VII. Emphasis

This is the seventh posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains it and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

As an aesthetic tool, “emphasis” shows one element standing out or apart from others. It can differ from them in subject matter, color, size, shape or placement within the frame. Whatever the difference, the exceptional element stands out as the center of interest. It’s the most important element and key to the image’s meaning.

The Dynamic

Within a frame, when an element is emphasized by some difference, it commands attention. Once it has been identified, the viewer’s eye moves around the frame but keeps returning to the center of interest in a split-second attempt to understand the reason for its being prominent. Why did the artist want me to focus my attention there? What’s so special about that particular element? What does it mean? What does it say? 


Having one subject stand out from the other elements in a frame is a powerful way to command the viewer’s attention.

If the objective is to communicate information, a difference is enhanced by having many elements that are alike, except for one. In the above image, the element that’s emphasized informs the viewer about gas prices. Alternatively, it could be a comment on those prices. That all the other elements are less colorful makes the sign distinctive.

If the objective is to express a feeling, shock or other emotion, a difference is enhanced by the severity of the difference—the contrast—between the primary and secondary elements—like a plant growing up from the mud.

And there are degrees of emotion that an image will express. Here, the stark contrast of seeing an element emphasized over others that are completely out of place is jolting. It raises a lot of questions.

Emphasis can also be achieved technically, for instance by having many similar elements in the frame, but with only one in sharp focus. Here, the photographer is asking the viewer to make sense of the image. What’s going on here? It appears to be a story. What’s might it be?

Reflections On Personal & Social Emphasis

Artists emphasize an element in order to give it special importance. In our personal lives, we call that “prioritizing,” ranking things in order of importance, often to determine how we want to spend our time. It raises a challenging question: What is most important in my life? Is it what I think it is or would like it to be? Has it changed over the years? Am I spending my time on what I want it to be? Am I deceiving myself, saying I want it to be one thing but in practice, it’s something else? What would other people say is my highest priority? And are my priorities coming from my authentic self or outside myself? There are no right or wrong, good or bad answers to these questions. Their value is in nudging us to reconsider what we think is really important in our lives, especially what resides at the top of the list.

Meaning constellates around values. What we value has become a predictor of what we will buy, how much we will consume, how we will vote, who we will relate to and who not, and to almost every manifestation of private and social behavior and belief. 

Ervin Laszlo (Philosopher of science and systems theorist)

To complicate matters, we’re generally not aware that or how profoundly our priorities are socially prescribed. To begin with, being born in a certain place at a particular time we acculturate to an already specified set of values and expectations. For instance, most indigenous people, notably Native Americans, consider the great man to be the one who gives most of his possessions away, whereas most Americanized Europeans hold in highest esteem those who have amassed great wealth. And the perception of priorities shows up in stereotypes, general patterns of behavior that we ascribe to various groups and nations. “Nerds,” “Athletes,” “Businesspersons,” “Buddhists,” “Germans,” Haitians.” Erroneously or not, the names and labels themselves conjure images or judgments about their priorities, what they emphasize, what they value.  

The difference between whether an organization is mediocre or superb is determined by whether all its individual members are mediocre or superb. The difference between organizations that are mediocre and those that are great is the attitude within each of us — our values and our culture. An inspired organization is simply the sum of inspired souls. 

Lance Secretan (Leadership Theorist)

One of the most important lessons I learned in two years of anthropology classes (one that promoted tolerance and appreciation) was the fact that the basis of valuing across cultures, irrespective of how it manifested in ancient or modern times, was grounded in the need to survive. Consider any human trait, personal or social, the world around—it exists today because it had survival value in the past. It was emphasized and reinforced because it succeeded. For a culture, the memory of survival challenges is so ingrained, these traits or “institutions,” which often became ritualized and the subject of myths, are not easily transformed. Plants and animals, even the human animal, have evolved features that convey a survival advantage physically. In addition, we humans carry the memory of what it takes for our groups to survive and grow. It’s written in our history, and it’s in our DNA. 

If there are any doubts about how to value a 700-year-old tree, ask how much it would cost to make a new one. Or a new atmosphere, or a new culture. 

Amory Lovins (Physicist, Environmental Scientist)

Recent research has determined that the billions of organisms in our gut are constantly sending messages to the brain saying things like: “Eat more salt,” “Lay off the sugar!” and “I’m in the mood for a steak.” They’re emphasizing the elements the body needs in order to maintain a healthy balance. Just so, a photographer’s aesthetic urge emanates from the brain saying things like: “Notice the bark in that tree,” “Pack up the car and go looking for birds to photograph,” “Quick! Get a camera—the raindrops on the leaves are incredible!” We’re drawn to subject matter, and where we critically focus is what we want, perhaps need, to emphasize. Why? Because that’s the center of our attraction—and a clue to our method of prioritizing. For many of us, the exercise of our unique aesthetic is not a frivolous or luxurious activity. We’re compelled to create. For us, creative expression and beauty have survival value. I’m reminded of my artist friend, David Allen Koch, who said, “Somehow, every day, I find a way to experience beauty.” 


When Andrew Wyeth painted Helga he did not make the case that Helga was important; he made the case that Helga was important to him. The first is supposedly some objective statement of reality; the second is a totally subjective statement of personal value. By using his craft effectively, he hoped to make Helga important to us, and that is the purpose of his artwork. 

Brooks Jensen (Photographer, Publisher LensWork Magazine)

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

VI. Depth Of Field

This is the 6th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Technically, “depth of field” (DOF) is the optical phenomenon of a lens that expresses the distance about the plane of focus where objects appear acceptably sharp in an image. Creatively speaking, it’s the relative degree of sharpness between objects that are close to or farther away from a lens. When both distances, near and far, are sharp the DOF is said to be “long” or “deep.” When only the point of critical focus is sharp with the background out of focus, the DOF is “narrow” or “shallow.” 

There are mathematical considerations that affect the DOF, but in practice, the features that concern the photographer are a) the lens’s aperture or f-stop, b) the focal length of the lens, and c) the camera-to-subject distance. Each is an independent variable, but they combine to produce the DOF.


At one extreme, long depth of field—where objects near and far are sharp—spreads the viewer’s attention over the entire image, encouraging the eye to explore all of the details within the frame. When a lens is “stopped down,” admitting little light, the f-stop numbers hover around f16, f22, f32. The higher the number, the longer the DOF. In this range, when “critically focusing” on a near subject, the background will also be sharp—sharper at f32 than at f16.

At the other extreme, narrow DOF compels the eye to stay focused on the point or in the area where the subject is sharpest. DOF is controlled by the choices of aperture, lens and distance from the subject. When the lens is “wide open,” admitting more light, the f-stop numbers hover around f1.4, f2.8, f 3.5, f4. The lower the number, the narrower the DOF. In this range, when critically focusing on a near-to-the-camera object, the background will be out of focus.

Focal Length of the Lens

The focal length of a lens determines the magnification at which it images distant objects. From a given position, a “wide angle” lens will show the sky, plaza, and fountain. (Fountain Square, downtown Cincinnati)

A “medium” or “normal” focal length lens will show a bit of sky, buildings, and details on the fountain.

And a telephoto lens will exclude everything except the fountain and what’s behind it. Here, the camera’s aperture was fairly wide open, rendering the building out of focus.

A very wide angle lens, even with the aperture wide open, will likely render both the foreground and background as sharp. Conversely, the aperture of a telephoto lens has to be “stopped down” considerably in order to keep the background sharp. This is one of the reasons why professionals carry many lenses—or a zoom lens where the focal length can be varied from wide to telephoto. (“The Genius of Water” atop the Tyler Davidson Fountain in Cincinnati). 

Camera-To-Subject Distance

As a camera comes closer to the primary subject, the foreground and background in the frame tend to go out of focus, necessitating a smaller aperture to make them sharp. As the distance is increased, objects, both near and far, tend to be in focus. The camera moving closer to a subject is equivalent to a person moving closer. It’s why in movies, directors prefer to use single focal length (“prime”) lenses rather than a zoom lens. They want the viewer to feel like they are in his or her personal space.  

Reflections On “Personal” Depth Of Field

Our eyes shift from wide to medium to closeup perspectives seemingly in an instant. In photography, we refer to these “fields” as if a setting, for instance, a landscape, consists of separate planes or areas. Of course, they don’t. They’re continuous in our experience. Where the camera is a single and objective “eye” that only records in two dimensions, we not only have two eyes that allow us to see in three dimensions, our perception is subjective—we make sense of what’s in front of us—or imagined. 

This observation is so obvious, it hides the significance of perception as a process of thoughts that make meaning, which in turn drive action. If we consider a field then, as a domain of thought, of consciousness, the question arises: What is my personal depth of field? Considering my thoughts, how deep do they go? Most of the time, when I’m not focused on everyday concerns, where do I place my focus? Certainly, like a zoom lens, we shift between close-in, self-oriented and short-term matters, and broader, more other-directed and long-term thinking. As with a camera, it’s under our control. 

As an organism starts to develop it begins to resonate to a certain field, and the more the organism follows that particular path the more it becomes habituated and goes on developing within that field to its final form.

Judy Cannato

Becoming habituated to a particular field is like viewing the world solely through a “normal” lens. But in every day living our personal DOF shifts continuously. Looked at analogously, it provides a framework for self-reflection. For instance, a camera’s aperture controls the amount of light that reaches the recording medium. So how much light—the light of awareness—am I letting in by exposing myself to diverse perspectives, higher consciousness, creative and inspirational sources? What is currently the depth of my thought-field?

Consider also the focal length of a lens that determines the extent of coverage. Am I taking advantage of opportunities to change lenses, to empathize, walk in other people’s shoes, to expand my field of thinking by observing people and circumstances close up, broadly, and farther away in order to supplement my “normal,” routinized ways of thinking?

And with regard to camera-to-subject distance, am I venturing out, exploring other fields of thought, ideas, and values? Of course, there are no right or wrong, better or worse, responses to these questions, but I believe they provide some interesting touchstones when considering where we are in the unfolding process of trying to live our lives more authentically. 

A person has not only perceptions but a will to perceive, not only a capacity to observe the world but a capacity to alter his or her observation of it — which, in the end, is the capacity to alter the world itself. Those people who recognize that imagination is reality’s master we call “sages,” and those who act upon it, we call “artists.”

Tom Robbins

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” in “Search.”


V. Contrast / Social Contrast

This is the 5th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Technically speaking, “contrast” in the pictorial realm is the ratio between the darkest dark and the lightest light in an image. “Soft” contrast at one end of the continuum indicates that there’s very little difference between the lights and darks, the extreme being a “muddy” or “flat” image, gray overall—as in the image below.


In between the extremes of contrast is “medium” contrast, what we’re accustomed to regarding as “normal.” Contrast is never one thing, it’s the difference between two things. Below, there are bright whites, deep shadows and a full range of grays in between.


At the other end of the continuum, “hard” contrast is where the darks are as black as the medium can accommodate and the whites are as bright as possible, with no grays in between. Here, a duplicate of the negative was made on Kodalith film, a process emulsion that only “sees” pure black and white. Of course, a different composition was necessary in this case. Had the boat been in the center, the image would have been too static.


When considering a film negative, photographers speak of “Dmax” (maximum density, where no light passes through the film) and “Dmin” (minimum density, or clear film). In the digital world, cameras have a built-in histogram that displays brightness levels that can be adjusted for each of the primary colors. Whatever the medium, Dmax and Dmin are devoid of detail. Being able to control contrast is both technically and aesthetically important because it determines the amount of detail that will be visible in the shadows and highlights. 


Aesthetically speaking, low contrast evokes a calm, flat, or soft sensibility. Such images are not seen very often because they’re not generally appealing. Extremely high contrast images are bold, evoking a sense of starkness and clarity. Commercial and fine art photographers working in black & white used to say the contrast adjustments were “right on” when the photograph exhibited “snap,” the full spectrum of tonalities—pure white and pure blacks with a full range of gray tones in between. Ansel Adams equated the tonal scale of photographic prints with that of a piano octave, and his ability to accomplish the full range of tones on photographic paper earned him a reputation as a master craftsman. For that reason alone, his original prints are far superior to the reproductions in books and posters. Seeing many of them when he spoke to our class at RIT, was a formative experience me.   


The first determinant of contrast is the light on the subject. The general rule is to not exceed the camera’s extreme brightness capacity—except in a few areas where it may be desirable or can’t be avoided—and then, look to see that there’s enough detail in the shadows where you want it. To get more detail, add more light. Controlling contrast amounts to adjusting the light on the subject or changing the exposure on the camera. Sometimes both. With film and photographic paper, contrast can also be increased by lengthening the development time.

Reflections On “Social” Contrast

There are innumerable social contrasts I could talk about, but the “elephant” in the nation at this time is politics—the contrast between “liberals” and “conservatives,” “Democrats” and “Republicans.” In the first posting of this series on the aesthetic dimensions—abstraction—I observed that one reason for the political polarization in this country and what sustains it, is the lack of agreement on the meaning of abstract words such as “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice,” “welfare,” “prosperity,” “militia.” Even simple words like “great,” and “fake” can have a wide spectrum of meanings. The assumption that everyone understands or agrees on the meaning of such words contributes to social contrast.

From photography, we can observe that low social contrast, where there’s little interest in public affairs and even less political engagement, a nation’s enthusiasm goes flat; the contrast range becomes contracted and dullness sets in. Feeling disenfranchised or helpless, citizens become disengaged and defer to the preferences of their representatives. The first image above represents this situation. The elements are all there, the subject matter can be recognized, but the expression lacks vitality.

On the other hand, when enthusiasm turns to fixated passion to the extent that neither side can abide the perspectives of the other, the contrast becomes so extreme it results in a war between the representatives, relationships become contentious and the system becomes dysfunctional. Extreme political contrast—represented by the last image—identifies citizens as either a black or a white pixel. You can’t be gray. Extreme contrast is militant: “Choose one position or the other and defend it!” There’s no detail, no middle ground, no substantive perspectives or open-mindedness in either of the positions.

Recent episodes of Madam Secretary and Blue Bloods on television provided demonstrations of how extremely high political contrast can be reduced to a functional level. In both instances, the characters representing the extremes fully expressed their perspectives with well-reasoned arguments, making sure their positions were clearly understood. (In formal debate, the first order of business is always for the participants to define their terms). With the point of disagreement clear, the characters came together and negotiated terms—in detail—that would satisfy both. They compromised and reached a workable, win-win arrangement. 

An argument is reasoned when it’s based on sensible thinking and logic that flows from statistical analysis or proven facts rather than an emotional appeal. For instance, an argument that begins, “The American people want… or know…” is the hallmark of an emotional appeal. Nations are constituted of diverse people having too many perspectives and preferences to be lumped into a single philosophical category, despite what surveys or poles might say.   

At the end of the Blue Bloods episode, Frank Reagan, the NYC Police Commissioner played by Tom Selleck, rebuilt a contentious relationship that had developed between him and his daughter, Erin Reagan, the Assistant District Attorney played by Bridget Moynahan, by citing a particularly nasty hockey game where the players on both sides shook hands after the game. Respect was regained in that situation by acknowledging that, although the game was difficult and people got hurt, the higher ideal of sportsmanship was maintained. I represent that situation in the middle image above.

Social contrast, like pictorial contrast, has to be managed. In the first place, that can only happen when both extremes loosen their grip on how to accomplish a common goal. That requires the participants to have open minds. Once the goal is clearly articulated and agreed upon, the means toward achieving it have to be presented in a reasoned argument on both sides, and that requires full concentration, understanding, respectful questioning and listening, again with an open mind. Finally, and critically important, the participants must consider the maintenance of their relationship as more important than winning any single argument. Shaking hands, having a meal together, meeting each other’s families, frequent personal interaction—these ensure that the next game will be played well.

“Thank you” to the writers, producers, and the cast of Madam Secretary and Blue Bloods. They are prime examples of television that’s socially responsible—showing the full range of tones, not just the extremes.

The critical contrast between seeing and looking-at cannot be overestimated. Seeing touches the heart. Looking-at is cold hearted. The difference may be a matter of life and death.

Fredrick Franck (Artist)

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”


IV. Composition / Social Order


This is the 4th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

In pictorial art, composition relates to how visual elements are organized within a frame. Both Eastern and Western artists through the centuries developed insightful guidelines to help them maintain the viewer’s attention. Aspiring artists and many in the public appreciate that the organization of elements within a frame influences the viewer’s experience of an image. How does it work? How does composition contribute toward capturing and holding a viewer’s attention? Each of the aesthetic dimensions being treated in this series are contributing factors, but specifically related to composition are the principles of unity, balance, focus, and placement. Because these have been thoroughly confirmed as successful across cultures, adhering to the rules, while no guarantee of success, is believed to be pleasing to the eye. At the same time, the rules can and are often broken. My advice to students was generally to have a good reason for breaking a rule.

Visual Elements and Information Theory

An eye for composition develops more quickly by regarding subject matter as elements, the parts of an image that together make up the whole. By enclosing space within a frame of any sort, the message to viewers is, “Look here, I want you to see this.” Imagine a dot like this ( . ) anywhere on a white background that’s framed. That’s one “bit” of information. It simply “says” it exists. It conveys no meaning because meaning derives from relationship. Add another dot, and a relationship is established. The artist had something in mind, and the viewer’s challenge is to make sense of it—if that’s desirable. Add a third dot and the potential for meaning increases dramatically. Instead of a dyad with two elements, like two people talking, there are three. Because the dots are within a frame, the viewer assumes they have some significance, so he or she reaches to identify the subject, understand its meaning, why it’s being shown.

Being human, we tend to anthropomorphize, so the three stones above could be interpreted as parents and child. Which would be the father? Actually, any of them could be, but our preconceived notions assign “him” to the larger stone because men are generally larger than women and children. What might the differences in texture “say”?  When more elements are added, the relationships become more apparent. Each additional element—line, squiggle, circle, form or subject matter—irregardless of size, shape, texture, or color is another bit of information, and the more information there is, the more readily a viewer can create meaning, even perhaps the artist’s intention, mood or preferences. So what’s the story below? What relationship do you see? What does it mean?


Communication Objectives 

In practice, to more consciously create an image, consideration of composition should relate to the “communication objective.” What do I want to say to the viewer, or what do I want them to feel?  Is the intention to communicate or express? Or both? If it’s to communicate, the more visual  elements—information—the better. If it’s to express, to generate an emotion, the starkness of fewer elements—less information—does a better job. 

Unity (Clearwater Skyway)

In the visual sense, unity relates to appropriateness. Are the elements within the frame justified relative to the communication objective? Not one dot, line, surface, form or subject matter is in the frame that doesn’t belong. For instance, the photograph above would not be unified if there was a kite flying in the sky. Aesthetic unification usually requires getting in close, zooming in or changing the angle to exclude anything that doesn’t relate to the principle subject. Unity strengthens the communication objective.

Balance (South Dakota Telephone Poles)

An image is balanced within a frame when the elements are neither bold nor heavy in one area relative to the overall space. Art students are taught to think of the frame as having a fulcrum at the bottom and in the middle of the frame. A balanced composition feels good. An image that’s top or bottom heavy, or heavy right or left, feels “off.” It pulls the attention toward the bold or heavily weighted subject matter, making it challenging for the eye to freely move within the  frame. Of course, if the communication objective is to convey a feeling of instability or attract attention through imbalance, the elements can be purposefully unbalanced.

Focus (Raindrops On Pansy Petals) 

An image is compositionally focused when the subject matter is predominant and prominently placed within the frame. A lack of focus is confusing. What’s this image about? For instance, a seascape that puts the horizon in the middle of the frame top-to-bottom could be a picture of either the sky or the ocean. Which is it? In order for a video camera to be able to zoom-in on a subject and be tack sharp, the operator has to perform a “critical focus” at the point of maximum closeup before taking the shot. Likewise, in composing a still image the focal point is the place in the frame where we want the eye to go first—and return after wandering. It’s the primary subject matter, in that it accomplishes the communication objective. It “says” what the image is about. Again, this is accomplished by going in close, excluding as many secondary elements as possible. Maximizing compositional focus is why photographs taken close up are so powerful.   

Placement (Cincinnati Expressway Underside)

Arguably the most well-recognized aspect of composition has to do with where elements are placed within the frame, and how they are organized. It’s been said that the greatest compliment for an artist is the length of time a viewer attends to his or her work. The arrangement of elements in an enclosed space largely determines how long the viewer will stay with an image, and how their eye will move around the space. In this series of blogs, all the above and all the other “dimensions” to be considered, influence the placement of elements. Placement is an acquired skill, gained by studying the works of the masters, and analyzing our own creations to see what’s effective and what isn’t in terms of keeping the viewer’s eye within the frame. 

Because we read left-to-right and top-to-bottom in Western cultures, the eye is best directed within a frame by having the primary element, for instance a face or animal, situated on the right of the frame looking into the space, or placed at the bottom of the frame looking up. Otherwise, if the subject is situated on the left of the frame, the viewer’s eye enters the space at left and goes off the space to the right, out of the frame. I’ll have more to say about this on the topic of “Vectors.” Suffice to say here, that generally speaking, the rule is to keep the viewer’s attention engaged within the frame, the elements should be arranged so that no line, sight-line, or vector leads the eye out of it.  

(South Dakota prairie dog)
Rule Of Thirds

To situate subject matter within the frame in the most pleasing way, and to better control eye movement within it, artists devised a scheme where they divided an imaginary frame into thirds to create a grid. The “rule of thirds” advises us to not place the principle subject matter dead center in the frame, instead, to place it where the lines of the grid intersect. The illustrations would take too much space here, so I recommend a visit to an excellent site—Company Folders.

Sacred Geometry

Anciently, the world around, artists discovered ways of ordering elements within a frame such that they evoke a noumenous feeling, a sense of spiritual wholeness or grandeur. They found that certain geometric forms, those with specific mathematical properties, somehow set up a resonance within us. And it occurs universally. Here too, the subject is vast, so I recommend a visit to another well-illustrated page in Ancient Wisdom. Ignore the ads. Especially applicable for photographers is the “Golden Ratio,” illustrated by the spiral. It’s based on a 5:8 proportion. I’ve used it extensively for many years to format images and place primary subject matter on the imaginary “sweet spots.” I highly recommend a book, Sacred Geometry by Robert Lawlor. Its many illustrations allowed me to translate the philosophy into tools for everyday use. (Used copies are inexpensive).

Reflections On Personal and Social Order

Composition is all about organization—order, the ordering of visual elements. In painting and photography, the medium is a two-dimensional surface. In society, the medium is the three-dimensional world. In any given space, we observe that the elements within it are organized at one end of the continuum, or disordered, chaotic, at the other. Further, it makes a difference that we not only recognize order and chaos, we feel it. 

When objects—books, chairs & tables, houses, cars, buildings, neighborhoods are ordered, they establish and display a regular pattern or sequential arrangement that looks and feels complete, appropriate, managed. When all our “ducks” are in a row, they’re in a satisfying and assessable alignment. Order and disorder communicate, so we have to be careful in making judgments based on the composition of other people’s environments. For instance, there’s the backyard of a neighbor who has toys and tools scattered all over the place, left out in the rain with weeds growing over them. Then there’s the neighbor who has their toys and tools neatly stowed in a garage, leaving the grass open and well-trimmed. We may be tempted to think the former suggests an uneducated, uncaring person. Even reading these descriptions, it’s likely you formed an opinion. But the disorderly neighbor could have a Ph.D. in microbiology and sing in the church choir, and the orderly neighbor could be an ex-convict building a well-organized collection of handguns preparing for a terrorist attack. Admitedly, not very likely. 

A principle in the anthropology of visual communication holds that “everybody notices everything.” Another is, “What we see we evaluate relative to our history, experience and worldview.” Yet another, “We tend to see what we want to see, and find what we’re looking for.” On the positive side, judgments relating to order help us to place ourselves and others within a social context. On the other hand, if we let them, our judgments can build walls of separation and encourage stereotyping. The order-disorder continuum alone, is therefore not a good criteria for making judgments about people.

Expanding the context from personal to social order, Margaret Wheatley, noted systems theorist and management consultant, offered social principles relating to the subject of order and organizations—how we compose our lives.

  • The messiness that plunges you into chaos never feels good, but it is, in fact, the source of new order. Life is intent on finding what works, not what’s right.
  • Organizations and societies are living systems. We live in a universe that is alive, creative, and experimenting all the time to discover what’s possible.
  • It is the natural tendency of life to organize—to seek greater levels of complexity and diversity.
  • Life uses messes to get to well-ordered solutions.

Expanding the subject even further, to the nature of reality, theoretical physicist David Bohm  developed the concept of “implicate” and “explicate” orders. Using the analogy of a rolled-up carpet, he proposed that we should think of the objective or Absolute Reality as a “pattern” that already exists, complete and fully formed within the roll. The pattern is already there, but hidden. As the carpet unfolds with time, parts of that pattern becomes visible and that’s the reality we experience. Dr. Bohm was one of the first scientists, extrapolating from quantum theory, who theorized that reality and consciousness constitute a coherent whole that’s in a process of unfolding.     

(Industrial Matting)

Chaos is infinitely complex order.

David Bohm

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”



III. Color / It’s Social Significance

Double Rainbow

This is the 3rd of 22 postings in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Objectively speaking, the world is colorless. So is the sun. Our brains construct the sensation of color from various radiating wavelengths of photons, depending on how they are absorbed in and reflected by surfaces. Visible light occupies just a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, constituted of wavelengths that stimulate our brains to interpret them as colors—for the sake of discussion here, the primaries of red, green, yellow and blue. We see a leaf as green because it absorbs the primary wavelengths except for green, which it reflects. 

Light has three properties that affect the sensation of color: “hue” specifies the wavelength and the name we assign to a particular color (red, yellow, pink), “saturation refers to a color’s richness (bland or intense), and “brightness” refers to its intensity.

I  want you to understand that there are no colors in the real world. There are no textures in the real world. There are no fragrances in the real world. There is no beauty. There is no ugliness. Nothing of the sort. Out there is a chaos of energy soup and energy fields. Literally. We take all that and somewhere inside ourselves we create a world. Somewhere inside ourselves, it all happens. The journey of our life.

Sir John Eccles

Aesthetically speaking, there are two phenomena that provide artists with opportunities to maximize color use in order to achieve a communication objective. They are “evocation” and “mixing.” Both have emotional and informational consequences. 

Color Evocation

To evoke is to arouse a feeling. Different hues evoke different emotional responses. Below is a listing of some of the emotions associated with common colors. Several websites go into further detail, describing the colors and the emotions they evoke. Television and video graphic designers are adept in using these correlations to creating emotionally effective commercials and political ads. With regard to evocation, the key question is: What do I want the audience (viewers) to feel?

Red Passion, aggression, importance

Orange Playfulness, energy or vitality, health, vibrancy

Yellow Happiness, friendliness. And negatively: anxiety and caution

Green Nature, stability, prosperity, financial safety

Blue Calm, serenity, security, safety. It’s trustworthy and inviting

Purple Mystery, luxury, romance, elegance, sensual

Violet Calm, spirituality, essence, stillness

Pink Femininity, youth, innocence

Brown Earthiness, outdoors, sturdiness, classy (in light tones)

Black Mystery, power, sophistication, elegance, edginess

White Clarity, cleanliness, virtue, health, comforting, purity

Gray Neutrality, formality, gloom, professional

Beige Calmness. It enhances colors surrounding it   

Color Mixing

Emotional responses to color are also affected by how colors are combined. And here, there’s a spectrum of choices ranging from color “harmony” at one extreme to color “discordance” at the other.

Color Harmony

'71 Corvette  Fern And Window Suspension Bridge

An image displays “harmony” when the colors within a physical or electronic frame are predominantly the same hue. There can be several or few elements within the frame, but most of them will be the same hue. And that hue can vary widely in saturation and brightness. With even a cursory glance at such an image, a viewer will readily say it’s “red,” or “blue.” 

Color harmony is used when the communication objective is to attract attention or evoke a mood. It accomplishes this by being unusual. In our everyday experience of the world, indoors and out, and without a frame, there are so many objects of different colors, it’s rare to find harmony. More often, it’s created. And because it stands out from the norm, it catches and holds our attention. Color harmony is a pleasing sensation.  

Out in the world with a camera, it’s a matter of shooting close and framing the shot to exclude elements with hues different from the primary subject matter. In the studio, it’s a matter of choosing a background, foreground, and other elements that are the same hue as the primary subject, irrespective of saturation and brightness. 

Color Discordance

Rusting Hull Spools Of Thread Clouds

Discordance in this context is the opposite of harmony, a matter of including many different hues within the frame. It’s much less challenging because that’s the visual norm in everyday life. Used deliberately, color discordance works best when the objective is to convey information rather than express or elicit an emotion. It accomplishes this by making each color a distinct and separate visual element. The more elements within a frame, the more information potential it contains—to be extracted or interpreted. Discordance can, however, evoke a sense of clutter, frenzy, or confusion, if any of those are desirable communication objectives. 

Contemplation: The Social Significance Of Color

There isn’t an object or experience I can think of that isn’t influenced or enriched by color. Color is a factor in the food we eat, the automobiles and appliances we purchase, the vacations we take, the creative activities we perform. We use it symbolically to distinguish differing political views, moods, traffic signals, and road signs. Color can trigger an identification, as in products and their logos. Colors are associated with groups according to the clothing and insignia. Astronomers use color to distinguish cosmic features and to measure the distance and composition of stars. Flowers and many birds rely on color for reproduction. It’s central to the seasonal life cycle of trees. And animals use it as camouflage. The list goes on.

American Flag

Colors can unite—an indication of harmony and unity—as when we respect the colors of a flag. And they can divide—an indication of discordance and division—as when we negatively judge or stereotype people according to skin color.

Back Of A Negro Man  Man on Beach

In this regard, I’m reminded of several lessons we learned in our physical anthropology class. For one, skin pigmentation evolved as a process of natural selection, an evolutionary feature that protected against the strong ultraviolet radiation for those living on or near the equator, and the equally important need for those closer to the poles to produce Vitamin D in the skin under conditions of low ultraviolet radiation. In the intermediate zones, human bodies developed the ability to gain and lose pigmentation from season-to-season through tanning. 

Another important lesson relating to skin color is that genetically, no human being alive has pure enough blood to be considered a “race.” The closest in 1974 was a dying group of Australian Aborigines, but even their blood was a mixture of many varieties of human and pre-human species. Now, because of advances in paleontology, we know that there were dozens of branches of hominids interbreeding that led up to “modern man,” some 30,000 years ago.

In  Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color, anthropologist, Dr. Nina Jablonski, writes that in ancient Egypt and other societies where there was dark to light skin pigmentation, “there were inequities of resources, trade imbalances and various kinds of disagreements, but the idea of calling another group ‘other’ because of skin color did not exist.” She cites Carolus Linnaeus as the man who, in 1757, classified human skin varieties as red Americans, white Europeans, brown Asians, and black Africans. A year later, he added categories that described their behaviors—Cholericus Europeans, Sanguineous Europeans, Melancholicus Asians, and Phlegmanticus Africans—based on ancient philosophers who erroneously wrote about human temperament being formed by the intensity of the sun.

Especially enlightening for me, Dr. Jablonski cites Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as the  philosopher who coined the term “race.” He grouped people into four groups—whites, Negros, Mongolians, and Hindus — “according to their potential for civilization, their potential for developing higher thought, able to use reasoning. And these categories were immutable.” It was a rigid and hierarchical perspective that put the white race on top. Significantly, “he never left his living room.” All his conclusions regarding race were based on stories told to him by friends, colleagues, and explorers whose books he’d read. 

One of his philosopher friends, David Hume, wrote in 1748 that “…there was never a civilization or nation of any complexion other than white.” Yipes! Bad information, worse scholarship and philosophy, an expanding slave trade, corrupt and tragic alliances, and greedy commercial interests combined to indicate the inferiority of black people. Dr. Jablonski calls it “An imperfect storm of philosophy, economics, and quasi-theological forces (there’s nothing in the Bible that talks about discrimination according to skin color). All this contributed to the perspective that Negros, by virtue of biology, were inferior, fit only for servitude.”

Her book was amazing, a real eye-opener. And it validated my professor’s lesson, that “race” was entirely a social construct. There is no gene or group of genes common to any group of human beings—anywhere. 

I talk about color-coded memes (culturally transmitted ideas that act like a genetic trait). Color-coded race concepts become color memes that are stereotypes. And this lays the clear psychosocial template for racism. By the 19th century, color-based racism is the new reality in the United States and in many other countries.

Nina Jablonski 

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”


II. Atmosphere

Sheep In Meadow Fog

This is the 2nd in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Atmos is a Greek word meaning “vapor.” Sphaira in Greek means “sphere.” Combined, scientists use the word “atmosphere” to describe the layer of gases surrounding a planet, held in place by gravity. Artists refer to “atmosphere” when weather conditions become apparent within a work of art.

Perspective: Scientists have said that Earth has an atmosphere impossible by the laws of chemistry. Its gasses should have burnt each other up long ago. Yet if they had, Earth would have no living creatures. As it is, every molecule of air we breathe has actually been recently produced or recycled inside other living creatures… Earth’s creatures make and use almost the entire mixture of gases in the atmosphere (which is) held very nearly 21% oxygen all the time. A little more and fires would start all over the world, even in wet grass. A little less and we, along with all other air-breathing creatures, would die. 

Willis Harman

Sun Rays On Corn Field

Outdoors, atmosphere usually occurs naturally in the form of condensation, precipitation, or particulate matter such as steam, smoke, fog or smog. One of my favorite times to photograph is when the weather changes abruptly so there’s early morning fog; being on location before sunrise can extend the shooting time to two hours or more. Fog creates diffusion and the softening of elements closer in. At greater distances, it reduces color saturation and creates blurring.  

Wild Barley

In the studio, an atmosphere can be created in a tabletop situation with an aerosol spray called “Atmosphere.” I haven’t used it for health and environmental reasons, but it’s sold in camera stores and online. I’ve never been a fan of fog filters either. They apply the softening effect evenly over the entire image, which looks unnatural. To make the above image, I set a clump of weeds on a table about four-feet from the computer, which was displaying a photo of a storm taken in South Dakota. The image on the computer was sharp, so to blur it and increase the effect of distance, I set the camera’s aperture to wide open, thereby reducing the depth of field. I made the exposure solely by the light of the computer image. 



Because of its propensity to soften and blur by reducing the acuity or sharpness of objects, atmospheric effects are best used when the objective is to express, to create a mood or feeling rather than convey information. Atmosphere contributes to mood and reduces information.

Reflections On Atmosphere

The atmosphere of a place is its “sensibility,” the impression we get when we enter an environment. Consider the distinction between a restaurant where the floor is concrete, the furnishings are metal or hardwood, the tables and utensils are plastic, the lighting is harsh, and the bare, hard walls and loud music make conversation difficult, with a restaurant where the floor is carpeted, the furnishings are soft and comfortable, the tables are wood with cloth coverings and the napkins are cloth. There’s silverware, soft lighting, barely audible music, and acoustic features that dampen the sound of multiple conversations. These are examples of “hard” and “soft” atmospheres. 

Gas Station Interior

Home and workplaces have characteristic atmospheres. They can be ordered, cluttered, noisy, spacious, sparse, inviting, off-putting, busy, dynamic and more. The same with the meeting, entertainment, and sports venues, gatherings of all kinds. Atmospheres effect us personally. They can depress, confuse, exhilarate, empower, or suppress. I’m reminded of the time Linda and I, curious on a vacation to the Bahamas, entered an upscale casino. In less than three minutes, we turned around and walked out because the rooms were permeated with cigarette smoke. Toward the other end of the spectrum, there are individuals, groups, and places that are conducive to the life of the mind—like libraries and lecture halls, atmospheres where we can experience ideas and values that uplift, empower, educate, and inspire. 

Linda's Bedroom Window

As human beings who seek a variety of experiences, many of us, at one time or another, explore the full spectrum of available atmospheres. With age, I find a definite propensity toward those that are quieter, softer, and gentler, more inspirational than informational, more meaningful than entertaining. It only takes seconds to read an atmosphere.

A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy dare live.

Bertrand Russell

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” in “Search.”


The Aesthetic Dimensions—A New Series

Autumn Barn

This posting begins a series that will focus on the aesthetic tools that visual artists and communicators use, singly and in combination, to create still and moving images that accomplish specific communication objectives. Knowing the objective before we pick up a camera can help us select the most appropriate visual tool—or a combination—to maximize effectiveness. While the aesthetic dimensions (line, contrast, symmetry, gradation, composition…) are discussed in “how-to” art books, they generally don’t make the connection to either expressive objectives or communication strategies. To follow this series, go to <> and click on “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page).

Photography provides a way of relating to the world in ways that are more conscious and engaging. In order to apply image making to these ends and accomplish specific objectives, there are some fundamental questions to consider. Why am I photographing? What subject matter and locations interest or attract me? And what are my aesthetic preferences? It’s this latter question that prompts this series. Being aware of our aesthetic tools as we photograph and then analyze the results, we gain clarity about our preferences, and that’s how we develop an “eye,” the ability to consistently produce images that successfully accomplish their objective. For instance, in the process of attenpting to make photographs that feed my soul, I discovered that the dimensions of Simplicity, Exquisite light and   Geometry, singly or in combination, more often accomplished that objective—images I regard as “numinous.”   

In studying healthy people, psychologist, Abraham Maslow, expanded his “hierarchy of needs” to include “Transcendence” and “Self-actualization” at the top of his pyramid. Just below these, he situated and described “Aesthetic needs, the appreciation and search for beauty, balance, and form.” My postings, taken together, constitute an abbreviated course in visual communication and aesthetics. If you’re serious about developing your “eye,” you could list the titles for reference, perhaps even copy and paste the descriptions to have at hand. Then, as you experience these dimensions in your image-making, by noticing which of the dimensions that hold the greatest appeal, you will be able to narrow and specify your preferences and work more consciously with them.

In addition to the information relating to the aesthetic tools and how best to use them toward accomplishing an objective, I will include contemplations or reflection on the personal and social significance of the topic or a keyword that relates to it.

First In The Series:  I. Abstraction / Abstract Thinking


Glass Candy Dish

Anthropologists and sociologists consider thinking in abstractions to be one of the key traits in modern human behavior. It developed between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. They believe it was closely connected with the development of language. For instance, the word “Happiness” is an abstraction, referencing a state of being. The word “community” is an abstraction that references a kind of social grouping. (Above: An inverted candy dish).

Abstract thinking and seeing involve a process of inductive reasoning, synthesizing particular facts into a general conclusion or theory. In 1620 BCE, Frances Bacon, writing in Novum Organum, encouraged thinkers to collect specific facts before making generalizations. Before then, deductive reasoning was the norm, even prior to the ancient Greek philosophers. For instance, Thales (624-546 BCE) believed that everything in the universe was fundamentally water, and from that generalization, he deduced its forms as ice, snow, rivers, and seas. Deductive reasoning says “X” is bad (or good), therefore every example of “X” is bad (or good). It’s irrational because it begins with an assumption or opinion. On the other hand, scientific thinking is inductive, working from particular facts to develop generalized theories. It says every example of “X” has been proven to be bad (or good), therefore “X” is bad (or good). It’s rational because it synthesizes—constructs truth—from proven facts.

The universe is constantly moving in the direction of higher evolutionary impulses, creativity, abstraction, and meaning.

Deepak Chopra


Railroad Wheels

Artists and visual communicators use abstraction as a way to capture and hold attention. Subject matter that’s abstracted may not be readily identified, so viewers sometimes have to linger a while with an image in order to understand what they are seeing and why the artist chose to present it in a frame. Is there some meaning here, or is it just a pleasing image? (Above: Railroad wheels side-by-side)

'74 Javelin

Taken to extremes in modern art, when the image or form is unconcerned with literal depiction altogether, we refer to it as an “abstract” painting or sculpture. Whereas abstractions bear some resemblance to the real world, abstract works are free from it. I’m reminded of a Steve Martin movie where, confronted with a purely abstract sculpture, he says with a lilting voice, “What kinda deal is that?” (Above: Fender of a 1974 Javelin).

As an aesthetic dimension, abstraction tends to invite the viewer to make a connection to the real world—and thereby make generalizations. Individual to general; inductive.  Purely abstract works, however, more often hide the artist’s intent and in the process create cognitive dissonance, challenging viewers to form their own opinion. Sometimes, the meaning of a work can be suggested by clues in a title, explanation, or artist’s statement. 

Abstraction demands more from me than realism. Instead of reproducing something outside of me, now I go inward and use everything I’ve learned thus far in my life.

Susan Avishai (Artist)

Hull Reflections


In photography, abstraction is is an excellent tool to use when the objective is to capture and hold the viewer’s attention longer than if the subject could easily be identified. This is particularly the case when the photographer wants to challenge viewers to work a little harder to identify the subject and ideally to seek its meaning or significance. Because abstraction is largely a matter of minimizing easily recognizable features, it’s not good at providing information at a glance. (Above: highlights from water reflecting on the hull of a boat).

Reflections On Abstract Thinking

Psychologist Carl Jung wrote about abstract thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. In each instance, he said the process is inductive, requiring the rational-logical mind to assimilate and process the particulars in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding or feeling. In whole systems terms, it’s the relating of parts within a whole, ordering them in ways that produce a concept, picture, or sensation of the whole. Inductive process is higher order thinking in that it synthesizes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

The same is true in social relations as an organizing principle. In Nation Formation: Towards a Theory of Abstract Community, Paul W. James argues that “a nation is an abstract community bringing together strangers who will never meet, resulting in real but abstracted and mediated relations—as opposed to personal relations.” At election time the American social climate becomes supersaturated with abstract labels such as “liberals,” “conservatives,” Democrats,” “Republicans,” “nationalism,” “democracy,” “socialism.” If asked, twenty people in separate rooms would provide twenty different opinions on what these abstract words mean.

Even the guiding principles of the United States Constitution are expressed in abstractions—purposefully, to allow for interpretation—which ensures vigorous debate. Generalities such as “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice,” “welfare,” “prosperity,” “militia” are polarizing because we don’t have a common understanding of their particular meanings. Politicians use abstract terms to gain votes and pass legislation. Words like “jobs,” “civility,” “great,” and “integrity” are never defined, leaving the context—and too often the attitude—for us to create meaning. Take the word “integrity.” Adolph Hitler was a man of integrity, totally convinced of the soundness of his vision for Germany. And he remained true to it until the end. In my opinion, one of the great contributions that journalists could make is requiring politicians and other interviewees to define their terms—be clear about what they mean—specifically. 

Pay attention to minute particulars. Take care of the little ones. Generalization and abstraction are the pleas of the hypocrite, scoundrel, and knave.

William Blake


U.S. Flag

Systemically speaking, “the whole organizes its parts.” That’s what a Constitution does for a nation. With that in hand, it’s incumbent upon the parts—“members” in a living system—to function simultaneously on two levels: self and others, that is, to continuously maintain the health and functionality of the individual, while ensuring the health and functionality of the wholes within which the members play a part. It’s right relations from individual to planet. (Above: An American Flag abstracted).

The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.

Edsger Dijkstra

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in Search.



Fence Shadows On Snow


Precious silence often accompanies a fresh and heavy snowfall. The contrast between it and the sounds we normally tune out, calls our attention to it. We go outside to watch and listen closely. We even seem to breathe easier as the snowflakes make a barely perceptible sound. Before the shovels and snowblowers come out, before the sounds of laughing kids and car engines turning over, there’s that moment when we stand still and relish the quiet.

I made this photograph in one such moment. I remember it well because it was one of those instances where, after I made several exposures, I lingered a while to listen to the stillness and watch as the evening light gradually diminished. For me, the sensibility of silence in this image is reinforced by the iron “guards” standing at attention with their spears, oblivious to the cold, wind and coming darkness. The regularity of the spear-shadows contrasts with the chaotic shadows of the trees, suggesting an integration of humanity (orderly lines) living in harmony and nature (disorderly shadows). Further, I notice that although the shadows take different forms, their brightness values are the same—a visual demonstration of unity in diversity.

In my experience silence seems to encourage more silence. Might the memory of past quiet moments, having been so refreshing and enriching—sometimes eliciting awe—prompt us to thirst for more? I think the centering that comes from being in nature at any time of year can be attributed as much to sound as to sight. The song of a bird, snow falling or leaves crunching underfoot, dripping or falling water or wind blowing through the trees are just a few of the sounds that connect us to the deepest roots of our physical being.

I find it curious, the role that the fence plays in contributing to the sensibility of this image. It seems the evocation would not be as potent without it. Wrought iron, being metal, dark and black somehow looks colder than the snow itself. Its spears, literally frozen in place, enhance the qualities of cold and silence. Workers and travelers often see snow as a nuisance. Kids see it as an opportunity for fun and a day off school. Practical considerations aside, stopping to take in its beauty and listen to the sounds of silence can be very enriching.

When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.

Ansel Adams

About This Image

Title: Wrought Iron Fence In Snow

Theme: Silence

File #: DSCF 0967

Location: Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, OH

We are fortunate in Cincinnati to have an enormous, beautiful and well-maintained cemetery that’s also an arboretum. I’ve been photographing there since the early ’60’s. Its many ponds, diverse trees, and landscaping make it as much a garden and woodland as a final resting place. I’ve photographed the monuments, but more often work the angles to avoid them. Whenever the snow is deep enough to cover the simple gravestones I pack up the camera, bundle up and head to Spring Grove Cemetery.

It’s only in late December and January that the shadows get this long before the place closes at 5 pm. On this particular day, the temperature was in the teens. My hands and feet were freezing. But considering the result, it was worth it. When I downloaded the file I thought the shadows were too saturated. After softening the blue and adding yellow to see how it would look, I decided to forego the adjustment. Also as a test, I straightened the fence to make the first “spear” perfectly vertical, but here again, I decided not to alter the image. The benefit of leaving it alone was an increase in the number of fence shadows in the distance that otherwise would have been cropped out.

Christmas Card


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, Woods on a Snowy Evening





Winter Solstice — Renewal

Sun On Horizon


As December 21st approaches, I reflect on the significance that the winter solstice held for indigenous peoples and mark it in my own life as a way to attune, as they did, to the order and rhythms of nature and the cosmos. Having studied Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the ancient Maya, for forty-five years, I use them as my general reference here. But all indigenous cultures the world around, from Egypt to Indonesia, had rituals based on the summer and winter solstices.

Without instrumentation, the ancients developed their understanding of the world by observing the movements of the sun, moon, planets and other celestial bodies. The sun was viewed as the creator because it was known to be the source and sustainer of all life—an observation that is, of course, accurate, whatever name we attach to the sun.

For the Maya, Ajaw K’in, “Lord Sun” and his movements were therefore of primary concern. His risings and descendings made the day, and his journeys made the seasons. They didn’t take continuance for granted. Were the sun not to rise—perhaps from not being fed properly with prayer, incense and blood (considered the sacred sap of life; without it, there is death) the world would end. Every day, the sun’s ascension from the underworld was considered a rebirth. His dying, indicated by his descent at dusk, was seen as the necessary precursor for his rising or rebirth. The cyclical pattern established the model for everything that lives.

Every morning, for hundreds of years, generations of sun priests got up well before dawn and stood on the steps of a temple facing due east to observe and mark the position of the sun, sighted initially to distant poles on the horizon, and temple rooftops later on. From June to December the markers showed the sun moving in a southerly direction. Then, on December 21st or 22nd, the winter solstice, something astonishing happened. (The exact date can vary by a day depending on the location and year). The sun “rested.” It stood still. The next day the journey began again, now in the opposite direction. Continuing their observation, on the summer solstice, June 21st or 22nd, the sun paused again and began “his” journey southward.

The significance of this “turnabout” for the ancients was that it indicated a time of rest and changing direction. It was a time for renewal, new beginnings, and rebirth. Logically, since the sun and the other celestial bodies (all perceived as gods) were so orderly in their journeys, the way to honor them and encourage their continuance was to emulate them. As a consequence, ritual practices derived from the notion “As above, so below.” One of the reasons why I was attracted to the Maya was that they, more than any other culture, to a remarkable extent, modeled every aspect of their lives on the order, patterns and processes they observed in the sky and in nature. And they sustained that perspective and rituals for millennia.

For me, the winter solstice serves as a reminder to appreciate and align with the order of the universe, and pause to reassess my life’s journey. Is what I’m doing on purpose? What can I eliminate in order to better focus on what truly matters? Are my priorities consistent with my authentic values and goals? Am I doing at least one thing every day to realize my potentials, goals or dream? And might this be the time to prepare for or take a new direction?

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.

Black Elk

About This Image

Title: Sunset Over The Gulf Of Mexico

Theme: Winter Solstice and Renewal

File #: DC1444

Location: Indian Rocks Beach, FL

Just being at the right place at the right time with a camera.