Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

On this date

with 20 comments

This date in 1939 marked the beginning of World War 2. To accord with that, here’s a picture from this past Saturday morning at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. You’re looking at Charles Umlauf‘s cast stone sculpture “War Mother,” which he created in 1939 and which now sits on a pedestal in an outdoor alcove along an edge of the museum’s central garden courtyard. At the right time in the morning, light from the unclouded sun reaches the beams of an overhead lattice and casts striking parallel shadows onto the Umlauf sculpture and adjacent walls.

In commemoration of today’s date 83 years ago I invite you to read W.H. Auden‘s poem “September 1, 1939,” with its memorable ending:


Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.


(I hope you don’t mind today’s change of pace from nature photography. Long before I specialized in portraying native plants I made photographs more like today’s than the ones you normally see here. That said, the earlier styles came to inform later and current ones. Ah, continuity: we still are what we were.)


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 1, 2022 at 4:31 AM

20 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. My first thought was, “It’s a perfect representation of the way that war imprisons everyone.”

    Yesterday, in a bit of a coincidence, the battleship USS Texas left her familiar home and traveled the Houston Ship Channel to Galveston, where she’ll go into dry dock for repairs. She’s the last of the WWI battleships; she’s lasted longer than the peace that came after “the war to end all wars.”


    September 1, 2022 at 6:16 AM

    • What a good conception: the shadows as bars that imprison us all. You’ve reminded me of the phrase “wars and rumors of wars,” which I confirmed is from Matthew in the New Testament. There it’s used as an omen of “the end times,” but I see it more as our permanent state. Just as there’s always someplace on the surface of the earth where the wind is not blowing, there’s always someplace where people are at war. As you pointed out, the hopes of a great peace after World War 2 almost immediately vanished into the Cold War that lasted nearly half a century and that included years which were anything but cold—the Korean War, for example. And now even Europe is back to war.

      Local stations in Austin carried stories about the moving and restoring of the USS Texas, which I boarded at San Jacinto maybe 30 years ago. I’m concerned that the current ships in our navy are becoming more like the USS Texas when compared to the ships China is developing. We’re losing the current Cold War.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 1, 2022 at 6:37 AM

  2. The shadow pattern adds to it in this case. Our species certainly likes to wage wars. Peace never lasts loo long. A change in pace is a good thing, introduces some element of surprise.

    Alessandra Chaves

    September 1, 2022 at 7:28 AM

    • I saw the shadow pattern through a window from inside the museum and hurried to find a way out into the courtyard. I managed to take several pictures with my iPhone before clouds dissolved the shadows. The sun would have shone through again eventually, and I thought of walking out to my car in the parking lot to get my real camera, but the iPhone now allows raw mode, and I figured that was good enough.

      As I said in my reply to Linda, for thousands of years we’ve been dealing with wars and rumors of wars. That seems to be a permanent part of the human condition, unfortunately.

      Glad you appreciate the change of pace.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 1, 2022 at 7:38 AM

  3. One is sometimes compelled to break the routine of one’s daily schedule, especially when there is a need to reflect on major historical events like WW2 that brought incredible turmoil and suffering to our planet.

    Peter Klopp

    September 1, 2022 at 8:56 AM

    • And that was an event that affected the two of you so very personally, as you’ve been documenting in your blog.

      Yes, breaking a routine can be salutary.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 1, 2022 at 9:28 AM

  4. Marvellous, both imagery and words.

  5. Striking use of light and shadow, Steve.

    Eliza Waters

    September 1, 2022 at 6:50 PM

    • Thanks. As soon as I saw the shadows falling across the alcove I knew I had the makings of an intriguing picture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 1, 2022 at 7:28 PM

  6. It’s depressing that the poem’s words are as relevant today as they were in 1939. One wonders if Auden’s “affirming flame” was quelled by what followed in the wake of September 1.


    September 2, 2022 at 5:58 PM

    • You raise a good question. I assume you can find out from a biography of Auden how his mood changed (or didn’t) during the World War 2 years and also into the much longer Cold War and its proxies that followed (like the Korean War and the Viet Nam War).

      I’m of the opinion that human nature doesn’t change, at least not in any way that’s detectable since the oldest of our historical records. Over hundreds of thousands of years there may well have been changes in human nature, but that scale is so large as to be meaningless in any of our lives. As far as I can tell, “wars and rumors of wars” will always be with us.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 2, 2022 at 6:33 PM

      • I’m afraid your assessment is spot-on, Steve. As individuals, we seem to be able to exert positive influences, but not as a collective. It’s truly depressing.


        September 2, 2022 at 6:50 PM

  7. Congratulations for a striking photo. And Linda’s suggestion that the shadows suggest imprisonment is dead on. Auden’s “ironic points of light” might currently be the flashes from cannons, missiles and explosions in the Ukraine.

    Robert Parker

    September 2, 2022 at 6:53 PM

    • Thanks. I’m not normally fond of the word “striking,” which I think is overused, but in this case I’m happy to agree with you. All those shadows almost literally strike their way onto the sculpture and create a great show of light and dark. All of that propels the “War Mother” into an emblem, as you noted, for what’s going on in Ukraine.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 2, 2022 at 8:39 PM

  8. I was going to say the image seemed to represent a person behind bars as a prisoner of our constant wars through time and likely into the future but Linda already mentioned that. It was my first thought and makes the image even more powerful than just an interesting bit of shadowplay, which it is and well noticed.

    Steve Gingold

    September 3, 2022 at 2:28 AM

    • It seems obvious to me now to conceive of the parallel shadows as the bars of a prison cell, but I don’t think that occurred to me at the time. It was the strong graphic qualities of this scene that pushed me to run out and take pictures before the bright light and bold shadows went away.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 3, 2022 at 6:57 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: