by William L.Fox with photographs by Marie-José Jongerius
liminal |ˈlimənl| adjective technical. 1 of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. 2 occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. DERIVATIVES: liminality |ˌliməˈnaləte| noun. ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Latin limen, limin- ‘threshold’ + -al.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of William L. Fox’s essay “On the Edge” from our Summer 2015 issue.
To understand why the Dutch photographer Marie-José Jongerius wanted to photograph in the American Far West—in particular that part of it that runs from Los Angeles inland to Las Vegas, south to Tijuana, and north up through the Central Valley of California—it helps to know something about boundaries and contrast. To know why it’s important to behold her work, it’s critical to know about how that dividing line of sight is not a two-dimensional geometrical figure, but a four-dimensional zone we label the liminal.
Eighty percent of everything we know about the world comes through our eyes, such a vast amount of information (100 million bits per second) that the brain is forced to throw away 90 percent of what hits the surface of the eye, transmitting only 10 percent to the brain for processing. That one-tenth of the world is what we see, the light triaged into about two dozen basic shapes. Circles, ovals, rectilinear shapes such as squares, polygons such as triangles, and then more ambiguously, right angles and arcs. Everything we see in the world is assembled from those shapes, which are made by lines that create the inside and the outside, the left and right, the top and bottom. We are upright bilaterally symmetrical animals, and we organize the information received accordingly. What the lines define around vertical and horizontal axes is boundary contrast, perhaps the second oldest visual notion we own after undifferentiated light and dark. It’s a recognition of line that separates us from the cognition of plants.
Boundaries in the environment are what we tend to move along, as they are rich with information, food, and consequently danger. The edge of the forest where it becomes a meadow is where we find the small animals that are natural human prey. They hide in the safety of the forest, but when they creep and hop and run out into the meadow for food, they become visible and vulnerable. We aren’t so different from the raptors that fly overhead, seeking the same visual information and food source. It’s along the borders and boundaries of the world where photographers can often be found shooting, as well.
The human eye roves about a landscape in staccato movements called saccades. A saccade is a very quick sampling several times a second of what is in front of us; it allows us to identify where we are and what’s around us. Saccades follow general priorities in a rough order: What fits in, what’s anomalous, what displays the bilateral symmetry that can mean friend or foe, what’s in motion and in what direction. When we look at a photograph of a landscape, our eyes tend to follow that same prioritized pattern.
The landscape in which we are most secure while scoping out what’s in our environment is one where we can see and not be seen, and you can see how artists throughout history have intuited that scheme and used it. Claude Lorrain framed his landscapes in the 1600s with dark foliage in the forefront, the view of the artist and viewer alike peering out across the boundary of sanctuary and into the sunlit meadows and ponds beyond. American landscape artists three hundred years later were still using the same format, whether it was Thomas Cole along the Hudson River, Frederic Church in the Andes, or Albert Bierstadt in the Rocky Mountains. Anthropologists call this a conceal-and-reveal, or a refuge-and-prospect landscape. It’s our ancestral home, as well as the design of a contemporary living room, the drapes forming a natural screen from around which we peer onto the street.
The human gaze, whether in the landscape or looking at a picture of a landscape, follows rules shaped by our physical relation to the world, and when an artist takes us out to the edge of where our human neurophysiology is comfortable—out from behind the trees or curtains and into places where boundaries become ambiguous—both our unease and levels of alertness are heightened. When we enter the in-between place, where a line assumes three spatial and dimensions and time as a boundary zone—the liminal—we’re aware that we, too, could become prey, if not to actual threat, then to unnamed fears.
The edge of the shade cast by a tree is seldom a sharp edge, but instead a blurred line caused by the fractal arrangement of leaves overhead, the dappling of sunlight through a permeable crown of foliage, and limbs moving in the breeze. Daylight does not terminate in sudden darkness, even in the tropics where the sun seems to drop like a stone into the ocean; there is always a series of twilights—a civil twilight, a nautical twilight, an astronomical twilight. During the civil stage, the first planets and brightest stars appear. The second stage sees the horizon disappear from view to the navigator. The third is that time of the faintest reflected light high in the atmosphere when we think it’s dark, but it isn’t quite yet.
These are temporal zones of ambiguity that give us pause, and, along with the spatial ones, they have their parallels in everything from literature to architecture. Science fiction horror stories are rife with twilights when the world turns strange. Houses have anterooms, and cities have bridges and sidewalks, places where passage is made but people seldom live. Those people who inhabit such domains are referred to as the homeless. Purgatory is another shaded place of indeterminacy, a rite of passage. This is what is meant by the liminal, where the zone between states means to be both inside and outside, up and down, left and right—and yet none of those things. That is where Marie-José Jongerius searches for her images. The name of her project, Edge of the Experiment, was chosen for a reason.
When Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he was working from the work done by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, who in his book The Rites of Passage (1909) described the process of liminaire, the deliberate dislocation of your normal senses into a liminal state of confusion and openness through which pretechnological peoples would pass during initiation rituals in order to gain adulthood or sacred knowledge. The anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983), who expanded Gennep’s research, studied rituals and rites among the Ndembu tribe of Zambia. He noted how the experience of an ambiguous zone can lead to paradigm shifts for contemporary individuals as well as tribespeople and postulated that the theater was a liminal space too, suspension of reality during the performance enabling the audience to undergo a transformation.
To work as a writer with photographers in the field, when they are concentrating so hard they cannot talk, is to become entranced with the landscape, to participate in a shared trance.
Making art is a kind of ritual and never more so than for the photographer setting up a tripod and her 4×5 large-format Crown Graphic field camera, framing the view on the ground glass and bringing it into focus, selecting the moment to trip the shutter. Repeated over and over again, especially for those photographers who also do commercial work, such as Jongerius, it becomes an automatic yet hyper-alert, almost Zen-like discipline. To work as a writer with photographers in the field, when they are concentrating so hard they cannot talk, is to become yourself entranced with the landscape, to participate in a shared trance. To couple that mental discipline with a zone of visual ambiguity, a liminal space, is to risk taking your cognition where it hasn’t been before. This is the terrain where Jongerius is happiest.
This essay is adapted from Marie-José Jongerius, Edges of the Experiment (Fw: Books, 2015).