The photograph above is by Alfred Steiglitz, titled Dirigible (1910, source: Wikipedia).
There is something haunting about this image of a lonely airship in a cloudy sky.
I have always liked Steiglitz’s work. In my twenties I had a postcard of one of his nudes. It had the same pathos as this picture, a sort of stillness. I read recently that Steiglitz was “… an immensely charismatic person, (and yet) amazingly egotistical and narcissistic” (From: Stieglitz And O’Keeffe: Their love and life in letters by Susan Stamperg). But this does not take away from the powerful beauty of his work.
The ineffable finds a way to us through the image. Where dry philosophy, polemic and argument may create a kind of obstacle to understanding (here I have in mind Richard Dawkins and his barren, atheistic intolerance of religious people), the ineffable finds its way to us through dance, art, music, beauty, literature and poetry, friendship and love. In some sense I see this “ineffability” as an expression of the apophatic, the via negativa, perhaps even the ineffable Name of God (יהוה). Divinity is expressed, felt, suggested, encountered, but cannot be named, delineated or measured.
Is it possible that the artist may reach into an “unnamed something” to access and express the thing we call “truth”? Here we enter the territory of “spirit” (itself a term too widely used, often abused and replete with an excess of meanings). The Christian mystic Jacob Boehme wrote of “the tranquil groundless God.” The Hindu “Satcitānanda” is an epithet for existence, consciousness, bliss, truth and an experience of the ultimate, unchanging reality. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “We must learn to penetrate things and find God there.” The Dirigible” in my view shows this “penetration” of things by the artist. Steiglitz’s airship, with its pathos and lyricism penetrates the clouds of our own lives. Perhaps the artist himself is penetrated by what what lies beyond.
Steiglitz was among the first photographers to see photography as more than a mechanical recording process, but rather as an artform. Dirigible is not merely the record of an event over a hundred years ago (which is itself a magical thing – this captured moment, this miraculous imprint of light on a glass plate, captured in a mechanical box); but the image is also the trace of the artist’s seeing. John Berger writes with far greater skill than I about seeing, about how what is seen is not simply some sort of objective “fact” (is there such a thing?) – no mere biochemical function of the optic nerve – but that seeing is a going out – towards the subject: the artist looks out on the world in a certain way: an alchemy occurs between the inner world of the artist and that which is perceived. What is more wonderful still is that a hundred years after this airship drifted above Steiglitz’s creative gaze, we can share not only in the recorded moment, but in the unique way in which the artist perceived it. We are united with him beyond time. Just as when listening to a Bach Cantata we enter the emotional, intellectual and spiritual realm created and inhabited by the long dead composer, we enter into the picture and meet the artist there, share his experience of the seen. And I believe the mystery expands further from there: in a mysterious correlative process I go out from my own inner landscape to his image, to the airship in the sky, and to Steiglitz’s apprehension of it. I take the Dirigible into myself where it is knit into my own experience. Here it becomes a part of my mythos, my narrative, my metaphor (of sadness, hope, alienation, freedom, longing) and it may become a part of yours too. The airship, with it’s journey across the sepia sky long over, it’s aeronauts long dead, is paradoxically still moving silently across a sky of ink and paper, and now, forever, in a digital sky.
The tetragrammaton (from Greek Τετραγράμματον, meaning “[consisting of] four letters”,) is the Hebrew theonym יהוה, commonly transliterated into Latin letters as YHWH. It is one of the names of God used in the Hebrew Bible. The name may be derived from a verb that means “to be”, “to exist”, “to cause to become”, or “to come to pass”.