THE INVERTED MIRROR WORLD
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 -
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
photos shown here represent only a small fraction of the the photos
taken. More will appear in the future.