By Sally Ross
When I began my photography career in 2008, my motto was to “create fine art photography to soothe your soul.” Little did I realize that my small efforts to create engaging pictures would lead me on a search for my own soul, my own peace, my own reverence for each day, place, person, and experience that would grace my life.
The Journey began much earlier, of course. Growing up in the Midwest, I was in awe of my aunt’s friend Mrs. Riel. Sally (her name as well as mine) epitomized the person I wanted to become. She was beautiful, talented (piano), spiritual, quiet and always present in the moment and at peace. Over the years, her presence stood behind me as I worked hard to earn degrees, work in education, change locations, and search for meaning through friends, reading, marriage, churches. I was successful, but where was the peace?
Two pivotal events transformed my path. In 1998 when I turned 50, I was in England for an educational conference. Knowing I had loved the English Lake District during a semester abroad, my mother paid for me to spend two weeks in a 200-year-old blacksmith’s cottage in the tiny village of Pooley Bridge on Ullswater Lake. On my own, without a car, I immersed myself in my small space much as I’d done in a science class when the teacher had us measure off a square yard of grass and study everything that happened there. My big decision of the day was which way to turn for long walks. From the crossroads, should I turn right across the fields to Dalmain, a classic, stately manor home? Or should I turn left to take the steamer along Ullswater where William Wordsworth and his sister came across a “host of dancing Daffodils?” My English teacher’s heart burst with joy at every turn along the freewheeling paths through fields and dales and mountains (“fells” as they are called), along ancient stone walls, and through the working farms of this national park. I could not walk enough!
I had a mission. Back home, life was challenging. I was a new professor, teaching, and writing. Tenure and promotion loomed. My husband was not well, exhibiting the early stages of emphysema and COPD. I was exhausted. But somehow in the silence of traveling alone, I heard in new ways. A minister’s sermon informed me that I was not God: “You are not expected to take care of the world. Take on just the small part you are given,” he said. “ Let go.” A robust gent dressed in tweeds and walking his dog stopped in a field to chat. For a precious while, time stood still and I reveled in his discourse on the beauty, serenity and peace that surrounded us.
Secondly, little did I know then, but just 18 months later, I would be diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve heard others speak of the blessing that surviving cancer can bring. In my journal the night before my lumpectomy, I wrote, “God, take care of my husband and everyone else. I’m going to focus on myself now.” I didn’t have the strength to do anything else.
Five years later, I retired because my husband was on oxygen full-time and dying. But we were to be blessed again. He received a double lung transplant at Emory and walked out—healed–in six days. We started to travel: Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, New England and out West. He received 5½ years of extra time in which we learned to treasure every day as a gift.
I had always been a photographer when I traveled. But digital cameras, an encouraging husband with business sense, and friends who loved my work inspired me to capture and interpret the beauty I found in the world. Spending so much time seeking, appreciating, isolating and creating beauty has led me to the peace I so longed for as a child.
In his elegant book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (HarperCollins, 2005), John O’Donohue, from whom I take all the quotes in this article, wrote: “To recognize and celebrate beauty is to recognize the ultimate sacredness of experience, to glimpse the subtle embrace of belonging where we are wed to the divine, the beauty of every moment, of every thing” (page 51).
My life has indeed been a journey toward the beautiful. From my own experiences traveling the world with my camera, allow me to explore where I have found beauty along the way.
Landscape and Light. “Light never shows the same mountain twice” (O’Donohue, 34). I discovered light in the Scottish Highlands, and that may be why I return there every summer. If I wait patiently for the right moment, the right clouds, the right time of day, I am rarely disappointed. My village of Brora is just an hour and a half from the top, just south of Oslo, St. Petersburg, and Sitka, Alaska, in latitude. We are nestled between the North Sea and rolling mountains. Our foothills are outlined by ancient stone walls, covered in the yellow gorse of spring, the purple heather of late summer, or the rusty ochre, russet and browns of late fall and winter. The sea is generally calm during my summers, albeit with days of whipping wind scattering sand and seabirds away from the miles of pristine beaches.
Then there is the light. The clouds are low and always moving, creating swatches of sunlight where they part. Even more dramatic are the tiny spaces that open on a dark, cloudy day. Then what I’ve come to call the hand of God begins to roam. First, it may spotlight a particular corner of a field. Lambs and ewes, lying against warm rocky enclosures, rest from their munching, unaware that they are the show. Soon the light will disappear, only to highlight now the derelict croft house melted into the colors of the craggy mountainside from whence it came. But now the brilliant attention of the light etches it in clarity and contrast. It is as if God, showing off, says, “Look at this! Now, see this too!” When I take the time to stare, to contemplate, to be still, my heart is full of a reverence deeper than any I have known. I am humbled and honored to be given this vision, this moment in time, this illustration of what could be seen if only we had a purer vision of beauty.
I have come to understand when the special light will begin. The air outside turns golden or pink with hues of impossible pale blue. Running outside, I’ll find clouds painted in exactly those colors. On a windy day, the colors float across the greenness of the earth and trees, dancing and swirling as if delighting in their play. I can almost hear the music that should accompany their drama, their humor, and the tension of their movement interspersed with silence. When all is still after a good rain, multiple rainbows emerge from dark skies. And up here in the north, they stay for a good while, like strutting peacocks magnificent and proud.
Often I’ll jump into the car when the light show begins, chasing the twilight glow to see what it will present for my appreciation. A barren highlands landscape with light only on a tiny old croft house and its barn. Or a village of white homes and a tiny, red-roofed church glowing golden as sun sets behind its protecting mountain. I have often sat in the middle of a single-track road and said out loud, “God, it can’t get any better than this!” But then around the next corner it does. As O’Donohue writes, “The Beautiful stirs passion and urgency in us and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace” (13). Beauty, felt deeply, is love.
Nature’s Surprises. “When beauty touches our lives, the moment becomes luminous. These grace-moments are gifts that surprise us” (O’Donohue, 23). Sometimes beauty is just plain joyous, as liberated and unencumbered as childhood freedom. There have been times across my travels when I have been stunned by a surprise. Snow, for example. It was February, but the weather had been fine as we arrived in Zion National Park. We enjoyed driving through the park and seeing it with few other tourists. We even lunched on the patio at Zion Lodge with spectacular views. But that night it snowed. By the time we awoke, we were surrounded by 10 inches of pristine white. My adventurous husband insisted on driving back into the park, clearly the first to do so. And though it was only months since his double lung transplant, we jumped out and we hiked—as we had never done before. Lifting legs high above the snow, falling now and then in laughter and delight, awed by a totally different perspective of the red rocks we had just seen the day before, we trudged and played in this idyllic fairyland. The views, the cold, our joy and amazement made beauty incarnate.
Just this winter, my friends and I were blessed with another 10-inch surprise, this time in New Hampshire. Again the weather had been grand. We frolicked in a big field with four big dogs and friends, ate lobster, and visited. And that night it snowed. After watching snow fall all morning, we took all four dogs out for another glorious romp. But again, at dusk, that color of twilight came upon us. From the west, as the sun set over Great Bay, the world turned pink—the snowy yards and fields, trees with snow piled on limbs, the air itself took on the hue of another world. I couldn’t stop snapping pictures and I could barely capture the true colors that white snow can take on.
I enjoyed a third surprise snow five years ago. I had traveled in China for 5 weeks and had just two final, tired days back in Beijing. I joined the crowds in Tiananmen Square and the Prince Gong Imperial Mansion. I wandered through back streets I had not seen before. Then, again, I awoke to a world wrapped in snow. Tiananmen Square was mine alone—endless, stoic, raw and open, it seemed to question my impudent presence. I retraced the back street garden walk, now dressed in ice and frost. Perhaps it is the contrast that makes a surprising snow such a gift. The beauty is unexpected and the transference of the world into new shapes and colors invite attention as a normal day does not.
Nature’s Surprises come in many forms. For me, they have included rainbows over the Darwin Range in Ushuaia, Argentina, and Kilauea volcano exploding in fire out a fissure at 4 a.m. along the coast of the Big Island in Hawaii. And on September 29, 2015, the blood moon graced my last night in Paris where I tried in awe to capture it from the heights of Sacré-Coeur.
Water. “When the mind is festering with trouble or the heart torn, we can find healing … [in] the simple, steadying rhythm of waves. The slowness and the stillness gradually take us over” (O’Donohue, 17). I think everyone recognizes the peace and beauty of water whether from rivers to oceans to lakes or lochs, bays, sounds, fjords, or firths. There is something primal in the ebb and flow of blood and water, of the tug of the moon on us all.
I too have strolled many a southern beach. I was lucky enough to have a sister living in Hawaii where we swam and watched surfers at Waimea, snorkeled at Hanauma Bay, dined outside, and slept listening to waves. I have sailed on the Chesapeake and Lake Erie, the Caribbean and the North Sea; I have enjoyed the rocky shores of both US coasts, paddled down the Chatahoochee and grown up on Ohio rivers with Native American names.
Yet I remember all of those experiences as fun, more than beautiful. Perhaps it is because those experiences were long ago. Also, I was not yet a photographer. I was present, appreciative, and touched, but I was not yet focused.
I was, however, focused and engrossed in place and time when I sailed on the Australis from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Punta Arenas, Chile. I had read a marvelous book by Dallas Murphy, enticingly entitled Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers, Drake, Darwin, Murdered Missionaries and Naked Natives–a Deck’s-eye View of Cape Horn. Murphy alternates historical chapters about those who tried—and often failed—to round the Horn with chapters about his own sailing through the very spaces I would travel. Knowing the deep (no pun intended) history of these treacherous waters, it was truly a gift to experience utter calm there. Even our ship’s captain was amazed! So my camera and I spent many hours sitting on deck watching islands slip by us in the mists that painted this complex archipelago with light. Similarly, I had read about the explosion of the volcano on the Greek isle of Santorini, also called Thera. The explosion and tsunami wiped out the Minoan culture sometime between 1600 and 1500 BCE and is believed to be the single most powerful explosion ever witnessed. Yet here I sat, millennia later, watching the sun set over that still-bubbling caldera. As everyone who has ever been to Santorini knows, there is nothing as stunning as sunset from Oia or Ammoudi. I believe part of the beauty of that exquisite place is the blue water that surrounds such haunting power.
I have also known the beauty of water when I’ve taken the time to sit or walk along pure streams, whether in Scotland or the South Island of New Zealand. These full and vibrant waters literally dance along, tossing clean sprays into the air as they crash into rocks and precipices along the way. Fish thrive here, and those who spend hours attracting them respect the waters enough to catch and release. As a photographer, I spend hours studying how the land shapes the water into meandering patterns, decorating its path with foliage and color, holding the water up as if to anoint it with sunlight.
Being under the water in utter silence presents a world so different from our own. A snorkeler only, I could float for days above the Great Barrier Reef watching life shimmer by and below me. If all life only moved this slowly, I believe we could not escape being healed by the beautiful.
Ancient Spaces. “The wind is the spirit-sound of the ancient earth” (O’Donohue, 60). Landscape, light, nature and water surround us. But beauty also arises thanks to humans. Celtic theology uses the term “thin places” to explain places where heaven and earth feel especially thin. I would argue that there are also thin places where we as humans connect to other humans who have come long before us. And therein is the deeper, ancient, and mysterious beauty of being part of humanity that goes beyond the visible.
Perhaps it takes 2,000 years or more for a place to earn such depth. I think easily of Monte Alban near Oaxaca, Mexico, at its height from 500 BCE to 750 CE. This fortress ruin was capital of the Zapotec nation and home to 25,000 people, some of whom conceptualized and artificially leveled this 6,400-foot mountain top on which they built. Likewise, Chichen Itza also in Mexico, the Great Wall of China, the Acropolis and Parthenon, the ruins of Ephesus and Corinth, and the Minoan culture of Knossos on the Greek isle of Crete amaze and silence us with wonder. These people thrived and built and created civilizations (albeit not always good ones for everyone), but they also lived daily lives. Our ancient forebearers built underground, connected homes at Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands as early as 3,100 BCE. People revered the seasons and perhaps their Gods at Stonehenge in England, the Ring of Brodgar also on Orkney, and at Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta in Australia.
One of my favorite books is Michener’s The Source in which we watch generations of people of Israel live, die, and overlap within the space of a single tell, an artificial hill created by many generations of people living and rebuilding on the same spot. An awareness that others came before us haunts us in these thin places. We are not alone and never were. But who are we?
For all the buildings and structures and objects that survive, nothing about ancient spaces has touched me more than human footprints. I first felt this gut reaction seeing discarded Roman boots that had been thrown over fortifications into trash dumps along Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England. The good leather soaked in peat held the shape of each man’s unique foot. Likewise, Harry Burton’s photographs of the opening of the Tomb of King Tut, which I saw at Emory University in 2008, revealed the naked footprints of the last Egyptians to leave the tomb before it was sealed for over 3,000 years. In modern times, nothing at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, strikes the heart more than a room full of empty shoes taken from those marched into the gas chambers. There is, indeed, a terrible and awesome beauty in knowing we are not alone.
The Visual Arts, Architecture and Sculpture. Quoting Goethe, O’Donohue wrote, “…architecture [is] music that has merged into silence” (128) and “In its way, a piece of sculpture is a still dance” (126). I appreciate painting and photography as much as anyone, and I’ve savored important work in museums around the world. The sights, the smells, the very living and breathing history of these pieces always amazes me. But I’m in search of beauty as a photographer. For that reason, objects of architecture and sculpture contribute more to my emerging concept of beauty because they have filled my lens. I have taken time to walk around them, to study them in detail, seeking the patterns that together give shape to beauty. I love to isolate details as well as capture the whole effect.
Sculptors celebrate the human body and lead us to do the same. Some statues resonate because I can imagine what it would be like to be inside that shape. I feel the muscles, curvature, and emotions expressed by Michelangelo’s David, Rodin’s The Thinker or The Kiss and men and women perched atop the Parthenon in Athens (and taken from there and now seen at the British Museum). The array of the 8,000-member terracotta army in Xi’an, China, is overwhelming, but it is even more incredible when you realize that each man, carved in 200 BCE, is unique, as are we. On a much smaller scale, I was moved to tears as I studied Degas’s Little Dancer at our National Gallery of Art. She is 14 years old, every bit as I felt at 14 myself.
Other representational statues examine the same subject over and over across time. I cannot imagine how many interpretations of Jesus and Mary I’ve seen across the Christian world. And in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China, artists created over 2,400 sculptures of Buddha, along with 487 caves full of paintings, between 400 BCE and 400 CE. Both allow us to study historical concepts of beauty across time.
Whether we like it or not, great beauty, especially in architecture, has been created by the wealthy. Without the wealth of religions, we would not have the Vatican and the Florence Duomo in Italy, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Notre Dame in Paris or the magnificent Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, Moscow. Each structure is intricate in detail, rich in color, complex in pattern, and impossibly put together, all in honor of the divine.
Likewise, wealthy leaders and individuals created beauty in grandeur. From my local Scottish castle, Dunrobin, built by the powerful Sutherlands, to Versailles and the castles of Europe, to China’s Forbidden City, and Russian palaces such as the Peterhof with its gravity-driven and magnificent fountains, we are awed, but at least today, we are invited in to explore.
But there are also the unique creations of and for the people. During my recent time in Paris, I could not get enough of the Eiffel Tower from every perspective. And I fell anew for our own Statue of Liberty when I realized she was built in downtown Paris before the French shipped her to us. Her beauty rests, I believe, in what she represents around the world, far beyond her posting in New York Harbor.
Human Performance and Cultural Insights. “Affection, recognition and understanding travel across these fragile bridges and enable us to discover each other and awaken friendship and intimacy” (O’Donohue, 54). From children’s dance recitals to citywide celebrations, from public performances to high opera, I have learned about the beauty and the pure joy of human potential.
Like all tourists in Scotland, I love the magnificent Edinburgh Tattoo, a performance by select pipe and drum groups, dancers, and singers from around the world, all staged in front of the historic Edinburgh Castle. But having spent eight summers in Brora, a small village in Scotland, I cherish the many locals who are now dear friends, and I treasure the intimacy of sharing their celebrations. I remember beautiful children’s dance recitals, traditional songs led by 7-year-olds at the annual fête by the harbor, and local Highland Games with professionals and silly games alike. And then there is Debbie who invited me to her hen do, the bride’s celebration with her girlfriends. Debbie had worked for years in India, so in the wild Scottish tradition of fancy dress, all 40 guests wore elaborate saris and jewelry for a day-long pub-to-pub bus ride across the Highlands. In wide-open spaces, surrounded by mountains and glens, they swirled and danced in magnificent colors to the tunes of the sari-clad piper.
Though I did not know the language, I loved being immersed in the bravado of St. Petersburg’s Victory Day, celebrating their holding back the Germans on May 9, 1945. Parades of armaments reminded me of television news with Kruschev in the 1960s, but being there I also got to see the human side of Russia: dancers and parade marchers in period costumes, many carrying signs of loved ones who had died in that terrible war. In Zhangjiajie, China, our tour group was astounded by a performance of a Chinese tale translated as The Fox Lady. Seated in a coliseum outdoors at night beneath towering mountains we saw an entire village, lake, and forests come to life as the woodsman fell in love with the fox lady, had to part for 10,000 years, but were reunited in love—and fireworks—far above us on a bridge between mountains. How do the Chinese create such wonders?
I’ve been awed by whirling dervishes in Xi’an, an antique harpsichord concert in front of Michelangelo’s David, an a cappella 100-person choir singing sacred music in Pisa’s Cathedral, and magnificent tango dancers in Buenos Aires. Experiencing high opera at the Paris Opera House and La Traviata at the Bolshoi were as wonderful as Hair and Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap in 1970s London and anything on Broadway.
I am literally stunned by what human beings can create, from ancient spaces, objects and images that interpret our lives, impossible structures, music and dance. How can we see anything but beauty in this magnificent earth and the grandeur and promise of richly diverse peoples?
So Where is Beauty? “When we begin to awaken to the light of soul, life takes on a new depth. The losses we have suffered, the delight and peace we have experienced, the beauty we have known, all belong together in a profound way. One of the greatest treasures in the world is a contented heart” (O’Donohue, 39).
Yes, I have traveled the world to find peace. I have found it in beauty, both as observer and as creator. As I seek beauty and allow it in, I cannot help but feel humbled, awed, grateful, and blessed. Therein lies peace, and an awareness of my place in the grandeur of humanity and the natural world. When you inhale enough beauty and give it time and space, you begin your own journey to your own soul.
By the way, for all the blessings and insights that travel has brought me, I began my search for beauty by studying clouds. When I was in pain, clouds were convenient, available, and free. I learned from another book, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, to give myself time for beauty: to look at pictures of paintings in books, to visit a gallery, to watch a film, listen to music, dance. In some small way, I would bring beauty into every day. And I did most of these things on my own. There is something about the search for beauty that required me at least to internalize what I was seeing. I needed to capture beauty, both on the camera and in my own heart, as a process for understanding. And I do that best when I am alone. Having found that self, I now re-enter the world every day with joy, hope, and peace eager to make my own contributions as a unique and special human being. As O’Donohue wrote, through beauty and “beyond work, survival, relationships, even family, we become aware of our profound duty to our own life” (39).