There is a poem by Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass that has resonated for me ever since I read it as a teenager. It’s about the struggle of existence with the transitory nature we have found ourselves in. The turbulent foam we move in. Perhaps even the quantum foam of spacetime itself as John Wheeler hypothesized.
This poem shows the empathy we have for others struggling as Whitman had for this swimmer. I knew such a courageous swimmer of life who died in a tragic accident roughly a year ago. He too was in his middle age. Never did I think when I read this decades ago that it would eventually embody a dear friend I thought would outlive me.
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the
eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head....he strikes out
with courageous arms...he urges himself with his legs.
I see his white body....I see his undaunted eyes;
I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him headforemost
on the rocks,
What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves?
Will you kill the courageous giant? Will you kill him in the prime
of his middle age?
Steady and long he struggles;
He is baffled and banged and bruised....he holds out while his
strength holds out,
The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood....they bear him
away....they roll him and swing him and turn him;
His beautiful body is borne in this circling eddies....it is continually
bruised on rocks,
Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse.
And through his empathy, Whitman sees himself as the swimmer and through poetry becomes the swimmer as much as the witness. All of us in the foam. All of us swimming through randomness. Bound by our common struggle. Illuminated by our undaunted courage. Holding out against forces beyond our control.
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.
As memories sink into the subconscious, light bends the appearance of a log on its return to the soft wet earth. Into the waters of time, the slow slide of experience is transformed into the rich material from which myths arise. The still pond dreams of craggy ramparts overrun by a verdant army.
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.
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 Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus is one of those books, my favorite kind, that has worked on my consciousness for years after reading it. When revisiting certain passages, it strikes me that I had been thinking along these lines to the point that now the words sing to me more than ever.
The gist of the book’s message is to live the most (not the best) by focusing attention on the experience of existence while acknowledging the absurdity of our condition (that we yearn for meaning in a random existence, so we “color the void” with our images).
“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (p. 121)
When I’m feeling the tragic fate of existence, it is this private victory that I keep in mind.
Nature draws with fissures and cracks. On this desert canvas, she illustrates the complexity of her fractal design. She brings to my mind cracking into a hard boiled egg on an egg cup, or the terra cotta pottery I’ve accidentally dropped and the pieces I’ve had to collect, or the time I heard her drawing on an icy lake underfoot. She is always drawing everywhere and at once for everyone. Could we imagine an existence without such illustrations?
Clearly, Earth is not her only canvas. Where else must she be drawing right now on Earth analogues out there? What other intelligent creatures on other planets are marveling at her polygonal work right now and wondering about if other creatures like us are not doing the same?
While on a photographic quest for an amazing epic scene, the small moment in the tiniest corner of the woods can speak as loudly, if one knows how to listen beyond one’s intent.
On the way to a waterfall, a stream whispers under a tree. Fallen leaves quietly look for a place to release their tannins. Moss gently lingers across the heavy wet bark.
This soft entropic scene slowly drifts me along its slide back into material. And the scene whispers to me that death is an illusion, or an imaginary ego point in a process that is concerned with the larger return of existence.
I release any bitterness about being a part of what this scene whispers into my ear. The inevitable has softly spoken in this small round corner of the woods and I gently accept it.
We see miniature trees everyday off in the distance. Such a common site gets easily dismissed. But a photograph can cross back over that threshold and aside from any tilt-shifting emphasize this feeling of the miniature.
I think this taps into feelings I have for what is smaller than me. And the tendency to see small things as cute. Protective feelings arise over these baby trees. It’s the deep satisfaction that can come from caring for an aquarium or crafting a train diorama.
Whenever we peer into a microcosm, the observations run simultaneously with the realization that we just might be in a microcosm to a perspective beyond our awareness. Perhaps this is at the base of the religious belief in a higher power. I often wonder about beliefs as side effects or reactions to such phenomenological occurrences as an optical effect.
Would we take better care of things if we saw them as miniature? Maybe it’s time to walk around looking backwards through binoculars at things that are difficult to have compassion for, in order to help out.
Next time a conflict arises, should I just miniaturize the source and care for it instead of miniaturizing myself into an unnecessary struggle? Just like a Buddhist monk might miniaturize desire itself in order to miniaturize suffering?
Or maybe in the future, AI will read our emotional responses and adjust them to a calmer state for better decision-making by employing this feeling of the miniature, while controlling our evaluations so that the decisions made are best for its purposes. The same kind of therapeutic brainwashing seen in cults only turned into an algorithm, for our own benefit of course.
What do you see in these shadow figures? I see the Egyptian queen Nefertiti! It has this heavy mythical weight for me even though its just a silhouette of rock formations somewhere in Utah.
Pareidolia happens when I see something like a face in a cloud that actually doesn’t exist. In this sense, when pareidolia occurs, I am seeing my own mind displayed before me.
In this vein, I make other art I post on Instagram (@oneroundcorner) that employs a random process of multiple exposures and mirroring to produce pareidolia effects like the one below. Zoom in and look at the absurd figures that appear. I’m constantly surprised by how mythical and spiritual they feel while being randomly made.