The camera compresses the world into a frame. The transitory becomes fixed in an illusion. Smoke trapped underwater. Cloud textures trapped in rocks. The horizon is a stroke of ink, or a line of difference, drawn by the camera’s position.
As my consciousness defines what I see, have I not become the calm of a still lake for a passing moment? And what is calm but the sustain of some already faded state? An identity already loosened up and breaking down into something else, as I hold on to the fixed reflection of what it briefly was to me.
What appears as foam from a breaking wave is a hard crust of geyserite. The appearance is soft and the material hard. When I look at this, I alternate between feeling like I’m on a strange beach and at a geyser in Yellowstone. The seascape comes in and out with the tide of the landscape. The experience and the reality clash instead of their usual interlacing. A metamorphosis suspended. Bouncing between two places without ever totally arriving.
I’m a child again. The car seems like a cavern on wheels. Mom and dad are yelling at each other. I slink to the back row and slump down to look up and out the window. I brace myself for each violent bend in the road by the river. The gravity pulls me with a force greater than my entire being. I fear we may slide off the road.
My sweaty little hands hold on to the seat as I press myself into it with my feet. The momentum hurls forward as the brakes squeal. Dad bites his fist then punches the ceiling rapidly. Mom screams bloody murder.
We take another turn and I feel that dread of being on a rollercoaster beyond my threshold. I stare up at the trees pirouetting away, as my body is jostled at the whim of this death car. Gushing downstream, they are heading for their abyss, and I, unseen and forgotten, am along for another ride.
Decades later, I return to the river roads of Colorado. I sit on the rocks at the bank of the river. It’s movement is as big to me now as that car was when I was a kid. The turbulent water mimics the chaos of my parents. The domineering boulders loom over me and cast blue shadows on the whitewash. My eyes catch momentum with the tortuous river. Its roar drowns out the distant screams of memories.
And the flow carries me to another river. A smoother river with gentle turns and a wider pathway. An ancient river who has the most curious objects floating down it. On the banks, I wait and collect whatever comes my way. The water has particles in it that sparkle with the warmest light. It washes over the rocks in a cleansing way. The soft sand molds itself to my foot. If I swim in it, it’s as wide or narrow as I want it to be.
This is an ancient place of sustenance for people of cultures formed along rivers all across the world and ever since we’ve been a species. There are currents of this water that flow from the oldest rivers of consciousness. It’s where Charon waits with his ferry.
My familiarity with this deep river feels etched into my biological self. The habitual patterns of ancient people gleaming along my nervous system like the golden light slipping over the surface of the river.
And the feeling of being in a vessel far bigger than me returns. Only this time, the car has transformed into a ship who forms to whatever shape the river takes.
And so I play River Man by Nick Drake. And his melancholic tone twists and turns into the most delicate sentiment. The beauty of sorrow transformed by the flow of guitar playing. There is an immensity of courage in this kind of work.
Where tragedy becomes art. Where trauma and loss are whitewash, more process than cause for resentment. Where everyone must navigate a path within this overwhelming flow of shared consciousness.
The hoodoos left behind in this amphitheater of erosion wear the costumes and masks that disguise randomness as they sing the chorus about the illusion of essence with labels of purpose so easily shifted by angle and light.
These curtains of erosion hide the absurdity behind them, for I raise my camera and point the lens at what it pretends to capture: eternal formations defining my mortal position more than the immensity of randomness.
This curse of the fixed image (and labels) and its fate as a screen made me think of this interesting observation made by Albert Camus: “In Italian museums are sometimes found little painted screens that the priest used to hold in front of the face of condemned men to hide the scaffolding. The leap in all its forms, rushing into the divine or the eternal, surrendering to the illusions of the everyday or of the idea – all those screens hide the absurd.” -Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (p. 91)
A geyser forms a camera obscura with its steam. In a pocket of time, I fell behind the scenes of what I was chasing after. The aperture of my camera pointed at the pinhole of sunlight and its reflection. What I had been chasing disappeared and I found myself somewhere aside from desire and circumstance – somewhere reflecting the smallness of purpose while magnifying the greatness of existence. As the image slipped away from the steam, only a trace fixed the reference to a memory. What shined through the pinhole illuminated the positioning of the subject and shed light on the futile condition of catching what cannot really be caught. And then the moment unfolded into an object-less arena. A reflexive space formed into a fractal pocket. As if I were in a glass ball within others. Looking at a loose iteration of my activity in another sphere. Inside my camera and outside of my body, floating through a hole in the sky.
In Death Valley, forms appear to mimic the hands that sculpted them. As Jean Baudrillard noted in America, “Death Valley is as big and mysterious as ever. Fire, heat, light: all the elements of sacrifice are here. You always have to bring something into the desert to sacrifice, and offer it to the desert as a victim.”
In this strange mirror, a mirage produces a liquid permanence. And this ancient landscape becomes a future landscape as well as a launching point to terrains on other planets, other realities, and other existences, in addition to the seemingly inevitable sacrifice of human existence which as yet does not have the capacity to transcend this landscape. In that way, whenever I go to Death Valley, it’s immensity presses on me and makes me feel like eternity is under the feet of that which it feeds and consciousness appears as some strange simulated virginal sacrifice.