Category Archives: black and white

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.


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.

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

Back from Ireland, working on Post Pond show

Foot Bridge Over Trout Brook Lyme NH Post Pond

I have new work from Vermont I’m quite excited about, and also I’ve hardly sorted through photos from the Ireland trip, just recently over. But I’ve been focused on working a show of work made in Lyme New Hampshire, which opens on July 12 at Matt Brown’s Gallery in Lyme.

The photo above is relatively recent, made with a modern Zeiss lens and the full frame camera. Maybe more like what I would do now. I’m including a big print of this, Foot Bridge Over Trout Brook in the show as bit of new work done in Lyme.

Though the show will mostly be of work just around Post Pond, I’m also including this old one, just brought live and printed large. It was exposed on 4 x 5 film back in my view camera days, in 1983, when I was a skinny kid with a pony tail. This was exposed at a pond called Pout Pond near where I lived in ’83, schlepped my view camera up there. I haven’t been there since ’84 or so, so I don’t know if it is still wild and undeveloped.
Black Ice, Pout Pond, Lyme Center NH

Then I’m also working up several images, often reworking them. This is one I tried a different file of once, but I never quite was happy with it. Worked it up now, and it’s nice:
Post Pond, Autumn, Reeds, Yellow Curve

On July 12 at 5PM there will be a gallery talk. I will be joined by my friend, poet and writer Jim Schley, and Matt Brown will join in as well. We are going to be talking about time.

I’ve talked about time some. Anyone who knows me knows I have an unconventional sense of time. Time is interesting in photography for a few reasons. Any time I make an exposure, the subject of my attention is instantly destroyed immediately after. Sometimes the actual subject doesn’t last long, but certainly the light, the feeling, the moment will never come again. Have I “captured” that moment? No way! I create a new experience, which will perhaps live on in a series of new moments.

Time is also interesting, I think in that it is a bifurcated experience. We experience Newtonian time, a ball drops to the floor in the time we expect, a car accelerates on the highway according to its capabilities, and we experience that in accord with the real time, often enough. But also, we live in what I’m taking to calling “literary time.” In a novel time is never “real” but subject to the character or narrator’s looking back, looking ahead, paying attention to details as the moments unfold in the story. The reason we can click into this so well when we read a novel is that we experience this way anyway. Anyone who has ever meditated much knows that time shifts and warps with our mindstream. An hour can be a very long time, or fly by. Nothing to do with the clock, when we are with our experience. All very interesting.

Prints Heading Out to Bernie Sanders’ Office

Prints ready for FedEx to Bernie Sanders' Office

I should be back tomorrow with a new image and some writing, but I’ll be heading out to FedEx soon to send off these prints to Washington DC to hang in Bernie Sanders’ office. I am a Vermont resident, and in fact have lived in Vermont more than anywhere else in my life, by far. (For the other part of my adult life, I’ve crossed the Connecticut River into New Hampshire for some stretches). So the news is that an intern from Bernie’s office contacted me requesting the loan of some images to hang in the DC office. I gave them various options, and in the end they picked these four, which of course are all Vermont images. They’ll be there for a year, and I’m pleased about it.

One thing that is interesting is that out of all of the range of papers I print on, these are all images I print on Epson Hot Press Natural paper, a creamy and velvety matte paper with a warm tone. I like this paper for infrared photos, because it tends to look more natural, and I sometimes like it for snow scenes because it gives a smoother rendering of images with a lot of high key or white in them. Two of the images are infrared, and the other two “normal” capture, one on black and white sheet film.

The images are:

Three Trees, South Strafford
This is an early exposure of mine, exposed to 4 x 5 film. I was a skinny young adult just out of college, schlepping a big view camera around. In my darkroom days I used to print it on a warm tone portrait paper, Agfa Portriga I think it was called, and then tone it hard with selenium. So I print it the same way now.
Three Trees, South Strafford Vermont

Haying in Progress, Barn, South Woodstock, Vermont
This was a day when I had a lot of time in this location, in South Woodstock, Vermont. A pleasant summer day, and I had time to pass. They did a lot of work on that hay field while I was there, and the clouds of course changed quickly and constantly. I made a lot of exposures with a normal camera and also the infrared camera. This one, from the infrared, is the one I’ve picked of them all as the best.
Haying and Barn, South Woodstock Vermont

Field of Dandelions and Barn
This is a conventional capture, printed as black and white. I’m very lucky to have this particular hayfield a short walk from my house. Most years, the dandelions go crazy. It’s a rare year though when there is a good bloom and seed-set like this, and also an opportunity to photograph the full display before the wind, a thunderstorm, or the hay-cutters take them down. I haven’t managed to photograph quite such a display in more recent years, when some changes in camera and lens choices would make it interesting to experiment. As it is, I’m not sure I could beat this one if given another chance:
Dandelions and Barn, Vermont

Spring Cornfield, Hay Field, Clouds, Hartland Vermont
This is also near my house, but in another direction. Within a half mile of this, I’ve probably made well over a thousand exposures in all seasons. It’s quite a spot. This is my only really famous image though, and doubly famous now. The first brush of fame is that the Boston Athenaeum bought this print, and then chose to display it (I had three prints hanging in the show, out of the dozen or whatever that they bought) — displayed it in a show of “recent acquisitions” last summer. It was a really great show, and I was honored to be hanging in it. It’s an infrared exposure, but it looks quite natural, I think.

Spring Cornfield, Hayfield, Hartland Vermont

Eight Wordly Winds

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

The last week has been an interesting one photographically, and of course it always is. To start, I had a very fruitful day early last week, where I exposed the image above. The light, ice, and snow were nice all day, and it wasn’t too cold to spend a 7 hour day out with the camera. I enjoyed it, and I think I made some other good exposures.

Before I move on, what about the same exposure rendered in black and white? Thirty five years ago, when I used 4 x 5 sheet film, it would be a no-brainer: of course it has to be black and white. But I find I love the subtle colors in the image above. A photographic friend once said of me that I make color photographs like I’m working in black and white (I’m not sure it was a compliment from him). But personally I’ll take it as a compliment. For me, form, texture, tone very often take precedence in deciding a composition, but lately color is a bigger influence as well. As an option, here it is below in black and white. I think I’ll put them both on the site for sale until it is clear which is better.

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

Anyway, it was an interesting week, as I said. After this great camera day, I had a let down from a potential vendor of my work. We’ll still see about that. But it felt like a blow. And then I think the next day, or day after that, I got an out-of-the-blue email from the office of one of my Vermont Senators, Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie. They asked if I would be so kind as to let them hang some of my Vermont images in their DC office. Umm, yes, I would be flattered.

Then another camera day, yesterday. It was a promising camera day, beautiful new snow lacy on all the trees, some rime ice in some places, and nice ice over rivers and streams. The only problem was that about 2/3 of the way through my stamina and camera battery supply, I fell through some ice into a stream, about belly-button height or higher. I was too busy to take careful notes at that moment. The water was ice cold and running fast. It was all I could do to pull myself up on the ledge of ice. (I noticed later I scratched my hands and wrist in that endeavor.) I had a camera backpack and a side-bag full of gear. The side-bag was floating. All the gear stayed dry enough, except the micro four thirds Olympus, not my main camera, but I love it, and on it was a lens I love. They fell in the water as I tried to scramble out. I fished them out and am drying them, though I think the lens is a loss. Besides being quite miserable for some time until I got home and dry, I was pretty bummed out about that lens. The camera, we’ll see. It didn’t seem to take on much water, and it’s quite a weatherproof wonder.

Also this last week, my ancient car, which has had charging system trouble since November, has made it clear that it is still not working. I was nervous climbing up the riverbank to it, soaked through, in about 15 degree F temperatures, not 100% sure it would start. It did. Being that wet and not sure the car would start was damn scary. It’s an 18 year old Volkswagen, which I’ve really loved for all these years, my favorite car ever. But now I think it’s time to get rid of the damn thing.

So, ups, downs, and my mind continues along, stumbling and soaring, as it does.

One Buddhist teaching on this as aspect of life is formulated as “The Eight Worldly Winds,” or often, “The Eight Worldly Dharmas.” In life we sometimes get praise and sometimes blame. Sometimes fame, and sometimes its disrepute. We get things that we want, but then we lose them — we can’t keep anything permanently. So there is always gain and loss. Likewise with pleasure and pain.

Though obviously derived from the Buddha’s teachings, I’m not sure it was formulated and presented as this list of 8 pairs of opposites in his time. I’m guessing as a list it comes from the Nalanda period in India, around the ninth century, but I’m not a real scholar of this, and there is a lot of pseudo scholarship online.

Between the idea of the title of “The Eight Worldy Dharmas” vs “The Eight Worldly Winds,” I like the Winds better. Right at the start, you get the idea. There are these winds always blowing us around. We are pulled and pushed by our attraction, aversion, and ignorance. We can tend to go off to the races every time the winds blow, or we can train to understand that this is just what happens as humans in this world and take our seat to watch the display without getting quite so caught. I like this teaching, this view, because it is basically neutral. Of course, as humans, things happen and then we respond emotionally. No blame. It’s just that we’re better served if we place our allegiance with awareness rather than with the emotional tides.

To purchase prints:
The color version
Black and White

Exactly one year ago: newly plowed corn field, dappled light and low clouds

Newly Plowed Cornfield Vermont Black and White

I had been thinking about this image for a couple of weeks. I actually wake up sometimes with them in my mind. Sometimes I can’t sleep in the night because I get such strong flashes in my mind, like I’m making the exposures. Sometimes I have dreams that are like slideshows, streams of my photos. Anyway, I thought about this photo very vividly and then realized it was made just this week, last year.

There are so many things about it I like, but better to let you come to your own relationship with it.

This is an example of my work being informed by my past — my work in silver images with large format film. But I have to say that this panorama with a modern Zeiss lens, stitched from high resolution images from a very good modern sensor, is better than anything I could have made before. I will print it pretty big, and it will shine that way, but there is enough resolution that I could print it really big. If you like it and have a large wall, let me know.

This print is available for sale here.

New Corn and Fresh Pneumonia

Spring Cornfield and Echo Curve Cloud, Vermont 2016

The morning of June 4 was a beautiful one, fresh late spring growth, the corn in the field still showing nice clear geometry, and cirrus clouds echoing the curves and curls in the sky. My wife kicked me out of the house to go down the hill to photograph, with the idea there might be some low mist on these fields along the Connecticut River. There was not, but the clouds were great and I enjoyed making some I think well-seen and well-made exposures, with this, with clouds echoing the curve of the corn rows, maybe the best of them.

The rest of the day was busy, as a weekend day can be in early June in the country. A lot of gardening.

As the evening fell and the air cooled, I caught a chill and shivered. Fever all night, and the next night, and then diagnosed with pneumonia. Knocked me flat and got me behind schedule. But nevertheless I have made a lot of good exposures since then. I’m getting toward full tilt again.

This photo is for sale as a print in a few sizes on the site.