Saturday, January 16, 2021

Transcendent Other

 "...the shaman is the remote ancestor of the poet and artist. Our need to feel part of the world seems to demand that we express ourselves through creative activity. The ultimate wellsprings of this creativity are hidden in the mystery of language. Shamanic ecstasy is an act of surrender that authenticates both the individual self and that which is surrendered to, the mystery of being. Because our maps of reality are determined by our present circumstances, we tend to lose awareness of the larger patterns of time and space. Only by gaining access to the Transcendent Other can those patterns of time and space and our role in them be glimpsed."

-  Terence McKenna (1946 - 2000)
Food of the Gods

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

"This is a Zen camera"

“After dinner I was distracted
by the dream camera, 
and instead of seriously
reading the Zen anthology
I got from the Louisville Library,
kept seeing curious things to shoot,
especially a window in the
tool room of the woodshed.
The whole place is full of
fantastic and strange subjects––
a mine of Zen photography.”
“Marvelous, silent,
vast spaces around
the old buildings.
Cold, pure light, and
some grand trees….
How the blank side of a
frame house can be
so completely beautiful
I cannot imagine.
A completely miraculous
achievement of forms.”
“Paradise is all around us
and we do not understand...
'wisdom,' cries the dawn deacon,
but we do not attend.”

Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

Postscript #1. The quote begins with an entry that Merton made in his journal on Sep 22, 1963, which marks the first time he refers to Zen photography. Four years would pass before his second entry (made after John Howard Griffin, author of the civil rights classic Black Like Me and photographer loaned Merton a Canon FX): The camera is the most eager and helpful of beings, all full of happy suggestions: 'Try this! Do it this way!' Reminding me of things I have overlooked, and cooperating in the creation of new worlds. So simply. This is a Zen camera.” 

I had seen a few of Merton's wonderful photographs through the years, but have only recently stumbled on two stupendous collections of his oeuvre, the first being Beholding Paradise, edited by Paul M. Pearson (and, literally, just published). For those of you into "Zen Photography" (which I expect make up a sizeable fraction of my kind readers), I strongly recommend you get this volume. It is replete with insights into how a deeply felt presence of world - of spirit - may be made manifest in visual form. 

It is said that photography, in its purest form, offers a path toward self-discovery, helping reveal how you perceive the world and who you "are" as an observer / participant living in it. But Merton discovered (and immersed himself in) photography only a few short years before his death (he was barely fifty at the time he took his first images, and died a short five years later). His "lens" was therefore immediately pointing outward from within an already well-formed core. Oh, and what a core. Quiet, gentle, and humble pointers to a spirit infused world. 

Merton's approach to photography is eloquently summarized in another fine collection of images, A Hidden Wholeness, edited by Griffin (though affordable copies are hard to come by, as this book is long out of print): His vision was more often attracted to the movement of wheat in the wind, the textures of snow, paint-spattered cans, stone, crocuses blossoming through weeds – or again, the woods in all their hours, from the first fog of morning, though noonday stillness, to evening quiet. In his photography, he focused on the images of his contemplation, as they were and not as he wanted them to be. He took his camera on his walks and, with his special way of seeing, photographed what moved or excited him – whatsoever responded to that inner orientation. His concept of aesthetic beauty differed from that of most men. Most would pass by dead tree roots in search of a rose. Merton photographed the dead tree root or the texture of wood or whatever crossed his path. In these works, he photographed the natural, unarranged, unpossessed objects of his contemplation, seeking not to alter their life but to preserve it in his emulsions. In a certain sense, then, these photographs do not need to be studied, they need to be contemplated if they are to carry their full impact.

Postscript #2. I should mention how the triptych of images that appears at the top of this post relates to Merton. The individual photos were all taken during a "meditative retreat" my family and I took back in November (which I wrote about briefly here). We rented a cabin nestled somewhere in the beautiful woodland of southern Virginia (not too far from Natural Bridge State Park); whose babbling-brooks-infused grounds and old storage sheds beckoned quiet walks and contemplation. It may not have been Gethsemani, and I certainly had far less time to ponder - and immerse myself in - our lodge's storehouse of humble riches than did Merton in his Abbey, but it gave me a glimpse of Merton's experience. Less Wagnerian-sized operatic landscapes, and more - much more - simple unassuming delights of everyday miracles and mystery: a vigilant cross protecting a decayed entrance, magic light dancing its way around an "ordinary" bathtub, and a mysterious portal into the ineffable.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Immeasurable Events

 "We are survivors of immeasurable events,
Flung upon some reach of land,
Small, wet miracles without instructions,
Only the imperative of change."

- Rebecca Elson (1960 - 1999)

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Toward Abstract Gestalts

"If metaphor is a verbal
strategy to evoke images,
then as a photographer
I’m interested in
combining images
to alter associations by
extending the image itself 
It is this act
of transformation,
interactivity between images,
that I find the most challenging."

- Nathan Lyons (1930 - 2016)

Postscript / Slightly-convoluted aside on the creative process. I'm still experimenting with what to do with a storehouse of marble abstracts (from c.2011) that I recently "re-discovered" on an old hard-drive during my almost year-long COVID-19-induced "creative convalescence." While the photographs work by themselves - just as straight images - I've started playing with other ways of displaying them. What got me started was the fact that the best abstracts consist of (or possess) multiple overlapping regions that are just as strong if displayed separately. This aesthetic dilemma is both trivial and deep. It is trivial, because it is really no different from the most basic aesthetic judgement that all exposures depend on; i.e., framing. But it is also deeper, because - tautologically - a completed image can only reveal what the intentional framing allows it to reveal. Ironically, the deepest aesthetic value of an image (whether it is intended by the artist or not) may lie hidden, in latent form, discoverable only by discerning the full inherent richness and complexity of the Gestalt of (the myriad entwined parts of) an image.

What do I mean by this, on a more practical level? I first toyed with deliberately breaking up a selection of my marble abstracts into triptychs, literally breaking the images up into equal thirds. I did this not because I thought the images "looked better" when dissected in this way, but because - for the cases I selected - each individual panel proved to be as strong an image - by itself - as the abstract as a whole. But the whole images proved too intrusive - they made it hard to "see the trees for the forest." I next played with making random triptychs, assembling them from a pool of individual 1/3-sized panels (i.e., a candidate triptych consists of a random panel from a random image X, a random panel from a random image Y, and a random panel from a random image Z, keeping only the ones I "liked”). That exercise proved mostly fruitless. While I found a few stray triptychs mildly interesting, most were - sadly but obviously - "less than the sum of their parts." Then I tinkered with constructing triptychs-of-triptychs, but that soon got unmanageable, and the results (except for a few notable exceptions) were less than stellar. (I also experimented with randomly assembling 3-by-3 blocks of parts of images, but the less said about that effort the better.)

And so, we get to the image you see posted on top, which is but one of a fairly large portfolio I've convinced myself I really like; but which also took me a while to understand why I like it (of course, your taste may differ). First, in the context of the labyrinthine "creative process" I just described, the image represents a rather "simple" excursion from just displaying the whole image. Indeed, the "algorithm" (if that is what I dare call it) is to split an image into three parts as before, and choose the "best" (most pleasing?... most interesting?... in practice, whichever one "holds my gaze longest") among the three possible juxtapositions (i.e., 1st and 2nd panel interchanged, 3rd panel fixed; 1st and 3rd panel interchanged, 2nd one fixed; or 2nd and 3rd panel interchanged, and 1st panel fixed); that's it! What makes it work is that - unlike an image that is just broken up into thirds (wherein you "see" the whole even if any of the individual panels strikes an interest on their own) - the whole in this case is objectively invisible (or visible, but only in latent form) - but is nonetheless implicitly still within sight, "just barely out of reach." The viewer is thus afforded a meditative space in which to quietly view and absorb the individual panels, all the while being gently reminded that none of them is the complete story. Indeed, it comes tantalizingly close to letting one to see - in true Goethian fashion - both the whole and its parts simultaneously. Some of the better examples of this (such as the one at the top of this post) induce a dynamic unresolved tension (in me, at least) between seeing the "whole" and "seeing the parts" (along lines of the infamous Necker cube or Wittgenstein's Duck-Rabbit); and take a step toward enticing the viewer to appreciate an image as "more than the sum of its parts."

"Abstract formal elements are
put together like numbers and
letters to make concrete beings
or abstract things;
in the end a formal cosmos
is achieved so much like
the creation that a mere breath
suffices to transform
religion into art."

Paul Klee (1879 - 1940)

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Spiritual Eye

"We are easily deluded into assuming that the relationship between a foreign subject and the objects in his world exist on the same spatial and temporal plane as our own relations with the objects in our human world. This fallacy is fed by the belief in the existence of a single world, into which all living creatures are pigeonholed. This gives rise to the widespread conviction that there is only one space and one time for all living things. Only recently have physicists begun to doubt the existence of a universe with a space that is valid for all beings. That such a space cannot exist is evident from the fact that all men live in three distinct spaces, which interpenetrate and complement, but in part also contradict one another."
"The mechanists have pieced together the sensory and motor organs of animals, like so many parts of a machine, ignoring their real functions of perceiving and acting, and have even gone on to mechanize man himself. According to the behaviorists, man’s own sensations and will are mere appearance, to be considered, if at all, only as disturbing static. But we who still hold that our sense organs serve our perceptions, and our motor organs our actions, see in animals as well as not only the mechanical structure, but also the operator, who is built into their organs, as we are into our bodies. We no longer regard animals as mere machines, but as subjects whose essential activity consists of perceiving and acting.  We thus unlock the gates that lead to other realms, for all that a subject perceives becomes his perceptual world and all that he does, his effector world. Perceptual and effector worlds together form a closed unit, the Umwelt. These different worlds, which are as manifold as the animals themselves, present to all nature lovers new lands of such wealth and beauty that a walk through them is well worth while, even though they unfold not to the physical but only to the spiritual eye."

- Jakob von Uexküll (1864 - 1944)

Friday, December 11, 2020

Imagining the World

"Sometimes he seemed to be
saying that nothing existed
unless people thought it did,
and the world was really
only there at all because
people kept on imagining it.
But then he seemed to be
saying that there were
lots of worlds, 
all nearly the same and 
all sort of occupying
the same place 
but all separated by the 
thickness of a shadow, 
so that everything that 
ever could happen 
would have somewhere
to happen in."

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Distant Memory

 "The Cosmos is all
that is or was or ever will be.
Our feeblest contemplations
of the Cosmos stir us -- 
there is a tingling in the spine, 
a catch in the voice, 
a faint sensation, 
as if a distant memory, 
of falling from a height. 
We know we are approaching
the greatest of mysteries."

- Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996)