Heading away from the prairie the other evening, I stopped to get a better look at the moss that's coming back to line our local bicycle path. While I was crouching to get this image, and even more fully once I actually saw the image, I remembered perhaps the first moment when it occurred to me to use my camera to make a picture like this one.
Partway up Libe Slope, which stretches between Cornell's Arts Quad and its west campus, there are remnants of some earlier moment's path. Now (or at least this was the case an unbelievable ten whole years ago), those remnants are mostly pieces of stone and pavement almost entirely obscured by the slope's lawn. They're also intense patches of moss, instead of just being grass.
I had never noticed these path remnants, these vestigial collections of stones and moss, until I had my first digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix 885 my parents had given me for Christmas in 2001, in my hand. I don't believe that I'd figured out the macro setting yet--though maybe I had. What I remember is getting off the #10 bus that would take me from downtown Ithaca to Cornell's campus for 50¢ in those days and climbing Libe Slope, hoping to find something to photograph before (probably) going to the library to do some kind of research or another.
When I found these patches of moss and old pavement, I got stuck on the Slope for probably a good half-hour. I can look back now and trace the throughline that probably wasn't visible then, when all I recognized was the strange serenity of this still life I'd encountered. About eighteen months earlier, I'd been with my father in Kyoto, seeing my first Zen rock garden (at Ryoan-ji, which translates to Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), and those mossy assemblages of pavement fragments and pebbles closer to home, in the presence of which I vividly remember realizing that I could actually contemplate something by seeing it through the lens and making a picture of it, must somehow have linked up with that larger-scale wonder, which had helped change my way of understanding the world.
As I type, though, I wonder whether that instance was the first time I really got the way that photography could be contemplative. After all, I'd been using one camera or another (the Olympus XA [which I'd love to get my hands back on now that I actually know something], the Polaroid SX-70 [ditto], the Kodak disc camera [not so much], a Nikon point-and-shoot whose model I can't remember, my beloved Olympus Stylus, the extra-beloved Olympus Stylus Zoom my father traded to me for my non-zoom before I left for Europe) from a very young age, and certainly as I travelled in college I did more than just take touristy shots. But I think that what distinguished that moment on the Slope is that it was one of the first times I'd lingered so long over something so everyday, so close to home--which was, for me, precisely what digital photography made possible in a way that film (perhaps paradoxically) hadn't. I remember thinking to myself, and possibly saying to my father later, that I wanted to try taking pictures that would capture the kind of serenity I felt studying that moss and those stones.
One of my black and white prints from that day on the Slope still lives in my copy of A.R. Ammons's Collected Poems.