Sunday, December 16, 2012

Synesthetic Noetics: Cognition vs. Intuition

Intuition                                  Cognition

“The Noetic Quality, as named by William James, is a feeling of insight or illumination that, on an intuitive, nonrational level and with a tremendous force of certainty, subjectively has the status of Ultimate Reality. This knowledge is not an increase of facts but is a gain in psychological, philosophical, or theological insight.” - Walter PahnkeThe Psychedelic Mystical Experience in the Human Encounter With Death

“Although contemporary neuroscientists study “synesthesia”—the overlap and blending of the senses—as though it were a rare or pathological experience to which only certain persons are prone (those who report “seeing sounds,” “hearing colors,” and the like), our primordial, preconceptual experience, as Merleau-Ponty makes evident, is inherently synesthetic. The intertwining of sensory modalities seems unusual to us only to the extent that we have become estranged from our direct experience (and hence from our primordial contact with the entities and elements that surround us.):

'…Synesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear, and feel.' (Merleau-Ponty)" - David AbramThe Spell of the Sensuous

"Hallucinogenic discourse, both of scientific and “recreational” nature, faces a similar rhetorical dilemma as the rest of the ecstatic traditions it responds to: It must report on an event which is in principle impossible to communicate. Writers of mystic experience from St Teresa to William James have treated the unrepresentable character of mystic events to be the very hallmark of ecstasies. Hallucinogenic discourse faced a similar struggle in the effort to report on the knowledge beyond what Aldous Huxley (and Jim Morrison…) described as the “doors of perception.” - Richard Doyle, "Consciousness Expansion and the Emergence of Biotechnology" in In Semiotic Flesh: Information and the Human Body

Note: Volume II of my "Synesthetic Landscape" series is now available for purchase (softcover, hardbound with wrap-around cover, and pdf versions).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Beneath the Surface

"In a photograph, if I am able to evoke not alone a feeling of the reality of the surface physical world but also a feeling of the reality of existence that lies mysteriously and invisibly beneath its surface, I feel I have succeeded. At their best, photographs as symbols not only serve to help illuminate some of the darkness of the unknown, they also serve to lessen the fears that too often accompany the journeys from the known to the unknown." - Wynn Bullock

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Boundless Sea

“The hidden well-spring of your soul
must needs rise and run murmuring to the sea; 
And the treasure of your infinite depths
would be revealed to your eyes.
But let there be no scales to
weigh your unknown treasure;
And seek not the depths of your
knowledge with staff or sounding line. 

For self is a sea boundless and measureless. 
Say not, I have found the truth, 
but rather, I have found a truth.
Say not, I have found the path of the soul.
Say rather, I have met the soul walking upon my path.
For the soul walks upon all paths.
The soul walks not upon a line, 
neither does it grow like a reed.
The soul unfolds itself,
like a lotus of countless petals.” 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


“There is no ideal in observation. When you have an ideal, you cease to observe, you are then merely approximating the present to the idea, and therefore there is duality, conflict, and all the rest of it. The mind has to be in the state when it can see, observe. The experience of the observation is really an astonishing state. In that there is no duality. The mind is simply - aware.” - Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Nature of the New Mind

Time's Arrow

“Time goes forward because energy itself is always moving from an available to an unavailable state. Our consciousness is continually recording the entropy change in the world around us. We watch our friends get old and die. We sit next to a fire and watch it's red-hot embers turn slowly into cold white ashes. We experience the world always changing around us, and that experience is the unfolding of the second law. It is the irreversible process of dissipation of energy in the world. What does it mean to say, 'The world is running out of time'? Simply this: we experience the passage of time by the succession of one event after another. And every time an event occurs anywhere in this world energy is expended and the overall entropy is increased. To say the world is running out of time then, to say the world is running out of usable energy. In the words of Sir Arthur Eddington, 'Entropy is time's arrow'.” - Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Familiar Paths

“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.” - Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

Monday, December 10, 2012

Collective Unconscious

“My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.” -  Carl Gustav Jung

Friday, December 07, 2012

Universal Flux

“There is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can be known only implicitly, as indicated by the explicitly definable forms and shapes, some stable and some unstable, that can be abstracted from the universal flux. In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather, they are different aspects of our whole and unbroken movement.” - David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Nothing is as it appears

"Know all things to be like this:
A mirage, a cloud castle,
A dream, an apparition,
Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this:
As the moon in a bright sky
In some clear lake reflected,
Though to that lake the moon has never moved.

Know all things to be like this:
As an echo that derives
From music, sounds, and weeping,
Yet in that echo is no melody.

Know all things to be like this:
As a magician makes illusions
Of horses, oxen, carts and other things,
Nothing is as it appears."

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Catalytic Geometry

"Why is geometry often described as 'cold' and 'dry?' One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree. Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line... Nature exhibits not simply a higher degree but an altogether different level of complexity." - Benoit MandelbrotThe Fractal Geometry of Nature

"Life emerged, I suggest, not simple, but complex and whole, and has remained complex and whole ever since—not because of a mysterious élan vital, but thanks to the simple, profound transformation of dead molecules into an organization by which each molecule's formation is catalyzed by some other molecule in the organization. The secret of life, the wellspring of reproduction, is not to be found in the beauty of Watson-Crick pairing, but in the achievement of collective catalytic closure. So, in another sense, life—complex, whole, emergent —is simple after all, a natural outgrowth of the world in which we live." - Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience -- to appreciate the fact that life is complex.” 
- M. Scott Peck

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Rhythmic Silence

‎"The power of quiet is great. It generates the same feelings in everything one encounters. It vibrates with the cosmic rhythm of oneness. It is everywhere, available to anyone at any time. It is us, the force within that makes us stable, trusting, and loving. It is contemplation contemplating. Peace is letting go - returning to the silence that cannot enter the realm of words because it is too pure to be contained in words. This is why the tree, the stone, the river, and the mountain are quiet." - Malidoma Some, Of Water and The Spirit

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Wakeful Dreaming

"Those who dream of the banquet, wake to lamentation and sorrow. Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow wake to join the hunt. While they dream, they do not know that they dreaming; and only when they awake do they know it was a dream. By and by comes the Great Awakening, and then they find out that this life is really a great dream. Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know if they are really princes or peasants. Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams - I am but a dream myself." - Chuang-Tzu

Friday, November 30, 2012

Undulating Shadows

"There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about his sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John.  And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, dreaming still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness." - Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Submerged Realities

“I suppose it is submerged realities that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theater is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?” - W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rhythmic Waves

"The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow. I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment." - Rabindranath Tagore (1861 - 1941)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sublime Experience

“Therefore it is to a practical mysticism that [] are invited: to a training of ... latent faculties, a bracing and brightening of ... languid consciousness, an emancipation from the fetters of appearance, a turning of ... attention to new levels of the world. Thus ... become aware of the universe which the spiritual artist is always trying to disclose to the race. This amount of mystical perception—this 'ordinary contemplation,' as the specialists call it—is possible to all men: without it, they are not wholly conscious, nor wholly alive. It is a natural human activity, no more involving the great powers and sublime experiences of the mystical saints and philosophers than the ordinary enjoyment of music involves the special creative powers of the great musician.” - Evelyn Underhill (1875 - 1941)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Creative Incubation

“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.” - Joseph Campbell (1904 - 1987)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Apparent Complexities

"It always bothers me that, according to the laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out what goes on in no matter how tiny a region of space, and no matter how tiny a region of time. How can all that be going on in that tiny space? Why should it take an infinite amount of logic to figure out what one tiny piece of space/time is going to do? So I have often made the hypotheses that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement, that in the end the machinery will be revealed, and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the checker board with all its apparent complexities." - Richard Feynman (1918 - 1988)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why the heck is he taking a picture of that?

A while back, I blogged about a series of images I call "Photographing the Photographer" diptychs (or PPDs), consisting of two side-by-side images: one image - taken by my wife - is of yours truly happily snapping away with my camera, oblivious to everything except what is in front of the tripod; the other, is of the "final print" of whatever it was that caught my attention at that instant. While the dissonance between the "final print" and the - sometimes bizarre - postures I assume while setting up a shot (and/or puzzling places in which I set up my tripod to begin with!) was not as great as in past adventures (e.g., look here and here), my wife managed to catch me "in the act" during three shots I took during our recent trip out west (see previous blog entries). Of course, each has its own story.

In the diptych at top, I recall both our boys (Noah, 13, and Josh, 9) circling around, curious about what caught my eye. "Is there a bird?", Noah asked. "A frog?" inquired Josh. "Just a log, guys," I answered. They gingerly walked up to the nondescript log by the water, giggled, and with an obligatory, "Dad, you are so weird!" went back to frolicking about the lakeshore (we were standing at the northern end of Yellowstone lake). In truth, it was more the light, and the play between the light, grass, and contrast between the log and grass that caught my eye, but my hunch is that a fuller "explanation" would have induced more giggling. 

In this shot, I stood locked in my hunched position (for which my back repaid me later by locking up completely at night) for 30-45 min, moving ever so slightly left-right / up-down trying a number of subtlety different compositions. My kids (along for a family hike at Bear Lake, CO) did not even bother to stop to inquire, though I caught a "Yep, at it again" as they made their way up the trail. I did get a few quizzical looks from passerbys, one commenting to another (a bit too loudly I thought), "Why the heck is he taking a picture of that?" This abstract root-contusion is among my favorite shots of the whole trip!

This final diptych finds me hunched over a a shot of Yellowstone's Lower Falls. In contrast to the earlier images, in which I "slaved" over myriad attempts to find a pleasing composition, I took but one shot here (worth keeping), but had to stay glued to my spot for what seemed like an eternity because of the swarm of visitors, a few of whom - sad to say - were less than polite. I was stomped on, pinched, shoved, yelled at (true!), had my tripod yanked (twice!), and even had to do a quick duck and cover to save my camera as a burping baby got a bit too close for comfort with recent-meal-induced projectiles. Though I needed no more than 10 sec to compose and click, it took 10-15 minutes (!) to find a stretch of uninterrupted time into which I could fit those precious 10 sec! As I got my shot, and turned to leave, I found my wife quietly and contentedly standing behind me, having gotten her shot of me almost immediately after I set up my tripod. Smiling (and in mock resignation), she simply asked: "Just how long does it take you to get a simple shot?"

Postscript. I was "yelled" at for having the gall to wear a NY Yankees hat in Wyoming... what insolence! ;-)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wordless Influences

"The mountain photographer is interpreting the face of nature–that mysterious infinity, eternally a refuge, a reservoir, an amplifier of spirit; a mother of dreams; a positive though elusive voice in whose depth lies its subtlety. They will interpret best who are never so content as when under the influence of situations where silence is rich in the mute assurance and beauty of mountain surroundings. The quality of emotional knowing has a finer integration with our spirit than anything that comes from barren intellectual processes. This point of view only accumulates slowly, out of long experience and contact with wordless influences. Under the spell of solitude and of natural beauty the root system of this kind of awareness establishes itself. Great art is usually created under some such saturation of awareness. The work is then permeated with an inner perception of beauty and an inner personal philosophy. The hope for our photography is that it shall retain these high lights of more than beauty, that through it symbols shall be preserved of response to our mountains, keeping them to a flow, a golden thread, in our experience." - Cedric Wright (1889 - 1959)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lenswork Portfolio eBooks Available for iPhone & iPad

For those of you interested in seeing the complete editions of the two most recent portfolios I've had published in Lenswork - Micro Worlds (Issue #76, May/June 2008) and As Above, So Below (Issue #95, Jul-Aug, 2011) - eBook versions for the iPhone and iPad are now available:

The Micro Worlds portfolio reveals an extraordinary and mysterious cosmos within an ostensibly "ordinary" everyday world. The project that produced these photographs cannot have started more innocently or unexpectedly. One day, as my family and I were sitting down to dinner, my wife placed two small acrylic candle holders on the table and reached for some matches to light the candles. A veritable universe of nested "worlds within worlds" of trapped air bubbles immediately grabbed hold of my eye, my soul, and - of course - my camera.

A portfolio of Luray Caverns (in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Consisting of over 60 black & white images of this natural wonder, the portfolio was made possible by the generosity of the Luray staff, who allowed this photographer essentially free reign of the caverns over the course of an entire day. My hope is that at least some of the extraordinary beauty, mystery, and majesty of this subterranean cosmos is revealed in the images in this book.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Same and Not the Same

"Wholes and not wholes; brought together, pulled apart; sung in unison, sung in conflict; from all things one and from one all things...As the same things in us are living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old. For these things having changed around are those, and those in turn having changed around are these...Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not." - Heraclitus

When my parents, my father's grandparents, and I visited Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser in 1970, I remember it as an unassuming "mound" with steam coming out (before the awe I felt upon witnessing its eruption for the first time as a 10yo!), nestled slightly beyond a small walkway from Yellowstone's famous old faithful inn (built in 1904). There were no main thoroughfares, no parking lots (save that for a relatively small one near the inn), no boardwalks. We parked our car right by the geyser, walked out to Old Faithful, waited about 20 minutes or so for it to erupt (it was a bit more regular than it is now, thanks to myriad small earthquakes over the intervening years that have affected subterranean water levels), and were on our way. My, how times have changed! Or have they...?

Nowadays, the area around Old Faithful resembles more a small town - with a major parkway leading into it, several huge parking areas, lodging, shopping, a nature center, and more boardwalks than Coney Island and Atlantic City combined (or so it seemed) - than some "not easy to be discovered" marvel of nature. One could be forgiven for missing the geyser entirely, given the voluminous activity swarming all around it, passerbys appearing more interested in licking ice-cream cones and texting their friends back home about how "great Yellowstone is" than waiting for Yellowstone's patient sentinel to burp its superheated water for a few minutes. More than once did I hear a child ask her parents, "Where is the geyser, mommy?" while standing almost directly in front of it!

While it is easy to lament the "loss of innocence" (I lamented a different, more personal, loss in my last blog entry) associated with the development of any natural park designed for public consumption (the deepest personal lament of this kind may arguably be ascribed to Ansel Adams, who - in revealing the stupendous beauty of Yosemite Valley to the public - also rendered it forever impossible to experience as an isolated wilderness, I will not dwell on this aspect of our experience of Yellowstone; instead, I will muse on what I found at Old Faithful in more general terms of what it says about the impermanence - and permanence - of reality.

On the crudest level, Old Faithful remains "Old Faithful"; i.e., it is a geyser (located about 17 miles west of West Thumb Basin) with a more-or-less regular eruption schedule (about 65 minutes in 1940 to 90 +/- 10 minutes today). The dynamics of its eruptions has remained the same, even as the individual molecules of water continually change from eruption to eruption. But as I've just described, the visitor's experience of Old Faithful is dramatically different from what it once was (and was for me in 1970). Where, in decades past, one could view the geyser in relative isolation (if one so chose) - a communion, of sorts, between civilization and pristine nature - such a communion is now all-but-impossible, as Old Faithful must compete with impatient swarms of jostling and always-chattering bodies, not-so-distant belches of diesel-powered RVs and trucks, and an occasional screech of tires as cars and buses attempt to avoid wandering hordes of tourists lost -or soon to be - in vast parking lots. Meditation helps, of course, to refocus the mind on the Old Faithful; and, truth be told, the sheer wonder and delight of seeing a massive 150+ foot column of super-heated steam and water suddenly erupt from a hole in the ground never gets old. The child-like state of innocence I wrote about in my previous post was, during this trip, perhaps easiest to realize at Old Faithful, where one cannot help but stand slack-jawed in awe of nature's magic. My experience of the erupting geyser - sans surrounding noise and clicking cameras - was essentially what I remember it being 42 years ago.

But, in the end, what do we really mean by "Old Faithful"? Is it the geyser? the geyser erupting? the water underneath the geyser? the surrounding area? the "experience" of watching "it" erupt? the tourist-driven infrastructure that envelopes "it" (and all surrounding geysers)? What has remained the same, and what has really changed? Labels, labels, and more arbitrary labels, all pointing to "something," and yet none describing anything of lasting meaning or value. 

And so, how fitting it is that an old "faithful" wonder - the same and yet not the same as it once was - sagely reminds this self-professed observer of wonders of the folly of wondering about the labels of things. "Old Faithful" is as an imprecise, imperfect label of a "geyser" in Yellowstone as "Andy" is an essentially vacuous label of a "photographer on an RV trip to Yellowstone with his family." Impermanence bleeds from words and arbitrary attachments; and permanence is but an impermanent illusion. All things are the same and not the same. And Old Faithful is no "thing."

"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." 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Numinous Self-Actualization

"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization. This term ... refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." - Abraham Maslow (1908 - 1970)

Forty two years ago (and, in view of the commentary to follow, a faint echo of Adams' answer to life, universe, and everything), my family and I took a trip out west that I have never forgotten. My 'family' back then was made up of my parents and both grandparents on my dad's side. I have never forgotten that trip for two reasons: (1) it was the last trip that all of us were together on (my grandparents were - in 1970 - well into their 80s and it was upon our return to 'home' that year - on Long Island, NY - that health issues that would eventually take both their lives first appeared); and (2) it was the first time my 10 year old self was exposed - and spiritually awakened to - the extraordinary aesthetic riches that mother Earth offers.

Now fast-forward to the present; more precisely, to 10-25 August, during which time my family and I (including my wife, our two sons and my mom, who just happens to be the same age as my grandfather was in 1970) flew out to Denver, CO to rent a 32-ft RV and used it to explore the Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone national parks. (This trip was 2/3 as long as my 1970 trip, but covered many, if not all, of the memorable sights and sounds I remember from long ago.) Long in planing (dating back about three years, at least), I wanted to make this trip for two reasons: (1) to provide my kids an opportunity to experience a similar reverie of nature's beauty and/or a "spiritually awakening" as I had at their age (mission accomplished on both counts!), and (2) to give myself an opportunity to re-experience memories of a bygone time that I now, and will always, cherish. It is in the unabashed failure to achieve this second goal that I wish to focus on in the words that follow.

Despite my longing for - and all my earnest efforts to recreate - the exuberance of my youthful adventure, and though there were certainly moments during which time's ineffable veil parted just a bit to reveal to my mind's eye a dim indistinct sepia-like 'print' of what I saw 42 years ago, the sad truth is that I was thoroughly and at all times aware of being inextricably mired in a 51 yo body, with all its attendant life's bumps and bruises, experiences, and never-ending responsibilities; a fact that my 10 yo self could neither fully anticipate nor fathom! Try as I might, and cliche-ridden though it may be, I found it impossible to recapture the essence of my remembered youth. Except - that is - through watching my children dance to the tune of their own blissful reverie, and by engaging in photography.

What I yearned for most of all (from my experience as a 10 yo) was what I remember as a pure innocence of being; a joyful and unconscious participation in nature's rhythms. I had absolutely no concerns, no worries, no pressures of life (or panic over whether - after enjoying the "view" at 12K ft on Colorado's trail ridge road - I would be able to safely drive a 12 foot wide RV down twisting hairpin turns in lanes barely a foot wider and roads that fall off 8% grades and plunge thousands of feet down on either side!). I remember just "being in the moment," playing, laughing, hiking, splashing in lake water, and pausing on mountaintops - with nary a conscious thought - to gaze out into the infinite expanse of our western landscapes. But there were far too many distracting and nagging thoughts intruding into the 51 yo version of my younger self to allow such innocence (though memories of how easy - how effortless - it once was - and is, for my children! - reminded me that it is not the state that is inaccessible, but my all-but-convincing left-brain attitude that makes it only appear to be inaccessible). In truth, it was not my 51 yo body that was the problem, but that I had forgotten that the "I" that had experienced all those wonderful things in 1970 has not aged at all. 

Rather than quietly and gracefully surrendering to the flow of time and nature, I was, so to speak, swimming against the tide, desperately trying to turn back time to reinsert myself into a long-deceased body and mind so that I could re-experience the past exactly as it - and I - were back then, 42 years ago. But my soul was already where I needed to be; where I was, in 1970, in 2012, and whenever - and wherever - else I need to be. It is a timeless, yearning-less state forged by a numinous connection between self and nature. And, as so often happens (with me, at least), photography reminded me of my foolishness. 

The child does not yearn to return to anything, or to any time or state; it simply delights in being, in experiencing. As I tuned out my incessant left-brain confusion, and refocused my attention on the beauty around me, my hand instinctively reached for my camera, and all yearnings ceased. Numinous self-actualization...

"It's also helpful to realize that this
very body that we have, 
that's sitting right here right now... 
with its aches and it pleasures...
 is exactly what we need 
to be fully human, 
fully awake, fully alive."

- Pema Chödrön (1936 - )

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New Book Published: The Art and Life of Sam Ilachinski

After nearly as long a gestation-period as my first book required (that one, published in 2001, was on a decidedly technical subject - cellular automata - and took about a decade to complete), I am delighted to announce the publication of a new book - this one very much about fine art - about my dad's life

"I like to paint," is how my dad - Sam ("Slava") Ilachinski - almost always answered the question, "What do you do?", along with the minor variation, "I liked to paint," if asked about what he remembered about his childhood. These simple phrases serve as perfect epitaphs to this preternaturally gifted artist, who spent virtually all of his 75 years creating magnificent works of art. 

Born in 1925 in Taganrog, Russia (birthplace of Anton Chekov), my dad's family lived in Germany before emigrating to the United States. Making homes first in Jamaica, NY, and later in Sea Cliff, Long Island, Slava became a renowned and much sought-after art restorer, and an even more gifted artist. Many expert observers have likened his more abstract work (that he focused more and more on in the waning years of his life) as an additional layer to Kandinsky's already transcendent vision of color and energy. 

Sadly, almost incomprehensibly, my dad passed away on March 30, 2002, after a very long and painful bout with several forms of cancer. Seldom has a soul so bravely fought the miseries of this disease, or faced each new setback with as profound a grace and humor. Despite his enormous physical difficulties, Slava never strayed too far from his beloved studio, even as the already brief stretches of time his poor withered legs were able to support him kept right on diminishing. 

Everyone who has known this brilliant and humble man knows that they are forever blessed with the memory of a soul who, via his art, brought all of us a step closer to God. His eye for beauty, his deep resonance with nature's sacred patterns, and his gentle humility will be missed more than words alone can possibly convey. 

Many artists have come and gone, of course, and many creative people remain in our midst, but never again will the world's beauty be quite so radiant, and the portal to the spiritual realm quite so wide and inviting, as when this quiet, visionary genius was immersed and reveling in the creative process in his studio. 

My mom and I offer this book on the art and life of Sam Ilachinski both as a loving tribute to a beautiful soul, and as a portal for others to discover - and marvel at - the precious gifts he left behind.

Postscript. In a bit of Jungian synchronicity (insofar as it was completely unplanned, at least consciously, by me), after nearly a decade of effort - writing, archiving, digitizing (old slides and film), restoring old pictures, and so on - the final words of the text and images for display were inserted midday on father's day, this past Sunday. My muse could not possibly have chosen any better day to mark the formal completion of this labor-of-love project.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Synesthetic Landscapes" Portfolio Book Published

"…lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?" Wassily Kandinsky

Those of you following my blog must know that - over the last few years (dating back to Dec 2009) - I've been consumed with capturing what I call "synesthetic landscapes." Synesthesia derives from the Greek syn = union + aisthaesis = sensation, and means "joined sensation." Such as when something that is ordinarily "seen" is tasted as well; though this hardly does justice to the psychological, creative - even mystical - experience of synesthesia (which I possessed until about the age of 10, during which I "saw" numbers as colors, the most common form of synesthesia). 

My experiments to recreate some semblance of these memories of the experience have technically consisted of using one "reality" - consisting of shallow depth-of-field, extreme macro (1x - 5x) photographs of mundane everyday objects, from curved reflecting metal surfaces to translucent colored glass bottles and glasses - to evoke an experience of another, less "obvious" landscape of the mind's eye. The result is synesthetic in the sense that, just as synesthetes use two or more senses other than the one nominally used to designate a given experience of an object to add to their experience of its ostensible "reality," my experimental images are designed to collectively evoke glimpses of surrealities by adding other - visually nonliteral - representational dimensions to our direct experience of reality.

The result is also an experiential synergy between two ostensibly different (but fundamentally intertwined) realities: one literal, and external - i.e., reflections and/or refractions from common everyday "things" - the other implied, and internal - i.e., ineffable landscapes of the imagination. (I should add, and emphasize, that while all the images in this series look like they are severely "Photoshopped," this is emphatically not so; digital manipulations are all deliberately confined to global curves, local tonal adjustment, and occasional noise removal. What you "see" is what is / was "really there," although what your experience of "it" will be ... will be whatever your "eye" and/or "I" will make it ;-)

And so, for those of you interested in exploring my ongoing experiments with "synesthetic landscapes," I announce the publication of two portfolio editions: one small (consisting of about 40 images), the other large (consisting of 105 images, which includes all of those that appear in the "small" version). Both versions physically measure 7-by-7 inches (although a larger 12-by-12 inch version of the small portfolio edition is also available), come with soft- and hard-cover options, include an introductory essay on synesthesia and photography and an end-notes section that describes the process I used to capture these images (though this process continues to evolve, of course), and include a low-cost eBook edition (that is available as a direct download for Apple's iBooks).

"Color is the key.
The eye is the hammer. 
The soul is the piano with its many chords. 
The artist is the hand that, 
by touching this or that key, 
sets the soul vibrating automatically."

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Photographs Not Taken

Astute readers may have noticed that not too many new blog entries have appeared here in the last few weeks. The reason, as always, is due to the constraints imposed on my life outside of photography (the side that pays most of my family's bills, by far;-) The two sides rarely interact, though on occasion - and usually unexpectedly - partly intersect. Such as happened yesterday, when - while being introduced to speak at a scientific meeting (on a distinctly non-photography related subject) - the person doing the introduction turned to me and asked whether my slides will include samples of my photography? My mind was so far from photography at that moment (indeed, I was deeply immersed in my usual minute-before-giving-a-talk inner meditation ritual), that I hardly reacted at all and certainly had no idea what to say. I managed to stammer something banal like, "No, no, that's just something I do on the side." Which is, of course, both literally true (if one measures such things in terms of "time spent"), and emphatically false (if the metric is "soulful nourishment gained").

However, neither metrics nor the "scientific talk" I gave yesterday is the focus of this short (and new!) blog entry. My wish is merely to point out a wonderful little book - called Photographs Not Taken - whose subject and insights are very apropos, given the recent constraints on my ability to do photography. The book is a collection of short essays - by a wide range of photographers - about moments in space and time that never became photographs! Oh, how well I (as all photographers can, at one time or another) resonate with those moments. Maybe we've forgotten our camera, or our tripod, or filter; maybe our camera froze at an inopportune moment; maybe the subject of our gaze shifted its position, or flew away, as we were preparing to take the picture; maybe a gust of wind blew that perfectly composed image into the mists of time, or that sudden burst of sun from behind a cloud ruined the perfect exposure. Or maybe, as has been the case for me for more than a few weeks now, everything is in its proper place and perfect working order except me. Lately, my mind has been so filled - and exhausted - from day-job angst, equations, computer code, briefing slides, and more angst, that about the only images I've managed to capture have been quick-grab iPhone images of some older prints of mine I have hanging in my office to send to a friend.

So, Photographs Not Taken well summarizes my body of work over the last several weeks ;-) But it also reminds me of other genuine "Photographs Not Taken" moments I experienced in the past, when, even though I was in the right state of mind and soul, and had perfectly well functioning camera and gear by my side, the photograph I wanted to take - the photograph I needed to take - I did not take, and is now gone forever. The photograph I am thinking of - more precisely the series of photographs I could easily have taken and never did - happened between 25 and 30 years ago, when my dad (an art restorer / artist) was still in his prime and worked at home in his upstairs studio. Except for this one precious photograph, I do not have any other visual record of my dad working as an art restorer in his studio! I have written before about this being the single greatest regret in my life as a photographer (thus far); namely, that I had never trained my eye and camera on my dad while he worked in his studio. A regret that stings only deeper each year that passes since he passed away 10 years ago.

Readers interested enough to look up the essays in Photographs Not Taken will be treated to many stories similar to mine, that range from whimsical, to personal, to tragic. Of course, the book contains no photographs (at least of the conventional variety ;-) and even the typesetting is kept to a bare minimum, the focus being squarely on the stories themselves. Collectively, these wonderful stories teach us what we must do to become better photographers. They remind us that we are - in each and every moment of our lives - immersed in an infinite field of ever-changing extraordinary and timeless images; and the fact that we have or have not a camera, or want or do not want or cannot use it, hardly even matters. Just look, revel in what you feel, and remember.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

What Else a Thing Is

Since the beginning of the year, I have posted about a dozen and a half images from a (still evolving) portfolio with the tentative title Synesthetic Landscapes. The concept for this portfolio actually dates back to Thanksgiving 2009 (which my family and I celebrated in my in-laws' home in Coral Gables, Florida, and which I can date so precisely because it is the time my eye was first drawn to color-infused reflections in my mother-in-law's Nambe-like metal salt and pepper shakers). So the portfolio by now contains many more images than those I have had time to post. Indeed, I will likely self-publish a selection using Blurb. What I wish to explore a bit in this post, however, is - if you, kind reader, will indulge my usual predilection for philosophical musings and/or ramblings - is what my experience of capturing images for this portfolio reveals about the fundamental nature of "what a thing is, is-not, and may-be."

Let me start with this beautiful image of a print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724):

It depicts a story that has many variants and reaches back into Jain, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu stories. The poet John Godfrey Saxe immortalized the core idea for the western world in his poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant," that starts out...

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

...and (eventually) has the men "see" the elephant as a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending on what part of the elephant's body they touch and probe...

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

A wikipedia article highlights some of the many uses this story (in all its myriad forms) has had as a metaphor in physics, biology, and religion. I view it as a provocative stepping stone for asking (for the moment, in the context of photography, but ultimately probing something rather deeper): "What is a 'thing' really?", or - better - "How fundamental an understanding of 'reality' does our privileged 'view' of it provide us with?"

Suppose you are asked to take a picture of a water glass (say, from the kitchen). What would you do? The simplest, most obvious, approach is to point your camera in its general direction and go "click." The result is a photograph of a glass, but - like the blind men groping at the elephant - the glass will have been captured from a single vantage point, using a fixed aperture and exposure time, with perhaps a filter sandwiched between the glass and our lens (maybe a polarizer to "cut out" some of the glare). Assuming the photograph is technically well executed, it can certainty serve as an adequate representation of  the glass, and others may use your image as a "symbol" to denote the "real" glass. But what - and how much - of the "glass" (and everything it "means" as an object in this universe) have you actually captured in your photograph? Your image is less an "image of the glass" than it is an "image of the glass taken by [substitute your name] taken on date D under conditions C using camera X with setting S." Your image - any image - is but one possible image of essentially an uncountable number of possible images that could have been taken of the glass.

Which image 'best' represents the glass? None, all, and one, depending on one's point of view and ontological predilections. The answer is none, because "privileged observers" are an anathema (at least to physics). There can be no "best" observer, or "best" image. Images may contain more or less useful information (for a certain goal), but - absent such an externally imposed constraint; i.e., an external aesthetic - no one image is "better" or "worse" than any other. The answer is all, because if an objective measure of "better" or "worse" cannot be defined, each image must be treated equally, and the set of all possible images - collectively - objectively defines (the visual representation of) the colored glass. And the answer is one, because there is always at least one aesthetic at play, namely that of the photographer. The photographer is a de facto privileged observer, and the "best" image is the one that best reflects the photographer's aesthetic. 

The caveat is that the resulting picture is not necessarily a picture of a "glass" (since the photographer may wish her image to convey something entirely different). Rather, it is a "picture of a glass taken by photographer X (at time t) for purpose P." This ontological distinction is often overlooked. Because an image is itself a physical thing and conveys information about another physical thing, we tend to interpret what we see in pictures literally: "this image shows a glass, and now, having seen it, I 'know' what this glass looks like and therefore what it is." And yet, this is so obviously not so. Taking a cue from the blind men and their elephant, we ask: What other "views" of this glass could we have, under what conditions (of the glass and our own inner thoughts and feelings), such that we gain a fuller, more complete, understanding of what the glass really is? 

What does all of this have to do with images on this page and kitchen glasses? These images, along with the last 16 or so Synesthetic Landscape images that I've posted on my blog in the last few months, are all "privileged views" of colored water glasses borrowed from my family's kitchen (captured using either Canon's EF/100mm or extraordinary MPE/65mm macro lenses, and using only naturally reflected, transmitted, and refracted light, no "Photoshopping"). Yet none of them depict a "glass" as such (indeed, I hope that for most viewers this will come as an unexpected revelation of what the images "really" are ;-) They are all attempts to pay homage to Minor White's well-known credo to take pictures of "what else" a thing is. Pictures of colored water glasses they all may be, but they are also each fleeting glimpses of other-wordly realms, of wild aurora borealis, arctic seascapes, sunsets, spring and summer meadows, and deserts. And, as well, they are - collectively - all snapshots of my ongoing efforts to grope my way toward understanding what a "water glass in my family's kitchen" really is.

I also imagine that somewhere in these synesthetic sunsets and meadows there is an image of the very same water glass that got me started on my aesthetic journey. And deeper still lies an image - only an image? - of my own eyes staring back at me. What is "more" or "less" real: the glass, the meadow, or the photographer? And are there - really - truly meaningful distinctions to be drawn among the three? Or is the universe but a vast, ineffable, self-created, ouroborian broth of nested self-perceptions? A recursive loop of void and substance? The elephant groping for its own meaning? A cosmos observing itself observing?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Symbolic Omniscience

"The basic characteristic of any artistic expression is the ordering of a visual impression into a coherent, complete, living form. The difference between a mere expression, however intense and revealing, and an artistic image of that expression, lies in the range and structure of its form. This structure is specific. The colors, lines, and shapes corresponding to our sense impressions are organized into a balance, a harmony, or rhythm that is is in an analogous correspondence with feelings; and these feelings are, in turn, analogues of thoughts and ideas. An artistic image, therefore, is more that a graph of emotions. It has meaning in depth, and, at each level, there is a corresponding level of human response to the world. In this way, an artistic form is a symbolic form grasped directly by the senses but reaching beyond them and connecting all the strata of our inner world of sense, feeling, and thought. The intensity of the sensory pattern strengthens the emotional and intellectual pattern; conversely, our intellect illuminates such a sensory pattern, investing it with symbolic power. This essential unity of primary sense experience and intellectual evaluation makes the artistic form unique in human experience and therefore in human culture. Our closest human experience is love, where again sensation, feeling, and idea live in a vital unity."

“For some time there was a widely held notion (zealously fostered by the daily press) to the effect that the 'thinking ocean' of Solaris was a gigantic brain, prodigiously well-developed and several million years in advance of our own civilization, a sort of 'cosmic yogi', a sage, a symbol of omniscience, which had long ago understood the vanity of all action and for this reason had retreated into an unbreakable silence.” 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Poetics of Space

"House, patch of meadow, oh evening light
Suddenly you acquire an almost human face
You are very near us,
embracing and embraced."

"Our house is our corner of the universe... it is our universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty... The house, like fire and water...[recalls]... flashes of daydreams that illuminate the synthesis of immemorial and recollected... Through dreams, the various dwelling-places in our lives co-penetrate and retain the treasure of former days... We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection... The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace... The places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time."


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Transcendent Order

"When we say that order is transcendent, we mean to say that somehow, the order makes contact with some other reality, or some other 'something,' which lies outside of and beyond our normal experience. We need a word for this something. It is hard  to find a suitable word, since, by definition, the something is beyond normal experience - and presumably, therefore, outside the range of things which have ordinary names... I use the word 'ground'  to refer to this something.

The ground is imagined to be a pure reality. It is a state of reality, or substance, which is in the universe, but not accessible to normal perception and normal awareness. It is, however, not assumed to be distant. It is generally assumed to be here where we are, and even more real, more authentic, than the reality we normally experience. It is thus supposed to be a state of matter, or state of things, or state of existence, which is more fundamental - and of which one might say that 'the universe is really made of this stuff.' All this is 'the ground.' It is the ground beneath our feet, the ultimate ground of substance on which all things stand.

Color not only establishes wholeness as a single quality, a oneness beyond structure.It begins to establish a connection with this ground. The inner light we experience in the cases of great color seems to penetrate beyond normal experience, reaching through to this ground, showing us this ground, making us feel the ground... the experience of inner light reveals an ultimate world of existence as it really is, perhaps, and shows us a glimpse of a reality which is more profound, more beautiful, than the one we experience every day...[it is the] first direct experience of the I."

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Transcendental Mirrors

"Bodies of still water are
themselves like minds;
transcendental mirrors, 
Platonic cameras
to catch and hold 
the phenomenological long enough 
for the onlooker to grasp its reality,
the eternal thing behind it."

- David Mason Greene

"There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about his sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, dreaming still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness."

"The Pacific," Moby Dick

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

On Seeing

"The child has to learn how to separate out the images which assail the newly-opened retina... a whole series of 'senses' are necessary... 

A sense of spatial immensity, in its greatness and in its smallness, disarticulating and spacing out, within a sphere of indefinite radius, the orbits of objects which press around us; 

A sense of depth, pushing back laboriously through the endless chain of events and measureless distances of time which a sort of sluggishness of mind tends continually to condense for us in a thin layer of the past; 

A sense of number, discovering and grasping unflinchingly the bewildering multitude of material or living elements involved in the slightest change in the universe;

A sense of proportion, realizing as best we can the difference of physical scale which separates, both it rhythm and dimension, the atom from the nebula, the infinitesimal from the immense;

A sense of quality, or of novelty, enabling us to distinguish in nature certain absolute stages of perfection and growth without upsetting the physical unity of the world; 

A sense of movement, capable of perceiving the irresistible developments hidden in extremely slow development - extreme agitation concealed beneath a veil of immobility - the entirely new insinuating itself into the heart of the monotonous repetition of the same things; 

A sense, lastly, of the organic, discovering physical links and structural unity under the superfical juxtaposition of successions and collectivities.

...we have only to rid our vision of the threefold illusion of smallness, plurality, and immobility for man effortlessly to take the central position... the momentary summit of an anthropogenesis which is itself the crown of a cosmogenesis. No longer will man be able to see himself entirely unrelated to mankind, neither will he be able to see mankind unrelated to life, not life unrelated to the universe."