Snow : Photographs from the Silver World (pt.2) Introductory texts

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Photographs from the 
Silver World Part II  Introduction   

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The Silver World

The four-fold symmetrical snow photograph above--the image which concludes the first set of photographs for The Silver World project--bears some resemblance perhaps to a Buddhist mandala, or a Zen Enso painting.  Of course the circle (enso) can mean or symbolize many things, including the fullness, completeness and totality of being, the unity of consciousness, emptinessNothingness and NonbeingThe Silver World is many things for me, but most importantly it's an interior reality that has manifested here in the form of images of snow which I will be presenting in several groupings throughout this project.  The Silver World project is the crystallization of multiple sources of inspiration that have for some unknown reason "fallen together" at just the "necessary, proper time."  In this Introduction I will outline some of the meaningful coincidences, or synchronicities which have joined together to initiate the project.


Title Name
I have for as long as I can remember been fascinated and inspired by Zen painting and calligraphy, and early Chinese Taoist landscape paintings.  When I lived in Chicago, and later when I lived in Milwaukee--just a two hour drive from Chicago--I would frequently visit the Art Institute of Chicago.  After a long noisy ride on the Chicago elevated train, or the drive by car first in frighteningly high speed, competitive traffic and then frustratingly slow moving congestion, my first stop in the Museum would always be the Asian Art Galleries which are very close to the Michigan Avenue entrance.  

Going into those galleries was like entering another world.  A sense of peace and stillness pervaded each of the intimate, quiet exhibition spaces.  The misty landscapes, the simple spontaneous brush paintings, and the elegant prints on display always calmed and soothed my soul.  I especially loved going into the gallery behind the heavy glass door.  It was dark and quiet inside, like a meditation cave.  Paintings and ceramic pieces were carefully lit such that the objects seemed to emerge out of the soft welcoming darkness.  Contemplative Asian music would be playing in the background adding to the already charged and yet quiet atmosphere of this interior space. 

During one winter's visit to these galleries, probably in the early 1980's, I came upon a glass case filled with a carefully selected group of winter scenes by different Chinese and Japanese artists.  I think they were mostly prints from the permanent collection.  I remember being very touched by this little thematic body of work, and I can still remember several of the images I saw back then.  One image that impressed me was a Japanese wood block print with large white circular "snow flakes" falling from the sky into a white, snow covered Japanese landscape.  And I was particularly impressed by the title of an album from which another print on display had been taken. Though I was not so impressed by the image, the title of the album, The Silver World, awakened something deep inside me and has continued to haunt me to this very day.

I had been making black and white silver gelatin photographic prints back in those days.  The words "Silver World" inspired a promise I made to myself: that one day I would make a series of snow photographs entitled The Silver World.  At last, thirty year later, I have finally fulfilled that promise to myself . . . and it happened all so naturally, so spontaneously.  


Unrelenting Snowfalls 
In late January and early February of 2015, while I was preparing the Epilogue to my project entitled The Photograph as Icon, we in Western New York State, where I live, began having unusually intense winter weather: heavy and frequent snowfalls, strong winds, extremely cold temperatures--often hovering around zero degrees, even when the sun was out!  

One morning, in mid-January, just as the winter weather was beginning to come into our area with full force, my wife Gloria insisted that I go outside to see how ice crystals had formed on the trees and bushes and plants.  It had become foggy during the early morning hours then a cold front blew in and crystalized the moisture beads clinging to the surfaces of things.  It was sunny but extremely cold outside so I quickly made some photographs then rushed back inside.  This happened a second time, a week or so later, and several good images came out of these two brief shooting sessions, images which motivated me to make additional winter photographs as the snows continued to come.  

I included four of the first snow photographs in the Epilogue for the Icon project.  However it now occurs to me that these images really are part of the Silver World project.  Though I am presenting them here, below, as they appeared in Icon project with their green suns and black borders, I will be revising the image presentation in a manner consistent with all the other later Silver World photographs.  You may click on the images to enlarge them. 

As the snowfalls continued to come unrelentingly, I would go out of the house to make additional photographs when the light seemed promising.  It was usually so cold and windy, and the snow was so deep, I could not bear to be out photographing for more than a few minutes at a time.  But those brief little bursts of spontaneous photographic picture making gradually produced a wealth of material that I could digitally process into the four-fold symmetrical photographs that you will see included in the Silver World project. 

I also made snow photographs from inside our house, through the "picture window" in our living room which looks out over our back yard.  A huge wave of snow gradually formed just below the window; I was fascinated by it as I watched it grow to be over six feet high.  The wave was like a frozen tsunami formed by the fresh snows and strong winds which gusted at times up to 40-50 miles per hour from the South to the North across our back yard.  I photographed the wave frequently, usually in the late afternoon when the light was most dramatic and revealing.

In mid March, 2015 warmer temperatures finally began to melt the snowpack.  I have watched the wave gradually diminish in size and character; soon it will melt into nothing but a memory as the spring grasses begin to grow.  Just as the seasons change, the snow forms and the quality of their surfaces have constantly undergone fascinating transformations throughout the winter.  I have tried to select and sequence the Silver World photographs to show the rich variety of forms and textures and light that have revealed themselves throughout this particularly intense winter season.  


Falling rain into snow
In my Commentary #10 for the Icon project I wrote about an image of snow flakes that had collected on a window screen that faces out toward our back yard and the meadow beyond.  The image sparked several wonderful memories of myself watching snowflakes falling from the sky.  There was one especially magical moment I experienced--when I was around six years old--that I want to share with you here.  

It was late in the afternoon at the end of fall.  All the leaves were on the ground; it was raining gently in that twilight time of day when the sky was luminous grey and rapidly darkening.  I was standing at my neighbor friend's back door, waiting for someone to come let me inside.  As I was watching the rain fall . . . all of a sudden the rain turned into large, floating snowflakes!  It was truly a mysterious, transformative moment for me: time seemed to come to a standstill; the space surrounding had become alive in a strange new way; I was immersed in an otherworldly kind of light.

The first snowfall of the year!  I looked up toward the sky to watch the large flakes float down toward me: they seemed to be appearing . . . as if from nowhere.  I started catching the snowflakes.  As I looked closely at the large, perfect, geometrical crystals I saw them change into little beads of water in my hand and on my coat sleeve.  I had become suspended in a state of concentrated wonder by the time my friend opened the door.


Memories from Childhood The Negative Print Series
I have many wonderful memories of playing in the snow: building snowmen, snow tunnels, igloos; throwing snowballs, sledding down hills zigzagging between the dark tree trunks.  I have always loved the snow, its white purity, its silence, its light which transforms the world.  

In the years 1978-80 I worked on a series of negative print photographs that in the beginning was entitled Memories from Childhood.  I later named the project The Negative Print Series but the childhood memories was always part of the work and was included in any discussions I had about the work at exhibitions.  

The images were print renderings of positive black and white transparencies I had made for the project.  In the negative prints subjects would be rendered in their opposite tonalities: shadow areas would become white shapes; light tones in the scene I had photographed would be rendered as dark grays and black tones in the negative print.  

The negative print images are dominantly white, with very silvery gray tones and a few punctuating black lines or shapes.  See the example below.  I had been inspired to do this series after seeing some old fading snapshots I had found in a box hidden away in my mother's closet.  I had become fascinated  with the pictures of intimate spaces I knew from my childhood days: images of white sheets hanging out to dry on the cloths line; our white garage out by the alley next to trees, telephone poles and wires; snow scenes of dramatic winters past . . .

I wanted my negative print photographs to have the feeling of everything transforming into light . . . that magic I associated with snow, the way it makes everything seem simpler, silent and luminous.   I suspended the square negative image inside the 16x20 piece of silver gelatin photographic paper such that the whites in the image and the whites of the print's borders merged into each other.  The paper support that surrounded the image became an integral part of the image.  I associated these images with my love of Taoist landscape paintings, so spacious and luminous and mysterious.   

     Negative Print Series, 1978-80


When I begin preparing for a new photography project, even when I begin wondering what it might be about, I often experience synchronistic events that seem to be pointing me in the direction my creative process needs to go.  These meaningful coincidences, these fallings together of unlikely, acausal events in time and space, often feel like news from the universe, mysterious promptings from an unkknown source greater than myself.  

For example, when I was working on the Epilogue to the Icon project, my wife Gloria insisted that I go outside and see the ice crystals that had formed on the bushes and plants.  Those images I made that day led me to this entire series of snow photographs named after a promise I had made to myself thirty years ago.  

Another example: as I was working on the text for the Icon project Epilogue, copying the words from Baba Muktanana's commentary on the first Shiva Sutra, I was struck by the poetic way he used the word "nothing" in relationship to the Consciousness of the Self

Siva Sutra 1:1

caitanya atma
Consciousness is the Self


He who dwells in all places, things, and times as one with all . . . illuminating everything, is called caitanya, Consciousness.  He is the Self.

Though He is nothing, He becomes everything necessary at the proper time.  

Though the very essence of formlessness, He lives on the far shore of formlessness. 

Like sparks arising spontaneously and infinitely from a blazing fire, infinite universes rise and set of their own accord out of Him, yet remain one with Him.  

To create forms or to have created forms . . .  for Him these are all natural and spontaneous activities, not artificial.  He becomes nothing even while creating.  It is His nature.  He alone is caitanya atman, the conscious Self.  


These words, and particularly the word nothing, came to life for me.  I became completely fixated on the concept of consciousness as being nothing.  I remembered the long standing personal connection I have had with the philosophical teachings and art associated with Taoism and Zen: those early Chinese mist-filled-spacious landscape paintings; those simple, spontaneous calligraphic paintings performed by Zen Masters.  These were the images I longed to see over and over again when I visited the Art Institute of Chicago.  

Nothing.  I pulled out all the books in my personal library on Chinese painting, on Taoism, on the art of Zen.  I  began re-reading and studying them, looking for references to Nothing.  I even found a funny little book on my shelves I had forgotten about entitled You Don't Have to Be Buddhist to Know Nothing (edited by Joan Konner).  I ordered new books that looked relevant and interesting from Amazon.com.

One of my favorite books is entitled Enso : Zen Circles of Enlightenment by Audry Yoshiko Seo.  As I was revisiting this book it occurred to me that the four-fold snow symmetrical photographs I had been making--and indeed, all of the symmetrical photographs I had produced over the past several years--were in some very obvious ways related to Enso paintings.  

Ms. Seo writes interesting commentaries on he 56 enso paintings she has reproduced in her book.  The image below, #8 in the book, is by the painter Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693), entitled Sakyamuni and Maitreya.  Both the image and Ms. Seo's commentary resonate for me in regards to my four-fold symmetrical photographs of snow and to Baba Muktananda's commentary of the first Siva Sutra.  Here is the image and Ms. Seo's commentary:

While almost all enso are created with a single stroke of the brush, the Zen master Bankei was known for his two-stroke circles . . .  The shape is still round and complete, suggesting unity, but now instead of a single stroke circling around to form the whole, two sweeps of the brush must come together from different directions and meet at two points in order to create the sense of completion and absoluteness.  The idea of two aspects coming together to serve another is echoed in the inscription "Sakyamuni and Maitreya Are Servants."

Bankei's inscription mentions two of the most important and revered figures in Buddhism: Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and Maitreya, the Buddha of the future.  But here they are given a Zen twist and referred to as mere servants of another.  The inscription refers to case 45 in the Gateless Barrier in which the Zen master Hoen of Tozan states, "Sakyamuni and Maitreya are servants.  But whom do they serve?"  In his comments on the koan, Shibayama Zenkei wrote, "You know your own thing best yourself.  Nothing can be more certain.  If you see, what you see is yourself; if you hear, what you hear is yourself; if you think, what you think is about yourself."


Sacred Art 
Zen and Taoist art is unquestionably Sacred Art.   The art and the philosophies associated with the art are the primary inspirations for this project, it seems to me.  I had not  intentionally set out, yet again, to explore the sacred in art in relation to my creative process in photography, but here it is, happening again.  I thought I may have come to the end of this exploration with the Icon project, the third in a triad of projects on sacred art that includes The Angels (2014), and "An Imaginary Book"  (2011) .  But clearly, my creative process goes where it needs to go, and I have leaned to trust the process, pay attention to it and serve it as best I can, especially by trying to stay out of its way so my process can do what is "necessary at the proper time." 

Sacred Music
As you may already know, music has been a powerful influence on my creative process.  I have written about this on the Welcome Page of my website.  Many past photography projects have been inspired by music I have loved and which has been for me a vital manifestation of the Sacred.  

When I first started this photography website/blog (TheDepartingLandscape.blogspot.com) back in 2010, I noticed that I lost touch with the kind of enthusiasm for music that had earlier propelled me from one photography project to the next.  I had begun doing a lot of writing for the blog then, and I found it difficult to listen to music and write at the same time, so my focus became dedicated to constructing the blog rather than exploring new music.  

Interestingly, meaning synchronistically, this winter when I started making the snow photographs I received an email from Amazon.com announcing a recording, by one of my favorite living composers, Valentin Silvestrov, that I had not yet purchased.  It is entitled Sacred Songs, the most recent album by Silvestrov which consists of new choral compositions.  The album is essentially the second part of an earlier choral album by Silvestrov which I had purchased a few years ago entitled Sacred Works.  I hadn't really listened closely this earlier album because I had become preoccupied with working on my blog.  

Also, interestingly, just as I was beginning to construct my blog I was invited by a neighbor to sing in the Chorale at our local community college.  Though I had never sung before, my neighbor encouraged me to give it a try: no audition was required; if I was interested I would learn by singing with others.  The Chorale was going to do John Rutter's Requiem that semester, and since I loved that piece I decided to give the Chorale a try. 

Singing in the Chorale made it possible for me to get literally inside the music I loved so  much.  I hadn't really stepped away from music; in fact I had taken my relationship to music to another level of creative engagement. I had simply separated music from my photographic practice.    

Again, interestingly, singing in the Chorale has prepared me for really hearing Silvestrov's sacred choral music--which I had pretty much ignored when I first purchased the Sacred Works CD years ago.  This winter, after getting the email from Amazon about the second Silvestrov recording of choral music, Sacred Songs, I immediately purchased the album and then started listening to both of them constantly.  

The two recordings of Silvestrov's choral works are hauntingly beautiful and mysterious, and for the most part very quiet and calming; it's the kind of music I can easily listen to and imbibe even when I am reading or writing for my blog.  Its like becoming immersed in an atmosphere sacred sound, just having it playing in the background.  I have been listening to this wonderful music throughout most of the time I have been digitally processing my snow pictures and writing for the Silver World project; I am certain that the music's radiance has become infused with the radiance of the Silver World snow photographs.

The Mystical Reverberation of Bells
There is a very impressive essay about Silvestrov's choral music in the booklet that accompanies the Sacred Works album.  Interestingly, the writer relates Silvestrov's music to the Icon painting of the early Eastern European Church.  I had made a similar references in my Introductory text for my Photograph as Icon project--the project I was in the process of completing when Amazon.com sent me the email about Silvestrov's second choral album, Sacred Songs.    

The following excerpts are taken from the essay by Han-Klaus Jungheinrich: 

This music is rooted in silence and the sublimity of the intelligible cosmos. . .  The human being and his artistic intentions [or expressions] . . .  are left by the wayside [in this music] and elevated to a vision of the supra-individual and the supra-sensual.  This is music borne of and conjoined with mystical experience.  To us adherents of western culture, it seems to be a legacy of the Orient.  Yet it is not only the Far East and especially India that convey values of this sort, but also the religious sensibilities of Eastern Europe, pervaded by Byzantine Christianity.  Icon painting, to choose an example, clings to a pictorial reality long abandoned in western Europe after Giotto--the golden ground from which the depicted figures stand out as if set against an imaginary landscape, a mental space of pure beauty and divinity inaccessible to the painter's palette and merely symbolized by gold.  In Silvestrov's choral music, the golden ground can be described in the devout 'aura' of the voices.  They function as a sort of halo above individualized musical figures, seemingly transfixing the perceived sound in reverberation and restoring it imperceptibly to the silence from which it emerged. 

Silvestrov connects a search for beauty [strictly taboo throughout the whole of modernest art] with a dimension equally off-limits to modernists: the sacred.  

In Silvestrov's a cappella music, its defining feature is a tranquillity and spaciousness . . .  These qualities magically transform the chant, with its written-out overtones, into the mystical peal of bells - those cosmic sounds and reverberations that blur into the inchoate, causing human longing to merge with the grace of the observed, animate universe.  translation: J Bradford Robinson  -  ECM New Series 2117  4763316  Sacred Works


The Unstruck Sound 
I agree with Han-Klaus Jungheinrich's comment about the "mystical peal of bells."  It is unquestionably a real and constant presence which can be felt and heard radiantly emerging out of Silvestrov's sacred choral music.  This invocation of the sound of bells initiated through the music of Silvestrov has awakened in me a remembrance of things that have a fascinating relationship to this project and its title: The Silver World.  

First, and not so surprisingly, I have sung Christmas music in the Chorale with the addition of the mystical reverberation of bell sounds from a handbell choir.  But more interestingly, I have be reminded of an experience I have had of the unstruck sound of bells.  

In the Hindu tradition there is a concept known as nada, or the unstruck sound, in which a student of yoga actually experiences inwardly during meditation certain classic sounds which are attributed to the Self in the most Absolute sense of the world, which Baba Muktananda wrote about in his Siva Sutra commentary earlier.  A yogic scripture states: 

A yogi attains the Absolute if he is steeped in nada,
The divine sound which is the Absolute in the form of sound,
Which is the unstruck sound vibrating within,
Which resounds uninterruptedly,
And which rushes forth like a river.

Interior sounds, such as thunder, the cry of tigers, and the reverberation of bells may be heard by a student of yoga who is making progress on the path to Self-realization through concentrated yogic practices and the Guru's grace.  I am reminded, here, of the quote Audry Yoshiko Seo used above in her commentary of the enso painting in which Shibayama Zenkei writes: ". . . Nothing can be more certain.  If you see, what you see is yourself; if you hear, what you hear is yourself; if you think, what you think is about yourself."

I want to share with you a personal story regarding the interior sound of bells.  The story is part of a larger collection of stories--all based in actual experiences I have had--which constitutes my Epilogue for the project "An Imaginary Book."  click here

A Personal Story
When I was very young I would become nearly ecstatic with excitement at Christmas time.  Everything would become magical for me.  I remember watching a tv program in which the farm animals in a barn began talking to each other at the stroke of twelve midnight, when Christmas Eve turned into Christmas morning.  It was a miracle!  I was stunned by the magic and mystery of it.  Every Christmas season after that I hoped to find that program aired once again on the tv.  I never saw it again.  

One Christmas eve, when I was around four or five years old, I could not get myself to sleep because I was so excited.  I lay in bed, and the harder I tried to sleep the more the energy humming in my body seemed to escalate.  

Then I began hearing church bells silently ringing in the distance.  The sound was beautiful, as if coming from very large bells, though very far away, perhaps from some old, tall church tower--like the ones I had seen in books and movies . . .  

The bell sounds grew louder . . . and closer . . . louder and closer . . . until I became frightened from the intensity of the reverberation and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the loudness and closeness of the sounds.  I jumped out of bed and ran to my parents' bedroom and woke them up.  I asked them to please make the bells stop ringing!  They told me they couldn't hear the bells, that I was dreaming, and that I should go back to bed and try to get some sleep--tomorrow was going to be a big day.

*                    *                       *

As a matter of curiosity, and perhaps synchronicity, I wanted to point out that the photograph I used to introduce this project page (reproduced again immediately above~click on it to enlarge), the "Enso" snow photograph, has within it the faint image of a bell.  It's at the top edge of the photograph, and appears to be suspended from the little black arrow just above it.  


Born within the enso of the world,
the human heart must also
become an enso.

 (Zen Master 1839-1925)

The Silver World is a radiant, interior round space; the timeless place of transforming reverberations, sublimity and mystery; the hidden place of memory, personal experience and dreams; the silent origin of snowflakes, music, and the light of knowledge for which there are no words.

In this project's forthcoming chapters I will present additional sets of photographs, text excerpts on Taoist and Zen philosophies of art and creativity; I will write commentaries on selected images, and conclude with an Epilogue.  Welcome to The Silver World.  

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.