“Beauty, Prayer, and the Sticky Image: My iPhone Practice” by Randall VanderMey

Waving palm trees catch my eye, reflected in the windshield of my Mini Cooper. My hand slides into my left front pocket, reaching for my iPhone. It’s not blind reflex or mechanical routine. It‘s a practice. I have decided quite intentionally to do less of other things, so I can do more of this. When I grab my iPhone, I’ve trained myself to be ready, curious, and alert. I try to frame a photo so that I’m seeing what interests me, eliminating what doesn’t, and keeping my own image out of it.

I prepare to tap the white button on the screen and hear the shutter click. But then I scuttle over to stare eyeball to eyeball with the car’s left headlamp because there I’ve glimpsed a possibly more intriguing image—wild geometry, black and white texture, a three-dimensional visual maze. I sense I’m in the vicinity of beauty. Am I imagining this, or am I receiving some kind of grace? I square up, hold my breath, and shoot. With a middle-aged grunt, I stand up to see what I’ve captured. I hit “edit.” I tap on the cropping tool. I splay two fingers on the screen. With a single fingertip I drag the image to a center. And then I see her: a cartoon face I’ve come to call “Mrs. Bagley.”

“Mrs. Bagley” photo courtesy of Randall VanderMey

I have the face in my phone’s Favorite file now. Man or woman, I’m not sure. The jaw is wide-bottomed like a seed bag, but the whole lower face is vertically striped like corrugated panels of light. A shadowy mouth looks smeared like a dowager’s lipstick. The nose is a white folded-cardboard beak. The eyes pop like the goggles of a flying ace and seem strictly watchful from shadows under palm tree brows. Bright reflections spike off in all directions.

At first, I didn’t see the face; now I can’t unsee it even when I look away. I’ve come to love Mrs. Bagley. I knew immediately that she would soon become a character in my life. Granted, she did not exist, but she certainly seemed to, more vividly than some people I’ve known. I could predict Mrs. Bagley’s foibles and was curious to see her resume. I could imagine her jokes, and I assumed she was not much for racquetball. Soon I was at Costco paying for black and white prints: 5×7, 10×12, 11×14, a poster of embarrassingly large dimensions. I confess I don’t do that for my own children.

What am I to make of this penchant for inventing an image but then reveling, even believing, in my own invention? What makes the image so sticky? Does it stick to me, or do I stick to it?

Here’s a hypothesis. Suppose that upon seeing a standard tourist snapshot, I match the deadness that went into its conception and design with a deadness in my response. Perhaps when I look past a dead surface and discover a presence there, my sense of that presence rewards me by mirroring the maker in me. I’m speaking of a maker not just as poietes (constructor, poet) but as demiourgos (or, creatively generating, begetting power). Go a step further: suppose I am seen as an animate presence by a demiourgos who experiences in me a mirroring of its own creative, begetting power. In that case, when I am a maker, I have an inkling of my maker. In the moment when I have the courage to come into my own, I have the comfort of knowing that I am owned.

In some mysterious way might I imagine as I am imagined? Might I love as I am loved?

I cling to this hypothesis for the stickiness of the discovered image. The “sticky” image seems so like a revelation that I don’t want to give it up. For all the self-involvement this hypothesis implies, it has in its favor that it provides release from narcissism. It may lead, in fact, to that least narcissistic of activities, prayer.

 “Prayer consists of attention,” wrote Simone Weil in her austere observations on the vocation of student (“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”). If prayer does consist of attention, then, conversely, paying rapt attention to anything might be a pathway toward prayer, especially when paying attention is done desirously, in joy. Paying attention forces the mind to its knees and bids it look up in supplication, confession, admiration, thanks, and praise. Weil says about studies what I would suggest about my discovered images: “It is the part played by joy . . . that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed toward God is the only power capable of raising the soul” (61).

A year ago, I wouldn’t have said this. My relationship with the camera, iPhone or any other, was adversarial. I was not yet paying attention with it. It seemed nothing but a distraction from the work I had to do as coleader of thirty-six college students travelling throughout Europe for fifteen weeks studying narrative art and literature, social issues, World War II history, and—ironically enough—technology. The loping Roman aqueduct in Segovia, the impressive dentures of Montserrat, Monet’s lilied ponds in Giverny—and so on, through Warsaw, Prague, Nuremberg, Venice, Florence, and the photo-ready scenes of Rome. How many times did I hear the plea from my spouse, “Ooh, could you get a picture of that?” Something in me wanted “the picture,” too. For the memories. For the archives. If I had had a Facebook page, undoubtedly I would have wanted it for that, too.

The standard answer I gave, often enough that soon it needed no repeating, was, “I’d rather have the experience than get a picture of the experience I’m not having because I’m viewing it through a lens.” You can imagine what fun I was. Yet, behind my cantankerous attitude, I felt the force of Walker Percy’s argument in “The Loss of the Creature.” He notes that the tourist, preparing to see the Grand Canyon as tourists prepare, by seeing brochures and postcards and, in our century, tourist websites, cannot see the canyon as it actually is, for “what he has done is the one sure way not to see the canyon. . . . It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind” (The Message in the Bottle 47). If the Eiffel Tower or Switzerland looks like the picture—the picture in the mind’s eye, a product of the pictures in postcards and brochures, themselves products of the sentimental declensions of our collective yearnings—then we can say, great, we’ve been there, seen that. If we happen to hit Dover Castle during a squall, we mope because, as we say, we came on the wrong day. When will be our next trip to England when we might have a chance to “see it” in all the glory of the expected?

Walker Percy knew nothing about “selfies,” but we do. Selfies would have made Percy’s point, squared. With the camera aimed at the operator, with Big Ben or the Great Wall(paper) of China in the background, we never miss the expected glory because the expected is me, me, me. We feel comfy among the tourists because we’re doing what tourists do. The smile never changes, the subject never changes, the motive never changes. What changes is the continual losing of Percy’s “creature” and the triumph of social engineering, the slow decaying of a person’s presence and a growing indifference to the animate presence of anything else. The narcissistic snapper of self-en-scène seeks apotheosis through repetition. Posting the photo on Facebook, the obligatory next step, unfortunately, does not achieve the desired fame, friend-to-friend connection, or cyber-immortality. It papers an electronic wall with images of stereotypical behavior, behavior that addresses the shame of depersonalization and denaturalization with a dilutive inversion of the tu quoque fallacy: me quoque. It’s okay, we’re all doing it. I’m another. Smile up at the camera: we’re all going down together.

A month into my Europe semester, I had seen enough of the selfie syndrome among our students to sense that it could have them dozing in mental poppy fields when they ought to be learning to use their powers of observation acutely the way artists do. Each one had a creative project to do in a medium of his or her own choosing. I urged some of the more thoughtful camera-wielding students to turn their attentions and intentions inside out. Use the camera to discover things and the photographic image to tell stories, not to stamp the obscuring image of themselves on everything they see. The shadow of our conscious and unconscious mind falls over all our choices anyway.

Unfortunately, righteous condescension doesn’t wear very well. It’s a half step away from self-righteous denigration of others’ often innocent intentions. It was on a coach ride from Granada to Cordoba one morning when something in my spirit began to change. We got out for a bathroom-, snack-, and trinket-break at a touristified old train station. I was in no mood for pictures until I walked into an outbuilding housing a bathroom. Inside, I was arrested by something above the sink that at first glance appeared to be a movie. It turned out to be a mirror made of numerous six-inch-wide, side-by-side vertical panels of mirrored glass. It was I that was moving, not it, and as I had passed by, it had broken my image into a crowd of mes. This was, in a sense, a selfie on steroids but, on the other hand, not a selfie at all because it was not in the least intentionally focused on myself. Because of the way the panels were angled, I could not make eye contact with any of me. I had been arrested by the wondrous specter of a human body being severed and scattered across a visual field. The rending of the body known as sparagmos—think Orpheus or Jesus—came to mind.

I was glad for once to have a camera in my pocket to capture an image that I sensed could be had for the price of a little dancing and stretching. This would be my minimalist photographic answer to Marcel Duchamps’s Nude Descending a Staircase or one of the multiplied-in-place mandolin players of Juan Gris I had seen in Madrid’s Reina Sofia. The shot I took delighted me. I positioned myself so that all I captured within the frame was the sight of five bare, parallel, angled forearms, all making jazz hands against a white square-tiled wall. During the preceding month through the UK and Spain, I had been making a civilized attempt to generate an electronic photo album stocked with interesting, colorful, and well-composed pictures. We had family back home who would want to know where we had been. I had tried to make some of the photos look like frameable pictures. Beyond that, I had nothing to boast of. But the jazz hands photo was not a picture. I knew that right away. It was an image I had at least cocreated through perspective and perception and movement and timing. There was only one way to get the picture and that was to be, like Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, “a part of all that I have met.”

What I had perceived in the mirror was not familiar or expected. It was an element of life sliced, angled, aligned, abstracted, made ambiguous. I wasn’t thinking about it then, but in reflections since, I have realized that I took to the image because I had deflected it from its ordinary sense, forced myself to live and work with it. This process has been dubbed “defamiliarization,” a translation of Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s coinage, ostraniene. Translator Benjamin Sher rejects this word in favor of a different, more positive-sounding coinage, “enstrangement.” Shklovsky described art in these terms already in 1925 in “Art as Device.” The problem he cited is that experience desensitizes us; we come to expect to recognize objects as themselves, and when we do, we are done with them. Art, for Shklovsky, is the corrective:

[I]n order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art . . . is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “estranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” (6)

The slow perception that Shklovsky cites is intrinsic to art. The artifact itself is not of particular interest; it simply gives us the opportunity of “experiencing the process of creativity”:

The purpose of the image is not to draw our understanding closer to that which this image stands for, but rather to allow us to perceive the object in a special way, in short, to lead us to a “vision” of this object rather than mere “recognition.” (10)

When I took a photo of “Mrs. Bagley,” the object I made was not “great art,” but it had art’s great virtue of making the mind slow down and dwell in the vision of what had been unfamiliar. It was a gift that I found, repackaged, and regifted to the viewer. The experience of the strange and unfamiliar was, as always, a receiving of news, and I was pretty sure that, just as Ezra Pound had said about literature in ABC of Reading (1934), the image was “news that STAYS news” (see Pound 28).  Onto Pound’s glibness I would graft the darker musing of the poet William Carlos Williams in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

                                                it is difficult

            to get the news from poems

                        yet men die miserably every day

                                                for lack

            of what is found there.


It is difficult to get “the news” from pictures, too, especially from tourist snapshots, and most impossibly from a prolific tide of selfies. A life of suffering and servitude may be a life of misery, but so is a life stuck in banality, a life without issue. It is joy that would relieve the misery of a life lived without issue, and creative discovery is a sure generator of joy.

Over the next couple of months, as I helped students troll for inspiration among European works of art and to decide what media to use for their own creative projects, it was not much of a stretch for me to join in. Why should I not do as I teach? In the back of my mind, I carried words sometimes attributed to the poet John Ciardi: “Anything looked at closely is worth seeing.” Or A.R. Ammons, in Glare: “Anything looked at closely becomes wonderful” (216). Such declarations seem true, and faith in that truth has prompted me on many an occasion to look up in proximity to an image like a deer at the approach of rain. I found cool, vacuous geometry in Moorish architecture in the Alpujarra region of Spain. Looking down the spiral staircase of the Arc de Triomphe, I found a nautilus-like puzzle with people in it. I spied a moonscape and cosmic eclipse in the handle of a cathedral door in Nuremberg, abstract impressionistic reflections in the pounded-steel canopy over the breakfast nook in a Munich YMCA, the history of skewed politics and devastating warfare in Warsaw hinted at in the distorted reflections of a WWII-era building in a late-twentieth-century building’s glass façade, a cartoon face in the doorbell at a business address in Venice. I have made it my practice since then to look for things that others do not see: images and patterns, designs and textures, rhythms, color fields, resemblances, visual stories. I’ve found them in plants, shadows, reflections, objects seen at odd angles, aerial views, architectural forms, and close-ups of textures and folds in fabric.

As an amateur, I’ve learned my tools the hard way, poking the editing functions of my iPhone camera and seeing what happens. Again and again, I have found that upon a change of exposure followed by, say, a change in contrast or color saturation, followed by a careful cropping, what at first glance was interesting or arresting became astounding or funny or mystifying or moving or metaphorically suggestive. I had to discover for myself that a change in contrast followed by a change in shadow yields a different result than a change in shadow followed by a change in contrast. When the factors are counted in—color cast, contrast, and saturation; light exposure, highlights, shadows, brightness, contrast, and black point; black and white intensity, neutrals, tone, and grain—the possible variations are infinite. If I multiply by the countless ways to crop a photo—tilt, enlargement, rotation—the images I might produce number infinity times infinity.

The choice returns to me with a certain existential prickle: What to keep and what to discard? What to reach for, where to settle? What to say and what imply? What to make definite, certain, and uninflected; what to leave ambiguous, elusive, and over-determined? What in the image will conform to the centripetal forces of form and structure, and what will yield to the centrifugal forces of social comment and question? What will be my spirit, what the spirit of the work, what the spirit of art in the work?

In other words, one lives in photography, too. One is shallow or profound, as one’s practices and intentions are shallow or deep.

I remain on guard against the devolving of active involvement into dull routine. I want to be more than a restless fiddler with an electronic toy. Enough of that occurs around me, tempting me to fall in line. But what about obsession? What about devotion? I confess, I winced at someone’s casual reference to my recent “obsession” with the camera. In the ordinary sense, my preoccupation with the iPhone camera has shades of obsession in it, as have my seasons of learning any number of crafts. But in a deeper sense, I do protest. My practice is driven by joy, not pathology. “Devotion,” too, fits in its ordinary sense of strong love or loyalty. But the Latin root word votum, or “vow,” lives on in the sense of unshakeable religious commitments and pious acts. I have not made, and would not make, a vow to continue doing what I have been doing with the camera. My faith is in more than this. I’ll stick with “practice.”

What then is my practice with the iPhone? I have slowed down parts of my life to the pace of seeing. I have learned to wait for the light. I’ve trained myself to receive with gratitude what I find but to accept that what I find will almost never be what I expect. Experience has reinforced my sense that anything looked at with loving regard may be beautiful, but beauty is full. It is dark and light; it is portentous and comical; it is hairy and smooth; it is timeless and now. Often—usually—I don’t begin to see the beauty until I begin to edit the image. When I edit, I pare the image, often cropping to eliminate the information that would identify the imaged object as a recognizable thing. I find that when I or another viewer can say, “Oh, that’s a [blank],” the object truly does go blank—back to Percy’s preformed “symbolic complex.” When we identify the image as a familiar thing, we shelve it with others of its kind. On the other hand, when the markers of the familiar are removed, even unpracticed viewers become instant inventors and storytellers. I want to release the energy of silliness and play. I improvise—from Latin, improvisus, “unexpected, not foreseen.”

When I craft an image with my phone’s camera, I see something, then take something, then make something of what I have taken. Then I see something in what I am making and make something of that. In the end, I share, stow, or destroy. I say no 50 times for every yes. But when I say yes, it’s all yes. Yes, exactly. Yes, that’s it. Yes, thank you! Yes, where have you been? Yes, will you marry me? Yes, now don’t leave me.

Improvisation means acknowledging what has just this moment appeared. It means respecting it, accepting it, seeing it as a consequence of all that came before and a possible antecedent of whatever might come next. It means saying no, goodbye, to the million other options that did not become actual in that moment. It means saying yes to the one that did and swinging the entire world of unrealized ifs around to this realized so. It means saying goodbye with no steamy regrets, no holding on. It means shoving the domineering selfhood out of the way, giving it a room of its own where it can go rage, as I sit in the middle of a sunlit floor, unwrapping gifts and calling out to loved ones, “Thank you!” and “Come see!”


Works Cited

Ammons, A. R. Glare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature.” In The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1954; 1989, 46-63.

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. 1934; New York: New Directions, 1960.

Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Device” (1925). In Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1929; 1990, 1-14.

Weil, Simone. “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” (1942). In Waiting on God, trans. Emma Crauford (1950). New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959; repr. HarperPerennial Modern Classics Edition, 2009, 57-66.

Williams, William Carlos. Asphodel, That Greeny Flower & Other Love Poems, 1938. New York: New Directions Bibelot, 1994.


Randall VanderMey is 1978 graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop in Fiction with an M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has taught English at Westmont College for 29 years, after a decade teaching at Dordt College and Iowa State. He is the lead author of The College Writer, 4th ed. (Cengage, 2011), author of God Talk: Triteness and Truth in Christian Cliches (InterVarsity, 1993), Charm School: Five Women of the Odyssey (Artamo Press, 2006), several plays, an unpublished novel, and numerous published poems, short stories, and essays. In the past several years, his iPhone photography has been shown in one-person shows and competitions. He lives in Santa Barbara, CA, with his wife Dana and loves to bowl, golf, and play piano.