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.
Unless you’re a botanist you’ve probably never heard of marcescence. Well, it’s a fancy, somewhat unpronounceable word to describe deciduous trees that keep their leaves normally shed in the Fall. Here’s an example below from a recent walkabout in Pound Ridge Reservation. You might ask yourself, as I did, why this happens – or doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s just the exception that proves the rule: Fall is when leaves fall? Apparently, no one really knows the reason for marcescence but some experts speculate that keeping dead leaves is a defensive measure to deter hungry deer from a meal of soft twigs and buds. Who knew trees were so smart?
Speaking of rules, photography teachers suggest that the better image is often had by moving in closer to the subject. I do agree and must own up to the fact that, sometimes in post image capture processing (sharpening, cropping, etc.), I find that part of the picture I took is more interesting than the original. Like the one below which moves in closer by cropping, i.e. using software rather than footsteps. I prefer the second image but it’s debatable which best illustrates the marvel of marcescence. What do you think?
I also mentioned Modern Art at the outset of this ramble. What’s the connection?
A bit indirect but it turns out my marcescent tree was growing next to a stream which, while not strongly coursing, was flowing along nicely and rolling over some semi-submerged rocks. How about shooting a close-up image here? Since walking on water is not one of my talents, the answer was a long telephoto lens, 400 mm to be precise.
The object of moving in with the big lens here was to let Nature attempt some art on her own – modern, abstract art, something nonrepresentational, where no one need ask: “What is this a picture of?” Mother Nature just wanted to capture some shapes, colors, textures and lines into a composition independent of things in the real world. I assisted by turning a few camera dials and getting in tight with the telephoto. With apologies to Mr. Pollock, Mother Nature especially liked this result below:
More of her work can be found here: