sepia shadows

I rediscovered sepia this weekend. I like how sepia suggests that this image is of the past. A past moment suspended in the now. A ’54 Chevy suspended on this page. Lately, I’ve had this recurring thought that wherever I go, the moment has passed by already. And time appears to me like a shadow-line moving over what was in the light and I’m standing at that line mesmerized at the movement itself. Paralyzed by thoughts about the experience of time.

Then the illusion is blown by a row of city bikes in the background. The 1954 feel / time bleeding out of the main object betrayed. I remember the point Roland Barthes made so well about a photograph being more akin to a hallucination than any kind of memory (actually a counter-memory that blocks memory). His quote from Camera Lucida about what a photograph is has always struck me as closest in my experience, “The photograph becomes a bizarre medium a new form of hallucination.  False on the level of perception True on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality.”

Photographs. Our dear sweet little false memories. As yummy as apple pie with a little hot pepper in it. I’ve always felt this push-pull from photographs. And I feel it when I photograph. Something maddeningly ordinary but also hints of something gone awry. The maddest image tries to tell you that it’s as normal as a car parked on the street. Even objects and places tell us how they want to be seen.

The more experimental or expressive the photograph, actually the less mad it appears to me! Closer to its medium as an image-maker rather than a truth-teller. The utterly mundane being most mad of all. But who doesn’t love madness in art? And that might be why some artists like me tend to be most mundane of all. Blending in. Hiding to better witness the mesmerizing shadow-line of time.

Three Pools

Once there were two lovers who met at a cascading waterfall with three pools.  It was love at first sight at the top pool which was crystal clear. The sandy bed cushioned their feet and the surface sparkled in their eyes.  The waterfall made the pool full of bubbles tickling their bodies as they swam in bliss.  

Eventually they wandered down to the middle pool where the waterfall flowed with less power than at the top.  It was warm and pleasant. This emerald green pool mirrored the canopy of the trees. It was so serene that the lovers knew their lives could be spent there.  It seemed as if each were a part of the other. Their bodies swam together in perfect synchronicity.  

Then they wandered down to the bottom pool, or really more a black pond where the waterfall came to a trickle.  It was so dark there under the heavy canopy that it could’ve been a cave.

The lovers accidentally fell into the black pond. It became thick and sticky.  The lovers argued about what to do and who got them in this situation as the water became a sludge. Transfixed, they could see faint traces of skeletons intertwined at the center. 

When they escaped the black pond and made it back to the middle pool, it appeared differently to them.  Not as serene as before. The emerald green pool lost its luster. The canopy was dull and sagging. It was as if the black pond had oozed upstream.  

The lovers ran desperately to the top pool. Somehow the top pool had changed but it had become even richer.  The effervescence broke on their skin. And as they swam in that most blissful of pools, their bodies transformed into caustics of light. 

Blame’s Only Solution

Once there was a boy and a girl who went into the woods but only the boy returned.  The villagers went looking for the girl but only found her clothes drenched in blood.  And when they demanded that the boy tell them what had happened, he could not speak a word.  

Some of the villagers blamed the boy for killing the girl and demanded that he give up his life in return.

Other villagers blamed the boy’s parents for not raising him correctly and demanded that the parents pay the ultimate price for the endless sorrow of the girl’s parents.

And others blamed the girl for going into the woods with the boy and said she got what she deserved.

And some even blamed her parents for not teaching her better and thought they also deserved to go in the woods and never come back with their self-inflicted sadness.

One villager said that they all were to blame for this tragedy because they should’ve prevented the boy and girl from going into the woods in the first place.  But the rest of the villagers blamed him for blaming them for something that did not involve them or their children as they saw it.

And that night, suspicions grew so wildly that some villagers set fire to the homes of those they blamed.  And they in turn torched the homes of whoever they blamed. Eventually the entire village was on fire.

In the morning, the villagers were ready to kill each other when the missing girl stepped out of the woods.  

And they blamed her for destroying their village and so they knew they had to sacrifice her.  They decided it was best to sacrifice the boy as well for not talking, even though the boy pleaded that he did not talk for the very reason that he had seen them do this before.  

And after they burned them at the stake, the villagers rebuilt their homes together and lived in brief harmony until the next outburst of blame and it’s only solution.

Böcklin’s Dream

In the dark sea of the desert, there was an island. As we sailed by in our car, I snapped this shot. The sight matched an image inscribed in me decades ago when I saw Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel in Berlin.

Böcklin’s Toteninsel 1880 (image from Wikipedia by way of Kunstmuseum Basel)

How strange to be driving in the Southwest decades later and suddenly think of someone else’s dream. And to feel the tone of that dream image materialized to such a scale that it stretched entirely around our car. For a brief absurd moment, it felt as if I were suspended in that dream visiting a cemetery of shadows from the window of our moving coffin.

The Smiling Warrior

Once there was a warrior who hated everybody.  This hatred made him the most formidable opponent anyone ever faced.  His bottomless hatred was sharpened by several disciplines of combat. He lived according to the rule that pain is the best teacher of all.  He bathed in ice and slept near a furnace. He shaved his hair and tattooed his entire body to intimidate others. He ate and drank anything sour and bitter to kill all pleasure.

In battle, he never showed mercy to even the weakest opponent.  He drove spears into the backs of anyone who ran away. He crushed the skulls of those who groveled for their life on all fours.  He had beaten the best in every way he could imagine.

But there was a warrior from another kingdom.  This one did not look like a warrior at all. He always had a smile on his face.  And he was fascinated by fighting. He saw battle as a game of thresholds. Endlessly fascinating to figure out the breaking point of an opponent with the least amount of effort on his part.  Strategy motivated him. He felt no shame when he lost but seldom did. Defeating an easy opponent gave him no thrill. He always wanted to compete against someone perceived as better.  

Everyone loved the smiling warrior because he loved just about anything there was to love when he wasn’t fighting.  He knew in his heart that the only reason to battle was to save what was worth fighting for and that was love. He loved his king and queen.  He loved his wife and his kids. He loved his fellow warriors. And he loved to drink and eat. But he also had a love for the less fortunate who needed his protection.

One day the hateful warrior met the smiling warrior on a battlefield.  Their kingdoms had clashed and they were the flashpoint. The hateful warrior thought nothing of the smiling warrior.  And the smiling warrior laughed in his face. In anger, the hateful warrior lifted his mace and swung it to smash that smile right off his face.  But the smiling warrior’s reflexes were much faster and he moved backward just enough to feel the wind of the mace brush his nose.  

The hateful warrior stumbled off balance but regained leverage and performed a surprisingly quick backswing that lifted the smiling warrior off his feet and on his back.  The smiling warrior rolled over and got to his fight with a spring in his step. He had gone with the blow so it did not hurt him as badly as it looked. And he blew the hateful warrior a kiss.

The hateful warrior screamed and rushed at him like a bull.  The smiling warrior unsheathed his dagger as he pirouetted beside the bull rush and mid-spin sliced the nape of his neck where he had spotted a space between armor and helmet.  The hateful warrior felt blood gushing down his back. His eyes reddened with madness.

The smiling warrior noticed a hot pain as he was pirouetting and looked down to see that a few of his fingers had been lopped off by the hateful warrior’s sharp armor.  The smiling warrior wrapped his hand in a cloth and pulled out a single needle and told the hateful warrior that if he accepted defeat he would not destroy him with this single needle.

The hateful warrior grabbed his sword and lunged forward to skewer him.  The edge of his blade sliced the smiling warrior’s armor but didn’t touch his belly flesh.  And the smiling warrior poked the hateful warrior’s left eyeball. One of the hateful warrior’s men laughed at the absurd fight and the hateful warrior beheaded him mid-laugh with one backward swing.  

The smiling warrior offered him another chance to surrender.  But the hateful warrior lunged forward again. The smiling warrior could’ve easily poked out his other eye but told him that he should do better than repeating the same move on him.  The hateful warrior swung to lop off the smiling warrior’s limbs but the smiling warrior swiftly dodged the blows and went ahead and blinded the hateful man since in his view he had insisted upon it.  

Covering his eyes, the screaming hateful warrior bent over and the smiling warrior kicked him in the ass toward his own men.  He accidentally fell on one of their swords and impaled himself.  

Many years later the smiling warrior met his match in a much younger man.  They danced in battle for what seemed an eternity. He was in combat bliss as they traded equal blows.  And when his age caught up with him and his reflexes failed him he took his defeat with much satisfaction at being dispatched by such a worthy opponent.  And in his fleeting moments, he smiled as he thought of all he had loved.