Author Archives: john lehet

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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.

Direct Experience, Not Conceptual

Flowering Trees, Tulips, and White Hat
Flowering Trees, Tulips, and White Hat, 2019

I’ve just made some spectacular prints of this new photo on Canson Aquarelle Watercolor paper. The 15 x 20 print is especially drop-dead gorgeous, but they all are good. Purchase here.

One commonality between my practice of photography and practice/experience of Buddhist meditation is a practice and aspiration to experience directly and non-conceptually. This applies to perceptions, emotional experience, logical process, physical sensation. It’s a trick that will take a lifetime. I won’t go into the Buddhist philosophy and practice behind this, assuming you are on the site for photography. And there are better Buddhist teachers than me.

So in photography, a conceptual approach might be fine. Many photographers have succeeded with a conceptual basis for their approach. In my opinion, quite often these often fail. There are photos in major modern photography galleries of, say, a tree with cheese doodles stuck around the trunk with toothpicks. Then in the blurb it will say the artist is exploring the post-industrial relationship to nature, or something like that. It doesn’t work for me, but then they are in those galleries and I am not, and probably won’t be.

I find though that as I work in any situation different levels of conceptual approach, in one way or another, will creep in. I think ideally working with a camera might be like a master jazz musician improvising on an instrument, that kind of transparency, being able to instantly hit the notes without thinking about it. The musician might think, “what if I went into that dark key right here?” — and that is a kind of conceptualizing that works in the service of the playing. I will think, “What if I tried that old Olympus 90 at a wide aperture?” — and I know what kind of a “key” I will be playing in then. You’ve got to think, think on your feet. Just don’t over-think and make it a formula or purely a concept.

So in the case of the photo above, I had gotten to some extent into the conceptual weeds. I was working with this composition: the branch of the flowering tree in the foreground with a shallow depth of field, the tulips and large background flowering tree beyond the focal plane. Trouble is that people kept coming into the composition, sometimes looking good with umbrellas, sometimes with that clunky tourist vibe. I was usually waiting for them to pass out of whatever frame I had. I had come to be pretty boxed in by the concept of what I thought I wanted to be working with. But then this woman popped into my viewfinder — the orange shirt echoing the tulips, looking up, the round hat perfect. I wish I had been able to work more quickly and fluidly with her there. I did what I did, and I was glad to have made this and a few other exposures of that situation.

A Tale of Two Exhibits

Railroad Track and Old Switch Hardware

Ah, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It has been a busy rough stretch framing up about 37 prints now hanging between two shows: one at the EverSource corporate headquarters in Manchester, NH and one at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH.

One of my personal goals for these shows was simply to frame up some good work to have as inventory for the Lake Sunnapee crafts fair next August, so I made them completely different. The Eversource show is something of a “best of” show, some older work that I know is solid. The Dartmouth-Hitchcock show was a chance to stretch out. In fact, since I had a show of similar size there in 2015, I am hanging all new work that hadn’t hung there last time (including the image above).

Hanging a show is hard and exhausting, partly just the work of doing all the framing and matting, but then also at least I personally go through a kind of creative thrash. I’ve got a blank slate, and I can fill it with anything. That makes me start printing up new pieces like crazy. I have a lot of new work, a lot of stuff I didn’t even squeeze into this vast space I was given. I probably squeezed prints tighter, not giving them enough space to breath, because I wanted to hang so much. There are a lot of images waiting in the wings and still getting worked up. So that’s kind of an interesting process, and strangely different from my process when I’m not hanging a show.

Usually, if I’m not hanging a show, I’m excited about making exposures, but then I have a hard time printing up new work. The Photo of the Week is usually meant to put some pressure on myself to come up with something new, and it’s often hard. All of the huge backlog of work I’m excited about suddenly looks not good enough, when it’s time to pull one out for the Photo of the Week. And part of that has to do with the way I pair writing with the images. I will admit that over 70% of the time, I would guess, the photos I post on this blog happen because I’ve got something in my mind to write about, and there may be an image tied to the writing or one that fits somehow.

Hanging all the framed pieces on the empty walls is different: pure visual, no writing. I think that works actually better to grease my creative gears, even if writing may be part of my process as well. After all these years, it’s a mystery.

I’m thinking I will post a web page showing at least the Dartmouth Hitchcock show soon-ish, after I finish my taxes.

Anyway, check out one of these two shows if you can. They both hang for the next couple of months.

New Show, Manchester NH

Tentative layout

This is just a short post/announcement, not my usual ramblings.

Yesterday I drove to Manchester NH to the EverSource corporate headquarters to deliver some photos. Ten photos, and actually none of it is newer work. In the first week of April I’ll hang a larger show at Dartmouth Hitchcock hospital in the same gallery I had a show a few years ago. I’m not hanging any of the same work (in the huge space), so this EverSource show had the pieces selected by default, sort of — work that wasn’t in the Hitchcock show. It’s something of a Greatest Hits Oldies show I guess.

This show happened through an invitation from the League of New Hampshire Crafts, who works with EverSource.

The interesting thing about hanging it was that it was professionally hung by Frank Graham, who does this for a living. I’ve never met a professional art-hanger before, so that was interesting. He’s a great guy, full of interesting stories, and also an old time darkroom/view camera user, as I was. Like me, he even used infrared sheet film a lot back in the old days, as well as a polaroid back that produced negatives as well as positives. Lots to talk about! And interesting that he gave the pieces so much space in this big room and nice space.

Anything not sold in this show (I don’t expect to sell very much in this corporate space) will be wall inventory for my booth at the Sunapee Fair, where I’ll have a booth in tent #1 from August 7 – 10. I’m also going to give an artist talk at EverSource, as yet unscheduled. So stay tuned for that.

Part of the large curved wall…

Boxes Made of Butter

Four Birch Reflections on New Blue Ice

Of course, the shape of the photograph is important. I had stopped seeing panoramas and making them so much, partly because I was having trouble framing them so it would work. Using sturdier frames and better framing technique, and cutting my own glass I’m able to frame them in a sturdy way and without going (as) broke doing it. So I’m seeing them and printing them again. Yay! I’ll be hanging 3 panoramas at an upcoming show at the Eversource headquarters in Manchester NH through the spring, and also some different ones in the gallery in hallway 4F at Dartmouth Hitchcock medical center in Lebanon NH through April and May.

Part of what I like about the pano format is the way the eye can move in a different way. There is something a bit more free, call it “vast” feeling about the space, for me.

Compare to the extreme opposite, a square composition (which I also love, and used a lot in the days when I had added the use of a medium format film camera along with my 4 x 5 view camera main-axe. In this composition, as in many squares, the eye moves back in, it’s tighter, it feels more boxed-in. Which is OK. It’s always a box of some sort.

Dewy Garlic Scape with Roses

I think somehow the sense of composition within a box has a subtle pointer to outside of the box. It points to a bigger scene, and the boxed-in detail evokes a larger space. Since that larger space is here undefined, the space is purely mind. Our mind is bigger than the box.

When I was in college, I remember talking to a friend about people who were “in the boxes” and “out of the boxes.” (Where are you now, Steph?) In the boxes was our way of referring to purely conceptual, standard, and habitual ways of thinking. There was plenty of in the boxes thinking at Dartmouth when I was a student there. Out of the boxes was more emotional, less habitual, open to new experience and ideas. It was rather rarer. The thing is, you need the boxes in this world. We need concepts, defined ideas, a reality that works in its framework. But ultimately the truth has its home out of the boxes as well.

Since those days I’ve become a meditator and a Buddhist; I’ve lived a lot of my life in conceptual terms, I’ve composed photographs that exist in their limited spaces. But I’ve also rested in what Tibetan Buddhists would call “space,” embraced the view of emptiness. My teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche literally talked about the framing I’ve done here. To paraphrase (I’m working from memory of a retreat with him), “You need some boxes. That’s why we give you lots of boxes (concepts). But let’s have the boxes be made of butter, so they melt.” (We need to go beyond concept).

These new (and new-ish) photos are available for sale:

Foliage Reflection Riverside Rocks

Four Birch Reflections in New Blue Ice

Dewy Garlic Scape and Roses

Orange Foliage Reflections Puddles, Riverbank Rock

Balance: Doing and Not Doing

Balance Boy Photo

As a meditator, I’ve spent a lot of hours sitting on my butt and not-doing. Sometimes that is a very hard thing to do (or not do). The value though is to cultivate another side of our experience: being.

Lately I’ve been gearing up and rather overwhelmed by all that I have to actually do. I have a lot of prints to make, a lot of framing and matting, a couple of shows to conceptualize, which are due to hang all to soon.

So now when I sit to meditate I’ve got that itchy got-to-do-some-things feeling that is the bane of every beginning meditator and sometimes well seasoned ones as well, as I’m discovering.

So of course I’m writing this here because it relates to photography. As a photographer, you’ve got to “do.” If you didn’t have a camera with you, no photographs would happen. You’ve got to use the thing, and maybe you are even hauling lenses around, making a special trip, using a tripod — and then all the other work of sorting, evaluating, maybe printing matting and framing if you want those photos to escape the confines of a monitor and spend some time out in the physical world. Lots of work, lots of doing.

But the thing is, there is also some pure being that seems to be involved. In fact as a young man looking at successful photographs of famous photographers in galleries and art books, what struck me often in the most successful ones was a quality of presence. The photographer fully inhabited some kind of mood, situation, manifestation of light, life, humanity, experience, even maybe something like “transcendence.” Qualities like insight and wisdom, wit, brilliance manifested in those photos, and those don’t come just from doing. They are coming from someplace else.

This is why working with a tripod is sometimes helpful. It slows you down. You stand there with your camera ready, you might work with it quite busily, but there is also some extra time and space in the situation. But the time is not so linear when working with a camera, and fully being is not a linear function like a physical commodity. You can fit a lot of that being into the moment before the shutter trips, while it trips, and just after. That moment stretches out and pulls from eternity, pulls some eternity into our experience.

Maybe, through some balance of being and doing, you can pull some eternity out of wherever it lives and get it to bleed out through what you make in with that balance. Whatever it is you can manifest with that balance, doing and being, can manifest qualities beyond pure commodity and show insight, wit, wisdom, compassion, humanity and bring some non linear value and eternity into a ticking clock commodity world.

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. In a way we can develop or “improve” aspects of clarity, but in another sense we are just getting in touch with something that is already there. In a way there is nothing to improve. 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.