Category Archives: garden

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.

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

Japanese Iris During/After Rain, Waterlilies

Japanese Iris and Waterlilies

It’s always a mysterious process how I end up creating and selecting what may be the best of my photos (or the mystery may in fact be so deep that the best ones go unpublished). Sometimes everything just comes together — bam! — the way people think photography works. “I just go click.” Umm, not so often, but sometimes sorta, if I’m well prepared.

In this case I had a concept in my mind, which of course made everything hard. I had seen that Japanese Iris blooming on the bank of the pond, so big and saturated and dancing in and out of dapples of light. Of course I photographed it. But when we had a stretch of rainy weather in June, I got this idea. I don’t know if the composition is really influenced by Ukiyo-e (Floating World) woodblock prints of Japan. I’ve spent lots and lots of time viewing those prints, online and in person, and I think I’ve internalized some of the style.

So, unfortunately, I had something in my mind as I kept going back and squatting in the weeds in the rain and just-after rain and trying different lenses and apertures. I made a lot of exposures, and a lot of them were good; though there were many flavors of the composition — different rain and different depth of field and lens character.

Here are two of the many, the same scene, different flavors. After the rain

Japanese Iris and Waterlilies

These images can be viewed in a cleaner and higher resolution presentation, and they are for sale as prints:

Japanese Iris in Rain

After Rain

Bee on Globe Thistle, Mondarda, Vermont

The Bee Balm (monarda) has rather run away this summer, but I couldn’t bear to try to tame it. I’m finding that the brilliant red is providing a handy backdrop for all kinds of subjects. I think I am going to try a whole series about this bee balm running wild. I just found out that I will be exhibiting at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon NH this October through December, and I think the bee balm series might be something to try printing for it.

This image proves to me some things I already know so well: you can make a photograph in natural light once. After that any attempt to improve or recreate it are rather iffy. It seems like it should be more than possible to refine a vision, but it’s tricky.

This particular image was one of the first of about 200 images I made of this subject. Over a few day period, the bees were reliably working this globe thistle, and the red monarda backdrop wasn’t going anywhere. I tried some different lenses, tried optimizing the aperture for the blur of the background, even making some of those 40 Megapixel monsters that my micro four thirds camera can do with its sensor-shift technology (and those are good because the colors are often better and truer). Still, I think this might be among the best of the batch. Subject to revision. We’ll see.

This image is for sale and can be viewed in higher resolution on its page.

Frosted Siberian Iris Leaves over Red Maple

I’m working on printing, framing, and generally planning the show that will hang in Hanover NH on December 5 at the Howe Library. Still, I’m working with new images too, even if they won’t make the show. This one might though.

We had a hard frost on Monday, really our first hard one. It was a little late, as far as getting the frost-on-fallen-leaves subject that I’ve explored over the years. I spent a lot of time bending over with the macro lens, and here’s one harvest from that effort.

I’ve also been thinking about the theme of the show, anicca, and how that ties to photography. It’s so paradoxical, how photography makes impermanence so poignant. Photography in a superficial sense “freezes” a view of the world. Oddly, rather than solidifying the world more, this points out that reality is more like smoke than rock. It’s a river we can’t step into twice. We have a glimpse of something, a moment, form, texture, maybe color; and it’s gone. There is meaning, resonance — that can linger, but the moment is gone.

That frost is gone, and it’s raining today, the leaves marching through time toward brown mush.

Gone-by Dandelion, Pink Azalea, 2014

gone by dandilion macro, pink azelea

It’s been hard to put up a photo of the week lately, because I’ve been making so many exposures. It’s a funny paradox, but it comes down to the most precious resource: time.

I spend a lot of time working on photography, and even with that wealth of time spent, I have to allocate resources, of course. Camera time, looking through, sorting, evaluating, and then going down various rabbit holes. The time to push a photo through, and the clarity to pick just one — that’s a challenge in a rich time like this.

I always rave about this Olympus 60mm macro lens; sorry to do it more, but it is just really quite extraordinary. I’ve been actually throwing away some unpublished images made with some good old Nikon lenses, because so much of the work I’m doing now is just plain better. I’ve been making so many images that are so good, it’s hard to choose between them.

So many things make a photo worthy, and I hope that there are more than one of them working here. But the thing is, have you ever really seen the dome of the dandelion where the seeds have gone? A lifetime of looking closely at dandelions, and I’ve never seen that they really look this way as the seeds go.