There are more ideas in an enduring work of art than there are motes of dust in a sunny glade. Whether the piece is of splendor or of squalor, the artist has given us a bit of radiance in order to embroider our world. Alexa Frankelis, a young connoisseur of the penumbral, reminds us that in stillness and in shadow, we all have the opportunity to become philosophers.

And what more important subject to philosophize about than impending death? It is no accident that Hamlet speaks to a skull, or that Beckett’s characters are buried up to their neck in sand or brood in ash cans. We’re all in the same heap, and to ponder this might create of the streets an avenue of sighs. It doesn’t matter if you are the prince of the pushermen or a currency queen or a champion of the thin wine of social success; death, in the end, will render us all equals, and provide us with the same lack of assertive power as that of a skinned eel.

The novelist and critic John Gardner said that the black abyss stirs a certain fascination for artists. What to make, then, of the rayless terror of the phantom presence in Frankelis’s haunting composition? There is death in a black dress, wrapped partially in the folds of the grave, an alluring mistress in the island of the skull who beckons us with the power of her stillness. The river behind this figure calmly riffles its susurrant grief. It is as if we the viewers have suddenly disembarked from a daytime wharf of no return, and a cold fear moves slitherward from the small of our backs to the napes of our necks.

And what of the shock figure, frozen in a staircase geometry, a reminder that one day for sure the maggots will bite? This intruder will continue to climb as if to suborn heaven, in order to gaze more closely at the likes of us. Our hearts instantly squeeze as we make heroic efforts to stagger away—to no avail. For when the irrational hoves up before us, there is no easy evasion, only the inevitable confrontation that threatens to fling us all back down into cellar despair.

There is a hint of the ephemeral nature of life in Frankelis’s photograph of placid Hempstead Lake: crafted in lunar planes and parabolas, there is a slow stippling on the surface; a fine ethereal sheet dominates the image, as if a water-angel had smoothed out the seamed silk of a cloud; a begging foam at the lip of the lake gives us the illusion of the endless rhythm of life. But the time that beats in our hearts will soon cease to tick, and the gorgeous, marbling surface of the water, gently roiled, seems to hint at the chaotic disturbance underneath.

I am speaking as if life were nothing more than sorrows and sorry encumbrances, but the work of young artists like Alexa Frankelis, which stand up before the terrifying and mysterious specter of death, teaches us that we must fight to sugar our days, so that we can sweeten the pain of existence. We cannot expect rainbows when there is not a drop of condensation to be found, but we can remember to live with the sharpness of a machete’s edge when we have constant reminders of death flung into our teeth.

Alexa Frankelis is a photographer based in New York City/Long Island and is currently a sophomore in the Photography and Video Department at SVA. “I often spend a lot of time in nature, and I am drawn to the ethereal seclusion. I am inspired by spirituality and the macabre.”

Edwin Rivera is a poet, writer, Writing Instructor at SVA and Editor of The Match Factory.