Category Archives: New England

Black and White Garlic Scape, Vintage Lens

Garlic Scape and Dew
Garlic Scape and Dew

When I was young and just taking photography seriously, I got a 4 x 5 view camera, and then for several years I only used that. Working with a view camera, you look at the composition on the ground glass before inserting the film holder, under a dark cloth. You get behind the camera and under the cloth, and the image is upside down and backwards, glowing on the glass. The whole experience is an abstraction. It’s no longer a sense of “There is a thing in front of my camera, and I will capture it.” (Of course one was never going to capture the thing, and photography is always working with an abstraction). But with the view camera, the picture upside down and backwards, the feeling is much more “There are forms and tones and textures on this glass glowing here in the dark.”

In those view camera days I had two lenses. One was expensive and very good; I think the other one was just as good really, if less fancy. And in those years I looked at the work of other photographers and saw sometimes a sort of glowy quality. Photographers I liked had it: of course Atget. But also some contemporary photographers showed it as well, like maybe some of Olivia Parker’s work. I thought it was something to do with the film, since my experience with lenses was so constrained. Of everything I learned in those old film days, my knowledge of lenses was the biggest hole; and now it is one of my obsessions. It’s only in these modern times that excellent vintage lenses have gotten relatively cheap, and very easy to adapt to a mirrorless digital camera. I can use any old lens on my modern camera (though it is harder to use cross brand modern lenses). I’ve come to know that glowy quality by the name “spherical aberration;” it shows up on some lenses at wide apertures. Usually it’s a negative characteristic. I’ll often think less of photos that show it a lot. I never had it on my old great lenses, or even my modern early digital transitional mediocre lenses. But in the right context, like be beauty of good bokeh blur, it can be a beautiful thing. I love the subtlety of the tones in this week’s image, and this glow works with it to fantastic effect.

Every year I photograph garlic scapes. My usual endeavor involves working with these plants during the brief window as the scapes are coming up and the roses are blooming nicely. I discovered I can do things like this:

Garlic Scape Pink Roses Bokeh
Another scape, with a different vintage lens

The roses peak a little earlier than the scapes, so it’s brief. The roses get a bit ratty while the scapes are still providing interesting forms and textures. So I photograph them without any roses sometimes. But up to now I had been thinking without the color of the blurred bokeh roses in the background, that these scapes without roses were perhaps less. But no. And maybe the scapes alone were too abstract? Again, no. (I have an awful lot more good exposures of this theme with and without roses than I have published on the site).

Back in those view camera days when I looked at the image as an abstract of form and tone, I mostly carried sheets of black and white film, and so I trained myself hard to only see in black and white, or more accurately, the many tones of gray in between black and white. I’ll save it for other posts how my eye evolved to see color, but the surprising thing is that I no longer see in black and white as my primary vision. Form, tone, texture, movement of the eye through the composition, sure, just like before but better. Those gray tones though I usually see later when working on the computer. This was no exception. But when I saw it: Bam! That’s it.

So I have a lot more of these, million shades of subtle gray toned abstracts of garlic in the garden. This year I am not traveling or even starting the car very often; the COVID-19 Trump pandemic keeps me home.

I’ve been working hard on the inner workings of this website, re-writing most of the 2000 or so lines of CSS that control the layout and behavior of these pages. Now that it’s done, I can add more images to the site, maybe cull some too. Stay tuned, stay safe, check back!

Working in the Face of Change and Death

Birches and Fall Foliage, wide aperture

These times — facing the pandemic — are shaking everything up. As with all suffering, the sharp point of this current period in the world brings us to change, uncertainty, a lot of emotional material, and literally existential questions — and the chance for a kind of waking up. Any of us might die from this COVID-19 virus unless we are children. We might lose parents or other loved ones. We face economic catastrophe. Everything we have known is subject to change, and that change is upon us.

To this Buddhist, that paragraph above is not so far out of the ordinary view of things: everything is impermanent, subject to change. Our solid sense of the world is a delusion; it is all more like sand than rock. We could die at any time. Still, facing change of this magnitude is in fact different for most of us. To paraphrase Pema Chodron — I don’t remember which talk or book this comes from — “We all know we are going to die. But it’s different when you are really facing it.”

So what do we do, what do I do, facing this degree of change and uncertainty, fear, anger, and other strong emotions? In part, we keep on through the day, doing what we need to do. We practice kindness as much as possible. But it’s also important to feel what we feel to the extent of our capacity. The emotional states triggered by our current situation of an unstoppable pandemic are not going to be pleasant, but it’s also important to appreciate moments that are OK. The waking up opportunity of a time like this, as all times, is in the balance between experiencing fully to the extent of our capacity while not going numb in overwhelm or denial.

In my life there have been some extended breaks in which I have thrown myself into the pursuit of samsara, lost my pursuit of awakening. But really, waking up has been my life’s work, and I’ve tried to impart this transmission to everyone. As a parent, I almost always tried to keep a view that I was passing along a flame of awareness. In all my relationships I try to keep a sense of awakeness. I am beyond grateful for everyone in my life who has been willing to share this awake presence with me. Anyway, this moment brings me to a point. I’m trying to be fully aware before I die.

This is a photography blog, and I am a photographer. So what am I doing in this realm? Outlet for my work is very minimal, with a contracting economy, gallery visits down to near zero. Throughout last year I worked with great purpose toward putting prints into the physical world. This time is different. I don’t work on a piece with the sense that it will be hanging on a wall soon. I just do it.

I have more time to devote to the “darkroom” side of my work, time I didn’t have while printing, framing, and matting. I am working like mad. And for what purpose? Because it is what I do, what I do best. And I think the new work is getting better very quickly in this time of the sharp-point.

Doing the photography is a bit funny. According to my beliefs, my practice, we should fully feel, experience life fully. But this is sometimes too much for me. The news is dark, I am angry at our leaders for not taking timely action and for lying to us, which has led to this being a catastrophe from which many Americans will die. I am furious that Trump did not take action when he first knew, adopting an approach of wishful thinking instead of decisive and informed action. I am afraid I will lose people I love, that I will not get to see my friends for an extended period — and maybe never again. I am frustrated that there is so little I can do to help the world. So yes, it is important to feel these things, but also it is good to take a break from them. I lose myself in my work, long periods refining my Lightroom catalog and working on images in photoshop. It’s part of the balance, being awake — but not being overwhelmed.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long. I’m excited about my new work. I’m working on a lot more of it. I’m grateful to all who have shared my spark of awareness and put theirs next to mine. Two matches together make a bigger flame. May you all be well.

Cattails in Rain, Panorama crop

Bogged down and moving forward

Framed large prints
A bunch of 30 x 30 inch frames with 19 x 19 prints

Well, all fall I’ve been framing. The Red Jacket Inn in North Conway NH has purchased 304 framed photographs from me. So this has rather constrained my time. Far less camera time and time working up new photos — I just can’t let that be my priority. So that’s where I’ve been, oh loyal blog readers. Framing.

Several things have been interesting about this time! For one thing, I’m getting really good at framing. Just six months or so ago I would rather freak out any time I had to frame a large print. Now, though not without occasional frustration, it’s just something to move through. I’ve gone from completely dreading framing to almost enjoying it, o r even actually enjoying it. (Recently I’ve gotten a newer computer, which makes photography work much more enjoyable — however the new MacOS, Catalina, has broken some of my geekier development aspects. I have spent some time wrestling with coding and maintaining a development environment, moving some functions from using Ruby to using Node, etc, and I have to say that most of the time I’m doing that I would rather be framing!)

I’ve moved a tremendous amount of material, probably close to literally a ton of glass. If I do a job like this again I will have to remember that administration becomes a huge part of it. Counting stuff, moving stuff, keeping track of everything. That part of it becomes non trivial on this scale!

Another interesting thing is much much harder to explain. Usually when I’m working with photography there is an interplay between some kind of visionary call in my mind and spirit, technology (lenses and such), and then whatever in the external world is calling my eye. These three influence each other and either push together or pull on each other. There is a range between full synergy and one aspect becoming completely dominant.

I’m finding in these framing days, with far less time with a camera in my hands, it’s kind of funny that a pressure from the vision is emerging. There is a sort of dreamy background vision of imaginary photographs that want to be born. It’s hard to explain. It’s very abstract, not a sense of a particular object I would like to photograph, usually. It’s sort of a feeling and dance of dark and light and texture and energy. I’m realizing how often it gets lost in the distraction of actually working with images on the sensor and equipment and the duality of object and camera. One manifestation of this vision simmering away is a kind of Rembrandt-like light-within-dark. More like a vague dream than anything I can explain. Light within dark.

Ok, back to the framing room!

Coming up! Sunapee Craft Fair!

Trees and Fog After Ice Storm

I’ll be in booth 10 in tent 1 from August 7 through 11. Please come say hi!

The above image is one of many new ones that I’ll have with me as prints, an image I’ve never had hanging before. It’s hard to keep track of all the images I’ve got framed and matted, but I’ve been busy putting stuff together. My problem/virtue is that in the context of preparing for something like this I get very inspired to work on more images. I don’t know why this happens — I guess there is a space for the new visions to pour into. No show, and it seems that space isn’t there.

I’ve also been distracted by getting up to speed on my new Epson P7000. A client wants quite a few large prints, so it was worth getting the behemoth that can handle them. It should be a slight improvement in some ways in my future prints, though I’ll keep my old printer for as long as it runs. I’m finding that some papers and tones on some papers look a bit different on the new ink set, some better possibilities but also sometimes hard to hit the same notes with the same files using manufacturer’s profiles. At least some of the Canson profiles are a little different. Paper handling is certainly a big difference. I’ve got some 24″ wide rolls here and more on the way for my usual paper stock, so I’ll be making some bigger prints.

As usual, time is the big constraint in this life. It’s funny, somehow we feel there is not enough time. But we swim in an infinite ocean of time. It’s like a fish in the ocean saying there isn’t enough water. You know the feeling of not enough. I hope you also know the feeling of infinite space. I’m trying to remember to touch in with it.

Weeds

Jewelweed, Monarda, Dew
Jewelweed, Mondarda, Dew

I’ve been fascinated by weeds for a long time, as a gardener, as a landowner, as a meditator. Weeds pop up with such exuberance, live in spite of all odds with strength and fortitude. We might consider them “bad,” but that is just a matter of perspective. They are often very beautiful in their way, and have virtue whether growing or as compost.

The photo above features the mid summer phase of Jewelweed, also known as “touch me not” because of it’s exploding seed pods. I remember seeing it at my grandmother’s farm as a child; back then it was both beautiful to me and providential, as it grew along the shady creeks I used to like to explore while looking for salamanders and frogs. In the right kind of ground and a bit of shade, it grows like mad. It is extremely beautiful in all phases of its life, with leaves that collect dew in an interesting way, luminous semi-transparent stems, and orange flowers with different phases from bud to seed. I wonder if I would plant it on purpose if it didn’t come up on its own. Of course it is a weed, we must pull most of it, even if we’ll never get it all. And then in the background of this photo the clear red in the background is Monarda, Bee Balm, which we consider a garden plant and not technically a weed. You can buy Bee Balm at the garden center. But it is as weedy as the jewelweed. They both create a beautiful display with only the effort of keeping them somewhat contained and not displacing more fragile forms of life.

As a gardener, of course, I fight weeds, but it is co-existence more than a battle I win. I will never eradicate all weeds. I only have so much time, strength, and stamina to cut and pull them. So there are always weeds in my garden. And as a photographer, sometimes I consider them to be a blessing as well as a curse. They can be beautiful in their way. I have also come to bad places by indulging weeds for too long, letting them slide because they have beauty. My garden now is plagued with years worth of seeds from White Campion and Johnny Jump Ups, plants I considered to be harmless and beautiful. I did not fight them much for some years, so they have put down so many seeds and are really hard to eradicate. I now I consider them a higher priority ongoing problem.

As a long term meditator I also have dealt with the idea of “mind weeds.” I remember reading a passage from Suzuki Roshi a long time ago, long before I really knew what he was talking about. If you work with an awareness practice directly with mind for a while, it is clear though. We want some kind of purity of mind, but what we encounter is instead our actual mind, often more like a monkey’s mind than any ideal one might start out with. The Suzuki Roshi quote comes from a talk in 1965: “We say ‘pulling out the weed’.  We make it nourishment of the plant.  We pull the weed and bury the weed near the plant to make it nourishment of the plant.  So even though you have some difficulty in your practice….even though you have some waves while you are sitting, those weeds itself will help you.  So we should not be bothered by the weeds you have in your mind.  We should be rather grateful to the weeds you have in your mind because eventually will enrich your practice.” A version of this came up later, from Chogyam Trungpa, just as provocative; at the time I first heard it, I also didn’t know exactly what the meaning was behind his pithy words: “No neurosis, no enlightenment.” Really he is saying something a lot like his friend Suzuki Roshi. Our actual life, our actual experience is the path. There is no other path.

The idea in working with mind, as in a garden, as in all of our life — where unwanted circumstances always arise with the vigor of weeds — we take this all as the path itself. There is no other life than this imperfect life, no other garden than this one with weeds.

Boxes Made of Butter

Four Birch Reflections on New Blue Ice

Of course, the shape of the photograph is important. I had stopped seeing panoramas and making them so much, partly because I was having trouble framing them so it would work. Using sturdier frames and better framing technique, and cutting my own glass I’m able to frame them in a sturdy way and without going (as) broke doing it. So I’m seeing them and printing them again. Yay! I’ll be hanging 3 panoramas at an upcoming show at the Eversource headquarters in Manchester NH through the spring, and also some different ones in the gallery in hallway 4F at Dartmouth Hitchcock medical center in Lebanon NH through April and May.

Part of what I like about the pano format is the way the eye can move in a different way. There is something a bit more free, call it “vast” feeling about the space, for me.

Compare to the extreme opposite, a square composition (which I also love, and used a lot in the days when I had added the use of a medium format film camera along with my 4 x 5 view camera main-axe. In this composition, as in many squares, the eye moves back in, it’s tighter, it feels more boxed-in. Which is OK. It’s always a box of some sort.

Dewy Garlic Scape with Roses

I think somehow the sense of composition within a box has a subtle pointer to outside of the box. It points to a bigger scene, and the boxed-in detail evokes a larger space. Since that larger space is here undefined, the space is purely mind. Our mind is bigger than the box.

When I was in college, I remember talking to a friend about people who were “in the boxes” and “out of the boxes.” (Where are you now, Steph?) In the boxes was our way of referring to purely conceptual, standard, and habitual ways of thinking. There was plenty of in the boxes thinking at Dartmouth when I was a student there. Out of the boxes was more emotional, less habitual, open to new experience and ideas. It was rather rarer. The thing is, you need the boxes in this world. We need concepts, defined ideas, a reality that works in its framework. But ultimately the truth has its home out of the boxes as well.

Since those days I’ve become a meditator and a Buddhist; I’ve lived a lot of my life in conceptual terms, I’ve composed photographs that exist in their limited spaces. But I’ve also rested in what Tibetan Buddhists would call “space,” embraced the view of emptiness. My teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche literally talked about the framing I’ve done here. To paraphrase (I’m working from memory of a retreat with him), “You need some boxes. That’s why we give you lots of boxes (concepts). But let’s have the boxes be made of butter, so they melt.” (We need to go beyond concept).

These new (and new-ish) photos are available for sale:

Foliage Reflection Riverside Rocks

Four Birch Reflections in New Blue Ice

Dewy Garlic Scape and Roses

Orange Foliage Reflections Puddles, Riverbank Rock

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.

See me at an Opening Tonight

Apple in New Ice

Tonight at the League of New Hampshire Crafts Headquarters Gallery, in Concord New Hampshire, from 5 to 7:30.

One of three of my photos hanging in the show of new juried members into the League of NH Crafts is the one above, which I’ve never framed up before. It’s a 20 inch wide print in a 22 x 28 maple frame.

(a new photo of the week blog is coming soon!)

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.

A bit more on meditation and photography

Orange Begonias through screen in rain

I’ve written about meditation and photography some, maybe too much. I keep trying to make things clearer, but I’m afraid there may be misunderstandings. There are certainly misunderstandings, but I hope they at least don’t get worse on account of me. Probably, at times, I’m making things worse. And of course I am a mere practitioner, so if you are interested in how the mind works and what is going on with meditation, I encourage you to seek out a qualified meditation teacher. (I’d strongly suggest a Buddhist teacher, even if you are uninterested in Buddhist trappings or notions. The 2500 year tradition provides a detailed map of the terrain of working with the mind rather than a mere technique, as you will get in a a secular approach).

First, meditation is its own practice, a kind of not-doing, mostly, done on a cushion or a chair. There are many approaches to it, and some are perhaps more active than others, whether on that cushion or while actually doing something. But the important point is that basis of it is working with mind and awareness itself, directly, and not dressing that up or confusing it with some worldly or materialistic pursuit. Photography, of course, is different. You are doing something, often with a different motivation than purely working with mind.

So, this relates to photography in a couple of ways I’m aware of. Meditation, if one works with it consistently over time, may have some impact on our awareness, clarifying our perception. This could also include perception of our emotional world, so the resonances in photography, what we may feel as a result of a made image, may become clearer as well. We may see better, and we may feel more. Less numbness means more engagement.

Then it goes the other way as well, with photography having its own impacts on our vision, awareness, and emotional development. This is where the connection with meditation gets confusing to many, as well as to me sometimes. There is an aspect to practicing photography that puts us in touch with opening our awareness of the world and also the emotional realm — how we resonate with the world. This can function and feel a lot like meditation. I think if done with awareness of what’s going on, there can be something like meditation going on in the practice of photography — sometimes.

I think there is a big difference in some ways that are important. Meditation, at least Buddhist meditation, is non-material, not goal-oriinented. It is a pure practice. As such, it is extremely radical and transforming, a dissolving force applied to the concept of selfish-self and ego altogether. It’s important for the meditation to be pure that way, not done with what Suzuki Roshi calls “gaining idea.”

Photography is quite different. As a photographer, we want to make “our own” good image. In some way this effort is attached to our ego. There may be something pure in our desire to see and perceive and do the work to increase our awareness and resonance and openness. There may also be something that is — from a Buddhist perspective and from the perspective of reducing ego-clinging — sometimes less productive in this regard.

Personally I feel my own photography has improved a lot as I have done a lot of meditation and studied with amazing Buddhist teachers over the last several years, but that’s just a side-effect, not why I meditate. To the extent that my photos are “Buddhist, meditative photos” I hope any such characterization also finds them to be radical, intense, cutting through — not some kind of new-agey mellow peaceful thing. My intent is more to cut through the solidity of our mis-perception, which is a radical act. Nor is the transformation of my mind the sole object of my photography, though it is there. Photography and meditation are different, but they dovetail.

One thing that is interesting to me and important to point out: most of what we consider the great masters, contemporary and historical, were not meditators. Look at a photo by (in no particular order) Elliot Erwitt, Paul Caponigro, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Fan Ho, Saul Leiter, Ansel Adams, Andre Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson and so many others — looking at their best work one should gasp and wonder “how did they see so well?!” And that is a mystery. They worked and worked, practiced a lot of photography, embraced art as a whole, lived life deeply and in the end it showed in their work. That gasp we do, “How did they see so well?” might be part of that mysterious connection we might make between meditation and photography, but in this case it is not related to meditation as such.