Category Archives: photography


Each day’s reading and photography is pretty much guaranteed to present me with unexpected conjunctions and insights. This morning I read this in Ralph Eugene Meatyard (Steidl 2005), from a talk he gave to the Louisville Photographic Society in 1959:

I have, at the present time, twelve methods, series, subjects that I am working on… They are: general photographs (that is, on any subject not otherwise covered), rock photographs; wall photographs; pictures of cemetery sculptures and sympathies; ice photographs; glass photographs; light photographs; painting in ice; uncanny photographs; emotionalist photographs; no-focus photographs; and the latest, photographs made through the influence of Zen. (pg 34)

I think of Meatyard and Clarence John Laughlin and Frederick Sommer as inhabiting many of the same quarters of the photographic landscape, where the ineffable reigns supreme and everything is more (and even spookier) than it seems to be at first glance. And I’m delighted to find that I have been, though unbeknownst, treading in his footsteps with about half of those “methods, series, subjects.”

I’ve been exploring the possibilities afforded by a new lens, an 11mm ultrawide Irix. Three rock photographs from this morning’s visit to Marshall Point:


(glacial scarring on display)


(note the enormous feline presence in the NW quarter)


(glacial scarring and a wonderful splash of intrusive lighter rock)

…and, nearby, a marvelous troll maiden, with seaweed tresses:
irix07 troll maiden

I’ve been reading Blake Stimson’s The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation (MIT Press, 2006), which discusses three photographic Projects: Steichen’s The Family of Man, Frank’s The Americans, and the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Among the rumination-worthy bits I found this passage on aesthetic experience:

…The moment of feeling the pleasure of beauty or the fear of sublimity… [quoting Adorno] “the moment in which recipients forget themselves and disappear into the work; it is the moment of being shaken. The recipients lose their footing [and] the possibility of truth, embodied in the aesthetic image, becomes tangible.” (pp 25, 26)

I have occasionally felt that frisson, recently in coming upon a wall of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s images at Pier 24 in San Francisco, and also with a few of Paul Caponigro’s prints. One simply falls into the images and is vastated, never quite the same afterwards.

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