Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature. Never try to correct them. On the contrary: rationalize them, understand them thoroughly. After that, it will be possible for you to sublimate them. — Salvador Dali
I took the photo “Elk Lake in January” on an overcast winter day, about noon. I like it for its glassy finish and smooth shimmer that holds the moment. But in the stillness of that moment is the contradiction of movement. The white line of the concrete dock on the right pulls the eye to the dark side of the photo, but then the eye is drawn back to the lighter water to the left.
Yin and Yang, back and forth the eye moves, searching for the story in the photo.
For instance, there is story in the dark foreground shadow that contrasts with the lighter sky above. When I look at it, it always makes me wonder what is hovering above, out of the field of view, casting such a shadow.
That’s the surface of the photo but there is also a story going on beneath the surface that often only the photographer knows. I’m talking about the technique and the process, the part photographers like to discuss and non-photographers don’t always want to know.
In this case, the aged look, the odd colouration and the otherworldly tone is achieved through digital cross processing.
Cross processing itself existed before the advent of digital photography. It was a mistake discovered by dark room technicians back in those days of yore when photographers still used film. This mistake occurred when photographic film was processed in a chemical solution intended for a different type of film, e.g. processing colour film in black and white chemicals.
I am no expert in cross processing, but what I find wonderful about it is that a mistake can create such a powerful, beautiful thing.
Mistakes in general have a bad rap — most of the time they are things we try to avoid, things that cost us. They can get us fired or, if serious enough, kill people. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, big ones and small ones. And I’m not the only one.
According to Hans Ohanian in Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius, Einstein made many mistakes in the various proofs of E = mc2 in his first attempt at a theory of general relativity. He didn’t think black holes were possible and didn’t believe God plays dice. (Probably two mistakes in that last one).
If Einstein, the icon of intelligence, can make mistakes, we all can.
Like most people, I deal with my mistakes in various ways. Some of them I live with, some I don’t think are all that big a deal. And others, well, I painfully regret them and wish I could roll back in time and change the actions.
A question that pops to mind here is: is it really a mistake if there is no reason for forgiveness? Is this the same as the saying: If a tree falls in a forest, does anyone hear it?
Buddhists would say I am attaching to the conundrum and should just let it all wash away, pay attention to the here and now. They would say that this very instant is all that exists.
Ok, I’ll give that a try. But in the meantime, I want to know how I can embrace the mistake, learn from the mistake, value and honor and see the beauty in the mistake. It’s easy in photography, but how do I extend the metaphor to real life?
My “Elk Lake in January” photo is the result of a mistake made long ago in now-obsolete darkrooms. But all subsequent applications of that mistake are no longer considered mistakes because they are, like my photo, intentional, and filled with awareness of the expected and desired outcome.
“Because we are human beings, we cannot avoid making mistakes. We might have caused someone else to suffer, we might have offended our beloved ones, and we feel regret. But it is always possible for us to begin anew, and to transform all these kinds of mistakes. Without making mistakes there is no way to learn, in order to be a better person, to learn how to be tolerant, to be compassionate, to be loving, to be accepting. That is why mistakes play a role in our training, in our learning, and we should not get caught in the prison of culpability just because we have made some mistakes in our life.”
So yes, we can learn, but can we go deeper? How do we embrace a mistake and turn a mistake from a disaster into something we can actually value? Maybe we can’t do this with all mistakes — such as those which cause incredible pain, death and destruction — how would one find anything redeemable in those? But people do. Some of the most profound lessons are learned through profound mistakes, and so many times those lessons are enhanced by compassion and forgiveness.
I agree with jazz master Miles Davis who says, “Do not be afraid of errors. There are no errors.” And I add to this “Only resolution.” Which means that life as a human is a series of actions. We go down various paths and the results are what they are; judgment is but the abstraction which causes our suffering.
While searching for photographic mistakes, I came upon a Flickr group called Beautiful Mistakes. This group makes the point very plainly that there can be intense beauty in mistakes. It simply takes looking and adjusting one’s perception of what should have been for what is.
The photos depicted by this group are attempts to create something other than what actually resulted. In other words, the beauty is not in what was desired or attempted, only in what is.
So if I make a mistake in my life perhaps I will find meaning in it for what it is, not for what it was to be. The “what is” is real. And that’s where I need to go to find beauty, understanding, compassion and/or forgiveness. The result of my endeavors in this life may be at cross purposes from what I originally intended, but like the photo above, no less worthwhile.
Elk Lake in January © chrisholtphotos