Category Archives: photography

A sow’s ear

Some photos seem promising in the viewfinder, but once displayed on the computer screen turn out to be underwhelming. I can see what I was after (but didn’t achieve) with this one, but didn’t process it further in the first round:



It was only later in the day, when I was considering possible symmetrical unfoldings among the day’s photographs, that it occurred to me that this one might be a candidate for the GIMP copy-flip-join treatment. I observe that my previsualization of the effects of this procedure is chancy at best, in that I’m usually surprised at what the transformation reveals, and I don’t often make exposures with the intent to produce symmetrical arrays of the resulting images. The products are mostly serendipitous.

Anyway, the result of the transform opened a whole new world of interpretation for the image, and my first thought (and hence the title of the image) was “empty wings”.


empty wings

Now, wings don’t usually have the property of emptiness or fullness; they may adorn the backs of angels and mythological beasts, and be integral to birds and bats and insects, and might be glorious or workaday or fluttery or super-aerodynamic, but empty? Not so much. But this pair of wings seems to have a life of its own, their sweep echoed in the snow-like pattern to either side, and they almost seem as if they might be donned, tried on by a wing-shopper for fit and sartorial effect, taken out for a run around the block to assess their loft and effulgency.

The image partakes of the myffic, because there aren’t really any wing haberdashers in our world. Looking at “empty wings” we are led to imagine that there might be, and imagine that angels might wish to rotate through a wardrobe of wings for different occasions, and that somehow a photograph has transported us thither. Or the viewer might say “humph, seaweed on the beach, just twice as much of it” and pass along to some other image.

I’m trying to pull together the vocabulary to think and talk about the effects and affects and applied aesthetics of photography—about how and why some photographs work in the sense of transfixing the viewer with an epiphany, and in the sense of spawning a feeling of unforgettability for the image. We all have our own catalogs of such images, and there’s not necessarily a lot of agreement among appreciators of photography about what truly belongs in the canon. It’s subjective and personal, and that’s basically a good thing, in the many-mansions sense.

One of the writers who has put systematic effort into exploring these matters of photographic essence is Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida. I’ve read through the book several times, with each pass assimilating a bit more terminology and Barthian viewpoint, but it’s very French and demands a lot of a North American reader. I am no expert but…

Barthes does something very clever, while disclaiming any expertise (or, indeed, interest) in technical photography. He uses 25 photographs (many of them not familiar to most readers) to exemplify aspects he discourses upon. Who, for example, has ever given much thought to this image of Queen Victoria sitting on a horse?


(Queen Victoria, photographed by George Washington Wilson, 1863)

Barthes uses the image to introduce the idea that the photograph has a clear studium, an aboutness, something that it relates about its subject: it’s Queen Victoria, in the flesh (well, shrouded in a vast black dress) sitting on a horse. That’s what it’s a photograph of, its “historical interest” and identity in the wider world. But Barthes then points out that for him the photograph also has a punctum, an element that grabs the viewer and makes the image into something with a personal and memorable significance. Barthes’ punctum:

…beside her, attracting my eyes, a kilted groom holds the horse’s bridle: this is the punctum; for even if I do not know just what the social status of this Scotsman may be (servant? equerry?) [in fact he’s John Brown… and the horse’s name is Fyvie], I can see his function clearly: to supervise the horse’s behavior: what if the horse suddenly began to rear? (pg.57)

For me the unforgettable punctum of the photograph is John Brown’s sporran, that which marks him as a Scotsman in full folkloric costume. That’s where MY eye is drawn when I look at the image.

So here we have a couple of tools to help us talk about those effects and affects and applied aesthetics of photography to which I referred above. Barthes offers a number of others that I haven’t decoded yet myself, so another pass through Camera Lucida is on the docket.

And, going back to the “empty wings”, for me [and for sure Your Mileage May Vary] the image has a punctum in the homunculus that seems to form the point of attachment of this set of wings to our imaginary angel’s back:




As so often before, I wonder aloud if the wings and the homunculus were there before I unfolded the original image. Or did I create them? Or are they purely imaginary? When we read a photograph, are we just projecting a personal and idiosyncratic interpretation? Is a photograph a document whose significance is contestable, or maybe even fungible? Deep waters.

photographic tides

Quite a full day in photographic realms. Soon after sunrise we were at Drift Inn beach, a couple of miles from home, and the tide was going out, exposing rocks and seaweed and such-like. I did the usual thing of taking a lot of pictures, moving from one inspiration to another, and then spent several hours processing them. There’s always more that could be done, but it’s gratifying to get a set uploaded to Flickr and sent off to people who would enjoy them.

At lunchtime today (at Home Kitchen Cafe, of course) I chanced to find myself sitting next to Paul Caponigro, one of the photographers I most revere. I told him that I’d been a fan for 55 years, and that one of his photographs had changed my life, indeed set me on a path I’m still swinging along.

(snagged from Cornell emuseum)

He said “there’s a horse in that…” and it occurred to me that I’d known that immediately when I first saw the photograph (probably in Aperture, long ago), and that I’ve been seeking creatures myself ever since. About 5 years ago I was reacquainted with the image as a silver gelatin print that I could stand inches away from, at a Caponigro Retrospective in the Farnsworth Museum.

There’s a show of Caponigro’s prints from negatives he’s never exhibited, opening in Boston on September 9. We’ll be there, but meanwhile here’s the gallery catalog for the show.

on vexed questions of Art

I’m reading Guy Tal’s More Than A Rock: Essays on art, creativity, photography, nature, and life and Richard Zakia’s Perception and Imaging: Photography – a way of seeing, in preparation for the workshop with Andy Ilachinski, and I’m currently embroiled with the vexed question of whether what I do with photography is art. On the one hand, it just doesn’t matter what the answer to that question is, since I’ll keep on doing it anyway, and don’t got to show no stinkin’ badge. But on the other hand, the answer might be NO, in that I don’t choose to wrap my doings in the garments of pretense, or engage in invidious comparison, by staking a claim as an Artist and seeking a public. I’ve been here before, with respect to my identity as a musician (I play mostly for myself, avoid performance, but take pleasure in being recognized as skilled), with many of the same insecurities.

Here’s a passage from Guy Tal that has me wondering if I could possibly live up to what he invokes:

Being an artist is about living passionately and deliberately, placing curiosity and awe and honesty and significance above social conventions, celebrity, and material spoils. It is not about finding interesting anecdotes, but about discovering them within, creating them anew, elevating and sharing and celebrating them in defiance of all that is corrupt and cynical and cruel and bigoted and shortsighted… (pg 37)

But if what I do is not art, what IS it? Most of my images have some narrative purpose, or seem to me to evoke stories of some sort; but generally the stories come from the images, or fit into some larger narrative project as exemplars (e.g., all those gravestones, or all those Abandoned Ancestors). Something prompts me to frame and click, and once I see the result in post-processing, a story may emerge that seems to explain something about the image. An example from the Acadia National Park adventure:


pursuit

Lichen on rock. Just an interesting pattern that fit happily within the field of view of a 100mm macro lens, no obvious expository insight in the viewfinder. But as soon as I saw it on the computer screen, the notion of Pursuit couldn’t be unseen: the figure on the left side, sharply defined by a line of white sketching its back, with an outstretched arm showing the direction of movement, is obviously being chased by the marvelously indistinct figure on the right, whose whitish feet (in the lower right corner) are clearly running… T’ang Dynasty, perhaps? Susurrus of silken robes? The art might be in the happenstance of lichen growth on granite substrate [not MY circus, not MY monkeys], or in the accident of my framing [definitely MY circus], or it might reside entirely in the post-hoc tale-making [positively MY monkeys]. It’s difficult to imagine that a print of the image, matted and framed and hung on a gallery wall, would have any salience for viewers without the interpretation.

And just why does any of this matter? It’s those daunting but fascinating books, along with a bunch of others in realms of photographic history and aesthetics, that pile up around my reading chair. They keep nudging me to explore further, but also remind me that I’m in search of my own vision. Sure, Stieglitz photographed clouds and made them into Equivalents, connecting them to his own mental states:

A symbolist aesthetic underlies these images, which became increasingly abstract equivalents of his own experiences, thoughts, and emotions. The theory of equivalence had been the subject of much discussion at Gallery 291 during the teens, and it was infused by Kandinsky’s ideas, especially the belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, often emotive “vibrations of the soul.” In his cloud photographs, which he termed Equivalents, Stieglitz emphasized pure abstraction, adhering to the modern ideas of equivalence, holding that abstract forms, lines, and colors could represent corresponding inner states, emotions and ideas. (from The Phillips Collection)

Doesn’t mean I should or shouldn’t photograph clouds, does it? Or see/not see things in them that aren’t “pure abstraction.”

post-processing

Yesterday’s foray to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens was timed to coincide with the Eclipse (not much more than 50% in Maine), with the idea that colors might be affected by the altered light. That wasn’t particularly noticeable, but I got engaged with looking for novel forms in the vegetation, and found myself using f4.5 and a macro lens for almost everything I photographed in color (I also did a bunch of infrared, but that’s another story). The shallow depth of field produced a lot of interesting results, and nudged me into thinking differently about post-processing. In these three examples I’ll try to summarize what I did and why, mainly to remind myself of my thought process and sequence of decisions. Each of the images could be handled quite differently, and I may try other approaches once I’ve lived with these for a while.

I feel pretty insecure about color, and in general prefer monochrome. That’s partly a matter of age: I began in the days of black-and-white (early 1960s), wasn’t attracted by the anemic color in prints of the time, did a lot of didactic slides in Kodachrome and Ektachrome in 70s and 80s, and only got my hands on manipulable color with the advent of digital imaging. I greatly admire Betsy’s use of color and emergent mastery of color printing, and I’ve enjoyed tessellation experiments that are deeply reliant on color, but I’m still more at home in monochrome. Not that I “see” in black and white—indeed, that has been an elusive goal from the beginning, and I don’t seem to make much progress.

The three examples were processed in Aperture. I’m part way through the conversion to Lightroom, but still find it easier to do quick manipulations in Aperture. And ‘quick’ is what I seem to prefer: I want to see the results sooner, and perhaps return to successful images for more extensive processing later. So I nudge sliders and try black and white filters and generally mess around until I see something that looks more or less optimal. It’s pretty seat-of-pants and tentative, scarcely to be dignified with the label ‘workflow’.

The first image just seems an obvious candidate for conversion to monochrome, and it’s a stronger photograph once the green is stripped out. Obvious and derivative, little that’s original in viewpoint or handling, but satisfying as an encounter with the unique genius of this particular plant species:


approximating the RAW files

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

The second image seems to me much better framed with a substantial crop (should have seen that in the viewfinder, didn’t). Contrast, Black Point, Definition, Highlights, Shadows nudged to enhance drama. I’m tempted to see it as a rooster in mid-crow. But what, I wondered, would happen if it migrated to monochrome? The Red Filter darkens the blue most gratifyingly, and a bit more tweaking (Definition,Mid Contrast, Black Point) brings it to a satisfactory graphic conclusion.


approximating the RAW files

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

The third image is another sort of challenge/opportunity. The original photo doesn’t amount to much, with blown-out highlights and nothing very convincing in the forms/shapes, but some fiddling with parameters (down Mid Contrast, up Contrast, up Black Point, up Definition) makes it more interesting. Something worthwhile is beginning to emerge from the shadows, a sort of background abstraction. Not bad. But take away the color and apply the Blue Filter (and up the Shadows, the Definition, and the Contrast) and suddenly we’re in new territory. Ready for tessellation, headed in the direction of a fabric design. Maybe a reason to explore split-toning.


approximating the RAW files

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Eclipse Day at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

CMBG29a2x

29colored

29coloredred

why?

I’ve been reading Robert Adams’ Why People Photograph (Aperture 2005) and so been challenged to try to articulate my own reasons for the focus of attention and energies in this nexus of technology and aesthetics. Here are some of the current realizations:

  • The lure of fame and fortune has nothing to do with it.
  • I have a lifetime of ongoing mental projects, many of which have visual components. I enjoy both the pleasures of exploration and the assembly of findings into complex narrative structures, as tokens to pass to like-minded others.
  • I’m forever on the hunt for the magical frisson of “that’s it!” as my gaze shifts. False positives abound, and opportunities are missed. Catch-and-release is a better strategy than regret for lost opportunities.
  • My photography is mostly concerned with things and their stories, and not with states of mind, consciousness, or abstraction. I see that as a limitation of perception and vision that I’d like to address via the Ilachinski workshop.
  • The images I do capture trace my twisting and branching pathways in time and space, and are like breadcrumbs dropped to mark my path on the way to the Minotaur’s Lair. (addendum: see Andy Ilachinski’s take on this, below)

Robert Adams puts some things stunningly well in Why People Photograph:

Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too—photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community…

If I like many photographers, and I do, I account for this by noting a quality they share—animation. They may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it…

When photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does. Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator. (pp 14-15)

I recognize that you can’t really escape the derivative, especially if you’ve studied others’ work extensively, and so absorbed elements of their modalities of perception. It seems appropriate to settle for an acceptance of acts of homage when you recognize someone else’s vision in your own work. To become aware of and to acknowledge your sources, inspirations, debts is an exercise in intellectual honesty. We do, after all, learn to see by having things pointed out to us; gratitude is always appropriate. And our understandings are augmented by explanation and backstory.

Edward Weston’s Pepper #30 is a potent example: learning that Weston achieved the necessary depth of field by making an f240 diaphragm and then exposing the film for 4-6 hours greatly broadens our realization of Weston’s mastery in this single image of an everyday object. One never sees peppers with the same eyes after seeing Pepper #30, but there’s no need to repeat Weston’s procedures, nothing added to the epiphany by retracing his steps. But absorbing HOW he achieved the luminosity of Pepper #30 into one’s understanding of the glorious history of image-making is likely (however subliminally) to contribute to one’s own perceptual palette, and pretty sure to enlarge one’s future comprehension of others’ work.

Addendum: from Andy Ilachinski’s blog, 31 Aug 2014:

Our store of photographs – and/or, just as validly, any other impermanent artifacts that our essential being has “created” along its journey (including, in my case, equations, computer code, technical reports and papers, and even books) – accrued over a lifetime of “seeing,” are intertwined, nonlinearly nested visual palimpsests of an ever-evolving / never-complete document of our being; of who we really are. As such, they serve as potent probes, in hindsight – and only after careful reflection – of who we were, at some past time; and offer valuable clues and insights into how (sometimes even why) our essential being has evolved into its current state. More rarely, and with deeper contemplation, these emergent palimpsests can help us better understand and appreciate the forms and rhythms of the journey itself.

the succinct

One take on ‘simplicity’ is the quality of being succinct: getting a [sometimes complex] message across briefly, clearly, with a minimum of havering and expatiation, in a tidy package of nicely chosen words, or in an image that the viewer may grok without the need for exegesis. Sometimes there’s a way to express a complex story, with details and interconnections with other stories, in a spare or even gnomic gesture: one can know the story at a glance. Here are three examples taken today that seem to meet this criterion of the succinct:


Ann, Wife of

font6

tragedy2


and some from earlier captures:

Boothbay2

screech

awaken


My usual mode of photographic operation seems to favor the whimsical, which tends toward unconventional readings of images and require explanation, or the narrative, which attempts to engage the viewer in digressive backstories that revel in complexities and outward-bound links. Too many years in classrooms, not enough time in quiet contemplation of what I see. One can see a lot by looking.

simplicity

I’m thinking more and more about an online photography workshop with Andy Ilachinski (see his blog) that begins in a month or so. The subject, or title anyhow, is “Cultivating the Art of Simplicity in Photography” and so I’m grappling with what simplicity connotes. Seems like a good idea to keep a running tally of thinkage and experiments in this medium.

This foggy morning it occurred to me that we continually process the images—the video—of our lives. The focus of our attention, the frame, keeps moving, and we extract moments that please us, then (if we’re photographers) capture as still images to REMEMBER (and perhaps further explore) the moments of pleasedness.

Those thoughts in mind, I chanced to look out the window and saw this:


out the window

Since one of the issues I’m exploring at the moment is the personal importance of monochromatic [“black & white”] images, I tried out several filters (red, orange, yellow, green, blue) and chose the green as best exemplifying the overall feel of the moment of capture:

out the window

Now, it’s not that the image is really marvelous, but it does capture something of where my attention went at the moment: to the fog-shrouded treeline in the distance, to the imperfections in the nearest leaves, to the mid-August moment of Queen Anne’s Lace in the lower left. The image is a satisfactory rendering of a moment, something not-just-quotidian to contemplate.

There is a sort of simplicity here, an encoding of a still and quiet moment. Needs more thought, in a reflective mode.

compositae

I have in the past harbored reservations about composite photographs, thinking them somehow impure. That stance began to weaken when I really looked at Jerry Uelsmann’s work, and in recent years has fallen away almost completely. A visit (last weekend) to John Paul Caponigro’s annual Open Studio was especially heartening (see his Revelation series), though John Paul’s mastery of technique is daunting.

My own composite images have mostly been symmetrical mirrorings, which I’m pleased to think of as tessellations, though most of them are 2x and 4x and don’t really amount to multi-unit tiling, though some of the work with Betsy’s images realizes that potential:


First banner

My own process is sketched in the series of images below. Here’s the original photograph:


wavybits

The wavy bits in the water (lower left center) seemed especially interesting, so I cropped and mirrored them:

wavybit

…and then mirrored again:

wavybitsx4

…then cropped that image

wavybitsx4cro

and mirrored again:

wavybitsx4crop2

The result seemed a bit heavy, so I started again with a mirroring that moved the darker parts to the outside:

wavybitsx4crop3

…and then cropped that to reveal a mustachio’d djinn:

wavybitsx2crop3

or anyhow that’s one of the things I see.

when in Barre VT

HopeCemeteryBarreVT15a

A visit to Hope Cemetery in Barre VT is pretty much a necessity for anybody interested in the artistic side of gravestones. All of the stones come from the various granite sheds in town, and showcase about 130 years of the carvers’ evolving styles and techniques. Quite a few are memorials to carvers (mostly of Italian origin) who died at young ages, of the silicosis that was epidemic in the trade until ventilation was greatly improved in the sheds in the 1930s.

Hope Cemetery has been thoroughly documented (there’s a list of more than 6,000 interments at findagrave.com, a nice introduction via Vermonter.com, another feature story from The Boston Globe, and many excellent photographs by Christine Anne Piesyk). Several of the memorials are regularly cited in articles on the cemetery, particularly Louis Brusa’s own:


HopeCemeteryBarreVT01a

The Bored Angel and the Tribute to a Stone Carver

I was especially impressed by examples of portraiture in granite:


HopeCemeteryBarreVT11

HopeCemeteryBarreVT41

HopeCemeteryBarreVT16a


(the lattermost is Elia Corti, an especially gifted sculptor who was gunned down in 1904 in a struggle between socialist and anarchist workers).

Also of great interest is the remarkable design and the refined calligraphy and decoration:


HopeCemeteryBarreVT13

HopeCemeteryBarreVT46

HopeCemeteryBarreVT22


There are some especially opulent excesses:

HopeCemeteryBarreVT04a

HopeCemeteryBarreVT06


and my favorite, for the appropriateness of the surname Vanetti:

HopeCemeteryBarreVT09