What Light Can Do

Ekphrasis, writes Marjorie Munsterberg, is a particular kind of visual description and the oldest type of writing about art in the West. The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.

The ability to reproduce works of art has reduced the importance of ekphrastic writing. Nevertheless – some writers still write the most beautiful things to pictures. Here is Robert Hass from the introduction to his book What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World:

The first image is a scrubby, misshapen tree in a field of bleached, scrubby high mountain grasses. The tree casts a mild leftward blotch of shadow, so it must be near noon, maybe eleven in the morning, and in this image east must be right. It’s morning in America and the tree— it’s hard to gauge size in such a landscape; it could be merely a shrub gone wild, but tree or shrub, it could only have gotten to be so formless by having been removed from the ecological context in which it made sense. It is given sense by Adams by being placed square in the center of the rectangle of the picture— center low. There is a horizon just below the middle of the rectangle, and in the distance, perhaps half a mile off, there are telephone poles, which would indicate a road, and just above the hypothetical road, on the left side of the picture where the shadow is, just on the horizon, there is a tiny stretch of black and white that could be a suburb and could be an escarpment of snowy mountains, very far off. The top half of the image, into which the tree or shrub projects, is sky, though “projects” is not exactly the right word, since the top of the tree seems to flatten out. In fact, the tree is almost square, as if the old, fundamental vocabulary of landscape art— earth, horizon, sky, trees marrying them by growing from the earth and reaching toward the light— had been radically altered. And the sky seems to answer to this. It is immense, but it’s streaky, a series of horizontal lines, so that you can almost hear the weather report on a car radio telling you that it is 11:13 and partially overcast this morning in Denver, clearing by afternoon.

What Hass is describing in this ekphrasis is a photograph by Robert Adams, you see it, don’t you?!


4 thoughts on “What Light Can Do

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