Category Archives: summer

Garlic Scape and Roses, Circle: some resolution for the crazy question.

Garlic Scape and Roses, Circle

My last Photo of the Week I apologized that I had been too busy to post. Things have not gotten better in that regard, and in fact I have put up a notice on for-sale pages that any photo orders won’t be fulfilled until mid June.

Busyness aside, I’ve been doing a lot of new work. But the new, new work isn’t up on the site at all yet. This photo above though is interesting, and pretty new. I made the exposure last summer and it mixed in my backlog of garlic scape and roses photos I want to work on. I spend time working on these exposures at that time of year. I have had a show hanging at Long River Gallery through the spring; I just took the remaining photos down today. This circle-garlic-scape and roses image was included in the show as a matted print. And in fact it was the very last thing I printed and matted as I was hurrying to get the car packed and to the gallery. A friend pointed out that it was matted a little crooked, which I don’t ever do. But like I said, a hurry. And also it was done with the question: Am I crazy?

If I never asked if I was crazy, regarding photography or many other matters, that would be a bad sign. It would mean I’m not pushing the edge of what I “know” and what I’m comfortable with.

I really liked this photo, but I just didn’t know if it was really any good or if I was just remembering making it, or thinking about the lens that made it, or whatever happens to warp my judgement. So, included in the show as a late afterthought, and then I didn’t give it much more thought.

It didn’t sell, in the small and slightly crooked mounting in the mat, but I had a handful of people tell me it was their favorite photo. So, maybe a little crazy, but not completely.

This photo is for sale (to ship in mid June) here.

Lava Flower at Sunset, North Eastern Iceland

Lava Blister Iceland

If you drive the ring road in Iceland, maybe one of the hardest stretches is from Myvatn to the east coast and then down to Vatnajökull glacier. Not a lot of places to stop, and a long stretch. To be sure, it’s hard to find any stretch of Iceland that isn’t beautiful, but on this stretch through the interior there isn’t a lot of opportunity to stop and take breaks or dine or pee. One thing different about Iceland now versus 10 years ago is that the ring road is much “improved,” which means it is elevated and without nearly as many places to just pull off. That is bad for a photographer. Maybe it’s good for driving, unless you like to stop. On this stretch there aren’t any towns along the road either. Tiring and long, but then you get to the coast. And it gets really beautiful.

Toward the middle-end of this long drive, we took something of a long-cut. I’d like to say we had so much extra stamina and devil-may-care and photographic joie de vivre that we decided to do some extra driving on an already long day when we would be setting up the tent at a crowded campsite in the near dark at 10 PM or so. But no, it was an accident, as many of the best things are. By an early point in the trip I had learned that it wasn’t a good thing to do to my wife to stop in the beautiful evening light when we were tired and still had miles to go before camp. I’m much slower as a photographer than I used to be, with a bag full of prime lenses instead of a zoom or two as I did when traveling 10 years ago. But, oops, I did it again. I think this was a worthwhile stop, and we survived.

I’m not enough of a geologist to know for sure, but I think this rock structure might be a “tumulus,” or a “lava blister, but I think it looks like a “lava flower.” I love the gesture, like an open hand or an open flower. Somehow it defines the space it is in, the space around it. To me that takes it just a notch above a beautiful landscape photo, to resonate with the way I see the interplay of mind, awareness, and space.

This image is available as a print at various sizes.

Letting the Images be Themselves

Boat and Cows by Lava Rock, Iceland

I’ve been thinking about how to write about the problem of working from an “I” to a certain kind of photography. As I was driving to bring more matted prints to a gallery in Vermont this morning, I was listening to a recording of a Buddhist teacher. One phrase popped out at me: “The view is poisoned.”

My teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, talks about different kinds of “I,” including “the reified I” and “the mere I.” The “mere I” is functional but not grandstanding. It’s there to show up for the job, do the work, but not strut about. The “reified I,” on the other hand, can poison perception and altogether get in the way.

Certainly some great art, and some great photography, has been produced by some people with dynamic and hungry egos. Sometimes artifice and ego does not get in the way of art at all. It doesn’t get in the way of a certain kind of expression, but it does get in the way of clear seeing. It’s hard to see through the self, which wraps us in a thick cocoon.

For my part I consider the dance with the artist’s ego to be problematic at best. I’m trying to step aside and let things come up. I am certainly not without self, without projections, without a haze of distracting thoughts and preconceptions. All I can try to do is see through it, relax and let it open up a bit at times.

The image above, cows and lava rocks in Iceland, did have a little bit of me interpreting it in a not straightforward way: I used the infrared camera. I controlled the degree of black and white conversion (leaving just a little bit of the “false” infrared color). And then I did a split-tone effect to mimic what I used to do in the darkroom years ago if a silver-chloride paper with certain tones got a lot of selenium toner. Still, I like to think I mostly got out of the way and let the image come out. There it was, naturally in the world, the cows, lava rocks, boat on water — a dreamy vista. I let that dreaminess manifest without getting too much in the way, I hope.

Ice by Mossy Stream, Vermont 2017

This image is apparently more straightforward, but there was actually quite a bit of work involved. I worked that spot with different prime lenses and different shutter speeds, and then final control of tonality relationships in the image, etc. Still, it’s the same as above. I want to step aside altogether. Something that was there can shine through.

Some of the point of this writing, and the choice of these newly posted photos together is that my style is as broad as what I can manifest through my camera and printer based on what arises naturally and my own skill to work with it.

These photos are available as prints here (Cows in Iceland) and here (Mossy Stream).

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.

Round Table, Chicago Sunset Reflection

Chicago cityscape

Since I was in Chicago last summer, I’ve traveled quite a lot, and also I’ve spent a lot of time with a camera around my haunts in Vermont. I’ve been to Norway and back to Iceland since then. But most of those photos are still hidden from the world. This one popped up on my screen, again, and I just had to print it. It’s on Canson Baryta, which works better for this image than the textured matte papers I’ve tried, because this paper has better separation of the dark tones in the shadows.

When I was a skinny young guy lugging around a view camera, I benefitted from the experience in at least a few ways. One of them was that while composing and focusing I saw the image upside down and backwards on the large ground glass of the camera. This meant that I could abstract a sense of geometry, form and tone more instinctively. I often would not make the exposure if the composition didn’t work when it was upside down; having set up the view camera for nothing was negative reinforcement, so I learned.

I’m not sure if this image works well upside down, but I think it works on account of the geometry and tones. And those qualities work together with the mood of it. I was there, and in a mood, so to me that seems to be in the photo. Hopefully you catch a feeling from it too, though we never know if we really share the same mood or feeling. It’s a mystery. All of human connection, and especially that which can happen through a bit of art, is mystery.

This print is available for sale on Canson Baryta paper in various sizes.

Melting Glacier Chunk at Black Sand Beach, Vatnajökull, Iceland, 2017

Melting Glacier Chunk, Iceland

(this image can be seen in higher resolution and purchased as a print on its page)

I’ve recently been in Iceland, for two weeks. I’m still evaluating exposures I made. I have a lot of work to do on this as on so many other things, including hanging a show of photos soon. It’ll be a while.

With three hurricanes simultaneously in the waters off the east coast of the US, Irma breaking records and destroying Carribean Islands, about to destroy some parts of Florida most likely, with Houston still struggling to rescue people from hurricane Harvey, it seems like a good time for everyone to point out why this is happening. The oceans are warmer than what used to be considered normal. This fuels bad storms, much worse storms. The global climate is changing because of human carbon emissions. The glaciers are melting, in Iceland and everywhere.

So this glacier on the east coast of Iceland, Vatnajökull, of course is receding, melting, calving off chunks. I guess it’s usually normal in Iceland for there to be chunks of glacier on the beach nearby in summer, but on this day, I took my shoes off and the black sand of that beach was quite warm underfoot. This chunk of glacier was melting fast into the water at the edge of the beach.

It’s always funny as a photographer, or a human in general, to revisit an experience. I had been in Iceland on a honeymoon ten years ago, with no expectations. That was completely mind blowing.
(My Iceland page is so far mostly those older images, but I will be adding new ones no doubt.)
This time I was loaded with better gear and more skill as a photographer on the positive side, but on the negative side I was burdened by mind full of concepts of ICELAND to try to push past and be fresh. We’ll see if I managed to see freshly for more than a few bursts here and there.

This was made with the Contax G 90mm lens, and old and inexpensive film-era lens, adapted to my modern camera, which is one of the sharpest and most aggressively contrasty lenses I’ve ever owned, if not the most.

Of course everything was different, even though it was the same time of year. It was relatively warm in the days, and I guess we were lucky to have little rain. That also meant fewer weather-clouds. On the one hand we could walk and photograph mostly without being wet and cold. On the other the weather was a little bit less interesting. Of course the warming climate is, um, “interesting.”

I called up a friend who is a college professor in Chinese culture, literature, and I asked him if it was true that there was a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” He told me he thought it was a myth that we think that is a Chinese curse.

Well, cursed or blessed, we are certainly living in interesting times, weather-wise and other-wise. I miss being a bit bored sometimes.

Early Summer Cornfield, Vermont, 2017

Cornfield and cirrus clouds, Vermont

I started out with the intent to post an image from an exposure in Norway, since I was there at this time last summer, but I didn’t get that far back in my catalog. Instead here is something from Vermont this summer, since I am here now.

In this time when it seems that so much about our country is ugly, with a president who is crazy, stupid, and mean, white nationalism rising from it’s slime-swamp, and so on, I take some comfort in living in a place that is beautiful and grounded, ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. There is a wonder and a presence to the landscape, small and grand, of Vermont that I never take for granted.

I’m sorry this other part of Vermont doesn’t show up in my photos much: I also have to say I’m grateful to live in a place where people are generally kind, sane and goodhearted.

I love Vermont.

I’m also glad to say that really the country as a whole, despite so much ugliness and insanity currently manifesting, also is full of good people and beauty. With very few exceptions the people I meet are good.

This image is for sale as a print.

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.

Wet Screen, Orange and Scarlet Begonias

Wet Screen, Orange and Scarlet Begonias

This image is a mix of what for me are normal: “found” compositions, and then also something a bit rarer, a set up, a still life. I guess really it’s a still life.

The weather had been a very fine rain overnight, more like a heavy mist. I of course went out with my camera and made a lot of macro photos with the fine droplets on the new summer growth. I think some of them are good. Having finished that work, we were going to go on an errand, but I saw this wet screen on my back porch. I was working on installing some screen doors, and this screen was loose, leaned against the house, and more wet from the fine rain than I could have made it. It occurred to me to move it over by the planters with the orange and scarlet begonias, and I grabbed the full frame camera, still with it’s vintage macro lens attached. I thought the series of images were quite beautiful, but I was in a rush. Surely I could do better if I tried this with more consideration when I wasn’t rushed.

I tried it a few more sessions, wetting the screen with a hose those times. Besides never quite getting the quality of wetness that the fine rain produced, somehow the more contrived attempts weren’t quite as good as the images from the original session.

Of course it’s the case in nature, that the situation, the light, the feel of the moment is unique to each exposure, but you’d be tempted to think that if you set a situation up, you’d have more control. There’s something about that initial flash of connection and insight though, that seems hard to duplicate.

Here is another one. Last year I had a vintage lens I was testing out, an old Olympus OM short tele. I didn’t end up keeping it; it wasn’t quite as sharp as I would like across the frame (though it was sharp in the center even at full-wide aperture), but it did have a unique and pleasing quality of bokeh, it’s out of focus rendering quality. Again, I was in a bit of a hurry, on my way to a meeting. But as I drove past this patch of blue chicory flowers by the side of the road, I had to pull over and try a few exposures with the soft blur quality. I got this one:
roadside chicory, car, vermont

This year I have a couple more vintage bokeh lenses that should be better than that one I culled. Lenses that also draw a beautiful out of focus quality, while also being razor sharp. I’ve been down to that spot a few times now, a year later, trying to surpass my initial hurried attempt. I’ve taken time, because the situation has so much potential. It’s possible that I’ve pulled it off, but I’m not sure yet.

The wet screen and begonias image is a bit of a shame to put on the web, because it needs to be pretty big. The subtle detail and texture of the screen and the water on it gets lost, with a high resolution full frame beautiful file reduced down to a computer screen. It needs to be seen as a big print.

Morning Glories Dawn, Edge of Fall, Impermanence

Morning Glories Late Summer Vermont

Late this summer I got obsessed with morning glories. Part of it had something to do with a new lens, a vintage macro lens that provided very smooth out of focus areas, bokeh, which worked beautifully with the blue and other colors. Also, the daily display was an ever changing kaleidoscope. Anicca, impermanence, is always somehow an engine in my photography, as I’ve explained in other posts. I had it in spades here. Each morning glory flower lasts for just a day in cool weather. It turns out that a single blossom will last into the next day if it is quite cool, and then the flowers are more purple on the second day. On the other hand if it is quite dry and warm, these soap-bubbles of blue don’t even make it through the day. And then of course the dew, and the changing light transforms everything, whether the light is coming through them or shining on them, it’s completely different.

This image though wasn’t with that vintage new-to-me lens though, but rather one of my other vintage manual prime lenses, this one wider. I did not do some of the things I normally would have, and there are some regrets about what might have been in this exposure, but really it has turned out.

So here we have it in a nutshell. Everything changes. Sometimes we have regrets. It is what it is. These blue saucers were gone by that evening, and now the vines are brown mush. But impermanence works both ways. Gone each day, but only appearing in the first place because of change. Reappearing and transforming each day because of change. The extraordinary beauty only possible and indeed more poignant because of the transience.

We fear impermanence sometimes; we want to hang onto the good and beautiful and pleasurable, and we resist the coming of the nasty. The impermanence itself though is not to be feared. It facilitates the demise of the nastiness just as surely as it enables the blossoming of the beautiful and good. Ah annica. Simply the way things are.

This photo is available as a print, printed like last week’s image on Canson Aquarelle Watercolor paper. Buy the print here.