Category Archives: onomastics

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.

Onomastical exegesis

Some of the profounder truths/more ineffable mysteries lurk in how things are named. Why ‘toothless’ for this image, asks Bryan:

toothless 2xadj

Part of the explanation has to do with the momentary flash of inspiration to which I’ve learned to attend as I’m processing images, and which I am happy to identify as macchia (“the total compositional and coloristic effect of an image in the split second before the eye begins to parse it for meaning,” more fully adumbrated in a posting from four years agone, and thanks to Teju Cole for the word). “Toothless” was the macchia that breezed through my mind on first glance at the original image (the right-hand side of the composite mirror image above):

I see, or fancy I see, or saw and then couldn’t un-see an empty eye socket in upper center, and a jagged toothless black mouth on the left side about 2/3 of the way from the top… but as always YMMV. The symmetrical expansion of the original image reveals a very different face: the toothless mouth unfolds into a pair of black eyeholes, surmounted by a crown of vertical elements (feathers?), and susmounted by what seems to be a filigreed snout (which, John points out, isn’t showing any teeth, so still technically toothless).

John also suggested that the image might be flipped:

toothless 2x flipped
An altogether more vulpine visage emerges, not toothless at all, and the former feathery crown transmuted into a rather elegant broad-shouldered cloak.

It’s an essential component of the Homo narrans toolkit that things be given names to celebrate their essence, and perhaps to summon them (or protect against them) at need. But we must always heed Max Nigh’s Dictum: Just because we’ve named it doesn’t mean we know anything about it.