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Lisl Dennis artist statement Mar23

BEFORE THE DAYS OF GOOGLE EARTH, I pinpointed my upcoming travel destinations on an elephant World Atlas spread wide on my father’s lap. He was dressed and waiting for my stylish mother to emerge for a dinner party. Squinting at the longitude and latitude of exotic intersections of my photo assignments and personal travel adventures, my father settled into a shabby-chic arm chair is accompanied by a crackling fire, stiff scotch as he puffs on an overstuffed sparking pipe.

Country complexioned silver haired, James Suydam Jones features burn holes in his bespoke bottle-green velvet smoking jacket. Medium blue grosgrain lapels and trim are the signature colors of his pack of hounds, the Tewksbury Foot Bassets. The hounds sound throughout rural New Jersey partitioned by barbed wire, mossy stone walls, and post-and-rails upgraded from Colonial zig zag fencing of George Washington’s Revolutionary forays. Shaded rivers and riffling streams meandered through the fertile countryside. Cows, sheep, and horses animate the fields. With a squint, I spot a brush-tailed red fox on the run.

Reads like a dream? No! For real: It was my father J.S.J. who cut me loose early into nature and the world’s open spaces.

After a sloppy day in the field – Pops as we called him – showered and toweled-off alfresco in front of the living room fire. Before talc-terror, he’d dust J&J baby powder on his privates. Snowy fallout drifted onto his velvet evening slippers. Well-read, General Joseph Stilwell’s story “The Burma Road” was one of his favorites. Natty in cuffed flannels and vintage red farmer’s handkerchief crammed into his breast pocket, Jimmy Jones made damn sure I knew where the Burma Road was long before I’d been there – to Myanmar that is. Constructed in 1938 during World War 11, the 2 line through remote villages was a materiel route from the Burmese border to Kunming, China, capitol of Hunnan Province.

Given my itineraries, Jimmy tracked my far-flung adventures. The era of globalization was a multi-decade safe-enough-space for expansive travels – often on my own. Big Apple chutzpah, a pinch of perspicacity, and a dash of derring-do were in the mix especially in India. After his death, I took J.S.J.’s cremains in a Kodachrome film canister to the Ganges. I transferred them into an elephant-embossed water vessel for a ceremonial puja.

Lisl Dennis Squint bird

AT VARANASI ON THE GANGES, a mulligatawny of skills was required for my father’s puja. It was facilitated by jungly opportunistic priests intoning chants. They dabbed a third-eye on my forehead and launched me and my envesseled father’s cremains onto a long nauka boat on the Ganges. Priests lobbed coconuts upon my father’s water-borne ashes amidst bathing pilgrims bobbing in-and-out of the filthy holy water. A vibrant kingfisher sat sentinel on the prow. Backlit butter votives floated downstream with Pop’s ashes on their way to the Bay of Bengal. A squint was needed to quell tears. J.S.J. was a Raj scholar. I knew he was on his homecoming current in the liquefaction of the Gangetic plain.

A squint has its uses in today’s shambolic world. Beyond all imagining: wars and rumors of war; climate catastrophes; famines, floods and fires; black holes and fake news; twisters and conflagrations; cultural conspiracies and civil rights abuses; shape-shifting and assorted dysphoria; bats and mutating pandemics; performative shenanigans on a worldwide scale.

When not wincing at all this, a squint relieves despair and engenders healing perspectives and creative POV. As a photographer, I find nurturing engaged creativity in one’s image making must be shored up by right intention and salubrious spiritual practices. Engagement for social good – not for auto-inflation.

In photographic parlance, to squint is akin to an SLR camera lens with its F-ratio stopped down to achieve maximum depth-of-field. With greater clarity near-and-far, to squint helps me achieve optical intimacy. To squint between the storylines of awareness, one can glimpse the truly beautiful. Could be a striated crepuscule out a 5 plane window or a warm childhood memory. Squinting at patches of my photographic past, I am grateful for the world-wind of my travels. By the time I was thirty, I’d been to over thirty countries on assignments including most of the Caribbean islands. On these and decades of ensuing global travels, I witnessed both the shadow-side of cultures and their abundant beauty. I love the world as an expansive sense-of-place and deepening sense-of-soul. Theologian Saint Augustine believed that “Love is the beauty of the soul.”

AS A TWENTY-YEAR OLD rookie, I was the first woman on the Boston Globe photo staff. I early learned a principle of photojournalism: Shoot three optical relationships. When engaging in a dynamic photo encounter, first, take the overall or establishing shots contextualizing where you are. Second, move in for medium exposures that engage you more directly with the unfolding story. Third, move in even closer – perhaps with a wide-angle lens. Immerse yourself in optical intimacy – distortion be damned.

Don’t stand back: Move in. While optical intimacy makes you more vulnerable to subjects and circumstances, it’s a practice – a more visceral engagement. This strategy allows for honest connections enabling greater visual impact. (A personal POV: Telephoto lenses keep you at a remove – like testosterone shots of bagging an eight-point buck over yonder.)

Humanities educator and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams astonishes in her book “Finding Beauty in a Broken World” (Pantheon, Random House.) Her interwoven narratives of creating mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, interwoven with the relocation of prairie dog communities by developers in Utah makes for a riveting squint read. Working on book and magazine assignments in Morocco, I too, became enamored with mosaics – less so with prairie dogs.

Lisl Dennis mosaics patterns

While mosaics have a visual plasticity, prairie dogs have behavioral plasticity: It doesn’t take them long to hole up in a new open lot. Challenging human coordinates, Tempest Williams affirms, “…living in the twenty-first century… We have no compass to reorient ourselves.” Seeking guidance from her inner GPS, she confesses “I am looking for a way to vocalize, perform, act out, and address the commonly felt crises of my time…These are spiritual exercises.”

Tempest Williams laments “the dismemberment of territory.” So do I. Heartbreaking: reduced to rubble, devastated Ukraine brings to mind, as well, the ongoing desecration of classical civilizations. Today, ancient cultures on all continents are mere historic footnotes – one-time popular destinations and natural attractions many of which I have visited.

Deep plunges in far away places became central to my unfolding career as a travel and decorative arts photographer. Years of field experience developed my moral imagination: the capacity to maintain peaceable equipoise in the foreign mix of cultural life. And to absorb infusions of diverse spiritual practices, indigenous creative expressions: I love local ceremonial remembrances and historical trappings that defy imagination.

Most important, moral imagination enables one – think photography – to view multiple creative opportunities in a given situation. Exposed rebar infrastructure of the Berlin Wall – like a modernist art installation – was one such opportunity. The infrastructure of tortured ribs and riddled cement are memorials to Holocaust atrocities. Today’s craven Russian attack on Ukraine imprints horrific images of felled infrastructure. A trip to Berlin revealed images from horrors past.

In Santa Fe on a quiet Sunday morning, I slid through a fence at a quiet construction site. As I approached a mountain of scrambled scrap metal, sheltering birds startled. Flushed: They exploded out from under leaving me squinting. The tortured metal adjusted, clanged and resettled. As I worked the scrap for compositions in flat light, there were endless possibilities. The sun and strong shadows emerged – it was time to scurry out. 9

Berlin Wall Lisl Dennis squint

CULTIVATING MORAL IMAGINATION is key to orienting oneself in the world. It’s the signature work of John Paul Lederach, an American philosopher of international peace building. I discovered his teaching at Santa Fe’s Upaya Zen Center. Developing moral imagination with a personal perspective engenders Right View as the Buddhists frame it. A visual artist can become an agent for peace building. It’s about seeing things as they really are. Right View is an integral part of the Eightfold Path. The basis of all Buddhist practice Right View is about clarity. It’s not an abstract theory.

Lederach asserts: “The hardest challenge of peace building is to see the essence. If you do nothing else, take time to get a picture – an image.” Impressions are core expressions of the moral imagination. Lederach has his teams write haiku because “a haiku must capture in a few words the complex fullness of a moment, a setting, or an experience.” Upaya Chaplain Carol Loftus Carrington views the practice of haiku “as embracing complexity through simplicity. Haiku suggests that intuition and lived experience are intricately connected.”

A succinct photograph is adjacent to a haiku – an image of simplicity in the chaos of quotidian life. Peace building as a photographer working in the diversity of cultures is a skill developed out of expansive lived experience. It’s about how we roll. I had one such experience – again in India – at the Maha Kumbh Mela. The celebration is a mega-gathering of humanity – not for claustrophobes. Millions of Indian pilgrims attend, mainly Hindu. The masses include tourists and journalists absorbed in the hordes – squinting to see something.

In 2019, I attended the Maha Kumbh Mela, mother-of-all-festivals, at Allahabad south of Benares. Dating from 644BC, Maha Kumbh Mela occurs every twelve years to commemorate the tribal war for the Kumbh, the sacred pitcher, between gods and demons.

At the sangham, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythological Saraswati rivers, devotees convene and ablute in the holy waters. Most striking are the jungly buck-naked Naga Sadhus down from the Himalayas for their cleansing ceremonial dip. They run naked en masse into swift currents. With their ebony-skinned bodies covered with ash, the Naga Sadhus eschew clothing as a symbol of renunciation. Everything swings, including prayer beads, dread locks, marigold leis – you name it.

Staying at the Cox & Kings tented media camp above the mela fray, I sat at a long table for dinner with renown film maker Sir David Attenborough and his crew. At the crack of dawn, the Naga Sadhu’s gathered. I vectored in the wake of the BBC crew headed to the sangham. It was madness: Think millions – not good for claustrophobes.

CONSIDERING MULTIPLE POSSIBILITIES at the sangham, I worked my way to the fencing alongside the path to the river. I seeing a better angle for video from the opposite side of the path the sadhus would run down, I wended my way across and tucked in next to a picture-perfect old Hindu man. Bearded and topped with a dirty-white meringue turban, his vast Gandhi-style khadi shawl flapped in the breeze.

As the Naga Sadhus readied for their bathing bid, foreign photographers began shooting frantically with telephoto lenses from the river-slope behind me. A spiritual event, photography was discouraged of the naked shivering sadhus. Press photos taken at the sangham of female bathers in revealing wet clingy saris was a kerfuffle in international news. The 2019 Khumba Mela garnered unparalleled global TV coverage. Hindus around the world took offense. Police showered rocks at photographers and smashed cameras to the ground. Discreetly, I stationed myself amidst pilgrims along a fence line. Down slope, wannabe photojournalists and naive tourists slipped in poop. They did not knowing that riversides are often plein air loos in third world and developing countries.

I sidled up to an old Hindu man. He was in a ganja trance oblivious to me. His shawl flared over my video camera as I tucked under the fabric to protect myself from projectiles. Excited Naga Sadhus launched toward the water. I got off a couple minutes of video, then wiggled out-from-under the shawl. Squinting, my eyes pools of dust, I wended my way back over a wobbly pontoon bridge across the holy rolling river and ducked into the Hare Khrishna camp for lunch. Silently sitting on long planks, hundreds of devotees were doled a nourishing gruel – often known as Buddha Bowl.

On the way, I passed a blasted sadhu who displayed his curled index finger nail grown grossly all his life. A glassy-eyed sadhu stretched his penis long enough to wrap it around his neck like a boa. Is this possible? Stupefied, I squinted. Anything is possible in India.

COGNITIVE SCIENTIST Mark Johnson states, moral imagination involves the envisioning of the full range of possibilities in a given situation. To solve ethical challenges, acting morally requires more than just strength of character.” The mela required social savvy, perspicacity, proprioception, vulnerability, photo skills – and stamina. Most critically, a love and respect for humanity in all its manifestations.

The mela inspired my moral imagination. The morass of humanity taught me lessons about peace, chaos and beauty: It was a mashup. To be a solo photo pilgrim at the mela was an awesome undertaking. As a survival mantra, I recalled American naturalist author Annie Dillard’s assertion in Pilgrim on Tinker Creek, “The least you can do is be there.”

“Being there” involves groundedness wherever you are in relation to the whatever. But “Don’t say woke.”

With a squint, one can perceive beauty almost anywhere. Early in the Ukraine war, I stared glassy eyed at ghastly images on TV. Once, I spotted military vehicles rolling on a street in Kyiv. They were topped with bundles of white-fringed red roses. A fleeting display of beauty, rivetingly unexpected amidst the atrocities of war. Where the tanks headed for a mass burial site, the annual ceremony on the Maidan, Independence Square, or to a funeral ceremony?

Much to my surprise, I came across an article in Vanity Fair (October 2022) “After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?”) by Janine Giovanni. She reminisces about Ukraine. “In Bucha, it was the beginning of spring. The cherry blossoms fell on the road like white stars.Tulips, red as blood, lined the gardens. Most homes even those where Russian tanks had driven straight though the flower beds, were adorned with rows of tulips in vivid colors – red, yellow, white.”

As Ukraine bombs-on, blood splayed winterscapes time-lapse into spring. Tulipomaniacal bulbs prize courageously up through snow melt. Red petals emerge into battle-ravaged front yard rubble. With a squint – what a shot!

There is an annual Ukrainian Dutch Tulip Festival to honor the friendship between two countries. A florist in the Netherlands created a yellow-and-blue tulip to mirror the colors of the Ukrainian flag. It’s a white tulip with a split stem, one side dipped in each color. Several times, I’ve been on assignment in the Netherlands to photograph ravishing tulip fields and the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Talk about beauty. Might have guessed: Veering on the abstract, my close-up and macro shots are my still favorites.

As a child, I poked my nose into my favorite flower in our garden: fluffy white peonies, fashionably fringed with pink. Given my young imaginal mind, the peonies efflorescent petals reminded me of a chicken’s bottom. As of this writing, in Ukraine, the chickens are freezing as the war rolls through winter. Frozen news images become ghastly – more abstract without the lights on. Squinting doesn’t cut it.

Once I asked Santa Fe artist Forest Moses, a Buddhist, “As you develop your spiritual practice, does your work become more abstract?” The unequivocal answer, “Yes.” For me, as I tired of capturing subject matter in the tradition travel manner, my work became increasingly abstract, as well. The intersection of form and color became more seductive to my eye than recording shots of tourist destinations. Cliched images of ethnicity were no longer central to my cultural capture. Photo colonialism was no longer “on” for me. 15

Lisl Dennis flowers collage

My father Jimmy Jones remains fireside as pipe tobacco sparks alight into his velvet smoking jacket. My mother Elizabeth Macy Jones turns out stylishly better late than never. Focused on beauty, it is she who taught me to cup my hand and squint to view more distinctly a butterfly on a rose blossom across the lawn. A free-form flower arranger, we had blousy blends of daffodils, forsythia, peonies, wisteria, iris, with counterbalancing grasses on every available surface. They were all worthy of Impressionist paintings. Culinary scents from the kitchen wafted ambient.

It was my mother who fed me intimate doses of beauty.

Whether photographing high-hell or horticulture, I find a sense-ofsoul and increasing felt-connection with photo subjects the closer I allow myself to be. Practicing optical intimacy: I agree with Terry Tempest Williams, “These are spiritual exercises.”

Is being a hopeful activist amidst the exigencies of climate chaos a spiritual exercise, or can it be? The New York Times Editors Opinion column: “The Optimist’s View of 2022” (Sunday, January1, 2023) opines, “To be clear: Climate change remains an existential challenge. What’s new is that if you squint a little, it is now possible to see a path ahead in which we manage – barely – to avoid calamity.”

As image makers, the question becomes: What can we learn about ourselves through the practice of photography – whether with a high-end SLR, video or the latest smart phone? Is a photograph – any image captured – really a self-portrait? Master photographers throughout the history of lens-based image making thought so. But we may have to squint to view a soul-sense of connection. See between the lines until the aperture of my mind’s eye opens wide. Keep on seeing reality – including beauty – up close and personal. Don’t let fear determine distance to experience – even if you have to squint – even wince.

I squinted when paging through The New Yorker Portfolio “A Harrowed Land” by American photojournalist James Nachtwey. (The New Yorker, May 9, 2022). Most of the appalling images had his signature perspective: low, close up, and wide-angle. It’s a Nachtwey style. His intimate view is capturing subjects as they are – not using a lens as shield.

Nachtwey is a renown photojournalist and conflict photographer. He has been awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal five times and two World Press Photo awards. His mentor, celebrated war photojournalist Robert Capa affirmed, “If your pictures aren’t strong enough, you’re not close enough.”

Go for optical intimacy. Remaining a daily news feed addict I often squint at images from the ongoing war in Ukraine, each image is a split screen for me. I witness the horror and detritus from Russian bombings, as well the beauty of red tulips whizzing past atop a tank. For now tulips are dormant in Ukraine. The metronomic resiliency of the Ukrainians is awesome as they restore bombed out electrical grids, perform surgeries by flashlight, and survive under a wail of deadly drones.

My emotional metronome for the world-at-large pulses an arc, as well. Striving to maintain an upbeat tempo, my refrain is:
Creativity is the Best Revenge.