Photograph as Icon VII: Commentaries

The Photograph as Icon VII  
Commentaries on selected photographs   

Commentaries Introduction
When I look at "my" photographs, it often seems everything has eyes, everything is looking at me.  The Contemplated is the Contemplator (and vice versa) writes Henry Corbin's Sufi mystic Ibn 'Arabi.  As Contemplator, I am no longer looking at the images as their "Creator" for the photographs have truly come spontaneously--of their own volition--through me.  I have served merely as the medium by which the Creator has provided the photographs, as signs or messages--as Icons or symbols--for me, and you, to contemplate.  The images are just as mysterious and surprising for me as they might be for you.  I would also add: pictures that fail at invoking Unknown meanings are of very little interest to me.  

My commentaries below will not then be interpretations, for I don't know any more than you do what they mean in any intellectual way; and, as in the ta'wil that Corbin and Cheetham write about, I believe interpretation--in the most important sense--manifests in a silent dialogue between the archetypal content of the image and the heart of the contemplator.  (The great Sufi poet-saint, Rumi often wrote of the silent conversations he had with his Sufi master.)  A true interpretation of an image would be very personal, an interior experience which would take one beyond language, beyond knowing. 

The Black Space & The Green Suns  
The Four-fold symmetrical images I have presented in the Icon project share some basic formal similarities: all consist of one source image repeated four times, conjoined at a center point; and each repeated image is reflected in itself both horizontally and vertically.  The constructed symmetrical image is suspended in black space, which is horizontal in format; and each has green "half-suns" centered on the top and bottom edges of the black rectangular space.

The black space symbolizes the silence and the infinite space of the intermediate Imaginal World.  The Sufis speak of the Luminous black of fana--nothing; in the Hindu tradition, there is the void, Mahashunya; the black space may symbolize these things as well.  The horizontality of the black space relates to the issue of orientation which I will say more about in a moment.

The green "suns" represent the theophanic light of grace, the divine illumination which makes it possible for the eyes to see, and the heart to imagine.  The color green symbolizes, in the tradition of Sufism, the goal, the completion of the traveler's spiritual journey. click here  

The two half-suns, above and below, project its interior light, the light of divine grace, into the image, which is centered and suspended in the black space.  This mystical light assures the image of its status as an Icon.  

I imagine each of the half-suns longing for conjunction with each other.  They arch back-- behind the picture plane--toward each other until they finally become united.  Their union manifests an intensity of light that would be unbearable to uninitiated eyes.  This suprasensory light of unity is that which illuminates the heart; it's a light that only the "Eyes of the heart" can see, a light that makes it possible for the Eyes of the heart to see   

Henry Corbin devotes much of his book The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism to this interior, suprasensory light and it's relationship to the Sufi traveler's quest for the return to his Origin.  Corbin also writes a great deal on the theme of Orientation--for light plays a major role in the traveler's journey as a guide.  Corbin focuses especially on vertical orientation, for the Orient is "in the North."  We will now look more deeply into what Corbin has to say about orientation, the "world of light" and the "guide of light."

The Sufi Quest is the quest for the "heavenly pole at the extreme north" . . . so far off  [writes Corbin] it is the threshold of the dimension 'beyond'.   The Orient sought by the mystic, the Orient that cannot be located on our maps, is in the direction of the north, beyond the north. . . .   'Traveling the straight path' means straying neither east nor to the west; it means climbing the peak . . . ; it is the ascent out of cartographical dimensions, the discovery of the inner world which secretes its own light, which is the world of light; it is an innerness of light as opposed to the spatiality of the outer world which, by contrast, will appear as Darkness.

Also, in his book Man of Light Corbin writes about the secret of the invisible Guide, the heavenly partner, a bi-unity who is the Sufi's "guide of light" on the quest.  The guide points in one direction: to the "light of the North" as the threshold of the beyond, and to dwellings in the high North country which secrete their own light and which act as a magnet which draws the spiritual travelers to their goal.  Corbin explains that as the traveler approaches his goal there can be outbursts of green light signaling that the journey is nearly complete.  

Corbin also provides other examples of the form a traveler's journey can take; for example, the traveler can find himself captive in a deep well, and thus the journey is an ascent vertically to the top of the well where there is an Emerald Rock, which Corbin says is the cosmic North.  The traveler is compelled to move upward toward the top of the well by his longing for the green light emitted by the rock, and as he approaches the summit of his difficult journey, a midnight sun may burst into flame, signaling the traveler that his journey has neared completion.

Also, Corbin references a book by the 13th century Sufi, Najm Kobra about the Quest.  Kobra writes: Learn O my subject that the object of the search is God and that the subject who seeks is a [particle of] light that comes from Him. "In other words" writes Corbin, "the 'seeker' or hero of the quest, is none other than the captive light itself, the man of light. . .  This particle of light aspires to free itself, to rise again to its origin."  

It is light seeking Light, in a vertical ascent, in a return to one's Origin, along the heavenly "pole of the North" which leads to a threshold which opens onto an invisible, luminous, mysterious beyond.  And such is the nature, the function, of the Icon.  

Just as the orientation of the North is an archetypal motif in Sufi travel, we must not forget the Point of Origin, the Center of One's Being, for every Icon photograph I will be writing about below has its center, its point of origin:

The Point at the Center of the Icon Photograph
visible or invisible should serve as a seal of the divinity   
  in this or any created world; it should serve     
 as a constant reminder from which  
everything proceeds; it 
should serve as a 
reminder of  
one's own 


Commentary: 1   This photograph is one of my favorites within the Icon project.  Its interior sense of light, its roundness of being, its vibrational energy which emanates out from and in towards its center point is very magical and alive for me.  ~  The gridlines in the garage windows echo the large cruciform of geometrically patterned leaves that divide the image into four equal parts through its center.  ~   I see the side windows of a car in the middle of the image; the car and its window reflections help create an egg-like form that lurks mysteriously behind the center of the cruciform made of leaves.  ~   The garage door in the far background is made of translucent fiberglass.  The door is luminous--the source of light that I see reflected in the car windows.  ~   The entire garage interior is glowing with a warm light, and I imagine the light bleeding through from the inside into the blue-green leaves outside which have grown over the facade of the garage and which have begun to encroach upon the windows.  ~   The image "moves" gracefully with a unified circular, swirling and vibrational energy.  I feel an inward calm as I allow myself to receive its inward light and follow the movements around, up, down and across.  In this regard, the photograph has for me the character of a mandala.  ~  I want to say more, but it is enough just to become absorbed in the image.


Commentary: 2   The source image for this symmetrical photograph was a picture of the reflections of light in the stainless steel door of a refrigerator.  If I got close enough to the door's mirroring metal surface I could almost make out certain features of my face.   ~   Corbin writes extensively of the Angel of our Face ("the eternal face" -  "the "Face" that our God takes for us"), our Celestial Twin and the Guide of Light, all of which are the archetypal heavenly counterparts of our earth-bound bodily self.  It is our duty, says Corbin, to come face-to-face with the Angel of our Being and unite with that divine part of ourselves.  When we finally accomplish the task we will return to our Origin.  ~   This images has something to do looking deeply into myself.

The symmetry in my Icon photographs have a mysterious impact on me; I suspect it has to do with an archetypal issue regarding the image as mirror.  There is often a "roundness" to the symmetrical images, at least a circular presence which often reminds me of mandalas I have seen.  This image, however, is an exception; the symmetry manifests rather like a face, a mirror image of myself.  There are two eyes, left and right; a mustache (of shadow), a mouth (of yellow light with red corners); and there's a slight, ambiguous smile in the mouth.  The energy of the image "moves" horizontally, but--very importantly--there is a luminous vertical line, a bluish-white flash of light that runs north and south through the center of the image and which aligns with the green suns above and below.  

We all wear masks; the ego wants to protect itself by obstructing that which we truly are: Beings of Light, says Corbin, a reflection of the Creator in the mirror of His creation.      

[It seems right to me--and at the same time embarrassingly wrong--to speak of God, the Creator, as He or His.  It is an old fashioned convention which runs through all the Sufi  literature I read.  There is nothing that God is not; He is beyond dualities.  (We are a bi-unity.)  This world of mirroring surfaces is God's playground by which, say the mystics, we are permitted to discover (un-cover, unveil) the truth of who He is--who We are.]


Commentary: 3   The first thing I need to say about this symmetrical photograph is that I am back-and-forth about its worthiness: does it really function as an Icon for me?  Perhaps it's just a very graphic, seductive cliche.   ~   I question the image, I suspect, because of its deeply saturated blue and orange colors.  The browns and silvery grays are beautiful; I like the circular forms on the butterfly wings--they are eyes which are looking at me.  ~   I've tried changing the color saturation; but image doesn't work at all for me that way; I like it best just as it is.   ~   Corbin talks frequently about suprasensory vision in relation to the Imaginal World.  It's a kind of seeing or imagining that takes place outside of ordinary sensory perception.  ~  Interiorization, says Corbin, requires the exodus from this world;  seeing--and this applies both to picture-making and the contemplation of images--must be profoundly intuitive, from the inside, from within the heart, with the Eyes of the heart.   ~   One might expect this kind of intensity of color to satisfy an otherworldly kind of vision.  If I've fallen prey to a mere seductive visual convention I will let you know when I know it for certain.  The picture stays until I know.   ~   I like the top and bottom edges, the way the butterfly wings arch and gives the black space (the "negative space") a roundness of form--though with a sharp, sawtoothed edge.   ~   I forced myself to include this image here and write a commentary about it.  I had completed the project page then decided to add this image.   ~   It is good for me to make myself vulnerable before an image that is both attractive and challenging.  Confusion can be a way for me to open to an image, listen carefully with full attention, allow it to speak to me.   ~   Putting this image here in public space and writing about it forces me to go deeper in my contemplation . . . not only deeper into the image, but also deeper into myself.  To go deeper can mean to open and to allow more.  The contemplated is the contemplator; the contemplator is the contemplated.   ~   No matter how long it takes, it's important:  I have to stay open to this image; I must allow myself to receive its message.


Commentary: 4   I hope you have seen my Angels project.  click here  I continue to be haunted by the experiences I had, the research I did, the photographs I made while working on that project.  In a way, the project did put a "face" on something I have often felt while photographing.   ~   This photograph, all soft tones of green, does indeed have a face, and it has wings--wings of light.  This extraordinary "thing" is suspended in front of a rather ordinary looking space--a mowed lawn.  It has the form of a butterfly, though it is translucent and mysterious and larger in scale than would would ever expect, though its size is essentially unknowable.  ~   This image could have fit in nicely with some of the other photographs I have made for the Angels project.  I like the airiness of the form, its shimmering body made of glints of light . . . which nonetheless casts shadows that fall just below the Northern and just above the Southern green suns.  ~   Despite the failure of language to say what it is we are seeing here (an apparition?), it does have an Angelic presence . . . and I have learned: that is enough for me. 


Commentary: 5   As much as I'd rather not . . . I still feel a little silly about my knee-jerk idea of angels.  I understand the profundity of the "angels" Corbin, Cheetham and the great poet Rilke write of, but I have a neurological groove in my head that insists that angels be all white, slightly transparent, glowing, with wings . . . and worst of all, playing a harp.  I have two angels which hang near the top of our Christmas tree every year that fit exactly this description of angels.  ~   Sound is the source of our apparent world, according to many great traditions: first the (Unstruck Sound) emerges out of the void, and from the primal sound comes the letters, syllables, words . . . and then the world of things (including individual persons) each with it's own image, its own meaning and divine name.  Everything is an image.

The above photograph is of course yet another "angel" picture: I see glowing wings of light, harp like curve forms, red and green neon-like strings vibrating with the "sounds of color."   ~   I love this image: its simplicity, its directness, its gentleness.  I actually may have some insight to this image, but it is too intuitive, to personal to write about.  I think most of us respond to images in this way.  We feel into the image, but for lack of the words that do our experience justice, we make up things to say that sound intelligent.  The real challenge is to become aware of the deeper non-verbal response to the image we have, that subtle understanding that emerges beyond the obvious associations which are based in the limitations of language, intellect, ego and past experiences.  The first associations have their importance; but there is always more just below the surface of any thing, any image


Commentary: 6   I am fascinated by this image despite its surface flatness.  The source image is a greenhouse window coated on the inside with a coarsely brushed white paint, plus there was snow and frost on the outside of the window.  And there are "tears" running down the inside surface of the glass.  ~  I see a Buddha-like face, and the tears are coming out of the image.  There is a deeper expression of feeling here than I may have at first noticed was present.   ~    An intense winter storm was going on outside when I took the source photograph.  Blue is the color of winter for me: cold air, ice, frost, snow--all must be blue.  ~  But what about the darker vertical and horizontal forms extending out from the center?  They orient the image of course; and the shapes remind me of fan blades or propeller blades, perhaps some oriental decorative shapes.   ~   After getting use to the flatness of the image, a deeper space announces itself.  Inside Buddha's face, behind the tears, I see a smaller figure in what could be the "background" space of the image, a "space" that looks and feels more like memory or imagination.   ~   The round forms circulate throughout the image like the way blood flows out from--and then returns into--the heart.  I read something recently about the symmetrical design of the human heart.  Like my symmetrical photographs, the heart is divided into four chambers, upper and lower atria, upper and lower ventricles.   ~   The movement here is illusion:  everything I photographed was motionless, still, silent on the inside. . . except perhaps for the tears, which may have been slowly falling downwards.   ~  Outside, the wind was blowing snow all around, gusting, swirling . . .


Commentary: 7   The blue dot in the center of this odd image is the "bindu" or Blue Pearl, the point, the source of everything--the image, everything in the universe, everything beyond the universe.  ~  When I was a college student it seemed most people did not respect Minor White's photographs.  The usual critical comment about his work was that he "illustrated his philosophy."  That could definitely become a danger, a trap: instead of seeing real Presence one could begin projecting their beliefs or intellectual-philosophical contents onto the world's mirroring surfaces.  The only test for this possible danger is the intuitive feeling one has of authentic meaning, mystery, numinosity, presence, grace, himma, when contemplating an image.  Its a feeling that opens the heart, a feeling which nothing in the intellect can satisfy.  ~  This picture needed the blue dot.  It activates the central black space, makes it deeper, more palpable than I dare imagine.  It's presence is for me more mystery than illustration even though "I" put it there.  It was an intuitive impulse, an action based in a feeling of inner necessity; I didn't feel like the doer.  ~   To be frank, I don't know what this picture is about, what it means; I know it functions as a symbol for me, it opens the door to the unknown, the invisible worlds beyond.  It functions for me as an Icon.  ~   I took the source image in the boys bathroom in an old school building where my wife and I go on winter Sundays to by organic produce.  There were wooden frames extended over the bathroom stalls.  A frosted window is the white space in the background.  (Does it help any to know this?)   ~   Like so many of the other pictures,  I like the stark simplicity and directness of the image, though it's rather bold perspective bothers me a little.  (I really dislike noticeable optical effects in photographs).  But importantly the pictorial space here is not predictable: it twists or turns or changes shape in some strange, surprising ways.  Finally, however, it is the depth of the black space in the center of the image that captivates me, pulls me into its vast unknown universe illuminated within by the blue bindu.  


Commentary: 8   I took the source photograph for this symmetrical image while on a guided tour of canals in Midwestern New York State where I live.  I broke away from the tour for a while so I could go down from the path to look under the bridge we were crossing.  ~   I am totally amazed sometimes how the process of making symmetrical photographs transform things.  I never really know how they will look until I've nearly completed the process.  I may have a hunch, but that's all. ~  Making the image is something of a ritual.  Watching the image unfold into its final form is a transforming process . . . for me, as much as it is for the image.  This particular image was especially surprising for me.  I had no idea it would turn out like it did.  ~  Speaking of ritual, it seems to me there is a feeling of "ritual" in this image.  The dark central pillar stands "out" in its own virtual space; the bridge wall in the background moves diagonally inward and converges at the center point directly behind the pillar.   ~   Above and below the pillar there are some pretty scary eyes looking out at me, and above the eyes there are some curious dark things (hair?).  And what are those light colored rectangles that fan out from the center?  They were concrete slabs before the symmetrical transformation occurred, but they have become something else . . . perhaps blades being spun by an otherworld monster.   ~   The image is watery green all over; there are reflections and odd spaces and transparent surfaces everywhere I look.  Nothing seems solid--or real, not even the stone wall.  ~  The image is a bit like looking down into a world below the surface of a river or lake.  Whatever I see is distorted.  Perhaps I'm under water.  ~  Corbin writes about a Manichen legend in which after death the soul must face its angel, its heavenly counterpart, its Celestial Twin on the bridge to the other world, beyond.  The angel is a beautiful woman who says "I am thyself."  ~  Corbin and  his mystics say we are always contemplating our Self, our Creator in a form suitable for our present capacities when we come face to face with an angel, or an image that functions for us as a symbol, or an Icon.


Commentary: 9   This rather intimidating image, a dark mask with eyes of flashing light, is yet another Face of the Angel, my Celestial Twin.  It may be a closer face-to-face encounter than I will have to face on the bridge of death; at least I hope so.  ~   Here, I find myself perhaps at the bottom of a dark forgotten well; but at least there is light--white light, and green light.  ~   The source image for this constructed photograph was made in Arcadia National Park of a tide pool reflecting the noontime sun, and there some stones under the pool.  ~  I was fascinated with the tide pools on the Schoodic Penninsula.  The stones, partly hidden under the water seemed an auspicious presence to me; they seemed to contain some secret knowledge inside.  ~   The sky reflected in the little pools provided unexpected light and space in a place that was otherwise very flat, hard, and dark.  ~   Yes, the eyes are alive with light, however there is a darker set of eyes deeper, under the water's surface, as if shadows of the flaring ones above, which  I prefer--though, upon closer scrutiny, they seem perhaps a little sad.   Or . . . is this mask merely covering an inside joke?  ~   The green suns above and below provide some reassuring orientation.  They are like friends that serve to remind me of something more important than my frightened response to darkness and light.  Actually, I am fortunate to have this angel as a companion, this being of what I interpret to be compassion, but it may take some time to understand why.  


Commentary: 10   Contemplating an image that functions for me as a symbol, or an Icon, is very much like a meditation.  Also, when I am photographing, the state of attention and open minded receptiveness I often spontaneously attain is very much like a meditative state.  As I have learned to more easefully give myself over to the creative process, or the image I am contemplating, there is at times something like an identification or a merging I experience with what I am seeing. ~  In such a state of what feels like great potentiality, grace or himma can rain down on any artist or contemplator of an image, releasing an energy within one's being that causes the heart to open.  And when the heart opens, the "windows onto invisible worlds" open as well.  It's as if an obstacle has been washed away; an unveiling occurs in which the Eyes of the Heart are given special access to some unknown truth that can only be understood experientially, silently.  

I have chosen for my last commentary a photograph that symbolizes for me a certain kind of inner, meditative experiences I have had.  The source image for the Four-fold construction was a photograph I took of snowflakes that had collected on a window that looks out over a meadow behind our backyard.  There is a pond in the meadow, and beyond that a woods . . . But this image is not about the outer world--which, in this photograph, has been reduced to a rather abstract, graphic design which pulsates with its own internal heartbeat.    

The snow in this photograph appears to be falling through space, either to--or from--the center point of the photograph.  ~  I have often looked up into a silvery grey sky during snowfalls when there is a deep stillness that seems to pervade the entire world: no wind, no movement, just the soft falling flakes . . . which appeared, magically, as if from nowhere.  I remember how the snowflakes made my nose itch.  I would catch the flakes in my opened mouth.  Even now I can feel the flakes of of snow melting in my mouth.

As I've watched snowflakes fall gently toward me from above, I have sometimes entered into a rather hypnotic state of mind in which time seems to stop; thoughts disappear; there is just this suspended, eternal moment of silence.  The photograph above is for me evocative of that kind of meditative experience.

When I sit for meditation I begin by repeating a mantra that has been made chaitanya, alive, with the grace of the lineage of Siddha Yoga Masters.  Sometimes during meditation I experience a "release" in which slowly pulsating waves of inner light begin to gently arch over me.  And then the waves softly burst "open" and rays or particles of light fall easefully over my entire being.  I feel enveloped and protected by this interior light; my mind becomes very quiet, very still; and I simply sit . . . in a full awareness of this state of grace.   


I will conclude this chapter with a brief selection of excerpts from a talk by Gurumayi Chidvilasanana--the same talk I had quoted from more extensively in the fourth part of my Icon project.  Her words are offered as a kind of blessing for this chapter of commentaries and the project as a whole.  

With great gratitude and respect, here are Gurumayi's words:  

Through the repetition of the mantra, you energize the sound, making it more profound. . .  The yogic scriptures say, as you repeat the mantra, you and the mantra and the process of repetition must become one and the same. . .  When there is this union, then the sound within is energized.

There is this sound inside.  It is called the unstruck sound. . .  As you [repeat the mantra] part of your being opens up, the part where this sound is hidden.  Even though this sound is inside, it gives life to everything in your being.  As you [repeat the mantra] . . . 
 you tap the unstruck sound . . . then nectar is released. . . .  Then the true music is heard.  Then you have seen the Truth, you have heard the Truth, you have experienced the Truth . . .   from part IV


This part VII of my project regarding the Icon was first posted 
ithe"Latest Addition" section of my Website's 
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