Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Tip of an Iceberg

"Everything - a bird, a tree, even a simple stone, and certainly a human being - is ultimately unknowable. This is because it has unfathomable depth. All we can perceive, experience, think about, is the surface layer of reality, less than the tip of an iceberg. Underneath the surface appearance, everything is not only connected with everything else, but also with the Source of all life out of which it came. Even a stone, and more easily a flower or a bird, could show you the way back to God, to the Source, to yourself."

Eckhart Tolle (1948 - )

Monday, September 18, 2023

A Dizzying Trance Sublime and Strange

"The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters,—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
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;"

- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)
Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

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

Mereological Investigations

"Whole and part—
partly concrete parts and
partly abstract parts—are
at the bottom of everything.
They are most fundamental
in our conceptual system.
Whole and unity; thing or entity or being. Every whole is a unity and every unity that is divisible is a whole. For example, the primitive concepts, the monads, the empty set, and the unit sets are unities but not wholes. Every unity is something and not nothing. Any unity is a thing or an entity or a being. Objects and concepts are unities and beings.
In materialism all elements behave the same. It is mysterious to think of them as spread out and automatically united. For something to be a whole, it has to have an additional object, say, a soul or a mind. “Matter” refers to one way of perceiving things, and elementary particles are a lower form of mind. Mind is separate from matter."

Kurt Godel (1906 - 1978)

Expanding a bit on my past blog post (in which I describe the "Fox-like Hedgehogian" style of photography I tend to engage in - mostly unconsciously - whenever I am on "vacation," consider the image at the top of this post. This is a rare (possibly unique?) instance in which I lead into my commentary by sharing a completely unprocessed image; save that for my opening it up in Photoshop using Photoshop's default raw filter conversion settings. I do this not because I think this image merits a moment of attention - indeed, I should immediately emphasize that IMHO it does not (i.e., I am responsible for capturing this landscape, but do not think this is a good picture) - but because I wish to use it to illustrate one of the points I was struggling to make clear in my previous post.

The short version of my last entry is simply this: that when I am "on vacation" - typically, but not always, somewhere I have never been before - my photography inevitably steps through three partly overlapping stages: stage-1, the "spray paint" stage, denotes a short time during which I engage in the vain hope of capturing majestic "Wagnerian" landscapes in the vain hope of "showing it all"; stage-2 consists of my "slowing down" and engaging the landscape on its own terms (whether it is vast and majestic, or more intimate); and (my much preferred) stage-3, that appears only after I remember to view landscapes not as "objects" to be captured, but as ambient experiential backdrops to my own state-of-mind (wherein the compositions I make are less about conveying aesthetic impressions of specific things captured in a given place and time, and more about revealing aspects of how I experienced specific things in given places and times while I was taking pictures of them).

And so, in this context, consider the "raw" image that appears at the top of this blog post. Since it was taken within a few hours of gathering our luggage at Iceland's Keflavík airport and heading out on our first day of exploring the country, it is not surprising (at least to me) that its quality falls decidedly into the "stage 1" category. Why is this image not very good? The most egregious reason (among many others), is that it is unclear what the photographer (namely, me) wants the viewer to look at (or experience)! The mountains? Perhaps, but they are obscured in shadow and require an effort to see beyond the bright foreground and large cloud; the clouds? Maybe, but they only partly cover half of the sky, and the main "point of interest" (cloud-wise) is a dominant blob that draws in too much of the viewer's' attention; or is the viewer meant to look at the waterfall quietly nestled within a beautifully lit foreground? If so, the lighting hardly does justice to the waterfall, which seems as almost a hopeless afterthought buried in deep shadow. 

My point is not to self flagellate (though constructive self-criticism is something I always engage in; just not quite so openly as I'm doing now 😊; but rather to illustrate how I sometimes use otherwise forgettable "stage 1" images such as this to help steer/reorient my aesthetics and (better prepare for) future compositions. While "stage 2" photographs do not - cannot - appear until I've thoroughly gotten my "capture the majestic Wagnerian landscape" instincts out of the way, "stage 1" images also invariably contain vestiges (unconscious reminders?) of what my "eye" was really looking at, even as it was distracted by the "big-picture." I'd like to think that - had I had more time (or, more precisely, had I gotten over my "Wagnerian" instincts before I encountered the landscape in the "raw" image above), that I would have "seen" and composed these more intimate ("Stage 2") photographs from the spot I was standing:

Alas, my "eye" saw these (embedded, latent, additional?) compositional possibilities only after returning home from our vacation; and the post-processed crops you see here hardly do justice to how I ought to have captured them. I did the best I could, and leveraged the relatively high resolution that my Nikon z7 provides. But my heart and muse both know that what essentially amounts to no more than a bit of "melancholy play" with Photoshop may also have produced significantly more meaningful "stage 2" or "stage 3" images had I been in a more receptive "state of mind." The one small bit of solace I have is that while my "eye" was unabashedly and myopically focused on capturing a "Wagnerian landscape," it was my "I" that pointed to what "eye" saw; why else was I even looking?

Monday, September 11, 2023

Fox-like Hedgehogian Photography

"We are what we are, and live in a given situation which has the characteristics – physical, psychological, social – that it has; what we think, feel, do is conditioned by it, including our capacity for conceiving possible alternatives, whether in the present or future or past. Our imagination and ability to calculate, our power of conceiving, let us say, what might have been, if the past had, in this or that particular, been otherwise, soon reaches its natural limits, limits created both by the weakness of our capacity for calculating alternatives – ‘might have beens’ – and even more by the fact that our thoughts, the terms in which they occur, the symbols themselves, are what they are, are themselves determined by the actual structure of our world. Our images and powers of conception are limited by the fact that our world possesses certain characteristics and not others: a world too different is (empirically) not conceivable at all; some minds are more imaginative than others, but all stop somewhere."

- Isaiah Berlin (1909 - 1997)
The Hedgehog and the Fox

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

Iceland's Immeasurable Boundlessness

"...time was slipping past, beating life out silently and with ever increasing speed; there is no time to halt even for a second, not even for a glance behind. 'Stop, stop,' one feels like crying, but then one sees it is useless. Everything goes by — men, the seasons, the clouds, and there is no use clinging to the stones, no use fighting it out on some rock in mid-stream; the tired fingers open, the arms fall back inertly and you are still dragged into the river, the river which seems to flow so slowly yet never stops.
Twenty-two months are a long time and a lot of things can happen in them- there is time for new families to be formed, for babies to be born and even begin to talk, for a great house to rise where once there was only a field, for a beautiful woman to grow old and no one desire her any more, for an illness- for a long illness- to ripen (yet men live on heedlessly), to consume the body slowly, to recede for short periods as if cured, to take hold again more deeply and drain away the last hopes; there is time for a man to die and be buried, for his son to be able to laugh again and in the evening take the girls down the avenues and past the cemetery gates without a thought. But it seemed as if Drogo’s existence had come to a halt. The same day, the same things, had repeated themselves hundreds of times without taking a step forward. The river of time flowed over the Fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and the chain, but over Drogo it passed in vain- it had not yet succeeded in catching him, bearing him with it as it flowed."

- Dino Buzzati (1906 - 1972)
The Tartar Steppe

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

Ice Mountains in Motion

"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

Icelandic Color of Night

 "From the seventh heav'n to the ocean's rim,
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.")