Sunday, August 02, 2009

Responsories 2

Are there certain categories or types of images that readily evoke an ekphrastic response—a poem written in response to the image in question—while other images are so "finished" or "self-contained" that they not only don't "need" an ekphrastic response, they don't evoke one? I'm pretty sure that's an unanswerable question, because individual poet's responses vary widely, and context probably matters a great deal; yet it might be worth examining briefly.

I've written about ekphrastic poetry before, as Responsories. I've also written about how this can catch up the viewer and involve them in the harmonics of human experience.

This meditation was inspired by several responses in the past year to an image of mine, taken while on a road trip through Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The road named South Boundary Road in the Porcupine Mountains winds through hills and valleys and glades, and dead-ends at Lake Superior, at the M-107 state highway. Keep going forward and you'll get your tires wet in the lake itself. So there's a sign placed there, which seemed both thoughtful and whimsical to me, and which I made a photo of in fall of 2007:

This image has now inspired responses from two poets that I know of. Jim Murdoch wrote a poem in response, titled "T-Junction," then wrote a long essay on Responsorial Poetry. Now Glenn Ingersoll has also written a "poem" in response to my photo. I'm tickled that an image of mine has captured the imagination of other creatives to this extent: it's one of the best responses any artist could ever ask for, for one's own art to inspire art-making by other artists. It's these responses to art, which are the root causes of ekphrastic poetry, that we want to discuss further here.

I turned left at the sign, by the way, and continued up the ridge that parallels the Lake Superior shore, arriving at a scenic overlook above Lake of the Clouds, one of the most beautiful attractions in the Porcupines. I was on a fall color photo road trip through the Upper Peninsula, and this was one of the more spectacular stops:

(Click on any of the images for larger versions.)

I included the road sign image as part of a sequence of images interlaced with haiku and haibun in a poem titled water & light. When I write a poem sequence, whether it's a series of haiku, or haibun, or other kind of poem, in response to a sequence of images, I find myself interlacing them, so that the two sequences intertwine, winding around each other, and commenting on each other. It's a back-and-forth pattern of responses. Ekphrastic poetry is usually taken to mean one poem in response to one image, one painting or one photo. I find I usually prefer to do sequences.

When I sort through photos from location shoots and studio sessions and road trips, a poem will often appear in my mind, in response to the image. Not every image evokes a poem; most in fact do not. Most poems that get written during this process are short, haiku-like poems; or actual haiku, or haibun. There are some exceptions, such as the long sequence of poems titled Basin & Range, which was written both from photos and from memories, and later adapted as one element of an original short film of the same name.

This is not an innovation, it's actually rather traditional: it was not uncommon, in classical Japanese literature, for travel diaries written in haibun style to be published in illustrated editions. I like to think of my photo sequences when interlaced with poems as being a modern heir to that ancient tradition. It could also be considered as falling within the tradition of haiga, or haiku poems with painted illustrations. I am also currently working on other short films that incorporate my photography, music, and poetry into multisensory media.

The question arises: Why came first, the image, or the poem? Is it truly ekphrasis if the poem inspired the image, rather than the other way around?

In some cases, for example those illustrated editions of Japanese travel diaries, the poem definitely came first. There is a long tradition in most of the world's literate cultures of publishing new editions of favorite poems or stories with newly-commissioned illustrations. New illustrated editions of selected poems by favorite poets continue to be made.

For example, there are several illustrated children's book editions available featuring one of Robert Frost's most famous poems, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." A couple of winters ago, I drove out with my camera into a powerful afternoon blizzard in late December, taking numerous photos, some few of which I then used to make my own illustrated version of Frost's poem. (Another children's book someday? Perhaps.)

There are many images that evoke music in me, as a response, rather than poetry. When I look at photos of the Grand Tetons that I made in September, 2008, what I hear in myself is a great silence, full of wind and light, and then, somewhere off in the distance, a kind of music. A melody appears, perhaps, or a sequence of sounds that are musical without necessarily being tonal. I remember how loud and quiet it was when I made these photos: it was windy and cold, at times during that day, and it had rained all morning before the clouds parted dramatically, just as I arrived at the Tetons. I was in a state of continuous ecstasy, of ongoing exultation, for hours that day, as I drove around in the Tetons, stopping to make photos, but also stopping once or twice just to listen to the mountain silence.

When I sorted through these photos, all I was able to write up were prose travel-diary-like memories and impressions. Now, I can look again at these photos (some of which I have printed and framed to mount on my own walls, as favorites of mine from within my own body of work), and I see myself sitting down at the piano keyboard to respond. This is musical photography, as well as poetic photography.

I am encouraged in continuing my artistic practice in this direction, once again, by the spirit of Ansel Adams, who I felt to be hovering nearby as I made these photos in the Tetons, and who was himself also a musician and a writer. Sometimes an experience is so deep that you respond to it in more than one medium, more than one mode. There is a harmonic of shared human experience between what Adams saw in the Tetons, and what I saw, many years later; there is no doubt a harmonic of human experience between what we both felt, there. Adams wrote repeatedly that his photographs were felt experiences that he interpreted, like a musical performance, during the process of printing, to hopefully inspire the viewer of the images to also have a felt experience.

The musical analogy is a very deep one, in photography; and goes beyond the superficial issue of photographic content.

For example, this is one of my favorite portraits that I've made of a musician in the act of playing music:

Emmett Chapman, Los Angeles, January 2005

The portrait is of Emmett Chapman, inventor of the Chapman Stick Touchboard, one of the principal musical instruments that I play. The portrait is of Emmett's hands on the Stick fretboard. When I made this portrait, I was thinking about how Emmett had invented his two-handed tapping technique for playing guitar in the 1960s, then developed the Stick as a musical instrument to support his innovative playing technique. Emmett continues to be one of the most original thinkers I've ever spent time conversing with. (He also invented an offset modal theory for music theory and performance.)

Here's a more jazz-impressionistic portrait of Emmett playing Stick:

The blur is evocative of the spirit of the music in the moment—it is a response to the music while making the photograph. While many photographers continue to view blur as nothing more than a technical flaw in any photo, sports and music photographers have long used blur as an impressionistic technique.

For me, these photographs evoke sound, music, light. They are responses to the moment the photo was made, to be sure, but even in memory they carry some of the spirit of the moment. If I've successfully captured my felt experience in the photo in such a way that other viewers also have some sort of felt experience when viewing the photo later, I'll be very pleased indeed.

To return to ekphrastic poetry, and to the unanswerable question asked at the outset, I still have no answers. My experience is that some photos are indeed so self-contained, monadic, and experiential in themselves, that for me they evoke no artistic response beyond making and/or viewing the photo. But for other poets, they obviously do. Maybe the road sign photo will continue to inspire more new poems; one might even suggest an exercise along those lines. Pick a photo and respond to it. Make art-making into a dialogue. Open up the conversation to cross over between media often thought to be separate and unequal. And reverse the process, too: make a photo based on a favorite poem.

The possibilities for ekphrastic dialogue—for dialogue it is, this responsiveness—seem open-ended and vast.

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Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I read Jim's poem, read him talking about ekphrastic poetry, then he presented your arrow-sign photo, and I remember searching it for things Jim had not said already. The very familiar road sign struck me and I wanted it to be unfamiliar again so looked for the sign's negative space and there saw a mouth. The mouth called me to write. The photo gave the mouth its setting - tho my eye saw a field rather than a lake! In this the poem illustrates more the arrow sign in my mind than the one in the photo.

I've looked at a number of your photos and, on the whole, they seem to take up all the saying and I don't feel called to natter on in their presence.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I like what you pulled out of the photo. A very different sort of vision, or perspective. I think that's perfectly valid, and quite interesting.

I guess that's what I was getting at, with the original question about an image's completeness: if it seems to already say it all, it might not feel like anything needs to be added. I often feel that way about my best photos. I'm still intrigued by the process, and its possibilities for different artists having different takes on it.

1:55 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I can't speak for Glenn but my poem was a natural response to your photo. I would differentiate this from the considered response. Qualitatively, at least for me, the two are worlds apart. I have written poems in response to prompts before and I've always felt there was an artificiality to the process, like having to have sex with your wife because today's the day she's at her most fertile; the end result may very well be the same (baby = poem) but that's about it.

When I first saw your photo I felt compelled to resonate in sympathy with it. If I can continue the musical analogy, some music makes the hair on the back of you neck stand up but most doesn't. In fact just such a piece is playing at the moment, although an inferior arrangement, and that's the main theme to The Piano by Michael Nyman; every now and then there's a chord change and I can feel this wash come over me.

Much as I'm one who looks for meaning in everything I do accept that sometimes that meaning is so faint that making a big deal out of it is pointless. My head is a filter, as I'm sure is yours, and every now and then a word, a phrase, an image, a sound sticks and we need to work at it to get rid of it. You respond to Nature in a way that I simply cannot. If you think about it, it was the unnatural element, the man-made sign that piqued my imagination. And that's how it should be. The world is full of poets and it would be a dull world indeed if we were all singing to the same hymn sheet.

4:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I like your distinction between natural and considered responses. That speaks to my unanswerable question in this post. The feeling of being compelled is exactly what I'm talking about.

1:53 AM  

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