Recently I watched an American Experience documentary on Ansel Adams.  I prefer realistic urban scenes to highly stylized landscapes, but Ansel Adams mastered exposure and darkroom techniques that improved all kinds of photography.  This is a fantastic peek at his artistic development.

After years of hobby photography, Adams had a particular awareness of light early one morning during the summer of 1923.  He then put it into words better than at any other time in his life, as quoted in the American Experience documentary:

It was one of those mornings where the sunlight is burnished with the keen wind and long feathers of cloud moved in a lofty sky.  The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous, metallic splendor.  There was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air.  I was suddenly arrested in the long, crunching path of the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light.  The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me.  I saw more clearly than I’ve ever seen before or since the minute detail of  the grasses, the small flotsom of the forest, the motion of the high clouds, streaming above the peaks.  I dreamed that for a moment time stood quietly and the vision became but the shadow of an infinitely greater world.  And I had within the grasp of consciousness a transcendental experience.

Ansel Adams saw the light that morning.  Despite his description of it as a transcendental experience, this was not the metaphor of mental clarity or religious conversion or an a-ha! moment.  This was the real thing on which the metaphor is based.  He saw the light and stopped to bask in it and all the beauty it allowed him to see.  This new awareness further fueled his desire to produce on paper that which he felt in the moment of capturing the image.  It would be another four years before he tried one of the heavy red filters that gave his images the drama and metallic shimmer he sought, and would from that moment on mark his distinctive style in landscape photography.

Just before seeing this documentary, I finished reading It’s a Meaningful Life by Bo Lozoff, whose life work is to help prison inmates and others improve their lives through his organization Human Kindness Foundation.  It is a very God-centered book, though in the most broad understanding of the concept of God.  But to me, this book isn’t so much about communion with God as it is about paying attention to the life around you.  He describes it best in a section titled “Spirituality is not optional”:

It is said that a king wearing full battle armor once rushed up to see the Buddha.  The king said, “O Enlightened One, I am on my way to war and it is very possible I may be killed.  So I am in need of your deepest spiritual teachings.  However, I must hurry or my soldiers will lose their courage.  Can you sum up all your teachings in one word?”

The Buddha replied, “Awareness.”

Not religion.  Not God.  Not faith.  Just awareness.

Throughout the book, Lozoff describes the kind of intentional awareness that allowed Ansel Adams to eventually become the great photographer he was.  Adams was a master of capturing exquisite detail in his images.  I doubt you will ever find a “hot spot” in one of his professional images, where the strength of light washes out your ability to view detail.  They are all completely dense from every corner to the center, even when the sky makes up a large portion of the frame.

But not all of us can spend days upon days in the wilderness.  I generally prefer food cooked in a kitchen and bathrooms with towels and hot water and clean toilets.  But the fruit of active awareness can apply to the most mundane situations, and the most stressful.

On NPR’s “Fresh Air” this week I heard an interview with the Reverend Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded and runs Homeboy Industries, an organization in Los Angeles which provides services and employment to those fleeing the gang life.  The entire interview, about 40 minutes, is so worth a listen.

It contains the type stories you might expect: great success and tragedy and the very real struggle to fund Homeboy Industries’ counseling arm.  But toward the end this priest tells a very funny story about Diane Keaton dining at their restaurant and the waitress, a convicted felon and former gang member, having no idea who the famous actress is.

After telling that story he says this:

Part of having a light grasp is to sort of keep your eyes open, and listen more carefully, because in the end, you know, it’s not just about going to the hospital right now to see Omar.  It’s about people being comfortable in their own home-sweet-home, in their own skin, you know.  And people delighting in each other and people discovering each other and the kinship of this felony-ridden homegirl meeting this movie star, as improbable as this all seems.

Omar is a former gang member and former employee who had been shot in the head the night before.

I love his use of the phrase “light grasp”.  Not caring less, engaging more.  Not getting so caught up in the big picture that you miss the small moments in life.

Bo Lozoff says “Take off the bumper stickers.” Don’t live life in clichés and positive sayings.  What Father Boyle described in the quote above and at other times in the “Fresh Air” interview is, as he puts it, “delighting in stuff” – really paying attention to it all and, when possible, enjoying that which we witness and experience.

Ansel Adams worked tirelessly to funnel his emotion into an image he could share with others and to support  The Sierra Club’s efforts to preserve the place of his heart.  Father Boyle works tirelessly to help provide a way out to those caught in the horror of gang life.  Bo Lozoff works tirelessly to help prisoners lead a meaningful life during and after incarceration.

These people accomplish great things through their specific passion and hard work.  While communing with their environments, they have thrown themselves into the work they love in which they find meaning.

Awareness in life is a neverending effort.  It requires conscious engagement in our environment.  But through awareness and engagement, I think life can be as rich and dense as an Ansel Adams photograph.  It really just depends on making good use of your viewfinder.