I could be accused of being stuck on my waterfall project lately, but my excuse is that it seems to connect to various other recent posts and comments. Anyway, it’s the work that I’m closest to at the moment, so it makes sense to write about it while it’s fresh. Fresh enough that the ideas are still churning around without order, which in truth is how I like it. I’m inclined by nature to let things ferment in their untidiness, not attempting to resolve or define, hoping/knowing that that will happen on its own eventually.
So this post is partly a record of the connection between concepts and execution, between thinking about the photographs and making them. In the present case, this is a pretty loose and interactive connection, perhaps similar to David’s “chickens, then eggs, then more chickens…” or Leslie’s “dialogue with the idea going back and forth with the making in a pretty comfortable way.” Karl also has been considering the role of concept in art, and I think his question, “Is art something we make, or discover?” is about the same thing. In other words, do we create from a concept or learn by doing? The answer, of course, is that both go on at once, but how it plays out is always different, even for me alone on this single project.
My personal questions involve the roles of abstraction and representation in my work, and, more recently, whether the notion of the sublime applies to or illuminates what I’m doing. Or as June put it concisely, how to “express the sensation of the sublime through photographs that work as abstract art.” I’ve been drifting towards a formulation that the overwhelmingness and the primality of the sublime fit best with binary oppositions (yin/yang?), like strong dark and light shapes of rock and water in most of my waterfalls so far. That rock and water are elemental in themselves makes it all the easier for them to carry connotations of hard/soft, implacable/yielding, harsh/gentle, perhaps even more abstract ideas like death/life. However, only and always binary is too simplistic and single-minded, and increasingly I include other elements like a plant, the sky, a background forest.
One thing is clear: a number of ideas are going through my head at once while making these waterfall photographs, and by no means can a single one or the series be considered an expression of a simple concept or message. Perhaps I could try to do that if I wished, but I see no point. Despite the multiple ambiguity, it’s equally clear that what I’m thinking influences the way the photographs are made, and it seems fair to say the photographs are, in part anyway, “about” the ideas.
Last week Leslie and June advised me to “mess it up” and “stop composing so carefully,” and I thought they might like to see the resulting literal chaos. I haven’t set the camera on timer and thrown it up in the air, but I have spent much of my time looking at scenes that are random, changing moment to moment, denying the possibility of exact composition (though they still allow some measure of framing). This is not Surrealism’s plumbing of the subconscious through “automatic” creation, because the source of the randomness is not within me, but in the chaotic flow of the stream. On the other hand, by selecting from the resulting photographs, is there not a possibility for the subconscious to find expression? Obviously, the selection is also conscious, but I’m sure there’s more to it than merely conscious decisions on criteria I’m aware of. The factor of selection would, however, disappear if I were to use all of the images captured. Perhaps I’ll get to that in a future post; suffice it to say I’m thinking of a theme: air as palimpsest.
I had been thinking of the images more in terms of kinds of shapes, but comments a few weeks ago led me also to consider the aspect of motion. I was interested in my perception of the movement in the water, and how it compared with what the camera captured. Last week, I cited Arthur Danto’s remark that Clifford Ross’s wave photographs show far more chaotic detail in a wave than can be apprehended in the flux of actual experience, and I noted that this reminded me of waterfalls, though I was thinking then in a general way: I hadn’t really considered how I perceive, as immediately as possible, the waterfall when it’s there before me. Putting it to the test this time, I noticed I was indeed seeing the flying water as streaks, much as represented in the first image above (but not as the soft, smooth shapes left by a longer exposure). This impression was especially strong where droplets were brightest in the sun (or against dark rock), and I could follow a small constellation of streaks as they arced out and down. (In retrospect, I felt a fleeting attachment to those flying, bright points like Jay’s to a distant airplane.) However, in attending to such a constellation, I had only a background sense of the whole, and I have to agree with Danto that part of the pleasure of the photographic image is in the leisurely way in which one can explore the whole, instantaneous form that is ungraspable.
The description just given sounds cool and analytical, but becoming more aware of my perception only enhanced the “visceral” (June’s word) experience of the dynamism and power of the waterfall. I literally felt it in my gut. That was partly a feeling of connection to the phenomenon, so close at hand, and partly the stereotypically sublime tingle of fear, quite appropriate in this case, where a disoriented step could lead to extremely unpleasant consequences.
For completeness I should say that photographs like the two shown so far were not the only ones I took. Below is one that might be closer to a Hudson School sublime, though it tries to locate that feeling in a more intimate landscape, rather than a grand, sweeping one. In that regard it’s intermediate between the wide landscape and the in-your-face details shown so far.
So that’s my progress report. No doubt the new approach, and others not shown, will be modified in future. But I like the latest for its raw energy if nothing else. How about you?