New Jersey native JOEL SIMPSON has been photographing since he was a teenager in the 1960s, turning pro in 2002. He is largely self-taught. In between, he received a PhD in comparative literature from Brown, spent 10 years teaching college  English, French, and Italian and had a 22-year career in jazz piano. He has also worked as a music and art critic.

Since  2002 he has had over 50 shows and publications of his art in the US and abroad, including Paris, Barcelona, and Rome. His work has been published in the US, Belgium, France and India, and he has received numerous awards. His 2019 mostly color landscape book focusing on remarkable geology, Earthforms: Intimate Portraits of Our Planet, received enthusiastic reviews plus the prestigious 2019 Nautilus Gold Award for Art and Photography, and he was named 10th Best Landscape Photographer (along with 16 other artists) of 2019 by One Eyeland, of India. His work is currently collected by the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center of Brooklyn. In the past year his work has been featured on-line in The Eye of, Photo Independent (exhibition), Shades of Grey, and Inspirational Art, and published in The Hand, and Spotlight (Circle Foundation for the Arts.)

His last self-published book, Playgrounds for the Mind: The Surreal in the Real, combines a lifelong fascination with geology and his immersion in Surrealist art. The present book is its sequel, mostly featuring images from 2022 and 2023, including a trip to Iceland in March, 2023. 

Simpson lives in Union, New Jersey.


Geology and Surrealism—The Surreal in the Real: The Concrete Irrational in Rocks and Ice

“One should not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are.” —Minor White (1908–1976)

Forms in rocks and ice reveal intriguing beauty, which, if one is attentive, can reach a level of an imaginative prodigality comparable to that of painting of the past 100 years. Most of those forms are abstract, and photographers such as Aaron Siskind, Minor White, and Frederick Sommer, explored their artistic potential during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism (late 1940s to 1970, but continuing to the present). The forces that created them—tectonic movement, stratification, volcanism, and erosion, in the case of rocks; and freezing, layering, melting, and refreezing, in the case of ice—are not random, so it is not surprising that imaginations grounded in contemporary art can discern meaningful compositions in them.

My photographic work starts there and goes farther. A significant subset of these forms evokes figurative associations in viewers’ mind, a phenomenon known as pareidolia, defined as the perception of figurative content in random natural forms, such as the Man in the Moon or the Great Stone Face. This perceptual figuration has generally been downplayed by artists, since who is to say if one person sees a horse head and another an auto part? So pareidolia—first coined as a psychopathology in 1866 by German psychiatrist Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum—has been regarded as a mere popular curiosity, a folkway, and not the proper subject of fine art.

The pareidolia that I find in rocks and ice, however, draws on a much greater inventory of imaginative figuration—humorous, frightening, ironic—especially from surrealist and visionary art. So in my work one can find, for example, mythical creatures, ancient ruins, bizarre fossils, grimacing masques, heavenly bodies, erotic fragments, architectural fantasies, grotesque cyborgs, and ominous settings.

I travel to deserts, badlands, volcanic sites, glaciers, frozen waterfalls and other sites of geologic and glacial interest throughout the world in search of these formations.

Salvador Dalí proclaimed that he depicted the “concrete irrational” in his work, so he developed an exceptionally realistic technique. This term perfectly characterizes much of my photography, and furthermore, as rock and ice, it is LITERALLY concrete. He also claimed that rock formations were a major influence on him, and he included many in his paintings.

The figuration in my rock and ice compositions is often ambiguous. It may be partial, suggested, or juxtaposed with abstract elements, difficult to identify with certainty. I call this “liminal figuration,” and the natural world abounds in it, inviting the wanderer to feel immersed in a living setting, animated by one’s fantasy.

All of my images are unitary with no image-combining. I do, however, edit them to make my vision stand out, but, I don’t require any viewer to see what I see; I welcome other decodings.