To Catch the Wind
Not long ago my wife and I attended the opening of a solo show by photojournalist Rachel Cobb at the KMR Arts gallery in Washington Depot, Connecticut. The exhibition was called “Mistral,” named for the cold, dry northwesterly wind that funnels down the Rhône Valley in Provence before emptying into the Mediterranean. The wind can blow hard for days and seemingly bend everything to its will (mistral means “masterly” in the local dialect). Houses are built with their backs to the wind, their doors located on the south side and few or no windows on the windward side. Heavy stones are placed on roofs to keep terra-cotta tiles from blowing away. Rows of cyprus and poplar trees are planted close together around vineyards to serve as wind breaks. The relentless sacré mistral (damned mistral), as the locals call it, is blamed for everything from headaches, irritability and depression to outright insanity.
In this latter category, we might include Vincent Van Gogh’s breakdown, even though he was resident in Provence for only a little more than two years. Like Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, he had been drawn to the region by its abundant sunshine and strong, clear light, by-products of the wind blasting away the cloud cover. We know Van Gogh was affected by the “merciless mistral,” which he mentioned in letters to his brother Theo. He wrote that he had to stake his easel down with iron pegs so he could work in the wind. But on one occasion the mistral snatched his easel, palette and brushes from his hands, and he was unable to retrieve them. This caused him to try to kill himself by eating his paints, a prelude to the self-inflicted gunshot wound that eventually killed him.
Van Gogh’s hallucinatory Starry Night, painted from a second-story window of a lunatic asylum in Saint-Remy, now seems less like an hallucination than an attempt to capture the mistral. The night sky is roiled by thick swirls and eddies, while the moon and stars shine with viscous luminosity. A huge cypress in the foreground rises to the heavens like a dark flame. The actual mistral operates invisibly, of course, but Van Gogh’s painting captures what it must feel like, particularly to one whose mind is poised on the brink of oblivion.
New York-based Rachel Cobb had a similar ambition to capture the mistral, working within the photographic medium. I was intrigued by the challenge Cobb had set for herself. How does one go about photographing the wind, which is invisible? With photography, your subject matter is necessarily limited to what can actually be seen. Furthermore, the wind is in constant motion, while photography in a still medium.
Cobb’s project took some 20 years to complete, including a year spent living in a small village in Provence. Her task was to provide “evidence of things not seen,” to borrow a phrase from St. Paul. Her pictures show kites flying at the Fête du Vent (Festival of the Wind) on Prado Beach in Marseille, as well as spray from towering waves kicked up by the wind. She was there to capture a bride standing at the door of a church, her veil dancing in the breeze. She photographed a pair of white horses facing into the wind, eyes closed, manes whipped back. And she climbed Mont Ventoux, the highest peak in Provence, to bring back pictures of snow and ice sculpted by an unseen hand.
When you think about it, photography is always bearing witness to what can’t be seen. A good photographer can capture a bird in flight, a child at play or the key moment in a sporting event – all strongly suggesting movement that does not actually exist within the frame of a still picture. Likewise, a photograph may evoke emotions that are no more visible than the savage wind that inspired Van Gogh to paint a masterpiece – and that may also have driven him mad.
St. Paul’s “evidence of things not seen” originally applied not to capturing the wind but to matters of the spirit. As it happens, wind and spirit are designated by the same words in both Hebrew and in Greek, the languages of Scripture. The Hebrew ruach shows up in the second verse of the Old Testament:
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Here the original Hebrew word translated as “spirit” is ruach, which might just as easily be rendered as “wind.” Indeed, if we were to try to picture the scene, we might well envision wind moving over the face of the waters. If a photographer were present at the Creation, he or she might well look for wind-whipped waves as evidence of the movement of the Spirit on this occasion.
There is no “how to” to guide you in bringing out the spiritual dimension in photography, any more than you can point to it in any other aspect of life. There were no photographers present when Moses happened upon the burning bush or when Jesus was transfigured by the light from another world. Light is the photographer’s medium, of course, but there is normally nothing to distinguish otherworldly light from the ordinary light of day. I would suggest, in fact, that there is nothing intrinsically to distinguish otherworldly light from the ordinary light of day. They exist in the eye of the beholder, perchance in the eye of the photographer at the moment when he snaps his picture. As William Blake might put it, “The eye altering alters all.”
William Blake, “The Mental Traveller”