"Her eyes were a shade of gray between onyx and miscalculation." - Harlan Ellison
The panoply of writers that I admire comprise a rather eclectic group, ranging in subject from philosophy through science and nature through psychology and even speculative science fiction to hit a few high points. Mr. Ellison holds a special place in my heart as the writer who possesses a searing ability to not only convey the dark side of human nature, but to dwell in and caress it in a way unique to himself. The above quote is from his short story "On The Downhill Side", published in the collection "Deathbird Stories".
I read this story recently, part of a long overdue revisit to Mr. Ellison's work. As much as I admire the writing and the story itself, the quoted sentence above stands on its own in a way that grabbed me and wouldn't let go.
"between onyx and miscalculation."
On the surface of it, the conjunction of the words has no meaning. Yet, something deep inside is blasted by the phrase. A connection was made and I keep going back to the sentence and re-reading it, trying to identify the reason it hit. I actually highlighted it in my Kindle reader so it would be easier to find.
Here lies the reason that fixed print media, whether word or image, will never go away. Other media cannot be studied, examined, visited and revisited the same way: in quiet, leisurely privacy and contemplation. Yes, you can watch the same bit of video or listen to the same bit of music over and over again, but you are held captive to the pace of the media. At the very least, having to hit rewind and replay to cycle back through moving dynamic media certainly breaks the contemplative reverie.
The printed word and image, whether paper or digital, has that more important, timeless quality of allowing the viewer to set the pace of the meeting. I can slowly roll the words over in my mind at will, caressing them along with the implied, imagined meanings. Photography and other printed arts are the same in that they have the static quality that allows leisurely, focused contemplation. One of the elements which I try to bring into my photographic prints is the ability to not only survive this type of close, thoughtful examination, but to actively encourage it. It is necessary that the viewer be able to project themselves into the image, to make that direct connection to it. This quality, if properly achieved, is a fundamental characteristic of successful art, including photography.
The image below is very simple. There are very few visual elements within it, minimalism being something I really prefer if the subject allows: a bit of dune, the walkway winding away and fading in the fog. That's it. Yet, these simple elements draw the viewer directly into the image. Where is it? Where does it lead? Where am I going...
(click on image to enlarge) Destination Unknown
Imagination is a critical part of this process. We are all metaphorical creatures in the sense that we cannot think or communicate without the use of metaphor, although most of us do so without realizing it. Yet, who of us has not gazed into the eyes of another with whom we have an emotional connection and not been transported?
"Her eyes were a shade of gray between onyx and miscalculation."
It is in the familiarity of the emotion and the vagueness inherent in metaphorical communication that we find our room for personal interpretation. Our individual connection is found somewhere in that opening. The sentence makes no literal sense and yet we connect to the individual components in a way that bridges the irrationality of it. In the end, we do understand its meaning, but at a visceral, emotional level, not a literal one.
Photography can work on this way, but it is much more difficult than with most other visual arts. The photographer must take a bit of reality and distill the scene or image within the camera in such a way that the literal distractions are minimized, allowing the potential for the metaphorical connection to come to the surface. The ability of the viewer to study the image in their own space and time, to contemplate the emotion inherent in the elements of the photographers work, is often a necessary component of the process. This is where the value of the physical print comes into its own. Hung on the wall, the viewer can revisit it at there own pace and leisure.
(click on image to enlarge) Invitation
The nature of photography, based in the reality of physical objects and light, requires the photographer see the metaphorical potential of a subject in real time. When we are in this groove, we are moving through an imaginary reality, examining the material reality for these metaphorical constructs even as we move through them. The image above was taken right from the sidewalk, looking into the unlit restaurant. The carefully prepared table right up against the window sill and the rest of the space in dark shadow, except for the window at the far end of the room. I felt the space as I walked by and connected with it instantly. There was a curious energy and potential in this most mundane of scenes that could be brought out if the camera was used with sensitivity and care for the metaphor that it silently communicated.
Do these images work on this level? Only the viewer can say, as we are all different with varying likes, interests, sensitivities and degrees of ability to communicate in this mode. I've seen people make the connection with these two prints, enough so that several have been sold already, so I know that some do make that metaphorical leap of imagination with them.
Let's close with an architectural image:
(click on image to enlarge) The Shining Light of Reason
The title is a rather broad hint at my intent with this one. Take some time and contemplate it. Does it connect with you? If so, why and how? The static nature of the image allows you to come back and reconsider it or even rekindle the emotion it might ignite within you. This is the gift of photography to the world of the arts.