Fish and Bird

Arizona Papago Park Hole-in-the-Rock landscape sunset
Fish and Bird, 2017

Last year, while on a field trip with some students, I made a shot of this cave on my iPhone as it was all I had on me. Last week I was back with another group of students, this time with a camera in tow and a plan to get the shot done right.

After hiking up the mountain and setting up my gear, it took about 45 minutes to get what I wanted. All I needed was the sunset, a plane, and an unobstructed view. The sunset was a matter of waiting, as was the plane (it’s a fairly busy flight path). But this is also a popular hiking spot and people come in and out of the cave every few minutes, often pausing in front of it to take in the view. Timing the plane right without having anyone coming in or out of the cave was a maddening task. I persevered and got off a few successful shots to choose from.


Fly In The Eye (iPhone)
iPhone snapshot from previous year, 2016


I had succeeded in matching the iPhone shot I liked from the previous year and it was time to go. The other chaperones and I had told the students to rendezvous back at the bus by 5:15. It was now 5:12 and I still had to hike down. Then, as I was packing my gear, I took a few steps to the left and noticed the mountains had changed and were lit up in gorgeous, golden layers that weren’t visible from my previous vantage point. I quickly got out my gear and set everything up again, hoping the view would remain clear.

Two planes came by in succession, the first pass was ruined by a hiker coming up through the mouth of the cave at just the right (or wrong) moment. I had a clear shot on the second one and took it. I quickly checked my image, crammed my gear into the bag and headed back down the mountain at a quick pace.

I arrived at the bus about ten minutes late and everyone was loaded and waiting for me. Of course they gave me a hard time about it, to which I responded “I’m the teacher so I make the rules… but I’m also an artist so I often break the rules!”

Identity Crisis

Cut to a week later, I had uploaded and processed the image but could not think of a title for it. I settled on The Eye because that was the original metaphor I had seen when I made the iPhone shot the year prior. But I wasn’t really excited about that title. In retrospect, I should have let it simmer a little longer. My last minute change of camera position had significantly transformed the picture (compared to the original iPhone shot I was trying to re-create) by altering the shape of the cave’s mouth and the mountains in view beyond. I posted the image anyway.

A follower on Instagram commented that he saw a whale in the negative space of the cave mouth. From that point on, all I could see was the exaggerated cartoon-ish profile of a blue whale. The airplane was almost perfectly positioned to be the whale’s sleepy eye. Every time I see the image now, I hear Tom Waits’ song Fish and Bird, a whimsical tale of hindered love:

“They bought a round for the sailor

And they heard his tale

Of a world that was so far away

And a song that we’d never heard

A song of a little bird

That fell in love with a whale…”

– Tom Waits

I don’t normally change the titles of my images after I’ve put it out into the world, but I just had to in this case. It was a much better fit. Once again, I’m willing to break even my own rules when there is good reason. This exchange between me and my Instagram follower also highlights one of my favorite aspects of art; the give and take between artist and viewer. I put my work out into the world, hoping to reveal unseen beauty to those willing to look with me. Occasionally, there is a reciprocity where the viewer helps me to better see and understand my own work.

Fish and Bird – Detail