Clarity

Stone Wall, Ferns, Dandelions,Vermont

First, let me get out of the way that I don’t mean to write about “clarity” as a slider in Photoshop, Lightroom, or other post-processing software. I will digress and write about that a little bit to get it out of the way. Also, to clarify: I did not use this slider or effect on this image. If I ever do use it, it is very sparing.

That post-processing form of “clarity” is a subtle to not-subtle distortion of tonal values. The effect changes the tone not just at the edge, as “sharpening” algorithms do. It changes a whole block of tonality, which may have the effect of changing our perception of the detail of an image. While it is sometimes helpful, I tend to not like it or its over-use very much. The resultant images often look “crunchy” and over-wrought. Here is an interesting example of it, which I often show to students if I’m teaching Lightroom or Photoshop. First, a set of pure tones, unprocessed. We may perceive edge effects just because of the way we are wired, but the tones are solid:

Straight up

Next, here is the same set of tones with “clarity” applied in Adobe Lightroom:c

Clarity applied

You can see above that the sense of edges between the tones is enhanced, but the purity and actual clarity of the tones is distorted in favor of a sort of 3-d effect here. The clarity slider – be careful!

The clarity I think about is our perceptual clarity, how we see, a quality of one’s mind.

In the path of becoming a decent photographer, there are stages in developing clarity of vision.

First off, it’s a challenge to see what the world looks like instead of what one imagines it to be. This is the primary challenge: seeing through our own preconceptions. There is so much to see in any scene in front of our eyes, and instead of doing our best to really look at it, as a baseline, we are content to seeing a bit and then creating our own fantasy image of what we see. We might not really see the shape of a tree, but instead we are satisfied that it has a trunk and then some leaves, as a child will often draw a tree as a brown stick with a green circle on top. Light, shadow, shapes, texture; it’s a lot of work to see what’s really there, and we don’t make the effort unchallenged.

The second stage of gaining some clarity as a photographer is actually seeing what is in the viewfinder, and imagining what that looks like as a flat thing – a photograph. The common example is making a portrait whenthe subject has a tree or pole in the background. In a print it will look like the pole is growing out of the subjects head — or at least it is a distracting break from the shape of a person and a head, to have the sharp vertical in the same place.

After we can not only see the world clearly and visualize it as a photograph, with no extraneous or distracting or unexpected elements, we can start to think about how the viewer’s eye will move through it, as through a painting. Curves, shapes, depth, texture, in and out. A work of art works better when it creates a dance for the eye, moving around the frame.

And as these other aspects are developing, we can develop clarity in the realm of human resonance. How does it feel? Is that feeling profound? Might it be shared among viewers? Can something beyond words be communicated, a sense of presence, of… something?

And behind it all… the mind. My Buddhist teacher says that clarity of mind, like awareness and some other intrinsic qualities, just is. It’s there — all we have to do is access it. How do we do that? It’s a practice, and all of the above helps, but meditation may be the most helpful practice. Also helpful to have a teacher who can point out this aspect of mind, any people you can hang out with who have access to their clarity.

See me at an Opening Tonight

Tonight at the League of New Hampshire Crafts Headquarters Gallery, in Concord New Hampshire, from 5 to 7:30.

One of three of my photos hanging in the show of new juried members into the League of NH Crafts is the one above, which I’ve never framed up before. It’s a 20 inch wide print in a 22 x 28 maple frame.

(a new photo of the week blog is coming soon!)

Nothing Whatsoever, But Anything Can Arise

Hawk Over Lake Champlain, Vermont

Above: Hawk over Lake Champlain

Photography and meditation — and art, aesthetics, and seeing altogether as an intersection with meditation keeps coming up in my thoughts. So one might wonder, “What is the aesthetic of meditation? The vision? What is the substance of meditation in this regard?”

None. No substance. Nothing whatsoever.

It’s interesting that different Buddhist cultures have evolved their own aesthetic within their dharma culture — dharma art — which is almost always beautiful and evocative. The interesting thing is how different that art is from culture to culture, even as the practice itself may not be all that different at its core. It’s not that doing a particular meditation practice leads, nor should it lead, to a specific state of mind that creates a vision.

To offer one contrast, Zen art tends to be quite spare and open, while Tibetan Buddhist art is over-the-top vivid. It is true that vajrayana practice in the Tibetan tradition is based on experiencing vividness through the senses, while Zen practice — from the little I know of it — does not emphasize sensory vividness during sitting practice. Still, generally eyes are open during meditation in both traditions, and a root in the Mahayana gives both Zen and Tibetan practice many similarities in terms of the view.

I won’t go through all Buddhist traditions and compare aesthetics, because that isn’t the point here. The point is that the practice is not creating a solid state of mind or a solid material vision, but rather an empty space, an experience of space, from which possibilities may arise. As photographers, as artists, as practitioners, as humans, we are enriched when we can let experience and phenomenon arise without fixation or aversion, without clinging or aggression — and without the dullness of ignorance.

That approach to experience may in fact influence the art quite a bit.

The title of this page is a quote my teacher likes repeat in regard to Dzogchen practice, as he learned it in his Tibetan lineage. The essence of the experience is nothing at all, but anything may arise — and you can bet something will. This is echoed by meditation instruction from a very different teacher in a different tradition and a country distant from Tibet: Ajahn Chah said something like, “Sit in a chair in the middle of an empty room. See who comes to visit.”

As a photographer I can keep a camera handy to interpret the changing dance of phenomena and light in front of the lens. That is tricky enough. As a human experiencing life in general it is a little trickier, but the same thing, to stay open to whatever arises and let it pass without aggression or clinging, aware that everything changes like the weather and passes through a bigger space like clouds in the sky.

A bit more on meditation and photography

Orange Begonias through screen in rain

I’ve written about meditation and photography some, maybe too much. I keep trying to make things clearer, but I’m afraid there may be misunderstandings. There are certainly misunderstandings, but I hope they at least don’t get worse on account of me. Probably, at times, I’m making things worse. And of course I am a mere practitioner, so if you are interested in how the mind works and what is going on with meditation, I encourage you to seek out a qualified meditation teacher. (I’d strongly suggest a Buddhist teacher, even if you are uninterested in Buddhist trappings or notions. The 2500 year tradition provides a detailed map of the terrain of working with the mind rather than a mere technique, as you will get in a a secular approach).

First, meditation is its own practice, a kind of not-doing, mostly, done on a cushion or a chair. There are many approaches to it, and some are perhaps more active than others, whether on that cushion or while actually doing something. But the important point is that basis of it is working with mind and awareness itself, directly, and not dressing that up or confusing it with some worldly or materialistic pursuit. Photography, of course, is different. You are doing something, often with a different motivation than purely working with mind.

So, this relates to photography in a couple of ways I’m aware of. Meditation, if one works with it consistently over time, may have some impact on our awareness, clarifying our perception. This could also include perception of our emotional world, so the resonances in photography, what we may feel as a result of a made image, may become clearer as well. We may see better, and we may feel more. Less numbness means more engagement.

Then it goes the other way as well, with photography having its own impacts on our vision, awareness, and emotional development. This is where the connection with meditation gets confusing to many, as well as to me sometimes. There is an aspect to practicing photography that puts us in touch with opening our awareness of the world and also the emotional realm — how we resonate with the world. This can function and feel a lot like meditation. I think if done with awareness of what’s going on, there can be something like meditation going on in the practice of photography — sometimes.

I think there is a big difference in some ways that are important. Meditation, at least Buddhist meditation, is non-material, not goal-oriinented. It is a pure practice. As such, it is extremely radical and transforming, a dissolving force applied to the concept of selfish-self and ego altogether. It’s important for the meditation to be pure that way, not done with what Suzuki Roshi calls “gaining idea.”

Photography is quite different. As a photographer, we want to make “our own” good image. In some way this effort is attached to our ego. There may be something pure in our desire to see and perceive and do the work to increase our awareness and resonance and openness. There may also be something that is — from a Buddhist perspective and from the perspective of reducing ego-clinging — sometimes less productive in this regard.

Personally I feel my own photography has improved a lot as I have done a lot of meditation and studied with amazing Buddhist teachers over the last several years, but that’s just a side-effect, not why I meditate. To the extent that my photos are “Buddhist, meditative photos” I hope any such characterization also finds them to be radical, intense, cutting through — not some kind of new-agey mellow peaceful thing. My intent is more to cut through the solidity of our mis-perception, which is a radical act. Nor is the transformation of my mind the sole object of my photography, though it is there. Photography and meditation are different, but they dovetail.

One thing that is interesting to me and important to point out: most of what we consider the great masters, contemporary and historical, were not meditators. Look at a photo by (in no particular order) Elliot Erwitt, Paul Caponigro, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Fan Ho, Saul Leiter, Ansel Adams, Andre Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson and so many others — looking at their best work one should gasp and wonder “how did they see so well?!” And that is a mystery. They worked and worked, practiced a lot of photography, embraced art as a whole, lived life deeply and in the end it showed in their work. That gasp we do, “How did they see so well?” might be part of that mysterious connection we might make between meditation and photography, but in this case it is not related to meditation as such.

New Ice With Brush Stroke Texture, 2017

New Ice with Brush Stroke Texture, Vermont

This photo looks like I somehow enhanced it to create a painting appearance, especially through the middle of the print and on the left, but that is how the ice looked. I just saw it that way through the lens.

For a larger view or to buy a print, go to this photo’s page

Practice helps us remember what we know, when we are in other situations. This goes for practicing photography, and the same for my meditation practice and dharma studies. It’s hard to practice enough, but it helps if I do. The point isn’t just so one can best inhabit the moment when things are going well, but also when things are going badly.

What is the practice? What helps? Well, keeping what we might call The View. Which is to say an understanding of how reality works. It turns out that photography is a lot like meditation in a lot of ways. Probably meditation is the more important practice, but it’s also interesting to have an action that manifests the same wisdom that we mostly learn through non-action. The active version helps spread the view into life. Then there is mindfulness. Attention. Cultivating, making better and better friends with awareness. Again, this cuts both ways. Sometimes with feet in the fire, it just makes it more intense. But then, strangely, sometimes it helps. It helps to feel the fire. It helps, in photography, to be able to wait until the situation is one to work with.

As a photographer, we are open to experience. Shape, form, light, and other events manifest in various ways, and we make an exposure through a lens. Usually that manifestation is temporary. The exact circumstance and light will not occur again. Our job is to experience and recognize the moment and then keep it together to do what we need to get an exposure to work through the lens. Sometimes nothing much is happening that seems worth photographing, and other times it’s hard to keep up with it. Sometimes, from a photographer’s perspective, the world in front of the lens is lousy, and sometimes fantastic.

Al our life is the same. It comes together in a way that will please us from some perspective; then sometimes the way it comes together is not pleasing, useful, or interesting from our personal perspective. Of course the perspective that finds the world pleasing, or not pleasing, is as temporary as other manifestations. If we are hungry, food is beautiful. If we are overstuffed, it can be repulsive. The world changes, perspective changes, but there is always a relationship between our current perspective, arising and changing, and the outer world, manifesting and changing.

Usually the appearance of new ice on my pond is interesting and pleasing to me as a photographer, plenty of chance for interesting texture, color, abstraction. I know it will be gone soon, melting by noon, or else settling into a more solid and boring form as it becomes an enduring sheet.

I used to try for deep depth of field a lot in this kind of photography, but I am loosening up quite a bit, mostly starting last year. This was exposed through a medium long old Zeiss prime lens with amazing sharpness and also a beautiful quality to the blur when out of focus at a medium aperture.

A busy week…

Halloween Through Black Krim Window

As the title says, it’s been a wild week. First priority, I had a jury for the League of New Hampshire Crafts. I had figured that since I live in Vermont, I wasn’t eligible. Also, they used to have a rule that only wet-process, darkroom prints were allowed. Now digital processes are OK, and I live close enough to the border that I am eligible.

I had to get a dozen perfect frames together. I almost made a dozen, but when I got a glass cut and blood on the front of the mat, on the morning before I headed down, I settled on 11.

It turns out it was great fun, talking to other serious photographers on the jury. Way more fun than I could have imagined it would be. And then even more fun when they told me I am accepted. We still have to get my work into the galleries, but it seems there’s a good chance you could see my work at any of the 8 or 9 League Galleries in New Hampshire in coming weeks and months.

So then the next day I had to follow through on a promise to hang a show at a restaurant in Randolph Vermont, The Black Krim. It was pretty wild getting the show together on the heels of the jury, and I hadn’t managed to see the space because of a family member’s health situation.

I got into Randolph in late afternoon to find it crawling with goblins, witches, ghosts, wizards, etc. Main street was closed. Right. Halloween. The owner of the Black Krim was on the front step, dishing out ice cream to a line of costumed kids of all ages. So the whole scene was kind of wild. Above, you can see Ascutney Mountain Through Bursting Maple Buds framed by the window, looking out on the slightly drizzly All Hallows Eve.

I had not been to Randolph for quite a few years, since I lived closer to that part of the world. It is quite a nice town, and The Black Krim looks like a wonderful restaurant. I can’t wait until we can manage to go dine there.

Early Breakfast, Jersey Shore Diner 2016 & More Saul Leiter Musings…

Breakfast at Jersey Shore Diner

I think generally a photographer’s vision might stay somewhat “true” but of course it will also change and develop over years. It’s an interesting question for someone like me, a Buddhist, one who perceives the notion of a steady and enduring “self” as an illusion, a process with no real solidity. But some threads of continuity continue; things fall apart and then something comes back together, possibly with some relation to the momentum before. It’s hard to say what “my” vision is, except it’s whatever I do, how what I do in one season might relate to what I did in past seasons.

This photo was exposed in the summer of 2016, at a time when various influences were at play and new flavors were coming into my work. I started using manual focus lenses much more — something I hadn’t done since the late 1990s. This period was different from my early photography though. I started working with the lenses much more rigorously, exploring their character through the range of apertures, getting to know the quirks of their out of focus rendering as well as the qualities of their sharpness. In short I can say I want lenses that are very sharp where they are sharp, and show the not-in-focus areas beautifully. But there is a lot more to it than that. Each (prime) lens has quite a bit of personality in different situations and at different apertures, so I work with that as I get to know it. It changes my eye a bit.

This image used a lens that was not a vintage lens, but a vintage-like lens, the Voigtlander 35mm f1.7 Ultron. They market it as a “vintage” lens — but it has modern glass and coatings. It’s quite excellent, with some of my favorite bokeh, and it inspired me a lot that summer and onward in the months after I got it. It surely was a factor in changing and developing my eye.

That summer of 2016 my father’s health was declining quickly and dramatically. Certainly strong emotional shocks, influences that break apart my solidity — as his decline and death did — certainly that kind of thing opens up my vision as well. So this image is very much of that time, a bit of seeing and creating some beauty in some darkness. This image is also of this current time, the continuity, the continued urge to find the light shining through the dark of these times.

So what about Saul Leiter?

I saw the film about him last week: “In No Great Hurry.” I recommend it strongly. I guess the link is that seeing that film encouraged me to pick this image to publish here to some extent. So the funny thing is that as the film showed his images, my wife said, “I can see how he’s been a big influence on you!” I told her, “No!” I hadn’t known about Saul Leiter until I started seeing his images in 2018 in twitter posts by @danielbrami1, who I follow for his excellent taste in art and photography. I immediately appreciated him as a kindred spirit in exploring color, abstraction, and the quality of blur, often choosing longer focal length lenses. One thing we share is an appreciation that the composition, the print, lives as its own forms, colors, textures that have a life of their own independent of a mere subject.

In the film he said a lot of Buddhist-like things. I don’t know if he explored Buddhist thought or meditation. He came from a serious Jewish background. His mother expected him to be a rabbi. The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has joked that without Jews and Catholics, there wouldn’t be many Buddhists in the west. Whatever label one could try to pin on Saul Leiter’s spirituality or artistic approach, I’ve been glad to meet him as an old friend. He died in 2013 in his 80s, so our friendship will continue through the common thread of whatever things each of us found and cultivated as we explored and developed.

Water Lily After Rain, 2018

black and white wet morning glory after rain

I may have mentioned, it’s been a busy summer, including some travel and doing a lot of work for the Post Pond photos show in Lyme NH. I used my camera a fair amount, but I didn’t deal with any of the image files at all. I just put them on disk as the summer tore along, and even the initial bifurcation process that determines the backup strategy (for better vs maybe less good images) wasn’t even done. So I hadn’t even backed up about half the summer’s camera work until today. (I need to rework my backup strategy, as any bottleneck in the way of getting it done quickly and regularly it is not OK.)

Going through the images, I found a lot more good images than I remembered. Good to have something to look forward to: sorting them out, bringing them out into the world.

Usually an image that makes it onto the site, into print, goes through a rather long process. I have ways to bounce even moderately good images back into my memory over and over, and I cull out the ones I don’t want to see again. Usually an image needs to haunt me for a while, sometimes to literally enter my dreams. For example one of this summer’s images was in my dreams last night, and so I might work on presenting that one next. Or something might bump into the line ahead of it.

This one though, pop! I saw it, saw it’s potential. (asked my wife, my second eyes, who agreed). It needed a crop to a 4×5 aspect ratio to really work. Tonally, it needed just enough contrast to pop and have the tones and forms create their pattern in a distinctive way, without losing the subtlety of tone. A little tricky, that.

This was exposed through a somewhat legendary vintage manual lens, Olympus OM 50/2, which is not one I would have picked for this exposure. It’s a lens with only a six bladed aperture, which produces some of the most beautiful of lens renderings when it works out, and some of the worst when it doesn’t. Usually it can be very nice wide open but not so nice stopped down past f4. This was stopped down. I was walking around with just the one prime lens on the camera and not a full bag or two. That I didn’t go get another lens shows I didn’t really see the potential of this exposure. But that’s OK.

I just read some interviews with Saul Leiter, a photographer I love more and more, and especially after reading these interviews. In one interview he said he used the lens he had with him (he of course used single focal-length prime lenses), even when he might have preferred another lens, and that is that. It worked out. He said Picasso did it with paint colors as well, using the paint he had, even when he might have picked another color. Saul Leiter and Picasso worked with what they had, turned the constraints into the working method that succeeded. (In Tibetan Buddhism we say that confusion itself is the path, the only path, to wisdom. How could there be another path than the one we walk on?)

And so it is with life: we have our lenses with which we view the world, our colors, our karma, and it’s not always what we would prefer. To some extent we can change the lenses, change what we are working with, but we have to keep working within limitations of our own tendencies, limitations, resources — and the vagaries of the world. The world does what it pleases, and we work with it as best we can. We don’t always like that, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.

Photography is interesting right now, on the day it is clear that a misogynist, drunk, liar, and probable sexual assaulter will be confirmed to the supreme court. Today when the weight of one attack after another on decency, honesty, values, hope for the American system, fairness for women, kindness for all — a day when that hope seems rather dim. Photography keeps me going on days like these, even when its importance seems diminished by the significance of global and national political disasters — things which will increase the amount of suffering in the world, for sure. After I heard that Susan Collins would vote to confirm the scumbag Kavanaugh, I went out with my cameras for a bit.

How to respond to this crisis of our time?

I think there are a lot of reasonable responses, including political activism. Sorry if I lose the few Republicans that are reading right now as fans, but: everyone vote. If you care about decency and you are in the US, vote for Democrats; vote in the midterm elections.

Besides voting, and even if you aren’t going to vote for a Democrat, the best thing you can do is to cultivate your own intelligence, compassion, openness, clarity of mind, kindness. Feel the anger that is natural when things we hold dear are falling apart, but don’t let that anger control your behavior. Sure, we feel anger, but let it pass through like a wave. Work with the world we are given as best you can. Walk the path of confusion in such a way that it manifests as wisdom and clarity. I do that with meditation, and my practice of photography is not by any means a substitute for meditation, but it helps. So I keep on.

You, a fan of photography, or if you found this by being a fan of waterlilies — look! Open! Appreciate this beautiful world, and see the light inside the dark.

3 Abandoned Hay Bales, Ascutney Mountain and Low Clouds

3 round hay bales, ascutney mountain, vermont, infrared

It’s been too long since I’ve gotten to work with new exposures and push my work into the new direction. I’ve been so busy hanging shows, and some of that is printing established work. And so I was excited to launch into one of the newer files. I had some writing I’d been thinking of to accompany it.

Then this one caught my eye. I don’t know why it happens that something grabs me like this. Partly I think it is because as my skill increases, I know how I can pull something off, interpret it so it sings. When I made this exposure in 2015, I didn’t really see how this would work. Today it was pretty easy. Maybe I was grabbed by it because this morning was foggy with low clouds like this. Maybe tomorrow I couldn’t do it. It is all a mystery.

When I made the exposure above, I also exposed this one, below, and that was something I “saw” pretty quickly as a silvery and subtle and textured work and published it on the site years ago. Now it has an infrared sister.
Single Round Hay Bale Mount Ascutney, Clouds, Vermont, Black and White

One funny story about making these exposures: I pulled over in my little ancient VW Golf. One of the cameras I used was kind of big, a Nikon D800, and the other one was my Micro Four Thirds Infrared camera. So a guy pulls up in a big truck, sets up a big tripod (I haven’t used a tripod that big since I had a bellows camera on top of it), and sets up a big DSLR. I thought the D800 was too big, and I don’t know how a DSLR could get so much bigger. Maybe a battery grip added onto some monster camera? I think it was a Can-Nikon offering and not a medium format camera. Anyway, I felt like little old me with my little plunky gear, and I thought probably the scene was too common if someone else was set up there, and set up so grandly too. I figured I wouldn’t do anything with the exposures. It was mid fall, already late in the foliage season, and the colors were subtle and maybe interesting. I think it was the fact someone else was making photographs there that pushed me to interpret it as I did, all silvery textures instead of some punchy colors. At this point I’d love to see if he got anything good in that spot.

These photos are printed on Epson Cold Press Natural and are available for sale here:
Three Hay Bales
Single Hay Bale

Post Pond Work and Rework

In working up the show of Post Pond images now hanging at Matt Brown Fine Art in Lyme NH, I of course had to over-work on it. Doing so was worth it. The show looks great!

So, I of course had to look through my catalog to find files I’ve never really printed before, and introduce them. I had taken a stab at the one above, an older exposure, but I think I hit it this time.

One of my favorite Post Pond photos, and one that is well liked when I show it, is this one of Pickerel Weed and Mist:

From the same set of exposures, I also made another print I like quite well, which I printed the same size (about 14 x 20). For such a close proximity in time and space, it has a very different feel, I think because I interpreted the file a bit differently and saw the color balance a bit differently. I like it quite well too:

Another image that I liked quite well but hadn’t ever been satisfied with a print until now was this one:
Post Pond October Mist, Reeds, Yellow Trees
I like it because autumn is often dreamy and subtle like that. Though I personally am not always happy with punchy, saturated fall color prints, it’s harder to do the subtle thing. I guess as it always is. I haven’t been able to hit this one just right for some years, but I’m very happy now. Hanging in Lyme.

This one too, I am much happier with the current version than what I had done before. I think my eye as a photographer, when making exposures, is getting better, but I know my eye as a printer, working with files and paper, is getting much much better each year.
post pond misty waterline, cloud reflections and hills, black and white