Category Archives: garden

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.

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.

Garlic Scape and Roses, Circle: some resolution for the crazy question.

Garlic Scape and Roses, Circle

My last Photo of the Week I apologized that I had been too busy to post. Things have not gotten better in that regard, and in fact I have put up a notice on for-sale pages that any photo orders won’t be fulfilled until mid June.

Busyness aside, I’ve been doing a lot of new work. But the new, new work isn’t up on the site at all yet. This photo above though is interesting, and pretty new. I made the exposure last summer and it mixed in my backlog of garlic scape and roses photos I want to work on. I spend time working on these exposures at that time of year. I have had a show hanging at Long River Gallery through the spring; I just took the remaining photos down today. This circle-garlic-scape and roses image was included in the show as a matted print. And in fact it was the very last thing I printed and matted as I was hurrying to get the car packed and to the gallery. A friend pointed out that it was matted a little crooked, which I don’t ever do. But like I said, a hurry. And also it was done with the question: Am I crazy?

If I never asked if I was crazy, regarding photography or many other matters, that would be a bad sign. It would mean I’m not pushing the edge of what I “know” and what I’m comfortable with.

I really liked this photo, but I just didn’t know if it was really any good or if I was just remembering making it, or thinking about the lens that made it, or whatever happens to warp my judgement. So, included in the show as a late afterthought, and then I didn’t give it much more thought.

It didn’t sell, in the small and slightly crooked mounting in the mat, but I had a handful of people tell me it was their favorite photo. So, maybe a little crazy, but not completely.

This photo is for sale (to ship in mid June) here.

Printing Subtle Images — Harder Than it Might Seem

Four Morning Glories in Autumn

I’ve been printing a lot just lately. As I mentioned last week, I had a request from my senator’s office to send some prints to hang in their Washington DC office. So I’ve been printing for Bernie Sanders. He wants Vermont images. I’ve printed some of my most popular images, things I’ve printed a lot before. It’s gone well. But then I’ve been trying to push out some new work, as I always feel inclined to do in these circumstances. This printing has been harder than hard. I think sometimes people think a photographer just presses the shutter on the camera, click, and then to print you push a button, click again. Done. So easy. Who would pay for that?

I won’t talk about the camera and lens work, but I find that in some ways printing never gets easier, with some images. Indeed, as my aspirations grow, it just gets harder. I think in some ways the hardest of all are the moody, atmospheric images I’m working on a lot these days, which in some cases only have a relatively small area of sharp subject, and the rest are tones and subtle colors. I think that a more traditional landscape — everything sharp — is a whole lot easier. The detail and the “reality” of the subject distract a lot from other aspects of what is going on with tones and colors. Of course such a print still benefits from the work to get the tones all working. It is just more critical when the photo is more of a tone poem than a detail-subject.

I had been printing in the darkroom since the late 70s, and I got to be quite the craftsman after I took a couple of weeks of workshop given by John Sexton in 1982. He was working as Ansel Adams’ darkroom assistant at that time, and he taught us the craft as Ansel Adams was practicing it. Besides a lot of burning and dodging, paper choice and a lot of tweaking of chemistry were involved, and it took a long time to nail a final print in those days. I printed in the darkroom until about ’98, when I moved away from a darkroom and never had one of my own again.

At first, digital printing was even harder for me than darkroom printing. At first everything was out of control, and I couldn’t get a handle on it. I longed for the darkroom. Eventually I learned the characteristics of a handful of papers, how the ink works, most importantly calibration of monitor and printer profile. Still not easy. Sometimes pretty predictable. Sometimes surprisingly not so. I’ve spent quite a bit of time and expensive materials, but now I have a really nice print of this morning glory in autumn light on Canson Etching Edition paper.

I’ve been working on printing of the image above since mid-December, and I’ve just got prints I’m happy with today, finally. I’ll send one to Bernie.

A print, by being reflective, is a different kind of thing than glowing pixels on a monitor. The image above features some light coming through, the gold burst from the autumn foliage behind the top morning glory. I’ve got to get the paper to convey that sense. The colors are bright and vivid, but it’s tricky to keep it from looking like a cartoon. In some of my attempts it has been hard to keep it from being murky. This is a tricky one.

My first take on working on an image where color and tonal fidelity will usually be to try Canson Baryta paper. This was a complete failure for some reason. It was just too contrasty, and I couldn’t get the feeling to come across, even when reducing contrast in the file I fed the printer. Printing on more textured mat papers, like Canson Edition Etching opened the whole thing up better, less deep and made the light glow, but then there were other problems — color fidelity not as good, and also not a good “anchor” from the deeper tones. I find on some of my textured papers, even with a calibrated workflows, some colors get a little wilder and harder to control.

I had to make a file just for printing, and then tweak the file to get the print to work, a different file from what I display on the screen to look good. The goal I insist on is that the print and the image you see on screen will have the same impression.

Because I’m a masochist, I’m working on another one that is just as hard. I’m still not quite happy with the print of this one, but I’m working on it this afternoon. My target is to get it to work on Canson Rag Photographique, a smooth paper that is still distinctly papery, and which still conveys the open quality I’m looking for. Closing in on it I think.

New Beech Leaves, 2017

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

.

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.

Christmas Lights in Botanic Garden, Denver

Christmas Lights Through Branches in Botanic Garden, Denver

A few days before Christmas, I had the good/bad luck to be in the Denver Botanic Garden at night. There was quite a crowd, and quite a few manifestations of themed lighted areas. The good luck was that it was fun with family, and I made a few good photographs. The bad luck was that I had a really nice Zeiss lens pickpocketed out of a side pouch of my camera bag in the jostling crowd. A rather devastating loss, but we go on.

I kept one lens on the camera all evening and it did beautifully. This lens, the Zeiss Loxia 50, would not have been my first choice for this evening, but it was probably the best lens I had with me for photographing the lights in the dark park. And it turned out to be perfect. I’m not sure if anything would have done better. I might have brought one of my old vintage lenses I like for their bokeh, their out of focus characteristic. I did have one beautiful old lens like that, but it was maybe to long to hand hold in the dark. I didn’t even try it. The Loxia 50 stopped down even a little would make those round balls of light have a funny pointy shape, so wide-open, all evening. It gave me a new appreciation of one of my already favorite lenses, and of night photography, which I don’t do very often. Fun!

This photo is available for sale as a print here.

Rose Hips in Snow and Fog

Rose Hips in Snow and Fog

A new-to-me vintage lens I recently acquired is over-the-top smooth and creamy in the background, while rendering the focus super sharp anywhere in the frame. It’s about 30 years old, I guess, and as good as any lens I would ever want to buy new, except that it’s not so good pointed toward the sun. While my modern Zeiss lenses have some aggressive sharpness and unbelievable coatings, there is something about this old lens that is so pleasing I can hardly contain myself. What a joy.

I bought this lens on the internet while I was traveling for my father’s funeral. In that dark time, an online vendor of used lenses was having a big sale, and I took that bait to good result. A relatively expensive lens, I might not have bought it at another time. What a weird juxtaposition.

Since I’ve had the lens, since my father’s funeral and the US election, I’ve been stumbling through the mystery of grief, which has its own rhythms and times and demands. It works without our consent or conscious knowledge — and yet it demands our cooperation in its mystery. It clobbers us, but also has some healing power. If we give it its due, maybe it gives us some insight or blessing in return. I’ve always been intrigued that an ever-recurring theme in world storytelling, mythology, religious texts, is a set of variations on the theme of the hero needing to journey underground in a dark place. Maybe my favorite is C.S. Lewis’ _The Silver Chair_, a children’s book rich in wisdom. We are compelled to go to the dark place, and there we have to keep our wits about us. We have to follow instructions (in my case my meditation and dzogchen practice). Then we gain something. It’s weird.

So this image, with this lens, is to me like the grief, somewhat, though of course I wouldn’t want to have that be your interpretation! This is of course more beautiful than the experience of grief, but that is one point; within grief there are glimpses of the beautiful world. Some murky mystery, luminous; and there is some brightness glowing. There are jewels of insight, wisdom, and growth to be found in grief, if we don’t succumb to it altogether. It has been weird for me this time, a foggy quality, something of this smooth semi-differentiated quality, not strongly articulated, a few aspects strongly etched.

I have mentioned many times in this blog my love of ukiyo-e (“floating world”); the dreamy woodcuts (and sometimes paintings) of Hokusai, Utamaro, Hiroshige, Hoitsu, Kawase, and others. I love that aesthetic in the past, and by masters who bring the tradition forward into the present, like Matt Brown. This is one of my images that feels inspired by ukiyo-e.

Luckily, I love what I do as a photographer and I don’t pine too much to time travel to ancient Japan. I love that sometimes photography can do what other mediums can’t. Both realistic rendering, and the way a good lens can draw and paint with light have their own aesthetic virtues, which sometimes can soar. I can’t do ukiyo-e woodblocks, but I can be inspired by them. I can make prints I am very happy with.

I print this image on fine textured watercolor or etching paper, or it also works well on the smooth baryta surface of my other favorite paper by Canson. If you order a print and have a paper preference, let me know.

Available for sale here…

Ordinary Miracles – Four Morning Glories

Four Morning Glories

In my practice of photography there is a tension. The natural tendency is to look for the unusual, striking, breathtaking, exotic. But my saving grace is an ability to be present with what simply is, and fully embrace that, at least sometimes.

In looking for the exotic, there comes a striving, a discontent with so much of what we encounter — even when we are actually in the midst of something spectacular. We become what Buddhists call “hungry ghosts” — a mental realm where nothing is ever enough. Photography in this context becomes a perpetual bar-raising for more unusual subjects and locations.

On the other hand, by being with whatever is, there is often more interest and beauty available to us all, right where we are — vast rich experience is available in all of our everyday life if we dare to approach it undefended and full of curiosity.

I was struck in a conversation at my dad’s bedside, a hospital visit recently. My sister, a bodhisattva, was talking about a situation where she was helping someone. The nurse’s aid in the room described that person as having found a miracle. And it is true, that causes and conditions have come together in a very lucky way for that person; you could call it miraculous. But what struck me is that by thinking of miracles as distinct from the everyday miracle of every aspect of our existence, we diminish everything. It’s not that this life is a low and dull thing, and somewhere, out there, are rare things called miracles. The whole thing is a miracle. The whole damn manifestation of this existence. Nothing less than miraculous.

In Buddhist meditation practice, we are constantly cautioned to not seek high or extraordinary experiences. Inhabiting the ordinary fully is the practice. I think, despite awareness of this dichotomy in my photographic life, that I wasn’t really fully understanding why we meditate in this way. It’s not just that we “settle” for the ordinary. Fully inhabiting the ordinary, we see its richness, depth, and mystery. To look for the extraordinary, we miss the entire miracle, the whole miracle of our existence on earth. You miss that, you miss most everything. Looking for something somewhere else, something fancy, we miss everything.

So here in my own garden in morning light with a vintage manual camera lens and the blessing of time to really look, it is enough. More than enough.

This is a high resolution file, and it makes a spectacular print at any size. I print it on Canson Arches Aquarelle Watercolor paper. Prints available here.

Bee Balm Through Siberian Iris Leaves and Dew

Monarda siberian iris leaves

“People think it’s the object of attention that’s important, like an object reflected in a mirror. But it’s actually looking toward where objects are reflected that’s important, the capacity to reflect. Look at a flower. Then look at the mind that perceives the flower.”

— Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

I typed this quote in my notes in a dharma retreat the other day, a retreat with my Buddhist teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who is Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s son.

Besides having everything to do with meditation at a certain level, that quote also has everything to do with my approach to photography. It’s not that there is some thing out there, and I’m out to capture it. It’s about perception, resonance, our capacity to reflect and be aware — and aware of our awareness.

This image is available for sale and view at higher resolution on this page