Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Dad's Gentle Nudge Forward

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Postscript: Campbell's quote appears in my dad's handwriting on a yellowed strip of paper that accidentally fell out of page 133 of a book he bequeathed me - The Spiritual in Art - as I was thumbing through it for inspiration. Two other quotes adorn the page my dad evidently used Campbell's quote as a placeholder for (the bookmarked page is the first page of the chapter "Transcending the Visible" by Sixten Ringbom that appears on page 131 of the book). The first quote is a 1913 muse by Kandinsky that describes his early dilemma of understanding the "meaning" of an abstract work:

"A terrifying abyss of all kinds of questions, a wealth of responsibilities, stretched before me. And most important of all: what is to replace the missing object? The danger of ornament revealed itself clearly to me; the dead semblance of stylized forms I found merely repugnant... It took a very long time before I arrived at the correct answer to the question: What is to replace the object? I sometimes look back at the past and despair at how long this solution took me."

The second quote is by Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965, Belgian abstract sculptor and painter): "The great truth, or the absolute truth, makes itself visible to our mind through the invisible."

The synchronicity of these quotes becomes clear when one is informed of these basic facts: (1) the title of my portfolio book is "Seeing the Invisible" (which I produced a few years ago, before knowing of this quote), (2) the very next "project" I am to embark on is an expansion of this same portfolio (the "Seeing the Invisible" project is literally the next item on the "to do" list looking up at me as I type these words), and (3) just yesterday, I chided myself with the words "Andy, why did it take so long?" after finally finding a way catalyze a new series of abstractions (and which will no doubt be the basis of a future blog post). Even after 10 years of not being by my side in person, my dad still somehow manages to find a way to gently nudge my art forward ;-)

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The "Four Marks" of the Mystic State

"1. Ineffability - The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.

2. Noetic Quality - Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discurssive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.

3. Transiency - Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.

4. Passivity - Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power."

-William James

"1. True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic life-process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion.

2. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way concerned with adding to, exploring, re-arranging, or improving anything in the visible universe. The mystic brushes aside that universe, even in its supernormal manifestations. Though he does not, as his enemies declare, neglect his duty to the many, his heart is always set upon the changeless One.

3. This One is for the mystic, not merely the Reality of all that is, but also a living and personal Object of Love; never an object of exploration. It draws his whole being homeward, but always under the guidance of the heart.

4. Living union with this One—which is the term of his adventure—is a definite state or form of enhanced life. It is obtained neither from an intellectual realization of its delights, nor from the most acute emotional longings. Though these must be present they are not enough. It is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process—the so-called Mystic Way—entailing the complete remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent, form of consciousness; which imposes on the self the condition which is sometimes inaccurately called “ecstasy,” but is better named the Unitive State."

-Evelyn Underhill

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Cosmic Consciousness

"We want to pour oil onto the fire,
fan the tiny glow into flame,
span the earth;
make it quiver,
and beat more fiercely,
living and pulsating cosmos,
steaming universe."

(1892 - 1965)

"The Infinite, therefore, cannot be ranked among its objects. You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty superior to reason, by entering into a state in which you are your finite self no longer—in which the divine essence is communicated to you. This is ecstasy. It is the liberation of your mind from its finite consciousness. Like only can apprehend like; when you thus cease to be finite, you become one with the Infinite. In the reduction of your soul to its simplest self, its divine essence, you realize this union—this identity."

(204 - 274)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Suprematicheskoe Zеркало

"Amongst all the changing phenomena
the essence of nature is invariable.

A1. The World as human distinctions
(God, The Soul, The Spirit, Life, Religion,
Technology, Art, Science, The Intellect
Weltanschauung, Labor, Movement
Space, Time) = 0.

1. Science and art have no boundaries
because what is comprehended infinitely
is inumerable and infinity and
innumerability are equal to nothing.


8. There is no existence either
within or outside me;
nothing can change anything,
since nothing exists that
could change itself
or be changed.

A2. The essence of distinctions.
The world as non-objectivity."

Artist (1879 - 1935)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Spirit, Light, and Harmony

"It is not always needful
for truth to take a definite shape;
it is enough if it hovers about us
like a spirit and produces harmony;
if it is wafted through the air
like the sound of a bell,
grave and kindly."

"A man should learn
to detect and watch that gleam
of light which flashes across
his mind from within."

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pikes, Minnows, and Parks (and a Lesson, Oh My)

"The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

During a visit to see my mom on Long Island the other week, my younger son and I stumbled across a beautiful park - no more than a stone's throw away from the house I grew up in - that I never knew existed! Well, I knew of the place, and of its beauty, but not of the park's presence. And therein lies an important lesson that owes its origin to pikes and minnows.

Years ago, I read of an experiment in which some biologists used cameras to record the actions of a large northern pike inside of an aquarium filled with small minnows. Initially, the pike did exactly what one would expect a pike to do under those circumstances; namely, it enjoyed a feast of a lifetime, since it was surrounded by its favorite food.

But then the researchers placed a glass barrier between the pike and the smaller fish. Each time the pike attempted to grab a minnow, it struck its head on the glass. After many repeated failures, it simply stopped trying altogether. The researchers waited until after the pike was clearly hungry and removed the barrier, thus allowing the minnows to swim toward the pike. What did the pike do? Absolutely nothing! Having "learned" that feeding on the minnows was anything but productive (indeed, even painful), the pike blissfully ignored an aquarium-full of food source. It eventually died from starvation. Despite being immersed in a field of nourishment, it believed none was attainable.

And so we come to our newly "discovered" park... I have known about this place ever since I was about 10 or so (i.e., 41 years ago!). My family and I must have driven past it dozens of times a year. My attention was always drawn to a picturesque little "house" (well, I always thought it was a house, which I now know is an old unused mill, which appears in the image above) overlooking a pond with lovely water lilies. The property itself was on a tiny cliff overlooking a harbor, and surrounded by gorgeous trees.

I very clearly remember wanting to take pictures of the "property" when I started doing photography (when I was around 15), but never got around it; too "embarrassed" (as a youth) to act my resolve to ask the owners for permission. What I did not know - having inadvertently taught myself an incorrect truth (as the pike taught itself that its food was inaccessible) - is that this was a public park! Having gone through so many days in my youth during which I would wake up resolved to "go knock on the door of that house to ask for permission to take pictures," only to wind up empty-handed for whatever reason (laziness, shyness, forgetfulness, ...), my brain eventually defined the house and its property as a private residence, simply because (a) I had never thought of it in any other way, and (b) I never bothered to find out what it really was. The house was on private property, and that was that. And so, years and years would pass, with endless trips up and down the road that house still sits on; periodically, in passing, I would tell my mom, my kids, my wife (anyone in the car with me), "You know, one day..."

On this particular trip, I once again firmly resolved to... going so far as to deliberately pack an extra photography business card to present to the owners. Finally - finally! - I set aside some time to actually walk up to the door and ring the bell. And after 41 years of "knowing," I finally learned that I could have explored this property any time I wanted. Embarassing? Oh yes! And I truly have no explanation why this time proved different. Why did I go now, but not last year, or the year before that? Why not indeed?! Apart from some wonderful pictures (that I ought to have started taking 35 years ago), this experience has also taught me a lesson worth applying to all of my other "learned" truths as well. What am I blind to because I "know" I see it so well?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Three eBook Offerings from Blurb Books

Blurb, with whom I have self-published a number of portfolio books over the last few years, has recently introduced an intriguing eBook option for prospective authors. Though currently confined to be read only by Apple iOS devices (i.e., the iBooks app on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod-touch devices), Blurb's new eBooks are faithful full-resolution versions of their print counterparts. I am impressed with the ease of conversion (on the author-end) - as it essentially amounts to nothing more than selecting the "ebook download for Apple iBooks" option on the page for editing a previously published book, and waiting a few moments - how beautifully it is rendered on my iPad, and by the price, which (as expected) is vastly lower than for any of the print editions.

Indeed, I think this offers a viable alternative for people who do not want to invest $50 or more on a physical book unseen; and who typically decide to purchase a photo book based only on a low-resolution preview of however many pages the author has allowed to be displayed (and/or their own knowledge of the photographer's reputation).

Thus, as a test of sorts (and originally planned only for my sole amusement, adding perhaps that of members of my extended family), I offer the following eBook-versions for three of my more popular physical print books (at a nominal cost): (1) Seeing the Invisible, which is a portfolio of some of my personal favorite black and white images, and includes photos that appeared in juried exhibits, Lenswork magazine, B&W magazine, B&W Spider Awards, and private collections; (2) As Above, so Below: A Harmony of Contrasts, which consists of over 60 black & white images of Luray Caverns in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia (and a selection from which has recently appeared in Lenswork magazine); and (3) Sudden Stillness, which is a 250+ image portfolio expressed in four movements (each introduced by a short essay): chaos, order, complexity, and entropy. The first is available for $2.99; the other two for $4.99.

In each case, after clicking on the associated link, you will find the option to purchase an iPad/iPhone Version (which may be read using the iBooks app) at the top right of the screen.

If there is expressed interest in converting any other of my prior books (I currently have 14 in all), I will certainly make them available here and on my Blurb page.

Postscript: the same three three books are also available in the iBooks bookstore: link #1, link #2, and link #3.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Aftermath of Inactivity as a Probe Into the Creative Process

A few days ago I posted my first blog entry in over 3 months. It consisted of little more than explaining the long delay (attributed to "day job" related constraints), highlighting some recent publications, and briefly amplifying on an observation I made in a recent interview. But I left out a deeper thought; one that I think goes to the heart of the creative process. Namely, the degree to which what - not how - we choose to photograph defines who we really are; particularly after a long absence from doing photography. This is a point both obvious and subtle.

It is often said that the best (perhaps only?) way to discover who we really are is to see what we do in moments of crisis. I use the word "crisis" here not to label some profound existential angst or trauma, but simply to denote a "moment of truth"; i.e., some instant in time during which a decision must be made now. Perhaps we've delayed a decision, perhaps the problem or issue facing us is too ill-defined, or maybe a looming deadline is just too far in the future for us to care. But then the deadline comes near, or circumstances change, and a decision must be made right now. Malcolm Gladwell (in his book Blink) calls this thin-slicing, though his use of the term refers specifically to those situations where the person making a decision has very little time to make it. However, for the point I'm trying to make, I'd like to relax this last condition; i.e., I am interested in the "I need to make a decision now" process that allows the decision-maker time to reflect on her decision. Yes, a decision needs to be made (today, and not tomorrow, or next week), but you don't need to "thin slice" your response; rather, give the issue some thought - or take a "reflective slice" - and temper it with intuition. Now, what do you decide to do?

My (hardly original) hypothesis is that what we decide to do under these circumstances tells us a lot about who we really are (stripped of all the usual encrusted layers of decisions past and pending). In the context of photography, the problem is: "OK, Andy, you haven't been out with a camera for a while, and now you have an hour or so to prowl around, where do you go and what do you photograph?" My claim is that what I naturally - intuitively - train my camera's lens on says everything about me as a photographer (and about my creative process) that needs - and/or is ultimately worth - saying.

Paradoxically, the deepest insights come from moments of decision that follow long periods of inactivity. For it is only after we have not done photography for a while that the photography most important to us is best revealed. Immersed (as I usually am) in multiple simultaneous ongoing projects, the day-to-day (and shot-to-shot) decisions collectively sculpt only a fleeting image of a particular period of my creative process, as defined by the needs of specific projects; but they do not easily reveal fundamental truths about me as a photographer. While I may discover details about "what I am doing" by paying attention to what I am doing when "I am doing photography" (at times when I am immersed in doing it), I can only discover the truth that underlies all of my photography (perhaps my entire creative process) by paying attention to what I turn my attention to first after not having done photography for a while. It is only after not doing photography that our attention is naturally and strongly drawn first to what matters most deeply; not subject to the vagaries of whatever projects we have just finished or are next on our agenda.

Look at the first photographs you take after dusting off your camera. What do they say? Wherein lies their true meaning? Most likely it is to be found in what the photograph - as a whole - is about. The details matter little; indeed, because of the inevitable build-up of aesthetic rust, the details are just as likely to obscure the intended meaning as illuminate it. In Zen-like fashion, the time during which a photographer - who may normally be obsessed with rendering the tiniest of details in an image just so - is unable to focus on detail, is actually the best time for achieving the deepest clarity of vision.

And so I discovered (or relearned) a truth I've known for as long as I've been a photographer; perhaps longer, since photography is but another word for "seeing with a camera," and I've been "seeing" the world at least a few years longer ;-) To whit, after months of relative creative inactivity, my attention is first drawn to quiet, simple scenes in familiar locations in local parks; and my eye to humble uncluttered rhythms of basic shapes and tones. Though I will undoubtedly soon resume my journey towards ever-deeper abstractions in subject matter and imagery, I know that my creative heart yearns for nothing so deeply as glimpses of a simple sudden stillness.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Blurred Path Toward Clarity

"To be an artist is not a matter
of making paintings or objects at all.
What we are really dealing with
is our state of consciousness
and the shape of our perception."
— Robert Irwin, Artist/Theorist (1929 - )

It has been quite a while since my last blog post; the long hiatus due (as almost always) to the demands and constraints of "day job" responsibilities. As I slowly reacclimate my activities to nurture both parts of my brain, I offer a short and humble blog entry to highlight some recent photography projects and expand upon an observation about "how I do photography" that a friend of mine found interesting in a recent interview I gave (and that others might find amusing to muse on).

First, I am delighted to announce that I have had two portfolios published in the last few months: (1) my Luray Caverns portfolio, which appears in both the print and expanded DVD-editions of Lenswork (issue #95, Jul/Aug 2011), and (2) my Abstract Glyphs portfolio, spotlighted on pages 72-75 in the December 2011 issue of B&W magazine (images also appear on their gallery page).

While listening to my interview with Brooks Jensen (editor, Lenswork) for the DVD edition of issue #95, a friend of mine was intrigued to learn of a particular habit I picked up early in my photography (when I was just learning the art in my late teens, a few centuries ago ;-) I'd be interested in learning if others have had (or have) the same experience.

In recounting to Brooks how I started off my day-long sojourn to Luray caverns, I noted that for the first 30 minutes or so I just walked around without a camera (as I always do) and without my eyeglasses on (also, as I always do). Because I am very nearsighted, seeing the world without my glasses yields an almost abstract - certainly much simpler, distilled - representation of it. Since my eyes sans glasses provide only rudimentary information about shapes and tones, I find it a useful exercise to first "see" my compositional landscape (as it were) in these aesthetically simple terms, before fully investing - and immersing - myself in finding real photographs in it. This has been a vital part of my creative process for well over 35 years. But it started quite by accident.

When I was just starting out in photography, I found the physical act of using the viewfinder on a camera hard on my eyes. The constant shifting between squinting through the camera followed by focusing on something in the distance quickly tired my eyes. So, after even a few shots, I would usually take off my eyeglasses and rub my eyes a bit before resuming my camera work. One day, with my glasses off, I turned to glance in a direction where some commotion was going on. I could make out only some blurry lights and shapes, but whatever was going on it looked "interesting." Without thinking (and still without my glasses, which had also fallen to the ground) I lifted my camera to my eye and - without thinking and unable to really see anything - took a shot. I have long forgotten what that shot was a shot of, but I remember being mesmerized by the thought - later after I developed the film - that it had turned out better than OK; it was a really well-composed, lovely shot! But not one I would necessarily have taken of this subject (namely, a scene with people in it!) had I had my glasses on. The lesson taught me to always first "see" a scene sans glasses.

The middle panel of the triptych shown above depicts, roughly, what I "saw" when I first descended the stairs into Luray's interior. The left panel shows what the scene may look like to a robotic version of Andy that sees the world through an 'edge detect" filter. The right panel shows how a non-robotic version of Andy renders the same scene after he's had a chance to see it with his glasses on ;-)

FYI: a 40-min long mp3 file of my interview with Brooks Jensen is available for download from Lenswork for 99 cents.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Morrison House Photography Talk

I am delighted to announce an upcoming slide presentation in Alexandria, VA, 6:00 to 8:00 pm on August 2 (Tuesday). The talk will be given at Alexandria's historic Morrison House (116 South Alfred Street, Alexandria, VA 22314) and is sponsored by the Torpedo Factory's Art Center.

From the press release:

Photography, Physics, and Complexity: Strange Bedfellows or a New Aesthetic?

Morrison House Presents: Andy Ilachinski, Photographer and Physicist

Physics and photography have always been inextricably linked: by chemistry, light, diffraction, refraction, reflection, polarization, etc. But these are only the most obvious and superficial of connections. This talk uses complexity theory – which describes the fundamental relationships between parts and wholes – to point to a vastly deeper, resonant level on which physics and photography – any creative art – are linked, and offer a possible glimpse of a new fundamental aesthetic grammar. In the end, it is argued, the outwardly-directed journey toward objective realities, and the inner passage toward subjective truths are revealed as but two interrelated aspects of a single creative thread of self-discovery.

Born in 1960 on Long Island, NY, and the only son of an architect and artist, Andy's life has always straddled left– (analytical, logical) and right– (creative, artistic) brained worlds.

On the left-brained side, he earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics (specializing in complex systems) in 1988 and has over 20 years experience as a research analyst and project director at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) – a federally funded research and development center headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia – where Andy has pioneered the application of complex adaptive systems theory to military operations research problems. He has authored two graduate-level mathematical physics texts on nonlinear dynamics and agent-based modeling, co-authored a book on artificial-life models and contributed to Springer-Verlag's 10-volume Encyclopedia of Complexity and Systems Science, and is on the editorial board of two physics journals.

On the right-brained side, and both by temperament and inner muse, Andy is a fine-art black-and-white photographer, and has been one for far longer than his Ph.D. gives him any right to claim an ownership by physics. He has delighted in taking pictures ever since his parents surprised him on his 10th birthday with a Polaroid camera. Andy has won numerous awards (in both print and on-line juried contests), has exhibited in many juried solo and group shows, appeared in Lenswork (a preeminent fine-art journal of black and white photography), Focus magazine, both U.S. and U.K. Black & White magazines, and won a photo-magazine sponsored book contest. He has received multiple awards at the prestigious Black and White Spider Awards, and was one of the founding juried members of Lorton Art's Photography Workshop (in Lorton, VA). In 2010, Andy's work was featured (alongside two other artists) in a four month exhibit at the American Center for Physics (in College Park, MD).

More About the Series

This series of monthly talks is sponsored by the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association, the Alexandria Archaeological Commission, and the Morrison House Hotel. The talks take place on the first Tuesday of each month. Cocktails will be available for purchase through The Grille at Morrison House Hotel, and dinner reservations can be made for guests who would like to continue their experience following the event.

About Morrison House

The Morrison House, a Kimpton Hotel, is an elegant boutique hotel located in the heart of Old Town, Alexandria. Named an outstanding hotel on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2008 Gold List, the hotel exhibits the romance of Europe and the charm of Early America through its decorative federalist-style reproductions. The architecture blends into the historic surrounding of Alexandria, while its warmly lit rooms, soft music, and outstanding cuisine define an experience that is graceful and effortless. The AAA Four Diamond property also features The Grille, an intimate restaurant that serves a menu of relaxed American fine dining. The hotel is located at 116 South Alfred Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, (703) 838-8000.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Solitary Patterns

"The interpretation of our reality
through patterns not our own,
serves only to make us ever more unknown,
ever less free, ever more solitary."
Author (1927 - )

Friday, July 15, 2011

Evidence of Mutability

"Through falling from its previous function, and thus outliving the use originally conferred upon it, the ruin transgresses and subverts our everyday encounter with space and place. In the space of order and regulation, boundaries are delimited and linear. Being in place means knowing the limits of that place. So long as those limits are respected, then indeterminacy is evaded and the impression of space as productive can be maintained. At the same time, urban space undergoes domestication until it gathers a sense of how it ought to be. Rendering its structural properties apparently a priori, the space for malleability automatically assumes a deviant quality. If delimited space is productive, then space which broaches those boundaries will be termed wasted or otherwise expendable. In the ruin, the elements of waste and marginalization are crystallized...what was once built to testify to a singular and eternal present becomes the symbol and proof of its mutability."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Straining to win the sky..."

"The tree is more
than first a seed,
then a stem,
then a living trunk,
and then dead timber.
The tree is a slow,
enduring force straining
to win the sky."
(1900 - 1944)

"The tree which moves
some to tears of joy
is in the eyes of others
only a green thing which
stands in their way."
(1757 - 1827)

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Emancipation of Mind

"Abstraction is real,
probably more real than nature.
I prefer to see with closed eyes."
- Joseph Albers (1888 - 1976)

"Abstraction allows man to see
with his mind what he cannot
physically see with his eyes...
Abstract art enables the artist
to perceive beyond the tangible,
to extract the infinite out of the finite.
It is the emancipation of the mind.
It is an explosion into unknown areas."
(1904 - 1948)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Photographing the Photographer" Diptychs

"The universe as we know it
is a joint product of the
observer and the observed.”
Philosopher / Mystic
(1881 - 1955)

While looking over some old photos (going back to trips to Scotland in 2009 and Greece in 2008), I ran across an interesting set of pictures taken by my wife that I turned into what I call PPDs, or "Photographing the Photographer" Diptychs. My wife, an avid videographer and occasional still photographer, took a series of images showing yours truly in the act of "doing" photography.

Some of her photos contain "me" only in the sense that I am somewhere in the picture, but the shot itself is focused on something else; a landscape, our rental car, a hotel, the front of a restaurant, whatever. But many of them are (as my wife confessed) deliberately focused on my (not always elegant) photo machinations: my scurrying to and fro like a frenzied zombie, climbing, prowling, bending, scrunching up like a pretzel, maneuvering my body and tripod for decent angles. A few actually catch me in the "act" of going click.

For many of these I was able to find and match the "shot" I was capturing (or a shot taken at nearly the same place and time) with the shot my wife has of me doing so. I made a few diptychs to show my wife and friends, who all enjoyed them, commenting that the diptychs reveal something not normally seen, or appreciated.

The diptychs show two different - but obviously correlated - experiences by two different people of ostensibly the same "experience" (almost the same). While my wife and I were obviously both at the same place and time, we were looking at the world from our own (not quite identical) local reference frames and slightly different perspectives: she, as an empathic observer of "life (in this case, her husband's) in environment," and I, as landscape photographer immersed in Scotland's innate physical beauty. To my eyes, our respective images of a given time and place, combined in diptych form, achieve an interesting transcendent synergy. While neither image, if considered alone, shows anything more than it does by itself, when reflected upon simultaneously with its partner provides a tangibly more meaningful, deeper glimpse of our shared experience.

I have posted a small portfolio of ten such "Photographing the Photographer" Diptychs (8 from Scotland, 2 from Greece); if nothing else, it gave me an opportunity to revisit some of the many spectacular sights and visual delights my wife and I have been privileged to see. It also gives an opportunity to those of you (you know who you are ;-) who have, from time to time, seen a bespectacled photographer bent over a tripod somewhere, seemingly trained at nothing in particular, and been puzzled about just what this bespectacled photographer is looking at? My wife has kindly provided an answer.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Churchville Photo Club Talk Slides

This is a short note intended mainly to provide a link to the slides (about 5 MB, Adobe pdf) I used for a talk I gave on June 20 to the Churchville Photo Club in Pennsylvania.

My presentation used selected images and portfolios to illustrate (and give at least some credence to the sincerity of) my ongoing journey toward self-discovery as shaped by physics, tao, and photography.

I'd like to thank the club's president, Felix Gomes, and Vice President, Marty Golin, for their kind invite and hospitality; and all the attendees who endured not just the 2+ hours worth of (what must surely have been less than completely intelligible) "babble-speak" about the philosophical dimensions of fine-art photography, but did so in a non air conditioned room that barely shielded all those enclosed within from the 90+ deg(F) heat and 90% humidity outside. (By the time I finished, I felt - and looked - as though I had just escaped from an unsupervised sauna set to an inhuman "Danger: lethally hot and humid" setting!).

But while the conditions were far from ideal, the venue itself - nestled within a wonderful nature center about an hours' drive from Philadelphia - could not have been more idyllic. My 12 yo son, an avid naturalist, and I arrived about an hour early, and had an opportunity to walk the grounds and just revel in the quiet gentle ambiance of the center. We both promised to return here for some quality time whenever the opportunity for such a trip next arises: he, to just explore and look for insects and frogs; his dad to train his "other eye" on the beauty of the park (I was sans camera gear for this entire trip, and felt, as all photographers do, considerably less than whole).

Later that evening, and after my talk (that I was happily surprised to see my son sit through in its entirety; this was the first time my son had heard me speak on photography - his take: "Not bad, dad." I'll take it ;-), he and I shared a magical moment of shared bonding, punctuated by a few hugs and a hint of a tear or two on our cheeks. And this experience had nothing at all to do with my talk!

After many handshakes, discussions, and chats with people as we all made our way to our cars - I should mention that my talk ended fairly late, way after sunset - the last car except ours finally left, and my son and I turned to our own car parked in a corner. At this point, it was essentially pitch black, with but an insignificant light some distance away. As our eyes adjusted to the dark...

...we both froze in our tracks; jaws dropped. An otherwordly event was unfolding before our eyes. I briefly entertained the scary thought that I must be having a seizure! There, in front of us - to the sides; all around us - were more fire flies than my son and I have likely seen in all our combined years on this planet! Clusters and clusters of hundreds upon hundreds of fireflies; flying, spiraling, blinking, flashing, and - collectively - putting on a dazzling fourth-of-July-like display that would put to shame (as my son later described) any fourth-of-July show that we'd ever seen.

My son and I just sat in revery on the grass, not speaking, not thinking; mindlessly - dare I say Tao or Zen-like? - absorbed in one of nature's wondrous dances. After 20 minutes or so, my son turned to me to give a hug, and said, "Dad, I'll never, ever forgot this day!" (And neither will his dad :-)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Luray Caverns Portfolio

As Above, So Below...
By Andy Ilachinski

This is a short note to announce the availability of my self-published portfolio of 66 black and white images from a photo-shoot at Luray Caverns (in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley). I have written about my adventure there in posts a couple of weeks ago: here are links to part 1, part 2, and part 3. A mini on-line portfolio of 16 select images is also available here.

I will always remember my experience in Luray as (the title of my first blog entry about it suggests was) a joyous meditation in a subterranean cosmos. Luray is truly an otherwordly place, particularly so when (as I was privileged to be, by the generosity of the Luray staff, to whom the book is dedicated) one is an almost lone observer, displaced and cocooned in time and space. Motion and sound are nonexistent, except for the eerie echoes of the "plip-plops" of water droplets slowly, ever so slowly, adding to Luray's vast storehouse of stalactite / stalagmite forms); one's own breathing is the only reminder of "life on the outside." Alone, wandering around Luray's preternaturally beautiful underground vistas of rock and space, it is easy to forget one's normal bearings in space and time. It is, in the end, a timeless void of mystery and wonder.

Thank you, Luray, for your kind hospitality in welcoming this awed photographer (and amateur philosopher of life)!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's Not About the Images

While there is perhaps
a province in which the
photograph can tell us
nothing more than what
we see with our own eyes,
there is another in which
it proves to us how
little our eyes
permit us to see.
(1895 - 1965)

"Writing is not about words.
Painting is not about pigments.
Music is not about tones.
As long as photographers
insist that photography
is about photographs,
the art is limited
and self-containing."
(Issue 18, Summer 1997)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Quiet Mind

"Learn to be silent.
Let your quiet mind
listen and absorb."

“Only in quiet waters things
mirror themselves undistorted.
Only in a quiet mind is
adequate perception
of the world.”
- Hans Margolius

Friday, May 13, 2011

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees

"There is simply no real separation line,
only an intellectual one,
between the object and its time-environment.
They are completely interlocking:
nothing can exist in the world
independent of all the other things in the world."
Artist (1928 - )

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Self-Same Distinctions

"A monk once asked Shao-shan,
'Is there any phrase which
is neither right or wrong?'
Shao-shan answered,
'A piece of white cloud
does not show any ugliness.'"
- Shao-shan's Phrase koan

"Where others dwell,
I do not dwell.
Where others go,
I do not go.
This does not mean to
refuse association with others;
I only want to make
black and white distinct.""
- Pai-yun's Black and White koan

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Nature's Dance

"O body swayed to music,
O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer
from the dance?"
(1865 - 1939)

"The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection; the water has no mind to receive their image... the general tendency of the Western mind is to feel that we do not really understand what we cannot represent, what we cannot communicate by linear signs - by thinking. We are like the "wallflower" who cannot learn a dance unless someone draws him a diagram of the steps."

Postscript: fans of Alan Watts will want to check out the new Alan Watts documentary film In The Way, that recently got "kickstarted" on Can't wait for the release!

Saturday, April 30, 2011


"The practice of true reality
is simply to sit serenely
in silent introspection.
When you have fathomed this,
you cannot be turned around
by external causes
and conditions.
This empty,
wide open mind is subtly
and correctly illuminating."
Buddhist monk

"Men cannot see their reflection in running water, but only in still water. Only that which is itself still can still the seekers of stillness...if water derives lucidity from stillness, how much more the faculties of the mind! The mind of the sage, being in repose, becomes the mirror of the universe."
(4th century BCE)

Thursday, April 28, 2011


"Underneath the superficial self, which pays attention to this and that, there is another self more really us than I. And the more you become aware of the unknown self — if you become aware of it — the more you realize that it is inseparably connected with everything else that is. You are a function of this total galaxy, bounded by the Milky Way, and this galaxy is a function of all other galaxies. You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes. You look and look, and one day you are going to wake up and say, "Why, that's me!" And in knowing that, you know that you never die. You are the eternal thing that comes and goes that appears — now as John Jones, now as Mary Smith, now as Betty Brown — and so it goes, forever and ever and ever."
(1915 - 1973)

“Our theories of the eternal
are as valuable as are
those which a chick
which has not broken
its way through its shell
might form of
the outside world.”
(563-483 B.C.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Stones and Percepions

"It may seem ironic or contradictory
that detailed pictures of so-called
reality become vehicles for moving
us beyond ordinary perceptions."

"Bells and stones have voices,
but unless they are struck,
they will not sound."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Inner Depth

"The inner - what is it?
if not intensified sky ..."
(1875 - 1926)

"Deep in the mountain
is an old pond.
Deep or shallow,
its bottom has never been seen."
(1931 - 2009)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Anicca / Mi rtag pa / Mujō

"We are like the spider.
We weave our life and
then move along in it.
We are like the dreamer
who dreams and then
lives in the dream.
This is true for
the entire universe."

"All formations are transient (anicca)"
- Buddha Sakyamuni
(563 - 483 B.C)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


"In Aboriginal philosophy,
existence consists of energy.
All things are animate,
imbued with spirit
and in constant motion...
[this] leads to a holistic
and cyclical view of the world."
- Marie Battiste

"The pulse of life
demands an unendng
stream of vital energy
to keep it going."
The Language of the Goddess

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Snowflakes and Zen

"No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place."
-Zen proverb

Monk: "What is Zen?"
Tosu (Zen Master): "Zen."
Zen and Japanese Culture

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Nice Shots, But Where's the Color?

"The prejudice many photographers have against colour photography comes from not thinking of colour as form. You can say things with colour that can’t be said in black and white… Those who say that colour will eventually replace black and white are talking nonsense. The two do not compete with each other. They are different means to different ends." - Edward Weston

My mom has a habit of asking disarmingly "simple" questions (which usually have "simple" answers, but only after some thought has gone into addressing them). A while back, she asked me why I tend to take series of pictures rather than individual photos (that post led me to ponder the steps that all artists pass through on the way to "self-discovery"). Well, fresh on the heels of my one-day photo-safari at Luray Caverns, and after showing my mom a few early drafts of processed images, my mom came back with: "They're nice, Andy, but where is the color?"

This time, though, since the general question of color vs. black and white has been on my mind as I was preparing slides for a presentation, I was at least ready with a semblance of a real answer; and it goes to the heart of the basic difference between the forms of photography. Interestingly, the seed of the answer I gave my mom (and am now summarizing) was in my mom's own follow-up to the first part of her question. When I told her the "color" of the caverns was effectively a quasi-mono-tonal "orange," she quickly added, "But Andy, you had some beautiful orange abstracts recently, and they were all in color!" She was referring to my recent series of synesthetic landscapes, which are indeed all in color; this one for example:

So why is this in color and the caverns in black and white? The "simple" answer is that it has everything to do with intent. The whole point of the synesthetic landscape series is to communicate a certain aesthetic of color. These abstracts are not about any "thing"; rather, they are all about the tonal distributions of the colors that they depict. While one is always free to convert to black and white... here is an example of one conversion of the above color shot:

...doing so destroys the very essence of what I took the shot to convey; namely color! This is not to suggest that some viewers (including my mom, though in this case, regarding my colorful "synesthetic landscapes," I know she agrees with me) might not find the black and white version preferable - aesthetics, as we all know, is not an objective measure - just that the color version of this particular image (and others in the same series) is the best exemplar of what my intent was in crafting the photo.

Now, what about the black and white picture of Pluto's Chasm shown above (another view appears in my first post about Luray)? First, in truth, it is not a black and white photo, as I add a subtle warm duotone to all of my photos (which you can see for yourself by loading the image in any image viewer and slowly cranking up the saturation). For the record, my mom didn't "buy" my "it's not really a black and white photo" answer ;-) So, let's take a peek at what the same image might look like in color:

Again, apart from comparing individual aesthetics (you may prefer the color to the duotoned version, or you may not like either image), the point I made to my mom is that as far as my cavern portfolio is concerned, my intent is to communicate certain aesthetic qualities regarding tones, shapes, and textures. The rather drab monotone-like, all-pervasive orange that permeates the "color" image does nothing (for me) in this context, apart from likely diluting a viewer's attention from what otherwise would be her sole focus; namely, the tones, shapes, and textures. In short, color is an unwanted visual distraction (and a preattentive one at that, meaning that we cannot choose to not see it, as it is processed automatically by our brain's primary visual cortex). Thus, color - in this case (from my - the photographer's - point of view) adds nothing essential to the intended aesthetic meaning of the photograph.

Of course, in the end, how an image is viewed (and interpreted) is always a matter of personal taste and predilections. I suppose, one could (as an artist) provide a "multiverse" of aesthetic possibilities to viewers (generating not one image but dozens, hundreds, or even millions!... by creating versions in color, black and white, solarizations, alternative processes, photoshopped abstractions, etc.), thereby maximizing the probability that any given viewer will find an attractive image buried somewhere within the pile of images put on display. But that entails moving away from art as conceived, practiced, and crafted by the photographer (and the photographer's own, unique aesthetic vision) to another kind of "meta-art" that depends on the aesthetic choices of the viewer;-)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Luray Cavern Abstracts

"Into the dark beyond all light
we pray to come,
through not seeing and not knowing,
to see and to know,
that beyond sight and knowledge,
itself; neither seeing nor knowing."

"Any man working with the medium
sooner or later impinges,
merges into, fuses with
the fringes of mysticism."

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Luray Caverns Part III: a Harmony of Contrasts

" aesthetic perspective is quite at home in the realm of contradictions, for its very nature allows it to transform them into a harmony of contrasts...value entails a synthesis of complexity with order, novelty with continuity, nuance with harmony, richness with stability...the cosmos is such an aesthetic reality. Both in its constituent occasions and in its overall reality the universe is a process of synthesizing and unifying its composite aspects into novel moments of present aesthetic "enjoyment." "
- John F. Haught, Theologian

This is the third installment of a series of blog commentaries on my recent day-long sojourn into the subterranean wonders of Luray Caverns, in northern Virginia (the first two parts are here and here, respectively). In part II I discussed how I have resolved to deal with - though have not yet "solved" - the "problem" of extreme contrasts of light and form.

What makes the caverns unusual, from a compositional perspective, is not just that the contrasts that are there are so strong (and that, really, visually define how the caverns appear to visitors), but that they are both strong and fixed. The photographer's ability to craft an image is thus constrained in two important dimensions of the (typically much more forgiving and malleable) aesthetic space.

Of course, the photographer still has to journey through the familiar landscape of possibilities and aesthetic design decisions: what to focus on, which forms to include, exclude and/or emphasize, what depth of field to use, what tonal ranges to manipulate in what way in photoshop, what to sharpen and what to leave alone (or blur), etc. But the object of this exercise - the "real world" studio in which the original image is recorded; i.e., the cave - is itself fixed and unchanging. This paradoxically renders the aesthetic choices both easier and harder to make.

Aesthetic choices are easier to make in caves because you are assured of the fact that what is front of the lens now is exactly what was there a moment, or hour, or day, ... before! Whether you turn away for a moment or walk away and come back hours later (assuming the caverns have not yet closed for the night), the "image" you first trained your camera on is still there, identical in every way to the first time you framed it. You can "lose your way" so to speak, and always backtrack to "correct" any errors in judgement, or refine a composition by just a bit, able to fully trust in the fact that "everything will be as it was" except for whatever small nudge up or down or to the left you choose to make now. You are, in fact, traversing a completely unchanging reality (at least in limited timeframes, as new deposits accumulate at the rate of roughly one cubic inch every ~120 years or so); this only adds to the surreal feel of wandering around in the caves - a feeling that is especially strong when wandering around alone.

Aesthetic choices are harder to make in caves because one of the most frequently used tools for "finding the best image" - namely, the ability to simply wait for the right conditions - does not apply. Indeed, part of my meditative state that the title of this series of blog entries alludes to (Joyful Medidations...) was induced by an incessant, semi-conscious, whispering to myself of the mantra "ciwis, ciwis, ciwis, ..." (meaning, the "cave is what it is";-) Waxing a bit philosophical, one can say that caves fuse time and space; insofar as they are (implicitly) expressed by - and compel the viewer to experience as - the spatial dimensions alone. Time is rendered inert and irrelevant. Since I cannot totally separate the left (physics) and right (photography) parts of my brain - even when out and about taking photographs! - I often found myself musing about the idea of how the caves are wonderful way to train oneself to imagine what a totally timeless physics might look like, in which reality consists of an uncountably large set of interlocked slices of "nows" (see Julian Barbour's The End of Time).

As I write this entry, I've completed a preliminary look at the 20+GB worth of raw files I recorded in Luray caverns. The aesthetic gestalt that is slowly self-organizing in my mind, is that of a "harmony of contrasts." Interestingly, and perhaps fittingly, as well, this expressive phrase happens also to be the title of my dad's first posthumous art exhibit in Taganrog, Russia; he and I, it seems, still manage to find ways to connect in the timeless realm ;-) In the first page of the flyer for my dad's exhibit (shown below), "Гармония контрастов" is Russian for Harmony of Contrasts: