Category Archives: New England

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

Show Opening on March 2

Pink Fuchsias, Purple Raincoat, Greenhouse

(I have featured the photo above before, but here it is again, because it’s very probably going to hang in my upcoming show at Long River Gallery next week)

As for this photo, I wrote a little bit about it when it was new, last year. But I would probably write differently about it now, and I’ll add a bit.

One of the most interesting things about photography for me, always, over these 40 years I’ve been doing it, is the mystery of how a photo works, how it sticks in one’s mind and keeps resonating, or not. I first noticed this sitting long hours in the art library at Dartmouth College in the 70s and early 80s pouring over books by famous photographers. What was it about some of those images that rang me like a bell, and kept ringing over years? I also saw that quality in some of my own photos. Of course some of it can be explained: having a good composition, a good technical execution, etc. So we try to do a good job, to put it simply. But as I said, there’s some mystery. Tapping into that mystery is in a way, for me, tapping into THE mystery.

So anyway, this image is digging itself deeper and deeper. I knew I liked it, but I like it more all the time.

OK, as usual, I’ve digressed. The point is, I’m having a bit of a show through the spring of ’18 in White River Junction Vermont. You can see this print there, and others. I think I’ll post more about that show!

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.

Printing Subtle Images — Harder Than it Might Seem

Four Morning Glories in Autumn

I’ve been printing a lot just lately. As I mentioned last week, I had a request from my senator’s office to send some prints to hang in their Washington DC office. So I’ve been printing for Bernie Sanders. He wants Vermont images. I’ve printed some of my most popular images, things I’ve printed a lot before. It’s gone well. But then I’ve been trying to push out some new work, as I always feel inclined to do in these circumstances. This printing has been harder than hard. I think sometimes people think a photographer just presses the shutter on the camera, click, and then to print you push a button, click again. Done. So easy. Who would pay for that?

I won’t talk about the camera and lens work, but I find that in some ways printing never gets easier, with some images. Indeed, as my aspirations grow, it just gets harder. I think in some ways the hardest of all are the moody, atmospheric images I’m working on a lot these days, which in some cases only have a relatively small area of sharp subject, and the rest are tones and subtle colors. I think that a more traditional landscape — everything sharp — is a whole lot easier. The detail and the “reality” of the subject distract a lot from other aspects of what is going on with tones and colors. Of course such a print still benefits from the work to get the tones all working. It is just more critical when the photo is more of a tone poem than a detail-subject.

I had been printing in the darkroom since the late 70s, and I got to be quite the craftsman after I took a couple of weeks of workshop given by John Sexton in 1982. He was working as Ansel Adams’ darkroom assistant at that time, and he taught us the craft as Ansel Adams was practicing it. Besides a lot of burning and dodging, paper choice and a lot of tweaking of chemistry were involved, and it took a long time to nail a final print in those days. I printed in the darkroom until about ’98, when I moved away from a darkroom and never had one of my own again.

At first, digital printing was even harder for me than darkroom printing. At first everything was out of control, and I couldn’t get a handle on it. I longed for the darkroom. Eventually I learned the characteristics of a handful of papers, how the ink works, most importantly calibration of monitor and printer profile. Still not easy. Sometimes pretty predictable. Sometimes surprisingly not so. I’ve spent quite a bit of time and expensive materials, but now I have a really nice print of this morning glory in autumn light on Canson Etching Edition paper.

I’ve been working on printing of the image above since mid-December, and I’ve just got prints I’m happy with today, finally. I’ll send one to Bernie.

A print, by being reflective, is a different kind of thing than glowing pixels on a monitor. The image above features some light coming through, the gold burst from the autumn foliage behind the top morning glory. I’ve got to get the paper to convey that sense. The colors are bright and vivid, but it’s tricky to keep it from looking like a cartoon. In some of my attempts it has been hard to keep it from being murky. This is a tricky one.

My first take on working on an image where color and tonal fidelity will usually be to try Canson Baryta paper. This was a complete failure for some reason. It was just too contrasty, and I couldn’t get the feeling to come across, even when reducing contrast in the file I fed the printer. Printing on more textured mat papers, like Canson Edition Etching opened the whole thing up better, less deep and made the light glow, but then there were other problems — color fidelity not as good, and also not a good “anchor” from the deeper tones. I find on some of my textured papers, even with a calibrated workflows, some colors get a little wilder and harder to control.

I had to make a file just for printing, and then tweak the file to get the print to work, a different file from what I display on the screen to look good. The goal I insist on is that the print and the image you see on screen will have the same impression.

Because I’m a masochist, I’m working on another one that is just as hard. I’m still not quite happy with the print of this one, but I’m working on it this afternoon. My target is to get it to work on Canson Rag Photographique, a smooth paper that is still distinctly papery, and which still conveys the open quality I’m looking for. Closing in on it I think.

New Beech Leaves, 2017

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.

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.

Exactly one year ago: newly plowed corn field, dappled light and low clouds

Newly Plowed Cornfield Vermont Black and White

I had been thinking about this image for a couple of weeks. I actually wake up sometimes with them in my mind. Sometimes I can’t sleep in the night because I get such strong flashes in my mind, like I’m making the exposures. Sometimes I have dreams that are like slideshows, streams of my photos. Anyway, I thought about this photo very vividly and then realized it was made just this week, last year.

There are so many things about it I like, but better to let you come to your own relationship with it.

This is an example of my work being informed by my past — my work in silver images with large format film. But I have to say that this panorama with a modern Zeiss lens, stitched from high resolution images from a very good modern sensor, is better than anything I could have made before. I will print it pretty big, and it will shine that way, but there is enough resolution that I could print it really big. If you like it and have a large wall, let me know.

This print is available for sale here.

Catching up!

I’ve been posting to the blog about show openings and such, and I’m behind on the new photos. The cheese and crackers is all very fun. I had a great time at the Athenaeum show opening in Boston, and the reception in Thetford Vermont (come meet me if you are local!) will be fun too. But there is quite a backlog of new material, as usual.

I won’t get philosophical or any of the somewhat usual ruminations, just point out a couple from one day in the field.

I know of a little ravine that has water falling over the edge, and in the winter it freezes and freezes. It’s a bit slower a flow than a real “waterfall.” I think a waterfall is disruptive to this kind of ice formation, though of course it has its own charm.

I headed out at 9 in the morning, with a lot of my gear, some almonds, half a chocolate bar, and a thermos of tea. That tea was very very good, more appreciated than when I have it at my desk. I was glad to have the tea, because I worked through three Sony batteries and didn’t finish making exposures until about 5 PM. It was rather chilly, though already late winter.

The light in that ravine is generally soft, with some strong beams at times. It’s workable, and very nice.

I tend to think of my lens selection as “Zeissy” or “Anti-Zeiss.” This day was very Zeissy.

frozen waterfall vermont

Then looking down:

frozen waterfall vermont

frozen waterfall vermont

Boston Athenaeum Exhibit is Wonderful!

On Wednesday evening, April 5, I really enjoyed the opening of the Exhibition in which some of my photos play a part: “New England on Paper: Contemporary Art in the Boston Athenæum’s Prints & Photographs Collections

Here is a virtual tour of the show on the Athenaeum web site, but you should really see it in person if you are in Boston.