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.

Let It Fall Where It May

Yesterday I was able to enjoy an afternoon moment of simple joy. After a couple of difficult days, struggling with home school and work schedule overlaps and uncertainty about both my job and the new normal, I was able to catch a bit of a break.

The weather was amazing, absolutely perfect. Warmer than had been predicted but not hot, clear blue skies, light breeze, perfect.

Two of my three kids were playing in the backyard while I watched. My son slipped on some dry grass that is always the last part of the lawn to turn green, and then grows like crazy all year long. The dry patch had been shedding tiny brown stalks all spring and this gave us all an idea.

Nothing like a bit of natural confetti and moments of down time to experiment with a camera.

It had been a few days since I had really taken any pictures, and longer since I had taken anything that I felt really excited about. Despite the simplicity (or because of it) I found myself enjoying the process, my kids, and the moment all at once. Something I really needed.

Nothing more to be said except that I hope all of you can find a slice of bliss amidst the stress of our shared uncertainty. Shout-out also to Yuri for inspiring in part the idea for throwing things into the air and taking pictures of them with his No Gravity project, though my interpretation wasn’t nearly so daring.

Shared Vision: The work of Keld Helmer-Petersen

Making connections between disparate things, be they ideas or objects, has always had a special kind of fascination for me. Unlike comparing apples to apples, I think it can be much more enlightening seeing apples and oranges together.

In a previous post about the work of photographer Brett Wilson a generous reader clued me in to the work of another photography I had not yet encountered, a Dane named Keld Helmer-Petersen.

Keld took up a camera in the late 1930s and never put it down. He seemed to enjoy experimenting with a broad range of subject matter and technique. It seems from what I have yet explored of his images that his approach to photography was about a project much larger than the final result of any given image. He wasn’t trying to create a certain photograph at the end of the day, he was using photography itself as means to explore the world around him in all of its various forms.

His collected photographs are hosted online through the Royal Danish Library. In this time of social distancing and limited ability to get outside and make images of my own, I have found Keld’s images resonate quite deeply with the way I see the world.

There seems to be no organization to the online database of his photos, which highlights to me the eclectic and wide-ranging set of interests that grabbed Keld’s attention. The things that seemed to catch his attention weren’t the subjects of the scene so much as the relationships between various elements. He captured odd angles of buildings, light and angles, shadows of things as opposed to the things themselves, as well as a whole lot of experimentation with light and image made photographically without cameras.

The way he composes scenes showcases a way of seeing that calls to attention gestalt qualities occurring accidentally, unintentional forms arising out of unique arrangements of buildings and industrial forms.

For me, going through the back log of his work has been a surreal and striking experience. Like the interactions between abstract forms in his photographs, I find myself resonating and relating to his work quite strongly. The description that came to mind was described in a paper by Einstein in which he described “spooky action at a distance”, two particles sharing properties and influencing each other without any direct connection, often separated by vast amounts of space.

This is someone who shares a way of seeing that I can relate to. I can imagine myself taking the pictures that he has taken, and I can see what I think he was trying to capture in those same images.

The experience of making these sorts of connections is more than simply camaraderie, more than a knowing wink and a nod. To share this way of seeing with another artist is like being inside of them. It is an experience of deep sympathy and resonance. We are all ultimately looking to know that there are other people in the world who can relate to us in a meaningful way, and I am beginning to see the broad swath of art as the only real means of finding these visceral connections.

In this time while most of us are spending time sheltering in place and keeping our distance from one another. How vital to continue sharing work that can build these connections over great distance and even gulfs of time, so that we can find others that see how we see and let us know that we are never alone.

If nothing else I am about 2000 images into his collection, and there are more than 18,000 hosted to go through, which should keep me busy.

Links:

Keld Helmer-Peterson on Wikipedia

Collection of photographs hosted by the Royal Danish Library. This resource has an incredible amount of collected media beyond images including writing and visual arts. Though much of the site is in Danish, this is still a wonderful place to explore while sheltering in place.

Photo Story: The Fox Hunt

We have recently had a lot of fox activity around the neighborhood. This isn’t something we have seen in the previous six years of living here and it has been fairy entertaining. There are at least two foxes that come visiting, the bigger of the two usually makes his morning commute through our front yard as we are eating breakfast, and then returns on the other side of the street. Apparently the squirrels in our neighborhood are pretty good pickings.

A couple of days ago we had a gray misty morning that lasted nearly until noon. We saw the neighborhood fox four times that morning, coming by our window and feeling pretty confident with himself, apparently because he felt that he had a bit more cover in that sort of weather.

I had been feeling a bit restless that morning as well and thought that the gray morning might make for some good photography lighting. I had been keeping my eye on a few trees that line the nearby bike path which were always early to bloom in the neighborhood. One of them has wonderful yellow buds that really set it off from the surroundings. I had been looking for an opportunity to get over there and grab a few pictures while the color was good, but things had not been turning out in my favor.

So, this restless morning, I decided to drag my whole family out for a morning walk just so I could photograph one tree.

As often happens when one decides to embark upon an adventure, interesting things are discovered.

As we were fully on the bike path, a third of a mile into our loop and near my photography goal, we saw the second neighborhood fox hanging out off the path, enjoying a freshly caught meal. It didn’t see us at first, and when it did notice me sneaking up with my very-non-zoom-35mm it didn’t immediately run off because it didn’t want to bother having to relocate for brunch.

Despite the fact that I did not have remotely the right equipment for the job I managed to snag a couple of good shots as the animal decided what its next move was going to be. I don’t think I’m going to be investing in a telephoto any time soon, but I did enjoy the thrill of the hunt while I was there. I can certainly see the appeal.

Seeking Compassion in Stoicism

When I finally started reading some of the key Stoic writers in my journey to better understand the philsophy, I was quickly struck by a recurring pronouncement of empathy and compassion for one’s fellow man.

I had come to the philosophy with a partial and flawed understanding that the philosophy was primarily focused on distancing oneself from emotions and the influence of other people. The impression that many people have is that to be stoic is to be untouched by the good and the bad that happens to you, and to those around you.

My early encounters with the text, however, brought up many quotes that I found surprising given this preconception that I had come in with. Stoicism as espoused by Marcus Auralius is not only a way of living that encourages one to take the perspective of others regularly, but it also calls on Stoics to minister to their suffering brethren. A sentiment that rings more closely to what I am used to hearing as a trait of Christianity.

One of my favorite passages from Marcus, as with all his writings, was something he wrote to put a check on himself, to make sure that he was keeping his mind on service to his duties and humanity.

How have you behaved up to now towards gods, parents, brother, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relations, servants? Has your principle up to now with all of these been to ‘say no evil, do no evil’? Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure; that the story of your life is fully told and your service completed; how often you have seen beauty, disregarded pleasure and pain, forgone glory, and been kind to the unkind?

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 5, 31

In the same breath as he talks about how he has treated those around him he also mentions being unmoved by pleasure or pain. These two concepts, of being both immune to the influence of emotion, and compassionate to our fellow man, are not mutually exclusive.

Below all aspects of Stoicism runs a current of thought in which we understand that our emotional reactions to things are based on our own judgement about those things. If we understand that we have the power to adjust our responses to the world, then all manner of things that happen to or around us lose their power to make us unhappy.

I am able to form the judgement that I should about this event. If able, why troubled? All that lies outside my own mind is nothing to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 7, 2

Marcus was an Roman emperor and writes a lot about dealing with difficult people, both friends and enemies. His version of compassion if often tilted quite strongly towards tolerance of individuals whom he might otherwise find difficult to deal with. Though some people might feel that this perspective is a bit weak, far from the sort of warmth we often associate with compassion, I would argue that true tolerance of any other person is an incredibly difficult and generous stance to strive towards.

Men are born for the sake of each other. So either teach or tolerate.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 8, 59

One of the striking ways in which Marcus helps us gain perspective on the wrongs done by others, is to point out that everyone has only the choices to act in accordance with their own knowledge and circumstances. He also finds it prudent to point out that perhaps the wrong that we think they have done may not in fact be what we imagine. Who are we to presume that our perspective on the situation is correct in the first place?

Presented with the impression that someone has done wrong, how do I know that this was a wrong? And if it was indeed a wrong, how do I know that he was not already condemning himself, which is the equivalent of tearing his own face? Wanting the bad man not to do wrong is like wanting the fig tree not to produce figs, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh, or any other inevitable fact of nature. What else can he do with a state of mind like his? So if you are really keen, cure his state.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 12, 16

Being a Stoic isn’t about building a wall around yourself so that the actions of others will not be able to affect you. It isn’t social distancing and filtering in such a way as that the words of others come to us from arm’s length. It is actually the opposite. It is being so secure in our own judgement and virtue that we can open ourselves up fully to be present in the mind and position of the other person. It is an act of actually trying to step into their shoes and see where they are coming from. It is by getting ourselves away from our own prejudices that we are able to see more clearly, and when we can see from the other person’s perspective it seems simple that we will have some sympathy for them as a fellow human being struggling to do the right thing the best way that they know how.

I have come to greatly admire this aspect of Stoicism that is difficult to convey and seems often to be lost in the description. We can only ever truly affect change within ourselves, and the focus of our attention should be on living in accordance with our own inner nature in order to lead a virtuous life. As social creatures and part of a larger connection of living beings, our virtues need also be turned to how we deal with others. True tolerance isn’t a shutting people out, it is an attempt to understand them. Our ability to not take their actions personally has nothing to do with fortitude and strength, rather it has to do with wisdom and empathy.

Compassion, it seems to me, is not only an aspect of the Stoic tradition, but a cornerstone. If we truly do the work of understanding who we are, and the challenges that each person much endure in their own ways, then compassion is a natural outcome. Blame is not a factor in the equation. We are all in the same struggle together, and we can never truly harm one another, and to share our experiences and sympathies with one another will help ease the burden for all.

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 6, 39

Photo Story: Colorful Bokeh Bits

Inspired by my last session stuck downstairs in the playroom with my camera, I approached the next one with a much more open perspective.

The actual objects in our playroom don’t interest me very much as subject matter for photos. Much the same with my photography outdoors I am more interested in the overlapping of textures and patterns, and the small details that get overlooked. When surrounded by man-made objects, which do not generally have their own inherent natural qualities or details, I was struggling to figure out where to point my camera.

The answer to this question, as the answer to so many questions of my childhood, was legos. I liked the idea of restricting my viewpoint, and using objects to disrupt the objects in the room so that they wouldn’t be recognizable in the photos. This way, it wouldn’t matter so much what I was shooting, rather how I was shooting.

I created a simple viewfinder/tunnel out of lego (duplo to get technical) windows so that I could focus the light and attention of the camera.

That, combined with the multi-colored strings of lights that we have set up down there were enough to create some really interesting abstractions using a close focus and bokeh from the lights.

The lego frames were semi-reflective, and by adjusting how they lined up I was able to create slices of the round light glow, and to multiply the effect in some interesting ways. One of the most interesting things I learned is that my mirrorless fujifilm x-e1 isn’t always going to create what I see on the viewfinder. Several of the lights that I saw clearly on my screen did not show up after I had clicked the shutter. Something to do with the angle or intensity of the light.

Once again the power of play wins out. I guess I will continue taking this lesson to heart, especially given that we are potentially going to have to spend some serious time social distancing in the near future depending on how things go.

For now, I hope that everyone is able to take a step back, take stock, and find some unique perspectives to help brighten up the day even when things don’t initially looks so positive.

Artist Inspiration: Brett Weston

I have just discovered a kindred spirit in the photography world and wanted to share some of my inspiration. I’m not going to dive much into his biography since that is something quickly found online. Suffice it to say that he was born second son to an already famous photographer but quickly defined his own talents and style.

I came across his work through The Brett Weston Archive, a wonderful site focused on the photography that offers several curated collections that can be viewed online. All images in this post are taken from one of these portfolios titled simply “Oregon”.

What immediately struck me about Brett’s work was his focus on texture and the abstracted patterns of positive and negative space that appear on surfaces or are created through repetition or overlapping of textures within a scene. His work doesn’t seem interested in depth so much as the more two-dimensional patters created by the elements whether they be on the same plane or not.

He seemed to see the confluence of light and dark and wanted to flatten it through high contrast black and white so that the resulting image would show how these elements combined with one another to create something more interesting, rather than showing them in relation to one another within a larger scene.

I’m not sure whether to consider him as a “nature” photographer or an abstract photographer, but a combination of the two certainly seems appropriate, given that he was using the natural elements to highlight an emergent pattern, rather than highlighting a specific subject in its own right.

I very much appreciate the aesthetic and have long been interested in creating similar visuals through various media that I have explored. Seeing a photographer who is able to capture such things so beautifully on film in the way that I can currently only imagine is absolutely inspiring to me and shows me that there is a way forward and a benchmark to measure myself against.

Hope there was a bit of inspiration in there for someone else who reads this! As I continue my own journey into the history of photography I will certainly call out those who speak to me, and I would appreciate having other photographers pointed out to me if there are suggestions from any readers.

Links:

Brett Weston – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brett_Weston

The Brett Weston Archive online – Portfolios page https://www.brettwestonarchive.com/portfolios/

Photo Story: Folds of Gold

After several absolutely amazing days where we were treated to a preview of summer the dream has been snatched away. Freezing drizzle, along with having the kids off school on spring break, has created the perfect environment for cabin fever. Oh yeah, at at least two of the family are sick right now, so we’re also trying to keep people separated as well as sane.

All of this has been driving me a bit crazy as well since I haven’t been able to get outside and shoot anything besides family pics.

Yesterday, feeling trapped in our basement play room with the pent up energy of a three and six year old, I managed to find a quiet pocket of photographic experimentation to escape into.

We have had a shiny gold set of bed sheets for several years now. I can’t quite remember where they came from, but their current home is in the play room where they are regularly used for building forts and tunnels.

Inspired by the way the cloth was draping and catching the light I decided to do my first staged photo shoot. Using various props to hang the fabric from I tried to create interesting patterns of folds, loosely tugging and piling the fabric so that it would fall somewhat haphazardly, creating a look based on the nature of the material and not something that I had carefully arranged. Thankfully this was a very simple process and lent itself to simple reconfiguration and quick adjustments.

If nothing else it was a great experiment in composition and balance of positive and negative spaces. Limiting the scope to simple color and shape really allows one to see how they interact within the frame.

I can also see how creating abstract photographs of other materials would make for an interesting project. The ways in which other items like paper would create texture through crumples or overlaps could be similarly interesting. Never though I would ever consider shooting indoors, especially not arranged shots in a controlled environment, and I likely won’t spend much time going down this road, but it goes to show that allowing oneself to play with even the strangest ideas could open doors to new perspectives.

Intended Consequences

I just listened to an interview with acclaimed street photographer Valérie Jardin that was conducted on the podcast “Photography Radio”. Valérie is passionate about teaching and was recounting experiences she has had doing instruction with students on location in Paris. One of the things she focused on was the idea of taking photographs with intention, and it sparked a connection I have seen over and over again within the Stoic tradition.

“No action should be undertaken without aim, or other than in conformity with a principle affirming the art of life.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 4, 2

Valérie was specifically talking about photographers who shoot everything that moves (or doesn’t) and end up with 10,000 photos hoping that there will be a few gems in the mix, rather than the photographers who are more critical of a scene and shoot selectively, looking for specific images before they are willing to click the shutter.

The seed of her thought centered on the idea that her students should make sure that they were taking pictures with an goal in mind. Every time the shutter goes off it will make a picture, but the meaning and success of that picture depend entirely on what the photographer was trying to capture.

What I find fascinating when hearing other photographers talk about their work, is what they were thinking when they attempted the shot. Shooting without a plan may result in some shots that seem great, but could the photographer describe why they took the shot, or replicate it later on with a different subject? On the other hand, a photo that might not immediately seem interesting could take on extra layers of meaning when someone hears the story behind it. It may be true that a good photo speaks for itself, but different images speak to different people, and there is no one set of standards for success. In fact, how can we even judge success if we don’t know what the goal was in the first place?

“Do not take any action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 3, 5

We spent a lot of time during critique session while I was studying graphic design talking about whether or not an image was successful. It was forbidden to us words like “nice” or “like” as in, “its nice” or “I like it, good work”. None of those comments are helpful when trying to decipher what worked and what didn’t work when creating an image. If you are trying to highlight the mood of the piece, or the shapes that the shadows create, or bring out the contrast of textures, then we can talk about success, because those things are pretty easy to see. In fact there is no such thing as success in a piece that was created without a motive, because the idea of success depends entirely on having a target to shoot at.

Beyond talking about the single image, framing the conversation in success and intention will often lead us to future iterations and solutions. If the textures weren’t clear enough it will be easy to try a different mixture of settings and try again. If the shape of the shadows doesn’t balance well in the frame then we can shift position and look for a new composition. If the images are successful it will likely trigger thoughts about what other subjects might benefit from the same technique, which will lead to further photos and more exploration.

This translates well beyond photography. For me I have recently begun questioning the intention behind my use of Instagram. I’m not quite sure why I have been posting there, and now that it is in my mind I will likely decide to give it up unless I can figure out the value it is generating. In this case it is a question of time being used up that I could be putting somewhere else.

More critically I find myself struggling to be intentional with my parenting. The feeling that I have been in the same room with my kids and not truly present with them stings very badly when I notice it happening.

I find that being intentional doesn’t only serve me when it is trained on the most important aspects of my life, or the creative pursuits. The act of being in the moment and being thoughtful in one’s actions starts a virtuous cycle. When I am the best version of myself and take this to the mind-numbing task of responding to work emails it becomes clear. If I am able to take an extra moment and read between the lines of the email to formulate a more thoughtful answer that addresses something the sender meant to ask but didn’t quite know how to word, then I have a deeper sense of pride in my work. Feeling good about how I handled that particular task usually means I am less anxious about the next task on my list, and I find myself more able to be in the present.

In comparison, if I am blowing through the inbox just shooting for inbox 0, then I usually approach the next task of my life in the same mindset, not focusing, just trying to get through it so that I can get to the end of the day. At which point I often look around and wonder why I thought that was the goal.

“Concentrate on the subject or the act in question, on principle or meaning. You deserve what you are going through. You would rather become good tomorrow than be good today.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 8, 22

This isn’t to say that each moment need be one of extreme revelation and insight. Better to be awake and thoughtful about the choices we are making, however, then to find ourselves awake later down the road not knowing how we got there.

Links:

Photography Radio Podcast: Interview with Valérie Jardin, December 15, 2019.

ValerieJardinPhotography.com

Photo Story: Where the Drainage Ditch Ends

Between finishing up some emails for my actual work and picking up the kids from school I had just about one hour to sneak in a few photos. There is a small wooded area with a winding stream cutting deep furrows into the steep dirt walls just over a mile from the house. One short bike ride and I found myself walking familiar paths but seeing very unfamiliar things.

The paved circuit that is meant for walking is basically a loop through the woods out one side and back by the stream on the other. On the way through the woods it crosses one section of paved drainage ditch that helps control flooding or the nearby lumber yard.

I have mentioned before that holding this camera has made me less willing than I used to be when it comes to staying “on the path”. This trip was no different. It as been dry here and the drainage ditch looked more like an invitation than ugly infrastructure.

Walking to the end of the pavement I found myself at the beginning of what I knew as the winding stream, but what in reality is a long pond that only flows when it has been raining. That might explain why the banks are so steep and clearly eroding, but not constantly.

The view from this perspective was quite surreal and I found myself completely transported out of my self and my world. Suddenly I was sunk below the lip of the world, seeing where it has torn off from the rest of reality, hanging in the darkness. Perhaps the flat-earthers were right all-along, though I did not run into any dragons thankfully.

The whole trip lasted only about 20 minutes, but in that time I was outside of time, looking and shooting and simply absorbing, and that is something I have often found through this pursuit of photography.