Category Archives: travels

The Continuing Evolution of Printing and Seeing

Hawaii Wave and Mist
Hawaii Wave, Mist, and Cliff

This is one of the oldest digital images on my site, and I’ve finally developed my eye and abilities to print it in a way that pleases me very much. When I look back at the time after I made this exposure, over a dozen years ago, this digital file serves as a sort of signpost, stationary through moving time and change. It’s the same image, but everything has changed, including how the image manifests on paper.

At the time I opened the shutter, seasick on a boat, to let some Hawaiian misty light onto that relatively crude DSLR sensor, I was a different photographer and a very different printer. I probably see everything differently from that time — my vision has developed overall along with my mind and life and practices. But my printing has developed quite a lot; I hesitate to say it has changed the most of all in my photography of all the ways I see.

When I was new at digital printing I got a high-ish end Epson pro grade printer and some fine art paper. I was looking for sharpness. I did not yet have good control of color, of how to get the color in my mind and on the screen to show up on the paper. Besides the technical details of evolving a color managed workflow, I think it had to do with fear. I was wasting expensive paper and ink, and rarely getting it right, so I lacked courage to just assert my vision. It’s a little hard to explain, but if you look at Van Gogh’s brush strokes up close in a museum, they are very brave. I had some courage before that in the darkroom, but probably not as much as I have now. Early ink-jet printing I had very little courage.

Early in my photography I had an epiphany about the malleability of photography as a medium. I was in college, working a very little bit in the college pottery in stolen moments and the darkroom in other stolen moments, and also as extra curricular reading trying to understand a book about the Zone System for black and white photography. Maybe the book wasn’t so good. Partly, as a Dartmouth student, it was hard to find bandwidth in stolen moments like that. Then one night I had a dream where the negative was conflated with the pottery clay — it was malleable like that, could be bent and worked. It was like I could smush the tones around with my fingers. Darkroom photography is far less tangibly squishy than digital photography is — you have to work methodically for any departures from defaults. I think that dream changed everything. Sometimes that happens in my photography — I’l have a dream about something strange that is in the realm of photography, and then I see differently. I still have a back-burner project I’m working on based on a dream with yellows and form and texture a few years ago.

A couple of years later from that struggle with the zone system I did a workshop with Ansel Adam’s then-assistant, John Sexton, where we got to learn Ansel’s technique and see prints of his develop from straight print all the way through final print as he changed paper, chemistry, dodging, and burning. So I worked that way in the darkroom after that more than I had before, the Zone System very clear — with more courage in my brush strokes as it were.

So anyway, over a decade later, I’m revisiting this print above with amazing results. I actually had a print I had made over a decade ago of this image in my tiny office, flopping around clipped to a 16 x 20 mat board, in the way. It wasn’t on the wall, one of those things I just really should put away — it was in the way. But I think I kept it out, maybe, so it could work on me, provoke my dissatisfaction so I could evolve. I was not completely satisfied with it. I liked it, but… but… but…

I guess in some way I had been pulling back the string of a bow. Tension. I was developing my technique and vision. So a couple of weeks ago I just let the arrow fly from that bow and re-imagined the way this gets printed. I don’t know if I kept the old file or remember exactly what I changed in the color and tones, but I know in the printing I moved from a semi-gloss paper, probably the baryta paper I often favor for some prints, to an etching paper surface. Something about the way this Canson Etching paper takes these colors and renders these tones and details. Wow.

Direct Experience, Not Conceptual

Flowering Trees, Tulips, and White Hat
Flowering Trees, Tulips, and White Hat, 2019

I’ve just made some spectacular prints of this new photo on Canson Aquarelle Watercolor paper. The 15 x 20 print is especially drop-dead gorgeous, but they all are good. Purchase here.

One commonality between my practice of photography and practice/experience of Buddhist meditation is a practice and aspiration to experience directly and non-conceptually. This applies to perceptions, emotional experience, logical process, physical sensation. It’s a trick that will take a lifetime. I won’t go into the Buddhist philosophy and practice behind this, assuming you are on the site for photography. And there are better Buddhist teachers than me.

So in photography, a conceptual approach might be fine. Many photographers have succeeded with a conceptual basis for their approach. In my opinion, quite often these often fail. There are photos in major modern photography galleries of, say, a tree with cheese doodles stuck around the trunk with toothpicks. Then in the blurb it will say the artist is exploring the post-industrial relationship to nature, or something like that. It doesn’t work for me, but then they are in those galleries and I am not, and probably won’t be.

I find though that as I work in any situation different levels of conceptual approach, in one way or another, will creep in. I think ideally working with a camera might be like a master jazz musician improvising on an instrument, that kind of transparency, being able to instantly hit the notes without thinking about it. The musician might think, “what if I went into that dark key right here?” — and that is a kind of conceptualizing that works in the service of the playing. I will think, “What if I tried that old Olympus 90 at a wide aperture?” — and I know what kind of a “key” I will be playing in then. You’ve got to think, think on your feet. Just don’t over-think and make it a formula or purely a concept.

So in the case of the photo above, I had gotten to some extent into the conceptual weeds. I was working with this composition: the branch of the flowering tree in the foreground with a shallow depth of field, the tulips and large background flowering tree beyond the focal plane. Trouble is that people kept coming into the composition, sometimes looking good with umbrellas, sometimes with that clunky tourist vibe. I was usually waiting for them to pass out of whatever frame I had. I had come to be pretty boxed in by the concept of what I thought I wanted to be working with. But then this woman popped into my viewfinder — the orange shirt echoing the tulips, looking up, the round hat perfect. I wish I had been able to work more quickly and fluidly with her there. I did what I did, and I was glad to have made this and a few other exposures of that situation.

Early Breakfast, Jersey Shore Diner 2016 & More Saul Leiter Musings…

Breakfast at Jersey Shore Diner

I think generally a photographer’s vision might stay somewhat “true” but of course it will also change and develop over years. It’s an interesting question for someone like me, a Buddhist, one who perceives the notion of a steady and enduring “self” as an illusion, a process with no real solidity. But some threads of continuity continue; things fall apart and then something comes back together, possibly with some relation to the momentum before. It’s hard to say what “my” vision is, except it’s whatever I do, how what I do in one season might relate to what I did in past seasons.

This photo was exposed in the summer of 2016, at a time when various influences were at play and new flavors were coming into my work. I started using manual focus lenses much more — something I hadn’t done since the late 1990s. This period was different from my early photography though. I started working with the lenses much more rigorously, exploring their character through the range of apertures, getting to know the quirks of their out of focus rendering as well as the qualities of their sharpness. In short I can say I want lenses that are very sharp where they are sharp, and show the not-in-focus areas beautifully. But there is a lot more to it than that. Each (prime) lens has quite a bit of personality in different situations and at different apertures, so I work with that as I get to know it. It changes my eye a bit.

This image used a lens that was not a vintage lens, but a vintage-like lens, the Voigtlander 35mm f1.7 Ultron. They market it as a “vintage” lens — but it has modern glass and coatings. It’s quite excellent, with some of my favorite bokeh, and it inspired me a lot that summer and onward in the months after I got it. It surely was a factor in changing and developing my eye.

That summer of 2016 my father’s health was declining quickly and dramatically. Certainly strong emotional shocks, influences that break apart my solidity — as his decline and death did — certainly that kind of thing opens up my vision as well. So this image is very much of that time, a bit of seeing and creating some beauty in some darkness. This image is also of this current time, the continuity, the continued urge to find the light shining through the dark of these times.

So what about Saul Leiter?

I saw the film about him last week: “In No Great Hurry.” I recommend it strongly. I guess the link is that seeing that film encouraged me to pick this image to publish here to some extent. So the funny thing is that as the film showed his images, my wife said, “I can see how he’s been a big influence on you!” I told her, “No!” I hadn’t known about Saul Leiter until I started seeing his images in 2018 in twitter posts by @danielbrami1, who I follow for his excellent taste in art and photography. I immediately appreciated him as a kindred spirit in exploring color, abstraction, and the quality of blur, often choosing longer focal length lenses. One thing we share is an appreciation that the composition, the print, lives as its own forms, colors, textures that have a life of their own independent of a mere subject.

In the film he said a lot of Buddhist-like things. I don’t know if he explored Buddhist thought or meditation. He came from a serious Jewish background. His mother expected him to be a rabbi. The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has joked that without Jews and Catholics, there wouldn’t be many Buddhists in the west. Whatever label one could try to pin on Saul Leiter’s spirituality or artistic approach, I’ve been glad to meet him as an old friend. He died in 2013 in his 80s, so our friendship will continue through the common thread of whatever things each of us found and cultivated as we explored and developed.

Up and down the east coast…

It’s been too long since I published a photo of the week. To the extent that they are new photos on the site, I’m still late — but I have an excuse. I’ve been traveling a lot. Lots of good news in that: I got to see friends and family; I made a lot of exposures, had experiences, did good work. The farthest extent of the travel was to Washington DC, with my daughter, where we saw my photos hanging in the Senate building, in my senator’s office (Bernie Sanders). I don’t think Bernie himself had anything to do with this, but rather his staff and an intern, who we met. Kind of a cool honor to be hanging in the Senate building…

Here I am with them, through the lens of my daughter’s iphone

I had fun with one of my newest vintage lenses, an old Olympus 50mm which has a nice f2.
Here, in Boston on the street (straight out of Lightroom; if I print this I will probably edit it)

And here are my friends from Nepal, visiting Boston, inside a shop. This old lens has an unusually nice quality of blur in the foreground. I think those tulips closest to the lens might look funkier through many other lenses
boston shop window

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).

I’m sticking with photography. I love it.

Morning Glory, Foliage, and Birches

As I’ve mentioned before in the blog, I’m a fan of ukiko-ee (“floating world”) woodblock prints. A friend, Matt Brown, who is a master of the medium, recently gave me the opportunity to take a workshop on how to make them. (If you are interested, you can contact him through his website, which I designed for him in the 90s (!) and still maintain in fits and starts). I had to think long and hard. He suggested that I could make my vision more special, because the woodblock prints are rarer.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, you know, I really love photography. Maybe it is less special, since anyone has some kind of camera in their pocket. I thought, better to keep applying myself to something I can do well, instead of taking up something that will take me a long time to be as good at.

I thought about the range of my pallette as a photographer. A lot of successful photographers have a thing, one thing, that they try to be known for. But I love the range of possibilities, the whole spectrum, from the different ways that lenses draw, the tonal pallette of colors, the tones and forms and textures of black and white; from the smooth buttery blur of a classic old lens to the sharp incredible detail of a well coated and well designed modern prime lens on a state of the art sensor.

So here I’ve got two poles of this multi-axis graph of possibilities: a smooth painterly shallow depth of field blur from an old lens that does that well (the same old Olympus 50/2 that drew one of the photos from last week’s post), and a modern lens below a waterfall in Iceland. Both I like, along the “nice color and dreamy” axis — but also both representing different ends of the range of detail (though the moving water with a slow shutter speed is rather blurred in a way I love).

Waterfall River, Angelica, and Basalt Cliff, Iceland

There is so much in the range of my possibilities, and though there are many my body of work doesn’t include, when I think about the range of possibilities it brings me great joy.

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.

Carefree Travel as Dark Clouds Gather

Lofoten Islands Norway, Infrared

Hawk and Fences, Durango Colorado

Last summer I had the great opportunity to do some carefree travel; a trip to Colorado and then to Norway. I did a lot of work with cameras in both places, as well as having a good time with family and generally being away from everyday cares. The top photo here is from the Lofoten Islands in Norway, and the bottom one with the flying raptor is from Durango Colorado.

It’s funny how different it is to see dark clouds on the horizon than to be on the edge of a storm, and then different yet again to be in the pouring rain, wind, and lightning. On the horizon they are mostly just interesting.

Last summer, while doing these travels, there was a slight possibility — though bigger than ever before in my life — that America could become an authoritarian fascist regime. It seemed like an almost laughable possibility. Our democracy is robust, right? Russia couldn’t really hack our election, we would imagine. Even if we got someone with fascist tendencies in the White House, there would be grown ups to keep him in check, right?

Right now experts on authoritarianism are very concerned about the new president’s first 10 days in office. Large and spontaneous protests are happening all around the world. Meanwhile in DC, the mechanisms that separate established law, civil government, and political loyalists are coming apart.

The edge of the storm is hitting us, and I think we will get quite wet. This may be worse than merely interesting. If some of our minority party don’t pull it together and stand up against the breakdown of our laws and mechanisms of government, we lose the 238 year experiment. There’s some chance somehow the laws hold up. #resist

Prints of the images above are available printed on Epson Hot Press Natural paper:

Durango, Raptor, Fences

Lofoten Islands, Mountain and Clouds