Friday, April 10, 2015: Dealing with a mundane subject, and why do it?
The applicable meanings of mundane in this discussion is common; ordinary; banal or unimaginative. and I suspect we've all been in many places that we would define in this manner. They're not the kind of subjects that inspire us to create photographs. We see them much too often and while they may be pleasant enough, they don't excite us. And so we believe they're less likely to excite people who see our pictures.
Is that the way you feel? If so, I can pretty well guarantee that your feelings will become reality and you won't produce images of those subjects that compel viewers.
The images I've selected for this article are of subjects that can be regarded as very common. They're found in a multitude of locations throughout this country, so unless you were told where they were made, they give you no sense of place. They are are subjects most people ignore when walking through a forest, except to acknowledge that there are trees and grass. The photographs, however are made from viewpoints that demonstrate selectively, awareness of contrast, light and shadow, texture and form. The subjects are mundane, but the image at least attempts to show the viewer that which is ordinary in a way that is more than ordinary. The mundane is transformed—for some but not all—from commonplace toworthy of notice.
All three of these pictures were made in Bandelier National Monument. None, by itself tells a complete story. Nor is any one image likely to be regarded as art. They are documentary statements and in a group of photographs related in content they depict some of the diversity to be found in the plant life of the park. By now, I have spent fifteen-and-a-half months working in Bandelier since being selected as artist-in-residence. My task has been to interpret the park through my photography and share with the park a portion of what I have created for educational and interpretive use. I have learned that Bandelier, unlike many of the places where I've served, requires careful observation of small details and subtleties that define its uniqueness. There are no lofty mountain peaks. Most of the archeology is unexcavated and is protected out of respect for the values of the Puebloan peoples whose ancentors and artifacts still lie buried here. Nature can be harsh, trails often rough and steep. The canyons show evidence of fires and floods and access can be difficult. But, as you get to know this place and its geology, archeology, history and its wildlife and diverse plant life, you appreciate that it is very special and has many stories to tell.
Through creative eyes, the mundane can become anything but common; ordinary; banal or unimaginative.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015: The fascinating geology of Bandelier.
The first-time visitor to Bandelier National Monument is struck by the soaring cliffs that rise above Frijoles Canyon with an appearance resembling Swiss cheese. This is the rock known as Bandelier Tuff and it is composed of compressed volcanic ash—the outpouring of the great volcano that created the Valles Caldera that borders Bandelier on the west. (You can read more about that in my January 30 post). The imposing tuff canyon walls at Bandelier are hundreds of feet tall and the cavates (holes in the rock) provide natural structure for countless cliff dwellings inhabited by Puebloan peoples between 1150 and 1600.
Beneath the layer of Bandelier Tuff that can be as thick as a thousand feet lies a dark, hard layer of Basalt, laid down before the ash eruptions. Basalt, unlike with the compressed ash tuff is an extrusive volcanic rock frormed by flowing magma that hardens as it cools. Where these two types of rock occur in the same area, as they do in lower Frijoles Canyon, the contrast is dramatic and the textures fascinating. The area shown in the photograph above is just west of the Upper Falls on Frijoles Creek, and this image is one of my favorites from a year of photographing in the park.
Though the tuff in Frijoles canyon is mostly of the color shown above, it can vary widely in color depending on its mineral content, the degree of weathering and metamorphism. Within Bandelier there is evidence of multiple ash deposits over the centuries distinguishable by their different colors. The cavates below are found in the Tsankawi area and the very light colored rock shown in the final image, below is from the top of North Mesa.
As I have explained before, I am not a geologist, but I have an interest in the subject and I find it useful, when exploring a natural environment to understand what I'm seeing. It helps me to appreciate the way people relate to their surroundings and use their available resources. When I see contrasts in a landscape, particularly between rocks, I usually ask how and why those came to be, and that often influences what I attempt to say with my photographs.
Saturday, March 7, 2015: The archeology of Bandelier - continued
There are many petroglyphs in Bandelier National Monument , and several good one are accessible along the loop trail a short distance from the visitor center in Frijoles Canyon. This is one of my favorites—a well defined turkey located high on the canyon wall above Long House. There is a bench on the side of the trail that visitors can use while they scan the wall for the wall art.
Because these ancient carvings are made in the soft Bandelier tuff (compressed volcanic ash) , they are difficult to see in mid-day light and many visitors miss them entirely. I find the best time of the day is late in the early morning or late afternoon when there is enough cross light to help define the cuts that have been made shallow by years of erosion. As this image demonstrates, even then one has to look carefully.
The photograph above shows the largest petroglyph I've seen in Bandelier. It is in the Tsankawi section of the park and depicts a conquistador which probably marks the carving as having been made some time in the seventeenth century. It is unclear whether it was carved by a Spanish or Tewa carver and as far as I know it hasn't been dated. So, whether its symbolism might be linked to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 would be speculation. Though there is nothing in this image to serve as a size reference, I will tell you that when I made the photograph, I was standing on relatively level ground looking slightly up at the horse and rider. I'd guess the tip of the sword being brandished by the conquistador is at a height of at least seven feet, which would suggest that the overall size of the petroglyph is 4.5 feet tall and 6 feet wide. It is easily viewed at any time of the day, but because it faces west it gets little or no cross light to emphasize the depth of the carving. This is the best picture I have of it and it was made in October near mid-day with the sun high above the rock.
Collections of scatterd pot sherds like these are common among the ruins found at Tsankawi, Burnt Mesa and less obvious sites atop the Pajarito plateau. Hikers have disturbed so many of these locations that it is difficult for archeologists to do more than speculate about the origins of these bits of pottery, though casual observation will tell you that many represent the Santa Fe black on white style common throughout the middle and northern Rio Grande region and extremely common in Bandelier. Once these sherds have been moved from their original sites, it is difficult at best, and often impossible, to extract useful information from them, and this grouping found near the midden (dumping ground) of the unexcavated Tsankawi Pueblo contains pieces of bowls, jars and cookware that may have been brought to the site from other locations over many years. Often hikers will make neat piles of sherds along the edges of trails. Park rangers will generally disperse these over the adjacent land, making them less obvious and discouraging visitors who might wish to take home souvenirs. Visitors who feel compelled to examine sherds are encouraged to lift them carefully from their locations and replace them where they were found. These sites are sacred to the present day Puebloan people of the area who have clearly expressed a desire to have their ancestral sites and artifacts respected.
Thursday, March 5, 2015: The archeology of Bandelier National Monument
A National Park must be established by an act of congress, must be large enoug for broad use by the public, and should have inspirational, educational and recreational value. A Natonal Monument, on the other hand, can be established by a presidential declaration and has historic, prehistoric or scientific interest. The lines between these two classifications have been blurred through the years, but there is no doubt that scientific, historic and prehistoric qualities were the principal reasons why President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Bandelier a National Monument in February of 1916. This is a place where there is ample evidence of Puebloan culture in the canyons and on the Pajarito Plateau, and though most of the evidence is in the form of ruins, pot sherds and less evident stone tools, there is much remaining to satisfy the curiosities of amateur and professional archeologists and ethnologists. It goes without saying that there are also wonderful photographic opportunities.
The photograph above was made in Alcove House, where a cave 140 feet above the floor of Frijoles Canyon in the north wall of Frijoles Canyon provides shelter for a small kiva and the remains of a number of rooms carved into the relatively soft Bandelier tuff of the cave walls. Though the kiva was restored in 1910 as part of studies conducted by Edgar Lee Hewett* it had survived minimally disturbed for centuries, no doubt due to its hard-to-access location. Since the creation of the Monument, the popularity of the site has produced wear and tear from visitors climbing in and out of the kiva, and subsequent efforts were made in the early 1940s to stabilize the structure. It's presently closed to the public, awaiting more restorative work on the roof.
Early in the morning on June 25th last year, I hiked to Alcove house at dawn to make this photograph. I wanted a picture that captured the entire arch of the cave, an expanse not often seen through the lens of a camera. I set up my tripod near the back wall of the cave and used a 16mm lens. The relatively low level of the morning light made it possible to capture both the south wall of the canyon and the shaded foreground without losing details to highlights and shadows. The result was everything I'd hoped for. I put my camera back in my pack and sat quietly in the cave until I heard the voices of the first visitors on the trail below. Then I climbed down the ladders and headed upstream along Frijoles Creek to the narrows of the canyon. It was mid-afternoon before I returned to my quarters.
*Archeologist and educator Edgar Lee Hewett was the principal author of the Antiquities Act of 1906 which allowed the establisment of National Monuments by presidential declaration.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015: Iconic Antelope Canyon and the good fortune of Mr. Lik.
In December, photographer Peter Lik announced that he's sold his photograph entitled Phantom for 6.5 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a photograph. Like many of you, I was astounded for several reasons, not the least of which was my familiarity with the subject, its location and how the photograph was created. (I won't show Phantom on this blog; but you can find reproductions on several websites.
How, I wondered, did Peter Lik convince anyone to pay so high a price for that image? And given all that's been said about the photograaph since, what must the buyer be thonking now?
Antelope Canyon is an incredibly beautiful and colorful slot canyon on Diné (Navajo) land near Page, Arizona. It's popular with tourists and has been photographed by countless professionals and amateurs for many years. One of its more engaging features is a chamber where, depending on the time of day and the season, sunlight streams through an opening in the canyon's narrow rim creating a brilliant column of light. Excited visitors regularly attempt to photograph this dramatic beam, and the local guides, anxious to please, toss handfuls of sand from the canyon floor into the light to make it stand out even more, randomly forming mysterious and ghostlike shapes as the grains disperse. Phantom was certainly created in this manner—not naturally as it might be if there was wind to stir the sand—and while another photograph exactly like Phantom is unlikely to exist, many are similar and were published before Peter Lik's image was made. So, there is an element of pure luck in Phantom.
So what makes Phantom so singularly valuable to a collector? I certainly don't know, nor do I care to offer my opinions here. I've visited Antelope Canyon twice. The first was a day trip and the second lasted for three days, during which I explored during all hours of the day with two friends. I discovered that there probably isn't an inch of the canyon that hasn't been photographed, and when you find a picture that you feel is unique, you should be aware that most likely it is not.You can still make a "stunning" photograph, and though you may find it in a different light, the challenge of making your very own statment is daunting.
The picture below is a classic example. It was made in Lower Antelope Canyon, which is larger that the upper canyon where Phantom was made, and while I had seen other photographs of this feature from a different angle, I had never seen another quite like this, until I found it on the cover of a book in a friend's home. I still like my picture, but it will never sell for a record price and I won't make extraordinary claims for it.
Out of curiosity, I revisited some of my Antelope Canyon pictures and found several that I haven't examined since they were made in 2007. The following image was made in a side cnyon off the wash leading from the upper canyon to the lower one. I've never seen another photograph like it, probably because the rock structure was neither dramatic nor colorful. But, it works for me. It was made looking down on the canyon floor and I swept the sand to remove footprints and debris.
And finally, here is an image I call Vortex. I made it in the upper canyon, where I found the composition exciting and the light somewhat more true to nature. A lot of pjotographers can't resist the temptation to enhance the canyon's colors—especially because it is so easy to do with computer software. I feel the hues are already dramatic enough. Color shifts occur naturally when photographing the subject with color films and long exposures, and the same happens when making digital images. It is one thing to accept these shifts when they occur naturally, it is another to hype them in a matter that is grossly unbelievable. My rule, generally, is to correct no more than I would have had I been printing in the chemical darkroom. That is a personal preference, and I don't insist that everyone else embrace that approach.
In my next post, I'll return to New Mexican subjects.
Thursday, February 5, 2015: Obsidian boulders as tall as a standing bear!
For years before I began my work as artist-in-residence at Bandelier, I'd heard talk of large obsidian deposits in the park, but I'd never seen them and I'd never talked to anyone who could or would tell me exactly where to look. Understandably, the park staff wasn't anxious to see those areas raided by souvenir hunters. For hundreds of years, this black volcanic glass had been used by Native Americans to fashion extremely sharp arrow and spear points as well as scraping and cutting tools. In more recent times, obsidian has been used for surgical scalpel blades which are much finer than conventional steel and leave less noticeable scars. And, of course, it is often used for making jewelry.
When I finally found the first of several obsidian deposits in Bandelier, I was somewhat disappointed. I had expected to see large shiny black rocks, too heavy to lift (I'd forgotten my mantra to "Go without expectations). Instead I found many pieces of the broken rock, often quite beautiful, but rarely larger than a common brick. To this day, while I have seen obsidian in several locations in and around Bandelier and the Valles Caldera, I have seen only a few rocks as large as, for example, a grown man's head. One reason for this is the effect fire has had on obsidian lying at or near the ground's surface*. The extreme heat produced by wildfires in recent years has caused many of the rocks to crack and split. Subjected to even more intense heat, they metamorphose into something that looks entirely different and is unrecognizable to a layman like myself.
In Oregon two years ago (see my blog posts from 9/3 through 9/21/2012) I had been especially drawn to the extraordinary obsidian flow in Newberry Volcanic National Monument southeast of Bend, but I discovered it too late on that first visit to explore and photograph it thoughtfully. So, this past July, I headed back to Oregon determined to spend as much time in the obsidian as necessary to photograph until I was completely satisfied. The two pictures included in this post are good examples of the opportunities a person can to examine and photograph this remarkable glass rock, and as you can imagine, it takes time to see it in all the best lighting conditions. I noted the sun's position carefully and walked each trail at least twice, uphill and down and in the morning and afternoon. And, though I didn't include any identifiable objects in these pictures to use or size reference, I did make them from eye level so the viewer can tell that they are as tall as or taller than I am.
*Excavations are not allowed in the park.
I didn't just photograph obsidian in Oregon. The next postings will show you some of my other favorite images from that part of the country.
Wednesday, February 4, 2015: When fire and floods tear up a canyon–what then?
In the past few years forest fires in the Jemez Mountains, on the Pajarito Plateau and the canyons in and around Bandelier National Monument destroyed vast amounts of vegetation, leaving the area susceptible to devastating floods that overturned huge trees, washed out bridges and drove rocks and timber debris downstream in areas like Frijoles Canyon, shown in the picture above. On September 13, 2013, the largest flood in the park's recorded history created the scene depicted in the photograph above, made this past May. This year I talked to many visitors who were returning to Bandelier for the first time since the fires and floods expecting to see an ecological disaster. Instead they happily witnessed a recovery in progress. Initially, they were shocked to see massive tree trunks and root systems lying about the canyon floors, but they were glad to be able to walk the trails, see new vegetation, observe the wildlife and hear birds singing everywhere. There was an important lesson to be learned. Humans have a way of screwing things up, but as I'm fond of saying, "Nature always wins; not necessarily in the way you might prefer, but nature always wins."
When I started my work at Bandelier early in 2014, scenes like the one above, and the one below, showing burned and fallen trees on canyon slopes, fascinated me. And, as the year progressed, I began to look for the contrasts between the damaged and the unscathed, a metaphor for the survival of the fittest. From that observation, I moved on to study the new life emerging from the debris, a promise that renewal was inevitable as long as the mistakes of the past don't reoccur.
What kind of mistakes? Well, the Cerro Grande fire in 2000, started as a controlled burn that got out of hand due to high winds and drought conditions. The Las Conchas fire of 2011 was started when a tree fell on a power line. The right of way for the power line had not been adequately maintained in recent years. And, when lightning causes forest fires, perhaps we should reassess forest management practices that contribute to the intensity of natural fires, which are periodically unavoidable. Studies of old growth forests can teach us much about maintaining healthy forests, as opposed to those planted at high density in an effort to increase lumber yields.
By the time fall came around, I turned my attention to the colors generated by the new growth in the canyons. I was able to make pictures like the one below in which the eye is drawn from the downed and burned timber to the vivid seasonal colors.
I use these examples to demonstrate how a person's perspective can change over time with increased exposure to the same or similar subjects, sometimes under nearly identical conditions, and most certainly under obviously different conditions. This is why some photographers believe that you cannot know or fully appreciate a particular environment until you have examined it over time and under different circumstances. On the other hand, I have come to believe that even with the first exposure to a particular place or subject, a photographer's unprejudiced and often excited reaction can produce a worthy statement.
In earlier blog posts, I mentioned that I try to approach new subjects, when possible, without expectations. This allows me to keep an open mind and be more receptive to opportunities I might not recognize if I were looking for something in particular. This is a different mindset than a person might require when taking on an assignment for a client. The client's expectations need to be met or exceeded, and certainly not ignored. Artists, on the other hand have a responsibility only to themselves, and the unpredictability of the outcome contributes to the creative process. It doesn't always produce a superior product, but it can and often does result in a personal interpretation or declaration.
Of the three pictures above, the first is purely documentary, the second is a more personal interpretation and the third is an interpretive and planned documentary image. At least, that's the way I see them.
Friday, January 30, 2015: Up the road a piece from Bandelier...
In last week's post, I said I'd be talking next about the Valles Caldera, a remarkable place just up the road a piece (as they used to say where I came from) from Bandelier National Monument. In fact, the Caldera and Bandelier share a border just about ten miles west of the Bandelier entrance road off New Mexico Highway 4.
Minor volcanic activity beginning 14 million years ago and lasting for twelve million years created a giant magma chamber at the intersection of two major fractures in the earth's crust—the Jemez Lineament which runs southwest to northeast from Arizona to northeastern New Mexico, and the Rio Grande Rift which runs north to south from Colorado to Mexico. This magma chamber erupted 1.6 million years ago creating the Valles Toldeo caldera and forming a layer of rock called the Lower Bandelier tuff and covering 85 square miles in New Mexico to a depth of several hundred feet in places and spewing columns of ash that drifted as far east as Kansas and Oklahoma. Four hundred thousand years later, another eruption occurred in the exact same place, creating the Valles Caldera and obliterating most of the evidence of the earlier caldera. The outflow of the Valles Caldera eruption had a volume of 75 cubic miles and sent thick layers of hot ash flowing into the surrounding canyons. This material cooled and formed more of the Bandelier tuff—the relatively soft and light rock of which the Pajarito Plateau is composed. In the area of Bandelier National Monument these layers of tuff can be 900 to 1000 feet thick, and are characterized by the pockmarked texture and cavate structures that were used as dwellings by the early Puebloan people.
Since that last major eruption 1.25 million years ago, there has been continued volcanic activity about every 50 thousand years, with the most recent eruption occurring 40 thousand years ago at the Banco Bonito Lava Flow at the southwestern edge of the Valles Caldera. Visitors who travel State Route 4 along the southeastern edge of the Valles Caldera are awestruck by the vista (below) that appears below them as they descend the rim, not realizing that they are viewing just a part of a geologic wonder that contains several volcanoes and grass covered valles. The entire caldera is nearly thirteen miles in diameter and is the source of the east fork of the Jemez River as well as San Antonio Creek.
The history of the caldera and the people who have inhabited the area is fascinating. I do not pretend to be an expert on anthropology, archeology or geology and would recommend that anyone who wants reliable information about the Caldera visit the preserve's visitor center for information. One book I will recommend is Don Usner's and William DeBuys' Valles Caldera, A Vision for New Mexico's National Preserve. It provides an excellent introduction in words and photographs.
Since the establishment of the Valles Caldera National Preserve in 2000, the management of this remarkable area has been entrusted to the Valles Caldera Trust and it's nine-member board. Late in 2014, Congress passed legislation transferring management of the Caldera to the National Park Service. A six month transition is currently in progress.
Thursday, January 15, 2015: I've been away too long. Let's catch up.
To begin with, happy new year to all my readers. I hope it will be a great one for all of you.
It's been several months since I posted anything on this blog, but that doesn't mean that I was inactive during that time. It was an exciting year, and in the days and months ahead, I'm going to tell you about many of my experiences and what I learned from them.
The year began with an ivitation from the superintendendent of Bandelier National Monument to help create a new Artist-in-Residence program for the park ("Park" and "Monument" are terms used interchangeably) and to serve as the first participant. I'd been recommended because I had previously served eleven times as a National Park A-I-R and was familiar with the program structure in several other parks. Of course, it was a volunteer position and there was no stipend, but as with all the other volunteer opportunities I've had with the Park Service, the rewards are many and as far as I'm concerned, priceless. The position lasted for the entire year and while I chose to live in the park only for a total of four weeks, my home is just an hour's drive away and I still had virtually unlimited access to the park day and night. It worked out well and there were ample opportunities to take on other projects and travel to other interesting places.
I'll be showing many of my images from Bandelier in coming blog posts, but right now I've chosen to begin with one of the latest. The photograph above was made last Friday, January 9th, near the Cerro Grande trailhead in Bandelier (Cerro Grande is the highest point in Bandelier). I had gone to the Monument early on a cold gray morning for a meeting, with no plans to turn the rest of the day into a photo session. However, when the meeting concluded and I started to return home, I made a snap decision to turn in the opposite direction and see what the weather conditions were at a higher elevation. Light snow had fallen during the previous two days and this morning I drove through heavy fog that sometimes limited visibility to a hundred and fifty feet. As the highway rose into the Jemez Mountains, I found the trees and grasses covered with hoarfrost, and with the fog the scene was truly beautiful.
I stopped at the snow covered parking lot for the Cerro Grande trailhead and walked among the trees. The forest in that area is fairly open and the trees are a mixture mostly of Ponderosa Pine, Spruce and Aspen. In the mist, the color was so subtle that everything took on a soft monochromatic appearance. It was very quiet except for my footsteps crunching in the snow as I walked a circuitous route, enjoying the scene and carefully selecting compositions, but making relatively few exposures. Forest compositions can be complicated, especially in the winter when bare branches intrude at the edges of the frame, drawing attention from the principal focus of your interest. Beginning to feel the cold and aware that I was beginning to make hard work out of an otherwise enjoyable effort, I walked back to my car and drove out of Bandelier and into the Valles Caldera, where I explored the frosty landscape until the fog and the magic started to dissipate. It had been a wonderful opportunity—an uncommon one in my experience. My sudden intuition had led to some of the most satisfying images I had made in the last year.
In my next installment, I'll talk about the Valles Caldera.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014: The road often traveled, the view less often seen...
Most of the snow that has fallen here this winter has been the dry powdery type. I swept it off the walks with a broom and it didn't hang on the branches of the trees. It was pretty, but not like the Spring snow that usually begins as rain and turns heavy and wet as the air temperature drops below freezing. This year, we haven't seen much wet snow here in town, but in the last few weeks, a good bit of it has fallen in the higher elevations surrounding Santa Fe.
This past Sunday, I missed a chance to take advantage of perfect light and ideal cloud conditions. The day started out dark and threatening, so I chose to take in a discussion at one of our local museums. As I left the event a bit after 5:00 in the afternoon, I was surprised to see the beautiful warm light that often follows a storm. The air was clean and as I looked east toward the Sangre de Christos I saw patches of blue sky as the clouds were lifing from the mountain tops. But, it was too late in the afternoon to get to one of my preferred viewpoints before the light would fade. A landscape photographer yearns to be at the right place at the right time, and while that can just happen by dumb luck, it more often requires a commitment to visit potential photo sites day after day and stay for hours when the season, light and weather promise opportunities. You can never be certain, but you learn to recognize the signs and anticipate coming changes that create chances for better than average images.
Yesterday afternoon, conditions seemed promising and I headed for the higher elevations. The light was good, the winds were calm and the temperature pretty comfortable. There were some clouds, but they were not where I wished them to be. I've talked before about the importance of going out to shoot without preconceptions, and what happened on this afternoon was a case in point. I parked my car by the side of the road and took off on foot. Looking up, I saw bare aspen branches against a vivid clear blue sky–always a beautiful sight, but something I've photographed so many times that it did not demand to be done again. As I walked, I saw a dozen scenes that, while pleasing, didn't evoke a singular response. Then, as I was rounding a sharp curve, I looked below me in a ravine that I could not have seen from my car and there was this quiet, pristine landscape, covered in mounds of snow separated by a small twisting stream beneath snow decorated boughs of pine trees. It was the only opportunity I would have all afternoon, but it made the outing completely worthwhile. It was special to me because it was unlike any picture I'd made here before.
I do love winter, not necessarily more than the three other seasons, but it is special because things can look so different than they do the rest of the year—more like what they aren't than what they are.
Billy H. Easley, October 10, 1925 - January 31, 2014
Our common interest in photography cemented our friendship. Billy had learned about photography in the military during World War II and studied at the Nashville School of Photography. Even while working full time for my father, Billy opened his own photography studio where he made portraits during the evenings and on weekends. I had learned to develop film and make crude prints at a summer camp when I was still in elementary school, and when I bought my first “serious” camera in 1952, Billy became my teacher and mentor. We set up a makeshift darkroom in an unused washroom on the third floor of the warehouse and Billy taught me to mix chemicals properly and began my real photographic education.
Billy had an incredible work ethic and a desire for knowledge that was inspiring. One day, Billy came into the company’s print shop, where I was working part-time as assistant to the manager and learning to operate the offset printing press. He sat down to read a book during his lunch break. I asked what he was reading and he showed me. It was a dictionary, and I discovered that he read it regularly to build his vocabulary. To this day, I’ve never known anyone else who read the dictionary, or used it for more than a reference.
In the late 1950s, I was in college and Billy moved on with his life and studio and began to build his own family. His big break as a photographer came shortly after that when he applied for a job as a photographer and darkroom technician with the Nashville Tennessean. He became the first African-American photographer to work for the Tennessean and, I believe, was the first black photographer to work for a major southern newspaper. The timing was absolutely right. He photographed civil rights riots in the 1960s, covered a wide range of politicians, historical events and celebrities, and achieved international and national recognition before retiring from the Tennessean in 1989.
Billy Easley was a groundbreaker, a man of diverse interests, a life-long student and observer of our evolving society, and an inspired photojournalist. He was also my friend and mentor and though I will miss him, I will always be inspired by his example.
December 23, 2013: The 911 Memorial, New York City
It was a rainy morning and it appeared as if all the world's tears were falling on the site of the World Trade Center.
But, that thought didn't come to me at the moment I made this picture. I was preoccupied with my efforts to stay dry. Only later, as I examined the two pictures I had struggled to make under gloomy conditions did that feeling surge over me. Like thousands of visitors who crowded the labrinth of walkways that eventually led to the TSA-type security charcpoint, I was repeatedly asked to show my ticket and was watched by security guards that lined the chain link fenced perimeter of the memorial. I didn't enter the memorial with any feeling of reverence for those memorialized. It was more like coming out of a mob to seek some space, and it is hard to feel a sence of calmness, contemplation or respect until time has allowed you to shed the sense of crowd induced pressure. One day I will go back to this place and try to experience some of what I felt when visiting the memorial to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, or the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
In these pictures, you don't see chain link fences or security guards. I eliminated those distractions from the images. Once construction of the One World Trade Center skyscraper is complete and the 911 Memorial Museum is open, perhaps the fences will be gone and security less obvious. That would enhance the experience for everyone. The statement this memorial makes is profound and it's a worthy tribute to those who lost their lives and loved ones in a tragic and monumentally senseless act of terrorism.
July 15, 2013: Spectacular Bridge. Spectacular Moon. Altered reality.
The Railway bridge over Scotland's Firth of Forth is one of the world's engineering marvels. It was the first major steel structure built in the UK and it took seven years, from 1883 to 1890. to complete all 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometres) between Dalmeny Parish just east of Edinburgh and North Queensferry in Fife. In May, on my first—and I hope not the last—visit to Scotland, it was one of the sights I most wanted to see.
I had no illusions about making the definitive photograph of this bridge. It has been well and artfully documented over the years, but I did have an exceptional opportunity to photograph it on May 21. Arriving in North Queensferry in the late afternoon, I was overwhelmed by the view from the water's edge. This wide-angle view lacks the impact of the experience standing under the 330 ft. cantilever span. Even at high tide, trains crossing the bridge are more than 150 feet above the water appear like small scale models, almost unnoticed as in this image.
I made color photographs of the bridge in full sunlight before stopping for dinner at the Wee Restaurant (its real name), less than a block away. When I came out of the restaurant after dinner, the sun had set and the moon had risen. I made more pictures similar to this one, including the full moon which appeared much smaller in the wide-angle view I actually recorded. I was pleased with the results.
On June 23, when Santa Feans had an opportunity to view a perigee moon. (I wrote about the last perigee moon—or super moon—when we last had an opportunity to view it on March 19, 2011). While making photographs that night, I thought about my picture of the Forth Bridge and decided to superimpose this larger and sharper moon over the actual moon in the picture I had made in Scotland. I knew it wouldn't appear natural, but why not play with the picture and see what I could achieve?
My perigee moon image was quite large, even though I had made it with a 400mm lens and not a telescope, so I experimented with the size and proportional relationships. Also, the moon's detail in the picture was more pronounced than you see in this composite. I adjusted the exposure, matching the relative brightness of the moon that appeared in my bridge photograph. Then I positioned the larger orb over the smaller one.
One of my concerns was the presence of cloud wisps that I did not want to depict as being unnaturally behind the moon. However, the moon was bright and cloud wisps so light and translucent that they were overwhelmed by the moon's intensity and disappeared where they might have appeared to be in front of the moon.
After completing the composite, I sent it with a full explanation of what I had done, to my Scottish guide who had been wirth me throughout the trip. The unexpected response was, "To be honest if you hadn't told me I'd never have guessed." I found this both satisfying from a technical point of view and perplexing from an ethical perspective. Years after National Geographic stirred a hornets nest by moving the pyramids on a 1982 cover, I continue to feel qualms about altering images no matter how harmless others migh feel such an alteration to be. Am I any more responsible for truth in my medium than a painter is when doing something similar with brush strokes?
Now that you know my complete story, what do you think?
February 25, 2013: Why haven't I posted anything since November?
The most serious problem that our country faces today is the growing polarization of people of different views. Politically, religiously and socio-economically, our society is more divided today than I have seen it at any time in my seventy-six years. It makes me sad, angry and very frightened. And, this has been eating away at the core of my being, to the point where—despite strenuous efforts to remain optimistic—I find myself unable to write about photography—a subject that, compared to the state of the world we live in, currently seems almost trivial.
I will not stoop to political or philosophical diatribes. This is not about my point of view as opposed to yours. I don’t care what your persuasions are. What I do care about is that we make an effort to live together peacefully and constructively. We need to respect diversity in all its forms, learn to carry on a dialogue, listen to each other and work to find a way to preserve our society and ensure a future for succeeding generations.
This calls for leadership, regardless of political party, concerned with the people’s business more than the next election. Our founding fathers didn’t envision a government made up of men and women with lifetime tenure. They went home after a time to live lives as citizens. There was a time when statesmanship was admired, respected and sought after. I remember leaders who made the tough decisions and followed their conscience over the polls. They were opinion leaders, unafraid to challenge their constituents.
I have always respected and cherished a free press—free to discover and report the truth, but governed by the good sense to remain independent. They did not agitate. They trusted the people to make the right decisions when given the facts—the truth. Today it is often hard to discern the truth, but there is plenty of opinion.
I love this country and believe it must endure. Assuring its future is a responsibility all of us share, and you can’t achieve that assurance by absolving individuals of responsibilities, by tearing down our institutions or by denying the least of us the fundamental rights defined in our founding documents.
Ideas, laws and people do not exist in isolation. All are interdependent. The answers to our problems, therefore, are never as simple as some would have us believe.
We are diverse and there can be strength in that diversity.
One of these days, I hope to return, with pleasure, to writing my blog. Until then, I ask you to consider what I’ve said here. Try to begin constructive conversations with one another and just maybe you can persuade others to do the same.
November 26, 2012: The La Cieneguilla petroglyph site is almost in my own back yard.
Cliff face with petroglyph, La Cieneguilla, New Mexico November 21, 2012
At the La Cieneguilla petroglyph site, the basalt cliffs above the Santa Fe River basin provide the canvas for thousands of rock carvings placed there by the puebloan people who lived in the area between the 13th ans 17th centuries. The images are so concentrated that a visitor can see a wide variety in relatively small areas. The photograph below contains about thirty petroglyphs and the site is not of one of the most "congested."
While I have an appreciation for petroglyphs and pictographs, it is not informed by knowledge of anthropology and I don't pretend to understand much of the symbolism. Mine is purely an interest in design. The information I have on La Cieneguilla is provided Bureau of Land Management and my friend and fellow photographer, Kent Bowser, who introduced me to the site and without whose guidance I would not have known where to look for many of the more intriguing images.
This is not a hard place to find, but once you start to make your way up the slopes to the base of the cliff face, the trails are "ankle twisters" and unstable in many places. I had to remind myself to keep my eyes on the ground when moving and to stop before looking up to examine my surroundings. Often, when hiking, I will keep a camera over my shoulder, around my neck or mounted to a tripod carried on a shoulder. Here, I took my camera from my backpack before setting up a photograph and put it back immediately before moving to another location.
Bird Petroglyph, La Cieneguilla, November 21, 2012
This petroglyph is particularly interesting because it utilizes one of the natural indentations in the basalt rock to form the eye of the bird.
November 25, 2012: More from my continuing exploration of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness
Contrast, De-Na-Zin Wilderness, October 18, 2012
You see many striking contrasts in the De-Na-Zin. What I've shown in this image is typical. The black earth common in the Kirtland Shale formation makes an ordinary chamisa plant stand out dramatically at the edge of an arroyo, its presence in this hostile environment making a powerful statement about survival.
November 19, 2012: My first venture into the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico
De-Na-Zin Wilderness, October 18, 2012
This is truly amazing country. When I first saw it, I thought surely it must be sacred to the Diné, but I've been told that despite its great inspirational qualities and symbolic natural sculptures, it's simply the geologically interesting home to members of the Navajo Nation, a few of whom remain in-holders even as the Bureau of Land Management manages the area in general. This is a land that's been occupied by humans for centuries and continually eroded by nature so that land forms seen today would be unrecognizable to past occupants and will be altered significantly over the course of our lifetimes.
To the west lies a "Badlands" area I've pictured and described in earlier Blog entries. Together these form the 41,170 acre Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, a strange and wonderful fantasy world of eroded hills, spires, hoodoos, large quantities of petrified wood and fossils, all marked randomly and sometimes inexplicably by nature's paintbrush. There are no man-made facilities for hikers and campers, and though horses are permitted, vehicular travel is prohibited. There are no direction signs or trail markers, indeed there are no man-made trails and topographic maps are of little use. GPS coordinates provided by other hikers may be helpful, but I've discovered that miles of wandering and a good memory for prominent landmarks are essential for discovering the subjects of my photography, all of which seem to change with the seasons and the light.
In October, I had my first opportunity to hike in the De-Na-Zin. I went with four friends, including a local resident. All of us were there to make photographs, but my primary purpose was to learn about the land and its history. I discovered that, as strange as it seems, there once was a trading post in this desolate place and a road, in a few places barely detectable today, led from it to supply sources far to the south. I was fascinated by the differences between the topography here and the terrain just a few miles to the west that I had explored in the Bisti. We climbed hills, hiked deeply carved arroyos, and saw much more vegetation than I would have expected. And there were colors in the rock that are not as common in the Bisti—vivid reds, yellows and occasionally a spot of green. I made several pictures, but just as important, I found subjects for future visits in different light.
The picture above is my favorite from this first visit. It is a composition that was not obvious as I walked through an arroyo parallel to the rocks on the left edge of the image. Those rocks—forming a natural fence line or retaining wall— attracted my attention and I wanted to see what was beyond them. I climbed over them, being very careful not to dislodge them or disturb the fragile and crusty earth around them. Then, feeling like an intruder, and sensing that this was a special place I should not disturb by leaving even a single footprint, I composed the picture of a subtly defined figure bedded between rows of carefully placed darker rocks, its head pointed toward distant folds and creases that appear a bit like guardians. It is an image with an eerie and unexpected quality that felt special when I discovered it and even more so now that I have converted it to black and white and printed it.
October 27, 2012: Exploring Navajo Lands in the Four Corners Area of New Mexico
Two images of Split Rock Ruin, Dinétah, New Mexico, October 17, 2012
The Dinétah, the ancestral home of the Navajo, encompases much of the land in the Four Corners Area, and the archeological sites, considered sacred by the Diné (the "People"), are places I've wanted to visit ever since I was told about them, not long after I arrived in New Mexco. Specifically, I'm talking about the pueblitos (small pueblos) presumed to have been built as defensive structures on the edges of the mesas on either side of the San Juan River east of Farmington. As you drive along the river, the structures are 400 to 500 feet above you and they blend so well with the rock on which they are situated that they're likely to be spotted only by the very careful observer. The BLM has placed label placards at the accessible sites, but although maps are available, the roads (4WD recommended) are not marked and it is not easy to find them without a local guide. Given the tendency many tourists have to desecrate unguarded sites, it is probably a good thing that visitors are not encouraged. There are no picnic, camping or toilet facilities and the trails are indistinct.
These pueblitos were occupied between 1680 and the mid-1700s, and varied in size from a single room to multi-storied buildings with as many as 40 rooms. Though some sites feature standing walls and some intact roofs, most of the structures are in ruin and only a few have been stabilized so that they can be inspected by visitors. On October 17, my friends and I photographed just four sites. We started early, but because of the distance we traveled over rough roads, we didn't return to Farmington until after dark.
The photograph above shows part of the most remarkable site we visited, Split Rock Ruin, built atop a 4o-foot boulder at the edge of a cliff strewn with huge boulders The pictures offer just a glimpse of the structures, but they clearly demonstrates the difficulty an attacker would have approaching the site, not to mention the diffucult ascent its occupants and builders regularly faced. The BLM sign at the cliff base suggests that the site is best viewed from the bottom of the cliff and that climbing is dangerous. (The original occupants used ladders.)
September 25, 2012: Bandelier National Monument--Looking at the familiar in a different light
Totem, Bandelier National Monument, August 23, 2012
This rock spire in Frijoles Canyon always captures my attention when I visit Bandelier, and prompts a photograph. It has always appeared to me as a natural totem--a anthropomorphic form carved by the forces of erosion.
On this particular visit, all of the totem's features were more evident than they appeared in any of my earlier photographs. The relief of the "eye" and other details of the "head" are clear; there is just enough shadow from diffused sunlight to bring out all the texture while the light is soft enough that it doesn't create excessive contrast and block all detail in the deeper shadow areas. I like the simplicity of this composition. Looking at it, a person not familiar with the site would not know what other rock structures are nearby, and the juxtaposition of the rock against the blue and partly cloudy sky gives the image a feeling of spirituality.
September 24, 2012: Meet Hercules, a very intelligent and friendly English Bulldog.
Hercules, Parker, Colorado, September 8, 2012
For more than fifteen years, I've been attending horse shows all around the country. That's because my wife is a United States Equestrian Federation licensed official. When we married, I can honestly say that I knew the front end of a horse from its back end, but not a whole lot more than that. And, I quickly discovered that it would be good to expand my knowledge because I was going to be around horses a lot and people often assume that because Sue and I live together they can ask me questions and expect a proper answer. So, now I can honestly say that I know just enough to know when to keep my mouth shut. I used to ride horses occasionally when I was a child. They didn't think a whole lot of me and my riding ability or my chubbiness. You see, I never quite got the hang of the horses gait. I was always up when I should have been down and vice-versa. I could see it the horses' eyes, "Oh-oh, here he comes again." Anyway, I appreciate the beauty of a good horse, and I know enough to tell a good performance from a poor one. Also, I've become pretty proficient at photographing show jumpers, although I do that mostly for my own pleasure.
What I enjoy most about horse shows are the dogs. That's right, the dogs at horse shows; not the horses. Horse owners tend to be dog owners too, and because they're not allowed to run loose on the horse show grounds, most dogs are either very well behaved or tethered. You won't find them running around, barking at the horses or nipping at their heels, and mostly, they exhibit an attitude toward horses that says " I'm a lot smarter than you...you don't see anyone trying to get on my back."
I see a lot of different breeds of dogs at horse shows. My favorites are the Jack Russell Terriers, because two of them own me. (And don't say I ought to call them Parson Russell Terriers. I know that when the AKC decided to recognized the breed that's what they designated them, but they were Jacks long before that and my Jacks still like being called that.)
Anyway, when I began to discover how many dogs attended horse shows, I decided to get to know them and photograph them, especially the dogs that show up frequently, either because they belong to regular exhibitors, staff, concessionaires, crew members or officials. I made a Blurb book entitled Horse Show Dogs a few years ago and one of these days I'm going to expand that into a larger volume.
The dog featured in this blog post is my latest new friend. He belongs to Zack, the technical coordinator of the last show I attended. He was extremely cooperative, unlike some dogs who have to be coaxed with treats to pose. He understood my instructions and looked straight into the camera's lens without hesitation.
September 22, 2012: Moving on to a favorite Colorado location - The San Juan Mountains
Gilpin Peak (13,694') from Yankee Boy Basin in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado
I don't think there's a more beautiful range of Mountains in the lower 48 states than the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. These rugged peaks—fourteen of them taller than 14,000 feet and seventy more over 13,000 feet—capped with snow in the winter, cloaked in golden aspens in the fall, sparkling with streams and waterfalls and blanketed with brilliant wildflowers in spring and summer months are a photographer's paradise that has drawn me back again and again to hike, drive the old mining trails and never tire of making photographs of the landscape, mine ruins, wildlife and spectacular skies.
The peaks have names that stir the imagination like Uncompahgre, Sneffels, Wetterhorn, Sunshine and Redcloud. Challenging passes include Engineers, Imogene, Red Mountain and Black Bear. Historic towns—formerly mining camps—include Crede, Lake City, Ouray, Silverton, Telluride. You can still see old mine and mill sites though many structures have either been torn down in recent years at locations like Animas Forks, Red Mountain Town, and Camp Bird, or they decayed under the forces of winter weather.
The day after I returned from Oregon, I left on a short trip to Ouray, Colorado to join an old friend I hadn't seen for several years and spend a couple of days making pictures in the San Juans. Each of us brought a traveling companion and the four of us, in two four-wheel-drive vehicles, spent two days driving over often rugged jeep trails into Yankee Boy and Governors Basins, and over Ophir and Imogene Passes. We encountered a brief hail storm at 13,114 feet, atop Imogene Pass, and it rained on us in Governors Basin, but we enjoyed every moment. Even though this wasn't a good wildflower year, we persisted and found a few colorful fields and some decent specimens of the state flower, the Colorado Blue Columbine. There have been summers in Yankee Boy Basin when the slopes were literally covered in blue, but this year, we had to look carefully to find just a few.
Thanks to my traveling companion and fellow photographer, Richard Khanlian, for the photograph below of my FJ in a field of Indian Paintbrush. And, I assure you my vehicle was on the Jeep trail; I never drive over flowers.
It's hard to pick a favorite image from a trip like this, but the one below, made just after the hail storm at Imogene Pass cleared, has to be one of them.
Clearing storm at Imogene Pass, August 2, 2012
September 21, 2012: Spectacular color in a field of black rock. (Newberry National Volcanic Monument, USDA Forest Service, South of Bend, Oregon)
Color against lava, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Oregon
Despite its proximity to Bend, I almost overlooked a remarkable but less publicized National Forest Service site that stretches south between Bend and Lone Pine. The monument, created in November of 1990 contains more than 50,000 acres of the Deschutes National Forest and features lakes, waterfalls, cinder cones, a large obsidian flow, an almost mile long lava river cave, a lava cast forest and spectacular views. It lies within a seventeen square mile caldera at the summit of a 500 square mile volcano, but that shouldn't frighten you. The volcano isn't active. An excellent interpretive visitor center at the Monument's north end is a worthwhile stop to help you understand its many interesting sites, some of which you might otherwise overlook.
The photograph above was made near the visitor center in the late afternoon. I was struck by the strong back-lit color of the larger plants and the subtlety of the lichens that highlight the carpet of black lava surrounding them. When you are walking through these lava fields observing the shapes of the rock formations and looking beyond to the distant Cascade peaks, you have to remind yourself to look st the smaller details that often lie at your feet. It helps to walk slowly and work your way through the "Visual overload."
Looking on-line for more enlightenment on the Newberry Monument, I was a bit put off by the sparsity of information on the Forest Service website and by some of the almost dismissive expressions I found on some visitor information and travel sites. For example, Here is an image of side-by-side waterfalls on Paulina Creek that one writer calls "overrated." I realize that Central Oregon has many outstanding waterfalls, but does that mean one has to become so jaded that he or she becomes unable to appreciate the individual characteristics of nature's creations
Paulina Creek Falls, Newberry National Volcanic Monument
September 20, 2012: My visit to Smith Rock, near Redmond and Terrebonne, Oregon.
On Saturday morning, July 21, I drove north from Bend, Oregon, to Redmond. My objective for the day was Smith Rock, part of the Crooked River caldera, a formation of welded tuff millions of years old. Aside from being of geologic interest, it is a premier sport climbing destination with hundreds of climbing routes for all skill levels. I drove three miles north from Redmond on US 97 to Terrebonne, where a sign at a well marked intersection with Smith Rock Way pointed east to Smith Rock State Park. From there the route was clearly marked all the way.
If you read my November 11, 2011 post on Plaza Blanca (the White Place) near Abiqui, New Mexico, you may recall that the fragile gray and white rock formations I photographed there were also composed of tuff, or compacted volcanic ash. Smith Rock tuff, however, is much harder. Formed under extreme heat and pressure, it can support climbing activity and is distinctively different in appearance, hardness and color. The State park allows the use of chocks and camming devices, and has placed permanent anchors in some climbing routes where there are no cracks or natural depressions in the rock to allow climbers to use less destructive climbing aids. The placing of new bolts and anchors or the chipping of the rock surfaces, however, are discouraged. I watched several climbers scaling the walls, but my primary interest was the rock itself.
The pictures selected for this post are intended to give you a good idea of the appearance of the overall formation, though neither image encompasses the entire scene. I also made several abstract images which I can share later. Both of these photographs were made in morning light, looking from east to west. Had there been clouds, I might have achieved more dramatic results and an appearance of greater depth. I returned to the park a few days later, but again, the sky was perfectly clear.
My visit was unhurried, partly because I wanted to hike at a leisurely pace and consider several photographic options, and partly because the trail to and from the river, as well as the trails leading to the bases of the climbing walls, were steep, and my legs don't carry me as fast as they used to, especially with a pack of photographic gear on my back and a tripod over my shoulder.
In contrast with the waterfalls and lush vegetation I showed you in earlier posts to this blog, the environment of Smith Rock is high desert. There was little shade and the temperature at this elevation on a clear summer day was much warmer than I experienced on the Western side of the Sisters peaks. I was delighted with the variety of subject matter I was discovering, however, and paid little attention to the heat. I wore a wide brimmed hat, jeans and a long sleeved shirt to protect me from sunburn and carried plenty of water. I always wear Vibram soled hiking boots and since I was given a new titanium hip a few years ago, I'm especially cautious on the trail. Once I was more concerned with falling and breaking equipment; now I think more about the surgical consequences of a fall. Age is a terrible thing to experience, but it sure beats the alternative. And, I still have a lot more pictures to make.
One technical note: This trip was the maiden voyage for my Nikon D800 camera. The resolution and dynamic range of this tool are simply wonderful and while these 72 ppi JPEG images can't show you all of the D800's capability, the prints I've made since returning home have been very satisfying. All of the pictures I've shown were made with a 24-120mm f3.5-5.6 AF S Nikkor, which has become my primary lens for this type of photography.
September 18, 2012: It's amazing to see something like this clinging to life in a lava field.
White on Black, A twisted survivor in a lava field, McKenzine Pass, Oregon.
In my next post, I'll show you a rock formation that is in stark contrast with this one.
September 11, 2012: Here are two more of the waterfalls I visited in Oregon; Upper and Lower Proxy Falls.
Upper Proxy Falls, Three Sisters Wilderness, Lane County Oregon
There's an Upper and a Lower Proxy Falls. It's just my opinion, but I thought the upper falls was more beautiful than the more celebrated lower falls, depicted in the two pictures below. While the lower falls is higher, I found the setting of the upper falls more peaceful and it wasn't just the way the light appeared on the water at this particular time of the day. I should go back on another occasion; maybe I missed something.
The Proxy falls trailhead is located on the Oregon 242 (The McKenzie Pass Highway) six-and-one-half miles west of its junction with Oregon 126 (The McKenzie River Byway). The trail is set up as a loop of 1.25 miles from the parking area with a short spur leading to the upper falls and another accessing the bottom of the lower falls. The upper falls is in a heavily shaded area, as my photograph demonstrates, and the lower falls faces north. Many people prefer to photograph the lower falls under cloud cover to avoid the extreme contrast between the sunlight falling on the foreground trees and the falls behind them. On the other hand, the more brightly lit trees provide more of a feeling of depth in the pictures below, and I prefer that to the flat light I've seen in many photographs. The trick is not to have too much foreground light which makes the contrast unmanageable.
Both these exposures were made with a shutter speed of less than a tenth of a second.
Thanks to my friend Pete Kunasz for making sure these falls were on my "Must see" list. Pete, his wife Diana and their enthusiastic German Shepherd, Cody, were my hiking companions.
September 4, 2012: Central Oregon has incredible rivers and waterfalls.
Sahalie Falls in the McKenzie River in Oregon
Sahalie Falls (100 ft.) is as accessible as any waterfall I've ever visited. Oregon 126 follows the McKenzie River for quite a distance and while views of the river often are obscured by heavy vegetation, when you arrive at the well marked parking lot at the Sahalie Falls trailhead, the walk to the falls overlook is a mere 100 yards, if that. From Sahalie, a foot trail continues downstream along the river for a half-mile to Koosah Falls (75 ft.). Visitors less inclined to walk the river trail, can drive to another parking lot at Koosah Falls, and an easy trail leads from that lot to the overlooks.
Despite their accessibility, a visitor to these falls feels secluded in the forest, and if your visit is on a week-day, the number of visitors is likely to be small. I was here on three occasions during my two-week stay in Central Oregon and even on a weekend I did not find the crowd to be unpleasant. Some of that may have been due to the roar of the falls drowning out most conversations.
Photographing Sahalie Falls requires protecting your camera and lens surface from the mist. The volume of water is impressive and, as with any falls of this volume, the mist travels for a considerable distance depending on the wind, and there always is some wind in the immediate area. Generally, I like to make long exposures of falling water, and this requires me to inspect my lens surface often for water droplets.
The variety of waterfalls and cataracts in this part of Oregon fascinated me. In the days to come I'll post more pictures that demonstrate that variety. And I'll show you some extremely striking landscape contrasts.
September 3, 2012: It was a busy summer, and it isn't over yet!
Oregon Forest, July 2012
I'd been to Oregon, but never to the central part of the State. So, this summer I accompanied my wife to Bend, Oregon, while she officiated at horse shows for two weeks. I spent my time exploring the mountains, high desert, forests, lava fields, rivers, waterfalls and small towns around he area and meeing some very friendly people. The photograph above was made along the western end of highway 242, an incredibly scenic route across the mountains between Sisters and Belknap Springs. I drove this road several times.
All of my photography was done on day trips within a radius of 40 miles from Bend, although there was a temptation to travel farther. I had plenty of subjects to keep me busy and I wanted to spend more time making picturesand less time driving fromplace to place. Also, I believe in taking time to understand the subjects I photograph and the way local residents relate to their environment. So, my first daybegan with a trip to the History museum in Bend and to the Bend Chamber of Commerce. I collected literature and maps and studied all the museum's exhibits. From what I gathered, I was able to set out an agenda for my two weeks' work.
I carry a Golden Age Passport that gives me free lifetime admission to all Federally managed sites (National Parks, National Forests, BLM lands, etc., so all I needed to purchase while I was in Oregon was a seasonal pass to the State Parks. Oregon has many wonderful parks, so purchasing the pass was very worthwhile.
In future posts, I'll show more of my Oregon images as well as photographs from my trips into Colorado and to sites here in New Mexico.
June 19, 2012: Cracks in the pavement or landscapes from space?
While recovering from hip replacement surgery in 2009, I took prescribed daily walks around my neighborhood. Going over the same route day after day, and watching my steps carefully, I became familiar with every crack in the pavement. After a while, I decided to do something with those cracks and I turned them into abstract images, manipulating the colors to make the shapes and lines resemble those you might see in landscape photographs from space. The process is relatively simple and utilizes the curves adjustment in Adobe Photoshop primarily. The colors can be further enhanced with the hue/saturation and contrast adjustment. There's a lot of latitude.
In this image, it may be more apparent to you that these are cracks in concrete. The right angle created by the intersection of the blue lines (cracks filled with a sealant) are more expected than the curved lines in the photographs above and below.
Of these three images, this last one is my favorite. The subtlety of the color and the very random pattern has the feel of pottery shards or broken stained glass.
All three are full-frame images, I was tempted to crop some of them, but opted to stick with my original compositions, even though I could not imagine what the final colors would be before the application of the curves adjustment.
I'm sharing these as an exercise that is part of a continuing learning process. As I said in yesterday's blog post, I haven't yet found a way to interest myself in paper wads, pavement cracks or fruit and vegetables, although I have experimented with all of them at one time or another. That doesn't mean that I don't like these images or others made in the course of my experiments, or that I feel that the subjects aren't worthwhile when explored by others. It's just that when I'm doing them, I don't feel like I'm doing my own work.
June 18, 2012: Who is (or was) Henri Mateus?
Paper Wad Study, Henri Mateus, ca. 1958
My recollections are a bit vague, but I think it was around 1975 that I became conscious of Henri Mateus. At the time, I was teaching a class in basic photography at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One evening, while cleaning the lab, I discovered an old fiberboard camera case covered with dust under a table in a little used corner of the room. It seemed to be an item destined for the trash, as was virtually everything under that table, including chipped, stained and rusted metal trays and an assortment of old print tongs and bottles. I was surprised that I'd not noticed the case earlier, and when I lifted it and found that it was not empty, I was, of course, compelled to examine its contents.
To my surprise, I found the case contained an old Kodak 5" x 7" wooden view camera and six 5" x 7" sheet film holders, in surprisingly good condition. Although the lens was dirty and the shutter would not operate, the camera's basic structure was sound and the bellows seemed pliable and free of cracks. I subsequently found the wooden tripod for the camera lying against the wall behind where I found the camera case.
After class that night, I took the camera, case, film holders and tripod home and spent some time examining them carefully. I wiped all the surfaces, cleaned the lens, exercised the shutter and lubricated it with graphite. The following morning I took everything back to the museum and walked into the director's office to show him what I had found. Had he been aware that the camera was there?
After some investigation, I was told that the camera had been a gift from an older couple who had found the equipment in their attic some time after purchasing their home. No one was sure when the camera had been given to the museum and placed in the photography lab, but it had not been used by any previous instructor and everyone had assumed that it was of little use. I asked for and was granted permission to use it for demonstrations and some personal work.
I bought some 5" x 7" sheet film and began to make pictures. The camera operated well and although the old lens wasn't the sharpest, it was adequate. The pictures I made had the appearance of vintage photographs and when I used color film the results were somewhat lacking in contrast, but the soft and subtler results were pleasing.
I wondered who had used the camera before me and what kind of subjects he or she had photographed. Perhaps it had been used to record significant events in the history of Oklahoma. Some skill would have been required to use this rather cumbersome piece of equipment, and it is not likely that the owner was simply making family snapshots. What was going on in Oklahoma at the time? Was the photographer someone noteworthy? I created my own fantasies.
I conjured up Henri Mateus, who came to the United States from France as a young boy some time in the 1930s, following a tragic accident that took the lives of both his parents. He came to live with his maternal grandparents who immigrated several years earlier and settled in Stillwater, perhaps because Oklahoma A&M College, founded in 1890 (now Oklahoma State University), was located there. I imagined that young Henri discovered the 5" x 7" view camera in his grandparents' attic, became fascinated with it and learned to use it with some skill. At some point, he began an experiment photographing crumpled wads of paper, the textures of which fascinated him, and this resulted in an extensive series of images of all kinds of paper wads, which he never had the courage to expose to public scrutiny for fear of ridicule. I considered bringing this fantasy to life by using the old camera to produce a series of "Paper wad images" and publishing them under the Mateus pseudonym. However, I never got a chance to perpetrate that playful hoax. After several weeks, the museum decided that they had a responsibility to preserve and protect this now obviously worthwhile gift of early photographic equipment and asked me to return it. I complied with their request, of course, and never saw the camera again.
The next part of the story is no fantasy. A year or so later, I inquired about the camera and its disposition and was told it had mysteriously disappeared. Apparently it was never formally accessioned by the museum, and was only locked away for its "protection," which obviously had been inadequate. My fantasy died and the life and work of Henri Mateus was all but forgotten...until now.
Though I've long been interested in photographing textures, that wasn't the idea behind the development of the Henri Mateus persona. My purpose was satirical. In the 1970s the interest in contemporary fine art photography experienced significant growth. A number of publications focused attention on a new generation of young image makers who, it seemed to me, were determined to dwell excessively on the mundane and describe their work in far to many words. This prompted extremely boring, though often complimentary, reviews from the editorial community. From my perspective, if you were capable of writing lengthy essays about your sensibilities, sensitivities and motivations, you were even more likely to achieve critical acclaim than you were if you relied purely on the excellence of your visual perception, technique and craftsmanship. It reminded me of the time when, as a college freshman, I wrote an essay that was literally about nothing for a pretentious instructor who gave the work an "A" grade, ostensibly because she liked my use of polysyllabic words and long sentences.
I was convinced that I could create a fictitious photographer and a body of work that would earn critical acclaim from the fine art element of the media. However, my fear of being discovered for this hoax caused me to reconsider my actions. And maybe the fact that the museum reclaimed the old 5" x 7" view camera was a blessing.
Every now and then, I experiment with subjects like paper wads, pavement cracks, fruit and vegetables. I have no doubt that I could create a large number of these images in a manner that some people would find interesting and a few would call art. On the other hand, I haven't yet found a way to interest myself in such images.
Maybe, there is a real Henri Mateus out there somewhere who will take those subjects and turn them into something worthwhile. He's welcome to my fantasies.
Henri Mateus ca. 1975 with Kodak 5"x7" view camera
May 27, 2012: Hummingbirds and Hummingbird Moths
Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), 2007
White-lined Sphinx Moth or "Hummingbird Moth"(Hyla lineata) 2009
I've seldom photographed birds, and because I'm conscious of so much excellent bird photography, going back to the groundbreaking work of Eliot Porter in the 1940s, and the recent work of my globetrotting friend Tom Ulrich, I really don't consider that something I do especially well. I've had occasional opportunities to make photographs like the two above simply because I was in the right place at the right time and figured there was no point in passing up the opportunity. It might have turned out alright, and if it didn't, I wasn't working under an obligation to anyone but myself. On the other hand, how would you ever know if you could do it if you didn't try.
The hummingbird was photographed during a workshop I conducted in Estes Park Colorado. There were lots of these birds feeding at numerous feeders hanging from the eaves of the Baldpate Inn, one of several historic structures my students were photographing over the weekend. Several of the students wanted to try to make pictures of the hummers and some did it fairly well, though few had brought proper equipment, including electronic flash units. It was fairly simple to wait for a bird to fly to the feeder and capture a picture of it sipping nectar, but I wanted to try a picture that captured a close-up of the bird in flight, realizing that I would need a bit of luck on my side. This wasn't the only picture I made and while the entire bird is not within the frame, I like the light on it's ruby throat and the highlight in its eye. Working at close range with a 200mm lens, I used a silver reflector braced against my tripod legs for fill light. You and I have seen much better pictures of hummingbirds, so maybe I'll try again when another opportunity presents itself. I've hung a feeder in my own back yard...one never knows.
And speaking of backyard opportunities, the picture of the hummingbird moth was just that. I'd never seen one of these before coming to New Mexico and when I saw it I thought it was a small hummingbird. Not until I got close enough to observe that it had no beak and that it was probing the flowers with its very long tongue did I realize it was something else. I followed it around for a while, managed to make this hand-held photograph and then did an on-line search to identify it.
These moths are quite common here in New Mexico and if you watch for them in the evenings and set up your camera where they are feeding, it's not too difficult to make pictures of them. Freezing the action of their wings requires a very fast shutter speed, and electronic flash helps to do a better job, but if you don't mind a little blur (you can always say that it indicates how fast the wings are moving) you might come up with some interesting photographs.
Both these images show everything that was in the image frame. Nothing has been cropped. So, if the composition is pleasing to you, it's just a product of dumb luck.
I hope this encourages you to fearlessly try doing things that are outside your comfort level, look at the results critically and learn from every mistake. Remember that the only people who don't make mistakes are people who don't do anything. But, isn't that, in itself, a mistake?
I'm trying something new!
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May 8, 2012: Photographing a flower as Georgia O'Keeffe might have painted it.
Iris #2, from my garden, May 5, 2012
Maybe it's because I live in New Mexico, but each spring, when the iris begin to bloom, I think of them as subjects for Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, which often they were. Of course my photographs lack the simplicity and sensuality of O'Keefe's flower paintings, but I would be less than honest to deny that even the making of an image like this "feels" imitative of her vision.
It seems most photographers photograph flowers at some point in their lives. I began making pictures of wildflowers in the 1960s simply because I found them beautiful. I knew almost nothing about them. I'd be hiking in a national park and a ranger would say, "That's a globeflower," and I'd get down on my knees with my camera, make a picture of it and write down the name so that when I showed my pictures to the folks back home they'd be impressed that I had more to say than "Here's a pretty flower." After doing this for a year or two, I had collected hundreds of pictures of wildflowers, but since there wasn't always a park ranger around to tell me what I was shooting, I had a lot of unidentified images that were just pretty and colorful. Can you relate to this?
I bought some wildflower guides and began looking up the names of the flowers. I'd compare my pictures with those in the books, read the descriptions and determine to my own satisfaction the genus and species. The trouble was—I later discovered—my identifications were wrong as often as they were correct. Early in this education process, I recall anguishing over whether an image I made of a yellow ray flower was that of a heart leaf arnica (Arnica Cordifolia) or an arrow leaf balsam root (Balsamorhiza sagittata). It hadn't occurred to me to make a reference photo that included the leaves and stem of the plant, or at least to make notes about the plant's characteristics. I also discovered that it wasn't enough to identify a flower by its local common name, like "buttercup" or "cinquefoil." I had no idea how many species shared those common names. I soon decided I needed to get an education in plant identification if I was going to continue my wildflower photography successfully.
By the time I came to that realization, in the early 1970's, I figured I'd photographed 350 species of wildflowers and I knew that at least 200 of these were either unidentified or misidentified. I was living in Tulsa at the time and someone suggested I approach Dr. Harriet Barclay at the University of Tulsa and ask for her help. Dr. Barclay was an internationally known and highly respected botanist who was a delightful person to know. She was not about to make it too easy for me by looking at my pictures and pronouncing the names of the flowers. Instead, she insisted, "You are going to learn to classify plants," and referred me to her colleague, Dr. Paul Buck.
I had, by this time become a regular visitor and an unofficial ombudsman for the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma and published an article on the refuge in the national Sierra Club Bulletin. So, I was immediately impressed that Paul Buck had compiled a complete list of the vascular plants of the Wichita Mountains. I had studied the history, wildlife and topography of the Wichitas and had photographed some of the common wildflower species, but I had a lot more to learn from Paul. During the next few years, I would tag along with Paul's field trips and attend outings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science, which allowed me to rub shoulders with eduactors and become better informed about the State I lived in. I also learned how to classify plant species and eventually identified all the wildflowers I'd photographed. While I'm still no expert on plant taxonomy, I now enjoy photographing wildflowers more because, generally, I either know what I'm photographing, or am able to find out what I've photographed after the fact.
However, when it comes to cultivated plants, like the iris above, I know far less than I do about wildflowers. The iris is familiar because it is the official flower of my native State of Tennessee.
The wonderful thing about photographing flowers, cultivated or wild, is that there is always a way to make images that are different than the ones already made, and probably a way to make them better. Every flower is an individual and every setting and every light affords an opportunity to make a singular statement. Ask a dozen photographers to photograph a rose and no two will make the same image. One may choose to be very literal and document the rose as if it were being recorded for a scientific report. Another might photograph the bloom from so close that it becomes a sensual abstraction. Another could ignore the bloom entirely and concentraate on leaves and thorns, while yet another might chose to present it as a dark silhouette. One may record the rose with such sharp focus that every detail is preserved, while another may illustrate it void of detail, as if it were seen through gauze. One might crush or dry the rose, another might backlight it with a source of such intensity that the flower would seem almost transparent. Still other approaches might include enveloping the rose in flames, dusting it in snow, encapsulating it in ice, or spraying it with droplets of water. Juxtaposed with other objects, creatures or human features, flowers can be seen in many other ways. There is no end to the possibilities.
If you understand your subject, whether it be a flower, a person, or anything that arouses your curiosity—animate or inanimate—and you are willing to approach it with an open mind, have a desire to create a unique image, and are willing to look beyond your natural preconceptions, your opportunities will multiply and your photography will always be a source of enjoyment.
May 2, 2012: Why would you build it this way, unless it was for a photograph?
From Gormley Lane, Santa Fe, New Mexico, May 1, 2012
Just off Canyon Road, which is famous for its art galleries, is a narrow dirt road called Gormley Lane. It's only a block long and connects Canyon Road to a street called Acequia Madre, a fashionable address where the adobe walls conceal some of the most luxurious homes in Santa Fe's historic district. But a walk down Gormley Lane exposes you to some of the most interesting architectural incongruities to be found in this "City Different." Here are the back sides of old structures that have been patched in ways that locals explain with a shrug and the simple statement, "It's just Santa Fe." It usually isn't straight, pretty or to any code, but it works. It also makes interesting pictures and you're not likely to find more of this "style" anywhere than you will here in New Mexico.
On Gormley Lane you can see this wall, which in fact is just the most interesting part of a larger wall, and next to it there is a large metal shed that has rusted an incredible deep red. Across the lane is a carport that looks as if it just grew in place, beginning with an old adobe brick wall that doesn't seem to be long for this world. Someone attached vegas and posts to it to support a metal roof and it serves the purpose. Parallel to Gormley Lane, just a hundred feet or so to the East is Gypsy Alley with upscale galleries, shops and private residences. The mixture of architectural antitheses is uniquely Santa Fe.
When I have nothing else on my schedule, I often take walks around town with my camera, looking for subjects that strike my fancy. I look for objects and relationships others may not have noticed or photographed, but when you consider how old Santa Fe is and how many photographers have roamed these streets before me, I know that a real discovery is unlikely. I am content to find a slightly different angle, an unusual texture, a light and shadow pattern or a pleasing juxtaposition of forms and shapes. I see many things that are interesting, but I tend to be very selective and make few images of things I've seen in the photographs of others. Still, on yesterday's walk, I found this wall particularly inviting and thought it worth recording one more time.
I could have photographed the entire wall. I might have concentrated on the window alone. I might have cropped the left side so that you couldn't see where the wall ends or glimpse the fence and the tree behind the building. I consciously chose to compose the image as I did because of the tension created as you seek a principal point of interest. There is none, but there is, despite the careful attention to straight horizontal and vertical lines, a visual chaos. I made the picture to suit myself, realizing most viewers would probably not care why I did what I did or what I had to say about what I was thinking at the time. And, while I'm explaining all that to you in this blog, I assure you that I would never commit all this verbiage to a label. There's way too much of that in the art world.
Ours is a form of visual communication. It either works, or it doesn't.
When you visit a gallery or exhibition, what you you do? Do you peruse the photographs on the walls looking for something that catches your attention? Do you walk around reading labels to find out why you should be paying attention to the content of the images? Or, as I do, do you look for photographs that capture your attention and only then, read the label to get more information about the subject or photographer?
April 26, 2012: It's all about the image; not the camera.
Flower pickers, Carlsbad, California, March 4, 2012
I'm a long-time Nikon shooter. I bought my first Nikon in the 1960s, a black Nikon F Photomic body with a Nikkor-H Auto 50mm f/2 lens. That camera was and still is special to me. It represented a change of attitude, coming at a time of transition in my life. For that reason alone, I've never considered parting with it. It didn't make me a better photographer, but it allowed me to become one.
I've used all camera formats, from 35mm to 8" x 10" and I'm now using my 12th digital camera. I've liked something about all of these, but nothing more than the pictures I made with them. The camera was a tool, and my primary demands were good optics and dependable performance; not "bells and whistles." Today, there are few cameras on the market that don't have a lot of bells and whistles, but the most important things are still optics and dependability plus high digital resolution (since I no longer use film). My Nikons give me all I want and a bit more than I need.
Lately, I've found myself engaged in a lot of conversations about cameras. It's not that I want to talk about cameras so much as it is that I get dragged into discussions because of the company I keep. It seems that photographers always want to compare cameras and lenses and argue about whether digital is as good as film. And, I must tell you that I'm losing interest and patience with all of that. I'm happy with my D3x, and while I'll probably buy a D800 soon, because I'm impressed with the image quality it delivers, I don't need to spend my time worrying about whether it will make me a better photographer, which it won't. It won't make me see the world any better, respond more appropriately to my perceptions, capture the moment more reliably, or replace my artistic judgment.
I don't recall the last time I saw a label in a museum or a credit line on a publication giving credit to the camera.
April 23, 2012: I'm back to blogging
Well, that took a bit longer than I anticipated. In fact, I'm still making adjustments to my new Mac computer system, although I've made enough progress to enable me to resume part of my old routine. The new Mac Pro is all I'd hoped it would be.
I almost hate to admit it, but I didn't feel I needed to upgrade my web skills or software until I made this change and discovered that my Windows software wouldn't work on the Mac. I'd used the same old WYSIWYG software for years with satisfactory results. Now, I'm using Adobe Dreamweaver and learning more about the program daily, thanks to the excellent tutorials available to me on Lynda.com. I predict I'm going to like the control I now have over the elements of my site much better. Please don't expect daily posts for a while, though. I've got a lot of work to complete in addition to managing this blog, and multi-tasking is not my strongest trait.
It seemed appropriate to begin this new series of blog posts with the apple blossom picture above, made in my in my yard on Friday, April 20. The spring blooms have been quite beautiful and I'm holding on to the hope that we won't experience a late spring cold snap, as we did last year, and that this will be a good year for fruit and vegetables.
There's nothing special to relate about making the picture above. It is a straightforward exposure at ISO 200 with My Nikon D3x, using a 120 mm. lens set at f/16 with a shutter speed of 1/160 second. I chose shallow depth of field to concentrate your attention on the one blossom. Some may suspect that I used a polarizing filter to give the sky it's saturated blue effect, but I assure you that's just the natural hue of our late afternoon sky here in New Mexico.
Just as I was getting started with the new Mac and my other software upgrades, Photoshop cs6 beta became available and I also took a three-day break for a short trip out to San Juan Capistrano, California. I'll be discussing those subjects, among others, in coming posts. Right now, I'd better get back to my studies.
March 18, 2012: An apology to readers. David's Blog will be down for a while.
I'm in the midst of changing over from using Windows platform computers to Macs. Because I have to convert much of my software to use on the Mac, and begin using some software I haven't used before, this process could take me as long as a month.
For most of my personal computer-using years, which began in the early 1980s I've worked on Microsoft platforms. When I began working with graphics, I found the expense of Apple computers more than I could handle and so, while most of my friends in the graphic arts industry were using Apples andsoon afterwardsMacs, I justified my thriftiness by saying that as long as my files were compatible with the needs of my clients and their suppliers, I was doing "just fine."
The reality , however, while tolerable in the beginning, became more unpleasant over the ensuing years. As my image files grew larger, I began to find that even my custom built PCs with the maximum amount of RAM the mother boards would support and the largest hard drives I could install ran more slowly and frequently locked. Though I always have found ways to work around the shortcomings, I became extremely dissatisfied and my friends tired of hearing me voice my discontent.
Last summer, I spent four days with my students in the digital lab at the Santa Fe Workshops where I did all my work on a Mac Pro. The processor speed and memory numbers were almost identical to those of my PCs, but the operational characteristics of the Mac were superior and far more reliable than my PC's. That experience convinced me that the time for change had come. I've just taken delivery of a Mac Pro and a MacBook Pro laptop that will replace my Windows PCs, and I've begun to install new software, but I still have a lot more to do.
So, I beg your indulgence and assure you that when I return to blogging I will be a lot happier doing what I will be doingwhich, as I often said when I switched from analog to digital photography in the late 1990s was, "Doing what I've always done, only better."
March 10, 2012: Does this frighten you? I found it discomforting to be on the trail below this rock.
This enormous rock stands precariously above the trail that leads from Pueblo Bonito to Chetro Ketl in Chaco Cultures National Historic Park. If you're standing to the south of it, facing the broad face of the cliff wall, the rock seems to be a part of the cliff, However, as this late morning picture taken from a point east of it shows, it is mostly free standing, split from the larger wall, larger than the top than it is at the bottom and leaning slightly toward the trail. As I looked up toward its top, I felt more than slightly insecure.
I'm confident that the Park Service monitors seismic activity in this area and that they wouldn't keep the trail open if there was any indication that the rock would be likely to fall in the near future. On the other hand, I hope I can be excused for walking by it a bit more quickly than I did on the other portions of the trail while looking for petroglyphs.
March 9, 2012: Another image from Chaco Cultures National Historic Park, Nageezi, New Mexico.
When you visit a ruin or see an image like this, do you wonder how it would have appeared when it was built and used by the original inhabitants? Not only that, what was the function of the original building and what is the meaning of the architectural style and fenestration?
This is a doorway on what would have been the lowest level of Pueblo Bonito. The room in which I made the photograph was one of more than 600 in the largest structure in Chaco Canyon. Inasmuch as this was a multi- functional public building, I can only speculate about the use of this particular space, though from what the archeologists have told us, it is unlikely that this was used as living quarters. Probably it was used for storage. And, as carefully constructed as the stonework is, we know that the original builders coated the surfaces of the walls with plaster and decorated it with colorful painting, which implies that their primary concern was the strength of the walls and their ability to support the upper parts of what was a four to five story structure, and not aesthetics or symbolism.
Still, one wonders about the significance of the placement, size and shape of various openings and if this door and many others were small simply because the people were short in stature. Was the placement of openings based on strictly functional considerations, or were the Chacoan people also concerned with the beauty of light and shadow as I was when I made this image? I realize, of course, that the light was as it appears in this photograph primarily because there is no roof on this ruin, and that the original building did have a roof and several floors as indicated by the remains of vigas protruding from the walls at what would have been ceiling height.
As a photographer, I suppose it might be sufficient to appreciate the marvelous achievement of the native culture that, more than a thousand years years ago, using tools that are often regarded as primitive or crude, built Pueblo Bonito. One might regard these ruins principally as another location filled with opportunities to create studies of light, shadow and texture, and be content with the graphic qualities of the resulting images. On the other hand, I've come to believe that there is great value in understanding the culture that produced this extraordinary architecture and that such understanding serves to inform my work and give greater meaning to my images.
I was overwhelmed by my first visit to Chaco, and consider the image above and the one I posted on February 29 exploratory and interesting, but without extraordinary content. I feel an obligation to study the information obtained in that visit, to read the history of the place and the people and then return to give more thought to the photographs I will make and the reasons why I feel compelled to make them. There is always the possibility that I will add little if anything to the body of images that already have been recorded, but there is certainty that without a better understanding of the subject, I will achieve nothing, unless it is the result of pure dumb luck.
On February 29, I shared my first impressions. Later, I will share my perceptions as they are influenced by what I am now reading.
March 5, 2012: All is not always as it appearsfrom photography to sociopolitical commentary
I liked the tree standing out in a meadow by itself...well almost by itself. There was a a not-so-appealing man-made structure around its base and a wire-fenced area to the left of it that was very distracting. I wanted a simple image that I could use for a card with type superimposed over the empty sky area. By selecting a low camera position that would hide the distractions, I achieved my purpose.
Whenever I revisit this simple image, I think about what it says to me, which is more than what it says to other viewers. Typically, I make pictures to express my own point of view. Over the years, that has generally meant that I am demonstrating a love and concern for the natural environment, an attitude I want my audience to embrace. It means that I am trying to reveal beauty, unlike my purpose when I made this picture, which was to conceal reality and direct the viewers' attention to something pleasing and uncluttered. Which brings me to the essential message of this post.
I'm growing increasingly troubled by a trend toward exaggeration, obfuscation, and dishonesty in communications, made even more of a problem because of our ability to convincingly alter reality and truth with digital technology, and to do that so well that most people accept the changes without question.
I began to be concerned when audio tracks began to be altered by deleting words and phrases. It seemed harmless enough when Neil Armstrong's famous statement upon setting foot on the moon, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," was slightly altered by removing the "a" before the word "man." But most editors don't stop with such simple revisions. Subsequently, we've become accustomed to carefully selected sound bites in news broadcasts, investigative reports containing clips often taken out of context, and negative advertising for and against political candidates, where spoken words are edited to form often outrageous and sometimes preposterous statements. It's one thing when SNL, Jay Leno and David Letterman create obvious distortions for the sake of humor. It is inappropriate, on the other hand, when the spoken word is edited and manipulated without acknowledgement, for the purpose of persuading or misleading consumers and voters. The splicing of sentence fragments, coupled with the balancing of voice levels and pace to create something that sounds like complete unaltered statements is manipulative and dishonest, unless the editing is done by or with the approval of the person whose speech is being altered. For example, not long ago, I recorded an interview for a radio program. My enthusiastic responses to some of the questions were too long to fit the time constraints of the program, so the interviewer and I cut portions of the recording and, using computer software, were able to reconstruct and shorten sentences. Nothing however was done to change the meaning of my remarks. Had time permitted, another solution would have been to re-record the interview, but in this instance, editing was faster and the finished result seemed natural and harmless enough. However, there's a fine line separating the appropriate from the inappropriate, and with current technology, that line can become blurred.
A friend sent me this link http://player.vimeo.com/video/34678075?title=0& which demonstrates some truly amazing digital effects used to create scenes for the TV show Boardwalk. As much as I enjoyed watching this video, I couldn't help thinking about the effects that abuse of this technology could produce in the divisive climate of this pre-election season, particularly when you consider the amount of money being collected super PACs and what all than money is capable of enabling. And face it, there are people who can create visual and audio effects that most people would accept as reality. Given that most TV audiences and users of the web either do not take the time or are otherwise not inclined to check the facts for themselves, the potential for controlling the outcome of an election might be increased significantly and the public might indeed be duped. The resulting damage would be much greater than it is when an advertiser convinces shoppers to buy a less durable item of clothing or a less tasty brand of soup.
If you're like me, you can remember when we used to be able to believe a substantial portion of what we heard. We also could believe a lot more of what we read. And when we saw something with our own eyes, we tended to be absolutely certain that what we saw was real. Now, it is possible to alter visual reality and make what we are shown a total lie.
Do you remember the controversy stirred in 1982, when National Geographic Magazine squeezed the pyramids a bit to make a photograph fit its cover format? Since that time there has been on ongoing discussion of the ethics of documentary photography. The problem is yet to be resolved as popular magazines, for example, regularly make celebrities appear slimmer and complexions appear flawless.
I don't want to see fantasy or fiction eliminated from entertainment. In fact, I'm a great admirer of what digital technology has been able to contribute to the moving picture and TV industries as well as to my own photography. But, it frightens me that we have created a monster capable of altering too much of life's realities if placed in unscrupulous or misguided hands. Suppose we were lured into creating a new sociopolitical order that proved ruinous to the society we have taken centuries to create? Couldn't happen, you say. Remember what the Nazi regime did in Europe with less technology?
It isn't likely that we could correct that situation easily...and certainly not digitally.
Note: These comments should not be interpreted as an indictment of any political party or candidate for political office. The comments are intended to alert readers to the potential for abuse of technology when there is a disregard for truth from either the left or the right and public complacency or ignorance prevails.
March 2, 2012: It's rocket science for the kids. But the photography is all about timing and luck.
Sometime in 1974, I made this picture of my two sons and a friend launching a model rocket in the schoolyard behind our Tulsa home. The boys had assembled the rocket from a kit of cardboard tubes, wood and plastic and the model was launched with a solid propellant ignited by an electrical spark from a battery. This was their first launch attempt and while they expected it fire, they were cautiously optimistic that it would reach high altitude, eject its parachute and return to earth in one piece.
I was armed with a Nikon F2 camera to capture the moment of lift off and as soon as I heard the propellant ignite, I had only time enough to release the shutter for one exposure as it swooshed off the pad. I'd like to say I possessed impeccable timing, but the truth is that I was extremely lucky to capture the entire rocket in the frame as well as the expressions of amazement and pleasure on the boys' faces. This is the entire image; nothing has been cropped. Had I used a motor drive, I doubt I would have captured the image as I did, and certainly I would have done no better. I've learned that a motor drive, in many situations, is no substitute for instinct. Activated too early or too late, the motor drive is just as likely to miss the critical moment as it is to capture it, especially when the action you're trying to record is as fast as it was in this situation.
One type of action I enjoy shooting today is equestrian jumping. When I first attempted to photograph show jumpers, I did use a motor drive, and too often found that I wasn't often capturing the horse's best leg positions. I noticed that the official show photographers seemed to have an incredible sense of timing, and I learnedwith practicehow to anticipate the best moment in the jump and time one shot correctly, as in the photograph below. It was simply a matter of going back to the way we used to work when photographing sports with press cameras, before motor drives were common.
Oh, and yes, the rocket launch was a total success. It reached an apogee of a few hundred feet, the chute deployed and it landed softly in the field without damage.
March 1, 2012: Do you believe it's 80 degrees in Tulsa Oklahoma on March 1?
It's a fact. The Bradford Pear trees are in full bloom here and Oklahoma's senior Senator Jim Inhofe has just published a book debunking the global warming theory. The title, should you care to read it is The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, and you can buy it at Amazon for $16.60, a number which appropriately corresponds to the year in which the senator's mind is set. 1660 was also the year in which the enlightened Samuel Pepys began his famous diary which the honorable Mr. Inhofe probably never read. After all, it didn't have anything to say about global warming.
Could this warm spell in Mr. Inhofe's own back yard be Mother Nature's way of sending him a message? Probably not but it seems appropriate conjecture.
Onward...to Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park and Longs Peak
This is a view from the east showing Mount Meeker on the left and the sheer face of Longs Peak's glacially sculpted diamond on the right catching the light of the early morning sun. Standing 14,259 feet above sea level, Longs is the tallest of Rocky Mountain National Park's peaks and its only fourteener, though the park features more than sixty mountains over 12,000 feet and at least fifteen of those (besides Longs) are taller than 13,000 feet.
Major Stephen Long, for whom the mountain is named never climbed it and neither have I, but I've made many photographs of it, studied the many stories about it and scrambled up a few of the surrounding mountains to photograph it from different angles. I also coaxed my workshop students out of bed early to photograph it at sunrise on many occasions. Why I've never attempted to climb it says more about opportunity than desire. Though there is a climbing route that requires no technical skills, it's not the sort of hike one wants to take in inclement weather. Deaths are, unfortunately, an annual occurrence on the mountain and the weather near the summit tends to be winter-like for most of the year. Climbing alone, for me, has always lacked appeal and while I have hiked hundreds of miles and climbed above 12,000 feet on several occasions, at my age I prefer wider gentler tails and lower elevations. (OK, so I've become a wimp.)
In 1984, Rocky was he first National Park at which I served as an artist in residence and I served there four times in all the seasons of the year. I can't recall how many visits I've made to the park, but the first was more than forty years ago and I taught workshops for the Rocky Mountain Nature Association for twenty years. While I won't say that Rocky is my favorite national park, I do feel a sense of attachment to it, as I do to several of the more than fifty parks in which I've been privileged to work. Each has its own special character and presents its own challenges to the photographer.
Rocky Mountain National Park is very accessible and an excellent venue for workshops. It offers a wide variety of image opportunities for it is about much more than mountains. It has spectacular water, great atmospheric conditions throughout the year and an abundance of textures. It has historical structures and interesting geological features and while you can hike many miles of trails to access back country picture opportunities, there are plenty of spectacular opportunities to be found within a few feet of every parking lot and trailhead. For those of you who like your creature comforts, there are plenty of amenities available nearby and for those who prefer to camp and distance themselves from crowds and traffic, there are plenty of opportunities for that. The park does get a large number of visitors, but if you get out early, stay out late and select the times for your visits that don't coincide with holidays, school vacations and weekends, you'll find places in Rocky that you can almost claim as your own. Believe it or not, after all these years, I can still find places to be alone in the park on the Fourth of July, but you'll have to discover those yourself.
February 29, 2012: The subject is very old. The photograph was made last week.
Last Wednesday, I drove up to Chaco Cultures National Historic Park near Nageezi, New Mexico. Although I had been in the area several times, I had never before been in the park, which is one of the locations I want my students to visit during our Four Corners workshop in October.
This was an information gathering session, and I had ample time to visit three of the principal ruins, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and Casa Rinconada. The photograph above is one of the images I made at Pueblo Bonito, which according to park literature is the the most thoroughly investigated and celebrated cultural site in Chaco Canyon. Called a Chacoan Great House by archaeologists, this monumental public building served the surrounding communities and covered three acres when, during the period from 850 to 1150, Chaco was a major center of puebloan culture. It contained more than 600 rooms and parts of it towered five stories above the valley floor. Its functions included administration, trading, storage, ceremony, communications, hospitality, astronomy and burial of the honored dead. Only a small portion reportedly was used for living quarters. While a sixty room portion of the structure was destroyed by the collapse of a section of cliff wall in 1941, the remaining walls, rooms and kivas offer much to explore, study and photograph. And while the area is carefully protected by the National Park Service and visitors are restricted to trails and other designated areas, there is plenty of access for photography.
I have to admit that I found Chaco overwhelming and much more than I anticipated. The canyon landscape itself is impressive and colorful, and the details of pueblo construction are fascinating and full of rich texture. The play of light on stone and timbers is beautiful and there seems to be something to appeal to the photographer's eye at every hour of the day. Note, in the picture above the strong diagonal shadows contrasting with the sharp rectangular shapes of the doorways. The challenge was maintaining highlight and shadow detail under high contrast lighting conditions, but anything is possible with digital photography.
What this picture doesn't show is the contrast between the man-made structural and natural formations of the park. That, perhaps more than anything, contributed to my being overwhelmed by the Chaco experience. My eye wandered back and forth between this elements and was equally drawn to both. I spent most of my time studying the challenging compositionscomplex because there are so many strong lines that require the photographer to be constantly attentive to tangents and intersections that draw the eye in a less than desirable manner.
In future posts, I'll show more of Chaco, but Ill leave plenty of material for discovery by those of you who will join me for the workshop.
February 27, 2012: Another image from the past...the color of industry
In the very early 1970s, I didn't know many photographers who knew how to work with color transparency film under the available lighting common to industrial facilities like the one shown in the image above. The dominant light usually was provided by mercury or low pressure sodium vapor lamps that seemed to drain all of the color out of the indoor environment. When photographing welders, the torch or arc welder gave off a brilliant "blue-white" light that was much brighter than any other light source inside the plant. Frequently you also encountered fluorescent lamps and it was not uncommon to find daylight streaming through windows and open doors.
All these contrasting light qualities created nightmarish problems for photographers who only had two choices when selecting films. You either used daylight type film balanced for sunlight, or films balanced for the output of photoflood light bulbs, and in either case, the results would not produce either a natural or pleasing appearance. I'm not going to offer a technical explanation of the various characteristics of light sources in this article for two primary reasons. First, there is no simple explanation of relative color temperatures for light sources, and second, most photographers working today with digital cameras and current software apply totally different solutions to solving lighting issues than we did with film.
Rarely, in the 1970s, did we have the luxury of lighting large areas of industrial facilities with properly balanced light. That would have required costly disruptions of plant operations or production schedules. We learned to work as best we could with the existing light sources, placing color correcting filters or gels over our lenses (and sometimes over light sources) to produce something that either approximated balanced light or was more pleasing than we could achieve without filters.
From some of my older photographer friends, I learned to use decamired filters which are calibrated to achieve predictable color shifts in various light sources, once you determine what is the approximate color temperature of the source. Unfortunately, some light sources like fluorescent and mercury or sodium vapor cannot be easily evaluated. These are called discontinuous spectrum light sources, meaning that they do not produce light evenly across the entire spectrum. Therefore the light from theseand its visible reflectiontends to be tinted in a way that seems unnatural, especially when recorded on photographic media.
Most often, I found that the subjects of my industrial photography were illuminated by multiple light sources as described in the first paragraph above, and I relied on color gels placed over my lens to producing the desired effect. For example, mercury vapor lights tended to make everything look green when photographed on daylight type films, and color correction often required a combination of magenta and yellow gels. This was something I first learned from the technicians in the color lab I relied on for processing my film and prints. I started with color negative films and as I became more confident, I applied what I had learned to exposing less forgiving color transparency film. When time allowed, I went into my clients' facilities and made test exposures which were processed quickly before the critical shooting began. In time I developed the ability to evaluate the light sources in most manufacturing plants by sight, and although color temperature meters became available to assist me in choosing proper filtration, I found them less reliable than my own experienced judgment.
The photograph above was one of several produced at a facility in Birmingham, Alabama. Because I was working on a location far away from my own base and wanted to reduce the likelihood of error, I took the time to expose a couple of rolls of 35mm color transparency film in the plant, using various color gels over my lens. A local pro lab quickly processed the film and I asked them to just roll it up and place it in a bag so that I could lay it on a light box and evaluate the exposure and filtration. I recall being surprised that when I picked up the film that afternoon, the lab operator was quite excited and wanted to know how I'd made the exposures. He said he'd never worked with a photographer who was able to produce comparable results under those lighting conditions. By that time, I had become accustomed to working under difficult lighting conditions and thought that what I was doing was not uncommon. Later, when I tried to buy some replacement gels in Birmingham (it was not unusual to damage them when working around welding equipment), I discovered that they were not stocked by the local photo dealers and distributors. I was fortunate to have brought enough gels with me to complete the assignment, and glad I had time to buy more elsewhere before my next job.
Thinking back, I feel relief for all the photographers I know who shoot industrial assignments with digital equipment and process the results with Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Even when I was able to test exposures using Polaroid print film, I did not have the luxury of making instant and accurate evaluations of my exposures, and the extent to which I could manage the final color in the wet lab was not nearly a match for what we regularly achieve today.
I would love to have an opportunity to go back to some of my clients' facilities and see how different my digital interpretations would be from the film versions, although I know that the results also would reflect changes that have occurred in lighting technology as well. I recall that the first time I worked in a plant illuminated with metal halide lighting, I was surprised to find that daylight type film required almost no color correction and I was able to work much faster without having to select filters and apply filter factors.
That thirty-five year old image, above, has held up pretty well, but I'm glad that technology is where it is today and that 21st century photographers don't have to struggle to get even better results.
February 17, 2012: A construction scene that looked like a set for a modern dance performance...
Construction workers on the site of Tulsa's BOK Tower in 1973 seem to be dancers on steel. The 52-story skyscraper would be the tallest building to be found in any of the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas and New Mexico at the time it was finished in 1975. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, the building is a smaller look alike of the twin towers that were destroyed on September 11, 2001.
This was a personal image made on 35mm film while I was out for a walk in downtown Tulsa. Later I would have several assignments to photograph various stages of the building's construction, but this one was prompted simply by my own curiosity.
February 15, 2012: When I have been totally out of my element.
During my career as a commercial photographer, I called myself a generalist, which meant that I did not specialize in any single type of photography. Though I worked for clients who were headquartered in more distant places, I relied heavily for day-to-day activity on the businesses that were located in my own back yard. That was in Tulsa Oklahoma, known for many years for its oil-related businesses. I did my share of work in the "Oil patch," but a successful studio operation in that part of the country demanded versatility and that meant being prepared to serve a diverse clientele. A typical week might start with photographing jewelry and end with an assignment to document construction activity on a new high-rise office building. I did a lot of advertising illustration and corporate annual reports, which required traveling extensively, photographing executives, shooting from helicopters, and doing product photography on location or in the studio. If the subject was the board room, corporate offices, manufacturing facilities, architecture, art, studio still-life or the natural environment, I was completely at home with my subjects. If the subject was food, I might have taken the assignment, but there weren't too many of those opportunities. I loved working with character-type models and I avoided anything related to fashion and that (at least to me) included dancers.
But, in the early 1980's I was offered three opportunities to photograph ballet dancers, and I timidly accepted the challenge.
I'm not a ballet aficionado and all I know about photographing the ballet I learned from a friend who had danced with the New York City Ballet and was kind enough to give me a quick course over one weekend. Ballet dancers amaze and fascinate me with their athleticism, their ability to withstand pain and the fact that if you look carefully at the legs of a ballerina, you'll notice the development of muscles you never realized were part of the human body.
My first assignment was to photograph ballet student dancers practicing in the studio and I did that well enough that I was invited by Tulsa Ballet's artistic director, Moscelyne Larkin, to make publicity images during a rehearsal for a regular performance. Before doing that, however, I attended a scheduled performance of the company so that I could go into that session with some knowledge of the dancers and at least and idea of what was going to happen. In the end, it was a paid learning experience even though some of the results were quite usable. Subsequently, however, the advertising agency for the Oklahoma City Ballet gave me an assignment to make photographs, like the one above, to promote the company's second season under the direction of Edward Villella.
Photographing dance in the studio when the subjects pose for you and the lighting is completely under your control is one thing; photographing a dance performance is another. It is action photography, but not like photographing sports. If you photograph football or basketball and catch an athlete not quite at the peak of action, or even in an awkward position, that's often permissible, but if you catch a dancer at one of those awkward moments, it's an unpardonable sin. And if you don't know what to look for, in the extension of a leg or arm, or in the position of a hand, what might look pretty good to you is likely to arouse expressions of disgust from a dancer or director. Perspective is also extremely important, for dancers dislike camera angles that distort the proportions of their bodies.
When photographing during a rehearsal, I was permitted to take a downstage position near the orchestra pit. That allowed me to place my camera at a level that approximated the waist height of the dancers. However, I was allowed to use only the stage lighting, which meant that I had to use (in 1984) very fast film and lenses with large apertures. Fortunately, I've always had a pretty good sense of timing and an ability to anticipate the peak of action, because I was shooting with Hasselblad cameras and the motor drive wasn't a suitable "crutch." To help capture of the correct moment, my assistant and I both exposed images from approximately the same positions. And, we shot a lot of film. The results were satisfactory and the out-takes were many.
I appreciated the opportunity to photograph ballet, and while I was able to satisfactorily complete three assignments, The greatest benefits to me were the valuable lessons that can be applied to other endeavors. The most important lesson was to never attempt an assignment without as much research on the subject as time will allow. You may not have time to become an expert, but you must take time to learn the things that will keep you out of trouble. The next important lesson is to be humble enough to accept direction from those who know what you obviously don't know. And, finally, when you discover that something really isn't your thing (and mine isn't dance) be honest enough to admit that and show respect for those who excel at it.
I've been making photographs for sixty years, experimenting, studying and enjoying almost every minute. I figure I've made almost every mistake you can make, though I tried to make each one only once. Having said that, I'll only photograph dance again in the unlikely event that the subject is one of my grandchildren.
In my next blog post, I'll show you a picture of a kind of dance to which I can comfortably relate.
February 11, 2012: Fantasy vs. reality... Remembering a visit to Reelfoot Lake thirty years ago.
In December, 1980, I accompanied my then mother-in-law, an avid birder, on a trip to Reelfoot Lake in the northwest corner of Tennessee. The lake was frozen and Mimi*, as she was affectionately known to all her family, wanted to see what effect the ice had on the bald eagles that were wintering there. And, she was hoping that the eagles would be easier to see under those wintry conditions. Not only was the surface of the lake frozen, but as you can see from the photograph above, the lower trunks of the bald cypress trees ringing the lake were thickly coated with ice.
Traveling with Mimi always produced amusing stories. She was a diversely curious person who traveled widely and studied ornithology, botany, and photography with great intensity. She was also more than slightly opinionated, tending to accept newly learned facts only when they did not conflict with her own long-held presumptions. Therefore, much of what I knew about photography, nature and life itself was, during the early years of my marriage to her oldest daughter, Judy, generally viewed with suspicion. However, as both of us aged, she and I became closer and my comments were treated with a modicum of cautious acceptance.
I recall that once, on a spring trip into the Texas Hill Country, as I was driving on a county road in the vicinity of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Mimi saw a hawk flying above us . Thinking it might be a species she hadn't seen before (she was very attentive to bird shapes and flight patterns) she ordered me to catch up with the bird so that she could get a closer look. I obliged to a degree, but unlike the hawk's flight path, the road was straight, and I realized that it was going to take a good deal of luck to get really close to it. While trying to watch my moving target, and keep one eye on the roadwhich thankfully was free of trafficI also was looking for side roads that might get me still closer to our objective. Unfortunately, I was not able to catch up with the hawk, and I recall that Mimi continued speculating throughout that afternoon about which species she was "almost sure" it had been.
But, now we were off in search of bald eagles. We'd left Nashville early that morning and arrived in the vicinity of Reelfoot Lake around noon. So, before heading to the shore of the lake, we decided to stop for lunch at a rural roadside restaurant. We ordered at the counter from the owner, a woman who obviously had lost patience with tourists and became "testy" when questioned. I recall that the menu listed small and large hamburgers, but there was no indication of what small and large meant in terms of weight and Judy asked what the difference was.
Sarcastically and without changing her facial expression, the woman quickly replied, "Size."
Before Judy could respond, Mimi snapped, "I don't believe a daughter of mine could ask such a stupid question," and then posed a question of her own to the waiting proprietor. "With all the ice, is it harder to spot the eagles?" To which the reply was, "No, the ice is on the water; the eagles are up in the trees."
That reply seemed just a bit too impudent to Mimi, who turned her back and proclaimed, just out of the owner's earshot, "That woman is stupid!" And I was thinking that it all depended on who was asking the question.
The burgers were followed with a short drive to the shore of the lake where we did see eagles high above us in the trees, just as the woman in the restaurant had predicted. The binoculars came out and the objective was met. Not being a bird photographer, and having seen enough pictures of eagles sitting quietly on tree branches to know that I wasn't likely to add anything important to the body of photographs created by others, my attention was drawn to the roots and knees of the cypress trees. Coated with a thick layer of ice they appeared to me as the frozen feet of large animals, like something out of Maurice Sendak's imagination. I spent my time making black and white images of these fantasy shapes until I received notice that it was time to move on.
Mimi and I went on several photographic outings together, during which she usually had an agenda different and far less flexible from my own. Her's was likely to be focused on a specific goal, so while she could be tolerant of my less purposeful approach, she occasionally could be impatient, dismissing my interests as trivial. For example, during my second stint as artist in residence at Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison, in 1993, she couldn't understand my fascination with that place and midway through my month-long commitment encouraged me to go home. "I don't know what you see in that hole in the ground," was her comment during a long distance phone call. I stayed.
* Miriam Kuhn Weinstein (Mimi), mother of my first wife, Judy, was an accomplished amateur photographer. She created a large and varied collection of color photographs between 1963, when she was widowed by the untimely death of my father-in-law, and 2001. One of her principal interests, which provided subjects for more than one exhibition, was finding and documenting carnivorous plants. Judy died from leukemia in 1996 and Mimi died just four and a half years later in 2001.
February 6, 2012: Remembering a visit with Roman Vishniac
I think it was 1982, but it may have been a year later. I flew to New York with a friend, while the two of us were working on the design for an exhibit for the lobby of the Tulsa Jewish Community Center. We were using photographs to depict the history of the Jewish people from the rise of the Third Reich to what then was present day Israel, and one of the images was Roman Vishniac's 1938 photograph showing Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz in discussion with his students in the then mostly Jewish Hungarian town of Mukachevo. In 1944, all the Jews of that community were deported to Auschwitz.
The highlight of that trip was our visit with Vishniac and his Edith in their upper west side apartment. We had arranged to meet with him so that he could tell us more about that particular photograph. More importantly, I had been very interested in meeting him since 1973, when I was fortunate to have had an opportunity to spend the better part of a day with Cornell Capa who raved about Vishniac's images.
Although Vishniac's credentials were many, he has become best known for his photographs of pre World War II Jewish communities throughout Europe. His work in photomicroscopy and biology earned him almost as much recognition during his lifetime and he held several professorships and honorary degrees. Among photographers, many know him for his sensitive portraits, including a well-known image of Albert Einstein.
I was surprised that Vishniac and Edith, to make sure we didn't go to the wrong apartment, met us in the hallway outside their door. They seemed very pleased that we had come to visit and graciously invited us in and offered us refreshments. I had expected this to be a short and perhaps formal meeting, but it was just the oppositeextremely relaxed and cordial. We talked about the image we had selected for our exhibit, or course, but the discussion extended to a variety of subjects and he gave me a tour of his workspace, where Kodak yellow boxes of 35mm slides were piled to the high ceiling. Though the appearance was one of clutter, I had little doubt that he knew the contents of every box.
Early in the visit, while sitting in their living room, my attention was drawn to a tall breakfront cabinet filled with objects of oriental art. "What is your interest in Oriental art?" I asked a bit timidly. "I am professor of Oriental art at CCNY," he responded, and when I commented on the diversity of his interests he gave me a mini-lecture on the importance of continuing one's education throughout life. There was nothing condescending in his remarks, he was simply admonishing me to maintain an active curiosity. It is a concept I embrace fully.
Vishniac told us stories about his travels around the shtetlach of eastern Europe, showed us a portfolio of exquisite prints and told us of a 16mm film he had made and attempted to send to the United States with a woman who had promise him she could see that it was shown in an effort to give American Jews an awareness of what was happening to the Jews of Europe as antisemitism was rising. That film, he said, was lost and never made it to the U.S. He didn't hear from that woman again, but he had made a second film from his out-takes and he offered to show it to us if we could take the time. Of course, we could take the time and he set up his projector and screen, brought a large reel of film from his workroom and we watched what he said was a film lacking the quality of the original. Still it was impressive, even without a soundtrack.
Especially Vishniac's death in 1990, there has been criticism of his work as being absent of diversity (it concentrates heavily on the poor and on the orthodox Jewish communities) and as not being authentic in that he took considerable license in describing his subjects and the circumstances under which they were photographed. Some research has indicated that certain photographs were "staged," but little criticism has been made of the quality of the photography an the value of his work as an archive of a people who were removed from European society in the atrocities of the Shoah (or Holocaust). As for Vishniac the man, I can offer no more insight into his character and personality than that one visit produced. I can only say that he was generous with his time and information, and if the stories that he told me and my friend were exaggerations or fabrications to some extent, that is nothing to be unexpected among photographers, especially those whose travels and experiences cover a many years. If you read the autobiographical writing of William Henry Jackson, you will find it full of hyperbole, and I have witnessed much of the same in the tales told by my own contemporaries. Some day, I'm sure the same will be said about some of my own tales, though I have always tried to be factual as my memory serves me. Someone once told me that as you age, the second thing to go is your memory, and I've forgotten what the first thing was.
The photograph above was made as our host was rewinding the film on his projector.
February 2, 2012: Taking a new and somewhat different view of an old and familiar subject.
A week ago, I had an opportunity to revisit one the locations of my October workshop (blog entries for November 11 through 19), the White Place near Abiquiu, NM. I wanted to go back to an area I felt I had "discovered" too late in the day and photograph it under better light, and I was able to do that. Then while wandering over the landscape alone, without the responsibilities associated with a workshop, and after the fascination with the newness of the place wore off, I began to realize how very monochromatic and almost colorless the place is. As I mentioned in the earlier posts, this should be rather obvious from its name, but then I often tend to see subtle variations and shadings from reflected light and imagine colors that the camera doesn't capture. I found occasional rocks with vivid color, but there was so much that was just shades of gray that the spots of color were completely overwhelmed.
In an environment like that, one looks at the shapes of the formations and concentrates on light and shadow. And when the light levels fall and the shadows fade and the textures, though apparent, are less dramatic than they are when strafed by sunlight from a sharp angle, you find yourself looking desperately for something to give definition and a perception of depth to the scene. And sometimes, that qualitythat somethingjust isn't there. Still the silhouetted shapes against the sky or dark foliage are graphic and the subtle folds of the earth's surface are tempting. You try to conjure a way to either bring contrast to the scene when processing the image or to interpret the image using an alternative process.
Being more or less a traditional "straight photographer" I've never been comfortable altering reality with my photographs. On the other hand, to be honest, I've always been an interpreter of what the camera sees. I commonly used filters with black and white film to achieve desired contrast, and used the view camera's swings and tilts to "correct" the camera's perspective and to remove distortion. When printing, I lightened and darkened selected areas of the image to force the viewer's attention to fall where I wanted it or to create or emphasize a desired mood. But, essentially, the objects and landscape elements that are seen in my photographs are things that were there in front of my camera, void of manipulation and, in shape and form, recognizable to anyone who might have been looking over my shoulder.
When I make a really good picture, there is normally an aha moment when I recognize that I've captured something that is excites my sensibilities. I didn't have such a moment that afternoon at the White Place and when I returned home I found most of my images even less interesting than I had imagined they would be. Many seemed simply dull, even after I had converted the colors to black and white. I considered throwing them out, but I decided to think about that for a while longer. After some thought, I began to wonder how they might look if I treated them as if they were a series of old William Henry Jackson prints or Edward Sheriff Curtis photogravures. What if they were printed in sepia or brown tone with vignetting to darken the edges and corners as if photographed with some older lenses? The shadows were soft and the contrast was flat. So what would happen if I made them look old?
Nine images were processed in Adobe Lightroom (v. 3.6) converting them to black and white, applying split toning and a vignette and darkening the blue sky slightly. The process was rather simple and I didn't feel it was necessary to develop the images in Adobe Photoshop to alter them further. I began with the photograph above and then applied the similar but not the exact same adjustments to others. The principal difference between most of them was in the way curves were adjusted. Here are two more, and I will be glad to share more with you if you ask.
This was an interesting experiment. I'm pleased with the outcome, but I'm not planning to make this a standard treatment of this subject. Other visits to the White place will offer different light and weather conditions and I'm sure to either discover new formations and textures to photograph, or new ways of looking at the familiar ones.
January 16, 2012: Come with me and explore features of the Four Corners region in October.*
From Tuesday, October 16 through Sunday, October 21, 2012, I will lead photography students on an exploration of the Four Corners area where the borders of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah intersect. Sponsored by the Santa Fe Photography Workshops (www.santafeworkshops.com), this event will give participants an opportunity to photograph incredible landscapes and archaeological sites before returning to Santa Fe where we will spend two days in the digital lab, refining our images and printing personal portfolios. During our time in the Four Corners, we will use Farmington New Mexico as our base, making day trips to places like Shiprock, and the Bisti Wilderness (the final list of locations is subject to changes and additions).
*This event and other fall workshops will not be posted on the Santa Fe Workshops website until later in the year, but, I wanted those of you who follow this blog to be the first to know.
The photograph above provides a glimpse of one of many unusual and unique natural formations to be found in the Bisti Wilderness, 36 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico. My plan is to take workshop participants to places like this that they are less likely to find on their own.
October has been selected as the time for this event because the weather conditions at that time of the year are generally more favorablerainfall is minimal and the temperatures can be very pleasant. Between now and then, I will be scouting the area and talking with several of the regional authorities to ensure that we will be prepared to deal with then current local access issues.
January 9, 2012: Interesting juxtapositions
Late one afternoon, just before the new year, I was feeling a bit homebound and decided to get out and make a few pictures in my own yard. The sun was low in the southwest and it cast the shadow of a large apricot tree on the adobe wall that separates my yard from my neighbor's. What was most interesting was the way that shadow appeared to form a support structure for the branches of my neighbor's wonderful old apple tree extending over the wall. The juxtaposition of these elements created an image I'd not seen before. It was a delightful surprise to find this picture right outside my back door.
For various reasons, most of us overlook the most accessible image possibilities. It's not that we don't notice them, but because we see them so often, they tend to seem too familiar and ordinary to be worth photographing. Someone else visiting for just a few hours, on the other hand, might find these subjects intensely provocative. If only we could regain the childlike curiosity that makes everything seem fascinatingthe ability to perceive the same subjects differently as the viewing angle, light, time and other variables change.
Did I say, "If only we could regain that childlike curiosity?" Let's be more positive about that. We can regain that ability. It's something I discuss in my workshops and there are exercises I learned years ago that help to retrain tired old vision. If you'll join me for a workshop, I'll share these with you.