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There is Nothing More Surreal Than Reality Itself -- Brassai

I have a bit of a taste for surreal – not the over the top Salvador Dali type. I prefer the less flamboyant Rene Magritte “make me think about it” type.

Thornton Wilder’s play “The Skin of Our Teeth” is one of my all time favorites. (Especially the production we saw in which the protagonist was a deaf actor who signed his lines while the actor nearest him said them and the ASL interpreter on stage stood frozen)

But I digress.

In photography (stand a little farther away from me – Bill Jay’s ghost may smite me with lightning any second) I regard Man Rays’ surreal photographs and Bill Brandt’s “Views on Nudes” as ostentatiously arty and, well, boring. Duane Michals’ and Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s eyes for surreal are more my speed. It took me a long time to figure out why I liked the works of these two photographers -- work that is light years away from what I do and to which I usually gravitate.

I have taken very few photographs that I would claim to be surreal and this is likely the king. Even for it there is a rational explanation of what was going on – perhaps “rational” is a bit of an overstatement but let’s go with it.

Fort Worden State Park, 1990

Fort Worden is a decommissioned coast artillery post that is now a state park. During spring school break a local not-for-profit hosts week-long workshops for gifted high school students from small schools around the state than cannot afford such luxuries as enrichment classes. Most of the workshops are arts related but a few aren’t – I did a computer science workshop there for several years.

The scene of this photograph is on the access road along a high bluff overlooking the Straights of Juan de Fuca. The pipe, perhaps 50 feet long, originally carried electrical cables down to an observers’ pillbox at the edge of the bluff. The fellow in the beret was the leader of a music workshop. He, his students, my students, and I went for a morning walk before class time.

The pipe sparked a conversation about how an organ pipe works – a column of air passed over a vibrating reed at the base of the pipe produces a fundamental tone determined by the length of the pipe. It also produces tones that are harmonics of the fundamental. One of the kids asked if that would work on this pipe. Why not. Let’s try it. The fundamental tone for a pipe that long is far lower than a human voice can sing but there ought to be a harmonic that would work.

The kids trooped down to the other end of the pipe to listen leaving their instructor and me (fortunately with camera) on the road. He began singing into his end of the pipe – starting with the lowest tone he could muster and sliding up the scale. After stopping to pant and catch his breath a couple of times an outburst of laughter came from down the hill. So he took a deep breath and sang that tone as loudly as he could – greeted with a gale of laughter.

Apparently I don’t have the imagination to stage surreal photographs – as opposed to Duane Michals or Ralph Eugene Meatyard – but I did catch this one.


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