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Memories and Musings: On Photography as a Hymn of Praise

Older lady reading a book to a child.
Book reading, Alexandria, Va. (circa 1980). (Photo by Nina Tisara)

Alexandria, VA – There is a connection. At least for me there is a connection between my photograph of the child and grandmother reading in the courtyard of Christ Church, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

I’m not sure why I picked it up from the shelf. Maybe because I tend to choose books with creek or river in the title. Maybe because my family name is Tinkelman. I didn’t think to look up the actual definition of pilgrim until just now. Per Wikipedia, a pilgrim is a traveler on a journey to a holy place. Typically, this is a physical journey to some place of special significance to the adherent of a particular religious belief system.

I loved the book. And now I see how appropriate it is to this column.

I lent my copy to someone and didn’t get it back. Although I missed it, I didn’t replace it until Johnson’s prolific Facebook posts made me want to revisit something Dillard said about seeing. In his daily posts (mostly of birdlife but some of flowers and some of family), Johnson celebrates the beauty of creation. In re-reading the book, I found several things. I hope you will want to read the book, but here are two passages that still resonates with me:

“But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I stand transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer….”


“…The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise….”

Though I have never met Ralph Johnson, I think he knows the secret of seeing.

Man looking through camera
Ralph Johnson is a master behind the camera. (Photo: Ralph Johnson FB page)

Ralph and I were introduced via email by Zebra publisher Mary Wadland when I was seeking a photograph of a hawk to illustrate my column on “The Landscape of Aging,” May 2024. In 30 years of taking pictures, I have never photographed a hawk and was struggling to find one that worked to illustrate a poem I quoted in the column. Johnson responded by sending five photographs, each so exquisitely beautiful, it was hard to select which to use.

I was stunned, truly astounded by their beauty, and impressed that he could find them (which means they were indexed, something I aspire to do with my 30-year library of negatives), and he could identify the type of hawk!

Treat yourself to a selection of his photographs on YouTube set to music:

Since I don’t know Ralph Johnson, it is presumptuous of me to say his work is a hymn of praise, a devotional song. Presumptuous or not, that’s what I think, maybe because we share some of the same feelings. My description of seeing a particular stand of vine-draped trees at Huntley Meadows Park likens the experience to being in a cathedral. Some of my current mosaics have the same message.

Black and white image of a forest of trees with shadows
“Shadow Dance.” My first impression of this stand of trees entwined by old grapevines at Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax Country, Va., was of dancers in a sacred space. It was winter and the tree trunks cast strong shadows in the late afternoon sun. I was reminded of a cathedral. – Nina Tisara (Photo by Nina Tisara)

One might say we are fellow pilgrims.

Thank you, Ralph. I am grateful not only for making the hawk photographs available but for putting me back in touch with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Mosaic Artist/Photographer Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.

ICYMI: Marion Moon Fondly Remembered at Alexandria Sportsman’s Club Awards Banquet May 17 

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