Carrying the Candle Across the Pool
Updated: Jul 17
My friend Paul is taking up the hobby of film (instead of digital) photography. Always looking for more opportunities to practice this, he asks to take some pictures of me. I have a few ideas. A woman wading into a lake, pouring water out of some colorful container. A woman holding, say, a candle, protecting its flame.
Paul and I both love the movies of Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, The Sacrifice). Half joking at first, I said we could attempt the candle shots as some kind of homage to his movie Nostalghia, the scene where the main character comes back in the end to a stone-built community swimming pool in some old-world city with the sole purpose of walking, with a candle he’d lit, from one end of it to the other, partly because another character met earlier tried to but did not succeed, and partly because now he needed to as a seemingly trivial but actually crucial personal life achievement. (https://www.youtube.comwatch?v=O3Dp6EdFRHo)
Photos by Paul Thomas
To carry the lit candle across the pool, whether waist-deep in water, other bathers making fun, or alone, the same space drained in another season, you now wearing an overcoat. Can’t much of life be reduced to that? How everything gets down to this task: to light the wick (don’t forget, or you’ll have to go back, start all over) and manage to shelter this precarious but desperate-to-live flame with a cupped hand or one side of a held-open coat so the wind, which hadn’t seemed that strong before you struck the match or flicked the lighter, cannot, will not, snuff it out. To set that candle on the far ledge at last, having learned the hard way to proceed in cautious, persistent baby steps and finally leave it there to burn on as long as it can after you’ve gone. For you, not for onlookers. For someone who handed down this dream to you but could not himself complete it. A burden at first it seemed. Ridiculous. Worthless. But in the end, a satisfying gift. An enacting of your own redemption. A crossing through which you wrought your own so-long-evasive fulfillment.
We wanted to, besides Paul trying out an array of settings on four cameras (a 1936 Rolleicord, two 1980 Canon single lens reflex 35mms, and a modern-day iPhone) and experimenting with a variety of poses and moods, as best we could in a different time, different landscape, re-create Tarkovsky’s scene in a series of snapshots of me standing ankle deep in our local Half Moon Lake, just off the boat launch. He would be shooting in both color and in black and white. I dug out a half-burned-down pastel pink spiraled candle I thought would contrast well with my black blouse. We tried different poses, me making ripples first, then Paul clicking the shutter, his thought that it’s good to include elements in the composition that began before the scene is captured, adding depth, mystery, an aura of transcendence.
Then I moved my hand and suddenly felt hot wax scalding one of my fingers. “Oh no!” I called out. “There’s hot wax dripping down!” It startled me more than anything, not sure how much more might follow. Easily addressed by letting some drop down onto the gravelly sand, it wasn’t a huge interruption. In the film, the man’s candle goes out two or three times during his inching across the empty pool. Each time, he has to start over, as the quest is to walk across the entire pool with the flame intact, vivid. That might not seem like such a big deal, but he was dying and the task had by now taken on the weight of an epic odyssey. He pauses, then, considering whether he has it in him to begin all over. He decides to attempt it yet again, and he finally makes it, beholding the candle carefully set on the distant ledge just before he collapses, his task at last realized. Paul joked that if we’d been in a Tarkovsky film, he, noted as a difficult director, probably would have asked us to do it again, to on purpose experience the wax’s burn, so he could commit that to film. Not, I imagine, wishing anyone harm, but knowing—knowing—it’s exactly that sort of thing that so eloquently conveys our individual yet collective experiencing of the human dilemma, bit by bit.
The candle shots are processed. Paul sends me the link. The Rolleicord lends a style and richness in these black and whites. He’s managed to portray something deeper, more profound than we dared to expect, having been, to some extent, just playing with everything. In the one furthest left, the flame, as it should be, is the brightest aspect in the scene. I’ve taken on the air of some driven, temporarily hushed, momentarily paused pool (ok, lake) transverser, caught in the frame, the candle, its light, its destination, now my whole raison d’etre.
“We must protect the flame within and without,” says Irish singer-songwriter David Keenan (barely audible, he’s off mic) in a YouTube video after his song that asks, “Is there any evidence of living here in this town?” He holds up a bottle that holds a candle that holds a flame he's just carried out one door of the concert venue, through the courtyard, and back into the building through a different door, then sat down on the edge of the stage. His own sort of journey across a pool with a lit candle. Then there’s wild applause, a few raucous whistles, a brief quiet before cheers. At such communal hope-mongering he can’t help but grin just before the video finishes. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-GbmEO2v50)
We humans have a need to carry the light, a little bit of fire, a flickering, fragile flame, across the water, or even across the space where there’s usually water and now is “only” air. Hold yours out in front of you. Shelter it. Go slow. If you have to, go back, light it again, and take one step after another till you get to the other, far-distant edge. There’s nothing to be done but try, and try again. Try.