Category Archives: Abstract

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

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.

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.

Melting Glacier Chunk at Black Sand Beach, Vatnajökull, Iceland, 2017

Melting Glacier Chunk, Iceland

(this image can be seen in higher resolution and purchased as a print on its page)

I’ve recently been in Iceland, for two weeks. I’m still evaluating exposures I made. I have a lot of work to do on this as on so many other things, including hanging a show of photos soon. It’ll be a while.

With three hurricanes simultaneously in the waters off the east coast of the US, Irma breaking records and destroying Carribean Islands, about to destroy some parts of Florida most likely, with Houston still struggling to rescue people from hurricane Harvey, it seems like a good time for everyone to point out why this is happening. The oceans are warmer than what used to be considered normal. This fuels bad storms, much worse storms. The global climate is changing because of human carbon emissions. The glaciers are melting, in Iceland and everywhere.

So this glacier on the east coast of Iceland, Vatnajökull, of course is receding, melting, calving off chunks. I guess it’s usually normal in Iceland for there to be chunks of glacier on the beach nearby in summer, but on this day, I took my shoes off and the black sand of that beach was quite warm underfoot. This chunk of glacier was melting fast into the water at the edge of the beach.

It’s always funny as a photographer, or a human in general, to revisit an experience. I had been in Iceland on a honeymoon ten years ago, with no expectations. That was completely mind blowing.
(My Iceland page is so far mostly those older images, but I will be adding new ones no doubt.)
This time I was loaded with better gear and more skill as a photographer on the positive side, but on the negative side I was burdened by mind full of concepts of ICELAND to try to push past and be fresh. We’ll see if I managed to see freshly for more than a few bursts here and there.

This was made with the Contax G 90mm lens, and old and inexpensive film-era lens, adapted to my modern camera, which is one of the sharpest and most aggressively contrasty lenses I’ve ever owned, if not the most.

Of course everything was different, even though it was the same time of year. It was relatively warm in the days, and I guess we were lucky to have little rain. That also meant fewer weather-clouds. On the one hand we could walk and photograph mostly without being wet and cold. On the other the weather was a little bit less interesting. Of course the warming climate is, um, “interesting.”

I called up a friend who is a college professor in Chinese culture, literature, and I asked him if it was true that there was a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” He told me he thought it was a myth that we think that is a Chinese curse.

Well, cursed or blessed, we are certainly living in interesting times, weather-wise and other-wise. I miss being a bit bored sometimes.

Wet Screen, Orange and Scarlet Begonias

Wet Screen, Orange and Scarlet Begonias

This image is a mix of what for me are normal: “found” compositions, and then also something a bit rarer, a set up, a still life. I guess really it’s a still life.

The weather had been a very fine rain overnight, more like a heavy mist. I of course went out with my camera and made a lot of macro photos with the fine droplets on the new summer growth. I think some of them are good. Having finished that work, we were going to go on an errand, but I saw this wet screen on my back porch. I was working on installing some screen doors, and this screen was loose, leaned against the house, and more wet from the fine rain than I could have made it. It occurred to me to move it over by the planters with the orange and scarlet begonias, and I grabbed the full frame camera, still with it’s vintage macro lens attached. I thought the series of images were quite beautiful, but I was in a rush. Surely I could do better if I tried this with more consideration when I wasn’t rushed.

I tried it a few more sessions, wetting the screen with a hose those times. Besides never quite getting the quality of wetness that the fine rain produced, somehow the more contrived attempts weren’t quite as good as the images from the original session.

Of course it’s the case in nature, that the situation, the light, the feel of the moment is unique to each exposure, but you’d be tempted to think that if you set a situation up, you’d have more control. There’s something about that initial flash of connection and insight though, that seems hard to duplicate.

Here is another one. Last year I had a vintage lens I was testing out, an old Olympus OM short tele. I didn’t end up keeping it; it wasn’t quite as sharp as I would like across the frame (though it was sharp in the center even at full-wide aperture), but it did have a unique and pleasing quality of bokeh, it’s out of focus rendering quality. Again, I was in a bit of a hurry, on my way to a meeting. But as I drove past this patch of blue chicory flowers by the side of the road, I had to pull over and try a few exposures with the soft blur quality. I got this one:
roadside chicory, car, vermont

This year I have a couple more vintage bokeh lenses that should be better than that one I culled. Lenses that also draw a beautiful out of focus quality, while also being razor sharp. I’ve been down to that spot a few times now, a year later, trying to surpass my initial hurried attempt. I’ve taken time, because the situation has so much potential. It’s possible that I’ve pulled it off, but I’m not sure yet.

The wet screen and begonias image is a bit of a shame to put on the web, because it needs to be pretty big. The subtle detail and texture of the screen and the water on it gets lost, with a high resolution full frame beautiful file reduced down to a computer screen. It needs to be seen as a big print.

Dune Fence and Shadows, Beach Grooming

Dune Fence and Beach Grooming, Jersey Shore

I was staying near the beach, so I had the chance to go out while the shadows were long and the light was soft. I’ve been meaning to publish this one for a while, and I finally got the spur to work on it.

Photographers out there may have heard that Google is giving away their Nik collection of software for free. I’ve been using Nik Silver Effex for some time. If you’re careful not to get too carried away with its power, it offers some nice additions to a straight conversion to black and white, some ways to get the tones just right. Silver Effex has been crashing on me a lot lately anyway. I was working on making an output file for a print that sold the other week, and it must have crashed 30 times or more, and it was a large file to reopen each time. Ugh.

So I took this news as an opportunity to move on. A new one I’m trying, called Tonality CK, does not crash. So I’ve been taking it out for some trips around the tone poems. This is one.

This photo is for sale on Canson Rag Photographiqe paper

Snowy Roof Through Frozen Window, Vermont

Snowy Roof Through Frozen Window Vermont

This winter we’ve had far fewer cold mornings than usual; each month out of the last several in Vermont has broken all records as the warmest ever recorded. Some of these recent months have broken the record by more than a few degrees. Still, we’ve had a few of these mornings when I open the shades, and I don’t know what I will find. The light and patterns of ice on the glass aren’t always the same. So quite often before I get to work for the day I go all around the windows with my camera. I have a lot of these, but this one struck me in the richness of texture and the way the overall composition worked in its abstraction. I hope to do a series of these sometime soon. Most are quite different from this one.

This photo is available as a print here.

New Ice and Birch Reflections, Hartland VT 2015

New Ice and Birch Reflections, Hartland VT

John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (Though it turns out there are other attributions. Perhaps others said that before John Lennon). This manifests in so many ways for all of us. We can’t, don’t pay attention to everything. We try to go in some direction, but the set of blessings and curses of our choices are never quite what we bargained for.

I’ve been blessed with small bodies of water in the last 15 years. Really odd how that happened. The last place I bought, a fixer-upper that was an 1850’s farm-hand’s house had a few things going for it. One was that I could afford it, and the other was that it was near Post Pond, which was a rich spot to blossom into this stage of my being as a photographer. I knew that Post Pond was nice. I had no idea how much time I would spend there and what an impact it would have on my vision.

Then when we decided to buy this house in Vermont, it had a little pond in the backyard. Deep enough to swim in. “Maybe we could ice skate on it.” OK, that’s a nice touch. The house is has nice character and we can afford it. But it turns out that the pond has been one of my favorite things about this place. In deep winter it’s just white, and maybe not so interesting to photograph so much. In the summer, fall, and early winter it’s an ever-changing rich opportunity to photograph. I would never want to be away from a little pond or big pond or a lake as long as I have a camera to my name.

The pond is ringed with birch trees for about half the perimeter, and they are lovely in many respects. These two images have different days of new ice, and the birch trees reflected on it. In the winter the sunrise is late enough, and of course I’m close, so it’s easy to bundle up and get out there in the first light. The pink on the birches below is the sunrise light.

Blue New Ice and Birch Reflections at Dawn

These are available for sale as prints and in a more high res view here:

New Ice and Birch Reflections 2015 I

The book is available from Tupelo Press here. as well as on Amazon and other vendors.

Available as a fine print here: New Ice and Birch Reflections 2015 II

Spring Ice, Pine Needles 2014


At this time of year here, we get this kind of ice. Over the years I’ve tried to catch the days when I could photograph it, at first somewhat haphazardly. By now I really try to carve out some time to be with it, and I know some good places where it manifests. It’s not just any ice, but a kind of sparkly ice mixed with layers of the forest floor.

I went out looking for it the day before yesterday. I figured this would be an extra good year for it, because we had so much heavy icy melty stuff early in the season, and then a good snow cover all year. I figured it could build up underneath the snowpack, started by the early season ice. But when I got to the place where I spent so much time photographing it last year, there was nothing but bare patches of ground. The rest of the ground surrounding it was quite snow covered. Oh well. You never know. There are some other spots where I’ve found it, and maybe it will show up there when the snow melts a bit.

I looked for this kind of ice and didn’t find any, but I did have a fruitful session photographing the ice along a little stream through the woods that day, and then yesterday when I went out again. It was really an exercise in anicca, impermanence, because I knew it would be warm and rainy today — the end of that ice most likely.

This photo is available with a higher resolution view, and for sale.

Meditator on Break, Condensation on Dining Tent Flap, Autumn

I often talk about the relationship of meditation on my photography. On some of my deepest retreats, I’m not allowed a camera. But on this 6 day silent retreat, I did have my axe with me. There were long breaks in the afternoons, and I did get to walk in the woods in heading-toward-peak autumn foliage. Maybe some of those exposures might make good photographs — I don’t know yet — but it certainly was good to walk around after so much sitting. The tricky thing is, when I’m opened up so much, and everything is so vivid, and emotional material arises to meet capacity, and the separation of inside and outside is at its thinnest — at that time it’s actually pretty tricky to make good photographs. It may be rather beside the point of being in a meditation retreat, in some ways — but also it is a good practice to bring the openness into the world at large, and to let the world into that open state.

This retreat was at the very end of September in hilly New Hampshire. The mornings were cold, some of the days were cool. Because of the size of the retreat, the largest given up to that point at this center (Wonderwell), they put up a heated outdoor tent to serve as an auxiliary dining hall. The plastic walls of the tent gathered condensation. I only made a couple of discreet exposures on this chilly morning. If it were normal life I would have worked the situation quite a bit more, but I didn’t want to be a spectacle in that context. Of course, in normal life, I might not have seen this as a photograph to make. You never know.

This photo is available for purchase and can be viewed in higher resolution.