Category Archives: Flowers

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.

Wet Screen, Orange and Scarlet Begonias

Wet Screen, Orange and Scarlet Begonias

This image is a mix of what for me are normal: “found” compositions, and then also something a bit rarer, a set up, a still life. I guess really it’s a still life.

The weather had been a very fine rain overnight, more like a heavy mist. I of course went out with my camera and made a lot of macro photos with the fine droplets on the new summer growth. I think some of them are good. Having finished that work, we were going to go on an errand, but I saw this wet screen on my back porch. I was working on installing some screen doors, and this screen was loose, leaned against the house, and more wet from the fine rain than I could have made it. It occurred to me to move it over by the planters with the orange and scarlet begonias, and I grabbed the full frame camera, still with it’s vintage macro lens attached. I thought the series of images were quite beautiful, but I was in a rush. Surely I could do better if I tried this with more consideration when I wasn’t rushed.

I tried it a few more sessions, wetting the screen with a hose those times. Besides never quite getting the quality of wetness that the fine rain produced, somehow the more contrived attempts weren’t quite as good as the images from the original session.

Of course it’s the case in nature, that the situation, the light, the feel of the moment is unique to each exposure, but you’d be tempted to think that if you set a situation up, you’d have more control. There’s something about that initial flash of connection and insight though, that seems hard to duplicate.

Here is another one. Last year I had a vintage lens I was testing out, an old Olympus OM short tele. I didn’t end up keeping it; it wasn’t quite as sharp as I would like across the frame (though it was sharp in the center even at full-wide aperture), but it did have a unique and pleasing quality of bokeh, it’s out of focus rendering quality. Again, I was in a bit of a hurry, on my way to a meeting. But as I drove past this patch of blue chicory flowers by the side of the road, I had to pull over and try a few exposures with the soft blur quality. I got this one:
roadside chicory, car, vermont

This year I have a couple more vintage bokeh lenses that should be better than that one I culled. Lenses that also draw a beautiful out of focus quality, while also being razor sharp. I’ve been down to that spot a few times now, a year later, trying to surpass my initial hurried attempt. I’ve taken time, because the situation has so much potential. It’s possible that I’ve pulled it off, but I’m not sure yet.

The wet screen and begonias image is a bit of a shame to put on the web, because it needs to be pretty big. The subtle detail and texture of the screen and the water on it gets lost, with a high resolution full frame beautiful file reduced down to a computer screen. It needs to be seen as a big print.

Vermont Farmer’s Market: Flower Decisions

Vermont Farmer's Market, Clematis,Peony,Columbine

As a bit of a counterpoint to last week’s image, which is bright and luminous, this is a similar subject but darker and denser: completely different feel. This was made with the same lens at the same aperture, an ancient Zeiss Contax G 90 Sonnar, wide open.

These days I would have tended to bring a different lens in my bag. In my current style for something like a farmer’s market, I would choose one of my less aggressively sharp and contrasty lenses. However, encouraged by the alternate character revealed in that fuschia greenhouse photo, I brought this as my only long lens and used it wide open.

A farmer’s market is funny, like life: there is a lot going on and it’s hard to sort it out. I always feel like it might be a ripe situation for photography, and it often is, but it really requires some careful looking. One slice of it might be a good photo, but then there is a lot of chaos and potential for everything to change quite quickly. Of course, like life, that change works in our favor. Without it, we would be stuck.

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.

Bee Balm Through Siberian Iris Leaves and Dew

Monarda siberian iris leaves

“People think it’s the object of attention that’s important, like an object reflected in a mirror. But it’s actually looking toward where objects are reflected that’s important, the capacity to reflect. Look at a flower. Then look at the mind that perceives the flower.”

— Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

I typed this quote in my notes in a dharma retreat the other day, a retreat with my Buddhist teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who is Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s son.

Besides having everything to do with meditation at a certain level, that quote also has everything to do with my approach to photography. It’s not that there is some thing out there, and I’m out to capture it. It’s about perception, resonance, our capacity to reflect and be aware — and aware of our awareness.

This image is available for sale and view at higher resolution on this page

Japanese Iris During/After Rain, Waterlilies

Japanese Iris and Waterlilies

It’s always a mysterious process how I end up creating and selecting what may be the best of my photos (or the mystery may in fact be so deep that the best ones go unpublished). Sometimes everything just comes together — bam! — the way people think photography works. “I just go click.” Umm, not so often, but sometimes sorta, if I’m well prepared.

In this case I had a concept in my mind, which of course made everything hard. I had seen that Japanese Iris blooming on the bank of the pond, so big and saturated and dancing in and out of dapples of light. Of course I photographed it. But when we had a stretch of rainy weather in June, I got this idea. I don’t know if the composition is really influenced by Ukiyo-e (Floating World) woodblock prints of Japan. I’ve spent lots and lots of time viewing those prints, online and in person, and I think I’ve internalized some of the style.

So, unfortunately, I had something in my mind as I kept going back and squatting in the weeds in the rain and just-after rain and trying different lenses and apertures. I made a lot of exposures, and a lot of them were good; though there were many flavors of the composition — different rain and different depth of field and lens character.

Here are two of the many, the same scene, different flavors. After the rain

Japanese Iris and Waterlilies

These images can be viewed in a cleaner and higher resolution presentation, and they are for sale as prints:

Japanese Iris in Rain

After Rain

Bee on Globe Thistle, Mondarda, Vermont

The Bee Balm (monarda) has rather run away this summer, but I couldn’t bear to try to tame it. I’m finding that the brilliant red is providing a handy backdrop for all kinds of subjects. I think I am going to try a whole series about this bee balm running wild. I just found out that I will be exhibiting at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon NH this October through December, and I think the bee balm series might be something to try printing for it.

This image proves to me some things I already know so well: you can make a photograph in natural light once. After that any attempt to improve or recreate it are rather iffy. It seems like it should be more than possible to refine a vision, but it’s tricky.

This particular image was one of the first of about 200 images I made of this subject. Over a few day period, the bees were reliably working this globe thistle, and the red monarda backdrop wasn’t going anywhere. I tried some different lenses, tried optimizing the aperture for the blur of the background, even making some of those 40 Megapixel monsters that my micro four thirds camera can do with its sensor-shift technology (and those are good because the colors are often better and truer). Still, I think this might be among the best of the batch. Subject to revision. We’ll see.

This image is for sale and can be viewed in higher resolution on its page.

Wabi Sabi White Peony and Dew

Well, yesterday I wrote about how it’s not good to post something very fresh. Also, while it’s usually a week or more between these posts, it’s only been a day. Well, things change, and in this space I can do pretty much what I want.

Early this morning I tweeted to my sister with the wikipedia link to Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese aesthetic and world view based on imperfection within perfection, as well as some Buddhist concepts such as impermanence. My paraphrase of the gist, or at least the observable outcome, of wabi-sabi is that it’s actually good to have a bit of imperfection within something otherwise rather perfect.

A little while after that tweet I was out in the garden photographing peonies in morning dew. This is something I’ve done quite a lot of over the years, but my equipment and technique are better than ever, now. I liked a lot of what I did today, but this one rather knocked my socks off. So, two photo-of-the-weeks in a week. So far!