Working in the Face of Change and Death

Birches and Fall Foliage, wide aperture

These times — facing the pandemic — are shaking everything up. As with all suffering, the sharp point of this current period in the world brings us to change, uncertainty, a lot of emotional material, and literally existential questions — and the chance for a kind of waking up. Any of us might die from this COVID-19 virus unless we are children. We might lose parents or other loved ones. We face economic catastrophe. Everything we have known is subject to change, and that change is upon us.

To this Buddhist, that paragraph above is not so far out of the ordinary view of things: everything is impermanent, subject to change. Our solid sense of the world is a delusion; it is all more like sand than rock. We could die at any time. Still, facing change of this magnitude is in fact different for most of us. To paraphrase Pema Chodron — I don’t remember which talk or book this comes from — “We all know we are going to die. But it’s different when you are really facing it.”

So what do we do, what do I do, facing this degree of change and uncertainty, fear, anger, and other strong emotions? In part, we keep on through the day, doing what we need to do. We practice kindness as much as possible. But it’s also important to feel what we feel to the extent of our capacity. The emotional states triggered by our current situation of an unstoppable pandemic are not going to be pleasant, but it’s also important to appreciate moments that are OK. The waking up opportunity of a time like this, as all times, is in the balance between experiencing fully to the extent of our capacity while not going numb in overwhelm or denial.

In my life there have been some extended breaks in which I have thrown myself into the pursuit of samsara, lost my pursuit of awakening. But really, waking up has been my life’s work, and I’ve tried to impart this transmission to everyone. As a parent, I almost always tried to keep a view that I was passing along a flame of awareness. In all my relationships I try to keep a sense of awakeness. I am beyond grateful for everyone in my life who has been willing to share this awake presence with me. Anyway, this moment brings me to a point. I’m trying to be fully aware before I die.

This is a photography blog, and I am a photographer. So what am I doing in this realm? Outlet for my work is very minimal, with a contracting economy, gallery visits down to near zero. Throughout last year I worked with great purpose toward putting prints into the physical world. This time is different. I don’t work on a piece with the sense that it will be hanging on a wall soon. I just do it.

I have more time to devote to the “darkroom” side of my work, time I didn’t have while printing, framing, and matting. I am working like mad. And for what purpose? Because it is what I do, what I do best. And I think the new work is getting better very quickly in this time of the sharp-point.

Doing the photography is a bit funny. According to my beliefs, my practice, we should fully feel, experience life fully. But this is sometimes too much for me. The news is dark, I am angry at our leaders for not taking timely action and for lying to us, which has led to this being a catastrophe from which many Americans will die. I am furious that Trump did not take action when he first knew, adopting an approach of wishful thinking instead of decisive and informed action. I am afraid I will lose people I love, that I will not get to see my friends for an extended period — and maybe never again. I am frustrated that there is so little I can do to help the world. So yes, it is important to feel these things, but also it is good to take a break from them. I lose myself in my work, long periods refining my Lightroom catalog and working on images in photoshop. It’s part of the balance, being awake — but not being overwhelmed.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long. I’m excited about my new work. I’m working on a lot more of it. I’m grateful to all who have shared my spark of awareness and put theirs next to mine. Two matches together make a bigger flame. May you all be well.

Cattails in Rain, Panorama crop

I’ve Gone Mad

Well, I’ve more or less lost what I used to think of as my sanity several times before. In this case I won’t talk about that, but all the new images I just put up. I’ve been really pent up in terms of working up new images. I’ve started printing them too. I’m working with the photo black ink on Canson Baryta paper, and next I’ll work on more textured papers with the Matte Black (there is some overhead to switch). So this is the biggest dump onto the site at once I think I’ve ever done. Madness.

I won’t go through them all here, but a few of the “semi-panoramas.” As I mentioned in another recent blog post, these are aggressive crops from (usually) high resolution sensor cameras to achieve a strip crop composition — a different kind of space to work in. So rather than make exposures in an arc to include a vast landscape, this is more like so, a vertical (I still need to work on the website to get these verticals to size gracefully for a screen without scrolling on the real web pages):

Birch in sunlight.

And another vertical: a Dicentra flower with a bokeh fiddlehead in the background:


Dicentra and Fiddlehead Fern

OK, I also added several in more standard format, like this bucket of sunflowers

Bucket of Sunflowers at Farmer's Market

And this infrared photo of a four way foot bridge in Iceland

Four Way Foot Bridge, Iceland

The rest of today’s upload are among the images on my New Photos page

Photos I’ve Spent my Days Framing, Now Hanging

I have mentioned the big framing project, but allow me to introduce the photos. I’ve finally put them up for sale on the site (for 2020 they will be on the new work page) and I’ve also printed some smaller prints of images that went back and forth for this project but ended up not hanging, and put those on the site today.

The Red Jacket Inn in North Conway has my photos hanging in every guest room (at least I think they are all hanging by now.) Each of the hundred and fifty rooms has a small color image, all of them this one:


In the hotel those above are all square in 11 x 11 frames. On my site it is the full crop, a rectangle, but I have square prints as well. It is on Canson Edition Etching Paper.

Then every room has a 19 inch square black and white print in a 30 x 30 frame. Printing and selling them without the constraint of the hotel room design, I’m opting to print some of these as a full crop instead of the square hanging in North Conway. As with the Rose Hips in Snow, above, these can be seen and purchased in North Conway at the North Conway Fine Craft Gallery in much smaller format as matted prints. If you stay at the Red Jacket Inn, you’ll get to live with just one below. Other prints of mine are available at the Gallery as well, framed in maple.

The big black and white prints at the hotel are these:

Foot Bridge in White Mountains, Black and White Photo
River Rocks, Swift River, White Mountains, NH
Ledges on Zealand Trail, White Mountains
Zealand Pond
Black and White Birches in Fall Woods, Sunstar

Then there were a few more I worked up and printed at a large size. I have these available at smaller sizes on the site:

Fall Leaves and Cattails in Rain
View of Fog and Hills Through Spring Oak

Exciting New Project – “Semi-panos”

I’ve been rather pent up in creating new work. I’ve been working with a camera quite a bit less in recent months as I’ve been so busy with production, with the business of selling photographs. However, my method of “tickling” interesting images from my catalog is relentless, popping images into my awareness and compelling some attention.

I’ve done panoramas for several years, compelled at first by the prospect of getting more resolution from my early digital cameras, and also to include broad landscapes in places like Iceland. I printed them large, both because I had the resolution and often the sense of space demanded it. It made a canvas with opportunity to create both a sense of big space and also a play with negative space, emptiness. Here are a few of my panoramas that have made great big prints and demonstrating these principles:

One Cow, Thirteen Haybales, Iceland
One Cow Thirteen Haybales, Iceland

and

Rock Puddle and Connecticut River Foliage Reflections Panorama

But besides my approach to panoramas that is more “traditional” to photography, I have, since I can remember, appreciated panoramas in Oriental art. I think some of that comes through in both of these, the negative space in the top one, the overall composition of the bottom one.

Both Chinese and Japanese art has understood for millenia that a panorama image affords a different kind of visual pattern from a rectangular image. The eye moves differently, and therefore so does the mind, the emotional resonance. It’s easy to find:

Chinese

and Japanese (Hiroshige):

Hiroshige Woodblock

In the above, Hiroshige example, another important point is introduced: a vertical panorama composition. Very effective in a lot of oriental art.

So, the thing I’ve been working on is that since I’ve had high resolution cameras, I have enough resolution to create a panorama without stitching multiple exposures. I can re-vision images that I made as a rectangular image. And of course in photography all I can capture is the rectangle, even if what I see of interest is a square or a more narrow area of interest or composition, a sub-rectangle. I don’t print these as large. I’m calling them “semi-panos” to designate that they are from one file, whether a medium or high resolution file. I won’t print them as large — some of my panoramas could be quite large, especially with my newer large format printer. But what I’m working on is more intimate, and will be printed smaller.

I’ve already printed a few in the last year:

New Ice and Birch Reflections Semi-Pano
Eight Birch Reflections, Autum, Leaf Splash Circle

I don’t have these below for sale on the site, or really fully realized in many cases, but I’m growing a large collection I’ve already cropped and flagged to work on. In process:

Bogged down and moving forward

Framed large prints
A bunch of 30 x 30 inch frames with 19 x 19 prints

Well, all fall I’ve been framing. The Red Jacket Inn in North Conway NH has purchased 304 framed photographs from me. So this has rather constrained my time. Far less camera time and time working up new photos — I just can’t let that be my priority. So that’s where I’ve been, oh loyal blog readers. Framing.

Several things have been interesting about this time! For one thing, I’m getting really good at framing. Just six months or so ago I would rather freak out any time I had to frame a large print. Now, though not without occasional frustration, it’s just something to move through. I’ve gone from completely dreading framing to almost enjoying it, o r even actually enjoying it. (Recently I’ve gotten a newer computer, which makes photography work much more enjoyable — however the new MacOS, Catalina, has broken some of my geekier development aspects. I have spent some time wrestling with coding and maintaining a development environment, moving some functions from using Ruby to using Node, etc, and I have to say that most of the time I’m doing that I would rather be framing!)

I’ve moved a tremendous amount of material, probably close to literally a ton of glass. If I do a job like this again I will have to remember that administration becomes a huge part of it. Counting stuff, moving stuff, keeping track of everything. That part of it becomes non trivial on this scale!

Another interesting thing is much much harder to explain. Usually when I’m working with photography there is an interplay between some kind of visionary call in my mind and spirit, technology (lenses and such), and then whatever in the external world is calling my eye. These three influence each other and either push together or pull on each other. There is a range between full synergy and one aspect becoming completely dominant.

I’m finding in these framing days, with far less time with a camera in my hands, it’s kind of funny that a pressure from the vision is emerging. There is a sort of dreamy background vision of imaginary photographs that want to be born. It’s hard to explain. It’s very abstract, not a sense of a particular object I would like to photograph, usually. It’s sort of a feeling and dance of dark and light and texture and energy. I’m realizing how often it gets lost in the distraction of actually working with images on the sensor and equipment and the duality of object and camera. One manifestation of this vision simmering away is a kind of Rembrandt-like light-within-dark. More like a vague dream than anything I can explain. Light within dark.

Ok, back to the framing room!

Onward From The Fair

Foot Bridge White Mountains
Foot Bridge in White Mountains

Well. It sure has been a long time since an entry. A wild long time. Some big things happening have kept me from posting here, but I’ve just added six new photos to the site on my New Photos Page. These new ones are some of the many pieces I worked up in the frenzy of printing for the fair. Something about the possibility of having an audience to see real prints sends me into a frenzy of creativity, and I always want to make new prints when my focused task should be to make prints I already know are good. The more focused I am on something I’m supposed to do, the more I want to do something else, like work on new photos or old files newly rediscovered. I ended up making a much greater diversity of work than I was able to show in my 10 x 10 booth — wall space and two flip bins. I’ve been working through the backlog of that frenzy ever since. I have a lot of prints to put away, or mount, or frame. They are on shelves in my work space, and I need that space. The one above is not from the pre fair frenzy though, but from the following bit of context:

These days I’m working up about 300 prints for a hotel in North Conway, New Hampshire. There will be about a hundred and fifty 19 x 19″ prints framed in 30 inch frames, and the same number in 11 x 11 frames. I’m doing the framing as well! The photo above is one of the 19 x 19 prints, and I’m quite pleased with it. Most of the images are from older exposures, but this one is from a trip to the White Mountains right after the Sunapee fair, a decompression trip. It is exposed on my

For this project I’ve been upgrading some of my production infrastructure to good effect. I’ve added an Epson P7000 printer in order to be able to make big prints without out-sourcing those bigger than I used to be able to print myself (with a limit of 17 inches for maximum width before). I’ve also added a wall mounted glass cutter, which also can cut board to size (not bevels), so my framing just go a lot quicker and less frustrating, especially as regards cutting glass.

The latter device is an interesting intersection with denial. I don’t fully understand why I didn’t allow myself to get it before. I’ve wasted the cost of the device in broken glass in the past few years, not to mention the time and tears, setting up and then breaking a large sheet of expensive Tru Vue glass. I don’t fully understand, which is the nature of denial, but I guess I always thought I was getting better at cutting glass. This time it would work out. Last time it sort of worked out, right? I had to cut right through that denial nonsense about the glass cutting though. Breaking a lot of expensive glass would destroy me in a job this size.

More soon! I’ll take a break from framing and printing to write some more.

Sunapee Fair in Full Swing

John Lehet's Sunapee booth
My booth, 111 in Tent 1

I was wrong last week: I am not in booth 10, but booth 111!

I’ve been getting good response. I guess my best complement, not meant as such, was when a guy asked me what I do to make my images different from anything he’s ever seen before. Considering I’m showing a broad range of my work and representing all years (you can’t see in this photo, but I have a very big print in the back from a scan of 1981 4 x 5 sheet film and printed on my brand new Epson p7000 huge honking printer.) I’ve been finding that the big prints are getting a lot of the most serious attention.

The best thing, best thing of all has been the kindness of friends and strangers. My friends and family have been supportive in ways that melt me, and my fellow artists and crafts-people have also been kind to a somewhat surprising degree.

Come visit me at the fair!

Coming up! Sunapee Craft Fair!

Trees and Fog After Ice Storm

I’ll be in booth 10 in tent 1 from August 7 through 11. Please come say hi!

The above image is one of many new ones that I’ll have with me as prints, an image I’ve never had hanging before. It’s hard to keep track of all the images I’ve got framed and matted, but I’ve been busy putting stuff together. My problem/virtue is that in the context of preparing for something like this I get very inspired to work on more images. I don’t know why this happens — I guess there is a space for the new visions to pour into. No show, and it seems that space isn’t there.

I’ve also been distracted by getting up to speed on my new Epson P7000. A client wants quite a few large prints, so it was worth getting the behemoth that can handle them. It should be a slight improvement in some ways in my future prints, though I’ll keep my old printer for as long as it runs. I’m finding that some papers and tones on some papers look a bit different on the new ink set, some better possibilities but also sometimes hard to hit the same notes with the same files using manufacturer’s profiles. At least some of the Canson profiles are a little different. Paper handling is certainly a big difference. I’ve got some 24″ wide rolls here and more on the way for my usual paper stock, so I’ll be making some bigger prints.

As usual, time is the big constraint in this life. It’s funny, somehow we feel there is not enough time. But we swim in an infinite ocean of time. It’s like a fish in the ocean saying there isn’t enough water. You know the feeling of not enough. I hope you also know the feeling of infinite space. I’m trying to remember to touch in with it.

Weeds

Jewelweed, Monarda, Dew
Jewelweed, Mondarda, Dew

I’ve been fascinated by weeds for a long time, as a gardener, as a landowner, as a meditator. Weeds pop up with such exuberance, live in spite of all odds with strength and fortitude. We might consider them “bad,” but that is just a matter of perspective. They are often very beautiful in their way, and have virtue whether growing or as compost.

The photo above features the mid summer phase of Jewelweed, also known as “touch me not” because of it’s exploding seed pods. I remember seeing it at my grandmother’s farm as a child; back then it was both beautiful to me and providential, as it grew along the shady creeks I used to like to explore while looking for salamanders and frogs. In the right kind of ground and a bit of shade, it grows like mad. It is extremely beautiful in all phases of its life, with leaves that collect dew in an interesting way, luminous semi-transparent stems, and orange flowers with different phases from bud to seed. I wonder if I would plant it on purpose if it didn’t come up on its own. Of course it is a weed, we must pull most of it, even if we’ll never get it all. And then in the background of this photo the clear red in the background is Monarda, Bee Balm, which we consider a garden plant and not technically a weed. You can buy Bee Balm at the garden center. But it is as weedy as the jewelweed. They both create a beautiful display with only the effort of keeping them somewhat contained and not displacing more fragile forms of life.

As a gardener, of course, I fight weeds, but it is co-existence more than a battle I win. I will never eradicate all weeds. I only have so much time, strength, and stamina to cut and pull them. So there are always weeds in my garden. And as a photographer, sometimes I consider them to be a blessing as well as a curse. They can be beautiful in their way. I have also come to bad places by indulging weeds for too long, letting them slide because they have beauty. My garden now is plagued with years worth of seeds from White Campion and Johnny Jump Ups, plants I considered to be harmless and beautiful. I did not fight them much for some years, so they have put down so many seeds and are really hard to eradicate. I now I consider them a higher priority ongoing problem.

As a long term meditator I also have dealt with the idea of “mind weeds.” I remember reading a passage from Suzuki Roshi a long time ago, long before I really knew what he was talking about. If you work with an awareness practice directly with mind for a while, it is clear though. We want some kind of purity of mind, but what we encounter is instead our actual mind, often more like a monkey’s mind than any ideal one might start out with. The Suzuki Roshi quote comes from a talk in 1965: “We say ‘pulling out the weed’.  We make it nourishment of the plant.  We pull the weed and bury the weed near the plant to make it nourishment of the plant.  So even though you have some difficulty in your practice….even though you have some waves while you are sitting, those weeds itself will help you.  So we should not be bothered by the weeds you have in your mind.  We should be rather grateful to the weeds you have in your mind because eventually will enrich your practice.” A version of this came up later, from Chogyam Trungpa, just as provocative; at the time I first heard it, I also didn’t know exactly what the meaning was behind his pithy words: “No neurosis, no enlightenment.” Really he is saying something a lot like his friend Suzuki Roshi. Our actual life, our actual experience is the path. There is no other path.

The idea in working with mind, as in a garden, as in all of our life — where unwanted circumstances always arise with the vigor of weeds — we take this all as the path itself. There is no other life than this imperfect life, no other garden than this one with weeds.

The Continuing Evolution of Printing and Seeing

Hawaii Wave and Mist
Hawaii Wave, Mist, and Cliff

This is one of the oldest digital images on my site, and I’ve finally developed my eye and abilities to print it in a way that pleases me very much. When I look back at the time after I made this exposure, over a dozen years ago, this digital file serves as a sort of signpost, stationary through moving time and change. It’s the same image, but everything has changed, including how the image manifests on paper.

At the time I opened the shutter, seasick on a boat, to let some Hawaiian misty light onto that relatively crude DSLR sensor, I was a different photographer and a very different printer. I probably see everything differently from that time — my vision has developed overall along with my mind and life and practices. But my printing has developed quite a lot; I hesitate to say it has changed the most of all in my photography of all the ways I see.

When I was new at digital printing I got a high-ish end Epson pro grade printer and some fine art paper. I was looking for sharpness. I did not yet have good control of color, of how to get the color in my mind and on the screen to show up on the paper. Besides the technical details of evolving a color managed workflow, I think it had to do with fear. I was wasting expensive paper and ink, and rarely getting it right, so I lacked courage to just assert my vision. It’s a little hard to explain, but if you look at Van Gogh’s brush strokes up close in a museum, they are very brave. I had some courage before that in the darkroom, but probably not as much as I have now. Early ink-jet printing I had very little courage.

Early in my photography I had an epiphany about the malleability of photography as a medium. I was in college, working a very little bit in the college pottery in stolen moments and the darkroom in other stolen moments, and also as extra curricular reading trying to understand a book about the Zone System for black and white photography. Maybe the book wasn’t so good. Partly, as a Dartmouth student, it was hard to find bandwidth in stolen moments like that. Then one night I had a dream where the negative was conflated with the pottery clay — it was malleable like that, could be bent and worked. It was like I could smush the tones around with my fingers. Darkroom photography is far less tangibly squishy than digital photography is — you have to work methodically for any departures from defaults. I think that dream changed everything. Sometimes that happens in my photography — I’l have a dream about something strange that is in the realm of photography, and then I see differently. I still have a back-burner project I’m working on based on a dream with yellows and form and texture a few years ago.

A couple of years later from that struggle with the zone system I did a workshop with Ansel Adam’s then-assistant, John Sexton, where we got to learn Ansel’s technique and see prints of his develop from straight print all the way through final print as he changed paper, chemistry, dodging, and burning. So I worked that way in the darkroom after that more than I had before, the Zone System very clear — with more courage in my brush strokes as it were.

So anyway, over a decade later, I’m revisiting this print above with amazing results. I actually had a print I had made over a decade ago of this image in my tiny office, flopping around clipped to a 16 x 20 mat board, in the way. It wasn’t on the wall, one of those things I just really should put away — it was in the way. But I think I kept it out, maybe, so it could work on me, provoke my dissatisfaction so I could evolve. I was not completely satisfied with it. I liked it, but… but… but…

I guess in some way I had been pulling back the string of a bow. Tension. I was developing my technique and vision. So a couple of weeks ago I just let the arrow fly from that bow and re-imagined the way this gets printed. I don’t know if I kept the old file or remember exactly what I changed in the color and tones, but I know in the printing I moved from a semi-gloss paper, probably the baryta paper I often favor for some prints, to an etching paper surface. Something about the way this Canson Etching paper takes these colors and renders these tones and details. Wow.