On July 20th, I blogged about the photographs of Beth Yarnelle Edwards, and I went on a bit about an image named Friedo that shows a little boy running madly through a long white tunnel, and I said at the time: “This is one of those great recurrent mythic themes, the long passageway of birth, moving towards the light, or perhaps it is the rebirth that some primitive cultures create as a rite of liminal passage, It shows the great joy of youthful motion and is symbolic as much as it is literal.” I have been more than a bit concerned that you might, as a result of this statement, think that I have taken some kind of Freudian pill or at the very least that I am myself quite mad. It’s partly because of this that I have introduced the mythic context as a way of looking at photographs.
For the last year, we have been talking about photographs fairly randomly. But if you think about it or are keeping score, you are going to realize that tunnels keep cropping up. Besides little Friedo we have Abelardo Morell’s rabbit going down the rabbit hole in his Alice in Wonderland portfolio, the tunnel through the woods in our discussion of surreal images, Peter Gedeis’ journeys to the center of the Earth, photographs of construction of the Second Avenue Subway in NYC, and even Timothy O’Sullivan’s magnesium powder photograph taken deep in a mine on the Comstock Lode. The bottom line is that tunnels are everywhere, consciously or subconsciously.
Think about the earliest pictures that we have. Figure 1 is an example – petroglyphs from the great cave at Lascoux in France. This was not a walk in the park but it was exquisitely spiritually profound. You had to crawl on your belly through narrow passageways carrying torches. But when you reached the cave the world was suddenly and miraculously transformed. The flickering torchlight made the drawings come to life and dance on the walls. You had achieved a mythic plane.
Call it what you want: myth, meme, or recurrent theme. This is what tunnels mean and do. They transform you from where you are to a magic place, to a higher and sometimes a lower place. Beowolf descends into Grendel’s cave to do battle with him. Bilbo Baggins follows to battle dragons and Gollum. Alice descends down the rabbit hole to “Wonderland.” Dorothy descends up the tunnel like vortex to Oz and the Emerald City. The list is pretty much endless. Indeed, in classical mythology and literature there are so many gods and mortals like Irana, Orpheus, Odysseus, Persephone, and Dante descending into the underworld that you start to worry about a traffic jam. The point is that when you see a tunnel in a photography think magic, transformation, and passage. You’ll never be too far off target.