Category Archives: Vermont

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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