Category Archives: Musings

Insubstantiality of Place

Row of Willows in fog

Just a simple photo exposed on film when I was young and skinny with long(er) hair. A simple bit of writing might match it nicely, but I’m afraid nothing is as simple as it looks, or as real, and I’ve been thinking about this all week so I will be going deep.

I exposed this image on 4 x 5 film in 1982. I was driving my VW rabbit to New York City to show a gallery some silver gelatin prints. I was a couple of years out of college and had been working very very hard on my photography, quite sure I was going to have my photos hanging everywhere in the world quite soon. A March morning just like this one, still some snow, drizzle, and fog hanging over it — and I saw this row of trees off the highway as I drove through Massachusetts from Vermont. Of course I pulled off a nearby exit, set up my view camera, and exposed some sheet film. It’s always slow to set up a view camera, and, like now, I was always late for everything on account of photography. I was a little late to the gallery meeting, but the image was better than the gallery meeting. It’s important to stop if you’ve got a chance at something. (I don’t remember the name of the gallery or the woman I met. She was kinder than she might have been in telling me my photos were not going to make it into her 1982 New York City gallery, the work I was doing then, and that gallery. I remember there were some platinum prints, or they looked that way, of flowers hanging there then.)

The reason this comes up now is that I was driving past that spot a couple of weeks ago in a different Volkswagen. I had driven down to Northampton MA to buy a used car to replace my almost 19 year old current car. In the test drive we drove by this erstwhile row of trees, which had been broken to bits by time and storms. It was nothing like it had been. That was very striking, though of course I was trying to pay attention to the test drive as best I could. I’m used to buildings I have photographed going down, trees falling or being cut. Happens all the time. But this whole row of trees was kind of smashed to bits, and it hit me.

And then the other day I was out with my camera on a trail I take camera hikes on pretty often. I like that trail not because it is a steady example of enduring reality, but because it manifests constant change. Images I make there on any day will never be the same as on any other day. Here’s one I made the other day, as an example of something you won’t see if you go there today:
Little Cascade Falls Frozen, Ascutney Mountain

I often annoy people who know me when I claim that time doesn’t exist. I don’t mean the clocks don’t tick, or that we don’t have appointments we will be late for when we stop with a camera. I just mean that from a human perspective, it’s complicated. I’ll talk about time in another post, or maybe in a book.

This week I was experiencing how it’s even more crazy than that. Places don’t really exist, at least not in an enduring way. From the point of view of making subtle photographs that aren’t set up with artificial props and light, the light and matter we use to make the exposure onto film or sensor is so fleeting, as is the mood and vision and entire cognitive realm; that configuration only exists for the briefest moment, and then, from an experiential standpoint, that place no longer exists. If I go back to those GPS coordinates tomorrow, the light is different, I feel different, I see differently. Also physical bits of the world often quickly manifest as impermanent. I often joke to my wife, who, amazingly, understands me: “I’ve never been here before” — and I say it in a place where of course I’ve been. Earlier in our relationship I would explain, “The light is different.” I leave that part out now, as it is well understood. The thing is I really have that experience. The place is different. I’ve never been there before.

We Buddhists say things are “empty.” This is a simple thing, but tricky. There are a lot of ways to attempt to describe and understand it. The brilliant Indian Nagarjuna has lots of difficult but good text. Our current Dalai Lama frequently talks about emptiness enthusiastically, and he often cites Nagarjuna. Dogen, in the Zen tradition points to it in his “Moon in a Dewdrop.” But I think the only way to understand is to meditate, really quite a lot I think. And, like Nagarjuna and Dogen, photography points it out as well.

I’ll leave with a bit of a prose poem to point this out a bit more

Clouds In Each Paper

–by Thich Nhat Hanh (Mar 25, 2002)

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.

“Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be”, we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

Row of Willows for sale as a print

Ice on Little Cascade Falls Print

Kandinsky Again

I don’t have a formula for composition, obviously. I like simplicity, I like abstraction. I like foggy mystery, but also piercing clarity. I’m happy enough sometimes to simply represent something interesting, but mostly I’m looking to move the eye around a space, and to move the mind with it. More and more (though I always have), I think of art as being a reflection of, or projection of, mind. Mind doesn’t really have a form or shape or color, as any meditator or neuroscientist knows. But somehow I feel like a state of mind (always transitory and fleeting) can have a graphical representation. A lot of modern art is interesting to me not purely because of color and form, but because of Mind. Kandinsky is a different state of mind — when viewing the painting you are in a different state of mind — than say in front of a Rothko.

Photographing ice on a winter stream is always an opportunity to explore a lot of mental states, a lot of chances for simplicity, tranquility, and also more kinetic and energetic situations.

I like this one, for now, because it has about as much energy, form, texture, detail, as I dare squeeze into a photo. The eye moves around the image; it’s not a simple, settled thing. Like Kandinsky paintings, the mind can be this way too. It’s worth spending time with it, whether it is a Rothko or a Kandinsky.

This is a stream in New Hampshire that I particularly like to walk along, because there is a nice trail along it, and the stream is interesting — sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes even a waterfall. The stream is a mind of its own, moving through all the states and shapes and form that a real mind will, and always changing. In winter here, pretty much any day will be different from the next in terms of how a stream like this will look, and of course the light changes through the day too. It is as fleeting as a one day flower, a dandelion head in a breeze, a human mood or set of thoughts.

Eight Wordly Winds

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

The last week has been an interesting one photographically, and of course it always is. To start, I had a very fruitful day early last week, where I exposed the image above. The light, ice, and snow were nice all day, and it wasn’t too cold to spend a 7 hour day out with the camera. I enjoyed it, and I think I made some other good exposures.

Before I move on, what about the same exposure rendered in black and white? Thirty five years ago, when I used 4 x 5 sheet film, it would be a no-brainer: of course it has to be black and white. But I find I love the subtle colors in the image above. A photographic friend once said of me that I make color photographs like I’m working in black and white (I’m not sure it was a compliment from him). But personally I’ll take it as a compliment. For me, form, texture, tone very often take precedence in deciding a composition, but lately color is a bigger influence as well. As an option, here it is below in black and white. I think I’ll put them both on the site for sale until it is clear which is better.

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

Anyway, it was an interesting week, as I said. After this great camera day, I had a let down from a potential vendor of my work. We’ll still see about that. But it felt like a blow. And then I think the next day, or day after that, I got an out-of-the-blue email from the office of one of my Vermont Senators, Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie. They asked if I would be so kind as to let them hang some of my Vermont images in their DC office. Umm, yes, I would be flattered.

Then another camera day, yesterday. It was a promising camera day, beautiful new snow lacy on all the trees, some rime ice in some places, and nice ice over rivers and streams. The only problem was that about 2/3 of the way through my stamina and camera battery supply, I fell through some ice into a stream, about belly-button height or higher. I was too busy to take careful notes at that moment. The water was ice cold and running fast. It was all I could do to pull myself up on the ledge of ice. (I noticed later I scratched my hands and wrist in that endeavor.) I had a camera backpack and a side-bag full of gear. The side-bag was floating. All the gear stayed dry enough, except the micro four thirds Olympus, not my main camera, but I love it, and on it was a lens I love. They fell in the water as I tried to scramble out. I fished them out and am drying them, though I think the lens is a loss. Besides being quite miserable for some time until I got home and dry, I was pretty bummed out about that lens. The camera, we’ll see. It didn’t seem to take on much water, and it’s quite a weatherproof wonder.

Also this last week, my ancient car, which has had charging system trouble since November, has made it clear that it is still not working. I was nervous climbing up the riverbank to it, soaked through, in about 15 degree F temperatures, not 100% sure it would start. It did. Being that wet and not sure the car would start was damn scary. It’s an 18 year old Volkswagen, which I’ve really loved for all these years, my favorite car ever. But now I think it’s time to get rid of the damn thing.

So, ups, downs, and my mind continues along, stumbling and soaring, as it does.

One Buddhist teaching on this as aspect of life is formulated as “The Eight Worldly Winds,” or often, “The Eight Worldly Dharmas.” In life we sometimes get praise and sometimes blame. Sometimes fame, and sometimes its disrepute. We get things that we want, but then we lose them — we can’t keep anything permanently. So there is always gain and loss. Likewise with pleasure and pain.

Though obviously derived from the Buddha’s teachings, I’m not sure it was formulated and presented as this list of 8 pairs of opposites in his time. I’m guessing as a list it comes from the Nalanda period in India, around the ninth century, but I’m not a real scholar of this, and there is a lot of pseudo scholarship online.

Between the idea of the title of “The Eight Worldy Dharmas” vs “The Eight Worldly Winds,” I like the Winds better. Right at the start, you get the idea. There are these winds always blowing us around. We are pulled and pushed by our attraction, aversion, and ignorance. We can tend to go off to the races every time the winds blow, or we can train to understand that this is just what happens as humans in this world and take our seat to watch the display without getting quite so caught. I like this teaching, this view, because it is basically neutral. Of course, as humans, things happen and then we respond emotionally. No blame. It’s just that we’re better served if we place our allegiance with awareness rather than with the emotional tides.

To purchase prints:
The color version
Black and White

Letting the Images be Themselves

Boat and Cows by Lava Rock, Iceland

I’ve been thinking about how to write about the problem of working from an “I” to a certain kind of photography. As I was driving to bring more matted prints to a gallery in Vermont this morning, I was listening to a recording of a Buddhist teacher. One phrase popped out at me: “The view is poisoned.”

My teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, talks about different kinds of “I,” including “the reified I” and “the mere I.” The “mere I” is functional but not grandstanding. It’s there to show up for the job, do the work, but not strut about. The “reified I,” on the other hand, can poison perception and altogether get in the way.

Certainly some great art, and some great photography, has been produced by some people with dynamic and hungry egos. Sometimes artifice and ego does not get in the way of art at all. It doesn’t get in the way of a certain kind of expression, but it does get in the way of clear seeing. It’s hard to see through the self, which wraps us in a thick cocoon.

For my part I consider the dance with the artist’s ego to be problematic at best. I’m trying to step aside and let things come up. I am certainly not without self, without projections, without a haze of distracting thoughts and preconceptions. All I can try to do is see through it, relax and let it open up a bit at times.

The image above, cows and lava rocks in Iceland, did have a little bit of me interpreting it in a not straightforward way: I used the infrared camera. I controlled the degree of black and white conversion (leaving just a little bit of the “false” infrared color). And then I did a split-tone effect to mimic what I used to do in the darkroom years ago if a silver-chloride paper with certain tones got a lot of selenium toner. Still, I like to think I mostly got out of the way and let the image come out. There it was, naturally in the world, the cows, lava rocks, boat on water — a dreamy vista. I let that dreaminess manifest without getting too much in the way, I hope.

Ice by Mossy Stream, Vermont 2017

This image is apparently more straightforward, but there was actually quite a bit of work involved. I worked that spot with different prime lenses and different shutter speeds, and then final control of tonality relationships in the image, etc. Still, it’s the same as above. I want to step aside altogether. Something that was there can shine through.

Some of the point of this writing, and the choice of these newly posted photos together is that my style is as broad as what I can manifest through my camera and printer based on what arises naturally and my own skill to work with it.

These photos are available as prints here (Cows in Iceland) and here (Mossy Stream).

I’m sticking with photography. I love it.

Morning Glory, Foliage, and Birches

As I’ve mentioned before in the blog, I’m a fan of ukiko-ee (“floating world”) woodblock prints. A friend, Matt Brown, who is a master of the medium, recently gave me the opportunity to take a workshop on how to make them. (If you are interested, you can contact him through his website, which I designed for him in the 90s (!) and still maintain in fits and starts). I had to think long and hard. He suggested that I could make my vision more special, because the woodblock prints are rarer.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, you know, I really love photography. Maybe it is less special, since anyone has some kind of camera in their pocket. I thought, better to keep applying myself to something I can do well, instead of taking up something that will take me a long time to be as good at.

I thought about the range of my pallette as a photographer. A lot of successful photographers have a thing, one thing, that they try to be known for. But I love the range of possibilities, the whole spectrum, from the different ways that lenses draw, the tonal pallette of colors, the tones and forms and textures of black and white; from the smooth buttery blur of a classic old lens to the sharp incredible detail of a well coated and well designed modern prime lens on a state of the art sensor.

So here I’ve got two poles of this multi-axis graph of possibilities: a smooth painterly shallow depth of field blur from an old lens that does that well (the same old Olympus 50/2 that drew one of the photos from last week’s post), and a modern lens below a waterfall in Iceland. Both I like, along the “nice color and dreamy” axis — but also both representing different ends of the range of detail (though the moving water with a slow shutter speed is rather blurred in a way I love).

Waterfall River, Angelica, and Basalt Cliff, Iceland

There is so much in the range of my possibilities, and though there are many my body of work doesn’t include, when I think about the range of possibilities it brings me great joy.