A new-to-me vintage lens I recently acquired is over-the-top smooth and creamy in the background, while rendering the focus super sharp anywhere in the frame. It’s about 30 years old, I guess, and as good as any lens I would ever want to buy new, except that it’s not so good pointed toward the sun. While my modern Zeiss lenses have some aggressive sharpness and unbelievable coatings, there is something about this old lens that is so pleasing I can hardly contain myself. What a joy.
I bought this lens on the internet while I was traveling for my father’s funeral. In that dark time, an online vendor of used lenses was having a big sale, and I took that bait to good result. A relatively expensive lens, I might not have bought it at another time. What a weird juxtaposition.
Since I’ve had the lens, since my father’s funeral and the US election, I’ve been stumbling through the mystery of grief, which has its own rhythms and times and demands. It works without our consent or conscious knowledge — and yet it demands our cooperation in its mystery. It clobbers us, but also has some healing power. If we give it its due, maybe it gives us some insight or blessing in return. I’ve always been intrigued that an ever-recurring theme in world storytelling, mythology, religious texts, is a set of variations on the theme of the hero needing to journey underground in a dark place. Maybe my favorite is C.S. Lewis’ _The Silver Chair_, a children’s book rich in wisdom. We are compelled to go to the dark place, and there we have to keep our wits about us. We have to follow instructions (in my case my meditation and dzogchen practice). Then we gain something. It’s weird.
So this image, with this lens, is to me like the grief, somewhat, though of course I wouldn’t want to have that be your interpretation! This is of course more beautiful than the experience of grief, but that is one point; within grief there are glimpses of the beautiful world. Some murky mystery, luminous; and there is some brightness glowing. There are jewels of insight, wisdom, and growth to be found in grief, if we don’t succumb to it altogether. It has been weird for me this time, a foggy quality, something of this smooth semi-differentiated quality, not strongly articulated, a few aspects strongly etched.
I have mentioned many times in this blog my love of ukiyo-e (“floating world”); the dreamy woodcuts (and sometimes paintings) of Hokusai, Utamaro, Hiroshige, Hoitsu, Kawase, and others. I love that aesthetic in the past, and by masters who bring the tradition forward into the present, like Matt Brown. This is one of my images that feels inspired by ukiyo-e.
Luckily, I love what I do as a photographer and I don’t pine too much to time travel to ancient Japan. I love that sometimes photography can do what other mediums can’t. Both realistic rendering, and the way a good lens can draw and paint with light have their own aesthetic virtues, which sometimes can soar. I can’t do ukiyo-e woodblocks, but I can be inspired by them. I can make prints I am very happy with.
I print this image on fine textured watercolor or etching paper, or it also works well on the smooth baryta surface of my other favorite paper by Canson. If you order a print and have a paper preference, let me know.