I held out my foot, and pointed the camera… the reflection of black shoe and white skin in the black gloss desk was interesting. Thought provoking… just a reflection… perfect symmetry but as a negative colour. “Our lives are just a collection of images, aren’t they?” said my son. “Just reflections of the images our minds perceive.”
We had been talking about photography again and looking at some of the images he had taken and discussing why they work… or not, as the case may be. One in particular caught my attention… a black and white rendition of ducks on what looks like the edge of the Rimfall of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is surprising how much difference the black and white rendering makes to a shot. Uninteresting, everyday objects seem transformed and we look at them in a new way. They evoke a different response.
When I was a very young woman, my grandfather gave me a camera. I had always enjoyed taking pictures, but knew nothing of ‘proper’ photography. This new camera was a pretty basic SLR and I had no idea how to use it and determined to find out. I recall the moment it all changed and I began to see the creative possibilities of photography. I saw something from the top of the bus on my way to work and, that evening, grabbed the new camera, donned the boots, hat and scarf, and tramped through the village in search of a picture. I had never done that before… until that point I had done no more than take snapshots of places, people and events. But the long row of telegraph poles, high on the hilltop stood starkly black against the snowdrifts and I found that I really wanted to take that shot.
I never became a ‘proper’ photographer, amateur or otherwise; I still just take pictures. Grandad’s old SLR died fairly soon afterwards on a Spanish beach and life had other plans for me than letting me play with cameras. But that brief interlude, learning to see through the restriction of a lens, left its mark. The observation that comes with wielding a camera doesn’t fade, and the world took on a visual richness and a depth of interest that remains.
Processing photos is an interesting thing to observe too. The addition of deeper shadows can make colours sing and light dance and sparkle, changing a picture from mediocre to arresting in seconds. Sometimes a detail may drawn the eye and, with a little judicious cropping, the image of something familiar becomes an abstract work. Or perhaps you capture a moment in glorious colour, but change it to monochrome instead. Such changes can be startling, altering what we percieve and how. They change the mood, make us think; lifting us out of the ordinary and dropping us into unfamiliar territory. Our points of reference are altered, or taken away altogether, and it can be difficult to decipher an image at first glance.
Playing with the settings on the camera and idly snapping away at my son’s home as we talked, perceprion, recognition and memory were all called into question. Our lives, as my son had said, really can be compared to a collection of images, string together as memories. Moments perceived quite often in black and white, then coloured by memory and emotion. Sometimes those inner images are altered by abstraction from their place in time, or we turn up the contrast so high that we can’t really make out what we are seeing. The filters we apply to experience make things feel unfamiliar when we look back at them in memory.
When the shadows are very dark it may seem as if they are all we can see… yet we are not really seeing shadows, or an absence of light, just its interuption. Light and shade go hand in hand. You cannot see one without the other. On a photograph, it is the shadows that throw the light into relief and allow it to illuminate what we are seeing. In our lives, the dark times are the backdrop against which we can see what we have lived and who we are.
Shadows dance in the firelight. A hand, warm upon cold stone, where many other hands have rested. The breath of the shaman, blowing ochre, staining the wall at this moment of passage. Rite of recognition within the tribe. Kinship and continuity indelibly inscribed upon the body of earth
The restaurant is quiet now, many of the tables are empty. Sunset gilds the weathered stone of the window frames and casts ghosts of a beautiful day across the table, igniting the ruby heart of the half empty glasses. The woman tapping away at the little keyboard glances at her companion. There is an expression of deep concentration, emotions flitting across the unguarded face… She smiles. He is lost in the story, seeing it played out on the screen of imagination, reading from the heart, feeling the joy and grief of the characters. The book in his hands is a dream made concrete, the ephemeral made real. Her dream, his reality. From the back cover her own face smiles back.
An old story plays out in images on the flickering screen, acted to perfection by movie stars, long dead perhaps, but here, forever, captured in an unending moment. The story may have no basis in reality… or perhaps it does…but the grief of she who weeps for her son is that of every mother’s tears. Alone in the dark, tears course unstoppable…rivulets of pain and compassion… from cheek, to throat, to breast… back to the heart that watches, a mother’s heart who knows that grief. The acted emotion evoking a response, a mirror, in the reality that observes the fantasy.
Faded photographs, a tapestry of images… instants in time captured by the lens and brought back to life by the sight of the heart. Memories carry presence from the now to the then as eyes read the story of the past. The emotions are not then, but now.
Paint rushes across canvas, swirling and curling like dust-devils in the heat of summer. You can feel it beating down on the unprotected head. Energy flows in every line and curve…passion made visible, calling to something deep within your being
The music begins and you are lost in images born of sound and emotion, carried upon wings of imagination shared across centuries, heart to heart with unspoken words….
School dinners. It is not the same smell… but so close you are instantly transported back to childhood, feeling once more all the small details of that moment, recalling the taste of a favourite sweet, perhaps, or the comfort of a touch. For a scintilla of conscious time you are a child again.
You will have noticed a bit of a theme going on here… images, brought to consciousness through the senses and evoking emotions that are not images or memories in themselves, but, here and present now. Many spiritual paths over the ages have advocated a leaving behind of the things of the flesh, divorcing ourselves from the senses and focussing our attention firmly upon the higher and ethereal realms of spirit. I cannot, nor I think, can anyone say with any certitude, except that of personal conviction, whether this is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about things. There are and have been mystics of all faiths and paths that have embraced this concept with their whole being and who have come to a personal enlightenment. There are others who have embraced the world and all it offers and who have also reached that level of spiritual beauty.
For me, personally, and for the Silent Eye, we have chosen the latter path…or perhaps it is closer to the truth to say it has embraced us. The idea of turning away from the world, for me, implies a separation from the Divine, by whatever name we choose to call It. The world in which we live, the bodies we inhabit, the creatures, great and small, with which we share this planet… our home… to me are all expressions of the One.
Even as a child the idea that we should turn from ourselves… away from how we were made, the tools we were given with which to experience the world… seemed odd. Though I was raised in a rather unusual family with wide ranging religious and spiritual beliefs, I live in a nominally Christian country, went to Sunday School and learned from the Bible. It says, quite clearly, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Genesis 1:27. KJV. In fact, in the same phrase, the point is hammered home thrice.
Now, the Sunday School child, with the child’s simplistic viewpoint, could not quite grasp how, on the one hand, we were being taught that God was omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent… yet had obviously got it all wrong, because we had to be ashamed of our bodies and their functions, deny human emotions and senses and try to become perfect. Surely, I thought, if God had created us in His image… like a mirror… we were already perfect in His eyes?
Ah, said the Sunday School teacher, smiling beatifically… but there was the Fall… the expulsion from Eden…sin….
Hmm… thought the child, rapidly learning to keep quiet… but didn’t God create the Tree, the Apple and the Serpent too? Maybe He knew what He was doing? Maybe, they too were part of His plan, His perfection?
Decades passed, symbolism and abstract thought were engaged upon and explored, beliefs changing and evolving as life added to the store of knowledge and understanding…yet this idea always stuck, unshakeably, in my mind.
Maybe, just maybe, the things of this earth were meant to be experienced and learned from? And perhaps the senses we use to move blindly and often blandly through life were the gateway to a deeper understanding? And when I realised that it is through the senses that we touch the deepest emotions that began to make sense.
There is a difference between being a slave to the senses and using them… the same difference perhaps between using opiates for medical purposes and for the recreational escapism that ends in addiction. The one offers release from pain, the other dependency.
There is no guarantee that the reality any of us sees is the same as that seen through another’s eyes. We all see the sky is blue… but how can we tell if what I see as the colour I call blue is the same as the colour you see? We agree, by consensus, that it is blue.. and can replicate our own version of blue in other things… but who is to say my ‘blue’ is not actually your ‘green’… just called by the same name? Our perception of the world is unique and personal, but we have a consensual language with which to share experience.
Perhaps the only area where we can touch each other’s reality at a deep level of true understanding… where we can communicate heart to heart, wordlessly and in all simplicity… is through the emotions… and our emotions are accessed through the senses. Think about that; without the physical senses we could not feel… indeed, most of the language of emotion describes sensation… we feel, are touched, we hurt….
There is another phrase from the Bible that also stuck, “…a sword shall pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:35
Emotions are universal, timeless and understood by all. Once experienced they are part of us and we recognise them in ourselves and in others. Empathy, not sympathy. Compassion answers grief, eyes meet in joy, tenderness meets need… a wordless understanding that transcends all other forms of communication. Who among us that has experienced the heart-piercing sword of loss cannot feel it in another? The thoughts of many hearts, indeed, become clear when we allow ourselves to listen to our own.
Maybe just being human can bring us closer to each other than we realise…across time and space, across all political and geographical divides, leaving an imprint of emotion that others can understand, miles and millennia apart.
A picture falls from between the leaves of the book. She looks at the photograph and smiles involuntarily, taken, just for a moment, back to that day. They look so happy. That necklace… the colour of her eyes, he’d said when he gave it to her…
It had been a beautiful morning, mild for the time of year but with enough of a chill in the air to make the climb pleasant. He had never taken her there before, though she had seen the hill from a distance and he had told her why it held such a special place in his heart. She understood that. There were places that held her heart too.
They had walked up the wooded slopes hand in hand and he had shared memories of a childhood long gone, painting vivid images with his words, telling his boyhood fantasies built around a landscape of dreams.
They had sat on a wall at the top of the hill, looking across the wide valley, laughing. Happy. The photograph taken at arm’s length… two faces alight with love and joy.
Long ago, now. Lost. A memory as fragile and precious as the petals of the rose pressed between the pages… there had been a bouquet once… She had been happy once. For a little while. Still she smiles, though the tears come. They always come. It is just a photograph…
We tell stories all the time. Whether we are recounting our day round the table with our families, or speaking of times long past or even dreams yet to come. We use them to share information about things, people, places that matter to us; to convey, perhaps the emotions we have felt and the events we have experienced… to frame them so that we can share more than words, so that we can evoke a resonant emotional response from our listeners and bring them beyond mere knowledge of facts to a place of understanding.
The accumulation of knowledge is akin to owning an encyclopaedia. It is a database for reference, for the collating of information. We turn to this database constantly in order to move through the world, navigating its difficulties and hurdles, making our decisions based on facts and figures learned and stored against future need. Yet it is pretty tasteless fare.
Do we actually learn anything at all, other than the facts themselves, from this accumulation of knowledge alone, no matter how much we may specialise in any given area? I don’t think we do.
We only learn from it when the imagination and the emotions become involved in the process, because it is these that bring knowledge to life and transmute it into understanding.
Even with the most basic of examples we can see how that works… Your mother told you not to touch because it would burn. You know it is ‘hot’. Yet you place a finger in the flame. It is hot, it burns, you will not deliberately choose to do it twice. Knowledge told you to avoid the flame and you made a choice based on experience. Yet it is only because you have now felt the heat of the fire, remember how it felt and almost without thinking imagine it happening again, calling up that mental picture, that you will not only avoid the flames yourself but make every attempt to protect those in your care from having to experience it for themselves. It is an understanding born of experience.
Here too, the mental image painted on that inner screen tells a story that communicates more than mere facts. Even if we never consider the hows and whys of our storytelling, it is a device we instinctively turn to in order to share understanding.
Medieval churches were painted with images of saints and martyrs, both as inspiration and as warning to a congregation that could not read and did not understand the Latin of the Mass. Images of the love of Christ as Good Shepherd, of the sacrifice on the Cross… of the maw of Hell that awaited sinners and the beauties of Eden that were there for the attainment of the good… Few words were needed in a world where images were rare and the church so rich in them. Add in to this equation the parables and the stories of the saints… stories that engaged emotion and spoke to the people at a level they could understand through their own experience and one can see how the Christian fathers found the way into the hearts and hopes of the common folk.
In the same way the propaganda machines of governments use imagery to insidiously control the masses, whether as obvious as some of the darker passages of human history or the drip-fed propaganda of the media today, each with their own political allegiances and agenda.
Stories and images…especially when combined…have a profound effect on the mind and emotions. If a stranger asked you for money you would undoubtedly say no. If that same stranger tells you how children…just like your own… are suffering from poverty or famine, shows you images… tells you names… you are very likely to have your hand in your wallet without being asked.
Smoke from the torches stings his eyes, making it difficult to see. The dancing flames bring the animals to life, a magical hunt galloping across the walls of the cavern. It is warm here, sheltered from the icy blast of the wind. Here he will spend the dark time when the sun is weak in the sky. Not for him the warmth of the hearth and the laughter of children, he is alone in the dark womb of earth.
They bring him meat from the home place, the caves that look out onto the grasslands. They bring him water and wood for the flames. And the old one brings him tales of magic to weave on the walls, gratitude for survival and a plea for good hunting and rich life as the seasons turn.
They bring him the clay and stones that make the colour and he turns the earth into hope on the walls of the cavern… the place of the gods.
Bison stream across the painted plain, horses and aurochs, lions and bears…even the old one, the shaman in his feathered mask and his staff. The walls run with game and magic… the stuff of life.
Over seventeen thousand years would pass before these paintings once more captured the imagination of man. Yet the magical caverns of Lascaux are young in comparison to the oldest paintings that still survive. More than forty thousand years ago an ochre handprint was placed on the wall of a cavern in Spain, an intimate touch of life preserved. It is so old that we do not even know the type of man that made it… it may even have been one of the much maligned Neanderthals. Over the course of the next few thousand years other images were painted there… a red orb, a whole wall of handprints, horses… Why? We cannot know, only wonder.
What we can know is that our forefathers saw something magical in the making of images…the capturing of a moment in time and pinning it in paint or relief on a wall.
The oldest evidence of artwork goes back even further and the controversial finds at the Blombos cave suggest that our passion for images and colour goes back perhaps as far as a hundred thousand years.
The Blombos finds in South Africa are not accepted as art by the whole scientific community. They consist of geometric patterns engraved on pieces of ochre… many of which are rubbed smooth as if they had been used for grinding pigment… and which, it has been suggested, represent mere doodles rather than holding any significance. From the perspective of a painter, rather than a scientist, my contention is that to doodle requires that one understands the concept of making an image… and is therefore still art.
Many so called primitive cultures have used abstract geometric patterns, sometimes symbolically, sometimes simply as just that… decorative patterns. Yet are not all such designs symbolic of something seen or observed in the natural world?
The fragments of worn ochre at Blombos may have been used to paint something that has not stood the test of time and preservation as well as the walls of deep caverns… our own fragile flesh. Think of the indigenous peoples who still practice body art of this kind, where the lines and dots weave a symbolic story across the flesh of the wearer. Are they so different from the fashionable tattoos that are placed upon our skin as a permanent memorial to a person or event?
From the first moment an image was drawn with a stick in the mud, painted on a body or a wall, moulded from a lump of clay… or even recognised in the strangely eroded rocks that scatter our landscapes… imagination took on new depth and with it thought could find a language of expression that trancends.. may even predate…speech. And it is from these humblest of scratchings that literature, philosophy, and beauty have been shared across time and history.
What is writing, after all, but a collection of images… symbols… that have come to be understood through a consensus of meaning? Yet long before we teach our children their first ABC they have learned to recognise images, for we live in a world of pictures, snapshots that change moment by moment…every second that our eyes are open we see them, and when they are closed we watch them flit across the screen of the mind. Images are communication, both with each other and within ourselves.
Today we live in a highly visual society, where television and cinema, digital images and high impact advertising constantly bombard our eyes with information and colour. But when we strip it all back to basics, how much difference is there between the way we use images now, and the way our forefathers used them… to entertain, to inform, to teach… even to control and direct. Because it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Each one tells a story.
I have spent a lot of time lately working with two dimensional representations of multidimensional states. No, I don’t mean anything arcane and mystical… or something that belongs in the realm of science fiction either. I’ve been working with pictures.
We tend to think of dimensions in spatial terms of height, length and depth. That of course is how we are first taught about the whole affair in school and why would we question it? We simply accept that we live in an apparently three dimensional universe, and that an image, for instance, is only a 2D representation of a wider reality… a symbol, if you like. It has become widely accepted that ‘time’ makes a fourth dimension… the difference between how things were and how they are. Time travel has become such a popular idea through literature and entertainment that none of us boggle at the possibility… even while we accept it may well be impossible in practical terms. Time, after all, although an abstract idea, is something we can observe in action. Or perhaps have simply learned to accept.
The Quantum branch of scientific thought throws other dimensions into the mix… it gets more abstract the deeper you go, but even here it can be simplified into the scales we understand through our own experience in many ways. The next two dimensions take into account the idea of the future… again, something that simply does not exist that we take on trust will occur.
According to the theory an infinite number of futures may exist and the determining factor is the act of choice. For example there may be a perfect 3D cream cake in front of me, placed at this moment in time right within my reach. The future now depends from the point of choice… do I choose to eat it or not? Further futures may run off in all directions from this moment… it may be the tipping point for my waistline or cholesterol levels, it may be the only thing I eat today and so be fuel rather than fancy… or I could feed it to the dog… give it away or drop it on the carpet… you get the idea. My choice determines the future path of the universe, even on this infinitesimal scale.
Except that the scientists then go on to posit multiple possible universes too, each with their own branching futures from points in time. Last time I looked at the research and theories we were up to a ten dimensional reality and it seems that science is finally catching up with ancient esoteric thought that captures just such concepts in symbolic imagery. You have only to study some of the pictorial symbols to understand how those multiple dimensions can be expressed in two.
I was wondering about even further dimensions we can add to the list… okay, perhaps, they are not strictly scientific examples of dimensionality. They may, however, be sub-headings of others, but they are just as abstract, invisible and yet observable. They are closer to home too. Maybe they correlate to the different ‘worlds’ of esoteric thought… modes of expression or levels of function. However you look at them, they are certainly contributing an added dimension to how we observe past, present and future. Not only that, they are determining factors in how the microcosmic universe that is ourselves moves through the fourth dimension of time and, more pertinently, they shape our future as effectively as the act of choice.
I, for example, have been working with photographs the past few days. Opening each image there is immediately the dimension of memory. With it comes the attendant dimension of emotion: the emotions associated with that captured moment and also with the people and events that cluster around it in memory too. One image of a hillside, for example, recalls both the event, my companions and the warmth of the emotions attached to all of those. I see the image from several perspectives… through the lens of a present now past… yet which is no longer past because it is once more present; the emotions and thoughts that were then and which are once again now. Yet I also see them from the perspective of now and the passage of time may have altered those emotions so that the past itself takes on a different hue. This is the dimension of perception.
Those are personal dimensions we bring to every single second of our lives… and they are different for each of us. That same image will, to another observer who participated in that same moment, bring completely different memories, associations, perspectives and emotions. To one who was not present, the view will be different again. The experience and its interpretation… and therefore the effect upon the future… is unique for every one of us. Every time.
There has been a lot of research done on the nature of perception and memory and their critical link to attention, which seems to be yet another dimension. Basically it appears that our brain takes shortcuts and the physical world we perceive and believe we interpret is based upon a mixture of actual sensory input, such as an image for example, and our own preconceived beliefs built up over a lifetime. The brain has to both perceive and believe… and if the two don’t match up we either change or beliefs to fit the reality we perceive… or we change reality to fit our beliefs… and behave accordingly. The trouble with that is the attention we give to the conclusion of that alchemy; once the belief is formed in accordance with our perception it sticks and there is little we can do about it…. And whatever our perception of now… even if we have drawn incorrect conclusions… our point of choice starts here and defines our future.
Considering this I was reminded of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe where “Mice are merely the protrusion into our dimension of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who, unbeknownst to the human race, are the most intelligent species on the planet Earth. They spend a lot of their time in laboratories running complex experiments on humans.” Just how many dimensions do we live in at once? How many other layers, less scientifically provable are there to our existence? Are we the man or the mouse in the equation of own pan-dimensional reality?
These incredible examples of optical illusion are the work