I have an artist friend (we’ll call him Ted to protect his or her identity) who recently challenged me to a creative game of seeing what’s not there. I know what he was alluding to since I’ve played that game before.
Anyway, Ted suggested I use my camera to capture faces in natural objects like rocks and trees. I asked why, and Ted said, “I’ll tell you when you get back.”
Above is one of the images I captured and when I showed it to Ted he asked if the tree had said anything to me.
Now Ted has a history of mind altering drug use, so I wasn’t really surprised when he asked me that. And I was further unruffled when he told me that he had had a very interesting talk with a tree recently. With no prodding from me, Ted proceeded to offer a pretty much verbatim history of that discussion which I’ve done my best to record here.
Ted: Who’s there?
Traveler: You can call me Traveler– I’ve come a long way in time and space. Don’t be alarmed.
Ted: I’m not. Just that you’re a face on a tree who’s talking but there’s no sound or lip movement. And why are you talking to me? And in a strong upper class British accent?
Traveler: One question at a time. As to why you, I know you’re an artist and it’s been our experience that artists are far better at trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. And I know you artists sometimes use natural substances to get yourself closer to a clearer view of reality. You appreciate logic, and evidence that can be measured, repeated, etc. You also know that so called objective data can present a very narrow view, and as an artist you aren’t slavishly encumbered by all that. Further, scientists – your scientists – while they’re pretty good at understanding the homegrown rules of math, chemistry and physics, they also can get quite boxed in by them.
Ted: I lost you there.
Traveler: Well, the parochial view on your planet is that life has to be carbon based, needs oxygen and water, etc. Why would those systems have to be universal? Why would intelligence need a base housing structure at all? And wouldn’t it be a bit short-sighted to put intelligence in a physical container that would wear out and eventually decompose?
Traveler: And the accent just gives me a little more credibility I suspect. English erudition, no?
Ted: And taking the identity of tree with a face?
Traveler: Better than your hearing voices and wondering if you’re going quite mad?
Ted: OK, so where are you from and what do you want?
Traveler: To the first question, let’s just say it is inexplicable at this time. As to the second, the best analogy I can think of is – think of me as a kind of anthropologist, an astro-anthropologist.
Ted: You’re an extraterrestial here to study our way of life?
Traveler: Well, more than that, quite a lot more. This may be a bit of a shock for you, but I’m here to study how the uh, well – how the experiment is faring, and then report back …
Ted: The experiment? Report back to whom?
Traveler: Well, perhaps I’ve said too much already. Let’s go back to basics: the ultimate purpose for any life form is to continue itself and manage the resources that support its continuation. Right?
Ted: I’m with you so far.
Traveler: And such a process would have to have some set of principles behind it, some rules of order to promote success, or if not followed, failure. Again, to use a rudimentary analogy, consider a program with built in flexibility to deal with unexpected or unpredictable situations, like almost infinite subroutines. But of course, there would have to be some limits, obligatory loops back to the main program – else you’d have eventual entropy. All the ‘d’ words: Deterioration, degeneration, decline, degradation, decomposition.
Ted: Ok, ok I get it. But you don’t have to beat a dead horse.
Traveler: I would never hurt such a perfect creature. Indeed! We never intervene, well almost never.
Ted: So, you’re saying you’ve programmed us – our human species to do …
Traveler: Well its far more complicated than that of course, and you’re making the usual mistake of putting your species at the center of everything. And at the endpoint of everything. Relatively speaking, wasn’t it only a blink of an eye ago when you thought your sun revolved around you? Your scientists are just beginning to get it right, estimating the number of solar systems like yours, how many galaxies there are, the size of the universe. But they’re far too conservative in their numbers – even the concept of multiverses doesn’t measure up, so to speak …
Ted: I’m starting to feel a little small and inconsequential.
Traveler: Small is an appropriate feeling, but you’re certainly not inconsequential. Extending the programming analogy we discussed before – if we posit a 0 to 100 dial on the number and nature of subroutines and we put your planet at 99 (100 being entropy) your journey becomes quite important to watch.
Ted: There you go again. If we’re an experiment, how’re we doing?
Traveler: Well, the jury’s still out, isn’t it? On the 24-hour clock of your planet’s history, your species in its current stage has only been around for the last minute and 15 seconds. But in that short time, as many of us have hypothesized, with so much potential for adaptation (remember those subroutines) you’ve shown enormous variation in interacting with your world, currently and historically. One thing we really don’t understand though: in the spiritual realm, you humans have shown an incredible intolerance for the different ways of approaching what is unknowable.
Ted: Not a very definitive answer.
Traveler: On the positive side you have produced a wide variety of effective religious and political leaders. On the other hand, in terms of your adaptation, we are very concerned about your history of killing almost unimaginable numbers of your own species in service to economic, political, and even spiritual, goals. We don’t keep count, but your own record keepers say over a hundred million deaths in your twentieth century alone, and maybe even as high as a billion tracking all your wars.
Ted: Wow. Didn’t know that.
Traveler: And now you’re gaining growing capabilities to leave your planet – so ultimately understanding what’s going to happen with you becomes more vital to us. Especially given that we’ve set your potentials with almost limitless possibilities.
Ted: Is there a time limit to these studies, as you call it?
Traveler: Well we are up against a resource problem of our own. In the areas under our dominion, those who control the “purse strings,” if you will, are beginning to question the relative value of these studies. There’s a possibility that all aspects of them could be discontinued?
Ted: What exactly does that mean?
Traveler: I’ve probably said way too much but it’s been a good conversation – you’ve been very open in your thinking, showing a deep awareness and appreciation of reality.
Ted: Just one more question. I know you know that I sometimes use altered states of consciousness to increase my awareness. But how do I know whether talking to you is real, or just some drug induced neurological scrambling?
Ted: Traveler. Traveler?
April’s transition from winter to spring often brings photographic opportunities, especially with early morning fog which seems to cling to open water. With a long lens, from about a quarter mile distance, I watched this man load his fishing gear and his dog in a rowboat and head out onto the Cross River Reservoir into a fog so thick you could almost taste the pea soup. Why on earth would anyone do this? Here’s their story.
Turns out the man’s name was Homer, and his dog was Argos.
You can imagine how many unkind nicknames Homer endured growing up, and in the sixth grade he just started calling himself Harry, and by high school most everyone went along. Harry was the only child of two college professors, his father an astrophysicist, and his mother taught classical literature. Obviously, his mom held more sway in his naming. Totally absorbed in their ivory tower pursuits, the parents were kind of distant with Harry. Kind and distant. There was no TV in the household and so for entertainment, Harry’s mother would regularly recite tales of the ancient Greeks and Romans on summer afternoons to Harry and some of the neighborhood kids.
Harry didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid – his best friend being Argos, a 50-pound mutt of questionable heritage. Argos was Harry’s constant companion, gladly following him everywhere an adventurous ten-year-old could go in Westchester, NY. As a matter of fact, Harry always had had a dog named Argos, from earliest childhood, all the way to now. Sometimes a girl pup, sometimes a boy, but the dog was always named Argos – not Argos the second, or Argos the fourth, just Argy for short. Current Argy, equally loyal and smart as all his forbears, was rescued from a shelter up in north central New York near Ithaca. And, as was always the case saving incarnations of Argos at shelters, the dogs always picked Harry, rather than the other way around. While all the other mutts were barking and wagging, Argos would sit calmly in his or her cage, catch Harry’s eye, and, never wavering the canine stare, Harry would be smitten.
Harry’s fishing gear was decades old but looked like it was new out of the box. When Harry and Argy went fishing together, rarely was the equipment put to use. And even more infrequently did a fish leave the water. Fishing was more a time for pondering the issues of their lives, big and small. Harry ruminating, or talking out loud, about the twists and turns of life and Argy offering his point of view with an encouraging dog smile, eyes intently meeting his human’s, ears perked, and head tilted, trying to translate Harry’s mental meanderings into dog dialect.
Today Harry was thinking about money. The markets were substantially down, and customers were ringing his phone off the hook with their worries and questions. Harry was good at reassuring his clients. Harry’s talent was to make sure his clients’ risk tolerances were clearly identified and managed, but it was still the kind of work he didn’t enjoy. What was really preoccupying Harry was not the markets’ current direction, but his own journey, the twists and turns, the choices and inertias that had landed him here and now.
How could a child who loved The Odyssey, Beowulf and especially Milton and Shakespeare, how could someone with a doctorate in classical literature wind up being in charge of investing hundreds of millions of dollars of other peoples’ money? Looking back, Harry could see it was true what the poet said, “that way leads on to way,” and it was clear that you rarely ever come back to remake a directional decision. With regret, he always knew he’d taken the road more travelled.
At this point Harry looked over at Argy who was fixing him with a meaningful doggy stare, mildly chiding him for this habit of spending so much time in the past. Then Argy got up from his perch in the rowboat, nails clicking on the aluminum flooring, sat beside Harry and rested his substantial head on Harry’s knee. Argy gave out a deep sigh, closed his eyes and with immense patience and understanding, let Harry know that all was well, right here and right now.
The photos I like best have a story to tell, or at least they suggest one to an imaginative mind. This image has a narrative, part of which actually happened. And part, well, I’m not entirely certain about.
The Cross River Reservoir in northern Westchester is about 3 miles long and is just one of New York City’s suppliers. At the West end, there’s a dam, built in 1908, more than 170 feet tall holding back some 10 billion gallons of water. (History recounts how 50 buildings in the village of Katonah were relocated from here to their current spot by using horse drawn power and rolling logs.) Running along the top of the dam is a pathway almost a quarter mile long that reopened to the public 5 years ago after being closed in the wake of 9-11.
It’s one of my photographic haunts and on a cold, snowy monochromatic day during one of our recent Nor’easters I found myself there looking for a winter image to post.
I was literally freezing – visibility strongly curtailed by the squalls of sleet and snow. What was I doing out here all by myself in this weather? But glad I had purchased those wool gloves with no fingertips, enabling me to make fine adjustment settings on the camera and still having some feeling in my hands. I was feeling a little lightheaded.
So, you can imagine how startled I was when a muffled weak voice behind me asked: “Anything interesting?” Good thing my camera was firmly mounted on a tripod as I spun around to see my visitor.
My companion appeared to be very old with a grizzled gaunt face and a three day beard below a bemused smile. He was as colorless as the day except for the deepest clear blue eyes which dominated his face in sharp contrast to it, and the scene around us. I couldn’t imagine what this octogenarian was doing out here.
I stuttered out a few words about looking for shapes and lines and patterns in the scene, not trying to be rude but also not wanting an extended conversation. He nodded and asked a few more informed questions making it clear this was no idle chatter on his part, and that he was quite well versed in photographic expertise.
He offered that he had left his camera behind because it was too heavy and that his wooden tripod and leather bellows would not hold up well to this weather.
And with that he ambled off down the road in the opposite direction from which he’d come. As he was about to finally disappear into the snowy landscape I snapped this shot.Read More
I’m not talking about foregoing personal betterment goals in the new year – though most of those have been at best ephemeral, for me.
No, I was thinking more about experimenting with less photographic resolution in 2018. Stronger, softer color and less detail and with gentler lines, going after a feeling or impression of a scene rather than its meticulous, sharp representation.
Like the image above, taken in Southwest Harbor, Maine last October. And which, I might add, was captured with some serendipity.
Here’s the backstory. Early cool and windy morning, October, Southwest Harbor, Maine.
I was rushing out from our farmhouse rental to capture what I knew would be a dramatic scene, given the reflective sunrise glow on the bedroom ceiling. I had overslept. Grabbed my camera, trying to remember if I’d charged the battery after yesterday’s shoot. No time to set up the tripod. Almost tripped on the cleats that were there to stabilize your steps going down the slippery wooden slope of the dock.
Must have been hundreds of gulls in the harbor and they took to flight in a rolling wave at my arrival on the scene. Ready, fire, aim, as they say. In a raucous moment, the birds were gone but I had gotten off a couple of shots. I was hopeful of a good image – the scene was beautiful with a few sailboats and other craft still moored on the harbor late in the season. The distant mountains were covered in a blanket of fog but were almost as blue as the water’s surface in the morning light.
On the way back to the house though, my hopes were dimmed by the realization that my camera still had a polarizing filter attached and was set to aperture priority. Translation: the filter would allow less light onto the lens and the camera would choose a slower shutter speed to compensate. The image would not be sharp.
Back home, reviewing the images from that morning, it was clear that my captures were not. The hand-held camera produced a lot of blurring with a shutter speed of half a second. But I was intrigued by the image, with the collective pattern of bird flight, the texture of mountain fog and the suggestion of wind, and rocking movement of the boats and throughout the image. In short, my impression of the scene was better captured by the pixel imprecision. My only regret was that I didn’t have a sharply focused, detailed image to compare and make a clearer decision about all this.
Turns out a google search shows there is actually a school of photographic impressionism. Its proponents offer suggestions on how to achieve these softer, more abstract images through intentional camera and zoom lens movement, longer exposure and selective focus. There are even special lenses and adapters you can buy. Or just smear some Vaseline on a filter to distort your image. The goal being to create a visual feeling of a fleeting moment, rather than a detailed photographic record.
Also turns out I had gone down this path before in a different way by zooming in very close on moving sunlit streams and waterfalls, exemplified in my Impressions gallery here.
Didn’t really know I was wandering into a sub-genre with my camera …
In the end, it appears to me that it’s all about trying to find new ways of seeing. And maybe trying to keep the brain from being too efficient. This important information processor does try to be resourceful by saving neuronal time and energy. Like when you see a scene laid out in front of you of a meadow or mountain, you don’t have to take in all its detail and complexity because the brain already knows what a pasture or peak is. But by being intellectually efficient, you just might miss out on what this particular scene has to offer.
Maybe that’s why impressionistic art works. It stops the brain in its tracks – the lack of detailed form and softer, vaguer lines of an impressionistic subject requires the mind to stop and pay attention, be purposely present.
Or as the iconoclastic Tim Burton reminds us: “it’s always good to see things in a new, weird way." Emphasis on new, not necessarily weird.
It’s pretty obvious that there’s little we all agree on. In politics, science, religion, news reporting, moral issues, the role of government in our society. Today, one person’s facts are just an opinion to someone else.
Well, a little research on google suggests there’s one thing we all like – universally across all cultures and throughout millennia – flowers.
And perhaps one of the most remarkable specimens is the Iris. The image below was captured at the Presby Iris Garden in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.
Iris comes from the Greek word for rainbow. Some other colors in the Iris spectrum can be seen here:
OK, flowers smell good and are pretty to look at. But sometimes the things we most take for granted, and the reasons we accept for their being, hide the real question: in this case why do flowers appeal to us in sight and fragrance and why do they make us happy so universally.
Maybe it’s just that flowers are perfect and our lives aren’t? Such speculations tend to generate more opinion than fact, more heat than light, etc.
There’s another intriguing theory that flowers are the harbingers of fruit, as in sustenance and survival. For that idea to resonate one has to accept two other possibilities. That eons ago in our pre-supermarket hunter-gatherer days, we associated flowers and blossoms with sustaining fruit to come. And that such ancestral memories, laid down deep in our brainstems, survive today, bubbling up in delight from the unconscious in the presence of blooms and blossoms.
Still another possibility is that flowers remind us of a strong procreative force. During pollination, there’s a lot of sex going on in the flower world of carpels and stamens. Birds and the Bees, etc. Valentine’s Day. I’ll stop there since my blog is PG rated.
Here’s some floral history. Flowers have been around for about 130 million years, a long time but not so long in the grand scheme of things. Scientists believe that in an hour of earth’s geologic existence, flowering plants have only lived in the last 90 seconds. One geneticist suggests humans have been cultivating flowers for about the last 5000 years, beginning with sparing them as they cleared the land for agriculture. Another plant historian goes back further some 14 thousand years, claiming ancient burial pits in Israel show evidence of stems and flowers. Egyptians placed them in vases while Greeks and Romans wore them in garlands and wreathes.
Now, specifically about Irises – there are some 300 species of these complex beauties. And most are specifically designed vis a vis their fertilization structure to avoid self-pollination. That is, the flower’s apparatus only allows the deposit of new pollen from the carrier insect while entering, and the removal of the host’s pollen when leaving. Ingenious.
Some Irises have been used to clean up ponds and streams because their roots absorb pollutants but at the same time they can be so invasive as to be banned from this purpose.
There is some controversy about whether or not the Iris or the Lilly (two different flowers) is the source of inspiration for the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis symbol in coats of arms, country and state flags, or even as part of the scouting traditional attire.
Irises have been used in perfume and medicine and most importantly for martini aficionados, in Bombay Sapphire Gin.
Finally, as most art lovers know Irises were a favorite subject of Vincent Van Gogh, the most famous of which was painted in 1889 just before he died while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.
I think we can get pretty much total agreement that this is a beautiful work of art.