Saturday, June 30, 2007

Making Choices & the Shooting Process

On a good morning or evening I can shoot between 150 and 400 images. This part of the image-making process is utter joy as the whole effort is directed at opening possibilities and perfecting them as conditions constantly change. I am my own companion and there is always more to see. If it is a site I know well, as I shoot I'll plan ahead to follow sun and clouds, but primary focus is on expanding the possibilities of the moment, on standing at the edge.

At some point I must take those images back to my computer and go through them all. If I feel the shoot was good, and I had found my shooting self erupting with ooohs or even ahhhhs, I'm eager to see the results, though sometimes shoots that felt weak turn out much better than expected, and good shoots don't always pan out. However, the best review is done at some remove from actual shooting and then begins the task of selecting one or two images, from the, possibly 400, that I consider worth finishing.

Selecting is the lonliest part of the job. I'm not out to make a slide show; I'm hoping to have one image that will remain memorable, that I'd like to think has gotten hold of some essence or has an expressive purpose beyond the unframed reality. On a good shoot I am always on the edge of my seat with expectation. The view is always opening. At selection time my task is to eliminate possibilities, settling on the one best choice.

I had walked about half of the sheep's pasture when I shot this image. I've learned that I don't know what things really will look like until I stand the ground, but I knew as I shifted my tripod slightly and made final adjustments for this image that I had found the one best spot to pull the barns of Kallstrom into the compositional relationships I had been striving for. I knew after I clicked the shutter I would move on to another idea. So it was with some pleasure that I later reviewed this shot and confirmed my initial judgement - Oooooh! Aaaaah! The one best choice was clear.

Then I came to the shots taken a few minutes later after I had climbed a few more steps up the hill, and sheep flooded into where I had stood earlier and I zoomed. The towers were no longer optimized but sheep had changed the equation, and my reaction was that their presence had superseded the mere balance of towers. Normally, today's TODAY'S would have remained in my computer archive, unfunished, merely an abandoned possibility, an unnecessary redundancy.

Reviewing to make choices is a lonely activity filled with uncertainties, and it would be wonderful to always have someone at my elbow to stop me and say, "Wait, don't dismiss that one so quickly," - another pair of eyes, another sensibility to sit by me through the long hours of reviewing each day's shoot would be a great aid in helping me to see more. How many times I have come back to a shot months or even a year or two later that I had completely overlooked. Tomorrow I'm off to Maine for a week-long photo workshop where, hopefully, we will all be looking over each other's shoulders and helping us see that work more clearly.

In the meantime I'm left wondering if this shut is merely a redundancy after "The Joker," and "Sentries of Time," or does it offer something all its own, not captured there?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Sentries of Time

Old barns are among the most practical buildings ever built. One can read the logic in the layout of a good farmstead, but this utilitarianism often yields a beautiful mix of vertical and horizontal forms. Then time leaves its mark on old barns in a multitude of textures and colors which grow especially rich in dawn and dusk sunlight. Most farmsteads grew and changed constantly. Today most bear the marks of many generations.

I like trying to compose the textures into, "samplers." This sampler is also a gathering of generations. The green roof facing us is the latest addition. It was added this spring and replaced wood shingles. It's sad to see the old roof go, but good to know something of the original is now better preserved. The cupola was recently restored honoring the grandfather's design. Who was the practical-minded farmer that resurfaced one barn wall with black shingles?

With the right choice of angle and lens we can almost listen in on the conversation among the old towers. What do you think they are saying to each other today?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hollow Barn Dance

The Barns of Hollow Farmstead almost never dance. They are stately and symmetrical, their roofs well matched, their siding intact though worn to painterly perfection. They all meet at right angles. No animals dwell here. Periodically someone comes to cut and bale the hay from the long rectangualr field which the barns bisect, and then for a few weeks the fields look like great lawns to house and barn, too formal for a dance. To make them dance one must poke them with the long lens and turn them askew; the barns behind each gable, although here squashed flat, stretch 60 to 100 feet. The shot was made some months back, and and I like the way the trees dance along. Wearing their lush, green leaves, they are not nearly such good partners. Straight Farmstead is shy and withdrawn; Kallstrom is The Joker; Hollow Farm wears its age with complacent dignity, but every once in awhile I try to coax from it a little jig.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Kallstrom Barn Dance II

It's hard to make the Kallstrom barns stop dancing. When I shot them last winter (see: ) they were dancing despite a noreaster blowing sleet and snow through the farmstead. No goats stepped out into that furiant; the barns danced alone. This week the tune was more bucolic, and here they blush in the warm evening sunlight. But it's the same dance then as now.

The Joker

Susan Sontag says, "All photographs are momento mori. To take a photo is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt." If so, the images of Kallstrom farm have the mark of the joker about them, laughing in time's face. Where splintered boards seem about to fall baby lambs scamper beneath their mothers. A ladder lies on a rooftop waiting for repairs to resume. A truck lies rusting in the weeds, it's cargo still aboard. Nobody can remember a time when it wasn't parked just there. Goats with curved goats and long beards graze and cast a cynical eye and answer back to the bahhh-hbahhh of the lambs. All about are the relics of 100 years of Kallstrom farming, custodians of an inscrutable story. Cows, goats, lambs, and people barely notice as each carries out its appointed task.

Having just produced a more comprehensive image of Straight Farmstead, it's satisfying to follow it with a similarly comprehensive image of Kallstrom, the former quiet and shy, this one, a never resting prankster.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Why I Never Shoot Sky

I hate sky. You may have noticed that most of the photos I post include as little sky as possible. Most of the time it's in my way, and I do my best to push it aside. I like the way an overcast sky can intensify some colors, but, unless I want the effect of a gray day, I'll try to sneak under its grayness. Even worse are the all too common "atmospheric" days where the blue isn't quite blue and the light at dawn and dusk isn't quite as intense as it should be. Such gray-blue emptiness adds nothing of interest to a photo and is so bland it is good for nothing but a timid yelp of existential boredom. A crisp blue sky makes a great flat background, but it's rare one needs or wants lots of great, flat background.

Add to those the days when it is too wet or snowy to shoot, and I've shot in some, and that's half the year, at least in Connecticut, when I don't want to shoot the sky. What's left is an assortment of days with clouds of various kinds, most good only for adding a bit of texture to great, flat background.

This was the first shot I made yesterday at Straight Farm when the clouds were rioting, Fasalt and Fafner trampling across the hills. We've had a spell of god-cloud weather lately. Last evening at Straight the line of approach was right over the nearby hill so it was impossible to get the measure of the cloud until it was almost overhead, and I ran for cover from rain and lightening several times but neither happened.

What did happen was a lumbering parade as good as anything Macy's can put together. The problem was that the parade began at the top of the hill behind the barns and to the left in this picture, and stumbled along the side of the mountain and down the long grasslands in front of the barns, and the sun alternately burned deep behind the mass of clouds and powered through, dappling and casting spotlights randomly. Sometimes soundless shadows slithered over the lumpy hills, while I ran circles around the barns, up the hill and back down, trying to predict where the next good extravaganza was taking place.

It has bothered me that I've been so far unable to compose an image making use of the full cluster of barns at Straight. The problem is that trees and orientation keep it from getting decent light. Last night clouds taught me how to shoot it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

While the Sun Shines

This image was taken 60 minutes and 37 seconds after the previous blogged image. With such precision our cameras plot our every shot. It was, I had hoped, with similar precision that I observed what I thought was the approaching thunderhead. I have no burning desire to be bacon, and at such moments I am aware of a god's presence. I'm also aware of the potential for a good photograph. Yes, precision is crucial.

So the sudden, fat drops of rain were unexpected. The storm was still far off. I dismissed them and kept shooting, waiting longer than normal before stowing and waterproofing my gear. I finally turned around when I heard the rattle of the cow shed's tin roof. Behind me cats, dogs, whole cows were ricocheting tin. The thunderhead I had been watching was in retreat.

So it is that I can tell you with absolute precision when the first rain drops hit my lens, and I packed and fled past the newly planted corn, past the out-to-pasture cow, past the giant silo, and into a tractor shed. It was a splendid, if somewhat smelly, window on the storm.

At the top of Rabbit Hill where one can watch the weather pass, I forgot to look the other way.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Out to Pasture

I shot this before the storm broke. It was the day the front moved through and I hoped to have good clouds to play with. Driving up Rabbit Hill Road the view is all sky and then the top of the great silo pops over the horizon, and the sky did, in fact, offer possibilities. I thought those clouds would look best behind the Rabbit Hill barns and the rows of newly planted corn in the adjacent field. However, on my way to the back where the corn seedlings had popped up a few days earlier, I passed a lone cow. It was, apparently unteathered, but it wasn't going anywhere. It didn't even nod as I passed.

My eye was on a storm cloud to the north, and I gave little thought to the old cow. Minutes later and some hundred or so yards further back in the field I heard rain, like a snare drum, beating on the tin roof of the cow barn to my south. It took a few moments to register that I was about to get very wet. I had just time to pack my camera away in my backpack and pull up the pack's concealed rain hood before the downpour enveloped me. On my hasty retreat to the shelter of the nearest barn I passed the same cow, still not moving nor registering my passage or the downpour. Like this old barn that I had shot ten minutes earlier, I guess she had little choice but to silently take whatever occurred.

I've photographed this barn before, but here the compression of my long lens makes it seem isolated in a wilderness about to devour it. The same long lens creates a kind of cardboard cutout effect in front of the distant hills, and I've been looking at this for a few days to decide how I feel about it. I've toned the background to minimize this effect, but I'm curious how others feel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Wallace Stevens

Here is yet another shot from the ridge above Hill Farm. For the past three years I've been looking toward this ridge through my long lens from one range of hills farther west (behind me), wondering what it would be like to stand here. Yes, I'm trying to take life one hill at a time. I've now explored many of Hill Farm's byways and walked the full circuit half a dozen times.

It's worth the tick threat to finally cross the ridge and descend into the hidden valley and abundant grasslands ahead. The loop I follow descends beside the trees on the right to more grasslands deep in the valley, then across and back along the river to the lower farmstead shown in an earlier image. Finally, I climb the main farm road to the upper farmstead (previous image) and follow the town road back to my car, just on the other side of the ridge. This trip with 35 pounds of camera gear is good for my calves, gentle on my knees, and it revitalizes both heart and soul.

Is it strictly antiquarian to wish that there were cows in those fields? Undoubtedly, and the future for Hill Farm is exciting. The posts set on the other side of the wall are waiting for the planting of hundreds of grape vines later this summer. On two other hillsides vinyards are already leafing, and in a few years wine will be flowing, and I'm looking forward to shooting as the valleys turn from from milk to wine.

Finally, you may have noticed the cairn. Was there a battle fought here? Did George Washington stop here on his way through town? Does anyone even remember why it was built just here?

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Old Farm Road #2

This shot was taken a few hundred yards down the old farm road from the yesterday's TODAY'S. A bit of the clover can still be seen sprouting from the ridge between the ruts of the road. The farmstead to the right is the main farmstead described in that previous posting. Still no sign of bees.

Throughout New England farmland is vanishing. As fields are no longer cultivated or minimally cultivated to preserve tax benefits the beauty of the landscape changes. When the farms are finally sold, the fields sprout rows of houses instead of corn or beans, and something of our connection to the land vanishes with the farmland. Then we no longer think of the problem of the bees. It may also be that something more essential is lost when we can no longer stand in places such as this and look out across the ranges of hills.

For the past year as I've hiked and shot images I've been striving to capture the rock and roll of the hills as they tumble around me. For me, to feel the tilt of the land in this way is to feel connected to something timeless and vast. Fortunately, where I live there are still numerous places where I can feel that rush. As I drive elsewhere I'm increasingly aware of how fast such places have vanished from most of Connecticut. When I moved here in 1974 interstate 84 was still lined in places with fields of tobacco and rows of long tobacco barns. Today those fields and barns have been demolished; none remain. In their place stand strip malls, warehouses, and shopping plazas.

Fortunately, all the land in this picture and the previous two have been preserved for future generations. Elsewhere, I try to capture pictures before it is too late.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Old Farm Road & the Problem of the Bees

I've been driving past Hill Farm since I moved to the area, and I began shooting images of it from the public road as early as the winter of 2005. It was a magical vista to me always - a destination along a tour when friends visited, and one of the ultimate subjects for "a pretty picture." Meeting the owners and getting permission to explore the property made me aware how little of the magic I'd seen. As to this picture, I'm still hoping for a truly clear sky before the clover starts to turn.

Hill Farmstead (not the one in the picture) sits on a shoulder of land just below the main ridge. The dirt road climbs steeply before it turns right and passes through the middle of the main farmstead. After it leaves the farmstead it turns left and climbs higher, then turns to the right and passes over the ridge. Viewing this image, that farmstead is about 45 degrees off camera, to the left. The spot where the dirt road crosses the ridge is about a third of a mile to my left and near the farmstead. The farmstead commands the long valley before it, farmlands and hills for as far as the eye can see. It has stood here since before the revolution, and it has looked the same much of that time. At the height of Connecticut farming it must have been quite an operation.

The farmstead in front of us, part of the Hill Farm operation, is on the banks of the river which flows through woodlands beyond the fields. Among this farmstead's features is a mail-order barn (the big one in the picture) and two pens with stone walls 9 feet high and 3 feet thick. That's where they penned the bulls. The upper barns are horse barns now and probably were then. These lower barns must have been cow barns. It makes sense. The owners of a fine farm like this wanted their transportation nearby, but they might not be so keen on having the tons of manure produced weekly so close to their noses.

Once this field and all the fields in view were cultivated, probably for feed. It's clear that this one is mowed, but my guess is that it has been all clover for awhile. The aroma as I shoot images is a heady concoction that ought to be bottled. One can't help in places such as this to feel the great life force which, left on its own, powers forth this frenzy of blossoms. All around me here nature is exuberant. Of course, the blossoms are not there to tempt and intoxicate me, and that is the problem. It seems to me that this place should be buzzing as loudly as it is chirping and singing, but in the 3 or 4 days I've walked up here, in weather both chilly and sweaty, early and late, I've only counted three bees.

Perhaps the more deeply moving photo will be when the clover turns. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Meadowing

Those of us in the northeast who have lawns know that in spring and fall it can be impossible to keep up with mowing. Farmers who grow hay have a different perspective on this phenomenon. Not so long ago I described Straight Farmstead as sitting astride one of the gentle hills within Kent Hollow. Suddenly the fields above and below the farmstead have filled with tall grasses. Last summer I spent much of my time in the meadows of Macricostas, shooting into the sun at dawn and dusk when the strong golden beams make the meadow fibers dance. I find myself again drawn to those strong textures.

I debated a long time before posting this photo because of it's odd lighting. At this season of the year the southern face of the main barn at Straight Farm only gets midday sun. At sunset the sun glances past this corner pouring beautiful light on the end face of the barn, just beyond the left side of the image. When the meadow grasses are dancing this most expressive southern face has a deathly grimace and the contrast of ancient barn and buzzing meadow is most acute. Whether that is caught here, I'm still uncertain. Perhaps the contrast is too great as the grass seems almost a cutout pasted on the surfacve. Or maybe that is the idea - the two worlds of life and death which never meet.

In spite of appearances, this is one of the most stable barns I've shot. A new roof and reinforcing structure have preserved it just in time. I returned the window frames (found lying inside) to their sockets a few weeks back, my way of celebrating that this barn still serves farming. The hay that will be mowed in these fields will be roll-bailed and stored in this barn.