Category Archives: Bokeh

Dewdrops and Blue Flag Iris, or, Figure with Ground

Dewdrop and Four Blue Flag Iris

These are two images made with some old Japanese (Olympus, OM) lenses that are known for the quality of their out of focus rendering. They are not “photoshopped” or manipulated. This is the way the lenses (a different lens for each image) and camera made them.

“Bokeh” is a term coined in Japan to talk about the out of focus or “blurry” area of an image. The reason the word is handy is that we can talk about the characteristics of that out-of-focus quality, and acknowledge that there are various aspects to it, and put what is normally background into something like the foreground, either when we talk about it or when we work on making an image through a lens. There is a lot of talk about “bokeh” on lens geek forums, but usually about the characteristics of particular lenses, how they manifest this quality at different apertures. But at least in the English language, in my reading, I’ve never come across much on the philosophical or even spiritual aspects of this aspect photographs created with certain wide aperture lenses in certain ways

Two Dew Drops, One Blue Flag Iris

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It’s interesting that the word “bokeh” came from Japan, a traditionally Buddhist country. While modern Japan is very westernized in many ways, there is a strong aesthetic tradition that permeates much of the culture, rooted in Zen. While many Japanese people are not practicing meditators, the philosophy based on meditation and Buddhist teachings still has a strong sway even in these modern times of technology and materialism — technology that can create consumer lenses with certain characteristics. Oddly enough, I wrote a paper on the influence of Zen on Japanese culture and aesthetics in high school, in about 1974. I had forgotten about that paper and studying this topic, until sitting at the keyboard right now. Back then I didn’t have a strong understanding of Buddhism — though I studied it for that paper — and really what it means at a deep level that can permeate everything. I was just interested in it and drawn to the aesthetic, even then as a mid-teenager. Weird.

The aesthetic I’m talking about, of course, is art that places the importance of negative space as an equal, or even more important component of the composition, as the “subject” of the artwork. One famous example of this is the Enso calligraphy of Zen though of course it shows up in countless examples of oriental art. I think it’s less obvious in the Ukiyo-e prints, but the use of negative space is often very important there as well.

I think it’s also interesting that some Japanese lenses seem to have good bokeh or amazingly excellent bokeh, as part of their design, while fewer German lenses (I’m looking at you, Zeiss) might in general be better at sharpness and contrast and in general not quite drawing the out of focus areas quite as beautifully. Though there are of course exceptions; for example this image was made with a vintage Zeiss lens that surprised me in rendering such beautiful out of focus areas. I don’t know Leica lenses, but I guess they are an exception to my cultural rule.

In high school when I studied and observed the influence of Zen on culture, I really had no idea, just a hunch. And for years and years I had no idea at a deep level. After many long meditation retreats and thousand of hours sitting in meditation, I have had some understanding of what is going on here. (I am still far short of the 10,000 hours of meditation practice that some neuroscientists, I think Richard Davidson is one, say is the threshold where the brain really changes pretty drastically, and even shows unique qualities in FMRI machines. The two “happiest men in the world,” Matthieu Ricard and Mingyur Rinpoche, have been studied extensively along with some monks associated the Dalai Lama, showing that over 10,000 hours is a real change point).

I had an experience in one long meditation retreat a decade ago, which lasted for the rest of that retreat, and then has become more reliable over the decade since then, with more retreats and more practice. That experience was in seeing “emptiness,” or Shunyata as it was called in early Buddhist languages. My Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, a real meditation master also is prone to talk about “space” as well. He once joked, “I’m not talking about made-in-India space. I’m talking about made-in-space space!” So what I experience quite a bit of the time is a shifting allegiance, shifting between what is there, and what is not as apparently sold, between a thing, a thought, an experience — and the space around it. In the case of a mental or emotional experience, which of course is our whole life, the “space around it” is a cognizance bigger than a mere thought or emotion. In that first breakthrough retreat, I conceptualized it as being like one of those figure-ground shifting images, like this one. It is two faces. It is a vase. It all depends on whether you have perceptual allegiance to the foreground or the background, the white or the black.

Figure Ground Paradox Vase Two Faces

(I should be clear that in Buddhist teachings what I’m talking about here as “space” is not merely the negative aspect of matter or thought or whatever. It is all-encompassing, and includes all. So my two-vases/face example is to me more about a shift of allegiance rather than a literal positive/negative. “Space” in this context means an allegiance to everything, the solid, and the not solid, matter and space; all of it.)

This is most important when working with the mind, and I think meditation is the best way to develop this capacity. In the west, therapy can often also facilitate the cultivation of this kind of shift, because the therapist is hopefully helping provide a bigger view beyond what we normally think of as the “solid” aspects of our cognition, perception, and emotional experience. Experiencing nature, or perhaps religion, can also be some sort of access to a sense of space, but most of our experience in the west falls short of a Buddhist understanding of space or emptiness. This capacity is extremely important when working with emotions. When the emotional experience is all there is, then we often suffer from it, or cause others to suffer. The point is that the thought or emotion is just an isolated event, with little actual substance, like a drop of dew — an isolated not-even-really-a-thing that is surrounded by space. Like the dewdrop, it has very little actual substance, and certainly no permanence. While I think art that manifests this quality is often profound in itself, it may be more significant that it is pointing to something bigger, a truth, an experience that is more important and profound than art.

I think since I’ve been meditating more seriously, over the last 15 years, my photography has changed quite a bit, but gradually. And I think it’s only more recently that I have a lot more comfort shifting between the figure and the ground, between what is there and what is not there in a conventional sense. Though in another sense, the ground represents something that is more real than what we normally take as real. That is an exploration I will leave for the reader.

Lobelia, “Tomatoes” Sign, Greenhouse

Tomatoes Sign, Lobelia, Greenhouse

I’ve been posting these color flowers and shallow depth of field images, but they’re not the only thing I’ve been doing. It’s just that they’re the ones that get stuck in my head, and I get excited to print them. I had a summer a few years ago when I was looking at Ukiyo-e (“floating world,” the genre of Japanese prints that includes Hokusai and others). Those images filled my mind and influenced my compositions. In this period I seem to be finding some of my inspiration from my quirky old vintages lenses themselves, the way they draw with light, and maybe especially the way colors mingle and mix beyond the plane of focus.

Last week I talked about re-doing images, and this was in fact a re-do. As regular readers know, I’m not just photographing casually. I tend to work on ideas and places iteratively. I work crazy hard on my photography. Often I get to know a situation better by working on it, while other times I find it hard to make up for the serendipity of new discoveries. The mix of hard work and grace is somewhat mysterious, here, as in meditation, as in all of life.

But I do learn as I go, learn how situations resonate as a photograph, how they will print, how each of my quirky old lenses work at different apertures and in different light. I learn both how to work with situations, to have patience when it’s not working, and to accept the grace of what is simply given.

When I first tried to make this image I was using an ancient film lens on an adapter, and the adapter was (the only time I’ve seen this) interfering with the lens’ ability to change aperture. It was stuck wide open, at f1.4. That would have been great, if that particular lens were any good wide open like that. It wasn’t.

I had a bit of time between meetings, so I went back to this greenhouse. The light was nicer than the first time I was there, by a lot.

I happened to have a different ancient film-era lens, that does have some good qualities wide open, at f2 (though this exposure was stopped down one stop, to f2.8; I prefer the little bit more detail in the background to the f2 exposure). All these old lenses have their own quirks, and this one is sort of the opposite to that other lens, which gives an extremely impressionistic rendering at wide apertures. This one is dreamy, while still sharp, mixing colors together in a nice, soft way while keeping the structure of the image somewhat together.

So this is a case where the re-do worked out better than the first attempt.

Famous Purple Raincoat; Fuchsias in Spring Greenhouse

Pink Fuchsias, Purple Raincoat, Greenhouse

As much as I try to know my gear and what it will do, this image was a delightful surprise.

I think of my lenses — almost all prime (not zoom) and manual focus, often vintage — in two broad categories: Zeissy or Anti-Zeiss. As I may have mentioned before the Zeissy lenses are aggressively sharp and contrasty, often generally at the expense of smooth rendering. I’ve been surprised before, as in the success of this image of lights in a botanic garden at night. But generally the Zeissy lenses are not what I think of when I want something smooth and dreamy.

I was out on errands, and my bag had only these sharp and aggressively contrasty lenses in it. On this rainy dreamy day, I found myself in the soft light of a greenhouse and wanted a rather dreamier rendering. I tried a lens I’ve had for about four months, and I thought I knew it. It’s an old Zeiss Contax G film-era lens, which, in my experience, is one of the sharpest and most aggressively contrasty lenses I own. I decided to try it at wide aperture and hope for the best. The viewfinder looked good.

When I looked at the file, I was surprised at the smooth dreamy rendering. In fact, I liked the image so much I decided to go back to this and other greenhouses with some of my “bokeh” smooth lenses to get an even better image. I may have managed that; maybe not. I think for what I wanted of this image, this old lens pulled through surprisingly well!