Dennis Roth


"Yeats was powerfully drawn to tales in which everything is turned upside down, recognizably topsy-turvy. . . . This idea of inverted kingdoms is summed up in the enigmatic statement that opens his play The Hour-Glass: 'There are two living countries, one visible and one invisible, and when it is summer there, it is winter there, and when it is November with us, it is lambing-time there.'"
Edward Hirsch, the demon and the angel

I have lived in Reston, Virginia for nearly 25 years, and during that time I have walked through its largest nature area many thousands of times. As I walk those woods, I often look at the reflections in the branches of Glade Stream and occasionally take pictures. Like many people, I am fascinated by water reflections. In November of 2001, I was sitting on a log in the woods, and then for some reason I can't remember, I slithered to the ground with my head resting on the log. As I looked into the clear sky near sunset, the trees seemed to be giant reflections in a cosmic sea. Although I was looking up and back, it seemed to me I could just as easily have been looking down from some celestial vantage point. Then I rolled my back over the log as if bridging and got an even bigger sense of the reflections in a cosmic ocean. I wondered if photographs could show these transporting sights. I retrieved an old 28-mm wide-angle lens, which I had never used before, and tried it. The photos are interesting but do not fully express the sense of expanding space, perhaps because human vision does expand with different bodily positions while a piece of film is always the same size and can just pack more objects into its fixed dimensions depending on lens type. Also, no euphoric blood rushes to a camera's head.

Entranced by this reflection idea, I thought I would try hanging upside down over a stream bank with my eyes as close to the water as I could get. When I did, I saw something truly marvelous - a reflected world in which I was part of the reflection or so it felt. Is this what the Tibetan Buddhists mean when they talk about the "Mirror Mind"? - not really but it got me thinking about what that might be. Around 1980 there was a television soft drink commercial with the Caribbean actor Jeffrey Holder laughing "Ho Ho Ho" with a deep resonant voice, while speaking of cola nuts and exclaiming "Mahvellus, Mahvellus"? That's exactly what I uttered when I first saw the Inverted Mirror World.

What happens in this position is that one loses perception of the reflecting surface, the water that is, especially if it is smooth and unruffled, and one sees only the scene and its reflection, one on top of the other, mirror and mirrored, their order reversed, together with an exhilarating sense of water-dissolving space and light. And interestingly for me, at least, in late fall and winter the upper mirror is usually more beautiful than the lower mirrored scene because some of the sky's glare is modulated in the reflection and one sees a kind of otherworldly light more alluring than what is given in a simple downward glance. This contrast is less noticeable when just looking down at a reflection because in that case reflection and scene exist on different planes and cannot usually be perceived in one glance. But in the inverted perspective they are contiguous and water, rather than being just a liquid reflector of light, seems to become a kind of ether that transmits and transforms it.

But then, as Yeats might have predicted, the Gyre turns in April. The pale green leaves come out in the mirrored world, contrasting beautifully with the blue of the sky, which now seems to have lost its harshness, while the darkened hues of the mirror appear somber and its space more cramped. The seasons have inverted.

Also, as my wife, Shirley, pointed out to me after rotating one of the photos 90 degrees, they bring out many things I was not consciously aware of as I was taking them. For instance, by creating bilateral symmetry on logs, branches, rocks, and soil when scene and reflection are immediately juxtaposed, all kinds of totemic animal-like figures appear. Logs become natural Totem Polls and, in fact, I remembered from my anthropological training that many North American Indian tribes believed that animal spirits lived in lodges just below the water line. Is this also the "imaginal" realm that Buddhists locate between the visible and the void, or just an artifact of vision, or both?
The totemic creatures also follow a Yeatsian cycle, at least where I live. They disport most freely from November through March, but, overcome by color and changing shadows, they retreat in spring, just as their cousins in the upright world are becoming more active.

In Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes tells a tale of beings who tried to reunite after Zeus had cut them in two. The poet doesn't say, but perhaps they were encouraged by river gods, no friends of the Olympians, who showed them images of half-beings becoming whole.

Ambiguities of direction are created and in several cases the photos can be turned four ways and different images (and titles) emerge in each case. When curvilinear and linear forms go to the edges of a photo, right and left handed versions of the same image can be seamlessly linked to create larger, more complex pictures. In one case, I have put together twelve to get something I call "Indra's Looking Glass Net." The chances for serendipity and happy accident are enhanced because the symmetries create a kind of four-fold field of force charged with possibility.

Becoming attuned to inverted reflections increases appreciation and awareness of "ordinary" reflections and subliminally stimulates the seeing of reflection-like appearances in the solid, non-watery world. For instance, a foreground horizontal bough seeming to hang over a background row of trees can suggest arboreal reflections dangling over a bank. Or tiered softly lit patches of land can seem to reflect each other. Would it be possible to go from there to see everything as reflected, insubstantial, illusory, oneiric - as Maya?

Several people have asked me whether I could have done the same thing lying on my stomach close to the waterline. They had seen many beautiful photographs of mountains and buildings reflected in lakes and thought the same direct approach might have been used with my subjects. I told them that to get the right angle of incidence, I almost always had to be on my back. The eyes' angle in a frontal hang was a little too large, and, moreover, it did not give the expanded spatial perspective of an inversion. But I conceded that it would be possible to use a 90 degree-angled medium-format camera (like a Rolliflex) or digital cameras with adjustable screens to scan the waterline for possible shots. But that, in my opinion, would be cheating. Experience the Inverted Mirror World. Don't just shoot it!

Of course, there are also computer programs that will automatically create reflections, but an examination of most of the photos here will show that a simple duplication of the parts above the water line will not produce the same results. Refractions, diffusions, foreground objects, and displaced perspective points make for different "real-life" pictures. If taken further, however, computer manipulation could create an endless parade of inverted images. Although with so many other pictorial possibilities available on the computer, what would be the point? The Inverted Mirror World is "magic realism," not fantasy.

Some words of caution are in order before trying this activity. Hanging upside down over stream banks with a camera around your neck can be a physical challenge. It requires physical fitness as well as strong stomach and back muscles. It is relatively easy to get into position, although slipping head- and camera-first into the water is a real possibility, but getting up from an inversion is more difficult, especially if the bank is steep and uneven and you haven't secured your camera to your chest. Injuries can happen, as I know when I severely sprained my knee after rising and taking my first step with an extended off-balance right leg. People with blood pressure or heart problems should not invert.

It is also advisable to practice some discretion when other people are in your vicinity. Since I have white hair, a few people whom I hadn't seen approaching my spot, thought I might be a murdered or stricken geezer and came anxiously to inquire about my health. On one occasion a member of Reston's finest, after apparently seeing my legs flail as I got into position over a local lake, interrupted me in mid-shot with an inquiry after my well-being. After assuring him I was okay, I thanked him for his solicitude and for giving me an amusing story to tell relatives and friends. Those in their primes probably will not have to heed any of these warnings, while many of the even younger spontaneously invert, but, like other things subject to childhood amnesia, they forget having done so as they grow older.

One final word of advice that applies to all but the very young - I learned recently (2/3/02) from Michael Dirda, the Washington Post's literary editor, that the great English "supernatural" fiction writer, Algernon Blackwood, warned in an essay entitled "The Psychology of Places," "against camping on the edge of anything, because this is a frontier between forces. How would the guardians of that world treat us? What would they be like - powers beyond our comprehension, living at a different rate of vibration, and only discernible at the intersection of the two worlds?" So when you go to the interface between air and water (or anyplace in nature for that matter), be respectful and reverent. Don't snap and run. After taking a picture, stop, acknowledge, bow (imperceptibly if need be) and only then walk on.

Most of these photos were taken during late 2001 and early 2002 in the Twin Branches Nature Trail in Reston, Va. on about a mile and a half of wooded land through which runs Glade Stream. More a creek than a stream, Glade is between 4 to 15' feet wide and 2 to 12" deep, although there are places where the water pools to depths of two feet or more. Some photos were taken on the banks of the Sugarland Run stream in Runnymede Park in the neighboring town of Herndon. These streams are far from being crystalline mountain freshets. They are muddy, silted, and filled with the run-off from suburban residential neighborhoods. But in some respects this is an advantage when taking reflection photographs because the silted water and shallow, muddy bottoms can, when the light is right, produce interesting painterly effects. For me, they have been the Perfect Streams. My only regret is that they aren't a little bit longer.

When I first began taking these photographs and getting good results, I tried to return to the same places to see if I could duplicate them. To my great amazement, I could not (and still cannot) find some of them, despite the restricted area in which I was walking and the cues I had from the original images. For a few minutes, this made me think there might be something even more magical in the mirror world than I had thought. Were these visions like the mythical lands of Brigadoon or Germelshausen that arise from the mist only once every one hundred years? As much as I wanted to believe that fancy, a more scientific explanation soon came to mind.

The Inverted Mirror World does, indeed, give a different perspective than a simple rotated photograph. Appropriating a metaphor from quantum physics, which uses mirror rotations to express mathematical ideas of symmetry, it might be said that the inverted and upright worlds do not exhibit simple "parity" because the perceptual and emotional coordinates of the two do not correspond. To find the inverted world one must often just "get down" and unless I wanted to invert over every few feet of Glade Stream, I was not going to find some of the original sites. Also the 28mm lens is the one most suited for the expanded spatial vision of the inverted pose, whereas the 50mm (or perhaps 35 mm) lens is, at least for me, more congenial to most situations in the upright position. That discrepancy makes it difficult to match photographic cues from the two worlds. The photographic image is always fleeting and non-replicable, but it is doubly so in the Inverted Mirror World. So if it is not a magical Brigadoon, it is something equally strange - a beautiful and mysterious world of ultimate impermanence.

Many of these photos have titles. For me giving titles is half the fun of photography. Sometimes a few great words - think of Thoreau - are worth more than a thousand good pictures. I look for humorous or semi-poetic words that point to something in the image I would like the viewer to notice. The trick is to find the right, light touch and not become too obvious or prosaic. So I was especially pleased when I discovered that in the Inverted Mirror World several titles could apply to the same photo depending on how it is rotated. Consciously or not, I always seem to want to relate the apparent subject of a photo to other things - trees and plants with animals, with myths, with works or art, or with principles in science - and so titles have become integral to my photography. When I cannot think of one, even if I know it would be superfluous or out of place, I still feel a certain lack.

I used T-Max 400 film in an old Canon F-1 with a 28mm lens for most of the inverted reflections and a Contax Aria with a 50mm lens, as well as the Canon, for the others. In April 2002 I acquired a Mamiya medium format 645e, which I used for several photographs. Except for a few minor hand-waving attempts at dodging and a crop or two, no photo manipulation was involved.

The photos shown here represent only a small fraction of the the photos taken. More will appear in the future.

Copyright 2002 - Dennis Roth