Saturday, January 30, 2021

Touchstones and Palimpsests

"We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past, like ancient stars that have burned out, are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about every day, too many new things we have to learn. New styles, new information, new technology, new terminology … But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone."

- Haruki Murakami (1949 - )
Kafka on the Shore

The panels of this triptych are "digital double exposures" of images taken at two very different times and places: the foreground consists of photographs of reeds in a pond and a tree basking in a warm sun one autumn day in 2003 at one of my favorite little parks near where my mom used to live on Long Island (before passing away in 2017); the background consists of splotches of paint I found on an old tire that was bobbing up and down in the Port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece in the summer of 2008 as my wife and I were waiting for a boat-ride to Santorini. The fusion of images serves as both touchstone and palimpsest, tinged with melancholy and hope. Melancholy, because ever since my mom's passing, the little park has become less a place to visit, and more a ghostly memory of times past; and the Athenian splotches of paint serve only to strengthen my wife's and my own longing for trips to "faraway places" that - before the pandemic - we used to take for granted. And hope, because though such memories of times and places are indeed ghostly, they also point to happy experiences yet to arrive. Memories fade, but meaning only deepens.   

"It is as if the Caru'ee were able
to perceive an echo of the past,
and unconsciously, as they built
upon a palimpsest of books written
long ago and long forgotten,
chanced to stumble upon an essence
of meaning that could not be lost,
no matter how much
time had passed." 

Ken Liu (1976 - )
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Friday, January 29, 2021


“How to be a Poet
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity…
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensional life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.”

- Wendell Berry (1934 - )

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Looking Inward

"He sees the truth as with a jolt. There it is, within his own being, lying deep down but still in his own self. There never was any need to travel anywhere to find it; no need to visit anyone who was supposed to have it already, and sit at his feet; not even to read any book, however sacred or inspired. Nor could another person, place, or writing give it to him; he would have to unveil it for himself in himself. The others could direct him to look inwards, thus saving all the effort of looking elsewhere. But he himself would have to give the needful attention to himself. The discovery must be his own, made within the still center of his being."

- Paul Brunton (1898 - 1981)
Advanced Contemplation: The Peace Within You

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Mind at Large

"To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he or she has been born -- the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to he accumulated records of other people's experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it be-devils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things."

- Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963)

Monday, January 25, 2021

Life & Entropy

"When things don't change any longer,
that's the end result of entropy,
the heat-death of the universe.
The more things go on moving,
interrelating, conflicting, changing,
the less balance there is -
and the more life."

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 - 2018)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Agencies of Magic

"A retired English working-man is sitting at his table with his wife and a friend, a returned British sergeant-major from India. The sergeant-major shows his hosts an amulet in the form of a dried, wizened monkey’s paw... [which has] the power of granting three wishes to each of three people... The last [wish of the first owner] was for death... His friend... wishes to test its powers. His first [wish] is for 200 pounds. Shortly thereafter there is a knock at the door, and an official of the company by which his son is employed enters the room. The father learns that his son has been killed in the machinery, but that the company... wishes to pay the father the sum of 200 pounds... The grief-stricken father makes his second wish -that his son may return- and when there is another knock at the door... something appears... the ghost of the son. The final wish is that the ghost should go away. In these stories, the point is that the agencies of magic are literal-minded... The new agencies of the learning machine are also literal minded. If we program a machine... and ask for victory and do not know what we mean by it, we shall find the ghost knocking at our door."

A "updated" fable of the Monkey's Paw,
as quoted in a recent paper on Superintelligence 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Imperceptible Chains

"If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further. How can a part know the whole? But he may perhaps aspire to know at least the parts to which he bears some proportion. But the parts of the world are all so related and linked to one another, that I believe it impossible to know one without the other and without the whole.

Man, for instance, is related to all he knows. He needs a place wherein to abide, time through which to live, motion in order to live, elements to compose him, warmth and food to nourish him, air to breathe. He sees light; he feels bodies; in short, he is in a dependent alliance with everything. To know man, then, it is necessary to know how it happens that he needs air to live, and, to know the air, we must know how it is thus related to the life of man, etc. Flame cannot exist without air; therefore to understand the one, we must understand the other.

Since everything then is cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible chain, which binds together things most distant and most different, I hold it equally impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole, and to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail."

- Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662)

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Musings on the Creative Process: Left-Brain / Right-Brain Blending

 "It's always seemed like
a big mystery how nature,
seemingly so effortlessly,
manages to produce so much
that seems to us so complex.
Well, I think we found its secret.
It's just sampling what's
out there in the
computational universe."

- Stephen Wolfram (1959 - )

I apologize beforehand for what might seem like a long and bizarre excursion away from photography; but please bear with me as the following musings are very much in the vein of exploring the "creative process" of photography (well, at least, a glimpse of the creative process I've recently been immersed in!). Specifically, those aspects of the creative process that lie at the cusp of traditional left/right brain functions. Leaving aside the reality of such a dichotomy (e.g., see this recent paper), let us posit that left-brain processes focus more on logic and analytic thinking, and that right-brain processes focus on art and intuition more. Of course, all of us continually engage both sides throughout our waking hours, albeit with our own unique rhythms of shifting/combining focus and modulating relative emphasis. In my case, I live in two - usually quite separate - worlds, deliberately broken up into "what I do during my work week" (employed, as I am, as a physicist at a federally funded research & development center) and "what I do during essentially all available off hours" (which, among other things, has resulted in this photography blog and more fun with my cameras, lenses, filters, and tripods than I deserve in the 45+ years I've been doing photography). Occasionally, as I'm about to do here, I combine my two sides; though not always for the better - you, kind reader, can judge whether I've strayed a bit too far in this case.

"Working with mental images activates a different mode
of consciousness which is holistic and intuitive." 
Henri Bortoft (1938 - 2012)

So many ideas come to mind as I ponder this question: Goethe's Holistic Seeing; Bohm's Implicate Order; and Alexander's (opus on fundamental organizing principles of "life forms") Nature of Order, all come to mind. But I will leave the discussion of these approaches for a later entry. For now, these ideas will have to serve merely as backdrops of my explanation of how I've partly fused my "left-brain/right-brain" activities over the last week or so (I promise to keep it short :). 

At its core, my usual "right brain" approach to photography cannot be simpler: I pick up my camera bag and tripod, head out for a walk to a local park (or just go downstairs to a "studio" I've set up for to experiment with color abstracts), and start shooting. If something catches the eye, I shoot. That's about it. And the less ("left-brain") thinking that is involved, the better (though it sometimes leads to thinking about thinking, which I've written about before). The only important - and almost entirely unconscious - action I take is to choose the time I press the shutter (I've assuming that such minutiae as f-stops, exposure times, filters, and the like are "automatic" and add little to the story I'm trying to tell here). OK, so far, so good.

"So the relationship of each moment in the whole to all the others
is implied by its total content: the way in which it
'holds’ all the others enfolded within it." 
David Bohm (1917 - 1992) 

This is where my several-week-old left-brain machinations come in. While looking over a portfolio of recent abstracts (including those "discovered" in marble and crystals), I ran across a number that fell into the "whole contains other wholes" pictures I described above. I was sitting at the same PC that facilitates both my left-brain (Photoshop) and right-brain (Mathematica) activities, and reflected the same basic type of question I normally reserve for my left-brain: "How can I find the 'best' image?" - meaning one that best satisfies my desire to show "interesting parts" of an image, but in such a way that the whole is still implicitly within sight, "just barely out of reach." I had earlier experimented with breaking up images into thirds and looking for "interesting juxtapositions" (e.g., exchanging the 1st and 2nd panel interchanged, but leaving the 3rd panel fixed). And, while that did lead to some interesting variations, it was also a painstakingly long process. These preliminary experiments were akin to a kind of improvisational play,  wherein I manually dissected each image and created select juxtapositions of interest. Noting that something interesting can actually be found by following this method, my left-brain finally clicked into action.

While the process is still "simple" (relatively speaking), and can - and will - easily be improved upon in coming days and weeks, I wrote a Mathematica function that automatically breaks an image into thirds (i.e., my 3-word alphabet of 'panels' to be used in  constructing new triptychs); applies all possible combinations of (1) leaving the orientation of a given panel unchanged (or as 'original = O'), (2) flipping a panel in the horizontal direction ('HF'), (3) flipping a panel in the vertical direction ('VF'), and (4) rotating a panel 180 deg (i.e., perform a vertical rotation = 'VR'); and assembling the new panels into a triptych with a bit of white space between and on the outside perimeter of the whole image. (90 deg rotations are not allowed, because in order to retain the same aspect ratio, the panels would all need to be square.) The Mathematica function is constrained to not create any triptychs in which the original panel order is left unchanged, since my goal is to find combinations of individually interesting images - in this case, panels - in which the whole, or original image, is only implicit and not directly observable. A bit of counting shows that, with this constraint, there are a total of 320 possible 'panel exchange + rotation/flip' combinations. This is significantly more than I can create by hand, but is easily doable in a few seconds by feeding my Mathematica function a starting image of choice. More specifically (since it is hard to visually digest 320 images at once), I had Mathematica display a smaller array of 16 random triptychs out of the complete set that my right-brain can inspect - and select interesting variants of - "at a glance." 

"No pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the
world only to the extent that is supported by other patterns:
the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the
same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns
which are embedded in it."

- Christopher Alexander (1936 - ) 

Two such arrays are displayed at the top of this post, along with - on the right hand side - one of the images I like best. By design, all of the randomly constructed triptychs share the two most important qualities I am searching for: (1) each of the panels is "interesting" (since this cannot be expected to be true of just any image, the starting image must already be specially selected), and (2) the starting image is visible only implicitly, since the viewer is allowed to see only the juxtaposed panels, not in their original order). As for what makes triptych x more/less interesting than triptych y? That's where the right brain jumps back into the process, as it subjectively selects one out of many - just because; though, because of the way my left-brain constructed the samples from which my right-brain is asked to choose (leaving out the "real" image), the right-brain is faced with - what for me, is - an intoxicating aesthetic tension between parts and an implicit whole. Indeed, the pleasure I get from finding and viewing "interesting images" of this sort are a direct analogue of the creative process by which they are spawned. In the same way as (I've just described) my left-brain helps me sort, dissect, operate-on, and create a multiverse of same-but-different sets of images that my right-brain generated the 'starting set' for (by intuitively capturing the original image) - my right-brain now delights in teasing apart the tension between the parts and wholes of images that my left-brain constructed for me (thus revealing "interesting" sets of images otherwise invisible to my own eye). 

Importantly, at least as far as photography - and aesthetics - are concerned, both sides of this creative process are fueled by search, discovery, and selection. That is, a search for a place and time to take a photograph, discovering an image, and selecting how and when to capture it. The only difference between my usual photography and the (admittedly laborious seeming) process described above is the space over which the search, discovery, and selection is conducted: i.e., a meta-space of images constructed out of images already taken vs. the physical world in which an original set of images is captured. The extra delight (I continue to have as I experiment with left-brain / right-brain blending) is that - at least temporarily - both sides of my brains are actively engaged in pursuit of an unchanging goal: to find "interesting images" :)

Here some additional "discoveries" in my left-brain constructed multiverse of meta-images (with more sure to follow)...

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)