Eight Wordly Winds

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

The last week has been an interesting one photographically, and of course it always is. To start, I had a very fruitful day early last week, where I exposed the image above. The light, ice, and snow were nice all day, and it wasn’t too cold to spend a 7 hour day out with the camera. I enjoyed it, and I think I made some other good exposures.

Before I move on, what about the same exposure rendered in black and white? Thirty five years ago, when I used 4 x 5 sheet film, it would be a no-brainer: of course it has to be black and white. But I find I love the subtle colors in the image above. A photographic friend once said of me that I make color photographs like I’m working in black and white (I’m not sure it was a compliment from him). But personally I’ll take it as a compliment. For me, form, texture, tone very often take precedence in deciding a composition, but lately color is a bigger influence as well. As an option, here it is below in black and white. I think I’ll put them both on the site for sale until it is clear which is better.

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

Anyway, it was an interesting week, as I said. After this great camera day, I had a let down from a potential vendor of my work. We’ll still see about that. But it felt like a blow. And then I think the next day, or day after that, I got an out-of-the-blue email from the office of one of my Vermont Senators, Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie. They asked if I would be so kind as to let them hang some of my Vermont images in their DC office. Umm, yes, I would be flattered.

Then another camera day, yesterday. It was a promising camera day, beautiful new snow lacy on all the trees, some rime ice in some places, and nice ice over rivers and streams. The only problem was that about 2/3 of the way through my stamina and camera battery supply, I fell through some ice into a stream, about belly-button height or higher. I was too busy to take careful notes at that moment. The water was ice cold and running fast. It was all I could do to pull myself up on the ledge of ice. (I noticed later I scratched my hands and wrist in that endeavor.) I had a camera backpack and a side-bag full of gear. The side-bag was floating. All the gear stayed dry enough, except the micro four thirds Olympus, not my main camera, but I love it, and on it was a lens I love. They fell in the water as I tried to scramble out. I fished them out and am drying them, though I think the lens is a loss. Besides being quite miserable for some time until I got home and dry, I was pretty bummed out about that lens. The camera, we’ll see. It didn’t seem to take on much water, and it’s quite a weatherproof wonder.

Also this last week, my ancient car, which has had charging system trouble since November, has made it clear that it is still not working. I was nervous climbing up the riverbank to it, soaked through, in about 15 degree F temperatures, not 100% sure it would start. It did. Being that wet and not sure the car would start was damn scary. It’s an 18 year old Volkswagen, which I’ve really loved for all these years, my favorite car ever. But now I think it’s time to get rid of the damn thing.

So, ups, downs, and my mind continues along, stumbling and soaring, as it does.

One Buddhist teaching on this as aspect of life is formulated as “The Eight Worldly Winds,” or often, “The Eight Worldly Dharmas.” In life we sometimes get praise and sometimes blame. Sometimes fame, and sometimes its disrepute. We get things that we want, but then we lose them — we can’t keep anything permanently. So there is always gain and loss. Likewise with pleasure and pain.

Though obviously derived from the Buddha’s teachings, I’m not sure it was formulated and presented as this list of 8 pairs of opposites in his time. I’m guessing as a list it comes from the Nalanda period in India, around the ninth century, but I’m not a real scholar of this, and there is a lot of pseudo scholarship online.

Between the idea of the title of “The Eight Worldy Dharmas” vs “The Eight Worldly Winds,” I like the Winds better. Right at the start, you get the idea. There are these winds always blowing us around. We are pulled and pushed by our attraction, aversion, and ignorance. We can tend to go off to the races every time the winds blow, or we can train to understand that this is just what happens as humans in this world and take our seat to watch the display without getting quite so caught. I like this teaching, this view, because it is basically neutral. Of course, as humans, things happen and then we respond emotionally. No blame. It’s just that we’re better served if we place our allegiance with awareness rather than with the emotional tides.

To purchase prints:
The color version
Black and White

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).

New Photos in Galleries

I’ll be along with a new photo and some writing I’ve been thinking about for a couple of weeks now, but for now just a note that I’ve refreshed my gallery stock. At Frog Hollow in Burlington, Vermont I’ve added some framed prints and a new pile of smaller matted prints.

John Lehet framed prints in Frog Hollow Gallery
(sorry about this photo, just a snap with my ipod)

I’ve also refreshed the framed prints at Long River Gallery in White River Junction Vermont, and I’ll be bringing more smaller matted prints there over the next couple of days and week. I’ve been busy printing, matting, and framing, and I’m not done yet!

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

.

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.

Now Hanging! A show at Dartmouth Osher Gallery.

John Lehet one man exhibition at Dartmouth Osher Gallery

I’ve finished refining the show now hanging through October at the Osher Gallery at Dartmouth College in Hanover New Hampshire. I’ve got about 27 prints in the show. September was a pretty hit-and-miss month for my ability to focus, because we’ve been renovating the kitchen. (Contrary to Gary Cohn’s assurance, it did cost more than $1000).

Anyway, today I added four pieces of new work, never before seen in a frame, and I’m calling the show done.

(In the photo above the Frost Flowers on Trout Brook photo was a big hit in the Boston Athenaeum exhibit last summer, the curator told me.)

The page at Dartmouth (which will no doubt change from my show after October 2017)

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.