobby’’. He didn’t have a website or anything on social media.
I parted ways with the photographer after half an hour or so but I felt bewildered, as if there was a lot to ponder. I wondered if he was a liberal or some sort of leftist, but I knew that in all probability he’d be considered a normie, or more likely, completely indifferent as are so many people now. But then again, this is subjective. Was I not a normie to him? I spent my time wandering through the landscape, but he saw genuine beauty in it that I couldn’t. He was privy to scenes that I wasn’t. I saw tiny birds flitting about in a blur, he saw morning dew hanging off the beak of a robin.
It is a passion, a striving that warrants sleepless nights in woodlands and by the sides of lakes. And in its scope it’s infinite. There will always be the potential for a better shot, a more dramatic pose, or a quirky scene often in the mundane. This is a world of forms left intact, just as the hobby itself is viewed with indifference. In an age in which everything has been broken apart, why does a barn owl gliding across a meadow at dawn illicit such awe? Or for that matter, why are owls more interesting than sparrows in the first place? They’re both ‘‘just’’ birds. But in the photographer’s frame, both have the potential to reveal the sublime. Of course, there’s a paradox here that warrants some further exploration, and that is a question concerning technology.
It’s no secret that I’m profoundly skeptical and some would say paranoid about the direction in which technology is moving. It occurred to me though, looking at the photographer’s hi-tech digital equipment, that there was an area where technology had been quietly advancing alongside the more prominent objects such as the iPhone. Other tentacles of the digital revolution did not want to track you or control you, they were in the business of revealing the world in super high resolution, in revealing unto us in spectacular detail how poetic and aesthetically wondrous everyday creatures could be or are.
Usually, the effect of technology is to desacralize, to reduce life to quanta. Here though, the opposite was happening. Technology was a means by which beauty and the intensity of life could be revealed, not concealed. Here, the promise of progress has been realised. Technological development is being deployed for the purpose not of crushing the transcendent, but of revealing it. Though, of course, there’s an irony to this because we’re essentially re-entering a realm of objective beauty, notions of the sublime and the metaphysical, and away from raw materialism and the bugman life. It’s easy these days to use technology to find images of wildlife, I did so for this video essay. So something else drives these people. It doesn’t seem to be any financial gain, and it isn’t comfort, so why bother doing it all unless there is a glimpse of something more profound?
No man would sit on a rainy hillside all night because he might get a glimpse of some furry porn or whatever, but the chance, a tiny chance at that, of capturing a grouse standing on a rock, or a bat on the wing, might just do it. Would there ever be a time when the perfect shot or scene had been captured? Is it ever possible to attain or possess perfection? I suspect not, but it is the quest itself that gives meaning and purpose. Viewed through such a lens, the world, and the natural world in particular is recast as infinite potential, endless possibilities of special split-second glimpses of beauty.
How many wasted trips and early morning starts have tested the enthusiasm of such people? I’m keenly aware of this by spending weeks fishing only to come back empty-handed every time.
None of this is rational. I’ve read more Richard Dawkins than I care to admit and he leans into the wonder of science and the natural world, but why that is wondrous when, at the end of the day it is nothing more than electrodes and synapses firing up responses and emotions is lost on me. A plump robin sits on a branch boasting its red breast which contrasts with the winter snow. What are the chemical reactions in our brains that take place that make us enjoy such a scene, what is its evolutionary function? It can perhaps be explained, but what drives people to sit freezing in order to capture it on camera, especially when any financial incentive is removed and no social status is to be acquired?
My content can certainly be doom-laden, or ‘‘blackpilling’’ in internet parlance. Often it’s because I sense a closing of the gaps wherein real life and authenticity can be lived with meaning. From this perspective my encounter with the photographer was a great revelation because, in terms of finding ways to live with higher aims in mind, he was doing it, not just writing or theorizing, but feeling it and, it could be said, obsessing over it. To yearn and strive for that split second of perfection, never entirely obtainable, but always worth seeking. Such a way of Being is the opposite of nostalgia.
The quest to achieve the perfect shot is always forward-looking, yes, there are past victories stored and cherished, but the prospect of an even better moment always lies ahead on another trip. How many perfect moments can we count in our lives?
The photographer set off in the early morning or stayed out at night, he had prepared himself with expensive equipment and learned his craft, studied light and movement. Almost all his energy was spent on preparations, to clear the obstacles and tip the scales in his favour as much as possible so that moment of transcendence would, not be ensured exactly, but at least more likely to happen. It required dedication, a degree of discomfort, and, let us be honest, good luck.
A billion, trillion perfect moments take place every day and all it needs to be seen is a change in perspective. Understanding perspective is, of course, the primary focus of the photographer.
As I wandered away pondering the curious man with the cameras I again began to think about his politics. Was he a liberal, or a conservative, or a normie? But this was a restrictive perspective, I was viewing it from the wrong position. Let us be honest, politics didn’t really define him, perhaps not at all.
He was, first and foremost, something else. He seemed to inhabit a different plane of existence, one of pure poetry far removed from the grotesqueries and incessant churn of the news cycle. It’s cathartic to know that there are people still out there like that, on quiet quests to unlock the sublime, and it’s a stark reminder that, whatever horrors you’ve seen on social media today, there’s a man out there somewhere actually living.