Category Archives: New England

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.

Vermont Farmer’s Market: Flower Decisions

Vermont Farmer's Market, Clematis,Peony,Columbine

As a bit of a counterpoint to last week’s image, which is bright and luminous, this is a similar subject but darker and denser: completely different feel. This was made with the same lens at the same aperture, an ancient Zeiss Contax G 90 Sonnar, wide open.

These days I would have tended to bring a different lens in my bag. In my current style for something like a farmer’s market, I would choose one of my less aggressively sharp and contrasty lenses. However, encouraged by the alternate character revealed in that fuschia greenhouse photo, I brought this as my only long lens and used it wide open.

A farmer’s market is funny, like life: there is a lot going on and it’s hard to sort it out. I always feel like it might be a ripe situation for photography, and it often is, but it really requires some careful looking. One slice of it might be a good photo, but then there is a lot of chaos and potential for everything to change quite quickly. Of course, like life, that change works in our favor. Without it, we would be stuck.

Exactly one year ago: newly plowed corn field, dappled light and low clouds

Newly Plowed Cornfield Vermont Black and White

I had been thinking about this image for a couple of weeks. I actually wake up sometimes with them in my mind. Sometimes I can’t sleep in the night because I get such strong flashes in my mind, like I’m making the exposures. Sometimes I have dreams that are like slideshows, streams of my photos. Anyway, I thought about this photo very vividly and then realized it was made just this week, last year.

There are so many things about it I like, but better to let you come to your own relationship with it.

This is an example of my work being informed by my past — my work in silver images with large format film. But I have to say that this panorama with a modern Zeiss lens, stitched from high resolution images from a very good modern sensor, is better than anything I could have made before. I will print it pretty big, and it will shine that way, but there is enough resolution that I could print it really big. If you like it and have a large wall, let me know.

This print is available for sale here.

Catching up!

I’ve been posting to the blog about show openings and such, and I’m behind on the new photos. The cheese and crackers is all very fun. I had a great time at the Athenaeum show opening in Boston, and the reception in Thetford Vermont (come meet me if you are local!) will be fun too. But there is quite a backlog of new material, as usual.

I won’t get philosophical or any of the somewhat usual ruminations, just point out a couple from one day in the field.

I know of a little ravine that has water falling over the edge, and in the winter it freezes and freezes. It’s a bit slower a flow than a real “waterfall.” I think a waterfall is disruptive to this kind of ice formation, though of course it has its own charm.

I headed out at 9 in the morning, with a lot of my gear, some almonds, half a chocolate bar, and a thermos of tea. That tea was very very good, more appreciated than when I have it at my desk. I was glad to have the tea, because I worked through three Sony batteries and didn’t finish making exposures until about 5 PM. It was rather chilly, though already late winter.

The light in that ravine is generally soft, with some strong beams at times. It’s workable, and very nice.

I tend to think of my lens selection as “Zeissy” or “Anti-Zeiss.” This day was very Zeissy.

frozen waterfall vermont

Then looking down:

frozen waterfall vermont

frozen waterfall vermont

Boston Athenaeum Exhibit is Wonderful!

On Wednesday evening, April 5, I really enjoyed the opening of the Exhibition in which some of my photos play a part: “New England on Paper: Contemporary Art in the Boston Athenæum’s Prints & Photographs Collections

Here is a virtual tour of the show on the Athenaeum web site, but you should really see it in person if you are in Boston.

A Little Show Through Spring 2017 at Pompanoosuc Mills

Art Show at Pompanoosuc Mills

Last Friday I installed 8 pieces for a little show in the Pompanoosuc Mills showroom in East Thetford Vermont, as a sort of annex show for the Long River Gallery . I didn’t know about the green walls before I showed up, but as luck would have it, it works out. The lighting is good, the space is huge, the furniture is beautiful. I framed up two new pieces, shown above and some tried and true images.

Light on One Morning Glory,”
Light on One Morning Glory
is printed on Canson Aquarelle Watercolor paper. I love how the sharp, dappled morning glory flower pops from the bokeh-blur background, which melts into the texture of the watercolor paper. I placed it in a spot where it’s easy to get right up to it to see the interplay of color and the paper texture.

The other new one is “Beets in Ice, which was a little tricky to get just right as a print.
still life beets in ice
There is a lot going on in this simple still life poem of tones, and balancing the light with the velvet of the shadows was the tricky part. It’s printed on Canson Etching Edition paper, with some nice texture, but less than the watercolor.

The big one in that setting is “One Cow, Thirteen Hay Bales,” a panorama in a 40 inch Ash frame.
One Cow, Thirteen Hay Bales Infrared Photo
This has always been one of my favorites. An infrared panorama, it gives a sense of space, and not just space in the physical sense, but spaciousness of mind. To me it triggers the sense that there is room between thoughts, that everything doesn’t need to be so dense and solid in our experience.

Two prints in Show at Pompanoosuc Mills
These are two “classic” prints of mine, exposed in Iceland on my last trip there. Though I’m not usually a purveyor of horse photos, I love the play of tones, and the emotional warmth of the two friends in the photo “Two Horses, Iceland
Two Horses, Iceland

Horizontal Staircase, Iceland ” is a kind of strange poem, exposed with the infrared camera, and toned the way I used to split-tone prints on silver chloride paper with selenium toner, in the darkroom days

Horizontal Staircase, Iceland

Pickerel Weed and Mist

This single large print, Pickerelweed, Mist Breaking Up, Post Pond is also one of my favorites, printed on Canson Rag Photographique. There is just a bit of papery texture blending with the subtle tones.
Pickerelweed, Mist Breaking Up, Post Pond

All by itself, “Spring Cornfield, Hay Field, Clouds Hartland Vermont” holds the space quiet well. If you’re there, walk up close. For that matter, walk up close to any of them! I try to match paper texture to the print character, and the details are worth seeing in the print.

Spring Cornfield, Hay Field, Clouds Hartland Vermont

This print will be hanging through the spring and summer in a show at the Boston Athenaeum: New England on Paper: Contemporary Art in the Boston Athenæum’s Prints & Photographs Collection

The final photo is another from iceland, Black Sheep, White Sheep, Curved Road

Black Sheep, White Sheep, Curved Road, Iceland

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…

New Ice and Rain, 2013 II

new ice and rain, vermont

About this time of year, about this kind of weather. Yes, late November has its own beauty. That year, 2013, there was more ice on our pond though. This year, 2016, of course has been record warmth, and that seems to be continuing.

This image is funny, because its big sister has been out in the world catching eyes for some years now.
new ice and rain, vermont
It has sold prints, gotten into juried exhibitions; it is even collected by a museum. But somehow today’s image, made at the same time, never caught my eye until now. In part this appreciation has come about with a shift to the full frame digital camera a year ago, and the use of premium vintage lenses with nice bokeh over the last six months. Which is to say that I have a greater appreciation for areas of an image that are not in focus, not covered by the depth of field. I like images with shallower depth of field a lot more than I used to, and in fact I’ve been making images with razor thin depth of field with beautiful bokeh as a lot of my work these days.

I guess I thought the not-quite-sharp foreground and background were more of a problem with this image than the other one. Glad I didn’t delete the file. We don’t always appreciate the best until we evolve, sometimes. Not positive, only time will tell, but I think it’s as good as its companion, in a different way.

This image is available as a print here:

http://www.lehet.com/photo/details/new_ice_and_rain_gsc_1418.html