A Little Closer To The Ground

These images are not mine, they were taken on the family ipad by our 3 1/2 year old, and I stumbled upon them recently when I was trying to fix an issue with the device.

Since getting into photography myself I have made some cameras available to my kids as well. For a while the digital camera was more of a curiosity and sough-after play thing than an actual camera. The novelty of what it could do didn’t seem to last too long, unless the other child became interested in it once more that is. Nothing is quite so interesting as what your sister currently has, no matter whether you wanted it three minutes ago or not.

My six year old understands things mechanically, and has a knack for putting together the cause and effect of what is happening. She is the child of endless “why” and “how” questions, and it is through trying to support her in asking those questions that I have learned many interesting things that I never would have thought to ask. She picked up the camera and was quick to start figuring out which button did what. It didn’t take long before she was able to get a good solid picture: subject in the frame, well lit, zoom in if need be.

My 3 1/2 year old shows a much different relationship with the device. With the first digital camera we had, and now with the ipad, I see her off in corners of the room by herself, often looking at things very closely, and working hard to capture something multiple times. She isn’t interested in the technology or the settings. What she is interested in is unclear, but it is obvious to me that she sees something, and feels like this might be a way to capture it.

I am very curious to see if this interest continues or develops. As I have discovered, handing a camera to someone and seeing what comes out is a fascinating way to peek inside their minds, and especially to see a bit through their eyes. I have been self-reflecting through a camera since the end of last year and it is very fun for me to get a quick glimpse inside the head of my middle child.

The Tao of Glass: The Stoic Machine

Cameras, like humans, come in a multitude of models, and each model can vary from its brethren when it is combined with a different configuration of lenses, strobes, memory cards, recording equipment or filters. These unique combinations of innate technology and/or mechanics are set up in such a way that they are able to deliver a suite of results based on software settings and configurations that further differentiate them from one another.

Each camera contains these qualities inherently, and retains them regardless of the setting and surroundings. My Fuji X-E1 is capable of capturing images at 16mb with an ISO setting pushed to an extreme of 25600 with a shutter speed set at 4000. It may not create anything other than a blown out white wash, but it might capture the details of something moving quickly at dusk. The results are up to the interpretation of the third party viewer, but the environment doesn’t have any effect on what the camera itself does.

We have our own built in skills and capabilities, and it is important to remember that our surroundings don’t change that. No matter what is happening around us there are somethings that we will always have no matter where we find ourselves.

The camera doesn’t complain that it is only being taken out to do street photography rather than taking pictures of weddings, or landscapes, or families with squirming children. It will always be focused on executing the skills it was created for no matter what is exposed on the film.

The stoics talk about this as duty. One isn’t usually able to choose the job or position that one has in life, but it is important to attend the to duty that one is given as best as possible regardless of what it is.

If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 3, 12

It is easy to frame the events unfolding around us in ways that seem to shape our lives and our options. At any given point in our lives we may be feeling boxed in, or limited in other ways. However, just because we aren’t in the job that we want, or the place we want to be living, doesn’t mean that we can’t execute the skills that we have to the best of our ability.

Cold as it may seem, the perspective I want to focus on is this: the machine can only perform its function, unaware of the context, uninfluenced by the perceived outcome. The camera doesn’t worry whether the image was over or underexposed, or whether the gallery visitors appreciate the composition of images that it created. It is focused on the execution of its duty regardless of the skill with which it is manipulated.

We can choose ourselves how much we need to be influenced by the perceived outcomes of our work and how it is received by people removed from us. We can choose to focus on aspects of our surroundings and circumstances that we imagine to be limiting factors, or simply not ideal. Or, we can keep in mind the purposed to which we are trying to apply ourselves. Perhaps it is artistry, or being a skilled worker, or being a parent who is present and emotionally available.

Regardless of the situation we can choose to focus on how we execute those actions, rather than worrying about what might come of them once they are beyond our control.

Let any external thing that so wishes happen to those parts of me which can be affected by its happening – and they, if they wish, can complain. I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 7, 14

The Tao of Glass: Critique and Portfolio

The most useful thing I learned during my time at RISD pursuing a continuing education degree in print design, was the art of the critique. In photography the critique comes into play once you have returned home after a nice day hiking around snapping photos. There are some pictures you are pretty sure turned out just the way you want them, and there are often many, many, more that you took because something in them looked interesting at the time, but you’re not sure whether the shot was going to be worth keeping.

The art of critique is the art of knowing what your goal is, reviewing the work in context to the goal, and deciding clearly and definitively whether or not the piece has successfully achieved what you were intending.

Most people do not like this phase because it often seems like a process of focusing in areas where things were not successful, and thus the idea of “being a critic” or “being critical” have come to take on less than positive connotations.

Every time I come back from a shoot there is a wonderful mix of excitement, tinged with just a bit of dread. I can’t wait to see what I got, but secretly I am worried that I didn’t get anything, that all of my shots will turn out to have been unsuccessful.

When looking through images with fresh eyes it is easy to see the winners. When a shot works it usually grabs me, thrills me, and stands out clearly from the rest. These are the shots where I can’t always explain what is going on, but I know it when I see it. Likewise, there are shots that clearly don’t work. These might be out of focus, poorly framed or underexposed. I don’t need to spend much energy looking at these either. Disappointing to be sure, but clearly not worth hanging on to. The art of the critique isn’t to identify the shots I know are winners. The art of the critique is there most often there for me to help weed out the shots that are worth my time and effort, or can teach me something.

I find it is also helpful to think about putting together a portfolio of work. Everything worth keeping should be something that you would be proud to put in your portfolio. Is the image something you feel represents the best of what you have to offer? Would you be proud showing it to strangers? Would you want to hang it on your own wall and look at it daily? Does it represent what you find interesting? If, after asking myself these questions, I say “no”, then what is it that I am doing hanging on to the piece? If I am not happy with it enough to share it with others, or to stand beside it on the wall, then why keep it?

There are many images we take which spark something, but are not that thing in and of themselves. I have taken, and will continue to take, photos of interesting trees, but more often than not they fail to capture what I find interesting in the tree as I see it in person. I can learn from these images, learn from what was not successful, learn from the pieces that were. I can continue to try new ways to frame the shot the next time.

What I cannot do, is hang on to images that I am not planning to use later on. I don’t to post-processing or photo-collage. I can’t see any use for maintaining a generic library of images for reference, and I wouldn’t have the time to maintain it either. For me, either an image is worth keeping, or not, and that is a matter of staying true to what I value and not letting myself feel sentimental about hanging on “just in case”.

It isn’t much of a stretch to see this playing out in other areas of my life as well. One of the most important things we do is make choices about where we spend our time and what we end up doing with that time. Obviously we have work and family commitments to take care of, but within that we have so many choices about how to go about them.

I have been editing the portfolio of my life as consciously as I can during the last few years. Choosing to spend my time outside as much as possible, reading more, eating clean, travelling when I can, spending time with my children and wife, and pursuing a hobby are all core values that drive me and need to be prioritized in my time. I have had to decide to get rid of some things, though I haven’t missed any of them. When taking a moment of reflection I take stock of my time just like I am reviewing new pictures on the computer. How have I been spending my time? Have those choices proved to be positive and beneficial, or have I been frustrated? Are there activities I need to spend more time doing, or activities that I need no longer partake in?

Setting my life up more like a portfolio has had many benefits. I am proud to stand by my activities as my works of art and the time I spend doing them allows me to be more of myself, which allows me to be there for others as well.

The Tao of Glass: Manual Focus Lens Qigong

After my initial foray into photography armed only with my cell phone camera, I decided it was time to step up to a “real” camera. I didn’t take this transition lightly, as the next logical step in my photographic journey, or because I was told that one needs to use a more expensive camera in order to take good pictures, or to call oneself a photographer.

My choice was driven by two major factors, and was the result of plenty of research.

First, and not quite as important in the scheme of things, is that I learned that megapixels were not all created equal, and that the 12 megapixel cell phone camera wouldn’t produce the same quality of a 12 megapixel full frame, AP-C or Four-Thirds camera sensor. Having a bit more image processing power allows me to get images that look great even when printed large, which is a nice bonus.

The real reason I wanted to get a manual lens has to do with control and the potential to learn.

Using my cell phone camera I was able to affect two out of three critical functions that go how an image is exposed. I was able to adjust the ISO sensitivity for the sensor and I was able to adjust the shutter speed, or how long the sensor is exposed to light when it takes a picture. What I couldn’t change, however, was the aperture setting, or how wide the opening is that allows light to enter.

With a manual lens I am able to adjust all of these settings on my own in a fluid way. This gives me more control over the outcome of the final image, which is obviously a consideration, but consider this as well.

The lens I have has no automatic parts, so my input in the process is not optional.

To be quite clear, there are plenty of automatic adjustments and features that take place within my camera. I am not shooting film and have immediate access to the results of each shot as it is taken. The digital viewfinder and rear LCD screen show me the results of the adjustments I have made as I make them using the lens.

In the few weeks that I have had this lens and been able to spend some time shooting with it, I have come to fall in love with the process. This is exactly the experience I was hoping for, and one that reinforces my decision to take this path with my art.

Operating the lens and setting up a shot have quickly become a matter of touch and muscle memory, rather than mental calculations. I am not thinking about specific ISO settings or shutter speeds as I adjust the dials, except for knowing whether or not they need to be stepped up or down, and training my fingers to start making these changes without needing to pull my eye away to look at the camera itself.

Taoism has a very long tradition connecting the philosophical ideas to all aspects of life, including nutrition and physical exercises, which fall under a broad and dynamic umbrella of activities known as Qigong, or roughly energy work. Some of these are very simple, gentle and slow stretching and breathing exercises, while other qigong practices range into rigorous martial arts routines, complex Taichi routines and feats of seemingly inhuman endurance.

My limited experience with Qigong, specifically basic Taichi practice and yoga, remind me quite a bit of my time spent with the manual lens while out taking pictures.

I mentioned earlier that using the lens has built up a feel for the practice. Qigong in all forms builds a similar familiarity and “feel” for our own bodies. After having built up only a small sustained practice it becomes easier to notice when things are not in balance within yourself. As your muscles loosen up, it is easier to tell when they become stiff. This awareness is akin to the use of the lens in another very beneficial way. Not only am I aware when things are not exposed within the image the way that I want, I am also able to make those adjustments and corrections unconsciously. Qigong allows us to do the same. When we feel our bodies out of balance we can go back to our routines to help get back on track.

Taoism, in its embracing of this holistic toolkit, helps us to build reflexive and ingrained “muscle memory” as we work to follow our own paths. By spending time thinking about who we are, how we are striving to grow, and how we are feeling physically, we can more quickly identify when things are out of balance, and work to correct them by keeping to our usual practices.

Going manual is not possible in our complex reality in every part of our lives, but I encourage everyone to find at least one practice in which they can “go manual”. Qigong, like all pieces of our unique path in life, isn’t regulated to a strict set of practices, rather it is unique for each person. For me, working the manual lens is qigong, a chance to use my body, mind and subconscious as one, to deepen my understanding of myself, and to set a baseline for balance in my life. I hope that everyone can find something equally helpful.

Tao of Glass: Shoot to Learn

Taoism and Buddhism speak well to me because each of them express so deep an interest in actionable self-improvement. This is certainly not to say that all other traditions do not have their own daily practices focused on the same goal, but for me it is much easier to point out as a core foundation for both of these traditions. For both, though this is especially focal for Buddhism, the focus is on building a meditation practice. Taoism is strongly tied to a wide range of physical health practices, broadly known as qigong, which can range from simple sitting and breathing exercises to deeply complex martial arts routines.

For an even more straightforward perspective focused on routine practices for self improvement it may be helpful to look at Stoicism. This Greek Philosophical school emphasizes practices to continually review one’s opinions and perceptions, including maintaining a daily journal to guide self reflection.

Photography has a great deal in common with this broad picture of practice. When returning to photography I was deeply self conscious of the fact that I had a lot to learn. I had passed up opportunities to formally study photography in college and had this image in my mind that I would have a steep learning curve ahead of me. That, of course, is certainly true, but not in the way that I imagined.

Within a couple of weeks I was able to get a firm grasp on the fundamentals. Taking pictures certainly isn’t difficult in and of itself, just the press of a button. Some theory was certainly necessary. Understanding how aperature, ISO and shutter speed relate to each other and for the triangle of exposure is a key concept that underlies what is happening within the image capture and how one can affect the outcome.

Visual concepts surrounding subject, form and composition in an image were things I was able to bring with me from years working in other forms of visual media.

After reading through a few explanation of these concepts, especially trying to get a handle on aperature and focal length, I spent far more of my time looking at cameras, trying to figure out just what I needed in order to get started.

Where the real magic happens with photography is that in order to improve, reading isn’t enough, I am just going to have to go out and take pictures, lots of pictures. Snapping isn’t enough, however, I am going to need to be thoughtful about it, think about how the pictures are turning out and try to figure out what I can adjust to make the more successful the next time.

The same concept applies equally to the philosophies listed above. Both Taoism and Stoicism share some basic concepts that are necessary to get one’s head into the right perspective, and to begin to see how connections can be made. There are common practices and core exercises that many others have found helpful to their own time spent following the path, and it is often helpful to spend time talking with others to share what their experience has been like.

When it comes down to it, however, these are not armchair philosophies. One can only truly appreciate and understand them by going out in the world and practicing. At first the way in which one practices may feel awkward and unnatural. For myself it has been a little more than two years of micro adjustments along with a scattering of qigong and meditation practices, which have not continued in an unbroken line, but have continued to adapt, to re-balance themselves as other aspects of my life ebb and flow.

I am coming to photography second, and in many ways I am more prepared to dive into this art form because of my time spent developing a practice towards the Tao. I am more comfortable with the knowledge that I do not know what I am doing fully, and that I do not need to have my destination firmly in hand when I set out. One step at a time, camera in hand, with regular practice, I will find myself far enough along the path that new possibilities will become available to me.

The Tao of Glass: Focus and the Present Moment

There are many ways in which I see the act of photography as a metaphor for Taoist concepts. In these “The Tao of Glass” posts I want to take elements of the philosophy and examine them in comparison to philosophical elements that resonate with me.

Taoism and Stoicism both emphasize that it is unhelpful to dwell too much in our past actions or our future desires. To be sure we must make time to plan out what we will be doing later in the day, in the week, etc. My wife and I regularly make time to look at what we will hope to be doing more than two years down the road (travelling mostly), but not with the firm sense of exactly how and when it will happen. Likewise there is wisdom to be gained from the past, learning from our mistakes and remembering to be grateful for what has helped to bring us where we are.

It is when we are tied down by what has come before us, or what we dread ahead of us, that we begin to lose our connection to where we really are in the world right now.

Looking through the lens of a camera has become a physical manifestation of this concept, a reminder to be present with myself. Framing a shot in the viewfinder makes it difficult to think of the past or the future. One is suddenly present, engaged with the subject, noticing details that would normally flow by unnoticed.

The lens has become a personal metaphor representing this presence of mind. Having it in my hands helps to clear my mind and allows me to experience more sharply the world around me. I take so much inspiration from the details that nature provides. Knowing that I am in “photography mode” primes me to look for interesting things, and opens my vision to new possibilities. Noticing things becomes a virtuous cycle. The more details I see, the more that catches my eye, the more in the moment I become, and the more I am able to absorb of my surroundings.

When I find myself distracted, ruminating on the dread of upcoming challenges, or imagining other things that I might be doing with my time in a given moment, it is helpful for me to think of the lens. Every aspect of reality has its own expression and its own beauty. If I can bring myself to focus on the moment, to focus my presence, I will inevitably discover something interesting about the world around me that I had been overlooking.