Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Niagara Falls abstraction

with 51 comments

From this date a year ago, here’s an abstract view of Niagara Falls.

Vaguely related quotation for today: “Ce monde-ci est un vaste naufrage; sauve qui peut; mais je suis bien loin du rivage!” “This world is a vast shipwreck; save yourself if you can; but I’m very far from the shore!” Voltaire wrote those words in a letter in 1754. Unfortunately this quotation often circulates on the Internet in a reworked form with a modern Pollyanna-ish addition about singing in the lifeboats that reverses the sense of what Voltaire said in his letter.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 25, 2020 at 4:46 AM

51 Responses

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  1. Amazing. You can really sense the force of the water.


    July 25, 2020 at 5:51 AM

    • Yes indeed. Along with the visual, I wish I could overtly add the sound that comes through the air and the ground.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2020 at 6:24 AM

  2. Your image pulled memories of my trip to Niagara Falls from the archives of my mind. I can almost hear the roar of the water tumbling over the fall and feel the spray of it. I was pretty soaked after my Maid of Mist boat ride that took us out to it or nearly to it.


    July 25, 2020 at 7:28 AM

    • I’m glad it brought back those memories for you. We took that boat ride in 1988 bit didn’t feel the need to do so again on our visit last year. We didn’t need another soaking, nor did my camera.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2020 at 7:49 AM

  3. What is beautiful to view from a safe distance becomes frighteningly dangerous at close range.

    Peter Klopp

    July 25, 2020 at 7:31 AM

    • Yes, and in some places you can get close to the edge. I remember seeing a little girl sitting in a place where if I were her parents I wouldn’t have let her sit.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2020 at 7:56 AM

  4. Misquotes abound. It seems to me it is virtually impossible for humans to actually understand each other but your image here is very clear~that water is very, vey powerful.


    July 25, 2020 at 8:50 AM

    • My mind suddenly transmogrified your words “misquotes abound” into “mosquitoes abound” (which they do in our yard, alas). In any case, misquotes sure do abound. In a bunch of cases I’ve tracked down the original versions of misquoted sayings, and in other instances have confirmed that the person credited with saying something never said it. We all make mistakes; to err is human. In some cases when I’ve pointed out the mistake to the person who posted the quotation, that person has appreciated it and corrected the error. In other cases, though, the person has chosen to leave the mistake. I find that disheartening. It bolsters your claim that it’s virtually impossible for humans to understand each other.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2020 at 9:26 AM

      • We used to have quite a mosquito problem but this summer the yard is blessed with LOTS of dragonflies, several different species, and a few damselflies. The mosquitoes may be down, but flies are abounding all over the place. I blame the proliferation of large dogs on the block. It is ridiculous how many huge dogs live within a small area. ugh. Does anyone seriously need 4 dogs??!


        July 28, 2020 at 9:34 AM

        • I commend your mosquito-devouring dragonflies and damselflies for doing their job well.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 28, 2020 at 12:35 PM

          • Oh me too, plus they are fun to watch. I hope I have them every year but the neighbor’s drainage project may have put an end to my party.


            July 28, 2020 at 2:34 PM

            • Too bad, if that’s how things turn out.

              Steve Schwartzman

              July 28, 2020 at 2:36 PM

              • It is wonderful news for our basement, not so good for the rain garden.


                July 28, 2020 at 3:38 PM

                • Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about your basement. First things first.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  July 28, 2020 at 3:42 PM

                • True and I must say, I am beyond grateful not to have to start bailing now when it rains. I can always water the poor button bush.


                  July 28, 2020 at 3:44 PM

                • Speaking of storms, it looked like Texas took a beating the other day but not near you, I believe. Has your summer been fairly normal?


                  July 28, 2020 at 3:45 PM

                • You’re right: the coast in south Texas got lots of rain, but at our house we got literally about two minutes of rain. The weather forecast had predicted maybe half an inch or an inch, so we were disappointed. We’re moving into a drought here in the heat of the summer, so we really could have used the rain.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  July 28, 2020 at 4:02 PM

                • Oh, I hope you get some soon. We also are in a drought and the plants are showing stress.


                  July 28, 2020 at 10:03 PM

                • I normally wouldn’t expect to hear that about your area. Down here it’s common in summer.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  July 29, 2020 at 7:08 AM

                • It is actually pretty common for this time in summer. Fall rains bounce us right back to normal, normally.


                  July 29, 2020 at 8:11 AM

  5. I really enjoy the strong contrast in the image between the vertical, almost rock-like columns of falling water and the softer, cloud-like spray. The watery chaos in the foreground resembles live-streamed images coming in from NOAA’s buoys off the Texas coast this morning.


    July 25, 2020 at 8:53 AM

    • I also appreciated the contrast between the roughly parallel lines of the falling water and the non-linear, swirling, cloud-like spray below those lines. Speaking of the Texas coast, I hope you don’t get hit too hard by the storm coming in off the Gulf. Based on predictions, I expected today to be overcast here, but so far the morning is still partly sunny.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2020 at 9:32 AM

  6. I was intrigued by your Voltaire quotation, Steve, and went back to the original letter in which Voltaire is complaining about the vicissitudes of life and about having grown old, saying, for example, “les pauvres humains sont des balles de paume avec lesquelles la fortune joue” (poor humans are tennis balls with which fate plays.” Just before your cited quote, Voltaire wrote, “Mon cher Cideville, à notre âge, il faut se moquer de tout, et vivre pour soi” (My dear Cideville, at our age we should laugh at everything and live for ourselves.) That sense of naked self-interest is further reinforced when he uses the expression “sauve qui peut” which I usually translate as “every man for himself.” Voltaire used a slight variation of your quote in another letter in which he challenged a man’s support of Montesquieu’s views on the virtues of a republic vice a monarchy. Using historical examples, Voltaire concluded that there is no more virtue in a republic than a monarch and said, “Comptez que le monde est un grand naufrage et que la devise des hommes, sauve qui peut” (You can consider the world as a great shipwreck and the motto of men as ‘every man for himself’.”) As for singing in the lifeboats, I can’t find anything here to support the connection. It seems to me to be an effort to link the shipwreck quote with an unrealistically positive spin on the final line of Voltaire’s novel Candide, “Oui, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin” (Yes, but we must tend to our garden), but that is probably a better discussion for another time. On a more pragmatic note, Steve, I really like the way your image emphasizes the raw power of the falls and not its beauty.

    Mike Powell

    July 25, 2020 at 9:08 AM

    • I appreciate your looking into this at such length. Isn’t it great that we can go online (I’m assuming that’s what you did, as I had) and find the text of a letter from the 1700s? I’d thought of translating “sauve qui peut” as “every man for himself,” the way you did; that certainly emphasizes the self-interest.

      I’m glad you found and mentioned the connection to Voltaire’s take on Montesquieu, which I didn’t know about. In my July 4th post I mentioned the anecdote about the delegates to the Constitutional Convention finally emerging from their Philadelphia meeting room in 1787. The story goes that a woman stopped Benjamin Franklin and asked him what form of government they’d given the country. His famous two-part reply, first factual and then oracular, was: “A republic, if you can keep it.” I went on to say: “Now here we are 233 years later, and recent events make it seem more and more likely we won’t be able to keep it. I hope we can.” I’d originally written a more condemnatory and pessimistic ending but toned it down.

      Like you, I’d also wondered whether the “singing in the lifeboats” addition might have been intended to harmonize with the famous last line about cultivating our garden. In an earlier draft of this post I’d characterized the addition as namby-pamby and linked it to the self-help and self-esteem movements of recent decades. As you said, that could be a whole other discussion.

      And yes, the image of Niagara Falls certainly expresses power—though that and beauty aren’t mutually exclusive.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2020 at 9:53 AM

      • The internet certain helps with research–it’s definitely not what I did when I was in college in the 1970’s–and it was fun to see some of the original texts. As for beauty and power, I agree that they are not mutually exclusive, but I was mentally contrasting your image with the many shots that I have seen of the falls with pretty rainbows that make you focus more on the beauty more than the power. Your image had neither rainbows nor unicorns.

        Mike Powell

        July 25, 2020 at 10:06 AM

        • I tried to include those things but just as I was about to press the shutter release the unicorn ducked behind the falls and took the rainbow with it.

          On the serious side, I took a bunch of photographs of the falls using my 100-400mm lens with the intention of going for more-abstract views than the ones we so often see. Some of the pictures came out like this one, while others reminded me of the late and ever-more-abstract paintings that Turner made.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 25, 2020 at 10:16 AM

  7. This is a great photo – trying to imagine where you were standing? And thank you for clarifying and sharing the authentic quotation from Voltaire.

    Birder's Journey

    July 25, 2020 at 12:43 PM

    • I’m sorry that a year after the fact I no longer remember where I was standing to take this picture. In the spirit of the photograph, I could say my memory of it has become abstract.

      My personality, reinforced by decades of teaching math, is such that I get annoyed when people misquote things. That’s especially true if the incorrect version alters the meaning of the original or even reverses it, as in the case of the Voltaire quotation. Another example is the widely circulating statement that “The earth laughs in flowers,” which also appears on a slew of greeting cards and posters:


      The positive spin of that truncated statement belies Emerson’s longer original:

      Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
      Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
      Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet
      Clear of the grave.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2020 at 1:23 PM

      • Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of this sort of misrepresentation of ‘quotes’ these days. Undoubtedly due in part to our social media obsessed culture …

        Birder's Journey

        July 25, 2020 at 1:40 PM

        • Many people copy something off a website without even trying to check that the thing is true or correct. Some quotations are hard to find the source of and verify, but the Emerson one is very easy to track down.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 25, 2020 at 1:57 PM

  8. It occurs to me if Voltaire finds swimming to the shore arduous, then maybe he needs people to help? That would debunk the “each man for himself” motto.

    Kate Garrison

    July 25, 2020 at 12:49 PM

    • The French phrase “sauve qui peut” does have an “every man for himself” connotation, so you have a good heart in wanting to help Voltaire reach the shore.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 25, 2020 at 2:00 PM

  9. Wow, what a shot!!! It’s …frozen and so powerful at the same time! 🙂

    marina kanavaki

    July 25, 2020 at 3:40 PM

  10. I hope you didn’t chose today’s quote because you find yourself “loin du rivage,” Steve!


    July 25, 2020 at 9:21 PM

  11. I remember the power so well. Did you shoot this from the Canadian side?


    July 28, 2020 at 3:50 AM

  12. Nice capture of the frozen power of a waterfall.

    Steve Gingold

    July 29, 2020 at 5:20 AM

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