As I walked the edge of the Mendenhall Lake the other night, hopeful that the clouds lingering around the mountains in the back of the valley would light up in the rays of the evening sun, I kept an eye on the way conditions in the sky were developing. In a manner that feels very consistent in Juneau, the clouds I wanted blew away while the sun became partially obscured by a new bank of clouds near the horizon. I kept walking. At about the time the shadows were extending across the entire lake (the highest peaks were still glowing in direct sunlight), I came upon a gentleman, camera in hand, traveling back toward the parking lots. In passing he offered, “You missed the sunset.” I was so caught off guard that I could only respond with some barely intelligible agreement. I wasn’t offended, but the brief encounter made a pretty lasting impression.
My assumption is that, seeing the tripod strapped to my backpack and no camera in my hands, what the man meant is that I had missed photographing the sunset. And it’s just like me to get hung up in the semantics of the word “missed”. I cannot have missed anything that I would more willingly do without (that was a spin on one of my favorite lines from Hamlet). Despite the disappointment associated with my dream light’s failure to materialize, I garnered no small amount of enjoyment from my surroundings as the sun dipped below the horizon. The world IS beautiful, and a viewfinder or LCD screen does nothing to improve upon it.
But actually, my main point is that I kept walking. The richest and most alluring light came and went, but the beauty of the world changes; it doesn’t dissipate as the light fades. A “creative” choice of exposure in the accompanying photograph forsakes the natural dimness of the scene in order to embrace the shapes and colors. I didn’t even begin to see meaningful compositions or stories in my surroundings until I was standing alone on the darkening lake shore. The image illustrates the importance of pursuing the moment of creativity past the “peak” in a second way. While the remaining leaves are vibrant, it’s clear that the height of pervasively colorful fall foliage was also in the past on the night I visited the lake. Yet, I see the success of this photograph hanging on the space between leaves that had been vacated by their former companions.
The importance of not letting your attention wane as you move beyond seemingly pivotal moments in life extends far beyond photography. If fact, I noticed the same phenomenon while watching a high school volleyball match the other night. At the ends of most exciting volleys, it was inevitable that one team or the other would relax in the ebb after a highlight reel dig or spike. Invariably, it was the team that did not let down, finishing the play, that earned the point. I think it’s fair to say that human nature inclines us to call it in when the peak is past. Of course, we are not God, and we cannot maintain critical levels of focus indefinitely, but it think it is a worthy goal to linger in a state of attentiveness just a little bit longer than is our tendency.
Who can know what increase in the joy of the perception of beauty might be afforded by this simple exercise. At least we’ll avoid thinking we’ve “missed the sunset” while the mountains are still standing tall in the daylight.