“In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is unyielding and strong nothing can take precedence over it. This is because there is nothing that can take its place.”
Tao Te Ching, translation by D.C.Lau
Water is currency, a standard for equilibrium, and the original idea for solutions. As a bellwether for socioeconomic justice and peace, it carries warnings about the consequences of political divisiveness and suggests ways for joining and balancing. Its beauty, value to life and potential for destruction are beyond measure but not appreciation. Water is a metaphor for things that change but remain the same.
As a child, I lived within walking distance of Monocacy Creek, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It represented, for me, a practical boundary of the familiar and a point of departure for imaginary pasts and futures. How old was the creek? Why the impulse to follow its source, one day, and mouth, the other? How far could I explore and return home in time for dinner? At age thirteen, I photographed its rushing water with a fast shutter speed, freezing fluid dynamics and oddly distorted reflections of trees. It felt as though an invisible world was suddenly made visible.
Flash floods glance over parched ground before penetrating it. Clear seeing recognizes what it first dismissed by looking again. A camera can be useful for paying attention and changing one’s mind by the simple act of inclusion. A photograph of water might suggest depth or shallowness, equipoise or emptiness, home or the distance from home, and other predilections of the photographer or viewer. Unexposed film and calm water are pliant, receptive and impressionable. Their surfaces revel in ever shifting forms, but their deeper natures are shadowy and murky, the stuff of desire and myth.
Abstraction is a natural process of the mind, just as one may notice commonalities in disparate circumstances. From the scattered and the peculiar, a conjoined world emerges. A photograph of a puddle or ditch may suggest structures as far flung as oceans and stars. In this sense, photographs represent ideas and questions as much as facts. The mere sight of water carries a primal attraction as well as an invitation to profound, if not heavenly, reflection. A mirage, an unusual expression of imagination, wavers like water. The connection of hope and water may be as old as seeking proper ground on which to live. One might ask, “Hope for what?” If it is a return to the conditions of life, it will be surrounded by plentiful facts yet remain mysterious at the core.
The principles of water are carried within. Cellular communication is a soggy affair. The eye’s cornea assumes its light-gathering form by the slight but constant pressure of the aqueous humor. It bends light toward the pupil and engages the optic nerve, by which the brain learns to deduce external events in clever, though not foolproof, ways. Manipulating objects and questioning judgment are concurrent tasks. Either alters both. None is, nor was evidently designed to be, perfectly clear. A persistent gaze prompts a small but meaningful shift in pattern and sudden change of mind. A close look at a tidy garden reveals uninvited guests. Myriad photographs of moving water are all unique. Though some seem to shimmer, not one holds water.
To abide in the obvious while knowing that much remains hidden is a photographer’s wonderful dilemma and curious treasure. From outlooks on bridges, I sometimes note the circumstances of passage. At the water’s edge, I linger quietly and expectantly. The seepage underfoot is life itself.
Doug Koch 2013