Thursday, December 19, 2013

A walk beside the Englishman River.

It is the middle of December, Fall is way back there somewhere, and snow is still waiting in the wings. I am walking beside the Englishman River, midway up the east coast of Vancouver island, and using my camera as a tool to understand what is happening here on this cool winter's day. It is not my camera, but my nose that picks up the first clue: carcases of spawning salmon lie among the boulders and in the shallows. In one deep pond, chum salmon leap to show some are still arriving to spawn. My foot-on-land perspective is really only a partial understanding and others here see things differently. Those salmon circling in the ponds are waiting for heavy rain to supply more water so they can move further upstream through the shallows to the spawning beds. They are more aware of the consequences to them of a dry Fall than I am. The eagles flying heavily along the river are focused on their next meal of dead salmon drifting on the river's current. I may see this river as picturesque, a good collection of 'photographic opportunities', but for these others on different planes of existence this environment has different faces, different values.

 Among the occasional human visitors today we would find shared human perspectives: the fisherman, the young couple with their cell phone camera, the man and his dog; if asked they might share some general ideas about nature and the need to protect this river, but as individuals, once beyond the usual off-the-shelf beliefs, I would guess there has been little thought given to a reality beyond their own. It is after all an unsettling thought that a human perspective is not the only one available.

While taking my photographs in colour, I am thinking them in monochrome as well. Partly colour blind as I am, I make up for it with a heightened sense of tonal values. The vivid green mosses, the patches of blue sky seem too cheerful once I feel the cold light, the scent of death and see the life running parallel to my own along this river.

Perhaps it is the river itself that is such a powerful teacher, flowing on and on down through the ages, creating the boulder strewn bars and water-worn cliffs, looping from side to side of its valley and arriving finally at the sea. I can experience it as something that has a beginning in the mountains on the horizon and an end in its estuary or know it as I do today as nothing but flow, the constant sound of rapids, the never-ending-ness of it all. I have a choice how I experience the world, as discreet events, as objects, or as flow or change. My choice of perspective influences how I experience the river, how I then understand my place among the many and what I see through the viewfinder of my camera today. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Time in Photography. A view into the nature of reality and the creative imagination.

Which represents time? The painted lines
or the reflected dots on the wet pavement?

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.*
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.
St. Teresa of Avila

The Santa parade is in full swing in the little town of Sidney, B.C. It is a wet, cold, windy night and the procession of vehicles and people is filled with with lots of coloured lights and movement: here is where the camera cannot help but be involved in the mysterious realm of time and motion and in the nature of reality itself.

Hold on, you say, this is simply a camera trying to cope with low light and movement and the operator simply has to snap away to collect a few interesting images. True to some degree, but what the camera dwells upon is directed by the photographer, what details are selected and how it is framed are all important. What we can imagine it to be, what we see as a potential final image, makes all the difference.

A scooter zooms in and out of the parade vehicles and I follow it as I press the shutter. The result, with its streaks of light, gives the impression of motion; it captures the energy of the moment and freezes it. A split second moment in time is chosen even though we can imagine that this image stands for but a thin slice of what is the scooter's path through the parade.

Behind all the bustle, an office building stands silently beside the wet street with a tree's shadow draped across its face. Here is time in another guise, still and grave, dreaming of who knows what, but the camera has caught this moment and has focused our attention upon it. It takes but a short time to take the image, but we know that the building and its light has more permanence and exists within a longer period of time. Even as dawn breaks the building will still be there. But the moment captured within this image is still unique, if only because no one else may realize that this is worth seeing in quite this way.

The parade troops by and I use a transparent DVD disc in front of the lens to centre our attention. The parade takes on a nightmarish hobgoblin quality, as thought time has pushed aside its normal face to show a glimpse of another disturbing dimension,; we glimpse another possible aspect of time because of the interaction between the rapidly moving and changing subject and my particular 'take' on the event.

A woman walks past, her sad face distorted by movement to become anyone at all; a reject image for sure one might think until one arrow of light is seen, being driven into her chest. Saint Teresa is pierced all unawares by the arrow of heaven, here on this Santa Parade evening. At this precise moment in her life she has been lanced by love right before our eyes, thanks to the camera. And, thanks to my interpretation, this ordinary fragment within an hour long event assumes a more complex meaning*.

After the parade has already moved into past time, down at the seaside the wind waves below the lighted dock roll shoreward. I prop my camera on a post and take a long exposure. Even so, the resulting image is dark and difficult to understand, the waves have merged into a haze of repetitions, averaging out the individual ones and even the pilings of the dock have shifted towards the insubstantial. Time is captured over several seconds, and shows us present time stretched out so we can see another aspect; how the present moment is really part of impermanence.

Change is the only true constant of reality and by selecting pieces of time with the instrument called a camera we can observe that our solid material world is never still, is ever changing. Our minds assign meaning to the passing stream, gives solidity, but all flows past, ourselves too caught swirling within its waters. How beautiful that stream really is.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

No man is an Island.

'No Man is an Island'
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.   John Donne

There is a debate going on in the world that goes something like this. The world is a resource and we can profit from it. If we use the earth intensively, digging, cutting, pumping, shipping, catching and building, then the general prosperity of all of us will rise. A sort of win, win for all.
So, the powerful man in his high rise in Vancouver or any other city, can finance and direct the resource extraction; be it mines in S. America, tar sands in Canada, forests all over, or fish in the world's oceans, and feel good about it. Enterprise in action.

There is a lot of truth in that too, if you are not being chased off your land in the countryside by mining company goon squads, or having your ancestral hunting grounds destroyed or fishing grounds stripped bare. What happens when the taking outstrips the recovery capacity of the oceans or forests and even the soil itself? When minerals are all gone and waste piles of toxic stuff remain, when oceans die, when people can no longer live and grow and hunt? Where will we turn next? Short term gain combined with terminal pain.

It turns out that the subject is complicated, but not really that impossible to sort out. To build an oil pipeline across mountains and across other people's land does benefit the larger population at the expense of the locals. It also turns out that in the longer term, ( getting shorter by the day) digging shipping and burning that oil will kill everyone, even the city folk. It is simply a matter of perspective. How to turn our thinking around?

John Donne's meditation, 'No man is an Island,' does give a perspective, pointing out that we are not separate from everyone ( and everything) else. What we do, does impact others. The death of other species, the diminution of the earth, is our own death knell as well. And this is not just philosophy or religion, it is also cold hard facts. For a brief while, like a flash of light, some of mankind may prosper, but then out goes the light. The bell tolls for thee.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In search of meaning every day.

I've recently finished reading a book whose premise revolves around the idea that Christianity is not what Jesus was really all about. That he himself would not recognize the institution that was built upon him. I've read variations of this argument before and surely it is missing something. Obviously Jesus was not a Christian and the ideas that are expressed in the Bible, both in the Old and in the New Testament are part of a set of ideas that adjusted to changing contexts over a very long time. If we focus on one man and one time, if we freeze the frame, we are missing the larger context. The interesting aspect for me in this debate are the changes within a suite of ideas over time, the work of many creative people and how they have then influenced their societies.

The story of the long history of religious thought is full of ideas that stepped out of the box and reinvigorated the societies within which they were embedded. Paul (Saint Paul) took the ideas of a shunned sect and reframed them for a larger audience. He didn't ruin the central concepts but universalized them. The artists and poets and writers who followed enlarged and helped it reach into the heart of every moment down through the centuries, a continually updated dialogue. The creative thought and practice of so many people helped this particular religion become adaptable to change through time. For example, one thinker in the last century, Carl Jung, when asked if he thought God existed said that if believing helped one in life, gave meaning, then why wouldn't one do so? A pragmatic but creative response in an cynical age aimed at finding meaning in an individual's life. A psychological perspective. Another, C.S. Lewis, usually viewed as a religious writer, created a mythical word in his 'Narnia' series of books. His concept was that the world of imagination was more useful to people psychologically than a 'scientific' view based on 'no meaning'. That societies as a whole need a set of creative ideas set within creative forms to work with that will allow them to develop and prosper. Ultimately, tangential though they may seem at first, this continuing process of thought and action is the advancing front of religion. And this idea is found in all religions, just as in other areas of human cultures. If a set of ideas can no longer speak to the present moment it is discarded, but re-framed in the language of the present it can live on to enrich our lives.

Picasso, talking about art, said there were no new ideas, no evolution from bad towards better, but that it always exists in the present, and that only the context of ideas change and the way of expressing them. Apply this way of framing to religions and we can see that there is no such thing as more evolved, higher religious ideas, just people through time expressing universal thoughts within the conditions of their present moment and using the ideas from the past as building blocks in new contexts. The Animist in his jungle clearing has a set of beliefs that work for him, the Zen master in a monastery in Japan is not superior but just well adapted to his culture, the Christian or Jew or Islamist has a set of ideas that enrich a certain cultural context. They are not in competition for first place or more 'true', but are adaptive to their culture at the present moment. Religious ideas can have a 'useful' element; - they perform a transformative function for the present. They explain our lives.

Back in Galileo’s day in Renaissance Italy, it was possible to have an unsystematic set of ideas, one could look at the universe and see that the earth was not the centre of everything after all and yet believe in many aspects of religion. Over time though, that new 'scientific' perspective has lead us to try to have one comprehensive world view. If one is true, then the other cannot be so. We live in a conceptual straight jacket within one suite of related ideas or another.

A perspective I found in Joseph Campbell's book, 'Transformations of Myth through Time' was illuminating: the Buddhist concept of the Idam , a deity that an individual has chosen. It has no existence, it is a picture, a concept, and has life only insomuch as I make it the guide for my own life. So, if I choose an aspect of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Moses or Thor or Thunderbird and make the ideas resident in that to be my life's guide I will have accomplished Jung's idea that there is a useful psychological aspect to belief, but I can also admit a rational understanding; it is possible to live within a 'rational' mind set and yet to access religious ideas.

I choose my 'Idam', I exemplify those principles over the span of my life and thereby give them consciousness. I am making meaning, not taking, receiving or rejecting it. I am participating in that long tradition of reconstructing perennial ideas in the context of my time. My beliefs are my art and my art is my life.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Forming images without a camera.


Yesterday evening I was meeting my wife off the ferry, a dark and rainy scene, not good camera weather one would say, in fact I had not brought my camera with me. As the ferry approached, its lights reflected off the sea's surface and I caught myself planning how I would take this photograph, how to get a fast enough shutter speed, without simply raising the iso sensitivity too high. I was doing a dry run with the leisure to think through the process without having to quickly raise the camera and take my shot. This is really part of everyone's process, from athletes to the military; running scenarios in the mind, so that the real thing when it arrives is already thought through. In this case I was able to not only think of the mechanical camera needs of the moment but to consider my philosophy of imagery and to think far beyond that into the realm of the imagination.

There are times when a written description actually seems more appropriate than a photograph anyway. The other day I saw ducks rising out of the fog and passing overhead against the dark grey sky . That would be difficult, but not impossible to photograph, but the important part for me at the time was my interior feeling and the ideas that the scene engendered. No photograph would be able to accurately convey what my specific reaction was. Turns out that we are all good at creating images in our minds as we hear or read stories, and those images, converted from words to interior imagery, are just as powerful in their effect as a photograph would be.

I watched the ferry slide past in the rainswept darkness, its lights reflected in complicated patterns. It was present in all it mechanical might and moving through space and time. The light was very beautiful, the thoughts it engenders took me from this place, from the rain and my physical self and led me towards abstract thought that was no longer specific to the here and now. What I was doing on this cool, dark evening was thinking holistically; logically and imaginatively, - everything combined in that one moment in time.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Spirit Soars

My spirit soars.*

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable stream or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

The Wild Swans at Coole. William Butler Yeats.

Yesterday evening Heather and I walked down to the valley below our island home. A low mist gathered over the farm fields in the rapidly cooling air. It is late Fall, the leaves have left the trees to clog the streams, which are themselves awakening at last from the long sleep of summer drought. Out of the fog rose flight after flight of mallards, urgently gaining height in the dark sky; so purposefully, so focused on their mission. Were they simply moving over for the night to a local lake or were they outward bound on a long night flight further south? I say something like, “I wonder where the people are headed this evening?” and then stumble and try to correct myself, “the tribe..., I mean the ducks.”

That, I realized, was a natural enough mistake for me to make; I don't differentiate easily between species and, as in the folktales from the past, I think of all the other beings around me in this rural setting as different tribes, each with their own vital lives to live. My spirit soars with those night travellers.

This capacity for empathy is not so strange; do we not relate to our pets more personally, more openly, than with other humans? In fact do we not relate to inanimate objects as well, whether that is familiar landscape or some piece of memorabilia left behind from the lives of our ancestors? Do we not need that sense of connection and does it not have practical survival value for us as individuals? A sense of self is a precious thing; loose it and we loose the will to live, neglect to tend it and we slowly fade away.

When I consciously acknowledge my relationships and expand the range to include my cousins, those dark, eager shapes against the grey evening sky, I am tending my Self as well. Not I, but we, are living and experiencing the world.

*When I pray, I pray for all living things.
When I thank,
I thank for everything.

My Spirit Soars. Chief Dan George

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Filtered light and adjusting the final image.

The dualism of reality and appearance – “Your knowledge of things is the way of your direct experience of appearance”. Correspondingly, the experience of reality and the medium are a 'dual experience': feeling into nature and feeling into the nature of the medium. - a work should be a world in itself.
Hans Hofmann*

*Color creates Light – studied with Hans Hofmann. By Tina Dickey
(In our Saltspring Island library)

The other day I walked along the shoreline at Indian Point at Fulford Harbour. A foggy day, these were perfect conditions for photographing in the filtered light that laid an even, if grey, cast on everything. On a sunny day, the direct sunlight would have created strong contrasts, bright highlights and dark shadows that the camera, unlike the human eye, would have had difficulty coping with: burnt out highlights and impenetrable shadows. Now though, the highlights were dulled and shadows lightened. Even in the deep shadow areas the light seeped in. I took some super images ( no false modesty please) and later loaded them onto my 'Lightroom' program. It was here that I was able to analyze them more objectively. To move from capture, to final image. These are not at all the same thing and it is here on the screen that I made some important changes that took my photographs from 'as recorded' to finished image.
Yes, it was a foggy day, and that gave the basic theme to my images, but a flat, grey, dulled final image was not what I wanted either, so I set to work to make the minimal adjustments possible and yet still be true to my subject. Now, it would have been possible to go wild, to move the control sliders far to the left or right but I worked carefully, making changes only where I felt it necessary. Necessary? Somewhere I had an ideal conception of the day and the place and was taking the image to meet that. The final image was my creation, my communication of 'foggy day', not an exact replica.

Garry oaks.
It took some trouble to find a point of view that created the repeating rhythm of the trunks, showed the beach and point and the receding of the shoreline into the fog. “Think, line everything up just right, click.” In the computer though, as I thought it would, the camera 'saw' this much more flatly than my eyes had. I must compensate to bring it back to my original view. I sharpened, brightened slightly and increased the contrast of the closest trunk, and a bit of the second but left the rest to fade into the fog. A minimal change, but such a difference to how the image presented itself. 

The snag.
Shooting from under the alders, towards the fallen maple trunk at the edge of the water, was a lighting challenge, ( from dark to light) but the repetition of forms between the sticks in the foreground and the snag was too good to miss. Only in this filtered light would this have worked, would the detail in the shadow area have been visible. Later though, I could see that the water detail had been lost, thereby loosing some important visual information, so I 'brushed' in just enough detail to show ripples in the water. On impulse I brightened the fringe of alder leaves at the top of the picture and decided to leave it that way, at least for now.


The cobweb.
On a day like this, cobwebs were picked out from their surroundings by water droplets. Almost too easy and too commonplace unless I could find something reasonably original to 'say', and when I saw the curled tree root among the driftwood there was a 'resonance' between the forms; - like some restatement of a musical theme in another key. Later I had to work on the web to bring it up so it would be more visible and work with the wood in some kind of balance.

Besides showing myself photographing with filtered light and making adjustments for the final image I hope you can see that I do not work with 'rules' when making pictures. Rather it is a familiarity with my subjects and with the medium, and participating by, as Hofmann writes in the above quote, “feeling into nature and into the nature of the medium”.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Visit to Church

“Are there any visitors?” We are at that point in the service when we can choose to identify ourselves and so I stand and do so. We are visiting a suburban United Church in central Canada from our island home on the West Coast. The service follows a familiar pattern; the readings, the sermon, the hymns and the collection at the end. Familiar, yes, but strangely like a time warp for my wife and I who have not attended a service for over a decade.

We have been out sailing the world’s oceans, visiting many different cultures, gaining a wider perspective and personal revelations that felt at odds with what, once we were home again, seemed a too circumscribed religious observance. Once safely home, we stayed away from church. I observe this ceremony, this mostly grey haired congregation, like a visitor from Mars and begin to cautiously revise my far-too-pat opinions.

The readings and sermon today revolve around the need to trust in and follow God and that faithfulness will bring rewards in our personal and community lives. I am tempted to take a cynical view ( 'Be good, do as you’re told' ) of all this until I remember how true this was for us far out in the Pacific where all the skill and preparation in the world was not enough for us to survive in a hostile environment. Only when we accepted that we alone could not control our fate, that we must allow ourselves to become part of the great oceanic wilderness and pass our ultimate fate over to another dimension did life flow smoothly.

All these folks in the pews around us have led parallel lives, worked conscientiously to raise their children, buy their own homes, contributed to their community and have envisioned their church community as reaching out to the whole world. Life was not easy for them either, but religion provided the 'back story' that made sense of their lives and their faith community gave them real support. And they, en mass, have formed the essential roots that hold a larger society together. While some may rebel, take all they can, question all faith and all religions, a certain base must exist for us all to stand upon.

Civilization, as Kenneth Clarke writes, only survives if people are in general agreement about its values. What we are seeing acted out before us in church today is the underlining of a value system that goes back thousands of years and is built into our governmental and legal systems. Somehow, no matter what, we know that we are our brother’s keeper, there is right and wrong in human relationships and that we must learn to love our neighbour and not just if he is of our race, religion, or economic class. Powerful stuff, if acted out in our daily lives.

We leave church today, welcomed and hand shook, with the thought that perhaps there is a place here for us after all. That our experiences in the wider world may be of value to this community and not be rejected as 'unchristian' or something that 'we do not believe'. It would be a struggle though, to fit into a too narrowly defined 'faith' tradition again. The world is too big for a fortress mentality, the needs of the earth and its living communities far too urgent for a narrow interpretation of Christianity or any other religion. To be our 'brother’s keeper' may well require we all stretch ourselves individually and as religious communities and gain the confidence to move forward towards a dangerous and uncertain future. After all, Christians and others have been doing just that for two thousand years or more!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

RUNNN!!!: the tendency toward making harmonious compositions no matter what the subject matter.

One thing that seems to be important to makers of pictures the world around is the idea of harmony. Different cultures may choose different formulas, but every one of us seeks balance and harmony and shies away from disharmony. We find the irregular disturbing, and the regular satisfying. Even when we wish to portray disturbing things; war, murder, abuse etc. ( there is plenty of this subject matter available, after all) we have a perverse tendency to create harmonious compositions or patterns to show them. What is this all about?

Imagine our remote ancestors walking through the landscape, ( “La, la, la, such a nice day on the savannah.”). Suddenly someone catches the faint flick of a lion's tail above the grasses, the slight sound of something licking its chops, and panic ensues. RUNNN!!! The ability to notice disharmony in the patterns of the environment, be they ever so slight, causes fear and flight. A very good survival instinct to pass on to succeeding generations. In modern times, at least away from that same savannah, we are still very aware of hidden agendas, of slight changes in the social atmosphere, of the lie that is being pressed upon our senses. We have the same response, perhaps modified into anger or sadness,and we feel disharmony in the pattern of our lives. It still has survival value. We still have a tendency to run.

So when we make a picture or take a photograph, we still try to compose a harmonious pattern. There are many forms this may take, but balanced, harmonious relationships among the various elements we design with is important. Edvard Munch was the first European artist to break from this and create disturbing, expressive images ( 'The Scream', for example), using colour, line, tone etc. to create tension within the viewer's mind. And others have followed. But even with their lead, if we do not stop to think our images through in advance, we will make that nice, balanced, harmoniously coloured image, no matter what our subject, and our viewers will feel satisfied. How many would really buy and place on their walls something that tells them to RUNNN!!!?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The African Basket: the value of craftsmanship

A gift for my wife from a daughter, the woven basket is used for all sorts of carrying operations and each time I see it I feel warmed and satisfied: it is such a beautiful thing, woven with skill by someone I will never know personally but whose skill I admire just the same.

It is not just pretty in the conventional sense, but is sturdily made and will be with us for the rest of our lives, - a faithful companion, you might say, til death do us part. Someone has built it carefully within a long tradition of basket making and with a care for materials and colour combinations that goes beyond the merely practical. It is interesting how an inanimate object can be, will be, invested with so much meaning, so much of our identity.

We see these baskets for sale in our local markets and stores, and they are not expensive. When one calculates the original purchase price, the shipping costs and resale markups, the maker must have received a pittance, and yet she still made it with care and pride, really put herself into it, independently it seems from any consideration of the purchase price.

Could this really be thought of as art, that elusive quality that never lacks for definitions, definitions that always seem to fall short and change with every definer? For me it is simply excellent craft; it does not aim to talk about anything more exalted than form and function, no matter how much I appreciate it. Its just a beautiful example of how powerful craftsmanship can be.

What is really being show here is how seldom we see it in our mass production machine-made world of plastic throw away items. This African basket rests comfortably on the floor and is a valued part of our surroundings. Whoever you are, you maker, I feel I do know you after-all: strong, smart, dependable and very beautiful!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Negative Space. A design component of every photograph and of the other visual arts.

Negative Space.
Zut! Is this something that the spaceship Enterprise will have to overcome? Or perhaps a psychological state? Possibly, we are able to take whatever slant we like of course, but lets assume 'negative space' refers to a visual design term whose companion is 'positive space' and together they monopolize the spacial characteristics of our photographic image.

But to take a step back before we go farther into design theory. When we take a photograph we actually take a piece of reality and make a two dimensional image from it, just as a story about a real event refers to reality but is no longer the event itself, but is rather an artificial construct with its own conventions and ideas. Art itself, as Joni Mitchell recently said in a CBC interview comes from the root artificial ( or artifice). The singer and her song are obviously not the original circumstance that may have suggested it. I'm beating this idea hard because it is the essential concept that must be grasped before the idea of designing or composing one's photograph can be built upon.

An image is made, whether drawn, painted, two or three dimensional or photographed, with the purpose of communication, just like a story, poem or a piece of music is made to transmit some idea or other, and good ones do this with some clarity and intent. There is nothing to be gained by jumbling and creating confusion (although we see and hear this technique used all the time by leaders of all stripes for their own propagandist ends). So, now we come to negative space and it role in visual communication.

A few years ago I took a lovely shot of my big traditional schooner but was annoyed to find it had an extra mast in the print. I had seen only the positive space, my ship, and had not checked in the background , the negative space, for that pesky mast of a yacht behind her. My binocular vision had created separation but the monocular camera and two dimensional print had not.

This summer I was photographing a poppy, picked it and held it up with one hand against the blue sky and snapped its photograph. I had thought ahead ( pre-visualized) and removed it from the clutter of the garden and placed it so the blue negative space around it added to rather than detracted from the effect in the final image.

I am photographing my granddaughter swinging on a branch over the waves foaming onto the beach. With all the rapid action, this is difficult to do, but I pause before beginning and select a very low camera angle facing out to sea, so the camera is at the surf line and my subject high above it. I have manipulated my photograph so the resulting image will separate the positive image cleanly from the negative space around it and coincidentally create a much more dynamic picture in the process.

The blurred forms of summertime dry ocean spray are still the subject, even thought the usual conventions of picture taking are reversed. The sharp background is the negative space in this case. Finding new ways of  designing is not just for the challenge; getting the viewer to take a fresh look is important if we are to communicate.

In many cases I find that a slight cropping will bring the positive space firmly to the edges of the frame and so organize the negative space around my main subject into varied shapes that help the design and avoids the problem of one large uninteresting background. One can blur the negative or positive space through manipulation of the depth of field or, in the computer, darken or lighten or soften or replace one colour with another. To suggest only a few possibilities.

And yet it is so hard to generalize, and formulas for successful pictures are not worth much in the end, just as rhyming in itself does not make a poem or 'painting in oils' guarantee a great picture. It is a very nuanced thing and only training ones eye to observe everything, positive and negative, and being willing to endlessly experiment will lead to picture making proficiency over time. That is the challenge for all of us.

Which is negative space, foreground or background? I have used a 'frame' to guide the eye towards the yacht, so is that the subject, the positive space? Or is the very interesting rock formation that fills half the space the positive? I like this image because of the interplay, the permanently unresolved space that " just keeps on going".

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The photographic show. What is the role of the viewer?

I visit a photo show at our local Artspring Centre for the Arts and cruise along at a distance at first, trying to get an overall appreciation before stepping closer to view each individual piece. One of the photographers, on duty being a minder of the exhibit, asks me which is my favourite image. I realize that I have no pat answer, but choose an interesting image of stacked chairs and indicate that I liked that one. But really that question was not on my radar today and I still dislike the assumption that lay behind it. Yes I know that it is the usual question, along the lines of discussing the weather, or how are you, but why must we stand in judgement, and use our likes and dislikes as the ruler to measure the value of a piece of work?

In 'The Song of the lark', Willa Cather's book about a pioneer girl finding her singing voice in America, she notes that the only certain remark about a performance was that it felt good, the listener liked it if it moved them or fitted into their idea of beauty. It was always self referential. In the far west in the late 1800s listeners had little except their feelings with which to understand a piece of unfamiliar artistic expression. Are we still stuck in that mode of thought some hundred years later?

As I looked carefully at the images before me I realized why I had reacted so strongly. I was trying to understand each piece, not judge it as to whether I liked it or not. ('Understanding' assumed of course that the photographer was actually trying to communicate something more than 'Aren’t I pretty, buy me!') The task for me, the viewer of art, was to attempt to get into the mind of the maker. As this was a very eclectic show with a dozen or so exhibitors with each artist having only three images presented, there was not much there to allow me to understand where they were coming from. 
Photography is such a vast and varied field: is this image social commentary, is that beside it simply a beautiful flower, is that one in the next room aiming at a psychological, almost literary theme? It is important that I make some tentative categories if I am to approach each image with the right mind set and I need to do all this with my thinking mind wide open. This is the pleasure for me, rather than seeking a beauty hit and then moving on unchanged. 

Do I like it or not may be my final thought, but that will be based on how successfully I think the photographer may have hit his personal mark: was he successful, rather than does this fit within my own personal parameters of artistic expression. I feel good about an image because by pausing to examine it closely I have had a view into another creative sensibility. I leave the show knowing more than I did before, my world view is expanded, and that surely is the real objective of the arts. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Photographer's Eye; thinking about John Szarkowski's book on the modernist movement and how it influenced photography.

Recently, after reading 'The photographer's Eye', I stepped outside to drink my coffee on the porch, looked up and then stepped right back to pick up my camera. Somehow I had absorbed not the text of this book, but the photographs, and was now seeing my world through that perspective. I had stepped through a thought-doorway and into a specific perception of the world.

The camera as we know it began when photochemistry was paired with the artist's camera obscura; the light proof box, the lens, the adjustable aperture, were able to project an image of the outside world onto the new invention, - a light sensitive emulsion on a removable glass plate which could later be made permanent. My Nikon D 60 is really a smaller version of the original cameras and a light sensitive array has replaced the light sensitive emulsion. Everything, though, from the past almost two hundred years of photography is still instructive for me now. Technically for sure, but also directly from the minds of the photographers whose images I saw in the book earlier that morning. For a visual mind, learning is direct, without the side trip through written text. I do not have to have it explained to me, I understand it in a flash.

Perhaps then, when I looked up into the maple tree, saw the profusion of leaves, the fan- shaped spreading branches and the white clouds passing overhead I simply saw it as it would look framed in a specific relationship of tree and sky, and printed in black and white. The starkness and simplicity, the selection of part to represent the whole, created a symbol of that moment of high summer, of lush growth combined with the fleeting feeling of late summer.

.The angle of view was important for me here, I brought this element from my own fascination with finding original perspectives and new structures; there are so many follow-the-leader images around that only fresh seeing will interest me. “Look up, look way up, but by all means look.”, has become my battle cry.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Photographic persuasion through subject matter and composition.

The Nahanni Portfolio, by Pat and Rosemarie Keough.

However ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful.... Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things. Love that, not man apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his day's darken.
Robinson Jeffers

This beautiful book is in our Saltspring Library and is well worth a look and read. The Nahanni has been a mythical place for me since my childhood, and here are a lot of fine photographs, ones I'm sure we would all like to have taken, or made.

These colour images seem just like slices of reality, what a camera does so well, but hidden behind the fa├žade is a lot of selection and careful framing and composition, a lot of just plain good camera work. It is a compliment to the Keoughs that the viewer can be so easily guided into forgetting the mind behind the camera, the selectivity of the photographer. This reminds me of Wade Davis' recent book on the Sacred Headwaters area in nearby northern BC, and how powerful photographs can be, how persuasive, and how, if we agree with the ideas presented, we can be oblivious to the power of a point of view.

These images are harmoniously composed in the traditional manner, they are satisfying to the eye and thereby help us agree that nature is also harmonious. The text however does tell the history of this region, both the dramatic geological history of mountain building that explains what we see today and the human history of bloody conflict, disease and murders. And so we are given both sides of the Nahanni, its drama and yet its overall continuity; a valuable understanding as we watch Earth's and human beings violent history even within our own short life span.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sea breeze in grasses: the intimate relationship between subject and photographer.

The subject is within you, nature giving only the suggestions.
Arthur Wesley Dow

I'm walking along the rocky headland called Beaver Point on Saltspring Island. This place is close to home and in the past I used to work here as a Park Ranger so it is very familiar photographic ground indeed. Here is subject matter all around, boats of all sizes race past, and yet this time I focus on the afternoon sea breeze waving tall stalks of grasses on the cliff's edge. There are interesting visual contrasts here between rock and sea and between the blur of grassy movement and the action of the waves. My subject is nothing unusual unless I make it so through how I visualize it, my camera settings, and how I frame it. Why am I choosing to take this image anyway and why do I choose this one specific point of view to shoot from?

When anyone takes a photograph he has to answer many questions which can be placed in the three categories of technique: 'Aesthetic, intellectual and mechanical'*.
Mechanical would be all about the machine we use, a camera. Intellectual answers the question why we are taking this particular image and not some other. Aesthetic concerns the way we organize the elements that comprise the subject to fully express what we are thinking about. For most of us this doesn't seem all that big a deal, but that is because we usually work within a narrow channel of perception where these questions do not readily arise.

Here on this cliff edge, facing the grasses waving in front of the waves I begin to make some choices. I am attracted to subjects that contain contrasts, and here I have several working together. I seek images that promise a glimpse of eternity and here is a harmonious association of wind, water and earth, animated by the wisps of blowing grasses. From past experience I know how to use my camera so the grasses will be caught in a blur, the waves stilled but obviously animated by the same breeze, and the curve of rock portrayed as large, solid and monumental.

It is in the proportions, where the line between the sea and rock falls, where the two stalks are placed within the frame, that my image stands or falls. That in the end is sheer intuition, the art of the whole process. If I were working to some rules of proportion, the image would have become frozen by convention; the applying of craft, so useful with camera settings, is inappropriate here where my mind must be free to wave and blur with the wind in the grass.

There is one aspect that most of us shy away from mentioning to others but which is essential to making my images, and that is my attitude, my inner intention. The poet Rilke expresses this well: “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is soulless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them”. The idea that a photograph, so mechanical, so rational and so craft oriented, could need anything like love, first to make it and then to view it, is definitely a challenge, but that thought of his really opens up the mind to a wider understanding of picture making*. This rocky and familiar headland, the fresh breeze forming the waves on the sea's surface and animating the grass stems; there is a deep reality here in this familiar place that I first experience and then express as love.

    * The camera makes an image – record of the object before it. It records the subject in terms of the optical properties of the lens, and the physical properties of the negative and print. The control of that record lies in the selection by the photographer and his understanding of the photographic processes at his command. The photographer visualizes his concept of the subject as presented in the final print. He achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique - aesthetic, intellectual, and mechanical.
    Ansel Adams

    * In our day to day contact with natural things, we establish emotional bonds. It is as natural to love Earth as it is to love one's human family.... The person who cares about Earth is likely to observe it thoughtfully, to see patterns of relationships between things that a casual observer does not, and also be cognisant of his or her own emotional responses to different aspects of Earth's content. While caring by itself does not ensure clear perception, real awareness of subject matter is impossible without it.
    Freeman Patterson, 'Portraits of Earth'

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Early humans are here in us still.

Latest research places early humans in Africa camping on the beach or in caves and living off the sea's resources. Just as some monkeys do today, just as did Neanderthals in Europe and the earliest migrations out of Africa that followed the shores to Australia and beyond. Early migrants into N. America did the same; sails, paddles, boats or rafts may have been one of the earliest inventions, not one of the last. Imagine the coastal voyages, the leapfrogging of small groups along long stretches of coastline, and then think how knowledge of wind patterns, ocean currents, the migration routes of birds, driftwood arrivals from windward and the paths of moon, sun and stars, must have been developed into sophisticated bodies of navigational knowledge, horded in the memories through song and poetry and passed on to succeeding generations. Like, say fifty thousand and more years ago.

This photo of children at the beach shows how easy and natural that must have been. Playing at the shore, wading, swimming, fishing, beach combing, are one of our most natural activities.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Evensong: a composition that is a crossover photo with music.

Taking this image was dead easy, just two almost identical images later combined within the camera to make a composite 'double exposure'. But of course the technical camera bit doesn't tell the whole story. While I did not work hard at the computer to create this image there really is no rule that says that sweat is superior to smart. I pulled this image from previous experience, from curiosity and a strong drive to experiment. I visualized this image in my mind first, in picture form, not in plodding words, so quick and easy was my visual path that interests me not simply as beauty but as thought.

'Evensong', as I called this image, is the music for Vespers, that end of day religious service that would have been found in the monasteries of the Middle Ages; the marking of the close of a day's work and the beginning of the shadow times before the dark. For me then, it has symbolic value as well.

As this was a musical piece, you can see the colour, the lines and textures, the rhythmical movements that sing in a musical flow and I found it interesting to compare real music which exists through a period of time with this visual equivalent. Music ticks through time, we cannot experience the whole thing at once and part of the experience is to find the repetitions and variations and to predict them. The visual experience allows the viewer to see it all in one blow,a different kind of thing, but satisfying on its own terms.

While this was an overtly musical piece, one can look for the same satisfaction in other visual works, the careful construction of forms, colours, lines etc. that make a strong visual composition to communicate the idea. That's half the satisfaction for the maker and for the viewer.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kate McGarrigle memorial concert. The Gods still resonate within us.

I tuned in to the radio when I came in the house for afternoon tea and it took a while to actually listen carefully. With 24 hour radio available it is all too easy to hear much but listen poorly. Kate Mc Garrigle's song 'Procepina', written in the last three months of her life and sung now by her family, pulled me into focus.

Her daughter, Martha, referred to the Greek legend of the goddess Persephone (as we spell her in English), the embodiment of the seasons of agriculture in the Mediterranean when the wheat was put into underground storage for the summer months and then brought out for planting with the fall rains. A yearly cycle of harvest, storage, replanting and growth through to the next summer harvest. The same cycle over thousands of years since agriculture was first invented in that part of the world. The two embodiments of agriculture, Hera, and her daughter Persephone were in this song. The focus was on Hera's plea for Persephone to return from the underworld - “ Come home to Hera, come home to Mama”and what was so touching was that she was plainly identifying with Persephone being called home to mother as she herself was participated in the process of dying to this world and already hearing the voice of the next.

It is an amazing artistic feat to be able to create through every stage of life, to find the myths that we all feel deep under the skin. The Gods of the ancient world still resonate within us. Some time ago Kate said to her daughter “ I think I may be a goddess.” and maybe she meant it literally or perhaps she was simply grasping a truth; that the Gods are deeply us, their stories the transit of our own deep and eternal selves.

Song writers work with metaphor, with story, with eternal themes and they touch us with that potent mix of story and music. This recipe of music and phrase, of metaphor and legend has been with us for a very long time, so far back that Homer would count as recent. To be human is to have brains designed over long periods of time to work with music and poetry and to respond far more powerfully than words alone, the prose version, would elicit.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Scything the meadow: an outdated technology; or is it?

The scythe swings rhythmically in my hands, the grass, sending up its seedy stalks on this early summer morning, slides along the long thin blade and parts from its roots with a satisfying 'Ahhhh' before being deposited in a windrow along the edge of the swath I am cutting through the meadow. The tool, the grass and I are working smoothly together in an ancient ritual.

My father, once an English farmer, taught me how to do this when I was young and now I don't suppose there are many people in the wealthy West that know how to use a scythe anymore. Perhaps they have only a vague idea what 'cutting a swath' really means if they read the phrase used metaphorically in a book.

I do own a lawn mower and a weedeater and use them regularly: they are noisy, use gas, wear out eventually and need replacing, but they do specific jobs very well. My scythe usually hangs under the eves with its sharpening stone, waiting for this time of year when its own particular qualities come to the fore.

I pause regularly to sharpen the long, thin, curved blade; holding the scythe upright with my left hand and, with my right, sliding the sharpening stone down the cutting edge on alternate sides, just like I do for sharpening the carving knife at home. Cutting grass for hay is not a test of strength, but of finesse, and I wish to perform this dance smoothly and accurately.

Each stroke begins as I bring the curved handle back to the right, line up the next strip of grass stems and then swing back to the left, pulling my left arm back to my body as I do so. The blade runs along parallel with the stems, slicing them cleanly and the final curve lifts and deposits the cut pieces in a neat windrow, there to cure and dry. So smooth, so very satisfying, so quiet, and so cheap.

That simplicity, the long life and inexpensiveness of a scythe, the basic skills, are of course not popular in our market economy. Why, if everyone lived this way, made their own hay, used no tractor, no fuel, had no overhead ,surely the world would collapse! Perhaps it will anyway, and then my simple scything and hay making skills will be in demand once more.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Photographs do have a point of view.

'Images from the Likeness House.' Dan Savard.

In our Ganges library I found a fascinating book about early photographs that now reside in the Royal BC Museum and were taken of First Nations peoples along this coast from the 1850's to the early years of the last century. Perhaps it is my background of studies in Anthropology, my childhood carvings of totem poles and early friendships with native children in a small coastal community, but this material draws me in big time.

The photographs provide so much information about how things were; the portraits, the communities, the little details about canoes and carvings, how the boards were laid on house sides and roofs. One’s eyes are such great gleaners of information and the camera has recorded all this for me in detail; but not without the filters of the mind of the photographer and the social conventions of the time.

That is always the hard concept to get across; that photographs, like written accounts, drawings and paintings, have a point of view and are not simply the 'unvarnished truth'. That the photographs we may take today 'in living colour' are also just as tightly constrained and project a cultural bias that others can read. The images we take while travelling abroad are, like these images made by early photographers, reflective of a certain suite of attitudes. Some local people squat around a fire and we do not think to ask permission to take their image, not thinking that they may be uncomfortable about this thoughtless capture of their likeness. We look down and shoot ' local colour' from above, as part of our safari, rather than squat down in their sides and, with permission, make a likeness.

These unconscious prejudices come through in these old photographs. Indians are so often shot for their 'quaintness' their interesting savagery and the commercial value of their images. We see the romantic photographs of Curtis, the American photographer, eager to re-enact images of 'the noble savage' using models who, having neglected to die off as expected, obligingly doff their European clothes and pose in feathers, buckskin and bark clothing. Another photographer in Victoria poses an old couple on the linoleum floor of his studio and exposes his own attitudes at the same time as he trips the shutter.

But then there are also photos taken by survey parties in the interior of BC, at the same time as Curtis was making his re-enactments on the coast, that show local men and women in their normal working dress, at the blending frontier that is closer to another truth of the times.

An action photo taken by an Indian crew member of a whaling canoe in Juan de Fuca Strait is to modern eyes a masterful image, so close to the action that, despite the scratchy print, we are in the midst of the hunt!

The images in this book tell a lot about the relationship between the 'ghosts' with their cameras and the real people. The white ghosts got to write the histories and make the visual record but still, hidden in photographs like those in this book, one can read another bigger story stitched between the lines.