The earth meets the sky at the horizon line. Always at eye level, this imaginary line sets one’s orientation. After being crushed by grief for so long, to me it is comforting—no, it is essential—to always know my relative physical position on this planet. This line, along with whatever celestial body happens to be hanging in the sky, is my critical formula for right side-up, for being able to move forward, for life.
On my last vacation before COVID, I was snorkeling in the West Bay of Roatan, Honduras, and the floor of the sea suddenly ended. It just dropped. Down a hundred feet from where I hovered. It was as if I’d arrived at the end of the world. One more step forward was a shear vertical drop-off into a vast dark nothingness. The deep of the bay. I tried to see ahead but there was only blue. Losing my orientation to the earth and sky felt like my brain was being squeezed out of my head. Like my very life could drown.
Terrified, I backed away, then turned and kicked and paddled as fast as I could with pounding heart until I reached the sandy shallows of the shoreline and could see where the sunny sky met the sparkling sea. Then everything felt right once more.
My daughter was the texture in my life. Our relationship was a rocky one: gravelly and spongy, sticky and slippery, blistering and subdued, grating and yet grooving. She could make me bristle with rage; she could make me sparkle, percolating with pride. She dented me. And she melted my heart to oozy mush when she smiled at me, her eyelids iridescent with smoky pearl shadow.
When my daughter died my grief was heavy frozen concrete. For a long while, I gathered up feathery flea-bits of memories from the dark depths of sorrow. There was no sense to be found. Only things. The stuff she left behind. Jagged shards, shiny trinkets, and fuzzy stuffed things. What they looked like, what they felt like, and how they made me feel. It’s the texture of life that still keeps me engaged. Believing there’s peace and beauty yet to be discovered, I watch the sky for the next super moon, to witness its light kissing the world below.
When I first started concocting these landscapes, I photographed and rearranged only natural elements. Clouds, sand, rock, moon, trees, water…. But soon I began adding photos of not-so-natural things with intriguing textures that reflected the light in appealing ways. The sky in this scene is taken from the inside of a glass goblet I received as a wedding gift almost half a century ago. The glass reminded me of falling rain or tears, and looking through to the bottom where the stem of the glass is attached, I found an eclipsed sun. Over the sky I added a layer of wavy reflections of young trees from around my pond, turning them upside down to upright them, making them grow anew from a metal lattice grill. The grill panel was photographed years ago when I visited the Old Melbourne Jail, one of Australia’s oldest surviving structures. I wanted to capture something from the original building. How many prisoners had noticed that same grillwork on the wall near the hanging place, I wondered?
At the very bottom of the scene there is a shallow stretch of Cayuga Lake shoreline from a point in Ithaca’s Stewart Park where, decades ago, swans used to swim. The swans are history now. Everything here is history or has a history. Marrying these images together into a fabricated world is, for me, like holding the past, like bringing it back to life. If I were to give names to all my Altered Horizons, I would call this one ‘Resurrected’ since so many of the elements I’ve toyed with here were dragged up from the depths of my closets and files and memories— and given new life.
When my life was upended by loss, I had to redefine myself and re-find my footing in the world. For a long time it took every bit of my energy just to keep myself right-side up. But, although my equilibrium was shattered, I discovered a strange fascination in playing with the up-rightness and stability of everything else around me. In my head, I flipped my surroundings upside down, inside out and helter-skelter, imagining new microenvironments. In a desperate attempt to rebuild stability and balance in my own life, I found myself concocting uncanny otherworldly landscapes.
A landscape, in its bare bones, consists of a sky that may or may not include a sun or a moon, and a ground that may be land or a body of water. The horizon line is the place where the sky meets the earth or touches the sea. It’s the horizon that intrigues me most because that’s the place in-between, where change happens, where all sorts of things are possible. The horizon is the farthest the eye can see. It is the limit or range of one’s experience, knowledge, or interest. The horizon also refers to the foreseeable future. Which is something I doggedly try to control these days.
Digital photography and Photoshop make it easy to indulge in this crazed fabricating of other worlds. It’s all based on reality as I photograph mostly natural elements with intriguing textures. Dropping the photos into Photoshop, I turn trees on their sides to become foregrounds. Oceans become skies. The sun is inverted into a black hole. A rock turns into the moon and an avocado becomes the sun. The tools in Photoshop allow me to invert foregrounds and backgrounds, and invent artificial horizons for these contrived landscapes.
Towards the end of designing each new scene, I build a frame around it. This part of the process is so satisfying. Therapeutic even. It’s like building a nest and carefully wrapping the whole thing up to contain it. To keep it cozy. And secure.
I call these Altered Horizons. Because everything in my life has been altered, changed to some different reality. Not by choice. But in these landscapes I can choose and control—A Someplace. A No-Place—Maybe you would say this is a fool’s-eye view of the world.