When Words Fail

A Bristlecone Pine and a View Mount Goliath, Colorado, 2015

A Bristlecone Pine and a View
Mount Goliath, Colorado, 2015

One reason I like photography (and painting, and sculpture, and all of the visual arts, really) is that it is communication without words.  I suppose this concept is fairly obvious to understand, but really, it’s pretty deep with you think about it.  If you’ve been moved by a work of visual art (and I hope you have), it’s not because someone described it to you, or explained it to you, or communicated the nature of it to you in a code of linguistic symbols having abstract meanings attached thereto by which we exchange concepts and ideas with one another.  It’s because when you looked at it, it acted on you in ways that defy speaking and writing, that refuse to engage the cognitive and reasoning parts of the brain that are required to process language.  Instead, it reached out and touched the parts of your brain that don’t work on a linguistic level, but that respond instead to line and shape, to tone and luminosity, to space and arrangement, and it made you

feel something

That’s pretty cool.

Not a slam on my writer friends in the audience, just an interesting observation.

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My Work is Changing

Under the Windswept Sky Windy Ridge, Near Alma, Colorado, 2016

Under the Windswept Sky
Windy Ridge, Near Alma, Colorado, 2016

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.  Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow.  Let reality be reality.  Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

- Lao Tzu

My work is changing.

I didn’t really notice it myself until a friend pointed it out, but now I can see that my recent work looks different than my earlier work, at least to my (and my friend’s) eye.  It’s not a sudden break or dramatic shift from what I’ve done before, but more like a gradual change over time that you don’t notice while it’s happening but only after you’ve come a way and look back at where you were.

I can’t quite put my finger on what has changed.  I will say that I’ve become more aware of the emotional communication of what I make.  When I started in photography, the most direct way I connected with the work I was producing was in terms of its visual communication.  The message of the image was communicated primarily by my manipulation of visual elements such as lines and forms, brightness and contrast, etc.

I think I still work this way on a conscious level, but now I think I also am aware of what the image makes me feel like when I’m done with it.  Sometimes this feeling simply is what I was feeling when I captured the image in the field, and sometimes it is what I was feeling when I edited the image after capture, which can be quite different.  The point is that mere manipulation of visual elements is not enough, there has to be emotional content to the image as well.  Perhaps this always has been the case, and I simply now am more conscious of it than I used to be.

I’m very aware that I could have edited this image differently, to make it look perhaps more “pretty.”  But, without getting specific about it, I will say this edit more accurately reflects what I was feeling at the time I did the editing.

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The Personal Post

The Church at Nambe Nambe, New Mexico, 2016

The Church at Nambe
Nambe, New Mexico, 2016

This is a blog about photography (well, my photography and my approach to it anyway), so I try not to write about other things, like personal issues that go on in my life.  However, my personal approach to practicing photography (or any art for that matter) is that you should be incorporating it into your daily life as a matter of course – in short, that you should live your art every day, just like you live your work, your health, your relationships, etc.

So, the truth is that if you’re doing it right, the one thing (e.g. photography) should be linked inextricably to the others (everything else you do that makes you who you are).  And that’s where things can get a bit messy, because when things start to go off the rails in other parts of your life, they necessarily will drag along the art part of your life with it.  And of course, things really can and do go off the rails sometimes.

I really have no lessons to offer here, no morals to teach, it’s just an observation.  I haven’t been posting much recently, and I may or may not be doing so for the foreseeable future.

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But Who Looks Closely Anyway?

Playing Hide-And-Seek With the Moon South Park, Colorado, 2016

Playing Hide-and-Seek With the Moon
South Park, Colorado, 2016

If you look closely, you can see a few star trails, which I think is pretty cool.

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Broken Lenses and Emotional Impact

Cross on St. Vincent's Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2016

Cross on St. Vincent’s
Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2016

My Canon 24-105 L lens is broken.

Well, maybe not broken exactly, but it’s developed a habit of creeping.  If you point it straight up, for example, and set it to 105 mm, it will slowly creep down to 24 mm because the mechanism that holds the zoom at a fixed focal length apparently has become loose.  I’ll be sending it in to Canon for warranty service, but in the meantime I’ve been needing to hold the barrel by hand if my exposure is more than a fraction of a second.

For the image in this post, the lens was pointed up fairly steeply at the cross on the roof of the old St. Vincent’s hospital (now a hotel) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but I checked it before I tripped the shutter and it seemed to be holding steadily in place.  I was wrong, though. Over the course of the exposure (probably somewhere in the 10 to 30 second range, I forget exactly), it crept back a bit, effectively zooming out as the exposure was made.

Turns out I like the result.  This troubles me a bit, because I’ve never thought of myself as someone who would seek to achieve optical effects by moving the camera around during the course of an exposure.  It’s always seemed kind of gimmicky to me.  Nevertheless, I think the image here has some emotional impact, at least for me.  Though the effect in this case was produced by accident, certainly it seems possible to do the same thing intentionally.  I may have to rethink my position on moving the camera around during long exposures.

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Stifle Your Incredulity

Eventually, the Trees Give Way to Rock Mount Goliath, Colorado, 2015

Eventually, the Trees Give Way to Rock
Mount Goliath, Colorado, 2015

I am not a deep thinker.  No really, stifle your incredulity, it’s true.  If you want to read some deep thoughts on photography, go check out Guy Tal’s photography blog.

Still, you don’t need to be a deep thinker to practice photography in a thoughtful way.  Being thoughtful can take many forms – thinking about why you photograph, thinking about what you hope to accomplish, thinking about what others are doing and where you fit in to the tradition of photography.  The list is potentially limitless, and I suppose the difference is that of photographing within some kind of personally relevant context versus photographing in random, directionless ways or for external motivations or validations.

I sometimes wonder why I still write this photography blog, given that it does not seem to have achieved the goals I set out for it when I started (a topic I’ve touched on now and again in other posts).  Earlier today it occurred to me that, if nothing else, it’s been a tangible manifestation of my own thoughtfulness as it relates to the practice of photography.  Interesting reading for myself, if not for (or if only for a few) others.

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Lucky

Cross of the Martyrs Santa Fe, NM, 2016

Cross of the Martyrs
Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2016

Most of my photographs are pretty carefully chosen, set up, and executed.  I believe that one of the things that marks a photographer as an artist rather than simply a snapshooter is the ability to see potentially good images in an otherwise cluttered and chaotic world, and to take deliberate, considered steps in a controlled and repeatable process to realize them, rather than simply snapping the shutter a lot and relying on large numbers of captures to get a few that turn out well.

Still, whenever you’re working in real time in the real world, there will be things you can’t control.  Chance will play a part, sometimes serendipitously so.

I was working on a slightly different composition of the Cross of the Martyrs in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The cross was to be largely as you see it here, but the sky would have been a clean background, and the bottom of the frame would have had the hills that rise to the west of Santa Fe to ground the composition.

I spent a fair amount of time setting up the composition how I wanted it, metering the scene, choosing a graduated ND filter to bring down the brightness in the sky, adjusting the polarizer to whiten the cross and darken the sky’s blues (this was to increase the contrast in the final black and white version), setting the focus at the hyperfocal distance, etc.

Just when I was ready to trip the shutter, I noticed the airplane.  The airplane’s path and the contrail behind it were such that they would make a perfect compositional placement in relation to the cross.

But it would mean recomposing the scene.  There were literally only a few seconds available before the airplane would pass through the scene and be out of position, so there was time only to unlock the ball-head of the tripod, roughly position the camera to include the cross and the expected position of the airplane in the composition, and quickly trip the shutter.  No checking if the camera was level, no checking if the metering needed to be revised, no checking if the new angle of the polarizer would create unevenness in the sky, etc.  The last thing I noticed before tripping the shutter was the glare produced by the sun, now very close to the edge of the frame, and I figured it was long odds that I would get something useful.

Well, I think I got something useful.  That glare turned out to be, to me, magical.  It still took a fair amount of editing after the fact.  I’ve included the jpg straight out of the camera below so you can see the capture and the final result.  But, at least the basics were there in terms of exposure and focus.  I was a bit sorry to lose the hills in the background, which I feel would have given the image more of a sense of place.  But I was glad to make this trade-off, since I think the composition and impact of the final image is much stronger, if a bit more abstract.

20160424_2939

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Still, It’s Good to Be in Colorado

Bent Tree, Distant Ranges Near Fraser, Colorado, 2016

Bent Tree, Distant Ranges
Near Fraser, Colorado, 2016

Northern Colorado, where I live, is a great match for me photographically.  If I want to photograph architecture or urban environments, there’s Denver and the cities along the Front Range.  If I want to photograph rural and pastoral scenes, there’s lots of farming and agriculture on the Eastern Plains.  To the north, up towards Wyoming, are the wide open spaces and big sky country of the high plains.  We have cold winters that offer up beautiful snowscapes and warm summers that bring dramatic monsoon storms.  A day’s drive can put me in the spare landscapes of northern New Mexico or the red rock canyons of southern Utah.  Oh yes, and there happens to be a dramatic range of rocky mountains just to the west of where I live here in Fort Collins.

I get out and photograph a fair amount, and I’m very aware that I’m fortunate to have so many opportunities for photography around me.  Even if I didn’t live here, though, I’m confident that I would still photograph just as much.  I’ve always believed there’s good opportunities for photography anywhere, not just in “marquee” locations like here in Colorado.  I think those who feel they have to travel to special or exotic locations to photograph are missing the just-as-good options for photographs closer to home and fooling themselves into thinking that locations make a difference in making good images.  It’s not the subject matter that makes good photographs, it’s the photographer.  The drive to be creative and express that creativity through photographic images comes from inside, and I believe I would be producing just as much work at the same level I am now whether I were to live here in Colorado, or in Dover, Delaware, or Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, or Bakersfield, California.

Still, the foregoing notwithstanding, I have to admit I got lucky that my environment matches my photographic interests so closely.  It’s good to be in Colorado.

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It’s Okay to be Quiet

Fence in a Snowy Landscape Near Carr, Colorado, 2016

Fence in a Snowy Landscape
Near Carr, Colorado, 2016

If you work on photographs using image editing software, maybe you’ve heard that you should set a true white point and a true black point.  In Photoshop, this would be accomplished, for example, by using the Levels tool to move the black point slider to where it just about touches the left side of the histogram and the white point slider to where it just about touches the right side of the histogram.  The idea is that having a true black and a true white ensures that the full range of tones from black to white will be present in the image, and that images without the full range of tones will tend to look flat and lifeless.

Well, it’s a good idea and most of my images in fact do have a true black point and a true white point.  But not this one.  From memory, I believe the blackest point is about RGB = 15, 15, 15 and the whitest point is about RGB = 240, 240, 240.  Given that the RGB range for a black and white image is from 0, 0, 0 to 256, 256, 256, this means there’s a non-trivial gap at each end of the image’s histogram, and instead of having the full range of tones from black to white, the image tones here are somewhat compressed into a band from dark grey to light grey.

But I like it this way.  If I had used a true black and a true white, the image would have been more crisp, vibrant, and dynamic.  It also would have been louder, punchier, and more in-your-face.  That’s not what this scene is about.  It’s about the peacefulness and calmness that was present in the (very cold) air that day and what I was feeling about it when I tripped the shutter.

I think the more compressed tonal range is an effective tool with which to communicate that calm and quiet feeling.  I also should note that I think you can get away without using a true black and a true white in this image because it is an image of snow – the presence of so many white tones means you can still get sufficient contrast between the snow and the fence to keep interest, even without having the full range of tones present.

Perhaps more importantly, I think it’s okay for the image to be calm and quiet.  Computers and software make it so easy to pump up the contrast and (for color images) saturation that a good number of photographs these days tend to make me feel like I’m being shouted at.

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Self Reflection

White Trees, Series 2, No. 6

White Trees, Series 2, No. 6

The image in this post is my most recent addition to my White Trees series. The White Trees series is an interesting one to me, because it represents my longest sustained effort on a single photographic subject.  The first images in this series were among the first black and white images I ever made.

Since then, I feel I’ve done a lot of growing as photographer.  I’ve learned new things about fieldwork and image editing, I’ve explored a variety of landscapes and other types of subjects, and I’ve learned about the different approaches and philosophies taken by other photographers and artists practicing their disciplines.  During this time, I’ve continued to photograph these trees in a steady and sustained way, simply because they continue to hold my interest.

As I’ve changed as a photographer, I wonder if those changes are noticeable in this series?  To me, the series as a whole still has a cohesive look and feel, so I’m pleased that I’m still able to tap into the concept that holds it all together.  When I look closely, though, I do think I see the evidence of how I’ve been changing as a photographer.  I definitely feel I’m not the same photographer (person?) now that I was then, and it’s been interesting and instructive to reflect on that.

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