Ostensibly, Caleb Cain Marcus’ new book, Goddess, is about a 1,500-mile trip along the Ganges river. Whether visible in each photograph or not, it is the river that runs through and binds together the project, guiding us from spectral, heaven-reaching stalks (photo 2 above) to hazy modern constructions and boundless vistas of countless tiny yet impassioned believers, prostrating themselves in the holy water of the river they call “Ganga.”
But there’s a photograph, rather early in the book, that holds the key to the more ambitious ideas that Cain Marcus has in mind. In the image, we find a snaking eruption of earth and, in the misty distance, four curious-looking mounds (photo 1 above). It was here that the book really first struck me—and deeply. I was unexpectedly brought back to the famous illustrations at the beginning of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic The Little Prince.
Boa constrictor digesting elephant, outside|Boa constrictor digesting elephant, inside
As the narrator in The Little Prince explains, his promising career as a painter was dashed at the age of 6 when his drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant was mistaken, by the grown-ups, for a hat. When he made a second drawing to make things more clear—since grown-ups “always need to have things explained”—he was told to set aside his pencils for something more sensible.
Yes, to the unimaginative (adult) eye, the initial drawing appears little like a snake or an elephant—but first appearances can be deceiving. As Saint-Exupéry tried to tell us, it is imagination and a child-like vision that are paramount to seeing the world for what it can be, rather than simply how it appears.
In the book’s opening notes, Cain Marcus writes: “Space, the immaterial element that connects the universe, can appear almost invisible and yet there are exceptional moments when the façade of our reality dissolves to give way to something extraordinary and obviously interwoven.” Grandiose words in another context perhaps, but the more you spend time with these pictures, the more you will begin to see—even feel—within them. Like every great landscape artist, Cain Marcus’ gift to us is a heightened awareness of the richness of our surroundings.
Looking, then, at Cain Marcus’ inscrutable mounds we would do well to look past the surface. But what is hiding amidst these earthen piles, what secrets do they contain? A snake, an elephant, a meaning, a goddess?
The book’s title refers to another invisible fact about the Ganges river—it is named after a goddess, Ganga. This honorific conveys how deeply important these waters are to the Indian people: not only do they serve as a vehicle for an ascent to the heavens but they also irrigate the crops, help in the creation of bricks, and serve as the resting place for cremated remains. In short, the river is life and death and everything in between.
Still, as we pass along the banks of the river, encountering one inscrutable yet beautiful picture after another, the mound mystery remains. It is only at the end of the book that we discover the contents of these impressive-looking structures: “Hay, cow dung and space.” The first two come as a disappointing surprise but the last brings the whole frame into life. These are not mere piles of dried grass and excrement—Cain Marcus’ camera, his precise control of the light, his considered frame and, crucially, the very space in front of him, turn these profane bodies into mystical, almost divine creations.
Maybe Richard Ford puts it best when he writes in his beautifully expressed foreword: “One can’t paraphrase, sum up, or build neat boxes around these wondrous photographs…they are too various, too surprising, too nuanced for justice to be done with words…[they are] photographic glimpses that confirm and delight in the imagination’s possibilities, and that measure up to the world’s spacious wonders.”
Or, returning to where we began, we can find further insight in Saint-Exupéry’s text: “The house, the stars, the desert—what gives them their beauty is something that is invisible…it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
A beautiful book that can be returned to again and again, each landscape photograph filling with renewed feeling, possibility and space upon each re-viewing.
Photos by Caleb Cain Marcus, foreword by Richard Ford
Hardcover: 108 pages