These Are Not Abstracts

Out & About: Joe Cantrell's photos of the micro-structures of rocks reveal patterns as big as the cosmos. How and why he got those shots.


(EDITOR’S NOTE: Portland photographer Joe Cantrell will give a free art talk from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, May 16-17, in the lobby of the Ellyn Bye Studio of Portland Center Stage at The Armory. He’ll speak about his remarkable exhibition of blown-up images of micro-structures of rocks and minerals that has been hanging there through the recently ended run of the play And So We Walked, written and performed by DeLanna Studi, like Cantrell a Cherokee artist.

Cantrell’s images in this exhibition, a few of which are reproduced here, reveal vast-looking “landscapes” so small they can’t be seen by the naked eye. The amplified images suggest the expansive scale of the universe even in its “smaller infinities” ordinarily hidden from sight in what we think of as tiny spaces. In their compressed physical state the images are hidden from the artist, too, until the camera brings them out. “I’m just a valve,” Cantrell comments on the PCS website. “I point the shiny side of the camera at something, push the button, and things pass through so you can see them, too. Often, I don’t even ‘see’ what I’m photographing; rather, I feel it and am thoroughly surprised when the final image appears.”)


Why This Is, with the stipulation that I am certainly not a scientist, philosopher, or expert in anything, and I’m probably wrong:

We live on a small, rocky planet orbiting an unremarkable star, among more stars in the cosmos than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on earth. Jist a little bitty thang, in Ozarkian. Yet it is entirely possible that, based on our crude fantasies of “significant differences” – race, sex, financial status, nationality, religion, entitlement – we may willfully destroy life on the planet. What a joke on us! Haha folks. Haha. But you know this.

Among the most tragic and dangerous fantasies we live by are our measures of value. Instead of reality-based values, we embrace the artificial constructs of money and power (you wanna see power, pal, let me show you this asteroid hitting New York. Or Mindanao; the effect on New York will be the same). We are, whether we embrace it or not, just moving parts of a temporary assembly of gas and stardust that was once unimaginably dispersed, as metaphorically related as a grain of sand on Cannon Beach and one on a planet in the Orion Nebula. But the bits of stardust and gas molecules that would become Earth and us, coincidentally formed us and became everything we know and don’t know.

SO, IF WE ARE PART OF ALL THAT, from sub-atomic to immense wildly beyond imagination, why do we think that the cosmos of which we are part is hidden to us? It is not hidden. Seeing it means seeing past self-imposed limits and coming to acceptance of the fact that we are there, here, this is the cosmos, just put down your damn phone and earbuds, and KNOW it.

Knowing the cosmos occurs in many ways, on many scales. As far as I know, only one person in human history has single-handedly developed a written language for his people. He was Sequoyah, Cherokee. He was illiterate himself, but knew that Europeans could transmit their thoughts on pieces of paper, by arranging certain marks on them. He decided to create something similar for the Cherokee people.

Sequoyah phonetically analyzed spoken Cherokee, broke it down into eighty-eight syllables, then improvised shapes, some from what he saw in Europeans’ “talking leaves,” and others, where he found them. From these, he built a syllabary that enabled, it is said, a completely illiterate Cherokee to become literate in less than one week. Considering the time we devote to learning our ostensible language, English, and like, I mean, you know, that’s like huge. Less than one week, from not knowing there is written Tsalagi (approximately how we say who we are, Cherokee) to reading/writing. Talk about great American geniuses.

NORTHEASTERN OKLAHOMA, WHERE I GREW UP, got television around 1950, everything live, locally produced. There was an afternoon contest that showed extreme closeup, “abstract” photos of various objects, and viewers called in with their guess as to what the thing was. For me, it was too easy. I won several times. My family would drive 70 miles to Tulsa, ’49 Chevy; I remember “racing” a steam locomotive along the road. Simpler times, stretched perception. We’d collect our loot, which I remember as a three-pound can of Folger’s coffee, appearance on the air, and dinner at Smilin’ Bob’s Fried Chicken.

At 14, I began to learn that by concentrating information around me onto a piece of film, I could make things visible to others who might not be seeing them normally. This ability became an important tool in helping me understand things beyond intellectual analysis. It has helped me deal with a life that has been overly interesting, in the sense of the Chinese curse; memories I’d rather not have.

MORE RECENTLY, I’VE USED DStretch, a Java-plugin app, to make visible pictographs: pigment-based Ancient American rock art that have faded, sometimes becoming invisible. As I have done that, I’ve realized that many of the figures were placed in definite relationship to the rocks they were on, so that one enhanced the other. They were integral to the rock, the earth, not just something slapped up by a graffitist in 3900 BC. One fed into the other; each was the other. Therefore, might not the macro photos of rocks I’d been shooting have a message for us now? Images through deep space telescopes carry profound messages. Shouldn’t universal messages extend down through our tiny perception? What would that ultimate message be?

These images are all focus stacked, some pixel shifted, run through lenses up to 50 years old, but when you consider 4.5 billion years, the whole thing is brand spanking new, even the rocks.

YEARS AGO I REALIZED THE POTENCY of all the pain some of us carry is a potential ally. We can’t get away from it; it is part of us. It continues to be an injury as long as we let it, but by reaching down inside us and embracing it, that energy can become power for our benefit and others’, too. You say, “OK memories, you’ve hurt me and people I love a lot and you’ve been a regular burr under my saddle, but you are me, and I love you.” Give it an emotional hug. Watch the transformation. I think this is similar to many spiritual transformations with different names, but this one was mine. YOU control your own perspective, and what it does with you.

This life has been rough at times, but embracing all that power that is often so self-destructive, making it an ally, and using it for better things is freeing, exhilarating. Stardust! That’s it. We are all, every one of us and every mountain, ocean and star, the same stardust! All these silly artificial delineations, separations, biases, so utterly superficial when we acknowledge that we are riding a microspeck in the universe. The Solar System itself is SO FRIKKIN’ MICROSCOPIC in the grand scale of things, and we’re an odd form of biological growth on a minor planet, with a delicate support environment we’re squandering, and oh my, isn’t the joke on us.

I TRY TO MAKE THE WONDER OF THE COSMOS, as it exists in the world right around us, more apparent to others. It is just as visible to everyone else; we need only look with open hearts and minds. These images belong to no discipline, but I’d rather make visually engaging images of, say, agates, than equally valid ones of, say, a can of beans.

I hope, gentle reader, they speak to you.



Joe Cantrell “spent my first 21 years in Tahlequah, Cherokee County, Oklahoma, assuming that except for a few unfortunate spots, ‘everybody’ was part Cherokee, and son of the soil. Volunteered for Vietnam because that’s what we did. First tour, it appeared to me that the war was not for or about the reasons I’d believed, nor could I see that they existed.

“Returned home, same people I’d always trusted were saying the same things: ‘Commies bad, gotta save their country even if it means putting well-meaning Americans in impossible cultural and combat environments where a racist atrocity was inevitable.’ Had to know what was ‘real.’ Volunteered for another stint in Vietnam, went straight into the Cambodia Invasion, and quickly realized that my first impression of a horrible national lie was valid. Hoping to gain insight, perhaps do something constructive, I spent the next 16 years as a photojournalist in Asia, living much like the lower-income urban peasants and learning a lot.

“Moved back to the USA in 1986, tried photojournalism and found that the most important subjects were football and basketball, never mind humankind. In 1992, age 46, I became single dad of my 3-year-old daughter and spent the next two decades working regular jobs, at which I was not very good, to keep a roof over our heads, but we made it. She’s retail sales supervisor for Sony, Los Angeles. Wowee!

“The VA finally acknowledged that the war had affected me badly and gave me a disability pension. I regard that as a stipend for continuing to serve humanity as I can, to use my abilities to facilitate insight and awareness, so I shoot a lot of volunteer stuff for worthy institutions and do artistic/scientific work from our Cherokee perspective well into many nights. Come along!”





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One Response.

  1. Jerold Dodson says:

    Wow! Joe’s artistry is superb. And his writing very talented. So happy to know him.

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