I geeked out over the sunset yesterday. And I may do it again today: second day here at my coolbeans temp gig, with three huge windows behind me plus it’s another slow day at the office, kids. As I write, glorious upon mcglorious roiling clouds are foaming up the New York skyline and, as this amateur photographer can tell you, clouds are a sunset lover’s best friends.
I failed photography as a class the only time I took it in the 7th grade: I handed in a portfolio of only three pictures; one was of a puddle with no reflection. The best thing I remember out of that class was my teacher Mrs. Lazar’s exclamation when she touched a very hot lamp: she bellowed out in agony, in front of us not-so-innocent thirteen-year-olds, “Jesus Christ on wheels!” The picture which instantly sprouted in my head was that of the savior of all Christians stumbling around on key-tightened roller skates; for some reason, my mind decided that Jesus would not have fared well on wheels. The phrase however could have also meant he was hell on wheels, a real pro, albeit probably not too thrilled to be referred to as “hell” on anything, maybe even not thrilled to be newly on wheels. Maybe it meant he was in a car, or driving a van of sorts, as long-haired guys did back when I was a teenager. Googling the phrase hasn’t unearthed much: Leonardo di Caprio seems to have said it in a movie (couldn’t tell which) and a person dissing Taylor Swift also used it in a blog comment. The fact that my photography teacher was in pain has always made me equate this phrase with something bad, or perhaps something that is just incongruous, like a man from the first century flailing about on metal skates. It’s a phrase that’s never left me: it was my photography education experience in a nutshell.
Until I got my iPhone in the fall of 2011.
That changed everything.
Oh you iPhone camera you: you little taker-of-exactly-what-I-am-looking-at, you. You’ve changed my life. You put Jesus Christ back on terra firma. Now, I get it: now, I understand what all the fuss over photographic documentation is all about. Now I am addicted to capturing, or at least trying to, all the beauty around me, the majority of which involves the setting sun. I had already been a big fan of witnessing the sunset, especially now that I live out here, in the sweet borough of Queens, where we gasp at that large yellow orb lowering like buttah through the slits of majestic buildings, creating a sharp dark, promising urban silhouette; night wakes up gorgeously over in our neck of the woods.
For years, I had already been hauling my fat cheeks down to Hunters Point, to darling Gantry Plaza State Park, to behold the kir-colored skies, to see the far off lane of airplanes line up so to march their descent along the span of the purple East River, towards one of our two airports. I had been instantaneously sprung: open air, low buildings and an expansive water view were not elements I experienced growing up in Manhattan, and the sight of so much light and play of color made my eyeballs and heart join hands and sing. I never considered I could capture on film what I saw with any justice; when vacationing, store-bought postcards always depicted foreign beauty much better than any crappy camera I had brought along. I had given up on trying, quite content with my own memories being an alternate self-camera, all the documentation I needed.
But for some reason, one evening down by the gantries, out on my favorite third pier, the one where you can look straight down 42nd Street, as the river lapped in the dusk breeze, I pulled out my iPhone and took a shot of the Chrysler and United Nations buildings, as they seemed to paint a path of metallic light on the water.
When I got home, I looked at it. “Not bad,” I thought. That first photo is now my phone screen saver, all golden reflection and cobalt twilight sky. And that’s pretty much all she wrote: I have never stopped taking photos since then, chasing the sunset whenever I can.
And yesterday, I was ridiculous. I didn’t need to chase it: an insane bloody sky, spectacular spreading and fast-moving clouds were right over my shoulder, here at the reception desk, where I find myself lucky to be temping. (Notice that I am blogging too: #thankfulforaquietweek) I literally sat on the office window radiator, something that no humble object should ever be subjected to. Gasping “god!” while sucking in my breath, muttering in tongues, drooling like I had found gold (I had, kinda: red, sunsetty gold), I craned my neck and torso, getting as close to the window glass as possible and took pic after pic after pic. I knew around 3:00pm that the day’s demise was going to be something special: it was the clouds. The clouds bounce the light, the clouds give reflection to absurd colors and those insane colors give me evidence of something so much greater than this world, than us, than this life.
The most incredible part of a sunset is the aching quickness with which it changes: it’s over before you know it so you shouldn’t take your eyes away for a second. When it’s at its most unbearably beautiful, when the whole world seems to be consumed by a violet glow, it’s suddenly gone, like a death. It’s over: it was so amazing, so devastatingly pure and now it’s gone, now it’s just growing darkness, ordinary and predictable night setting in, like a hungry in-law.
That’s why I take photos: to catch that moment, that moment when the sky is neither blue from air nor yellow from sun. I use my phone to cement proof that pink exists outside of flowers, that blood oranges live above us for a few seconds, that red flows when it’s not blood. I want to make the ephemeral last, I want to debunk natural order, I want to stop time. And I want to keep it, keep it with me always, take it off its wheels and make it stay a while.