Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Frog in the Swamp

They were there all along. Only I was facing the other way, wrestling with the barns of Hollow Farm while enjoying the unusually multivoiced choir of birds around me. Jannequin's polyphony had nothing on these guys, but the barns were stubborn, stuck there like cows with their heads down in the pasture. I had hoped that the carpet of pink blossoms would somehow help me make the picture I wanted. I had been moving around, looking for angles on the setting sun and the fiber of the blossoms. The barns textures glowed as the sun got lower; the paintpot was ready, but the whole would not compose itself. I had probably shot 200 images of the barns when I first turned around. Beyond the curtain of trees the sun skated across the marsh grasses, a last thrill of golden, warm sunlight, and the birds were exalting, and I heard frogs there too. I snapped just 4 images and knew I had something I would like. Then I turned and snapped another 200 of the barns.

When I went back the next day for another sunset shoot the field had been mowed. It was just a large lawn between the barns and the old stone wall.


The arbitrary is the enemy of the artistic. If you find that proclamation a bit overbearing, I'm in sympathy. I usually try to avoid such terms as "artistic," and "artist," and I'd much prefer principals to laws and rules. Defining art usually raises more problems than it solves as does this concept of arbitrary, but I address it now as I try to understand why I have published so few photos from The Hollow Farm and what that has to do with my own intuitions about photography.

As already mentioned, this farm is unusual in its orderliness. The land is flat, the barns sit along a straight stretch of road, and all lie at right angles to each other and to the road. All this means that each time I reposition myself and shoot, the elements of my images adjust themselves in ways that are not wholly distinct from the previous shot. As I review these numerous images, and watch the compositions slowly morph from shot to shot, it is usually hard to single out any one shot. Then I begin wondering if the image would be improved if I had shot under different light or with a change in leaf color or when the grasses are turning to seed. I'd like to address that orderliness in a way that seems, if not definitive, at least complete in order to set off the ways one can make it dance, but no single or set of images has emerged to do that.

If one seeks merely to publish pretty images, such concerns are largely irrelevant. One goes looking for pretty sights and then uses a camera or paint brush to document them. They exist at one level removed and inferior to the real thing. For me photography is not be about finding pretty images to shoot or even about shooting pretty images prettily; it's not about documenting the external world. It is about taking the scene in front of me, whatever it may be, as raw material and composing elements of it into a new whole that expresses something beyond the original, a mood, an emotion, something universal or iconic or surprising. It may make us see something old in a new way ormake us fit something new into a familiar emotional resonance. In the end, the compositon should feel like the inevitable arrangement to satisfy the ends of the image.

Susan Sontag, in her book on photography, suggests that painting is ill equipped to express the surreal, that the medium of photography is much more capable of truly capturing the surreal because it is so firmly attached to capturing the light of the real world. I raise this point here because I think it is a perception that goes well beyond strict surrealism, that in fact the relation of real and super-real is a fundamental paradox that forms a cornerstone of photography as an art form.

While my intuitions tell me that a given image is or isn't arbitrary, explaining why can sound a bit like intellectual rationalization. It's easy to talk about elements of a composition and their meaning, but whether the image is merely an intellectual construct or expressive in a way that goes beneath surface reality resists the verbal explanation. The image included here struck me as a likely candidate to illustrate what I mean by not arbitrary. To explain its non-arbitrariness I might talk about its division into two equal rectangles top and bottom, about the way barn and moon balance and their symbolic reverberations, about the way the dividing line of the trees seems to echo the roof line of the barn, or I might even try to justify the odd point at which I have decided to cut the barn off at the knees, but my words can't capture the deeper harmonies of the work which I feel. That is not to say that the image is profound or that one ought to like it or even that I consider it among my best. For me, it merely means I feel this image has received its ultimate form here and fulfilled its super-real potantial.

The opposite of the arbitrary is the committed. A month from now, when the moon is again rising full at dusk, I may see a similar shot with a spot of cloud in it and say to myself, that adds the finishing touch; it is more committed to the initial vision than it was before. Or perhaps it is my lack of vision that is keeping me from seeing what all those other images taken at The Hollow might become.

I risk this wandering philosophizing in the hope of eliciting thoughts that further clarify my understanding. I invite comments which may help me think further about this issue of arbitrariness.

Weekend one of the photo exhibit was a success. I look forward to seeing those you you who have told me you plan to attend this coming weekend.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Other Side

No matter how I plan for a series of related TODAY'S, that plan is diverted by the passion of the moment. My note awhile back on The Hollow was intended as the first of perhaps 4 or 5 images in a series on The Hollow Farm. Similarly, the post on the Bunnell Windows Book was intended to introduce numerous Bunnell Windows. It's not that I later think less of the images never posted; one of the Hollow Farm images has a key place in the Camera's Eye exhibition. Rather, I am diverted by some new passion. In the end, however, things usually come round. And so we return to Bunnells.

The image above was worked on after it was shot and then set aside; it never reached completion. I rediscovered it tonight as I reviewed a folder of such temporarily abandoned images, and maybe the variety produced by such circuitous posting habits is a virtue. I set the image aside for technical reasons. My normal habit is to compose in the camera, and it is very rare that I crop a shot after I shoot it. I have no aesthetic objection to doing so, though cropping yields lower resolution images. This one may never be able to print out at 13"X19", my usual size. However, when I did the initial editing, I found the focal interest of the image in what you see; I cropped the rest away as superfluous.

What you see above is the cropped version, my first thoughts on the image. Below are my second thoughts, my current thoughts. Or maybe they are alternative thoughts. Your thoughts on which version is preferable would be most helpful and interesting. There is no question that the effect is very different.

Peeking In

These are the same velvet surfaces posted under the title: "The Hollow," on May 1. However, it was the windows that first caught my attention. I've never seen windows like these on any other barn, and the contrast between their soft, if perhaps forced, cheeriness and the view through them intrigues me. What the shadowy diagonal form inside the barn may be, I have no idea.

Of course, if you've looked at "Peeking In," and "The Other Side," you realize they are not two versions of the same image. They are two distinct shots from the same series. However, they have been worked up differently as described.

Monday, May 21, 2007


You see what has happened, don't you? I returned to Straight Farmstead this evening. A week ago a shot from this very place was a throw-away, and now everything is reaching for the sunlight. In spring, especially, all things turn toward the heavens and the life-enabling energy of the sun. And the songs of the birds had changed too. Some fellow on a branch near me was whistling a fine, bold melody to the setting sun.

Before getting to Straight, I stopped at Macricostas Meadow to shoot the swallows nesting there. A week or two ago they were flying around everywhere, so I was surprised at how quiet it was at a time when I expected them to be even busier. A peek into one of the bird boxes, and I knew I was being watched. At another, a swallow head popped out, but the meadow remained quiet except for 5 circling turkey vultures. Their wings caught the light nicely, and I thought about taking aim with my lens, but I knew they were just too far. Their presence made the meadow all the more desolate, and I swore I would wait only until 5:50 and then buy myself a new set of birds.

I've concluded that what I witnessed in the meadow earlier was the nesting, and the commotion was the busy work of gathering and delivering bedding in preparation for the laying. I know that last year in June the meadow was filled with brigades of swallow arriving and leaving, feeding the young. My guess is that now is the time of waiting and feeding and getting strong for the work ahead in which every bird will have to gather food to feed himself and herself and few others beside. The meadow needs to be watched for signs of the first hatching.

I left Macricostas Meadow disappointed and made several productive stops on my way generally toward Straight Farm,. I wish I had arrived at Straight earlier to see how the turkey's dance had changed, but the light was turning sour by a haze of vapor. This shot was almost the last of the evening. It's a keeper. I'm going home to play some Schubert.

New Brunswick Storm, May 2006

For the past week weather has made shooting difficult. In fact, in some ways this spell of gray has been well timed. Preparation for our exhibition which opens this weekend would have been in conflict with my urge to catch the last of the opening leaves, just as it has kept me from adding to, "Today's." On the other hand, this storm system lying off the coast has moved in and out; it has been one of those in which expanses of slate gray periodically give way to dramatic skyscapes, the kind of skies where one quickly looks for anything that will compose them into an image. Any photographer moved by such weather must be always on alert for sudden changes, ready to quickly hop in the car and find the spot where a picture may lie waiting. Preparation for the exhibit has kept my nose down and my printer running, and such weather events have all been missed.

On the other hand, final prep for the show has sent me back through older images to find any that will fit with the other work in the show. In doing so, I came across this image taken just one year ago while I was on my way to a week-long photo workshop in New Brunswick, Canada. It illustrates, as well as any image I've taken, what one can catch when the clouds suddenly turn lively, and in the past year my skill with Photoshop has improved so that I can get much more out of the initial image than I could have when I shot it.

The signed date on the image reflects that I have worked it up fresh to try and extract every bit of contour from clouds and hillsides. In truth, it is one of those images that are almost beyond the reach of a camera; if one is to catch the shapes in the bright clouds on the right, one loses detail in the dark clouds on the left and the foreground soil turns black. I had time to snap 9 images before the clouds shifted. Three were bracketed shots (different exposures) very similar to this one. This image was made from the darkest of those. As shot, dark areas showed no detail. However, it was perfectly exposed to catch the cloud formations on the right. The latent image in the underexposed areas was enough that there was no need to take parts of the other shots and make a composite image.

Now that it is finished, however, I've decided it will not appear in the exhibit. For me, the hardest part of putting together an exhibit is cutting out shots for which there is no room and which don't quite fit with my thematic intent. Much as I like this finished image, it will not fit. I've chosen to show very few broad landscapes in favor of the farmstead abstractions that have been catching my eye for some months now.

I'm glad I will see some of you at the show this weekend or next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Rolling Straight at Sunrise #3

The little building with the funny chimney lies just below the barns and house of Straight Farmstead. I thought, "a pump house!" Of course the chimney's wrong, and why a window. Inside, a feeding trough instead of pipes and pumps. I've since been told it was for pigs, not that anyone I've met can remember pigs here, and only a small section of the barn's "L" is outfitted with animal stalls.

I've had a nasty time getting a print I like, and its probably not going to wow anyone. If the top or bottom of the image are clipped on your screen, the effect is totally lost, but for me this image more than any other I've taken at Straight Farm touches the essence of the place. I like the linty, minty, early morning, first-of-spring hills and how they cradle the pighouse. Most of all, I like the painterly light in pighouse and hills, and the simplicity of the geometries. Ah, spring!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Rolling Straight at Sunrise #2

The field below the barn gets a bit wet at the bottom, but I'm told it is a good haying field. That's the place to shoot the barns at sunrise, I think, but so far my trips there have been in mid afternoon, and the grass is beginning to get long and ticks are about. In the late afternoon the lower area belongs to the turkeys. I wish I could get close enough to photograph their dandy dance. Perhaps I need to get down there before they do and hide out in my turkey suit.

This photo is not what usually attracts me, but I was pleased at how it all came together.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Rolling Straight at Sunrise #1

In the last posting I described the rolling hills astride which Straight Farm spreads. As the moods of spring begin to cast spells across the hills, I find myself each day more in awe of the peacefulness and grandeur of this spot. Perhaps it's also the infinity of photo possibilities that exist here. The previous photo was shot at sunset, this one at sunrise; the farmstead is situated well for both my Lauds and Nocturns.

Of course, no photo can capture the song and acrobatics of the swallows that for the next month will live and raise their families in the barns. I've watched them swoop through narrow, dark passages at jet fighter speeds, sometimes within inches of my nose. It is no wonder that farmers used to cut holes in the sides of the barns to let them nest and lead their busy, insect-eating lives. Their song celebrates any farmstead they inhabit.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


Straight Farm is anything but straight. It is another of the farms in the Hollow. Unlike the farm I've called, "The Hollow Farm," Straight farm is perched astride rolling hills beneath the western slopes that define that side of the Hollow. From various angles the hills appear to swallow up the farmstead. These galloping hills run north-south so that from the barns one may look south down to rolling pasture lands and distant mountains or north up to more pasture lands and the neat rows of trees that frequently divide adjacent fields. To the east lie the flatter sections of the the Hollow and several other farms.

About half of my recent evening shoots have been at this delightfully still farmstead. The 3 "Composition with Diagonals" images were taken here. The barns look much more decayed than they actually are. The fields are hayed regularly and the barns store the hay for lambs and cows raised up the road.

Last night, the tiny leaf bundles that have given the hillsides their delicate texture sprang open and all was suddenly transformed. This is the event I've been waiting for and the reason for this picture.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Evanescent & the Enduring

Old farms are marked by their silos. Even small farms often had several of these. In New England's cold winters they kept livestock happy until the grazing season returned. Often the silos remain standing long after the barns themselves have disappeared, and even when barns and silos are gone, the distinctive foundations of the silos tell the vanished history of the land.

The unusual red silo at Bunnell Farm (seen in some of the other photos I've posted) is set unusually far, perhaps 12 or 15 feet, from the main barns. I have no idea why this was done, but it necessitated an intriguing, narrow passageway with windows on both sides that enabled earlier generations of Bunnells to get the silage from silo to barn & cows without suffering winter winds. After composing a variety of shots through this passageway I went into the barns to take other shots. On emerging from the barns I was struck by the white, fluffy clouds at that moment reflecting from the windows of the idle passageway.

Incidentally, for those who have been wondering, Bunnell rhymes with Funnel.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Bunnell Windows Book

If there is a book in me, and that is hardly to suggest there is anyone interest reading, looking at, or thumbing the pages of the book that is or isn't in me, this might be the cover. The title of the book might be, "The Bunnell Windows." The window images in the book need not be all Bunnell windows, nor were the Bunnell windows my first windows. It's just that at Bunnell Farm the riot of windows made me realize how varied & expressive windows can be - made me the window nut I am. This group catching morning sun crows like a rooster.

Then again, perhaps such books, like family farms and roosters are obsolete.

The Back Cover

I'm not certain this image is interesting enough in itself to merit posting, but I kind of like that it is the other side of the rooster crow image.

Is a rooster crow anything like a churkendoose?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Composition with Diagonals #3

How convenient that someone stored an old plow with great wooden wheels right inside the barn where its silhouette could catch my lens! Perhaps it should trouble me that many of the elements of this composition are the same as in the previous posting, but in my home, I'll happily hang them side-by-side. Unfortunately, when we open our next Camera's Eye exhibition in late May, I will have to choose just one from these last three. Choosing is so hard. Perhaps someone will offer guidance.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Composition with Diagonals #1

"Composition with Diagonals #2" or "Grampa's Teeth"

Several people have commented on the light in the May 1st photo. It was changing even as I snapped the picture, and I confess to being pleased by the results. However, I've spent much of this evening struggling with the importance of such prettiness as I try to decide between two very different interpretations of the same image.

Interpretation #1 has murky shadows and burnt out highlights, it's jagged and chalky. For me, it has a bit of anguish about it. Interpretation #2 moderates the extremes, details are revealed in the shadows and reclaimed from the burnout. Is interpretation #2 a bit more forgiving of age's frailty?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Hollow

It is the most mannerly of farmsteads because it grew where the hollow flattens out in good, dry land. The barns are also in relatively good repair. The large barns were once cow barns, and I'm told it was for a time a horse farm. Because it lies at the bottom of the of The Hollow, I call it, "The Hollow Farm," but it is hollow in another sense too. Nothing happens here. The barn doors are shut, the barns are still except for the birds, vivacious inhabitants.

I haven't been inside the barns and can't say much about their age. I was invited to climb up into the loft of "the wood shed," a barn structure used currently as a garage. It appears to be quite old, and local history tells that the farmhouse was burned twice during The Revolution. This is prime farmland that has been lived on for a long time.