It's Menka here with another Just Looking Letter - a newsletter about slowing down to notice more of this fleeting mote of stardust we call life.
If you're new here, a very warm welcome! In each Letter I offer one core idea and a practical exercise to go with it, followed by a curated shortlist of five things to read, listen to or watch to further inspire your looking.
About A Mountain in the Background
When the skies are clear, Mount Fuji can be seen from Tokyo itself. The mountain stands strong through the different seasons, providing a steady reference point for all those below in the bustling capital city, previously known as Edo. One of these city dwellers, the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, living in the early 19th century, created some now-iconic works of art depicting Mount Fuji.
These two images above in particular - The Great Wave off Kanagawa, and Clear Weather with Southern Breeze - eventually led to Hokusai's international fame. His work had a profound impact on the art world, including many 19th-century Western artists such as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh.
What is perhaps less well known is that these familiar images are part of a collection - 36 Views of Mount Fuji - dedicated to the mountain. Hokusai worked on this series for ten long years. And, despite the title, he created 46 woodblock prints by the end! The prints were sold in a beautiful cloth-bound box.
The longer one looks at these, the more stories unfold. In the last image above Hokusai draws our attention to a flying kite, with a string that cuts across an empty sky. There are many triangles. The signboards on the shop read "Fabrics for kimono", and "Cash, no down payments". There's a lot going on.
Hokusai started this series when he was 70 years old. By then he had lived with this mountain as the backdrop for most of his life. He must have seen it from so many different vantages, in different lights, in different seasons. By pairing the mountain with the flux of everyday life, his images seem to remind us that while life changes, people come and go, cherry trees bloom, and the wind sends kites soaring, the mountain stands still.
Mountains, of course, do not stand still. Even Mount Fuji happens to be an active volcano (although, the last eruption was 300 years ago.) All mountains are breaking and rebuilding constantly. They are fragile, eroding with the rains, winds and movements of tectonic plates. But, it's about speed and perception. Perhaps mountains remind us that our busy tempo is not the only option. Perhaps they encourage us to be patient, persistent and other things that can't be rushed. Perhaps they simply mirror something steady within ourselves.
I invite you to take a few minutes to watch this video of all of Hokusai's Mount Fuji prints, set to stirring music!
What Has a Steady Presence In Your Life?
Channelling Hokusai, see if you can find something in your local neighbourhood - something you pass by regularly - that is reliably always there. That endures. That changes so slowly that if you looked at it as a baby, and on the day you die, it would be nearly the same. It could be an inanimate object like a cathedral or a cabinet, or a living one like a tree. Once you've chosen, try paying more attention to it in a way that steadies you inside.
You may feel inspired to take a series of photos of your chosen subject over the next few days, months or even years.
As always, if you make any photographs, feel free to share it with me by email, or on Instagram with the tag #wearejustlooking so that it comes up in the Just Looking community feed.
Links about Looking
The Oldest Living Things [See]
The artist Rachel Sussman has been researching, travelling and photographing living organisms that are older than 2000 years. Ancient trees, stromatolites, old shrubs and more. "Exploring the living past in the fleeting present... what does it mean to capture a multi-millennial lifespan in 1/60th of a second?"
I discovered this project via a great newsletter: The Long-termist's Field Guide by Richard Fisher. Here's one of his posts with some fascinating contenders for what could make a great mascot of long-term thinking!
The World as One Place [Watch: 6.5min]
What's it like to go around the whole world in the time it takes to eat lunch? What's it like to see the remnants of the ice age and craters from the asteroid impacts over the past four billion years? Hear from the astronaut Chris Hadfield on how living in space has changed him.
A Photographer With A Sense of Humour [Read + See]
As girls and young women, we’re surrounded by these kinds of images–pictures that show us what life “should” be like when we’re grown up and have everything all figured out. In Locked-In, Borowitz presents an alternative, posing in self-portraits that express the real-life frustrations of being human–and more specifically, of being a woman in a society shaped, in part, by patriarchal structures.
Noticing Beaks [Read]
They laugh at gravity and they chat in music - birds are a daily source of wonder. And now we find out that beaks may be the reason why birds are the only dinosaurs to have survived that mass extinction event about 66 million years ago. I'll never see beaks in the same way again!
Patience as a Superpower [Watch: 17min]
A TED talk by Oliver Burkeman - the author of Four Thousand Weeks. Step one: noticing our own impatience.
It's tricky to stick to just five links, but I like having a tight limit that forces me to choose the best ones. Though I sometimes cheat a bit and add extra links in the commentary, like today. What did you make of them? I always love to hear from you, so feel free to hit reply.
Until next time, wishing us all the fruits of patience!
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