- Eckhart Tolle (1948 - )
Tuesday, September 19, 2023
Monday, September 18, 2023
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion
Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
Dizzy Ravine! And when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantast,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;"
The word "dizzy," when used as a verb, means "to make giddy"; and giddy, in turn, is "an adjective that describes a feeling of dizziness or lightheadedness. It can also refer to a feeling of excitement or euphoria that causes a person to feel unsteady or unstable. Giddy can be used to describe physical sensations, emotional states, or even situations that are overwhelming or disorienting [ref]." It is with these nuanced interpretations that the words "dizzy" and "giddy" often popped into my mind during our trip to Iceland, which is filled with dizzying landscapes that evoke giddy awe. As some of my earlier images from our recent trip have already hinted, Iceland is replete with dissonant scales of time and space. Distant mountains are just as likely to appear as illusory nearby foothills, as nearby crags are to easily fool you into believing they are remotely distant. (Neither of which may even be true, as Borges might have once said in some other world.) Iceland's landscapes tend to induce trance-like states of "giddy anxiety" - unabashed awe, really - unless, and until, visitors somehow find a way to calibrate Iceland's a priori incommensurate scales of time and distance.
The image above conveys a bit of this mysterious tension. Look at the picture but first use a finger to block out the small cluster of white buildings in the lower right. The remaining part of the image appears to be a "landscape" like any other, with a trace of a distant (but otherwise “normal”) mountain range. Now, remove your finger and let your eyes absorb the complete scene. Assuming your reaction is in any way like mine, you will experience a sense of "dizzying vertigo" as your brain's visual cortex tries desperately to make sense of the dissonant scales of size and distance; and leaves you grappling with the absurdity of the mountains having instantly grown tenfold in height! I lost count of the number of times I felt this way looking at Iceland's landscapes through my camera's viewfinder.
Sunday, September 17, 2023
partly abstract parts—are
at the bottom of everything.
They are most fundamental
in our conceptual system.
Monday, September 11, 2023
Whenever I am on "vacation" - such as when my family and I recently visited Iceland - I instinctively recall Isaiah Berlin's well-known essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." The essay - a set of musings about Leo Tolstoy, history and human psychology - is woven around an aphorism attributed to Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin divides the world into two different kinds of thinkers. Some, like Aristotle and Shakespeare, are pluralists - or "foxes" - and cast a wide net to get to know as many things as possible; others, like Plato and Dostoyevsky, are monists - or "hedgehogs" - and strive to know one thing as deeply as they can.
So, what does this have to do with photography? Substitute "style (or manner) of composition" for "mode of thinking" to get an inkling of the admittedly imprecise analogy I will now leverage to illustrate the inevitable image-making process I seem to follow during "family vacations." Soon after I arrive at a destination (but excluding the first few days, during which - as a rule - I seem utterly incapable of capturing anything more meaningful than instantly forgettable "touristy" snapshots of something that simply catches my eye), I am drawn exclusively to the "big picture," literally scanning the horizon for sweeping views and landscapes. In other words, I typically approach an "unknown land" like a fox, running from place to place, aware of my larger surroundings, but constantly sniffing, looking, anticipating other places to visit; never resting too long in any one spot. This initial stage of my creative process consists not just of having a loose penchant to search for "Wagnerian landscapes," but is indicative of a deeply entrenched - myopic - focus on "big picture" scenery during which I seem strangely incapable of even seeing anything else. Of course, and for obvious reasons, this "creative insight" is hardly surprising. Iceland's mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers all beckon - demand - your attention even before your plane lands!
But something interesting inevitably happens after a few days go by in a new place. I transform into a "fox-like" hedgehog. While I still scurry around from place to place like a fox (remember, these are vacations I am writing about, so there are usually plenty of sights to see 😊, my eye and camera become deeply drawn to smaller, quieter, vistas that speak more of universal moods and feelings than capturing documentarian-like images of "objects" in a given place. Concomitantly, my compositions transition from images that superficially depict obviously Icelandic scenery (i.e., images that explicitly encode and/or communicate the states-of-being of "multitudinous things" as my eyes saw them "out there" in Iceland), to photographs that implicitly communicate my own state-of-mind (i.e., images that reveal how "big picture" Icelandic vistas transform my inner "I").
Sometimes, rarely, I manage to do both, as in the diptych above. The left big-picture image "obviously" depicts uniquely Icelandic rocky forms (which may be easily confirmed by spending a few moments with Google maps), while the one on the right is at least plausibly Icelandic, given its volcanic appearance, but could have been captured anywhere as I scurried to-and-fro in fox-like fashion. Taken as a whole, the diptych also perfectly conveys my Zen state, as I was lost in, and mesmerized by, Iceland's gentle moods and rhythms. Notably (and not unexpectedly), after looking over my archive of raw files when we got back home, images like these did not emerge until I was into the second week of our trip.
Sunday, September 10, 2023
The passage above is taken from a novel of one of my favorite authors. Buzzati was trained as a journalist, but channeled his creative energies into creating a magical-realist-like (Kafkaesque, even Borgesian) surrealist world of fantasy just on the cusp of seeming "real." The Tartar Steppe is arguably his best known work. The "hero" of the story, Giovanni Drogo, is stationed at a fort in the desert that overlooks the vast Tartar steppe and told to await an invasion; one which, as we learn over the course of the novel, never actually comes. Among other things (e.g., a scathing rebuke of military life) it is a Camus-like Sisyphisian meditation on time, life, the specter of lost opportunities, and the perpetual - unquenchable - thirst for fulfilment. But, while all of these elements are fascinating on their own (and should prompt anyone with a penchant for Kafka and Borges who has not yet experienced Buzatti's writing to become acquainted with his work), I was reminded of another element of this allegorical tale while driving with my family around Iceland. Namely, its subtle depiction of the immeasurable boundlessness - the infinity - of space and and time.
Iceland is a curiously dynamic blend of physical, aesthetic, and spiritual contrasts that never do more than only hint at some unfathomable underlying "reality." Iceland's vast stretches of land and sea can be used as backdrops to Drogo's endless wait for something to happen. Seemingly infinite blocks of solidified magma and melting glaciers are omnipresent on the horizon; approachable, in principle (by inquisitive souls willing to risk flat tires or broken axles - or both - while traversing the unpaved roads trying to get to them) but perpetually just-out-of-reach. Measures of time and distance both loose conventional - indeed, any - meaning. Just as the Apollo astronauts had difficulty judging how far rocks and mountains were from them on the moon (in the moon's case, because of the lack of an atmosphere), my family and I often struggled to estimate how "near" or "far" anything was; or how "long" or "short" a time it would take to get somewhere. In our case, this was due not to a lack of an atmosphere (the ever-churning transitions from clear skies to moody clouds to thick unrelenting globs of wind and rain to clear skies again were constant reminders of Iceland's dramatic weather; unlike in Buzatti's novel - in Iceland things emphatically do happen!), but simply to how alien Iceland's landscape is compared to our calibrated norms. Everything In Iceland seems to be simultaneously so close as give the illusion of intimacy, and yet so remotely far, so incomprehensibly and immeasurably distant, as to be unapproachable, at least within a single lifetime (or, at least, during a single trip 😊
Thursday, September 07, 2023
"I’ve walked a lot in the mountains of Iceland.
And as you come to a new valley,
as you come to a new landscape,
you have a certain view.
If you stand still, the landscape doesn’t
necessarily tell you how big it is. It doesn't
really tell you what you’re looking at.
The moment you start to move
the mountain starts to move."
- Olafur Eliasson (1967 - )
On the advice of a local glacier guide that we met at the Skaftafell terminal before embarking on our "photo tour," my family and I took our car another 45 min east of the terminal to explore the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. For someone who has seen icebergs floating in ocean waters only two other times in his life (both times were in Alaska, and, even then, the icebergs presented themselves more as onesie and twosie "teasers" than sweeping panoramic clusters), Jokulsarlon is - and lives in - a world wholly its own. Icebergs, small and large, span one's view from wherever your feet happen to be planted on the shoreline to the vast ineffable infinity that defines Iceland's remote interior. A subtle but omnipresent hiss and crackle permeates the otherwise quiet air (save that for omnipresent chatter and soft shuffling of tourist's feet) as the ice breathes and slowly meanders about the lagoon. Occasionally, one hears a loud "pop" in the distance, followed by a splash as a chunk of ice falls into the water; or the whirring of engines powering the ubiquitous Zodiak boat tours. Photographically speaking, the glacier lagoon is an angst-filled delight. On the one hand, there are countless compositional opportunities that present themselves literally anywhere one looks; an obvious "delight." On the other hand, there is an accompanying and unsettling angst of knowing that it is simply impossible to do any sort of artistic justice to this breathtaking always-subtly-moving landscape of ice mountains in water; a lifetime would not suffice. While we didn't have a lifetime to spend at Jokulsarlon, we did take away a bit of the timeless awe of nature that this beautiful lagoon leaves all those who take the time to experience it. Thank you, Iceland 😊
Wednesday, September 06, 2023
The suns hold a dance with the curtain lifted.
And white-capped billows of light are shifted,
Then break on a strand of shadows dim.
An unseen hand directs at its whim
This glittering round of streamers flowing.
To regions of light from the darkness grim,
All earth-life now turns with fervor growing.
-- And a crystal gaze on the glowing haze|
The hoary cliffs bestowing."
- Einar Benediktsson (1864 - 1940)
Benediktsson, one of Iceland's most revered Poets, is here musing on Iceland's northern lights. Alas, my family and I were not lucky enough to witness this most wondrous of nature's displays during this trip (but is something we certainly aim to do the next time we visit). However, this did not preclude us from experiencing Iceland's other remarkable "colors of night," in this case, the post-sunset afterglow of warm "Appelsínugulur" (Orange) and deep blacks ("Svartur") infused with subtly warm hues of blue ("blár"). Kandinsky would have had a field day "listening to" and painting Iceland's intensely beautiful iridescent polychromatic (and both under- and over-) saturated tones. (The reference is to Kandinsky's well-known aphorism, "Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposely, to cause vibrations in the soul.")