a lesson learned

The Just A Rock book is beginning to come together, slowly, and is of course accompanied by discoveries and diversions of many flavors. I’ve been photographing at Drift Inn almost daily for the last 6 weeks or so, and each time I discover new rocks and often enough re-photograph ones I’ve already collected. A few days ago I was paying more attention to smaller rocks, those that fit in the hand and are rolled back and forth by the tide. One that I picked up seemed especially characterful, so I set it on a flat granite surface and photographed it:


…and tossed it back onto the rocky beach.

It wasn’t until I was processing the image that I noticed that it was a portrait, and my first thought was “Zen Patriarch” since it reminded me of Japanese paintings I’d seen of those worthies. I wasn’t immediately sure which Patriarch, but put that question aside to explore later.

I’ve lately been reading The Gateless Gate: the classic book of Zen koans, and yesterday morning arrived at Number 4:

Wakuan said, “Why has the western barbarian no beard?”

The commentary explains that the koan has to do with the vexed and fundamental question of the distinction between the essential and the phenomenal, which bears directly upon what I’ve been trying to write about in the case of rocks [relevant to the distinction between rock as an abstract and a rock as something with character and personality]. The “western barbarian” in the koan is often personified as Bodhidharma, the First Zen Patriarch, who was indeed an Indian monk who went to China in the 6th century:

So I realized that I wanted to find that rock with Bodhidharma on it; I wanted to possess it (I do have a modest collection of especially evocative rocks…). I went back to Drift Inn to try to find it again. And didn’t. And went back twice more, trying to reconstruct where I might have tossed it. No Bodhidharma.

A haiku came to me, as haikus are wont to do:

seek Bodhidharma
among the ten thousand rocks
alas, he’s moved on

The quick-witted will note that my Drift Inn beach Bodhidharma has no [evident, phenomenal] beard. Teisho’s commentary on the koan includes this:

Pictures of Bodhidharma are well known, and not only does he always have a beard but a very thick beard indeed! Wakuan was well aware of this. Why then does he say that Bodhidharma has no beard?

Everything has two aspects, phenomenal and essential. The phenomenal Bodhidharma has a beard, but the essential Bodhidharma has no beard. To realize this, you must grasp by experience the essential nature of Bodhidharma.

The essential nature [of anything] cannot be destroyed, even by karmic fire. If the whole universe were to be completely destroyed, the essential nature would continue to exist because it is empty. It is nonsubstantial. It cannot be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears, or touched with the hands. No one can identify the spot where it is.

So here’s what I was writing about rock before all the above happened:

The essence of rock is mineral, molecular, elemental, time-encapsulating, entropic [in the process of returning to its chemical origins], crystalline, cooled to a solid phase of a material derived from and still encapsulating its liquid phase.

The essence of a rock, such as one might hold or photograph, is revealed via the phenomenal engagement with a mind: the mind discerns (makes, constructs) form. The mind of a geologist attaches labels and associations and temporal structure; the mind of a wall builder sees mass and shape and fit; the mind of a sculptor may see the form that dwells within; the mind of an artist abstracts and transforms the visual appearance of the rock…

So you can see why the progress on Just A Rock is slow…

One of today’s rock creatures:


another case of the Ephemeral

I continue to explore the mysteries of connotation that accompany the images in my Flickr photostream, wondering what inspires or provokes their composition and capture. Often it’s only during the processing phase that I recognize what a photograph contains, or means, or alludes to. This one is an example of an unsolved problem:


This is simply a salt deposit left on a rock by the receding tide, a phenomenon that seems to happen when the air temperature is well below freezing. The next tide will obliterate the pattern, so its life is only a few hours. The complexity seems to demand an interpretation, an effort to parse the pattern for some sort of figurative meaning. Thusfar I haven’t discerned any faces or other recognizable forms beyond the sinusoidal curve that’s uppermost. There’s something evocative of Japanese painting in the deposit below the thicker curve, but overall I have no better option than to label the image as ‘abstract’. So what drew me to it? Why did I capture it? There’s something elegant in the curves and textures, but beyond that I can’t reconstruct my specific motivation or thought process. It just seemed to ask to be harvested and saved from oblivion.

Does it help at all to mirror the image?


Ah. Now I see something analogous to the figure seen on so many New England gravestones, the symmetrical wings around the death’s head:


But this symmetrical extension doesn’t solve any of the original problems of interpretation, or get me any further along in the quest to comprehend the genesis of the image. The original photograph is a satisfying composition, slightly ambiguous in scale, a small detail in the grand complexity of a particular landscape in space and time, and perhaps makes sense only in the context of a gatheration of photographs of salt deposits on rocks.


I’ve been wrangling the notion of capture of ephemerality as one of the essences of photography, trying to get beyond the obviousness of the observation to the vital idea beneath the cliche, which involves more than just the apprehension of a moment in the river of Time. It’s in the viewer’s mind (or Mind’s Eye, or is it Eye’s Mind?) that the ephemeral attains its significance, a sort of WYGIWYS (What You Get Is What You See).

This morning it occurred to me that the viewer may be transfixed (in the sense of ‘pierced by’ and ‘brought up short’) by an image, caught by a personal punctum, as Barthes names the hook that does the transfixing. Sometimes this transfixion is in fact a transfiction (“an aestheticized imagination of translatorial action”), an obvious product of the viewer’s imagination, an instance of pareidolia or apophenia in which the viewer sees or perhaps constructs meaningful patterns that are notional and may not be seen by others. This happens to me frequently, even incessantly.

Here’s an example, ephemeral because it’s a photograph of rapidly-melting ice:


I read the two circles above the center of the image as eyes, fill in whiskers and a grinning mouth below the eyes, see the curve above the eyes as defining a head and body, note the ribbon floating off to the northeast from the eye on the right, see the whispy, murky, indistinct background, and label the image as ectoplasmic seal with monocle. The seal probably existed for only a few minutes (the eye on the left is a lacuna of meltwater in the ice), and I don’t think I saw it until I was processing the RAW file on the computer. Something surely drew me to the framed scene and provoked the release of the shutter to capture the composition, but I can’t reconstruct it now. All part of the grand mystery of the ephemeral.

There’s a Flickr Album of almost 600 images of ice from the last month or so, many of which have—or may have—resident creatures.

Marblehead 1965

I’ve been combing through my memories and photographic archives in search of traces of entanglement with rocks. The first photographic engagement that I can find came about as a result of an invitation to accompany a photography student named I think Shulman on an expedition to cliffs at Marblehead in the Spring of 1965. He was doing 8×10 color, as I remember.


I think these are the very rocks:

Lighthouse Point, Marblehead MA

I can’t remember if I had already encountered Aaron Siskind’s 1944 Gloucester rock photographs, or his 1950 Martha’s Vineyard series, but Len Gittleman might have shown them to us. I was certainly entirely susceptible to Siskind’s mode of seeing by Spring 1965, but I’m not sure if these are unwitting homage to Siskind or directly derivative from work of his that I’d seen. But there I was looking at form in rock, wrestling with light and shadow, putting a 2×3 frame around what seemed to be significant bits of lithoscape:

Marblehead 1965 42





Fifty years later I scanned those negatives and did some experimental tessellations of two of them:


I love the 3-D illusion that emerges, which suggests some lesson in figure-and-ground perception, and I love the notion that there are always more possibilities in an image than one first realizes.

I went still further with the second image, tessellating and then split-toning to create an image that seems not to be rock at all:

carpet design

In the same cache of negatives I found these two: Shulman himself, and Shulman’s spouse dealing productively with the boredom of waiting for him to finish playing with the huge camera.


the photographer's spouse

Another sector of the Territory

I’ve been thinking about the term abstract and its cousin abstraction, and considering how they relate to my engagement with rocks. I don’t have a sophisticated grounding in the use of the terms in writing/talking about art, so I begin with a collection of my own thoughts and work outward. The 5 AM summary today, which will be refined as I read and consider:

abstract (v): pare down to or extract essentials; take away from, purloin, haul away

abstract (n): without obvious representational form; an unparsed collection of design elements

abstract (adj): in which the representation of Reality requires explanation; as opposed to ‘concrete’; loosely, non-representational

Quite a few of my photographs of the last few years have been non-representational captures of forms and patterns, in rock, in wood, in ice and cloud forms. Often I only begin to grasp what they contain when I process the RAW files and have a chance to see what I saw when provoked to click the shutter and capture the momentary conjunction of light and materials. Here’s an example:


Marshall Point 20 ix 2017

The scale might be anywhere from close-up macro to aerial landscape (in fact it’s a stretch of magnificently folded rock about 2 feet from top to bottom, as I recall), and the absence of identifiable features nudges this toward ‘abstract’. Trying to parse the patterns for meaning, I see overlapping faces in profile, but know that I’m imagining that.

So I tessellated the photo and flipped it vertically:

god of headaches

…and the resulting coherent image immediately announced itself to me as The God of Headaches. In my reading, this is himself:
the god of headaches cropped

and he perches on the forehead of the sufferer.

This reading is entirely a product of my imagination, and the unpredicted outcome of a simple algorithmic manipulation [copy-mirror-join-rotate] of the seed image: an abstract made concrete, a form found, a Story unleashed, a divinity called into existence by an act of naming. Magic, of a sort, relying on instinctual/hard-wired response to bilateral symmetry, in which the viewer seeks coherent patterns and projects them into conjunctions that appear to be representational: those are ears, those eyes, oh look, there’s a mouth…

The wonder is that different viewers find their own figures within the created images; the glory is that people are easily trapped into the engagement, and clearly love the exercise of hunting for coherence. And, as Yogi Berra said, the more one practices, the more one sees. You can see a lot by looking.

Lighting Out for the Territory

I’m in the early stages of thinking my way into a book project dealing with photographs of rock, provisionally titled Just Rocks: A Lithic Menagerie, including work I’ve done in the last few years and continuing some lines of thought I began in YMMV: Studies in Occultation [right-click to download large pdf].

Just Rocks will include rock portraits and tessellations which disclose creatures and designs hidden in geological formations. Most of the images are exercises in visual imagination, and address the process of developing and augmenting the capability to see forms and patterns that are not objectively there, but are imaginary tracings that abstract lines and shapes from background complexities.

A few examples:

Great Wass rock 25

a sardonic grin

A wave-tumbled rock on a beach at Great Wass Island, less than 4 inches across and weighing perhaps half a pound. Ephemeral in that it was captured in the camera but not brought home, and is now lost forever. An object of contemplation, an exercise in naming (‘sardonic’ is my subjective reading, but you may see something else—and that’s the whole point).

Beaches along the coast of Maine are the locus of many of the rock portraits, and the process of discovery is worth some attention. The scatter of beach rock is a stage in a random process of erosion driven by twice-daily tides, which eventually produce sand and so recycle the minerals locked up in stone. This is a view of a small part of Drift Inn beach, a couple of miles from home:

wide view of Drift Inn

In the last 10 days or so at Drift Inn I’ve done scores of photographs of rocks that seemed to have personalities, to express imaginative creaturehood, to be more than just rocks. Each day I’ve found new examples, though I’ve also returned to several to try to capture them better. Here’s an example of the process:


In the midst of the chaos of scatter, we observe a rock that has been broken into five squarish pieces. Bits of pebble and shell have found their way into the interstices


and were awaiting my discovery:

Cubist portrait

cubist portrait

Braque or Picasso would have been delighted. A West African mask maker might have imagined such a fetish. But it was simply time and tide that made this conjunction, and that will erase it before long.

Another example, this one a tessellation that unfolds a geological mini-saga of marble inclusion


to produce this:

female avatar of Poseidon/Neptune bracketed by White Whales

female avatar of Poseidon/Neptune bracketed by White Whales

As I’ve noted elsewhere (see Tessellations [right-click to download large pdf]), one may well ask if the avatar and the whales were there all along, waiting to be liberated, or if I created them by digital legerdemain, and/or called them into existence by an onomastic hey-presto…

So that’s some of the territory I’m lighting out to explore this winter.

and now what?

The last three months has seen an intense engagement with photography, largely because of my participation in an online workshop with Andy Ilachinski, whose work I’ve been following for ten years or so. The six weeks of the workshop are now at an end, and I’ve written my last response to the exercises Andy offered. I’ve just read through all of my postings and am pleased with their range and consistency. It’s difficult to say what I learned in the six weeks—or indeed in the three months—of reading and photographing and processing and writing, but it’s been a delight. I’m surely even more committed to the practice of photography as an integral element of my life, and even more engaged in looking and perhaps a tidge better at seeing. So now what? There’s a mountain of photobooks to read and re-read, and projects to begin, to continue, and maybe even to finish. There’s software to explore in greater depth (Lightroom, Photoshop, InDesign), and books to fashion… and of course more photographic adventures to undertake. Never a dull moment.