Category Archives: images

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)


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.

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 again



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

perhaps a coloring book?

Some of my photographs and tessellations are just plain overwhelming, with too much going on for a viewer to parse without some sort of guidance to what I see that makes an image worth promulgating:



god of the tidal margins

What to do by way of assistance is something I wrestle with, and betimes I suffer notions of what I might do to build explanations and on-ramps for my more enigmatic photographs.
Andy Ilachinski, always worth attending to, quotes Vladimir Nabokov:

I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness―in a landscape selected at random―is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern―to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977)

My eye went immediately to “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip,” which seems apposite to my pleasure in mirroring images to find out what else they have to tell us [as Minor White might have said]. Putting aside the butterflies, or substituting rock and wood for “rare butterflies and their food plants”, the whole rings pretty much true, but of course what I like to do is unfold the magic carpet. And visitors are most welcome to trip.

I venture out on a photographic adventure and see thing after thing, possibility upon possibility, line and pattern and design, reminiscence and allusion. Many of my digital captures only develop on the computer screen as I recognize unanticipated (or anyhow unconsciously expected) graphic elements, and some only mature once I’ve lived with the results for a while. That’s especially true of those I decide to try tessellating: few images are taken in expectation of their products once mirrored (that is, I rarely see the potential mirror image in the camera’s viewfinder), and I can’t often predict what the result will be until I try the old flip-copy-join recipe.

And there a difficulty arises. My fevered imagination draws upon a lifetime of images seen and takes special pleasure in graphic analogy. I see things that are manifestly not there. Broot (adept as she is at the abstract) summarizes the difference between our approaches to photographic exploration, “you make something out of nothing; I make nothing out of something.” She also notes, sagely, that if she saw all those faces, she’d not be able to see the abstract.

So how can I convey what I discover in my images to audiences? The enigmatic or whimsical title, often alluding to something I draw from the image, is a happy affectation, but doesn’t convey its message very clearly to puzzled viewers. I know what I need next, but I’m not sure how to realize it. Herewith an outline, thanks to a book that rolled in a couple of days ago, By the Glow of the Jukebox: The Americans List II [Conceived and Compiled by Jason Eskenazi (Author), Jno Cook (Illustrator)]. This is just the sort of tiny-niche bit of bijoux fugitivia I love to discover and possess, but it needs a bit of explanation.

Robert Frank’s The Americans is arguably one of the most influential photographic books of the mid-20th century (first published in 1958), and is still making waves among photographers, still being discussed and influencing the work of new discoverers of its singular (well, multiple) views of America. Here’s the Amazon description of By the Glow:

While working as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Eskenazi began to ask photographers he knew visiting the Looking In exhibition [2009] about Robert Frank’s The Americans, to choose their favorite image and why. In the years since he quit, as he himself got back out on the road again to shoot, he complied hundreds of photographers’ answers in this unique book destined to become a classic in photography education…

I got the first edition of By the Glow a few years ago, and hadda buy the second. I was delighted to find Jno Cook’s spare but effective drawings of Frank’s photographs, which are just the sort of thing I need to convey to viewers what I see in my photographs and tessellations. Here’s one of Jno Cook’s renderings of an iconic image from The Americans:

I didn’t know it until a Google search just now, but am delighted to find that Jno Cook made a Robert Frank Coloring Book (now long out of print and very pricey!), so Kentlee’s notion that I should make a coloring book was prescient as well as brilliant.

But how exactly to proceed? How can I make the drawings that reveal what I see? The technology surely includes Layers in Illustrator or GIMP, and probably the Wacom tablet I bought a while ago with high hopes, but haven’t yet managed to tame to my purposes. And of course the skills to create a workflow that I can actually live with…

first, catch your beech tree

A technical exercise in transformations, starting with a photograph of a Mount Auburn Cemetery beech tree:


It occurred to me to wonder how the image would be changed with a simple black-to-white inversion, easily accomplished in GIMP (with some cropping, to clarify the image). The result seems to emphasize the form that first attracted me to make the original image:

inverted beech

Creatures manifest, if one is open to such things, but in this case I decided to work further with the abstract forms via a mirror image and vertical flip:

inverted beechx2

I can read this version in several ways, imagining for instance the head-on view of a duck in flight in heavy weather, or a wrathful English judge in full-bottomed wig about to deliver a death sentence (the black cap on his head…), though you may be excused if you see neither of those figures.

The next thought was to make a 4x tessellation, which produces an image of a vajra (Sanskrit) or dorje (Tibetan), understood by Mahayana Buddhism as representing a diamond or thunderbolt.

A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”
(see more at


…and that led to wondering what would happen if the image was inverted again, back to its original black-is-black configuration:

inverted beechx4inv

The last two images are also reminiscent of illustrations of magnetic fields, as seen with bar magnets and iron filings.

So what, or where, does all this flipping get us? Certainly a long way from the original beech tree, and (if we choose to go there) deep into representation of the mysteries of cosmic forces. Each transformation is a flight of fancy, an excursion into what if…, a disclosure of possibility, and an alternative reading of the implications and thus the meaning of the antecedent image. Form Finds Form.

still more imagination

Some creatures only appear once, never to be found again, accidents of light and angle and fate. This is one such:


It took me a day or two to see the elephant and the sharp-goateed tiger:


and not until today did I discover (1) the muppet Statler on the left side:
and (2) a nameless musk ox on the right:


I don’t think I could find that rock again, and even if I did, I doubt that those creatures would manifest again.

Other readings are of course possible. The ‘musk ox’ could be a disgruntled chimpanzee, and the ‘elephant’ may be an open-jawed creature about to bite Statler’s head off as the tiger looks on. YMMV.

the morning’s fun

This one has enough enigma to satisfy any devotee of the obscure:


It’s a fissure in a large rock mass, but the two sides seem to have had quite different histories of erosion. The left-hand panel seems obviously to sport a grinning but rather lopsided face, but the right side is less easily parsed into something that makes sense.

So: in search of hidden essences, I first mirrored the left side and produced a rather more unsettling face, reminiscent of The Mask of Agamemnon:


A quick mirroring of the right side also produced a sort of face, perhaps a bearded figure not unlike my friend Daniel Heikalo:


…and then it occurred to me to flip that panel vertically, to reveal a gently smiling portrait of a being with an insectoid headpiece:
right side upside down

The conceit of the moment is topological: the two halves are meeting at a corner of tesseractoid hyperspace. But other readings are possible. At the bottom of the left side there might be a demonic motorcyclist:
left side detail1
or it may be that the mirrored left side should also be flipped vertically to reveal a wrathful or perhaps merely disapproving godlike being:


revealing the hidden

I’ve been trying to figure out effective and efficient means to parse some of my more …erm… complicated images, to reveal what I see hidden in them. If I had the chops to be able to reproduce what I see as drawings, cartoons, or even tracings, I would spend many happy hours rendering photographic captures into hand-drawn graphics. While I can imagine what such translations would look like, I certainly haven’t the powers or skills to realize my imaginings. Yesterday it occurred to me that the combination of details clipped out and narrative might be effective enough to begin with. Here’s the starting point for today’s exercise:


What it is : a stretch of highly-figured Drift Inn rock, 5 or 6 feet wide, with tidewater pooled in hollows (the white-flecked areas).

On the left I see a crowned bird-headed Hieronymus Boschish figure in a speckled robe, looking to the left over its right shoulder:


Below that is a long-toothed and perhaps cat-like nightmare figure, reminiscent of Ralph Steadman’s graphic style:


and to the right of those is a flame-haired human figure, arms raised and possibly with Harry Potter glasses or maybe just preternaturally googly eyes:


and on the far right edge, a long-snouted foxy-horsey creature, with what might be a single horn on its head:


You may see none of these, or find other figures that I haven’t yet discerned. There’s another shot of most of the same scene, from the other side, which offers a whole different array of interpretative challenges:


For the moment, I’ll just point out the insouciant but demented (and possibly fanged) flying squirrel in the upper left:


petroglyphic gnomons

My friend Jan Broek, Argonaut of lexicographical vastnesses and master of le mot juste, seems always ready with a pithy showstopper, an observation distilled into an apposite phrase that may never have been spoken before, but which positively nails whatever he assays. His comment on my latest Album of Creatures:

…petroglyphic gnomons…

strange empathic encounters with the stony beings that bring us into terrestrial arrest

Van Gogh has nothing on your rabidic plunge…

It’s always worthwhile to consider what others see in and say about the images into which I invest (or from which I draw?) so much meaning. The constructive exercise of making meaning from fragments, of perceiving form in what might first appear chaotic, is surely worth documenting, explicating, tracing in line and word. I need to develop the tools to extract and display what I discover and discern.

I deal in the whimsical and the figurative, imagining the Story, as in Pas de Deux


and its Lindy Hop variant


Another recent example is this Rocky Conversation, in which the figure on the left passes stony comment to the askance-looking figure on the right:

20x18170 Rock Conversation

I got to wondering about the broader context of the duo and went back to Drift Inn a couple of days later to rephotograph the scene. I wasn’t surprised to find that the interlocutors weren’t so clearly present without the definition of the bright sun’s shade:


went back a couple of days later and found the pair still muttering to one another:


The ephemerality of rock is a perpetual surprise, looking different from hour to hour and day to day, and revealing new facets to every change of viewing angle. Here are two more of yesterday’s new perspectives on a beach that I’ve visited scores of times:



The muppets Statler and Waldorf, don’t you think?

Form Finds Form

I’ve been seeking subsetting and organizing principles to cope with the vast complexities of wood and rock portraits I’ve been collecting, and yesterday an interesting candidate presented itself as I was reading Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking (1969):

A concept, statistically defined, represents what a number of separate entities have in common. Quite often, however, a concept is instead a kind of highspot within a sweep of continuous transformations. In the Japanese kabuki theatre, an actor’s play suddenly petrifies into an immobile, monumental pose, the mi-e, which marks the climax of an important scene and epitomizes its character. (pg 182)

Mi-e generally follow a pattern, serving to focus our attention on a particular character or characters at an important moment during the play. Mi-e crystallize the action into a formal picture. More than mere focal points, mi-e are used to express to the audience a climax of great emotional tension. To perform a mi-e the actor must physically and emotionally wind himself up to the desired emotion, be it anger, fear, indignation, or surprise. Most mi-e are accompanied only by the beating of the wooden clappers (tsuke) … struck in a pattern called ba-tan, the two beats of which serve as a framework for the climax of the mi-e, in which the actor, while holding the pose rotates his head toward his adversary and crosses one eye, the other looking straight ahead.

The first beat, the ba, is hit as the actor strikes the pose. Then, as he rotates his head and glares, the mie is completed by the second, tan beat. The tsuke beater, or tsuke uchi as he is called, has the great responsibility of not only timing his beats to the actor’s movements but also feeling the emotional climax of the mi-e with the actor. (from Ronald Cavaye Kabuki: A Pocket Guide)

“How very like the moment of photography!” I thought. And sure enough some of my creatures are caught in mi-e, communicating directly to the viewer.


More commonly, the creatures appear self-absorbed, going about their business, brooding or just being grumpy or dozy or fey, not interacting with the watchers, or simply being unaware of their audience. I’ve assembled a gallery of some that seem to me “immobile, monumental” and performing for the viewers

Form Finds Form is a phrase I’m continuing to unpack and trying to more completely grok. My mother was wont to say it, and via Ann Berthoff it has crept into the field of Rhetoric and Composition. It seems to resonate with many things I’ve done over the years (photographic projects, surname mapping, improv music…), even though I can’t fully explain just what it Means. In this instance, my almost accidental discovery of the Form mi-e educed the subset of images, each an exemplar of that Form. But which found which?

the succinct

One take on ‘simplicity’ is the quality of being succinct: getting a [sometimes complex] message across briefly, clearly, with a minimum of havering and expatiation, in a tidy package of nicely chosen words, or in an image that the viewer may grok without the need for exegesis. Sometimes there’s a way to express a complex story, with details and interconnections with other stories, in a spare or even gnomic gesture: one can know the story at a glance. Here are three examples taken today that seem to meet this criterion of the succinct:

Ann, Wife of



and some from earlier captures:




My usual mode of photographic operation seems to favor the whimsical, which tends toward unconventional readings of images and require explanation, or the narrative, which attempts to engage the viewer in digressive backstories that revel in complexities and outward-bound links. Too many years in classrooms, not enough time in quiet contemplation of what I see. One can see a lot by looking.