Category Archives: blue

Dewdrops and Blue Flag Iris, or, Figure with Ground

Dewdrop and Four Blue Flag Iris

These are two images made with some old Japanese (Olympus, OM) lenses that are known for the quality of their out of focus rendering. They are not “photoshopped” or manipulated. This is the way the lenses (a different lens for each image) and camera made them.

“Bokeh” is a term coined in Japan to talk about the out of focus or “blurry” area of an image. The reason the word is handy is that we can talk about the characteristics of that out-of-focus quality, and acknowledge that there are various aspects to it, and put what is normally background into something like the foreground, either when we talk about it or when we work on making an image through a lens. There is a lot of talk about “bokeh” on lens geek forums, but usually about the characteristics of particular lenses, how they manifest this quality at different apertures. But at least in the English language, in my reading, I’ve never come across much on the philosophical or even spiritual aspects of this aspect photographs created with certain wide aperture lenses in certain ways

Two Dew Drops, One Blue Flag Iris

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It’s interesting that the word “bokeh” came from Japan, a traditionally Buddhist country. While modern Japan is very westernized in many ways, there is a strong aesthetic tradition that permeates much of the culture, rooted in Zen. While many Japanese people are not practicing meditators, the philosophy based on meditation and Buddhist teachings still has a strong sway even in these modern times of technology and materialism — technology that can create consumer lenses with certain characteristics. Oddly enough, I wrote a paper on the influence of Zen on Japanese culture and aesthetics in high school, in about 1974. I had forgotten about that paper and studying this topic, until sitting at the keyboard right now. Back then I didn’t have a strong understanding of Buddhism — though I studied it for that paper — and really what it means at a deep level that can permeate everything. I was just interested in it and drawn to the aesthetic, even then as a mid-teenager. Weird.

The aesthetic I’m talking about, of course, is art that places the importance of negative space as an equal, or even more important component of the composition, as the “subject” of the artwork. One famous example of this is the Enso calligraphy of Zen though of course it shows up in countless examples of oriental art. I think it’s less obvious in the Ukiyo-e prints, but the use of negative space is often very important there as well.

I think it’s also interesting that some Japanese lenses seem to have good bokeh or amazingly excellent bokeh, as part of their design, while fewer German lenses (I’m looking at you, Zeiss) might in general be better at sharpness and contrast and in general not quite drawing the out of focus areas quite as beautifully. Though there are of course exceptions; for example this image was made with a vintage Zeiss lens that surprised me in rendering such beautiful out of focus areas. I don’t know Leica lenses, but I guess they are an exception to my cultural rule.

In high school when I studied and observed the influence of Zen on culture, I really had no idea, just a hunch. And for years and years I had no idea at a deep level. After many long meditation retreats and thousand of hours sitting in meditation, I have had some understanding of what is going on here. (I am still far short of the 10,000 hours of meditation practice that some neuroscientists, I think Richard Davidson is one, say is the threshold where the brain really changes pretty drastically, and even shows unique qualities in FMRI machines. The two “happiest men in the world,” Matthieu Ricard and Mingyur Rinpoche, have been studied extensively along with some monks associated the Dalai Lama, showing that over 10,000 hours is a real change point).

I had an experience in one long meditation retreat a decade ago, which lasted for the rest of that retreat, and then has become more reliable over the decade since then, with more retreats and more practice. That experience was in seeing “emptiness,” or Shunyata as it was called in early Buddhist languages. My Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, a real meditation master also is prone to talk about “space” as well. He once joked, “I’m not talking about made-in-India space. I’m talking about made-in-space space!” So what I experience quite a bit of the time is a shifting allegiance, shifting between what is there, and what is not as apparently sold, between a thing, a thought, an experience — and the space around it. In the case of a mental or emotional experience, which of course is our whole life, the “space around it” is a cognizance bigger than a mere thought or emotion. In that first breakthrough retreat, I conceptualized it as being like one of those figure-ground shifting images, like this one. It is two faces. It is a vase. It all depends on whether you have perceptual allegiance to the foreground or the background, the white or the black.

Figure Ground Paradox Vase Two Faces

(I should be clear that in Buddhist teachings what I’m talking about here as “space” is not merely the negative aspect of matter or thought or whatever. It is all-encompassing, and includes all. So my two-vases/face example is to me more about a shift of allegiance rather than a literal positive/negative. “Space” in this context means an allegiance to everything, the solid, and the not solid, matter and space; all of it.)

This is most important when working with the mind, and I think meditation is the best way to develop this capacity. In the west, therapy can often also facilitate the cultivation of this kind of shift, because the therapist is hopefully helping provide a bigger view beyond what we normally think of as the “solid” aspects of our cognition, perception, and emotional experience. Experiencing nature, or perhaps religion, can also be some sort of access to a sense of space, but most of our experience in the west falls short of a Buddhist understanding of space or emptiness. This capacity is extremely important when working with emotions. When the emotional experience is all there is, then we often suffer from it, or cause others to suffer. The point is that the thought or emotion is just an isolated event, with little actual substance, like a drop of dew — an isolated not-even-really-a-thing that is surrounded by space. Like the dewdrop, it has very little actual substance, and certainly no permanence. While I think art that manifests this quality is often profound in itself, it may be more significant that it is pointing to something bigger, a truth, an experience that is more important and profound than art.

I think since I’ve been meditating more seriously, over the last 15 years, my photography has changed quite a bit, but gradually. And I think it’s only more recently that I have a lot more comfort shifting between the figure and the ground, between what is there and what is not there in a conventional sense. Though in another sense, the ground represents something that is more real than what we normally take as real. That is an exploration I will leave for the reader.

Lobelia, “Tomatoes” Sign, Greenhouse

Tomatoes Sign, Lobelia, Greenhouse

I’ve been posting these color flowers and shallow depth of field images, but they’re not the only thing I’ve been doing. It’s just that they’re the ones that get stuck in my head, and I get excited to print them. I had a summer a few years ago when I was looking at Ukiyo-e (“floating world,” the genre of Japanese prints that includes Hokusai and others). Those images filled my mind and influenced my compositions. In this period I seem to be finding some of my inspiration from my quirky old vintages lenses themselves, the way they draw with light, and maybe especially the way colors mingle and mix beyond the plane of focus.

Last week I talked about re-doing images, and this was in fact a re-do. As regular readers know, I’m not just photographing casually. I tend to work on ideas and places iteratively. I work crazy hard on my photography. Often I get to know a situation better by working on it, while other times I find it hard to make up for the serendipity of new discoveries. The mix of hard work and grace is somewhat mysterious, here, as in meditation, as in all of life.

But I do learn as I go, learn how situations resonate as a photograph, how they will print, how each of my quirky old lenses work at different apertures and in different light. I learn both how to work with situations, to have patience when it’s not working, and to accept the grace of what is simply given.

When I first tried to make this image I was using an ancient film lens on an adapter, and the adapter was (the only time I’ve seen this) interfering with the lens’ ability to change aperture. It was stuck wide open, at f1.4. That would have been great, if that particular lens were any good wide open like that. It wasn’t.

I had a bit of time between meetings, so I went back to this greenhouse. The light was nicer than the first time I was there, by a lot.

I happened to have a different ancient film-era lens, that does have some good qualities wide open, at f2 (though this exposure was stopped down one stop, to f2.8; I prefer the little bit more detail in the background to the f2 exposure). All these old lenses have their own quirks, and this one is sort of the opposite to that other lens, which gives an extremely impressionistic rendering at wide apertures. This one is dreamy, while still sharp, mixing colors together in a nice, soft way while keeping the structure of the image somewhat together.

So this is a case where the re-do worked out better than the first attempt.

Morning Glories Dawn, Edge of Fall, Impermanence

Morning Glories Late Summer Vermont

Late this summer I got obsessed with morning glories. Part of it had something to do with a new lens, a vintage macro lens that provided very smooth out of focus areas, bokeh, which worked beautifully with the blue and other colors. Also, the daily display was an ever changing kaleidoscope. Anicca, impermanence, is always somehow an engine in my photography, as I’ve explained in other posts. I had it in spades here. Each morning glory flower lasts for just a day in cool weather. It turns out that a single blossom will last into the next day if it is quite cool, and then the flowers are more purple on the second day. On the other hand if it is quite dry and warm, these soap-bubbles of blue don’t even make it through the day. And then of course the dew, and the changing light transforms everything, whether the light is coming through them or shining on them, it’s completely different.

This image though wasn’t with that vintage new-to-me lens though, but rather one of my other vintage manual prime lenses, this one wider. I did not do some of the things I normally would have, and there are some regrets about what might have been in this exposure, but really it has turned out.

So here we have it in a nutshell. Everything changes. Sometimes we have regrets. It is what it is. These blue saucers were gone by that evening, and now the vines are brown mush. But impermanence works both ways. Gone each day, but only appearing in the first place because of change. Reappearing and transforming each day because of change. The extraordinary beauty only possible and indeed more poignant because of the transience.

We fear impermanence sometimes; we want to hang onto the good and beautiful and pleasurable, and we resist the coming of the nasty. The impermanence itself though is not to be feared. It facilitates the demise of the nastiness just as surely as it enables the blossoming of the beautiful and good. Ah annica. Simply the way things are.

This photo is available as a print, printed like last week’s image on Canson Aquarelle Watercolor paper. Buy the print here.

Ordinary Miracles – Four Morning Glories

Four Morning Glories

In my practice of photography there is a tension. The natural tendency is to look for the unusual, striking, breathtaking, exotic. But my saving grace is an ability to be present with what simply is, and fully embrace that, at least sometimes.

In looking for the exotic, there comes a striving, a discontent with so much of what we encounter — even when we are actually in the midst of something spectacular. We become what Buddhists call “hungry ghosts” — a mental realm where nothing is ever enough. Photography in this context becomes a perpetual bar-raising for more unusual subjects and locations.

On the other hand, by being with whatever is, there is often more interest and beauty available to us all, right where we are — vast rich experience is available in all of our everyday life if we dare to approach it undefended and full of curiosity.

I was struck in a conversation at my dad’s bedside, a hospital visit recently. My sister, a bodhisattva, was talking about a situation where she was helping someone. The nurse’s aid in the room described that person as having found a miracle. And it is true, that causes and conditions have come together in a very lucky way for that person; you could call it miraculous. But what struck me is that by thinking of miracles as distinct from the everyday miracle of every aspect of our existence, we diminish everything. It’s not that this life is a low and dull thing, and somewhere, out there, are rare things called miracles. The whole thing is a miracle. The whole damn manifestation of this existence. Nothing less than miraculous.

In Buddhist meditation practice, we are constantly cautioned to not seek high or extraordinary experiences. Inhabiting the ordinary fully is the practice. I think, despite awareness of this dichotomy in my photographic life, that I wasn’t really fully understanding why we meditate in this way. It’s not just that we “settle” for the ordinary. Fully inhabiting the ordinary, we see its richness, depth, and mystery. To look for the extraordinary, we miss the entire miracle, the whole miracle of our existence on earth. You miss that, you miss most everything. Looking for something somewhere else, something fancy, we miss everything.

So here in my own garden in morning light with a vintage manual camera lens and the blessing of time to really look, it is enough. More than enough.

This is a high resolution file, and it makes a spectacular print at any size. I print it on Canson Arches Aquarelle Watercolor paper. Prints available here.

Snowy Roof Through Frozen Window, Vermont

Snowy Roof Through Frozen Window Vermont

This winter we’ve had far fewer cold mornings than usual; each month out of the last several in Vermont has broken all records as the warmest ever recorded. Some of these recent months have broken the record by more than a few degrees. Still, we’ve had a few of these mornings when I open the shades, and I don’t know what I will find. The light and patterns of ice on the glass aren’t always the same. So quite often before I get to work for the day I go all around the windows with my camera. I have a lot of these, but this one struck me in the richness of texture and the way the overall composition worked in its abstraction. I hope to do a series of these sometime soon. Most are quite different from this one.

This photo is available as a print here.

New Ice and Birch Reflections, Hartland VT 2015

New Ice and Birch Reflections, Hartland VT

John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (Though it turns out there are other attributions. Perhaps others said that before John Lennon). This manifests in so many ways for all of us. We can’t, don’t pay attention to everything. We try to go in some direction, but the set of blessings and curses of our choices are never quite what we bargained for.

I’ve been blessed with small bodies of water in the last 15 years. Really odd how that happened. The last place I bought, a fixer-upper that was an 1850’s farm-hand’s house had a few things going for it. One was that I could afford it, and the other was that it was near Post Pond, which was a rich spot to blossom into this stage of my being as a photographer. I knew that Post Pond was nice. I had no idea how much time I would spend there and what an impact it would have on my vision.

Then when we decided to buy this house in Vermont, it had a little pond in the backyard. Deep enough to swim in. “Maybe we could ice skate on it.” OK, that’s a nice touch. The house is has nice character and we can afford it. But it turns out that the pond has been one of my favorite things about this place. In deep winter it’s just white, and maybe not so interesting to photograph so much. In the summer, fall, and early winter it’s an ever-changing rich opportunity to photograph. I would never want to be away from a little pond or big pond or a lake as long as I have a camera to my name.

The pond is ringed with birch trees for about half the perimeter, and they are lovely in many respects. These two images have different days of new ice, and the birch trees reflected on it. In the winter the sunrise is late enough, and of course I’m close, so it’s easy to bundle up and get out there in the first light. The pink on the birches below is the sunrise light.

Blue New Ice and Birch Reflections at Dawn

These are available for sale as prints and in a more high res view here:

New Ice and Birch Reflections 2015 I

New Ice and Birch Reflections 2015 II

dandelion with centurea 2010

dandelion and centurea

I’m working in a few directions with photography these days, but this is the image making it up here for almost-explicable  reasons. I’m working on scanning some old black and white film, which is amazing. These old pieces of sheet film remind me of the first time I saw a Van Gogh painting up close. I had a shock of recognition: Van Gogh had managed to put some kind of energy — the energy of his mind, his experience, his contact with the world; something intangible but palpable — he had put that energy into each brush stroke. I could feel it, standing there in front of the painting. And I realized that what I was trying to do then as a young man was possible. I didn’t know exactly how to do it, but I had the strong aspiration to contain some kind of energy and awareness into the physical objects, print and film.

I think I sometimes pulled it off, and sometimes still do. These old big pieces of film that I haven’t looked at for many years hit me with a little jolt sometimes, when I get a sense of that some-kind-of-energy trapped in the surface of the silver crystals. But this scanning project is a process just barely underway, and hampered by the same thing my life with sheet film always was — how to find the thing I’m looking for?

The other thread in my thinking is continuing with my interest in the Ukiyo-e, “floating world” composition and aesthetic. I have one of those from last week, new, but I’m not positive it’s good enough to go live.

Anyway, this new image, “dandelion with centurea” is from this spring/early summer. It’s been haunting me a little bit, and I felt compelled to put it online. I like the way it shows the moment as a precarious dot in the space of time. The dandelion gone to seed is at the edge of what it has been, starting the wind-born journey to what it will be. It’s moment is all but gone, yet clearly in focus, master of the moment. And moving into its own is the blue of the early summer garden flower, more than holding its own against the weed.

This print is for sale here.