Saturday, April 30, 2011

Stillness

"The practice of true reality
is simply to sit serenely
in silent introspection.
When you have fathomed this,
you cannot be turned around
by external causes
and conditions.
This empty,
wide open mind is subtly
and correctly illuminating."
Buddhist monk
(1091–1157)

"Men cannot see their reflection in running water, but only in still water. Only that which is itself still can still the seekers of stillness...if water derives lucidity from stillness, how much more the faculties of the mind! The mind of the sage, being in repose, becomes the mirror of the universe."
(4th century BCE)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Eternity

"Underneath the superficial self, which pays attention to this and that, there is another self more really us than I. And the more you become aware of the unknown self — if you become aware of it — the more you realize that it is inseparably connected with everything else that is. You are a function of this total galaxy, bounded by the Milky Way, and this galaxy is a function of all other galaxies. You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes. You look and look, and one day you are going to wake up and say, "Why, that's me!" And in knowing that, you know that you never die. You are the eternal thing that comes and goes that appears — now as John Jones, now as Mary Smith, now as Betty Brown — and so it goes, forever and ever and ever."
(1915 - 1973)

“Our theories of the eternal
are as valuable as are
those which a chick
which has not broken
its way through its shell
might form of
the outside world.”
(563-483 B.C.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Stones and Percepions


"It may seem ironic or contradictory
that detailed pictures of so-called
reality become vehicles for moving
us beyond ordinary perceptions."

"Bells and stones have voices,
but unless they are struck,
they will not sound."



Monday, April 25, 2011

Inner Depth

"The inner - what is it?
if not intensified sky ..."
(1875 - 1926)

"Deep in the mountain
is an old pond.
Deep or shallow,
its bottom has never been seen."
(1931 - 2009)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Anicca / Mi rtag pa / Mujō


"We are like the spider.
We weave our life and
then move along in it.
We are like the dreamer
who dreams and then
lives in the dream.
This is true for
the entire universe."

"All formations are transient (anicca)"
- Buddha Sakyamuni
(563 - 483 B.C)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Energy

"In Aboriginal philosophy,
existence consists of energy.
All things are animate,
imbued with spirit
and in constant motion...
[this] leads to a holistic
and cyclical view of the world."
- Marie Battiste

"The pulse of life
demands an unendng
stream of vital energy
to keep it going."
The Language of the Goddess

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Snowflakes and Zen

"No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place."
-Zen proverb

Monk: "What is Zen?"
Tosu (Zen Master): "Zen."
Zen and Japanese Culture

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Nice Shots, But Where's the Color?


"The prejudice many photographers have against colour photography comes from not thinking of colour as form. You can say things with colour that can’t be said in black and white… Those who say that colour will eventually replace black and white are talking nonsense. The two do not compete with each other. They are different means to different ends." - Edward Weston

My mom has a habit of asking disarmingly "simple" questions (which usually have "simple" answers, but only after some thought has gone into addressing them). A while back, she asked me why I tend to take series of pictures rather than individual photos (that post led me to ponder the steps that all artists pass through on the way to "self-discovery"). Well, fresh on the heels of my one-day photo-safari at Luray Caverns, and after showing my mom a few early drafts of processed images, my mom came back with: "They're nice, Andy, but where is the color?"

This time, though, since the general question of color vs. black and white has been on my mind as I was preparing slides for a presentation, I was at least ready with a semblance of a real answer; and it goes to the heart of the basic difference between the forms of photography. Interestingly, the seed of the answer I gave my mom (and am now summarizing) was in my mom's own follow-up to the first part of her question. When I told her the "color" of the caverns was effectively a quasi-mono-tonal "orange," she quickly added, "But Andy, you had some beautiful orange abstracts recently, and they were all in color!" She was referring to my recent series of synesthetic landscapes, which are indeed all in color; this one for example:


So why is this in color and the caverns in black and white? The "simple" answer is that it has everything to do with intent. The whole point of the synesthetic landscape series is to communicate a certain aesthetic of color. These abstracts are not about any "thing"; rather, they are all about the tonal distributions of the colors that they depict. While one is always free to convert to black and white... here is an example of one conversion of the above color shot:


...doing so destroys the very essence of what I took the shot to convey; namely color! This is not to suggest that some viewers (including my mom, though in this case, regarding my colorful "synesthetic landscapes," I know she agrees with me) might not find the black and white version preferable - aesthetics, as we all know, is not an objective measure - just that the color version of this particular image (and others in the same series) is the best exemplar of what my intent was in crafting the photo.

Now, what about the black and white picture of Pluto's Chasm shown above (another view appears in my first post about Luray)? First, in truth, it is not a black and white photo, as I add a subtle warm duotone to all of my photos (which you can see for yourself by loading the image in any image viewer and slowly cranking up the saturation). For the record, my mom didn't "buy" my "it's not really a black and white photo" answer ;-) So, let's take a peek at what the same image might look like in color:


Again, apart from comparing individual aesthetics (you may prefer the color to the duotoned version, or you may not like either image), the point I made to my mom is that as far as my cavern portfolio is concerned, my intent is to communicate certain aesthetic qualities regarding tones, shapes, and textures. The rather drab monotone-like, all-pervasive orange that permeates the "color" image does nothing (for me) in this context, apart from likely diluting a viewer's attention from what otherwise would be her sole focus; namely, the tones, shapes, and textures. In short, color is an unwanted visual distraction (and a preattentive one at that, meaning that we cannot choose to not see it, as it is processed automatically by our brain's primary visual cortex). Thus, color - in this case (from my - the photographer's - point of view) adds nothing essential to the intended aesthetic meaning of the photograph.

Of course, in the end, how an image is viewed (and interpreted) is always a matter of personal taste and predilections. I suppose, one could (as an artist) provide a "multiverse" of aesthetic possibilities to viewers (generating not one image but dozens, hundreds, or even millions!... by creating versions in color, black and white, solarizations, alternative processes, photoshopped abstractions, etc.), thereby maximizing the probability that any given viewer will find an attractive image buried somewhere within the pile of images put on display. But that entails moving away from art as conceived, practiced, and crafted by the photographer (and the photographer's own, unique aesthetic vision) to another kind of "meta-art" that depends on the aesthetic choices of the viewer;-)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Luray Cavern Abstracts


"Into the dark beyond all light
we pray to come,
through not seeing and not knowing,
to see and to know,
that beyond sight and knowledge,
itself; neither seeing nor knowing."

"Any man working with the medium
sooner or later impinges,
merges into, fuses with
the fringes of mysticism."

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Luray Caverns Part III: a Harmony of Contrasts


"...an aesthetic perspective is quite at home in the realm of contradictions, for its very nature allows it to transform them into a harmony of contrasts...value entails a synthesis of complexity with order, novelty with continuity, nuance with harmony, richness with stability...the cosmos is such an aesthetic reality. Both in its constituent occasions and in its overall reality the universe is a process of synthesizing and unifying its composite aspects into novel moments of present aesthetic "enjoyment." "
- John F. Haught, Theologian

This is the third installment of a series of blog commentaries on my recent day-long sojourn into the subterranean wonders of Luray Caverns, in northern Virginia (the first two parts are here and here, respectively). In part II I discussed how I have resolved to deal with - though have not yet "solved" - the "problem" of extreme contrasts of light and form.

What makes the caverns unusual, from a compositional perspective, is not just that the contrasts that are there are so strong (and that, really, visually define how the caverns appear to visitors), but that they are both strong and fixed. The photographer's ability to craft an image is thus constrained in two important dimensions of the (typically much more forgiving and malleable) aesthetic space.

Of course, the photographer still has to journey through the familiar landscape of possibilities and aesthetic design decisions: what to focus on, which forms to include, exclude and/or emphasize, what depth of field to use, what tonal ranges to manipulate in what way in photoshop, what to sharpen and what to leave alone (or blur), etc. But the object of this exercise - the "real world" studio in which the original image is recorded; i.e., the cave - is itself fixed and unchanging. This paradoxically renders the aesthetic choices both easier and harder to make.

Aesthetic choices are easier to make in caves because you are assured of the fact that what is front of the lens now is exactly what was there a moment, or hour, or day, ... before! Whether you turn away for a moment or walk away and come back hours later (assuming the caverns have not yet closed for the night), the "image" you first trained your camera on is still there, identical in every way to the first time you framed it. You can "lose your way" so to speak, and always backtrack to "correct" any errors in judgement, or refine a composition by just a bit, able to fully trust in the fact that "everything will be as it was" except for whatever small nudge up or down or to the left you choose to make now. You are, in fact, traversing a completely unchanging reality (at least in limited timeframes, as new deposits accumulate at the rate of roughly one cubic inch every ~120 years or so); this only adds to the surreal feel of wandering around in the caves - a feeling that is especially strong when wandering around alone.

Aesthetic choices are harder to make in caves because one of the most frequently used tools for "finding the best image" - namely, the ability to simply wait for the right conditions - does not apply. Indeed, part of my meditative state that the title of this series of blog entries alludes to (Joyful Medidations...) was induced by an incessant, semi-conscious, whispering to myself of the mantra "ciwis, ciwis, ciwis, ..." (meaning, the "cave is what it is";-) Waxing a bit philosophical, one can say that caves fuse time and space; insofar as they are (implicitly) expressed by - and compel the viewer to experience as - the spatial dimensions alone. Time is rendered inert and irrelevant. Since I cannot totally separate the left (physics) and right (photography) parts of my brain - even when out and about taking photographs! - I often found myself musing about the idea of how the caves are wonderful way to train oneself to imagine what a totally timeless physics might look like, in which reality consists of an uncountably large set of interlocked slices of "nows" (see Julian Barbour's The End of Time).

As I write this entry, I've completed a preliminary look at the 20+GB worth of raw files I recorded in Luray caverns. The aesthetic gestalt that is slowly self-organizing in my mind, is that of a "harmony of contrasts." Interestingly, and perhaps fittingly, as well, this expressive phrase happens also to be the title of my dad's first posthumous art exhibit in Taganrog, Russia; he and I, it seems, still manage to find ways to connect in the timeless realm ;-) In the first page of the flyer for my dad's exhibit (shown below), "Гармония контрастов" is Russian for Harmony of Contrasts: