Rock Show

In the summer of 1853, painter John Everett Millais and writer John Ruskin traveled to Brig o’Turk, a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands, with their friend Sir Henry Acland and Ruskin’s wife, Effie. The purpose was for Millais to make a portrait of the writer in the rugged landscape. 

While Acland held the canvas steady on the rocks and swatted away midges, and Millais painted al fresco, Ruskin himself took to drawing rock formations along the freshet where the painter worked. The large drawing of Gneiss, With its Weeds was the poster art for a 1993 Phoenix Art Museum exhibit, “The Art of Seeing: John Ruskin and the Victorian Eye.” I fell in love with the drawing on sight. 

It had everything I respond to: texture, detail, close observation and an attention to the world as it is that is as close to love as is possible to hold for the inanimate world. Ruskin was an astonishing draftsman and many of his drawings and watercolors are part of the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford University. I much prefer his visual art to his writing. Ruskin was probably the most important and influential art critic of the 19th Century, and I find his writing truly insightful, but I would rather crack gravel in my teeth than have to read his prose, which is the heaviest most tedious sort of Victorian fustian possible. Sentence by sentence, lightning flashes; paragraph by paragraph, he is soporific; chapter by chapter, he makes you want to point a pistol at your uvula. 

Here is a chapter opening from his Stones of Venice:

You better rehydrate after reading a paragraph like that. Best to take Ruskin in wee small doses and think him a genius. His shorter sentences can be memorable — in a good way. 

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies, for instance.” 

And rocks. Stone carved and molded, left striated and torn by time and weather. Many of Ruskin’s drawings are of stone, or rocky outcrops.

“It is not possible to find a landscape, which if painted precisely as it is, will not make an impressive picture,” he wrote in Modern Painters. “No one knows, till he has tried, what strange beauty and subtle composition is prepared for his hand by Nature.” 

Ruskin believed that close attention paid to the things of this world reaped benefits intellectual and spiritual. That a minute inspection of a piece of turf, such as Durer painted, contained all the seeds of a spreading universe. Indeed that questing after spiritual rewards through oneiromancy, divination, crystal ball or thumps under the table, would lead away from the genuine sense of transcendence available from simply paying close attention to the here and now. 

He wrote in Modern Painters: ”The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, — all in one.” 

Hence his willingness to spend weeks on a simple drawing of an outcropping of gneiss in a watercourse clumped with weeds. 

(And weeks not paying attention to Effie, who received her attention from Millais, who also made numerous sketches of her. He painted her sitting beside a waterfall, or quietly sewing, with foxgloves tucked into her hair. He also helped Effie with her own drawings, took long walks with her in the evenings and sheltered with her under a shawl, waiting for the rain to stop. In turn, she read Dante to him. She eventually left Ruskin and, after an embarrassing annulment, married Millais. Embarrassing in that it turned out Ruskin had never consummated his marriage and was actually panicked, on his wedding night to discover that his bride had hair “down there.” His beloved Grecian marble goddesses did not. Ah, but they were stone. As for Effie and Millais: They had eight children.)

But back to that 24-by-28-inch drawing. It has stuck with me for all these years. There is something about that smooth-weathered gneiss that ticks a sympathetic spot in my psyche, purely sensuous. I can feel its surface in my imagination, its hardness and texture. The roundnesses of its protuberances. The very temperature of the stone under my fingers. 

And in my own work, I have often attempted to mimic its sense of texture and quiddity. I have photographed many a stone face. 

Actually, I have been photographing rocks for long before I saw the Ruskin drawing. Some of my earliest remaining images are of rocky landscapes, and the first show I had, almost 40 years ago, was titled, “Rock Water Green.” 

At first, when I was young and ignorant, I wanted to make stunning landscape photographs. Inspired by the work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro, I wanted to capture the sublime in black and white. 

But over time, I became much more interested in using the camera to focus, not the lens, but my attention, and more often, on details rather than grand compositions. That aspect had always been there, but now, it became predominant. 

But, because I was working in silver and chemicals, almost all of it was in black and white. The advent of digital gave me an opening to a different way of seeing — in color. Color and black-and-white are completely different things; monochrome emphasizes form and texture while color almost makes you forget the form. Shadows are the jewel of black-and-white and the bane of color — they can leave shapes impenetrably confused. It took a while to become comfortable with the added dimension and new way of seeing. (I haven’t given up black-and-white, but now use them for different purposes. I still love the range of grays from glare to inky black.)

And the new dimension changed my approach to photographing stone. At first, I sought out the garish, like these rocks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stained with iron rust.

And I had the 20th-Century prejudice towards lining things up parallel with my picture plane. I thought of the rock faces as if they were abstract paintings. 

These are from Schoodic Point in Maine. I have always been attracted to the textures of the rocks, even when thinking of them as if they were paint on a canvas. 

But visiting the Mendenhall Glacier north of Juneau, Alaska, I found the rocks to be, not paintings, but sculptures. The shapes advanced and receded, jutted and sunk, rounded and jagged. And I found myself spending the better part of a morning making a series of images emphasizing their three-dimensionality. 

And, instead of the garish color of the rust, I delighted in the subtle blues and grays of the stones, cooler and warmer shades of the stone. 

And the texture, wrinkled or scratchy, matte or glossy, is something I don’t only see, but feel, as if on the tips of my fingers. Shelley wrote: “The great secret of morals is a going out of ourselves,” and art, even so minor a one as my gleanings on the surfaces of stone, is a form of sympathy. When I watch dance, I feel in my muscles the twisting of the dancer’s legs. When I hear the swelling of strings in Brahms, I feel it in my chest. When I see the colors in a Monet waterlily, I recognize the world I inhabit. It is not enough to see or hear the art as something separate from oneself; one must not merely recognize oneself in the art, but rather one must feel the unity.  

This rock I photograph is me. I don’t mean that in any vague New-Age way, but in the real sense that the shapes and colors we share are the stuff of my own realization of myself as part of the cosmos. 

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see.”

Click on any image to enlarge

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