Category Archives: Iceland

Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose; Barack Obama and Kandinsky; Two New Iceland Photos

This print is for sale and in more detail here.

A short, very helpful story goes like this:

A musician asked the Buddha, “How should I meditate?”

The Buddha asked, “How do you tune your instrument?”

The musican replied, “Not too tight, not too loose.”

“Just so, you should work with your mind.”

OK, so what does that mean, and why am I writing about it on a photography blog with Iceland photos featured this week?

My take on the very simple, but not so simple, instruction by the Buddha is that he was talking about how much effort to apply to mindfulness — which is the effort we exert to contact the already existing ground of awareness. The thing that makes this infinitely interesting is that the “sweet spot,” not too tight, not too loose, will always depend on what you are working with, on the nature of your own mind. Ken McLeod has compared this very aptly to riding a bicycle, which is never a static process. You lean a little bit one way, a little the other way, always getting back to balance.

So the way this relates to my photography is that in this mental balancing in meditation, it depends on a lot of things. For one thing, it depends on how much energy you are working with.

And in the composition of a photograph, hopefully there is energy. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. It can all work, whether a lot, a little, or in between, and it’s a balancing act. Just as in meditation, photographic composition can be quite paradoxical. When there is very little energy, connection with stillness — or in a photograph maybe a minimalist composition — there can actually then be a lot of energy as a result of that. In the meditation there might be some bliss in that stillness, or a lot of energy as one suddenly contacts fear of the vastness one might sense in that stillness. A quiet photograph can soar and sing. Conversely, a lot of energy in an agitated mind — or in a wild composition — can actually lose some kind of power, but not necessarily. It’s just a question of how to work with that extra energy. It takes skill and practice.

I’m pleased with the photo above, the black and white sheep separated by a ditch. It has balance; it’s quiet, but out of that some energy pushes out. In this case I had to make the quiet tones sing and become something more than a gray day. It wasn’t easy, but maybe it was easier than working with a lot of energy.

When I was young, I used to try to put a lot of energy into a composition, and it was hard. Of course I’ve always liked Van Gogh, who puts incredible energy into relatively simple compositions. But another interesting case, I’ve mentioned before, is Vasily Kandinsky. His compositions are full of incredible energy. I was drawn to them when I was young, and even more now. Now I look at them and say, “That is mind!” But it’s hard to do that, to work with a lot of energy. When I was young I tried and failed a lot. Now I inch my way toward full-blown expressions of energy, sometimes, while more often appreciating something quiet.

Barack Obama tours the Centre Pompidou modern art museum, Vassily Kandinsky on the walls

The different streams of meditation practice that have evolved since the time of the Buddha have evolved different approaches in how to deal with a lot of energy-in-mind. The subject goes far beyond the scope of this post, or my qualifications to write on such an exhaustive subject. But one approach favored by the Tibetans is very interesting: Space. Can you get in touch with space, with vastness bigger than the tangle of energy in your mind? Be bigger than the wild energy in your mind. It takes practice, but it can work. Interestingly, part of what makes the wild paintings work in the museum context is the space around them. The room is clean, open, white, relatively vast.

So, here’s another Iceland image with maybe more energy than the two sheep by the fjord. These vibrant beached fishing floats are within a vast space. Ahh, let them be there.

Beached Fishing Floats, Iceland

This print is in more detail and for sale here.

Single Lava Rock and Fjord, Western Iceland 2007

Single Lava Rock Fjord Panorama Iceland

I’ve been working on panoramas a bit, thinking of infrared as I prepare to send off a better camera to get another dedicated infrared conversion (still not sure whether to use Lifepixel or Kolari Vision). And, Iceland has been in the US press lately in regards to the Hidden Folk.

First, for the panorama: this has been a tricky one. Just a little bit off-vertical on a few shots, and it’s very hard to get the ocean horizon to line up. Thanks to a few new tools in my box, and mostly due to the development of patience and technique, and even more due to stubborn determination, I pushed this one through. I got the sense that it would be good, and worth it, so I spent hours and hours. I actually have a handful of variations of this rock/fjord in panorama, both with the infrared and conventional DSLRs, but I liked the way the triangles worked in this composition.

Also, I wanted to talk about the (now no longer linkable) AP article and its ilk that were bouncing around right before Christmas this year. I think this story ran because they used the word “elves” for the beings that many Icelandic people believe inhabit the landscape. Christmas. Elves. Get it? Our guidebook used the word “fairies,” which strikes me as better, more ethereal and less tangible somehow –which is what this is all about. I’ve seen many Americans in the comments section mocking the notion. Well, whether we do the usual human thing of projecting a human personification upon that which is too big to grasp, or however we try to reach out our mind into that which is bigger — it’s no matter. We do the best we can. But better to reach than to close down.

The idea is: “There’s more going on here than I can articulate or grasp. There is energy, beyond what I understand, beyond the merely human.” Call it elves, fairies, god, drala, magic, whatever. Me, I just try to make a good photograph with it as an ally.

This print is for sale here.

Horizontal Staircase, Iceland

horizontal staircase, infrared, iceland

I posted last week’s Icelandic horizontal Ladder image from a beach vacation, which was quite lovely and full of photographs. Instead of posting some of that new work, I’ll continue along this thread of ancient inspiration.

Last week’s ladder came up out of nowhere to be a “finished” work, but this week’s Horizontal Staircase image has been brewing for a long time. I see it a lot, among the images I want to work on, but until now, somehow I’ve never been able to correctly “print” it, even to screen. Interpreting, manifesting the raw image is more than half the battle in photography.

I’ve probably mentioned before in this blog what a valuable experience it was, while studying with John Sexton in 1982, (he was at the time Ansel Adam’s assistant) to see the process of an Ansel Adams print. We had the opportunity to view a series of prints, or really versions of a single print, of Ansel Adams, from straight print through several work prints, to a final print. The work prints detailed the burning, dodging, and chemistry changes, and the impact on the prints was dramatic. The original straight print was really pretty dull, until he figured out how to make it speak, until he ultimately “performed” it. Ansel used to say that the negative is like a composers score, and the print is the performance (and it may be performed differently at different times).

So, with this horizontal staircase, I’ve had some trouble over the last 6 years, since exposing it. I knew I wanted to give it wings, but I just couldn’t get it right. Inspired by last week’s image, I decided that these two are a series, and indeed they were exposed within a few hundred yards of each other. I used some technical direction from last week’s final post, and I think I’ve got this image to where it’s good enough to post. Yay!

In other news on the front, I’ve implemented, or done the technical implementation, for retina image displays in the lightbox display from the home page, and eventually for the “detail” pages. But now I have a huge amount of image resizing and image-size-code to put in place. Well, if you have a “retina” device, like a newer iPad, they will look quite splendid.

This print is for sale here.

Old concrete cube, ladder, waterfall; Iceland

Concrete Cube and Ladder, Iceland

This is a funny example of how an image can slowly bubble up to the top of my pile. I don’t think I even noticed this image as noteworthy in sifting through the images once back at my desk, home from iceland. I don’t think it even got a rating, so it stayed hidden in the vast murk of unrated images in my Lightroom catalog. Noticed more or less by accident and rated, it started popping into the overview of possible images. Like a bubble rising out of deep water, it gained speed and size as it popped to the surface of, “Yes!”

This was around the ruins of a herring cannery in the West Fjords of Iceland. We mostly had been camping on the trip, but we stayed, lingered, in this area a bit at a very nice inn.

This print is for sale here.

Three Sheep, Path Along Puffin Cliffs, Iceland

I got a new (used) DSLR this week, and I’m quite pleased to be working with it. However, I’m polishing up an older gem from the vault instead of posting something new. I’ve got a pretty good backlog, so a new image will have to really pop for me to push something out of that queue.

I screwed up some of these panoramas when I was there on the cliff, including from the non-infrared camera. Some of them were pretty good, but didn’t really get enough of the ocean, which seems important to the total energy. But I think this one came through quite well, and it does what I like in a photo: it not only conveys the energy of the place, but it transforms the two dimensional space of the photo into an energetic experience of its own.

This print is for sale here.

Black Sand Beach near Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland

This is a black sand, volcanic beach near the currently active volcano in Iceland — though this year, 2007, the volcano was nothing like active, sleeping under the glacier. We spent the night before this image in a bed and breakfast to the north of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier. While we did spend some time with the glacier, most of the day was on a few beautiful black beaches with rough seas, and traveling south a bit, some stunning cliffs.

This print is for sale here.