Snow: Silver World pt. 9 Commentaries on photographs

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Photographs from the 
Silver World Part IX ~ Commentaries   

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from the 
Silver World 

It has become something of a tradition for me to write commentaries on selected photographs that have been published within a project.  I actually enjoy doing this. It provides an opportunity to step back and really contemplate what has taken place in my creative process.  So much that happens in a project is so intuitive, and it takes a certain discipline to become more conscious of what the creative process has given me.  Writing commentaries thus provides a forum in which I can in a disciplined way, consider what has taken place.

I have selected twelve images I thought might be interesting to contemplate and write about, then I quietly waited for ideas to (intuitively) come that I could write about.   What is most important to me about my photographs is their ability to communicate or invoke meanings beyond what is sayable;  but, indeed, there are many things that can be said about an image, about my process, and I hope you will find the commentaries below interesting, useful and perhaps contribute in some meaningful ways to how you see and explore and understand the images for yourself.  The responsibility for meaning is completely yours: I cannot tell you what a photograph means, not even "my own."  I very sincerely mean it when I say, I am not really the maker of the images.  I facilitate a process.  So contemplation is a way for me to get some closure on the process, and embrace what I have been given.  ~  Having said all that, then, Welcome to the Commentaries part of The Silver World project.

Image #1: Commentary 
The above image is a variation on the first image that appears in the first set of photographs of the project's Part 1.   I had originally published the version you see above: I was fascinated by and rather liked the "rabbit ears" or "antennae" sticking out from the center of the top and bottom edges of the floating luminous world.  I had made up a questionable rationale which allowed me to keep the antennae in the image.
Then, recently, as I was writing this commentary on the image I realized that keeping the antennae was a mistake.  I saw them as humorously undermining what had become a more serious understanding and appreciation of the work.    

That's OK; I had tried something, and after contemplating it, I achieved a new understanding and changed it.  I didn't have to show or tell you all this, but after all, such changes are part of my creative process, and writing to you is an equally important part of my creative process.  Mistakes--or, in other words, experience--is the great teacher.  We learn and grow and change as we live our lives as honestly as we know how.  Its easy to become pretentious, and untruthful.   When I am writing these comments, it's as much for me, and to me, as for and to you.  I write with the feeling that you are myself.  


Back to the image: when I have contemplated the project's title, The Silver World, I have often imagined a luminous, silvery world floating in a vast Sacred Space of light.  The space, the light, the floating world are spontaneous internal images: the Silver World is an Imaginal World.  The first image published in Part 1  of the project was a gift of the process; it came spontaneously out of nowhere.  The image is a world suspended in light; its silvery luminosity must surely correspond to the flash of intuition I first awakened to the future possibility of this project when I saw that little exhibition of winter images at the Art Institute of Chicago--which I wrote about in the project's Introduction.   

There is both a mysterious and a menacing aspect to the image, it seems to me, and that may be why my initial impulse was to allow the little "rabbit ears" to remain in the image--to add a bit of humor or lightness that would distract from the darkness that lurks latently in  the image.  Sometimes when I look at this photograph I see a "mask" or a shadowy set of eye sockets.  They are intimidating, and yet I am fascinated by the soft light that is being projected out toward me from inside those "eyes."   It's as if a consciousness is watching or looking out at me from inside the image.   

Truly speaking, every meaningful photograph "I" make is a kind of Self portrait.  When I contemplate any photograph, even if it is not one of my own, I am seeing something of myself projected into--and reflected back from--the image . . . if I fully give myself to this important aspect of my creative process (the contemplation of images). 

Image #2: Commentary
This symmetrical image was made from a source photograph of a house plant that was in front of a window.  Snow is in the background.    

The dark symmetrical insect-like form suspended in the center of the frame, in the center of the snowy white background, is held in place by strong, dark vertical forms that connect the "insect" to the frame's dark edges.  The central form is also held suspended in the frame by horizontal forms of light that conjoin with the dark pointed spikes that protrude from the frame's dark border toward the center.  It's as if the insect or animal has been crucified on a cross of dark and light intersecting forms.  If it is an insect, it is unimaginably large and lively, though there is no way to read scale in this image.      

The central form has many "eyes" and four "legs" and there is a feeling of energy-movement in the form despite its being held suspended within the frame.  The thing seems "animated" and because its form is of a primordial nature, its presence seems primordial as well.   That primordial presence is both intriguing and intimidating; when I try to approach the photograph and achieve something of an intimate relationship with the thing pictured, I feel threatened by the assertive nature of its presence.  

The photograph reminds me of several paintings I have seen of shrimp and other sea creatures (see image below) by the modern Chinese painter Qi Baishi (1864-1957).  He writes:  These crayfish I paint are unlike those you usually see: what I seek is not "formal resemblance" but "spiritual resemblance," and that is why the crayfish that come from my brush are "alive."  


My symmetrical photograph has a white point or hole at its dark center.  The light from reflected light off the snow seems to enter the image through this center point.  Every symmetrical photograph I have made for the Silver World project has a center point, though it many not always be visible in the image.  The symmetrical photographs expand and move outward from their center into a dynamic pictorial world of in-between-ness--which is a concept explored in great depth by Francois Jullien in his book The Great Image Has No Form:

The Chinese painter is in quest of . . .  [thatsomething of life [which] express itself between the bamboo leaves . . . [ between form and without-form  ~  between there-is and there-is-not  ~  between "fullness" and emptiness  ~  between object and non-object  ~  between presence and absence  ~  between resemblance and abstraction  ~  between outside and inside  ~  between heart-spirit and hand  ~  between motion and rest  ~  between Yin and Yang ~ ]   

In the endless commentaries that the six principles of painting elicit, the transcendence of resemblance is increasingly invoked by name. . . .  Formal resemblance must not be sought out as such and set forth as a goal, but must flow as a consequence from the pictorial process.  If you base the quest for what constitutes painting on "spiritual resonance," "formal resemblance" is then found "between,"  in the strong sense of that "between" it deploys through.  As a result, the distinction to be made is between simple objects that are inanimate, and as such carry no weight . . . and that which, endowed with spirit, animated, "requires spiritual resonance to achieve its completeness."

What is called "breath energy" is, in the case of painting, the energy of the brush, ink, and colors all at once . . .  The painter will have to take care not to get bogged down in "materiality" or in "form," but to keep everything "in flight," "in movement," permeated from within and in communication (Jung Hao).  [However] the painter cannot "transmit the spirit dimension" without "resorting to form," individuated, singular, and tangible as it is.  The painter works between the two poles of concrete form and spirit dimension, as between the poles of yin and yang.  

Shitao, at the end of his chapter on landscape painting says: "Before I turned fifty, I had not yet given birth to myself in the landscape.  Not that I treated the landscape as a mediocre thing, but I let the landscape exist independently and on its own."  But now "the landscape calls upon me to speak in its place."  Let us understand [writes Jullien]: Shitao does not say "I express myself through the landscape," as one might expect from an expressive (rather than mimetic) conception of painting.  Rather, it is the landscape that expresses itself through him.  The painter's calling is to be the landscape's go-between in the literal sense. . . . Hence the landscape "gave birth to itself-metamorphosed in me" just as I gave birth to myself-metamorphesed in it, so that "the landscape and I meet in spirit."  


The symmetrical photographs seem to come by themselves.  I am always surprised by the trans-formation a single image manifests when it is repeated four times and then conjoined at the center point.  new visual life is born, an image that for me is about the Unity of being, the Oneness of being, the Tao--that un-namable source from which the 10,000 things come and to which the 10,000 things will return.  Each photograph . . . a step along the way toward the Great Image, toward the "integration into the One":

Buddhist master Tao-an says: "By nonaction we come into accord with things. . .   Seeing into the nature of things . . . we eliminate the other and we eliminate the self.  This is integration into the One."    

As soon as man is born [the unique force of nonbeing] separates into two: ming, the substance of life and death, and hsing, the root of spiritual consciousness. . .  The central principle of Taoist meditative practice is to unify these two elements toward the attainment of oneness . . . cosmic consciousness . . . spiritual revelation.  Thus by cultivating both substance and spirit in meditation one dissolves one's self in the macrocosmic force and becomes part of it. 

Lao Tzu says: "Tao never acts, yet through it nothing is undone . . . All things create themselves" (Ch. XXXVII)     Creativity and Taoism  1965 / 2011 by Chung-Yan Chang

Image #3: Commentary
Snow photographs must be blue.  There is a perceptual bases for my idea: on clear, cold sunny days I often will see blue in the shadow areas of snow scenes; or at certain times of the day, even late near sunset when the light is turning golden, the blue sky can be reflected on the snow and seen mixed with the warm light falling across the snow's textured surfaces. 

This symmetrical snow photograph has some blue in it, but its atmosphere is more generally golden; the warm light of the setting sun is giving the blue shadows a powdery warmth.  It is one image among several others in the Silver World project which are surprisingly warm in color.  They stand out in dramatic contrast to the other snow images which are predominantly a cooler blue tonality.

The symbolism of "blue" may be worth considering, for I believe what Gaston Bachelard has to say about blue in his book Air and Dreams is relevant to the Silver World project.  He says that blue is arial and dimensionless, and that the symbolist poets were attracted to qualities of blue because they associated the color with solitude, transparency, dematerialization, and reverie.       

This image looks to me like a ceremonial  mound, or perhaps a breast.  I took it from the top of my deck which looks out over our back yard and the meadow beyond.  From the deck, and from our picture window which has a similar but interior view of our back yard and meadow, I could look down upon a hugh snow drift which was created by the strong winds that blew across our back yard from the South to the North.   It grew to perhaps six feet tall and looked like a swelling wave that had frozen in time.   

I loved looking down at the "wave" in the fading  evening winter light from my picture window.  For this photograph, however, I went outside on our deck and photographed down.  This image includes a little end piece of the hand railing that goes along our deck steps down to the back yard.  I could only be out in the elements for but a brief moment, for it's very difficult to photograph outside when the temperatures are extremely cold and the winds are blowing strong.  The camera gets  cold and malfunctions; its metal body becomes unbearable to hold in ungloved hands.  

This picture has an interior glow which radiates out from the central point of the image.  At the tip of the rounded, breast-like snow form there is a geometrical surface design, a  diamond-like "eye" that seems to be the point source of the light.  

I am drawn toward the jewel-like forms on the left and right edges of the image.  An aura of soft grey-blue surrounds the warm light glowing within the crystalline forms.  Though I enjoy describing the image, its sensuality, is seductive light . . . I realize I don't know what more to say about it, other than it is one of my favorite and most surprising images in the entire series.  It is full with radiant living presence.  The word presence needs elaboration.  I encourage you to review how Francois Jullien explores the idea of presence in relationship to Taoist painting in his fascinating book The Great Image Has No Form.  click here


Just a quick technical note: the symmetrical images for this project have been created with high resolution png. digital files.  The png. formatting for web publication gave me the ability to more accurately render the blues in my images onto the blog pages.  It also allowed me to render my images with a great about of sharp image-texture detail which I thought was important for you to see up close.  I hope you will zoom in on the images and study more closely.  The drawback to this formatting option is that it may have taken your computer more time to open the images when you clicked on the project page link.  (Also, the notoriously--and shamefully--slow internet service that the corporations provide most of us here in the United States is another reason why my project pages may open slowly for you.)

Image #4: Commentary
This symmetrical photograph is alive with line-energy-movement.  I like the varying qualities of line and the way they play off of each other.  There is a wonderful interactive relationship between the rapidly moving, feathery soft shadow lines which seem to be dancing and flying with great force--like the wind--around the static, darker, more solid diamond-shaped configuration in the center. 

On the top and bottom edges of the image, in the lighter tonal area, there is a little configuration that reminds me of ideograms I have seen in Zen calligraphic brush-works.  Immediately below the light bands of tone, there is a wavy line that goes across the entire picture plane: that is a wire from our clothesline in the back yard.  

I took both the source image for the symmetrical image above, and the (small snapshot) picture immediately above, of our clothesline, from our picture window.  The snapshot shows the snow drift or "wave," our wavy clothesline, and the last bit of pink light from the setting sun as it delicately touches the snow's blue wind-rippled surfaces.  (click on the image to enlarge)

Image #5: Commentary
The word energy is mentioned 38 times in the text excerpts I have provided in part 5,  The Great Image Has No Form, a fascinating book on Taoist painting by Francois Jullien.   This "energy" is most frequently associated in Chinese painting with the breath, and of course breath is associated with "spirit."  The brush in Chinese painting should be moved not by intellect, but by "breath energy" or "breath resonance."  Everything in the universe originates in the same breath-energy. . .  writes Jullien.  

It seems to me this image is about unceasingly moving energy, like the kind that generates electricity or vibratory forms in the snow when wind and light conjoin in just the right way to unveil a transcendent visual quality beyond the surfaces of things.  Wind, breath, spirit are not different from each other when seen in the light of the Tao.  Everything in life, when seen deeply enough and purely enough, has something to teach us.  The creative act is largely about getting out of the way so that "life" can create itself and thus teach us what we need to learn.

Francois Jullien writes:  The Chinese painter will be unable to designate what painting paints, except with an ultimate term. . . He will say it simply in Chinese, seng: "to be born"-"to be formed"-"to be alive."

Breath-energy deploying in the great primordial void
rises and falls, and moves unceasingly:
such is the mainspring of empty and full, motion and rest,
the starting point of yin and yang, of hard and malleable.
Floating and rising: such is the limpidity of yang;
lowering and descending: such  is the disorder of yin. 
Through incitement and communication, gathering and dispersal,
wind and rain, hail and snow are formed:
both the flow of the multitude of existents
and the union and fusion of mountains and streams.
Down to the dregs of wine and the ash of the hearth,
there is nothing of that which is not a lesson.  

(Zhu Xi, cited by Zang Zai)

Image #6: Commentary
This image is also about radiant light (most of my pictures are in some way or other).  Warm light radiates outward from the center; and if you look at the dark shadow shapes on the edges, they seem to indicate a cooler light flooding toward the center from outside the left and right edges of the picture.  Light is associated with Knowledge in many traditions--the kind of knowledge that is not sayable because words are too limited in their ability to communicate fully the Great Truth.

Image #7: Commentary
This is probably the least abstract of the symmetrical photographs in the Silver World project.  It is an odd image in that it has a sense of "land" and "place" in addition to the abstract vastness more common to many of the other symmetrical snow photographs in this project.  The openness of what appears to be a blue sky in the center of the image, and the repeating, layered horizontal shadow shapes resemble the kind of topographical landscape photograph with which we are more familiar.  The intense light seems to come more from within the image than without.  

I especially like the way the abstract nature of the image gently, progressively emerges into my consciousness as I contemplate the image.  I like the opposing yin-yang rhythmic play of the delicate vertical lines in relation to the heavier horizontal lines.  The vertical-horizontal visual interaction within the image generates an energetic counterpoint that is nonetheless contained not only by the frame, but also my the roundness of the image.   

There is something of the Zen circle, or enso, in this symmetrical photograph--full with  "breath-spirit" which moves in all directions simultaneously.   

Image #8: Commentary
Why am I showing this image once again?  It has appeared in at least two other parts of the project.  It is a black&white "straight" photograph which, truth be told, has nonetheless been subjected to some significant manipulations.  It is a strongly figurative image: the bending "body lines" of the dried plant has two "eyes" sitting at the top of its curved stem; and its "arm" is like a series of calligraphic brush strokes that repeat and diminish in size and thickness and then finally become a "hand" reaching for something just beyond its grasp. . . . That "something" is not on the same spatial plane as the "hand" of the plant--it is in the background, it is out of focus, and its laying on the snow far beyond the window's screen.  

There is, it seems to me, another, second set of "eyes" looking out at me in this photograph: in the background, emerging out of the snow, on the top edge of the photograph, there are two dark shapes which resemble eyes. What is in the background of what we call reality?  Perhaps everything is looking at me from behind the scene?  Perhaps my seeing needs backed-up with a kind of vision that has no eyes.

I am fascinated by the two bottom corners of the image: the way the dark diagonal wedge-like shape in the bottom right corner moves from "inside" the image to the surface of the picture's bottom front edge, and then in toward the center of the bottom edge.  And in the left bottom corner, I like how the diagonal line seems to move from the picture's front edge into a deeper, darker internal space away from the center.  The visual movement in these bottom corners together implies an arching "roundness" in the image that sweeps up from below the bottom edge into the overall visual coherency of the image.  

That implied "roundness" of the image which exists both in the "bending figure" of the plant and the upward sweeping movement that emerges from below the picture's bottom edge, becomes fully realized in the symmetrical photograph entitled "Baby" after a Zen painting my Gempo. (see above and also Part VII).  When you compare the "source" photograph to its symmetrical "offspring," it becomes obvious that significant adjustments have been made in order to accomplish the creative transformation into "Baby."  Enough said. 

Image #9: Commentary
This too is a "straight" photograph, though it may be disorienting to see at first, not easily read . . .  our understood.   It is a photograph of the reflection in a flat-screen TV.  The surface of the screen has softened the reflected image of the room and given the light coming in from the windows a rather romantic or magical glow.  The snow outside the windows have given the image a luminosity that is unusually bright.  There seems to be a couch and maybe some pillows next to the lamp and picture frame.  But what is happening on the right edge of the photograph?

As I follow the fuzzy dark edge of the couch reflection to the right, I realize I don't understand what happens to the image.  Why does the softness of the image get interrupted and changed to a relatively more sharply defined space?  Is it another kind of reflection, perhaps off of a shinier metallic surface that frames of the TV screen?  Or, perhaps I am seeing past the screen into a space behind the edge of the TV--some venetian blinds raised above a window sill?  

I like the way the fuzzy dark horizon line rises up to, and nearly meets the sharper horizon line on the far right.  The change from soft shapes to hard on that edge creates an important, contrasting visual dynamic . . .  though I don't know why its important.  Despite it's their relative size differences--the soft-focus reflected part of the image is so much bigger than the sharper, smaller vertical space on the right edge--the visual tension between these two spaces end up feeling surprisingly well balanced, as if they somehow belong to each other.  

Still, I don't understand the photograph, what it means.  I admire its simple beauty, its atmospheric feeling, its soft glowing light that spreads throughout the image, even to the very surface of the image itself--which is also the surface of the TV screen.  Yes, I like its gentle, quirky mysteriousness, its glowing presence.  There is a well known Zen aphorism that might be appropriate here that allows us to step back and allow us to enjoy the image without struggling to squeeze a meaning out of it:  It Is As It Is.   Shozo Sato explains in his book, Shodo, that this aphorism means: "Accept and agree with the situation as it is; no more, no less." 

Image #10: Commentary
This may look like a "straight" photograph but it's a picture that has undergone multiple changes relative to the originating digital file produced in the camera.  Here is a little of the back-story to the image:  The subject matter consists of some painted or stenciled design elements that were on a dark-wood lacquered chair which was made in China.  The chair had been given to my son and his wife by a Chinese friend.  She had decided to marry and move back to China with her husband and didn't want to take many of the things she had collected in her US apartment back to China with her. 

I digitally rearranged the compositional elements in the black space, and I expanded the black space so that the image format would be consistent with most of my other photographs.  The colors were originally very bright, especially the reds; I reduced the color saturation to give the image a softer, more organic, earthy feeling.  

I like the image as it is, now, very much; I enjoy letting my imagination run free with it.  For example, the two dark gray reflection shapes remind me of fish swimming around in a nocturnal pool.  The red flowers are like raindrops "falling from the heavens."  Perhaps the raindrops are turning into snowflakes as they approach the tops of the trees at the bottom edge of the image . . . trees that seem to be reaching up toward the heavens yearning for the rain of grace they have been wanting to receive . . .  

Image #11: Commentary
This symmetrical photograph reminds me of the snow angels I used to make as a child.  There is enough luminous mystery here, however, to prevent me from getting lost in nostalgia.  The image is intensely, otherworldly bright . . . and has reminded of an experience I had early this winter when I first started making snow photographs for the Silver World project:

It was a crisp, cold, sunny morning; the sky was clear and the light was sharp and painfully bright on the fresh fallen snow that had come during the night.  The wind was blowing very strongly.  (We were frequently getting 20 to 40 miles per hour winds this winter, with gusts up to 60 mph!)  I had gone out photographing for a few brief moments because the light was calling me, like sirens at sea.  I knew I could only be out with my camera for a few brief moments before my camera and I became too cold to operate so I photographed with urgency.  

The combination of wind-blown snow particles, intense light, and the whiteness of the entire scene literally "blinded" me at one point.  I could see nothing but white, nothing but light.  There were no forms to help me locate myself in space, even though I knew I was somewhere on my driveway.   I was fascinated by this state of affairs and decided to take some photographs on impulse, as an experiment, just to see what pictures might come out of the exercise.  

Though no important photographs came from this experiment, the intensity of that experience I am sure impacted all the rest of the snow photographs I would make throughout the winter--such as the photograph above, entitled Snow Angel. 

Image #12: Commentary
In each of the three sets of photographs in The Silver World project there is one image that is repeated in a variation form.  The three symmetrical images above were created from the same one source photograph--of a snow mound.  I have the three images together above so you can see each one in relation to the other two.  All three images have their own articulate-individual pictorial life and meaning, and yet clearly they are related to each other, they share the same source, I am fascinated by the way they look next to each other. 

If I read the sequence from left to right, the changes from one image to the next generates a magical "latent" image in the spaces between them.  I have tried putting the three images in other sequences, and each different sequence works in interesting ways, and yet I definitely like best the sequence shown above.   

This three images presented together remind me of the three lines of a trigram in the divination text known as the I'Ching, or Book of Changes.  Each trigram consists of three separate horizontal lines stacked upon each other,  each line is either a solid line (yang) or a broken line (yin), and each trigram invokes a particular symbolic meaning.  Two sets of trigrams are then put together to create a six lined hexagram.  Because of the divination process that creates the lines, one or more of the six lines are likely to be a changing line and thus when those lines are changed to their opposite a different second hexagram is created.  Every hexagram has its own symbolic meaning, but the relationship between the original hexagram and the changed version generates an especially auspicious meaning which encourages deep contemplation.  

The divination system is based in the theory of what Carl Jung termed synchronicity: you get the images you need in any given moment, and you must contemplate the images to understand what that meaning is.  I have based my creative process on this theory since 1975.    Francois Jullien writes about the Book of Changes:   

In the two strokes yang and yin, continuous and discontinuous, solid and broken (__ and _ _), with which the Book of Changes composes its figures, its intention is to explore the coherence of the world's ever-renewing process.

On the basis of an opposition between solid and broken lines, diagrammatic figures in various combinations served to account for the transformative processes at work in the world.  . . .  The aim of figuration [in Chinese painting] is not to fix essences but to record a play of energies in continuous interaction, whose coherence figuration unveils and indicates how to use.   

The world, emerging-submerging, between there-is and there-is-not cannot be separated into states . . . by the impulse that continually extends and renews it.   . . . the world of invisible powers is in constant mutation.  As the first Chinese history on the subject announces in its introduction, in "fathoming" the zones "of the subtle and latent," the art of painting "explores the modifications of spirits"--which means . . . that the Fount of invisible efficiency, rather than being a stable order, is itself in a state of constant renewal.


Now that the commentaries have been written, I feel the end of this project drawing all the more near.  The snows have melted, the ice on the ponds have melted, and the Spring storms are renewing everything back to life.  I assume there will be an Epilogue to this project that will offer up surprises and promises, maybe even the directive for the next project.  I have begun wondering what that next project could or will be.  

I am looking forward to the new book by Tom Cheetham.  It is supposed to come out the first day of May.  Perhaps his newest writings will generate ideas for yet another photography project--we will see.  It is as it is.  My creative process knows best what I must do.  

If we don't meet again in the Epilogue, Thank you for your participation in The Silver World project and I hope you will watch for my next project on my website's Welcome Page.  ~  Steven Foster    

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This part 9 of the Silver World project
~  Commentaries  ~ 
was announced in the "Latest Addition" section 
of my website's Welcome Page on
April 26, 2015

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.