I took a trip down the Grand Canyon with photographer Peter Fay. It was like getting to see through a borrowed set of eyes more capable than my own. He taught me to see with more clarity by teaching me to focus.
“The light is spot on,” he’d say, or perhaps he’d comment about the quality, “The light is so soft right now I just have to get these shots real quick before the sun moves.” Light is his first master, the ultimate enticer to lift the camera toward his eye.
He noticed light as it bounced off the river, or off towering canyon walls and then he saw what that spill of light did to a clump of puzzle grass basking in the glow. He followed the light, camera to eyeball and clicked away, seeing more through his tiny view finder than I could with all the world open to me. Light is his guru.
I am mesmerized by the way Peter talks. An avowed atheist, his words sparkle with spiritual mysticism. This is why I’m drawn to altared spaces: because everyone has them, even those who claim no spiritual teachers.
We walk in the canyon. I’m behind him, watching as he bows to get a better angle on a pool of water pouring toward him. The first thing he’s taught me to do is search the landscape to capture the profound images. “When I think I’ve found a great image I try to distill, distill, distill.” He does this primarily by getting rid of the distractions.
The canyon we walked up is so difficult to absorb in its entirety. The sky pours in from above through the slot made by the canyon walls. The scale of the canyon makes Grand feel inept as an adjective. The walls hug, as if the earth has come up with her arms and enveloped the most vulnerable places inside me to make them quiet.
“It’s very important to have a really clean background. The most spectacular image can be destroyed by all sorts of flotsam and jetsom,” says Peter. I train my eyes to see the image he’s capturing; to see with precision. My background is constantly flooded and this is why I’m often confused about what it is I’m trying to see.
Walking in that canyon, and its enormity, it was impossible to take it all in. But Peter managed to eat the canyon bite by bite, photo by photo, one river-scape, one rock flooded by water, one patch of puzzle grass and one moonbeam at a time until he had truly digested it all.
I ask him about looking, about seeing and his voice becomes softer, almost prayerful as he talks about what he’s trying to do capturing images from his travels to hang in galleries back home, “I’m attempting to make art.”
Art is the confirming moment. For Peter Fay there is no church, no Zen moment of meditation. Art is the thing that provides that transcendence that has the power to transport the viewer to another plane. “I want my viewer to take not only the beauty away from the photo but something else.”
Peter was born in the United States, but because his parents were immigrants and struggling, they moved back to Germany in 1938 when he was 5 years old. They quickly discovered how difficult it was to make a go of it there and began making plans to return to the US. In August of 1939 his parents took a risk and left for the states, intending to send for Peter and his sister as soon as they were settled.
But Hitler invaded Poland in September and the children were stranded for 6 years while the war raged. They lived in a children’s home and tasted Europe’s battles. Peter recalls the day of liberation, “The Americans threw gum and white bread at us and did a U-turn and disappeared. There was simply no infrastructure. There was nothing.”
When the war ended Peter’s mother was able to connect with a friend of hers who was an army nurse coincidently stationed a mere 10 miles from the children. The nurse friend got his sister the acute medical attention she needed and, eventually, was their guardian on a ship ride back to the states.
“I didn’t recognize my mother.” He’d gone from a boy of 6 to a 12 year old and his mother had spent 6 years wondering if her children were alive.
In this era of reality shows when people send their child up in a balloon to have a story to tell so they can grab their slice of fame, I am surprised by Peter. He tells his story matter of fact, not flinching from the wretched details, but never dwelling on them either. What easily could have been a defining moment has been cleared away so the light can shine in. His history in Germany as a hungry boy in a war-torn nation is simply one of the distractions he distills out of the frame in order to capture the image he intends to make out of his life. “Distill, distill, distill.”
“When you find an image that you really love,” says Peter, “you have to work it from every angle. It’s not enough to take the photos in one place. You have to come at it from above, from below, from this side and that. Work the image, work the image.” He focuses on what he wants to see and eliminates the background noise that distorts the beauty. There is no hungry boy in his photos of canyon grandeur.
We walked up a turquoise river with rose sandstone walls reaching miles above our heads. Rocks in the water were bigger than cars and over them poured and tumbled water that looked like melted glass. It was a Cinco de Mayo piñata come to life so vibrant were the hues. “You must give complete fidelity to an image.” I thought about Peter’s words as tears poured out of my eyes.
This side canyon hike came late enough in the trip that Peter’s words and the canyon itself had worked on me. I had learned to distill. I was beginning to eliminate distractions. If you didn’t ask Peter about his history there would be no way to know he’d spent the formative years of his life hungry. He is a person searching for the Light every time he takes out his camera.
I focused on the juxtaposition of the colors and how radically different the rose was from the turquoise. It seems such a small thing, but in a thirsty desert it is such a surprise to see such hydrated color. It’s the surprises that often yield the confirming moment; not unlike a boy who lived so long hungry, lonely and without his parents and sees only the Light that he will capture.
You can read more about Peter Fay here as well as view more of his photos.