depth of field /depq əv fi:ld/ n. 1 the zone of acceptable sharpness within a photo that will appear in focus.
I am socially awkward, clumsy with people and manners. I am often too blunt or share too much, and I entertain very few personal-editorial skills. I do not easily stomach mawkish piety, the caddishly unintellectual, the parochial and pageantry, or the obdurately political. I accumulate fancy, Latinized phrases such as ex nihilo nihil fit and credo ut intelligam and post hoc, ergo propter hoc because I like sounding snooty and uppish, but I am freakishly naive. I love irony but seldom catch sarcasm. Consequently, I spend a great deal of time alone.
I joined a photography Meet Up group to help with this social isolation. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was surprised even having no expectations. The group was friendly, cordial, curious about each other, dealt with conflict appropriately, ethnically diverse, and more interested in doing things rather than talking about things. They seem the perfect church, in as much as the word “church” actually means “town meeting.”
This past week our troop gathered at the Wrightsville Beach Brewery. We were given access to the “behind the scenes” stuff. At first the environment seemed overwhelmingly un-photographic. Tall stainless-steel drums, a tile floor, hoses and tubes running from one place to another, thermometers and dials, pressure gages and compression valves, a manager’s station with a laptop, a half-eaten sandwich, and strewn paperwork. I like taking pictures of wildflowers, landscapes, ocean vistas, dramatic stages for colors and light. I saw nothing of photographic interest.
In all photographs, the goal of the photographer is to direct the eye of the viewer through an image in much the same way a storyteller works at perfecting the narrative arc. In photography, this narrative arc is accomplished by various tactics such as composition, lighting, shutter speed, etcetera. I decided to start playing with the depth of field. I wondered if I could make one beer can draw the attention away from an entire frame filled with beer cans. Could I make a viewer’s eye see only one part of the picture? On a glass with red letters, could I frame the shot just right to know exactly which letter an eye will notice first? In a frame of ropes, could I govern an audience to not just one particular rope but one part of one rope?
In this way, playing with the depth of field guides the viewer’s participation through the photograph to a specific place. Sure, the viewer is aware of the rest of the picture, and the blurred-out area does contribute to the overall aesthetic. But it only does so by discounting itself. This move complements the area of the photograph that is in focus by specifying for the viewer the subject. That’s a bunch of fancy talk trying to say: the picture tells the viewer where to look.
out of my depths /a℧t əv maI depq/ fig. 1 involved in something that is beyond one’s capabilities. 2 in a situation that you cannot deal with because it is too difficult or dangerous. 3 outside of one’s understanding or competence, as in He was out of his depth in that advanced calculus class. This expression alludes to being in water so deep that one might sink. [c. 1600]
There were only so many good depth of field shots I could come up with. I took one picture after another of beer cans being fed into the assembly line and being spit out again as a proper beer. Up until one moment, I might as well have been taking pictures of rocks. Then someone must have dropped a beer or poured one out. Something happened. An herbal, earthy perfume enveloped the brewery.
I smelled the beer the way one smells the gasoline just before the spark falls to the floor. The smell didn’t trigger urges, temptations, or an unstoppable desire. Instead, my talking brain exploded in the room like an angry man screaming to be let loose. My personal depth of field was destroyed. I couldn’t focus. There was nothing left in the entire brewery interesting enough to photograph. All I could hear was that internal screaming man shouting at me.
“Are you just that stupid?” the screaming man yells. “You are worthless?” “You never do anything right.” The screaming man hates me and holds a grudge against everything I’ve ever done. According to the screaming man, I am perpetually out of my depths, treading water, nearly sunk. Panic is the appropriate response, says the screaming man. Panic and fear. I do not dread death, hell, or oblivion. Only the screaming man.
The endless self-commentary that I’ve so identified with, that rambling voice in my head, the screaming man – screaming, screaming – constantly lobbing ridicules and taunts, jeering me into a domesticated oaf – I’ve been jailed by habitual thoughts, my mind mutating into a torture device, raking me over memories and irrelevancies forgotten by everyone else but my jailer. The past seems so clear and immediate, and I begin to live backwards, trapped by my own thoughts.
The photograph can only show the past. A photograph can never experience the present or anticipate the future. It is stuck in a place that no longer exist. And with that same sentence my jailer imprisons me again and again; I can hardly move forward, be present, or anticipate the future. The screaming man screams.
I am nearly overwhelmed by the screaming man. But he has one weakness. He tells me again and again that I am out of my depths. I listen closely to his words. Out of my depths. And his curse works against him.
The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus said. And that’s it, assuming Jesus is right. If the kingdom of God is within me, it must be buried way down. Somewhere so deep it exists only as an infinitesimal flicker. Out of sight. Somewhere the screaming man hasn’t looked or can’t look. If he saw it, I think, he would disintegrate into permanent nothingness.
But what is this kingdom of God? This territory or dimension of God that is somehow within me? Maybe it is as Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain taught: “Such philosophers considered man to be only a microcosmos, minimizing and restricting his value and perfection within this visible world. God, on the contrary, has placed man to be a sort of macrocosmos – a greater world within the smaller one.” The screaming man could never fathom the idea that God made me, stupid, dumb me, to be greater than the entire universe.
When I believe this, those few moments when the screaming man seems to be napping, I am with myself. I am no longer a photograph that can only be obsessed with the past. I am here, now, this moment. My depth of field is focused on the present. I can feel the warmth of the coffee cup in my hands. My fingers run over the keyboard, typing words as fast as I can think, and I have no idea how they know where each letter is. I can feel air coming into my chest and leave my body. From out of my depths, this kingdom of God within me, I know that I have been laced with a divinity that will one day give me the power to tell the screaming man to shut up.