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Sep, 29, 2006
Vineyard Gazette
Reflectionist Marcia Smilack Pictures the Sounds of the Sea
written by Rachel Nava Rohr

Reflectionist Marcia Smilack Pictures the Sounds of the Sea


Only five senses? What about the colors of musical notes, the personalities of numbers, the genders of letters, the shapes of sounds, the feelings of images, the architecture of time and the taste of seeing that particular shack in Menemsha (Neapolitan ice cream)?

"I was 25 years old before I understood that everyone does not perceive the world as I do," said photographer Marcia Smilack, sitting on her porch in West Tisbury. Ms. Smilack has synesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which two or more bodily senses are coupled.

In the past 15 years, Ms. Smilack has gone from a writer and teacher with no knowledge of cameras or photography, to a celebrated photographer with admittedly still very limited knowledge of cameras or photography. But it is unlikely that knowledge of lens filters, exposure methods, digital tampering or even photo cropping would enhance her work. Ms. Smilack uses her synesthetic response as a guide to know when to snap the camera shutter; the product needs only a frame.

"I take the picture when I feel a certain sensation," she said. "I could use a disposable [camera] and get almost the same results."

Ms. Smilack has several kinds of synesthesia, but the most prominent is that she sees sound. Every sound - whether a voice or a note or a chord - produces a unique visual image. Her photography is based on the reverse synesthetic response: hearing what she sees. She clicks the shutter when she hears music, like a chord or the sound of one particular instrument.

"I don't have it every second, but when light hits water ..." Ms. Smilack said. "It's not always sound - sometimes it's texture or motion." She snapped a photo called Pink Satin of a reflection on water when she felt satin against her skin. She took a photo of two lights dancing on the surface water "when I felt like I was doing the tango with them." She named the photo Fred and Ginger.

Ms. Smilack ventured into photography in 1988 while renting a cottage in Menemsha to write a book about the Vietnam War. Through her window every day at 4 p.m., she watched the fishing boats return to the harbor. The sight of the red buoys on board in the afternoon light made an irresistible sound that she compared to "a siren like the ones in Ulysses." This was what first drew her to the water with camera in hand. She soon found herself most mesmerized by reflections in the water, and since then she has photographed reflections almost exclusively.

Ms. Smilack dubbed herself a reflectionist, "a word I made up." Nearly 20 years later, she has yet to finish the book, but she has shown her photographs in dozens of galleries and continues to attract attention worldwide.

A selection of Ms. Smilack's reflection photographs are on exhibit at Dragonfly Gallery in Oak Bluffs, in a joint show with painter Lanny McDowell. The show opened yesterday and will run for a week, with an artists' reception on Sunday from 4 to 7 p.m.

Many of the works are like Rorschach tests, evoking different images for the people that look at them, including Ms. Smilack. She often titles her work based on what she sees in the prints; Nude and Miss Haversham do not have people in them at all.

Other photographs look as if they were painted by specific artists, like Homage to Monet and Homage to Ellen [McCluskey]. "The water will eventually imitate every artist there ever was," Ms. Smilack said. She calls the surface of the sea her canvas and the wind her paintbrush.

Plenty of the photographs look digitally doctored or double exposed, but none are. One of their most striking qualities is that they are not enhanced or tampered with in any way. The reflections are photo ops created by nature, except that few people notice or even see them. People often are unaware Ms. Smilack's photos are of reflections at all - they look wholly unfamiliar.

Although scientists researched synesthesia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was dismissed in the mid-20th century as a phony condition or a remnant of drug use. (In fact, Ms. Smilack opted out of the LSD fad of the seventies; "I figured everything they were describing, I already had," she said.) Recently scientists reintroduced the study of synesthesia, proving it exists with physiological tests.

"You can ask any synesthete my age - it wasn't even a subject," Ms. Smilack said. "If no one told me the word, it would still be there, but I wouldn't have anything to say about it."

A woman in a laundromat introduced her to the word. Ms. Smilack thought she was alone in the concrete-floored room of humming washers and dryers.

"I was grooving to the dryer," she said. "Dryers just have great percussion." She was mortified to see a woman had come in and was watching her. Ms. Smilack tried to explain, but she felt that everything she said made it worse. The woman asked her some questions and concluded she was synesthetic, a condition the woman had learned the week before in graduate school.

Ms. Smilack can't recall the questions, but knows they had to do with sound and color. "I remember saying this to her - and this was the first time I had said this out loud to anyone - ‘Would that explain why the first note I played on the piano was green?'" Ms. Smilack recalled. The woman said yes.

Ms. Smilack had mixed feelings about having a condition: "When I found it between seizures and syphilis, I decided it didn't sound that great." But ultimately, the revelation was a positive one. Ms. Smilack became a resource to researchers and has been featured in two books, three documentary films and several articles on the subject, as well as the online reference Wikipedia's entry for synesthesia. She's a professional speaker on synesthesia and its artistic applications, addressing audiences of scientists, linguists and museum curators.

Synesthesia explained various incidents in Ms. Smilack's life that others viewed as uncanny. While dining at Zapotec, a Johnny Cash song was playing. Ms. Smilack's friend wondered if it was an original recording or a remake from the recent movie. Ms. Smilack immediately said it was the remake, although she had not seen the movie. How she was so sure? "Because I know what Johnny Cash's voice looks like," Ms. Smilack said. "It's like perfect pitch." The correspondence between a sound and its shape and color never changes."

Years after earning her Ph.D. in English from Brown University, she discovered she had long been drawn to the work of other synesthetes who were writers and composers. "Everyone I wrote about in my doctoral dissertation was a synesthete - and this is before I knew what it was," she said. "It takes one to know one, huh?"

After being interviewed in a documentary, the sound technician asked Ms. Smilack if she would take a test asking the colors of sounds that played through headphones. Ms. Smilack, concerned she would be too self-conscious to see the colors, asked if instead she could draw the shapes of the sounds, which she always saw. After listening to the sounds, Ms. Smilack showed the young woman the piece of paper.

"Her face kind of blanched," Ms. Smilack recalled. "She said, ‘How did you know how to draw the sine waves I plotted?'" Ms. Smilack's drawings were identical to the actual sound waves. "I don't understand how it would be hard to draw it," she said. "It's right there."