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Within the Stone: Nature's Abstract Rock Art [Hardcover]

Bill Atkinson , Diane Ackerman , John Horgan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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'How can the static, the mineral, be so explosively full of motion? Maybe these are chips of the philosopher's stone.' -- Raold Hoffman, Nobel chemist & poet, May 4, 2004

From the Author

While photographing the Arizona landscape in the Petrified Forest National Park, I encountered, in a riverbed, several pieces of petrified wood that had been cracked, and then polished by flowing water. The exposed colors and shapes were captivating. Wanting to see more, I visited several nearby rock shops and purchased a number of beautiful cut and polished pieces of petrified wood.

I brought these polished rocks back home to my studio, studied them to find expressive compositions, and carefully photographed them under glare-free lighting. The resulting photographs were exciting and evocative -even more so than the original rocks.

The photographs looked like abstract paintings. Their shapes and colors showed a timeless mystery and complexity, such that each image kept revealing new secrets. Abstracted from the rocks, the images showed no sense of scale, and provided fertile ground for imagination and wonder.

As I showed the photographs to people, I found that different people saw different things within them, but almost no one saw them as flat polished rocks. The rock photographs were like colored Rorschach tests, encouraging each person to project his or her own personal experiences onto each image.

I sought out more polished rocks to photograph, buying or borrowing and photographing a wide variety of rocks in addition to the petrified wood, and I refined my techniques for photographing them.

For higher resolution and more accurate color than is possible with film, I switched from my Hasselblad medium-format film camera to a BetterLight large-format scanning digital camera. I also researched lighting technologies, and assembled custom high-intensity lighting fixtures which would allow me to use polarized lighting with the new camera. I found that the bright lights and glare-blocking filters brought out the colors more intensely than one would see on casual examination by room light.

The large, fine-art prints that I made of these rock images were well received in public exhibitions and in the galleries that sell my work, but I wanted to share these images with a much wider audience, in the form of an art book.

To find more rocks to photograph, I began attending the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, where thousands of collectors bring rocks from all around the world. Each year, I packed my car full of photographic equipment, drove to Arizona, and set up a professional photo studio in a motel room. I examined thousands of polished rocks, and purchased and photographed quite a few.

I even bought a diamond-bladed rock saw, a diamond-wheeled bench grinder, and a vibrating flat lap, and learned how to cut and polish rocks myself. However, most of the rocks photographed for this book were already cut and polished by someone else.

At the Tucson show, I showed a prototype of the book I was making to rock collectors and dealers, and asked permission to borrow their best pieces to photograph in my motel room. Some of them took prized specimens out of their display cases, telling me that they were not for sale but that I could borrow them to photograph. Thanks to their trust and generosity, I have been able to assemble an extensive collection of beautiful rock art photographs.

Over the years as I kept returning to Tucson, I developed friendships with many dealers and collectors. In general, these rockhounds are a warm-hearted and friendly group whose shared passion for rocks brings them from all over the world to gather in Tucson.

They taught me much about rocks and minerals, and generously shared their special techniques to help me with my own rock polishing hobby. Over dinner and beers they brought me stories of life from very different parts of the world.

Every year I delivered a number of large matted and signed fine art prints to thank those who had allowed me to photograph their rocks the previous year. These were gratefully accepted and cherished and helped to deepen friendships and open further doors for me.

Word spread about me and my book project, and often when I first approached a dealer asking to borrow an expensive rock, they would say that friends had already told them about me, and that I could be trusted. More than once a dealer has held an extraordinary specimen for me to photograph before it sold.

Out of the thousands of rocks that I have photographed, I have chosen my personal favorite photographs to share in this book.

Each photograph is a work of discovered art that begins with the oldest art form, a natural sculpture created in stone millions of years ago, which has only recently been cut and polished to reveal its inner colors and shapes.
Within these colors and shapes, I have searched for evocative and memorable compositions, caputured these images with my cameras, and fine tuned the results to create expressive photographic prints.

As an artist, I have come to believe that beauty is not out there waiting to be discovered. Rather, beauty is created by the human act of noticing and appreciating. I feel that my primary task as an artist is to notice and to appreciate, and only then to share my experience with others.

It is my hope that this book will touch the sensibilities of many people, just as the magnificence in these rocks has touched mine.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


On a sun-crazed veldt I see you,
creeping shadow, as you steal
among grazing sheep and dozy natives,
and a golden-red aurora
flares in the distance, shooting up
lustrous flames from the scalp-land.

Alive in your haunches,
shoulders roll and paws nurse
dry earth, as I inhale three aromas:
sweet sheep, salt men, lambs
already licorice in my mouth.

Sunrise, mindrise, I begin to wake,
heart darting for cover.
My scalp feels singed.
But there are no tigers.
Only the auroras were real.
One eyelid slowly opens
to a gold blur and the purr
of morning sun on my eyebrows.

Still embroidering dreams,
my other eye gapes wide
at a tiger eye staring back,
its amber disk streaked with fire
and one emotion: death feeds.

The carnage that follows
is intimate but not personal.
Afterwards, what remains is earth,
bone, ocher, blood, the auroras bending
from scalp to sky, and just maybe
a lone flamingo pinking by.

Mount Brockman Station, Hamersley Range, Ashburton Shire, Pilbara Region, Western Australia, Australia

"Marra Mamba tiger's-eye" is a specific trade name for tiger's-eye that comes from certain banded iron formations (BIFs) in the Marra Mamba Iron Formation in the Hamersley Group of Western Australia. The top of the Marra Mamba Iron Formation contains a four-foot-thick bed rich in microtektites (silicate glass droplets resulting from extraterrestrial impacts) that was deposited by a tsunami created by an asteroid impact 3.63 billion years ago. The orangey reddish cast of the tiger's-eye in the specimen in the photograph is typical of "Marra Mamba tiger's-eye" and reveals the presence of the same assemblage of iron oxides and hydroxides that color the neighboring jasper band. Tiger-eye's chatoyancy-its silky luster caused by the regular scattering of light among the closely packed parallel fibers of asbestiform silica, best appreciated by rocking a properly cut and highly polished hand specimen gently under a point light source-is maximized by sawing the rough parallel to the lay of the asbestiform fibers, as was done in the specimen in the photograph. A practical difficulty in this lapidary operation is encountered where fibers deviate from perfect parallelism in the rock.

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