Category Archives: New Hampshire

Clarity

Stone Wall, Ferns, Dandelions,Vermont

First, let me get out of the way that I don’t mean to write about “clarity” as a slider in Photoshop, Lightroom, or other post-processing software. I will digress and write about that a little bit to get it out of the way. Also, to clarify: I did not use this slider or effect on this image. If I ever do use it, it is very sparing.

That post-processing form of “clarity” is a subtle to not-subtle distortion of tonal values. The effect changes the tone not just at the edge, as “sharpening” algorithms do. It changes a whole block of tonality, which may have the effect of changing our perception of the detail of an image. While it is sometimes helpful, I tend to not like it or its over-use very much. The resultant images often look “crunchy” and over-wrought. Here is an interesting example of it, which I often show to students if I’m teaching Lightroom or Photoshop. First, a set of pure tones, unprocessed. We may perceive edge effects just because of the way we are wired, but the tones are solid:

Straight up

Next, here is the same set of tones with “clarity” applied in Adobe Lightroom:c

Clarity applied

You can see above that the sense of edges between the tones is enhanced, but the purity and actual clarity of the tones is distorted in favor of a sort of 3-d effect here. The clarity slider – be careful!

The clarity I think about is our perceptual clarity, how we see, a quality of one’s mind.

In the path of becoming a decent photographer, there are stages in developing clarity of vision.

First off, it’s a challenge to see what the world looks like instead of what one imagines it to be. This is the primary challenge: seeing through our own preconceptions. There is so much to see in any scene in front of our eyes, and instead of doing our best to really look at it, as a baseline, we are content to seeing a bit and then creating our own fantasy image of what we see. We might not really see the shape of a tree, but instead we are satisfied that it has a trunk and then some leaves, as a child will often draw a tree as a brown stick with a green circle on top. Light, shadow, shapes, texture; it’s a lot of work to see what’s really there, and we don’t make the effort unchallenged.

The second stage of gaining some clarity as a photographer is actually seeing what is in the viewfinder, and imagining what that looks like as a flat thing – a photograph. The common example is making a portrait whenthe subject has a tree or pole in the background. In a print it will look like the pole is growing out of the subjects head — or at least it is a distracting break from the shape of a person and a head, to have the sharp vertical in the same place.

After we can not only see the world clearly and visualize it as a photograph, with no extraneous or distracting or unexpected elements, we can start to think about how the viewer’s eye will move through it, as through a painting. Curves, shapes, depth, texture, in and out. A work of art works better when it creates a dance for the eye, moving around the frame.

And as these other aspects are developing, we can develop clarity in the realm of human resonance. How does it feel? Is that feeling profound? Might it be shared among viewers? Can something beyond words be communicated, a sense of presence, of… something?

And behind it all… the mind. My Buddhist teacher says that clarity of mind, like awareness and some other intrinsic qualities, just is. It’s there — all we have to do is access it. How do we do that? It’s a practice, and all of the above helps, but meditation may be the most helpful practice. Also helpful to have a teacher who can point out this aspect of mind, any people you can hang out with who have access to their clarity.

New Ice With Brush Stroke Texture, 2017

New Ice with Brush Stroke Texture, Vermont

This photo looks like I somehow enhanced it to create a painting appearance, especially through the middle of the print and on the left, but that is how the ice looked. I just saw it that way through the lens.

For a larger view or to buy a print, go to this photo’s page

Practice helps us remember what we know, when we are in other situations. This goes for practicing photography, and the same for my meditation practice and dharma studies. It’s hard to practice enough, but it helps if I do. The point isn’t just so one can best inhabit the moment when things are going well, but also when things are going badly.

What is the practice? What helps? Well, keeping what we might call The View. Which is to say an understanding of how reality works. It turns out that photography is a lot like meditation in a lot of ways. Probably meditation is the more important practice, but it’s also interesting to have an action that manifests the same wisdom that we mostly learn through non-action. The active version helps spread the view into life. Then there is mindfulness. Attention. Cultivating, making better and better friends with awareness. Again, this cuts both ways. Sometimes with feet in the fire, it just makes it more intense. But then, strangely, sometimes it helps. It helps to feel the fire. It helps, in photography, to be able to wait until the situation is one to work with.

As a photographer, we are open to experience. Shape, form, light, and other events manifest in various ways, and we make an exposure through a lens. Usually that manifestation is temporary. The exact circumstance and light will not occur again. Our job is to experience and recognize the moment and then keep it together to do what we need to get an exposure to work through the lens. Sometimes nothing much is happening that seems worth photographing, and other times it’s hard to keep up with it. Sometimes, from a photographer’s perspective, the world in front of the lens is lousy, and sometimes fantastic.

Al our life is the same. It comes together in a way that will please us from some perspective; then sometimes the way it comes together is not pleasing, useful, or interesting from our personal perspective. Of course the perspective that finds the world pleasing, or not pleasing, is as temporary as other manifestations. If we are hungry, food is beautiful. If we are overstuffed, it can be repulsive. The world changes, perspective changes, but there is always a relationship between our current perspective, arising and changing, and the outer world, manifesting and changing.

Usually the appearance of new ice on my pond is interesting and pleasing to me as a photographer, plenty of chance for interesting texture, color, abstraction. I know it will be gone soon, melting by noon, or else settling into a more solid and boring form as it becomes an enduring sheet.

I used to try for deep depth of field a lot in this kind of photography, but I am loosening up quite a bit, mostly starting last year. This was exposed through a medium long old Zeiss prime lens with amazing sharpness and also a beautiful quality to the blur when out of focus at a medium aperture.

Post Pond Work and Rework

In working up the show of Post Pond images now hanging at Matt Brown Fine Art in Lyme NH, I of course had to over-work on it. Doing so was worth it. The show looks great!

So, I of course had to look through my catalog to find files I’ve never really printed before, and introduce them. I had taken a stab at the one above, an older exposure, but I think I hit it this time.

One of my favorite Post Pond photos, and one that is well liked when I show it, is this one of Pickerel Weed and Mist:

From the same set of exposures, I also made another print I like quite well, which I printed the same size (about 14 x 20). For such a close proximity in time and space, it has a very different feel, I think because I interpreted the file a bit differently and saw the color balance a bit differently. I like it quite well too:

Another image that I liked quite well but hadn’t ever been satisfied with a print until now was this one:
Post Pond October Mist, Reeds, Yellow Trees
I like it because autumn is often dreamy and subtle like that. Though I personally am not always happy with punchy, saturated fall color prints, it’s harder to do the subtle thing. I guess as it always is. I haven’t been able to hit this one just right for some years, but I’m very happy now. Hanging in Lyme.

This one too, I am much happier with the current version than what I had done before. I think my eye as a photographer, when making exposures, is getting better, but I know my eye as a printer, working with files and paper, is getting much much better each year.
post pond misty waterline, cloud reflections and hills, black and white

In and Out of Time, Past and Present

Leaning Tree over Trout Brook

I’ve been working hard on the upcoming Post Pond show, at Matt Brown Fine Art in Lyme New Hampshire. I’m excited to share the space with Matt’s woodblock prints, other great contemporary artists, and also old woodblock prints. Matt is collecting and dealing Kunisada woodblock prints, among others — those are really something.

Matt asked me to make a show of my time in Lyme and to focus it around Post Pond and its immediate watershed. I spent a lot of camera time around Post Pond, the meadows near it, and the inlet and outlet streams: Trout Brook and Clay Brook.

Poet Jim Schley and I are going to give a talk, roughly around the notion of Time. I touched on that in my last post.

Passing through time is always interesting, and certainly no less as a photographer. All those older images represent both a period of artistic development as well as emotional experience. Also of course a record of the world passing through time, weather and light and atmosphere, as well as physical artifacts like trees that will change. One big dead tree that is prominent in many of my photos of Trout Brook no longer exists. The leaning tree above is a different story. Above, in about 2006, that tree had been leaning for a while. Below, in 2016, it was a bridge across the stream, completely fallen. I don’t know how it survived last winter or spring’s high water. No doubt it is different still. As the Buddhists say, annicca, annicca; impermanence. Everything is impermanent. Especially the state of my mind in the early 2000s when I lived near that spot.

And yet, here are some photographs. A reflection of my mind when I lived there, a record of the phenomena in front of my camera, a print that exists and resonates in this moment — and, really, nothing at all. Illusion. But illusion fun to play with. All life is a dance with illusion, so let us dance onward.
Tree Fallen over Trout Brook, Lyme, NH

Oh, and a news flash: I will be a featured artist at the rest area in Hartford on Route 5 in Vermont. Starting tomorrow, July 1, through the month. Those photos will not be Post Pond.

Back from Ireland, working on Post Pond show

Foot Bridge Over Trout Brook Lyme NH Post Pond

I have new work from Vermont I’m quite excited about, and also I’ve hardly sorted through photos from the Ireland trip, just recently over. But I’ve been focused on working a show of work made in Lyme New Hampshire, which opens on July 12 at Matt Brown’s Gallery in Lyme.

The photo above is relatively recent, made with a modern Zeiss lens and the full frame camera. Maybe more like what I would do now. I’m including a big print of this, Foot Bridge Over Trout Brook in the show as bit of new work done in Lyme.

Though the show will mostly be of work just around Post Pond, I’m also including this old one, just brought live and printed large. It was exposed on 4 x 5 film back in my view camera days, in 1983, when I was a skinny kid with a pony tail. This was exposed at a pond called Pout Pond near where I lived in ’83, schlepped my view camera up there. I haven’t been there since ’84 or so, so I don’t know if it is still wild and undeveloped.
Black Ice, Pout Pond, Lyme Center NH

Then I’m also working up several images, often reworking them. This is one I tried a different file of once, but I never quite was happy with it. Worked it up now, and it’s nice:
Post Pond, Autumn, Reeds, Yellow Curve

On July 12 at 5PM there will be a gallery talk. I will be joined by my friend, poet and writer Jim Schley, and Matt Brown will join in as well. We are going to be talking about time.

I’ve talked about time some. Anyone who knows me knows I have an unconventional sense of time. Time is interesting in photography for a few reasons. Any time I make an exposure, the subject of my attention is instantly destroyed immediately after. Sometimes the actual subject doesn’t last long, but certainly the light, the feeling, the moment will never come again. Have I “captured” that moment? No way! I create a new experience, which will perhaps live on in a series of new moments.

Time is also interesting, I think in that it is a bifurcated experience. We experience Newtonian time, a ball drops to the floor in the time we expect, a car accelerates on the highway according to its capabilities, and we experience that in accord with the real time, often enough. But also, we live in what I’m taking to calling “literary time.” In a novel time is never “real” but subject to the character or narrator’s looking back, looking ahead, paying attention to details as the moments unfold in the story. The reason we can click into this so well when we read a novel is that we experience this way anyway. Anyone who has ever meditated much knows that time shifts and warps with our mindstream. An hour can be a very long time, or fly by. Nothing to do with the clock, when we are with our experience. All very interesting.

Kandinsky Again

I don’t have a formula for composition, obviously. I like simplicity, I like abstraction. I like foggy mystery, but also piercing clarity. I’m happy enough sometimes to simply represent something interesting, but mostly I’m looking to move the eye around a space, and to move the mind with it. More and more (though I always have), I think of art as being a reflection of, or projection of, mind. Mind doesn’t really have a form or shape or color, as any meditator or neuroscientist knows. But somehow I feel like a state of mind (always transitory and fleeting) can have a graphical representation. A lot of modern art is interesting to me not purely because of color and form, but because of Mind. Kandinsky is a different state of mind — when viewing the painting you are in a different state of mind — than say in front of a Rothko.

Photographing ice on a winter stream is always an opportunity to explore a lot of mental states, a lot of chances for simplicity, tranquility, and also more kinetic and energetic situations.

I like this one, for now, because it has about as much energy, form, texture, detail, as I dare squeeze into a photo. The eye moves around the image; it’s not a simple, settled thing. Like Kandinsky paintings, the mind can be this way too. It’s worth spending time with it, whether it is a Rothko or a Kandinsky.

This is a stream in New Hampshire that I particularly like to walk along, because there is a nice trail along it, and the stream is interesting — sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes even a waterfall. The stream is a mind of its own, moving through all the states and shapes and form that a real mind will, and always changing. In winter here, pretty much any day will be different from the next in terms of how a stream like this will look, and of course the light changes through the day too. It is as fleeting as a one day flower, a dandelion head in a breeze, a human mood or set of thoughts.

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.

Famous Purple Raincoat; Fuchsias in Spring Greenhouse

Pink Fuchsias, Purple Raincoat, Greenhouse

As much as I try to know my gear and what it will do, this image was a delightful surprise.

I think of my lenses — almost all prime (not zoom) and manual focus, often vintage — in two broad categories: Zeissy or Anti-Zeiss. As I may have mentioned before the Zeissy lenses are aggressively sharp and contrasty, often generally at the expense of smooth rendering. I’ve been surprised before, as in the success of this image of lights in a botanic garden at night. But generally the Zeissy lenses are not what I think of when I want something smooth and dreamy.

I was out on errands, and my bag had only these sharp and aggressively contrasty lenses in it. On this rainy dreamy day, I found myself in the soft light of a greenhouse and wanted a rather dreamier rendering. I tried a lens I’ve had for about four months, and I thought I knew it. It’s an old Zeiss Contax G film-era lens, which, in my experience, is one of the sharpest and most aggressively contrasty lenses I own. I decided to try it at wide aperture and hope for the best. The viewfinder looked good.

When I looked at the file, I was surprised at the smooth dreamy rendering. In fact, I liked the image so much I decided to go back to this and other greenhouses with some of my “bokeh” smooth lenses to get an even better image. I may have managed that; maybe not. I think for what I wanted of this image, this old lens pulled through surprisingly well!

Seeing What’s Here, Letting Go of What’s There

Vermont Ice Storm Ascutney

Anyone who has spent any time at all honestly examining their mind and experience knows very well that most of the time most of our awareness and attention is not directed at the situation at hand.

So it was that I started the day of New Year’s Eve, 2015. I was looking forward to photographing at Post Pond a bit later in the morning, since I was scheduled to be in my old town of Lyme NH at 10. I figured I would leave early and give myself a generous amount of time there to photograph before 10.

Here in Hartland VT the trees and weeds were glazed with ice from freezing rain the night before. The light was soft but bright, and there was some fog and mist in spots. A good opportunity! I had to spend some time here before I headed to Lyme. I made way too many photographs right in the back yard, and heading off I was just barely going to be on time. But I still had to stop and expose the image above.

It turned out that as I approached Lyme, the ice storm was not in evidence, the light didn’t have the luminous quality that we had in Hartland. My 10am appointment was to gallery-sit at the Long River Studios gallery. After that was over I went to Post Pond, and — nothing inspiring. I could spend some time and find something, always, but it was not as it had been in my mind. There wasn’t even any ice on the water.

But in honor of my fantasy of how it was going to be, I’ll resurrect an old exposure of Post Pond — sort of how I thought it would be there. It’s kind of funny, because I’ve been wanting to go back there with my newer, higher end cameras and lenses, but that gear didn’t help with nothing interesting in front of it. The photo below (which I will not be able to print very large) was exposed with my earliest DSLR and the worst lens I ever owned in 2005. It worked out. Sometimes the situation works out if you’re fully in it.

Post Pond, Ice and Mist, Black and White

These photos are available as prints:

Ascutney Mountain Through Ice Storm Branches VT

Melting Ice and Mist, Post Pond Black and White

Back to Post Pond — black and white from November 2006

Post Pond Black and White Photo

They say you can never go back. The other week when I traveled to Lyme to drop a print at the Long River Studio gallery there, it was a real flashback, and I wrote about it some here. It was so funny, being there in a different mind, the place the same but different, even walking past my old house across from Clay Brook as I walked along the brook, the outlet to the pond.

It’s also sort of the same going back through the old exposures. The file from 2006 is the same raw data from the camera sensor. The sensor and lens I had then wasn’t as good as what I have now, and my vision and mood is different. But mostly I think my eye is a lot better, both to recognize and develop images. I guess the main point is that even if I’ve got an older file, sometimes it’s like I just went back there with the camera and found something new. May it always be so. May the past, present, and future always be seen freshly.