Archive for November, 2009

29
Nov
09

thoughts of Joy

“If nature has made you a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart. And though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that.”

-Frances Hodgson Burnett

I love this time of year.  I find my senses heightened and tuned to the subtle vibrations of joy.  I’m talking about a walking-around, tiny-bubbles, effervescent kind of joy ~ not the explosive noisy type.   I’ve learned that I can summon this feeling with intention and I can also create it by photographing.  One such experience happened the first time I used a Lensbaby.  I’m not a gadget/gimmick/tricky photographer….but I do enjoy creative exploration.  So I popped on a loaned lensbaby and started shooting, just to see.   I like that idea “just to see”.  How many times have we learned things that were transformative just because we were curious?  And how much joy did that bring? 

Regarding the opening quote:  it’s not unusual that as a photographer my “hands are empty” but it is true that my heart is always full.  This year I’ve been busy making prints and cards for friends and family as gifts.  Then I thought I should take that one step further.  I’m sending boxes of cards to some local nursing homes.  While the residents don’t often have the ability to shop, many still write and send cards to family and friends.  I know that you all have great ideas of your own that spread the joy of this season.  Tell me about them!  And remember:  a thing of beauty is a joy forever. 

….some lensbaby joy:

25
Nov
09

A Thanksgiving post

I’ve spoken of gratitude in previous posts and yet today it seems appropriate to give thanks to my teachers and to teachers everywhere.  I’ll take this idea a little further and give thanks to my students as well.  For they are the reason that teaching is a joy. 

The teachers I have had in my photographic life come from many different backgrounds.  The one characteristic that sets the great ones apart from the good ones is their ability to set aside their personal vision and engage in a genuine manner the student’s interests and body of work.  Simply, there is no ego in great teaching.   When we are connected to another person in this selfless way then we allow magic to happen; perhaps a clearer vision emerges for the student, or the courage to show work publicly, or to tackle a completely new technique or project.   It is likely that the teacher will not know the result of their effort or the lasting effect a conversation or workshop might  have.  But once in a while a little magic happens and we hear from a former student or see a book published or exhibit hung that allows you to think “Yes! I had a little part in that.”  And as this is so inspiring, the circle is complete.  

I had this bit of magic delivered to me last week in the form of an email from a student.  And the week before I enjoyed a break from my routine and had lunch with a former student.  In both instances I was deeply moved…and humbled…by their gracious remarks and their appropriate pride in the work they have been creating since our times together. 

Teach, tutor, or mentor….whatever you have time for!  You will see more deeply and appreciate the amazing ability of your students to see things in a way that you could never dream.  It’s just another way to say that whatever we give comes back to us in far greater measure.   Take a moment to email or write to a teacher whose efforts made a lasting impression.  The joy you will create is immeasurable.

My small gallery today comes from a time when I was challenged, intimidated, yet determined after remarks from my dearest teacher set me on a collision course with my photographic inadequacies. And so, to use a word I learned from my fellow Pilgrims on the path to Santiago de Compostela: Ultreia! (Onward, with courage!)….and I would add, gratitude.

 

17
Nov
09

knowing your subject too well?

In my last post I mentioned that in order to photograph your subject well you must know it deeply.  But knowing my subject too well became a challenge.  Upon my return from Europe in the summer of 2006 I was deeply frustrated photographically.  I had spent the previous four months photographing in France, Italy, England, and Holland, and then had a magical trip on a yacht up through the Southeast Passage in Alaska.  The visual feast of having something new and exciting to see for virtually every second of every day had dulled my senses to the familiar.   I turned back to my books for inspiration and a new subject.  This statement, from Ernst Haas, changed my thinking in an instant:  “I am not interested in shooting new things, I am interested to see things new.”  

I am not overstating it to say this sentence changed my life.  I went out that evening  to see things new; things (my home town) that I had such familiarity with that I could tell you when a certain flower or shrub would bloom in a particular back yard, or when a building was last painted, and didn’t it need painting again?  There is value in knowing something so well, I suppose it’s the meaning in the phrase “my home town”.  Shepherdstown had been my home for 44 years at this point….and with the arrival of Ian and Jessica, my family had called Shepherdstown “home” for six generations.  I never could have predicted that I would move, or move all the way across the country to Seattle…but that summer, my last summer in Shepherdstown, taught me that I can photograph wherever I am….an exotic locale or from my elevator each morning….and see things new.

13
Nov
09

The landscape of memory

Thinking of Eudora Welty’s landscape triggered thoughts of my own.  Growing up on a small farm outside of Shepherdstown, WV, shaped me in particular ways.  It was a quiet place with 40 acres to roam that was bordered by larger farms on all sides.  There was a marsh and stream on the front of the property that  would flood in the winter and spring, thereby making a long walk to the end of the lane for the bus a soggy, cold task.   There were woods at the back of the farm that remained  mysterious, there was a spring on the north side that I was convinced was a haven for cottonmouth snakes (probably not, but still scary), and we had a great old barn with a hay loft and stalls beneath.  While the memory of that landscape is clear, and dear to me in many ways, what I’ve realized is that my personality was shaped by this experience of place.  By nature I was a quiet child, content to be alone.  Having the farm to roam and explore encouraged that and it also insisted that I develop the capacity for introspection and long periods of solitary pursuits.  Walking and reading became the rhythm of my life on the farm.  Book in hand, dog at my side, off I’d go to find a place to settle for a while.   My two favorite books:  Frederick the Mouse, by Leo Lionni, and Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.   

Frederick_cover

What does all of this have to do with photography?  I think it’s central to who I am as a photographer. Harriet was insistently curious and engaged with the world outside her, but in a stealthy, analytical way.  Frederick was consumed with “storing” the rays of the sun, the colors of the poppies, and the scents of the new-mown meadows to offer to his extended mouse family when the days of winter were long and bleak.   I believe it’s essential to know your subject deeply to photograph it well, so I put the time in to educate myself about a place or place in time (The South, or Pre-War Paris, for example).  But after all that work is done, I open my heart while photographing, to absorb the feeling and gather the sensory feast in front of me.  It can be a solitary pursuit, but offering  the harvest connects me to an ever growing community. 

Rocky Marsh evening, II

late summer evening, Rocky Marsh, near Shepherdstown, West Virginia

10
Nov
09

Eudora Welty and the photography of the South

I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to write about a literary background for photography, not just my photography, but how it shaped a landscape for others as well.  When I first picked up the book, The Well and the Mine, by Gin Phillips, I was attracted to the cover photograph.  As it was a staff pick at Elliott Bay, and a signed copy, I was happy to carry it home.  Sometime during my reading of it, I saw that the cover photograph was one by Eudora Welty.  This was a surprise to me as I was not then aware of her considerable talent and early devotion to photography.  I knew Eudora Welty only through her marvelous novels and short stories.  She makes this comment about photography: “Life doesn’t hold still……Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had”.  Traveling and photographing throughout the South during the Great Depression gave Welty the time to examine the lives of others and to hold those moments still….as if to gather them for a later harvest in her stories. 

The cover photograph, along with the time and place of the story, planted a thought…..and then came the opportunity to take a road trip through Alabama by making a wide arc before my final destination in the Florida panhandle.  While driving I remembered the other great photographers of the era and decided that Hale County was my destination.  I had no particular spot that I wanted to visit, I just wanted to see the country they had seen.  This means getting off the highway and searching for ever smaller roads.  There were no interstates, shopping malls or travel plazas in 1935.  I needed to find red clay roads. 

I had only a day to wander, and I didn’t create a photographic masterpiece.  No matter…….my intention was to travel in the footsteps of the Masters for a bit….to get my own sense of Gin Phillips’ physical and emotional landscape in The Well and the Mine.   I knew, too, that Walker Evans’ masterpiece of the Fields family on their porch was photographed in Hale county.  I wanted to find those porches, the sharecropper’s shacks.  Not that porch or that shack, just a general feel for the time.  I stopped at high noon in front of a dilapidated old crossroads store to make a couple of photographs.  There were two stray dogs there and blazing light, little else.  I made the landscape shot, then went closer and photographed some details on the storefront: the narrow strips of siding with inumerable coats of paint, a shutter with a horseshoe, vines covering the sides and growing over a doorway. 

Fast forward to my return to Seattle.  While browsing through photography books in Elliott Bay, I picked up a new volume on Walker Evans.  The page fell open to a photograph titled  Sprott Store, Hale County, Alabama.   I was stunned.  There was the the building I photographed.  There was the horseshoe.  The facade had a second story at that time, but there it was…..right at the intersection of those three dirt roads.   Life did hold still for me in that moment, the intervening 80 years fell away and my heart was connected to that landscape, that time, those photographers.    The literature of place and time was the underpinning for my journey and a deeper understanding of place and subject.  That is its own reward.  All else is an embarrassment of riches.  As if to prove that point, at Christmas last year I was given an old copy of Walker Evans’ volume that accompanied his Museum of Modern Art collection  in New York.  The cover photograph:  Sprott Store.  Imagine the surprise when I recounted this story to the unsuspecting giver.

bottle_tree

Bottle Tree, Eudora Welty, a scene later depicted in her short story "Livvie".

 For additional images from Walker Evans and my photograph of Sprott Store, please click on “Walker Evans, etc.” in the menu bar under the blog title.

 

10
Nov
09

“If you want to be a better photographer….

….be a more interesting person”.   This quote is from Jay Maisel’s interview with Chris Orwig.  Here’s the link:  http://www.chrisorwig.com/flipside/2009/11/08/jay-maisel-interview/

I’ve had the pleasure of assisting Jay on a couple of occasions while he was teaching in Seattle.  The conversation that took place during the class was the best part of those weeks because of remarks like the one quoted.  It’s a marvelous affirmation of “We photograph as we are”.   Though there are few people as interesting as Jay Maisel, we can always try.  Here are a few things that have made my life more layered in the last couple of months.  Has it made me a more engaging or interesting person?  I hope so.  What I do know is that I’ve expanded my view of the world and the human condition through my inquiry.    It gives me an opportunity to think about what I want to do photographically and how that will impact my world and The World, if at all.  It’s just another layer of awareness. 

Books: Non fiction

The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz…the amazing endurance of the human body and spiritThe Long Walk

We Die Alone, David Howarth….endurance of the human spirit and community effortWe Die Alone

Fiction

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks (one of my favorite authors)…a sacred book travels through history on a circuitous path7cd962f6b3f7dd2c

Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski….it’s rare to find a book with this depth of emotion and beauty of phrasing.dd9095cc1a5f8ee2 

For the rest of the list, including films, please click on “Favorite Photography Books” in the bar above, then click subpages: books, film.

I’ll add some more in a couple of days.  My next post will explore a literary background to photography.  Here’s a hint:

This photo was made while driving through the South on the way to the NANPA event in Destin, Florida.Thinking of Evans

07
Nov
09

of painting and photography

A comment from a friend has encouraged me to write about my deep belief in the connection that painting has to my photography.  Though I am not a painter I am a lover and longtime collector of paintings.  Decades before I had any thought of creating a life in photography, I spent long hours with my nose buried in books about the Masters.  First, Monet, then led by a painter friend I discovered Bonnard and Cezanne and I took off from there.  I collected the finest books I could about painters and museum collections.  Then I began to travel to see shows and collections.  During that time I lived on the East Coast and had easy access to the museums in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York.  Eventually I was able to visit the museums and shows in London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Florence.  Keep in mind….there was still no photography in my life. 

What I was doing, without knowing it, was creating a rich visual library; reference points or a catalog in my mind and in my heart of color, line, form, composition, light, shadow, and feeling.  I was developing a very critical eye for discerning the qualities that allowed one painting to rise up over another.  My favorite paintings are now like old friends.  I visit them and am filled with the comfort and renewed spirit that comes from sitting with a dear friend.  It’s my reassurance that there is beauty in the world to be created.  And so I am not surprised, but truly delighted when I “see” a photograph that brings forth the feeling of a favorite painter.  To be able to say to myself  “aha…this is what Kahn might have seen”  or “Oh! This is Wyeth’s palette” is gratifying and illuminating.  This visual heritage, this wealth of knowledge  is available to each of us.   As humans and as photographers, our lives are richer when we avail ourselves of this treasure.

05
Nov
09

Grace and creative inspiration

After PorterEphemeral, yet the impression is lasting and grows in strength as time passes; this is how I recall moments of Grace.  The experience of having recognized an extraordinary moment, and then created an image that communicates the essence of what I saw, fills me with the inspiration to continue to seek those moments.   Grace is subtle, fleeting.  We must cultivate awareness in order to be ready when it appears. 

In the fall of 2008, while teaching with my buddy Rick Holt in the Poconos of Eastern Pennsylvania, I created my favorite photograph from that year.  We started at 5 that morning in order to catch the mist and fog if we had a bit of photographer’s luck.  It was still quite dark upon reaching our destination but I knew there were photographs to be made in the coming pre-dawn.  Walking slowly along the lake shore I could see some outlines of slender birches and then I could make out some gleaming yellow leaves.  I walked a bit further, but within 10 minutes I had come back to that spot.  I could feel a photograph calling.  When I returned I noticed there was just enough light to refine the composition and illuminate the mist that was lying densely in the woods behind.   Stillness fell upon the scene, the leaves held their breath, and I made a number of exposures, experimenting with and refining the framing.  The whole episode might have lasted 5 minutes, but the strength of purpose, confidence, and gratitude that I experience from that time has sustained me through the last year.  

I’m anxious to write more about visual literacy and how we, as photographers, can expand our abilities by caring for the vast store of imagery that has been given to us by the Masters of painting, drawing, sculpting, and photography.  Perhaps you’ll tell me about your favorites?




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