Author Archives: oook

enigmata

I like me a good enigma, and I’ve used that word in all sorts of connections over the years, but never thought to inquire into its etymology and various senses. Dictionaries seem to agree that the Greek ainos, ‘fable’, is the original progenitor, but others cited are Greek ainisessthai, ‘to speak allusively’, and Latin aenigma, ‘riddle’. The modern senses favor

  • mysterious
  • puzzling
  • hard to explain
  • inexplicable
  • hidden meaning or known thing concealed under obscure words or forms
  • dark saying
  • baffles understanding

Looking over my own past uses, I seem often to invoke enigma in describing something non-obvious that interests me or piques curiosity or captures my attention. An artful story is what’s required to dispel murk (or mirk). See Narrativium for the how and why.

Most dictionary senses seem to favor the textual enigma, but I’m especially drawn to visual instances, in which there’s something unresolved


Orrs Island mystery

or ???huh???
children at play

or flat-out puzzling

This morning in the Back 40

or ambiguous and suggestive of multiple possible readings

the morning after the night before

or just plain weird

31x18068

Edward Gorey on writing:

…the way I write, since I do leave out most of the connections, and very little is pinned down, I feel that I am doing a minimum of damage to other possibilities that might arise in a reader’s mind. (New Yorker Dec 12 2018)

Photographers who traffic in enigma and abstractions of various kinds, and/or explore Buddhist and Taoist notions of the contemplative owe a lot to Minor White. Herewith some of my thoughts from more than a year ago: Major Minor.

just a stump

Digital processing is really a marvel, especially in the ease with which one can tweak an image to express different flavors, moods, attitudes. The danger is that it’s easy to take the tweakage too far, but that’s really subjective. Here’s one from yesterday in which various changes are rung (as Bill Skinner was wont to say). It’s worthwhile to contemplate why one might prefer one or another version.

the unedited original:
stump as shot

cropped and adjusted, subjectively pleasing:
stump1

monochrome, with green filter:
stump b+w green filter

using Lightroom’s “Infrared” preset:
stump "IR"

using Lightroom’s “aged photo” preset:
stump "aged"


Of course I see a creature, probably a large-mouthed fishy person (a staring eye in the upper center)

Goreyana

Two tasty bits from a Book of the Moment, Floating Worlds: the letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer:

yesterday I happened to notice in the mirror that while I have long since grown used to my beard becoming very grey indeed, I was not prepared to discover that my eyebrows are becoming noticeably shaggy. I feel the tomb is just around the corner. And there are all these books I haven’t read yet, even if I am simultaneously reading at least twenty… (pg 128)

I tell myself not to remember the past, not to hope or fear for the future, and not to think in the present, a comprehensive program that will undoubtedly have very little success. (pg 130)

The book brims with such gems.

and here’s a quasi-relevant image to accompany the above:


profile
The Flickr note for this one says “Part of the prep for a ghastly dental procedure, but I was amazed to see the profile of my father and both brothers. Ignore the vacuity in the NW quadrant of the image…”

What Kittens?


all what you do it come back to you
you got to bear the consequence

(an extended rumination, knitting several trains of thought)

The Young Tuan B3

53 years ago we were in Sarawak, helping to build a new village into which people from 15 Iban longhouse communities would be resettled. This Land Development Scheme (its formal designation) involved the planting of high-yield rubber trees which the Scheme participants would (eventually) tap, thus trading a semi-self-sufficient life on the fringes of the cash economy for full-fledged peasant status, living on the proceeds of their labor in the sort-of-cooperative rubber plantation. They would “own” their rubber plots, but pay mortgages on the land and on the single-family houses in the new village. What could possibly go wrong?

The premise that government-sponsored Development would make a better life for all (schools for children, health care clinics, “Progress”) was almost completely unquestioned. The assumption that demand for natural rubber would increase was unstated, because self-evident to the minds of mid1960s government planners. But that’s not how it turned out.

The new village was built next to the single trunk road that connected to the state capital (some 80 miles away) and continued on to link a series of (basically Chinese) towns, all situated on rivers that had formerly been the primary transportation corridors. Quite suddenly the accessibility of rural hinterlands changed—buses were available to nearby towns, a vastly expanded range of goods and services became available, and participation in a national and international cash economy was ubiquitous.

That process of infrastructural development and contingent change was what I thought I would return to Sarawak to study, but that’s not how it all worked out. I went to Nova Scotia instead, and only occasionally checked in with what was happening in Sarawak. The last 50 years has brought devastation of forests, the building of large dams on several rivers, rural dislocations and resettlements, and the advent of palm oil plantations to take the place of rubber as the principal primary export commodity. The Sarawak we knew is all but unrecognizable.

The new village of 50 years ago was on the edge of a vast and largely impenetrable peat swamp, covered in 100+ foot hardwood trees. Nobody envisioned any possible use for that land, since it would have to be drained and cleared. Nobody thought of palm oil as a possible crop for Southeast Asia until about 1980. That’s when Malaysia (and Indonesia) started to ramp up palm oil planting. Beyond swamp-draining and planting of oil palm, I don’t know any of the details of the development in the area we worked in, but in general the development process in Sarawak involves government and large corporations, and the public face of the operations emphasizes the benefits to one and all of the glorious implementation. The only sure thing is that the little people get squeezed and screwed, while somebody else reaps the benefits.

My attention to this bit of backstory comes about today because of a New York Times Magazine article on the tragedies of palm oil, which mostly focuses on Indonesia, and which raises some wider issues that I’m inclined to discuss under a new rubric: What Kittens?. The reference is to a passage in Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, written 90 or so years ago but absolutely on the money today. Still more backstory is needed.


well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

When I began to read about agriculture, in the early 1970s and before I went to Nova Scotia to do research in what I was pleased to label as “agricultural transformation”, a central concept for my explorations was the importance of exotic energy, by which I meant petroleum fuels and such petroleum derivatives as fertilizers and pesticides. In the 20th century, exotic energy was brought to bear on agricultural production, underwriting its intensification and midwifeing the increasing scale and concentration of agricultural enterprises. It was the inexorability of the transformation process, together with its malign effects upon families and communities, that led me to abjure that line of research as soon as the ink was dry on my dissertation.

I continued to track the significance of exotic energies in human affairs throughout my teaching career, especially in about 15 iterations of a course I called Human Geography. I was never as systematic as I should have been, but I did continue keep eyes peeled throughout the years as a librarian. Some years ago I read a number of news stories about far-sighted experimenters who were using discarded vegetable oil (mostly from fast food fryers) to power their diesel cars. A win-win, one might have thought: recycling a disposable, replacing a petroleum product, carving out an efficiency. Soon after that rash of stories I heard about “biodiesel” as an alternative Green fuel source, and made the assumption that the feedstock must be recycled plant oils… Ah, assumptions. Little did I know that the Southeast Asian palm oil plantations were more and more the primary source of biodiesel, and (hand in hand with deforestation) responsible for much misery along with obscene profits for the perpetrators of ever-larger projects. None of this should have been in the least surprising.


archy she says to me
yesterday
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens

The world of academic thought and action seems at any point in time to be mappable into distinct Disciplines, though the edges of any Discipline are ragged and permeable. But over time, in decades or generations, the boundaries shift and shimmer, and local heresies morph into schismatic reorganizations; intellectual fashions and leitmotifs come and go, and the focus of the Important peregrinates. I’ve been on the edges of a succession of disciplinary kerfuffles, almost entirely as a bemused observer.

In the 1960s the concept of Development was a leitmotif in many social science disciplines, not least in Economics, Political Science, and Anthropology. After a brief vogue for Ecology, Cybernetics, and a whiff of Sociobiology, in the 1970s and 1980s the leading edge lurched toward Postmodernism and Diversities (thankfully, I missed those morasses). The 1990s found those same fields riveted by Globalization. And the 21st century has seen Global Warming and Inequality come to the fore as the reigning integrative challenges. Each of these seems like an era, and the succession leaves a trail of supposed focal Problems behind, their dilemmas unresolved and their protagonists ageing gracelessly.


but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove them

So I escaped the Wheel in the 1990s, into the aether of Library and Information Science, and enjoyed more than a decade of adventures completely outside of disciplinary argy-bargy, learning and building and following my nose. They paid me to know stuff and find out about more stuff and help others find what they were seeking. I had audience and agency, and an infinitude of things to explore. The 13+ years of retirement continues to present that infinitude, in which I revel. I sometimes miss the audience and the agency, though photography offers both.


these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too

But every so often I encounter some subject matter that reopens old files and nudges me toward trying to make better sense of one or another of problems left behind. It was palm oil this time, but who knows what next?


one day she was talking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject

sources and sensibilities

I’ve been reading Mark Dery’s Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey and finding all sorts of relevant things within. Here’s one that seems to shed useful light on photographic issues of the moment:

E.Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art
the theory … that anything that is art … is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.
(in Floating Worlds: : The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer, pg 39)


DI26x1825

Thinking it over, it’s difficult to gauge how very much of my sensibilities I owe to Edward Gorey, whose work I think I first encountered in 1962, thanks to Laura de la Torre Bueno (The Curious Sofa was the gateway drug).



The groundwork before that was surely laid by Charles Addams and other New Yorker cartoonists (via The New Yorker Album: 1925-1950) and of course by Walt Kelly’s Pogo (which I first imbibed in the early 1950s, and have never been without ever since), Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel
and before all Abner Dean’s What Am I Doing Here?
and Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter.
Some would diagnose a very odd childhood, and I suppose that’s true, but I thank the gods for it.

Found Objects

The faces that seem to peer up at me on rocky beaches are indubitably creatures of my imagination, but no less real for that. I’ve been trying to invent broader contexts and aesthetic provenance to clothe their ubiquity, but it was only yesterday, as I was reading WJT Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want?, that it came home to me that my delirious panoply of rocks are objets trouvés, found objects in the full sense of the term. Behold:

Lincolnville19ix18001

…just two criteria for a found object:

  1. it must be ordinary, unimportant, neglected, and (until its finding) overlooked;
    Wass29vii18012

    it cannot be beautiful, sublime, wonderful, astonishing, or remarkable in any obvious way, or it would have already been singled out, and therefore would not be a good candidate for “finding”; and

  2. its finding must be accidental, not deliberate or planned. One doesn’t seek the found object, as Picasso famously remarked. One finds it. Even better, it finds you, looking back at you…

DI14x18038

Once found, however, the found object should, as in surrealistic practices, become foundational. It may undergo an apotheosis, a transfiguration of the commonplace, a redemption by art…

31x18106

pharaonic

If it really works, however, we have a sneaking suspicion that the transformation was a trick, a comic ruse engineered by a deus ex machina; and the plain old thing with its homely, familiar name is still there, blushing and smirking at us in the spotlight of aesthetic attention, or (better) ignoring us totally…


DI14x18015

The true found object never quite forgets where it came from, never quite believes in its elevation to spectacle and display. It remains humble to the end, a poor thing caught up in the push and pull of desire and demand…

DI14x18135

Another key to the found object is its tendency, once found, to hang around, gathering value and meaning like a sort of semantic flypaper or photosensitive surface.


20x18170 Rock Conversation

(in WJT Mitchell What Do Pictures Want? pp 114-155, 118)

photographs since Just A Rock

I looked through the last 6 months of my Flickr photostream to identify images I thought most evocative, and which seem in one way or another to be candidates for the Consequential album. Most tempt me to a narrative explanation of how the photograph happened, or what I am led to think about by looking at it, but some are just graphically successful and want no further comment.


6v18tires01a

copper beech BW

Selden

MesaVerde016

MesaVerde019

MesaVerde027

MesaVerde041

NaturalBridges20

NaturalBridges56

2vi18073

2vi18013

11vi1812

20vi18Colma20

MP24vii1806

MP24vii1834

Wass29vii18066

vent Allegory

CMBG13viii1840

Goreyesque

Islesboro25viii18021

Islesboro25viii18001

Apppier46x2adj

Lincolnville19ix18001

HPcolor14

Perceboardwalk03

LauxA23ix1857a

7x18MtAuburnbeech01

Mount Auburn beeches

6x18094

MP10x1804

DI14x18038

20x18170 Rock Conversation

20x18144 Bright Phoebus

20x18087

young gull

DI26x1829

31x18098

late November pumpkin

Little Orphan Annie manifests at Drift Inn

The Ecstasy of the Dance, The Agony of the Dancer

6xi1804a

naughtyfenceface6

and another project

This one has me thinking about a project on figured wood:


naughtyfenceface6

I have a burgeoning array of photographs of knots and other woody detalia, and have been wondering how to group, narrate, present and otherwise curate the collection. The happy result of the above in color suggests that the unconventional aspect ratio might work to advantage, and that it’s worth reprocessing some of the existing images (which I’ve tended to present in monochrome) to bring out details of figure and grain.

I’ve generally sought faces, as in the Percé P.Q. boardwalk denizens and Gaspereau River DAR Bridge project, but there are other larger forms that want more thoughtful presentation too. The sprawling wood weblet needs another bout of organizing and nudging in the direction of a Blurb book.

Here’s the beginning of lumber portraits.

iconicity is where you find it

Here’s an absolutely iconic image, once seen never forgotten:



(John Tenniel’s Jabberwock, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, 1871)

I remember the frisson when I first opened the book, when I was maybe 8 or 9, and also the pleasure when I first heard the delicious words of the poem: ‘mimsy’, ‘mome raths’, ‘slithy toves’, ‘burbled as it came’, ‘vorpal sword’, ‘callooh callay’, and so on.

Of course there’s plenty of backstory to the poem, and Alice’s response is both marvelous and (Carroll-like) applicable to all sorts of things one has encountered:

“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!

In the magical wood at the end of Horse Point Road I encountered an uprooted tree that was immediately evocative of the Jabberwock. I’ve messed with photographing it and processing the resulting image several times:


Jabberwocky

Jabberwocky again

Jabberwock

6xi1819


and I suspect there’s more to be done with the material.