INTRODUCTION to Through A Liquid Mirror
by Thomas Farber
Picture this, a speck of land on the water planer. Cocos Island, three hundred miles west of Costa Rica. Steep cliffs, dense vegetation; gorges, ravines, rain forest. Frigate birds, those klepto-parasites (and cannibals), soaring, soaring. Below the ocean's surface, meanwhile, an oasis: around the seamounts and pinnacles, manta rays, cloud clusters of bigeye jacks, strong currents, and…sharks. Whitetip reef sharks, gray, slender, about five feet long, dozens of them, common as reef fish, generally motionless (being nocturnal), moving away only reluctantly, grudgingly.
If here, in scuba gear at eighty or one hundred feet, if here the whitetips become profane, the hammerheads do not. Hammerheads, some six to eight feet long, head flattened and extended to both sides, an eye far out on either edge. These "lateral extensions" making a width equal to a quarter of the shark's length. This forward wing increasing lift and maneuverability, or improving sight. and smell by spreading the sense organs. The eyes, from the human point of view, enormous, distended. Mouth relatively small, compared to other sharks': jack-o-Iantern leer. Hammerheads frequently moving with a kind of strutting wag, as if hinged in the middle, torso and head wrenching one way, the rest of the body the other. Or, startled, they disappear in a millisecond. Making one realize just how suddenly they could reappear.
Imagine, suddenly beholding a flotilla of hammerheads, imagine the impact of these silhouettes on the cerebral cortex, message imprinted eons ago. Imagine the depth, mirror of the surface so far above; the cold upwellings; currents that threaten to sweep one away from the (relative) safety of the pinnacle. Imagine, then, moving toward the hammerheads. Artist at work.
Or, picture this: the Kona (leeward, southern) coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i, land still being born through volcanic eruptions, ocean forever reshaping, reclaiming, that land. Kealakekua Bay opening out to the deep blue, in the wind shadow of the massive, long, high wall of Mauna Loa (fourteen thousand feet above--and twelve thousand feet below--sea level). The extraordinary human karma here: where, for instance, English navigator James Cook met death at the hands of Native Hawaiians two centuries ago, one of the still--oscillating symbolic moments expressing Past and Other in the Pacific.
The vast lake of this ocean, the also vast vault of the sky. Tropic sun burning the neck and shoulders, reflection of light blinding, disorienting. Glassy conditions, surface for miles improbably calm, flat, silent. Blue extending to seeming infinity as it curves beyond the horizon. Paddling out, leaving behind the primal soup of the reef, its plethora of colors/shapes/urgencies. Here, in mask and fins, down into aqua incognita, a filled but empty space (except for countless tiny plankton, just visible transparent microplanets). In this "tedious waste," as Charles Darwin called it, one's increasingly disoriented given the absence of referents, enormous broad shafts of light spiraling. . . up from below.
Through the quicksilver interface for air, and…dorsal fins slicing the butter of the surface: as if to intentionally confuse things further, the circling wheel of spinner dolphins surfacing, sub-mersing. Of course individual virtuosos catapult through the surface, but it's as part of a group they arrive-- say, one/five/four/two, front to back. Even as the eye sees this, however, the formation alters depth and angle, if without visible movement, image lost just as it's being perceived. Talk about spin control! Another image offered at a different distance, or perhaps now the squadron's also changed 10 one lead dolphin, pod behind. At which point, surprise!, a group's within touching distance, dolphins' right eyes staring, one's own eye now staring back. At the cookie cutter shark bites, for instance, which seem enormous even as one mutters, cautioning against hyperbole, water magnifies. Further complicating the eye-mind dialogue. The dolphins then both suddenly, but without apparent use of force, heading away. And, flukes now moving, spiraling down into what is both trans-parent and invisible. Gone. From the very moment of contact having threatened to move beyond one's capacity to apprehend, having induced exultation, yes, but also almost-- despair caused by the unrelenting effort to fix a sense of them on the retina.
Imagine, then, between trips back to the surface for more air (the dolphins' trips; one's own), and their chatter, the clicking of their echo locating, all the aural appraisal and disinformation...Imagine, after days of paddling, waiting in a kind of dazed floating suspension blasted by light and space... After such shimmering isolation and stillness, imagine if you can the (almost) corollary intensity of a human desire to take, to make--to somehow hang onto--an enduring vision of these miraculous creatures.
When we see the vast blue, we see not ocean, exactly, but surface: master trickster, chameleon, boundary between water and atmosphere, barrier or seal between two realities. Undulating, dancing, bending, stretching, reflecting on each side the world it faces while obscuring the other. From above, the illusion that reality remains the same as far as the mind can see, that even the other side of the mirror is more of the familiar, if distorted. Still, what's concealed makes itself deeply felt --we know there's more than meets the eye. Evoking, as Wayne Levin's noted, "the obsession of science fiction with another dimension that coexists in the same space as our own or parallel to it, the two divided by an invisible membrane."
Reflection: the casting back of light after hitting a surface. Refraction: the change of direction of a ray of light in passing through one medium into another. In the shallows of the ocean, from above one sees objects underwater-light passes through the surface (refraction) and bounces off, say, coral (reflection) and passes back through the surface. The refraction of light, meanwhile, alters how the coral appears from above. Water quickly absorbs ("quenches," Jerry Dennis writes, in The Bird In the Waterfall) all but the greens and blues--reds and yellows in the coral are not seen--and ripples or waves on the surface bend the light. More distortion. In addition, the surface reflects what's above it. Usually sky's blue/gray/white, and, near shore, there may be, for example, palm trees. Thus, looking at the surface from above, one sees reflected light superimposed over refracted light, both images moving as the surface moves.
Below the surface the same dynamics obtain, but here the viewer's suspended within the refracting medium. Particularly in shallow water, images on the underside of the surface may be richer than above--often, there are more objects to reflect. Now coral's seen on the ceiling of the undersurface as a reflection. The light's still bent by the rippled surface, creating distortion. There's less overlaying, but as the angle from the viewer to the surface becomes more oblique, there's a point at which the brighter refracted light from above begins to dominate, obliterating the reflection.
Underwater, one's also in a denser medium. Not only does water absorb more light than does air, but minute floating particles further diffuse the light. (In shallow water, light's visible as it streaks through the refracting medium, reflecting off these panicles as it docs through smoke or fog.) All of which means less visibility; and contrast--the range from highlight to shadow--is reduced, more so with depth.
A vocation: a calling. Where one's led, the path one chooses. Take a childhood with time spent on the water. Racing sailboats off the California coast, on a given day the ocean quite still, jib or main sheet between two fingers, awaiting the lightest puff of wind; or seeing an escort of leopard sharks off Catalina Island; or, in harbor, mesmerized by reflections of the yachts' no-longer-straight lines of rigging and masts. Add to this your family moving to Hawai'i as you come of age: a deepening of the water connection. Later, factor in crewing on a sailing vessel in the South Pacific: running before a storm at sea with bare poles; or floating over the blue-black abyss while repairing the propeller, looking down . . . too far, overcome by vertigo.
Meanwhile, if since childhood you've been fascinated by seeing the world through the viewfinder of a camera, the way things appear at the edge of the frame, pass across it, then vanish. . . and if as an adult you photograph, say, window displays or dioramas, shooting through the glass, making images that superimpose that larger world the windows reflect onto the "make-believe" world of the display-itself intended to simulate the "real" . . . and if you think of glass as a former liquid and know that water is often "glassy" . . . and/or, if as a young artist you're working at "street photography," the gist of which is that the photographer, visually inconspicuous in the midst of lift:, reacts-fast!-to a moment, seeking to catch events rather than objects. . . the photographer then culling those few exposures compelling in composition or in content-which, ideally, transcend what the photographer knew or intended. . . . Given all this, there may come a moment when, long since in love with surf, you purchase an underwater camera and head out with mask and fins into the turbulence and tumult of breaking waves.
Working conditions. For these surf photographs, fins, goggles, and a camera strapped to the wrist, down five to thirty feet, in the path of a collapsing wave, reef perilously close. As a large outside wave forms, visibility of perhaps fifty feet suddenly disappears; in seconds what seems like an enormous cumulus cloud approaches, an engulfing dense fog. Diving down, one feels the strong pull of the wave passing over, and then, as it breaks, spray blown off the crest or lip comes down like an instant of heavy rain. The key to survival in rough water being tranquility further down. Of course, this creates a problem, since you must return to the surface. For air, that is to say.
"I'm slightly toward shore from the surfers," the photographer explains. "The waves are steep; the reef's about four feet below. A board shoots down the face, right at me. I take one exposure, then dive for safety, but the wave's drawn out much of the water. Clinging to the coral, I feel the wake from the fin as it passes inches from my head. Wheeling around, I hit the shutter as the surfer skims across the face of the wave."
Truly, reflex photography: "I have to trust my responses. Not only do the surfers move through visible space in a matter of seconds, but that space itself is in flux. Things happen so fast; my senses lag behind the event. I'm unable to previsualize, but as I react, something triggers my camera before my mind knows what I'm photographing. Then my mind pictures what I think I photographed. Usually, however, my mind is wrong."
The ocean, that great and incessant collector, leading one on? And/or the implications for any artist of what's been begun, what compels. This sequence of flying surfers over time turning darker, suggesting not only mastery/grace/visual surprise but also. . . jeopardy. Then, for the photographer, there's a run of something different. Hanauma Bay on O'ahu, a natural aquarium, marine sanctuary nearly always jammed with busloads of all-too-real visitors, most of whom are in a quite alien environment when they enter the water, and aware of it. The sheer quantity of fish, on the other hand, being somewhat beyond the real, and, odder still, these fish unafraid of humans, aggressive, snatching food from hands, nipping fingers. A strange intersection of the human and the piscine. Where, thinks the photographer, each universe beholds the other, but. . . understanding what, making what kind of contact?
There's the phrase, "a prepared mind." After a stay in the Midwest as a visiting artist, "I was a fish out of water" (spending many hours along the local river to keep sane) the photographer returns to Hawai'i, moving to the Big Island above Kealakekua Bay. Which as if inevitably leads to spinner dolphins, purchase of a used kayak, and humpback whales. To endless hours of swimming, free diving as the dolphins at long last explode into one's presence. To days of paddling, floating off the Kona coast, everything still, until in one absolutely unexpected instant there's a loud whoosh! and a humpback's right there on the surface. The photographer, perhaps not surprisingly, responding by rolling out of the kayak with mask, fins, and camera. To eye level, so to speak.
"I was a little reluctant to use weight belts in an apparently bottomless ocean," the photographer observes, though needless to say he does so to get down quickly, to see marine mammals at their depth or from below. Dolphins move at human speed or faster, he learns, but whales, even breaching, rise in what appears to be slow motion as ten, twenty, thirty, feet and so many, many tons keep levitating according to some cetacean law of hydraulics.
And then, once again: more waiting. Photographer searching the horizon for sign of a whale's blow, scanning the surface for bubbles, swirl, or shadows suggesting movement below. Focusing and refocusing to discern what's no more substantial than a wisp of smoke. If something's visually persistent in the water, the photographer comes to understand, it's usually human. Or dead. And, he learns, "With cetaceans you really have to almost be looking at one to see it. The result is that you start seeing imagining things."
We come from the ocean, they tell us. May, some day, return. Live, like cetaceans, between two worlds. Are "merely highly advanced fishes," icthyologist/paleontologist John A. Long argues in The Rise of Fishes. Not surprisingly, the artist is affected, transformed, by his time in the medium in
"I owe a lot to the ocean," says the photographer. And yet: carried off the Kohala coast of the Big Island into the dangerous Alenuihaha Channel, paddling, hard, the eternity of that first half-hour, without any apparent progress toward land. Diving deep at Bikini: risk of 'getting bent' -of 'decompression sickness' (a euphemism). Or, in the currents at Cocos, the threat of being swept from the pinnacle into the blue in the presence of hundreds of sharks. (Currents: all scuba users know of the drift divers in Palau who missed--only once, but forever--their boat rendezvous.) Thc photographer sobered enough to give his writer/friend the secret formula for developing his film. Just in case. Still, he says without hesitation, speaking of the ocean, "I have a lot to be grateful for."
There's a tale written by Franz Kafka-"A Hunger Artist," it's called. Until recently, Kafka's fable goes, hunger artists in circuses--caged, to show they had no access to food--were in vogue; huge crowds paid to watch public fasting. But times change; starvation went out of fashion. Though utterly neglected, still this particular artist fasted. At long last an overseer discovered him in his cage. The dying hunger artist, still starving, whispered that though he'd wanted to be admired for his skill, the truth was he'd never found food he liked. If he had, "I should have. . . stuffed myself like you or anyone else."
Photographers and water: both of them into magic, conjurers of reflection, refraction. Surely a bond. Then too, there's the ocean's siren song; it's a twice-told tale that one must heed its call. Think of mermaids, among other seductions; or Odysseus, for years still voyaging, allegedly always in order to return home; or the great Polynesian navigators, perhaps driven into the deep blue to build a new life, or with a passion for exploring, or led on by the irresistible, evanescent but recurring tracks of migrating birds. It may also be true, however, connected to the ocean for whatever nexus of reasons, that long since the photographer has no more choice than any artist possessing--or possessed by--so insatiable a hunger.
In the late 1980s, beginning to write what was to become On Water (1994), I spent much of my time out in the ocean reading water, what was right before my eyes, or, on land, reading the art and literature of water. In Honolulu in 1990, I was given a copy of the inaugural issue of Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing by editor Frank Stewart. There I saw a selection of the photographs of Wayne Levin. Saw and was dazzled: I'd found no ocean art so innovatively accurate while also achieving evocative or symbolic truth. Getting the photographer's phone number and posing as a potential buyer--how could I begin to explain to a stranger how much I had to learn from his work?-I made an appointment to see his portfolio.
Sharing an obsession, perhaps not surprisingly the photographer and I were soon together in or on the water. In Kealakekua Bay, my shoulders and arms crying out for respite, dolphins bursting out of nowhere to sonogram one's heart, one's soul. Or, hundreds of miles offshore Costa Rica, surfacing in the detonations of a driving rain, having witnessed more sharks than any human central nervous system could render coherent. Or, off the desolate lava fields of the South Kona coast of the Big Island, swimming down and down in a kind of driven yearning, unwilling to lose sight of a large ray's effortlessly rippling, rippling, wings.
Over and again, at sea level or at several atmospheres below, over and again I've seen this photographer leave my field of vision--appear, so to speak, in the viewfinder of my eyes at the edge of the frame, pass across it, and vanish. The photographer free diving, wake of bubbles trailing from his fins, at a range of fifty or seventy-five feet merging into the murk. Or, in his kayak, scanning the horizon, paddling away from shore though day's waning, toward the sunset and so beyond the capacity to make him out, until he's no more than a filament or a memory in one's eye. This insatiable artist surely as difficult to apprehend as the almost-mirages he's for so many years so ardently pursued.
© Thomas Farber, 1997