Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Falling Leaf, the Sprouting Stalk

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: First it was the leg of my "indestructible," Bogen-Manfrotto tripod that fell into pieces. Then my pedometer turned into dashes that looked like DNA, and I thought maybe I'd run out of steps. Then, Monday, my camera blitzed just as the sky filled with clouds painted by Magritte. I remain undaunted. (Yes, Eddie!) So after all that, why should my first outing lead to a cemetery, and why had so many birds, fortunately no crows, come down to perch and watch me shoot? Was I tresspassing? ...enough to make one superstitious, and I wondered: If I wasn't supposed to be here doing this, where was I supposed to be and what was I supposed to do? Perhaps the birds would be good enough to answer.

It is an old family cemetery overlooking a farmstead. Descendants of the first farmers still run the farm today, and all of those who ran it then now lie here. I was hoping to find a picture that might say something like that. I'd tried in the fall before all the leaves were off the trees, but the angles were too tight. They were only a bit better today, still no-go. At least I couldn't see them. Then a small flock of sheep, potentially ideal players for the story I wanted to tell, trotted down to graze in the farthest field. They had to be placed just so or the composition would be cluttered. As soon as I'd moved so, they'd spy a juicier bit of grass and discompose me. Following "so" kept me hopping. The sheep were merciless.

MENTAL NOTE: How can I rig the remote so it hangs where I expect it when I reach to shoot? It was so nice when Nikon built in a wireless trigger. Then I might have had sheep.

I left the cemetery intent on walk, but soon I was stopped by reddish brush I'd never noticed back in the pasture. A horse fence cast a strong shadow; fence and shadow made a good leading line into the composition where a rock outcropping caught good side light. The whole composition set up fine, but I didn't push the shutter. The shot had a great hole in the center; it was about nothing.

As always, I wondered, "Did it matter?" In this case it needed a horse or something. As I looked through the viewfinder at the perfectly framed composition, a large brown leaf dropped through my frame. No reflex would have been fast enough to catch it. The thought occurred to me that all of the images I like best have about them the immediacy of that falling leaf. Rarely is it due to stopped motion. Often it is a quality of light or a silence waiting to be broken. In yesterday's photo it was in the beckoning of an open door and the knowing eye of a watchful window. "The Falling Leaf." -an icon around which I can measure any photo? The name for an enterprise?

Just then a hawk swooped slowly across the passing swamp.  I had my long lens in place, but I knew I'd never catch him. Yes, the immediacy of the hawk's wing too, a falling leaf is only half the story, but I'm not so interested in shooting hawks.

MENTAL NOTE: How can I be more ready for lambs and hawks?

Yes, and there was a blue jay too, posing for me where he could soak in the midday sun. I wondered why the birds seemed so especially lively today. Spring began a week ago, but there beside the wall the sprouts had only just now nudged the ground aside. Of course, "hawk" rhymes with "stalk." By summer they would be stalks. Was that it, "Every photo should have about it the immediacy of a falling leaf or a sprouting stalk"?

Be sure to view this phot against a dark background and turn down the light beside you computer, and zoom in close.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Photo Zen

CLYDE BUTCHER: "The less you have to think, the better photographer you can become."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The scene doesn't exist; there is no tight cluster of trees blocking the way to this farmstead. There is a well-separated row of trees lining the country road where it winds past these ancient barns. Of course it's better not to think. The mind on vacation relishes pleasures that are invisible to the mind at work. That is the precondition to all of the methodology in the last three posts, and none of that methodology can really begin until thought engines are in cool idle, and eyes unprejudiced are open to delights.

I believe in practice; elements of technique that are not practiced into regularity and routine, will intrude. ...and in the right equipment; a new gadget, a broken widget, or a tripod that slips and slides is only overcome at mental cost. And perhaps along the same lines, I have come to value a practiced methodology of strategies that prevents the process of stalking the photo from becoming a distraction to itself.

Of course the most challenging distractions can only be overcome by spirit: appointments or deadlines to keep - threatening dangers of geography or weather - the call of a warm bed at a chilly 6 AM, coffee-less sunrise - the yearning at sunset to be at home having dinner & conversation with Jane. "The world is too much with us.... We lay waste our powers."

And so I attach this thought to one of those odd little compositions that keeps calling me back to it. I know some will find no pleasure in it. No matter. My eye was caught by... but, you see, one really can't meaningfully say what because it is a myriad that serendipped out of nowhere. It was the last shot of the day, and although camera and tripod were still on my shoulder, parts of me were already in the car recovering from the 4 mile trek. All at once the serendipity was just there, elbowing me, a cluster of small trees, a wall dividing a farmstead and blocking the way of my eye. I snapped the frame in spite of myself. Well, I actually snapped five, but none quite like this one. It was the very last shot of the day and automatically I had moved and zoomed through 4 shots and arrived at just this image that still pleases me.

I've been back since looking for the shot, thinking maybe it would be better with the warm glow and added definition right before sunset, but I've so far been unable to find this spot.

Photo blog:

Monday, March 24, 2008

Stay Away

CONSTANTIN STANISLAVSKI: There are no small parts, only small actors."
SCOTT McLEAY: "Each part of the image is equally important."
EDWARD WESTON: "Composition is the strongest way of seeing."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: After scouting and scoping Great Falls on Friday, I had my site and my time for a single falls shoot. I wanted to be as close to the foot of the falls as possible so I could shoot up across it to the dam station at the top of my frame. The spot I chose was a bit off the official trail and at the bottom of a steep embankment. It was at an the elbow where the river turned, creating a small pool. At the back edge of the pool a rock shelf had been left beneath an overhanging cliff. It provided plenty of room to move about and scope the falls in front of me for the best spot.The afternoon sun was sure to light the falls through much of the afternoon, but I wanted to be there still when the shadow began to creep upstream. I needed another clear day which came immediately on Saturday.

My friend, Louie, has written to suggest "serendipiting" as an additional step in my methodology. In fact, like most photographers, I acknowledge the importance of divine gifts. On the other hand, while one needs to be ready when the unexpected miracle appears, one can't consciously serendipit. And yet...

I had previously noted that if there was a decent wind to pick up the spray of the tumbling river, a portion of this site would be in periodic "rain." What I had not seen from my scoping perch above was that down on the ledge, that spray was continually creating rainbows. They'd come and go with the wind and change as the wind shifted. Sometimes it would be all bottom rainbow; sometimes the arch would only appear in spots and often it wouldn't be there at all for a few moments; every once in a while the wind would do something strange and reveal a complete arch of color from my level at the river up over the top of the falls and part way back down - serendipity! Well, not so fast.

I did all my usual shifting and zooming to identify and place the characters; to try to find the, "strongest way of seeing." For each possibility I shot many more images than normal; it was hard to tell if I'd just caught or just missed the rainbow. I also knew that by using the tripod, I'd be able to assemble a complete rainbow if I took enough shots.

But here's the thing: suddenly I was only half shooting falls and half shooting rainbow, and because I couldn't get them into a clear relationship, I wasn't shooting composition at all. In frustration, I positioned myself so the rainbow's brightest segment fell across a skeletal tree and made it fill the center of my frame. Simply plunking the image in the center of the frame risks discrediting the rest of the "canvas"; It's not the things that matter, but how they fit.

The shadow began creeping up the falls at 4:20, for the first time all afternoon, I ignored the rainbow. I took my last shots at 4:30. That evening not a single shot from the day's shoot pleased me. Such days are disappointing, and I easily give in to self-blame. In fact, it was a failure of concentration caused by the distraction of the rainbow and my determination to make this "gift" work.

Although I know I'll eventually return to shoot from the elbow pool, I chose a very different spot on my return on Monday (Amazing, another clear day!) When I arrived, I wasn't sure where I was going to shoot, but I decided to start above the falls. In contrast to the previous day, I was soon seeing many possibilities and my problem at home was how to choose from many options. Even shots that didn't work suggested fixes if conditions permit a similar shoot. Why had I previously avoided shooting here?

Perhaps I chose TODAY's image out of my yearning to be as close as possible to the edge of the danger. Or maybe getting this close provided the strongest contrast between the calm pool above and the menace ahead. In any case, to my eye all parts of this image are equally important.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Great Falls on the Housatonic, March, 2008

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Scouting & Scoping

On Friday I spent most of the day scouting Great Falls on the Housatonic River. I'd been here before, so I knew generally about the site, but I'd never seriously explored what was here. I consciously set my mind on scouting and only scouting the trails and roads around the falls. I went on foot. I'd resolved on scouting only because I didn't want to mix modes and slow myself down too much; it was a big and complicated site. The clearing sky doomed this resolution. Alain Briot recommends scouting with your camera put away. He even suggests making a rectangular viewer for studying composition. I often leave my camera in my backpack, but if I decide to take a shot, it will stay on the end of my tripod as I walk.

I started at the main entrance just above the power station dam and the falls. It is a very exciting place, especially swollen with spring rains. Getting near comes with a sense of danger. That and the thundering roar and motion of all that water rushing by can't help but to fill one with awe. The photographer must put all this aside or at least realize that if the goal of the photo is to convey that thrill of water thundering by, the danger, motion, and sound must be made visual. One changes the mood of movies by changing the sound track; photos are always silent.

I immediately liked the station house and equipment on the other side. I knew a channel was drawn off just by that building, and I could see water splashing from it as it moved toward the power turbines that I knew were in the valley below. I thought about ways to triangulate a composition between the distant station house and other objects near and far. I wondered how or if I could get over there on the catwalks by the station house and what the view might be from there. Yet the broad pool behind the dam that was immediately in front of me seemed so tranquil and flat next to this cacophony of motion. I was being pulled to have the whole experience of the falls in my face; I wanted to see that rushing water coming at me.

As a result, I spent less time here above the dam than I should have, but one can leave parts unexplored for a later visit. The trail begins right where the water spills over the level edge of the dam and snakes through the woods beside the waterfall. I followed it and noted several places where I might catch an unobstructed frontal view of the falls, but I knew that a good observation spot was ahead. I made a mental, scout's note to try these other spots some other time. It was only 10:30 in the morning, and the light was pretty good though it had begun to turn harsh. When I reached the better observation point my resolution failed, and I decided to scope. On my other visit I'd failed here, and I wanted to know if there was anything that worked. To scope it I needed to take out my camera.

The spot had some serious problems. It was a long arm of ledge that projected toward the river. A railing had been installed for safety. Even from the high spot the ugly railing would interfere. The ledge didn't project quite far enough, and scraggly trees blocked the view of the long dam with water spilling over. I moved way to the bottom back corner of the ledge where it projected farthest, but other elements were made worse. Each time I moved I reset my tripod. This is fine on level terrain and where the height of the lens from the ground is not sensitive. Here, scoping with the tripod was foolish!

Scoping requires freedom. In tight, uneven terrain such as this the tripod encumbers imagination. Every little movement left, right, up, down changes the relationship of things. This is the time to take the camera in hand, and try any likely angle. Don't shoot, just scope. With the camera off the tripod I could lean over the railing and see beyond the trees. From there one pine caught the light nicely and I liked the way its scraggly appearance fit the tenuousness of life on the edge of that great falls. I had made a number of exposures already, telling myself I wanted to remember the light, that it would be better later. They were not "real" shots, but the pine nudged me from scoping to shooting.

The light was at least acceptable. The elements of my composition (members of the cast) were clear. The main line of tension was between the tree and the station house with a contrary motion of the water over the dam and down the falls between. I made seventeen exposures once I was seriously shooting. Five were vertical. I experimented with pushing the tree and station up into the corners of my frame by zooming in and thus making the falls larger. I zoomed out letting the station stand clear of the corner and including more of the falls below. In each shot I was careful to catch enough foreground to establish my place. Later, at home, the final choice was between this image and two similar vertical shots. Since this image will be viewed on computer screens, I chose the horizontal. I also liked the way the foreground makes a little hill in the horizontal version.

I let myself move to scoping here because it was early, and I had time for lots of further scouting. By the time I made it back here it was 2 PM and I had scouted the entire opposite bank and made my way to the station house and the power company channel. I'd even stopped a couple of time for prelim "scoping" shots and one other serious shoot. Returning here at 2 PM, I was surprised to find the scraggly little pine that had "made" my earlier shots, no longer looking the same. The branches whose darkness stand out in this shot had become front-lit by 2PM. The shot I'd taken at 10 was the right one. Perhaps the rule should be that when the light is right it's always time to shoot.

My hunch was there would be a gorgeous, golden glow at sunset, but that was three hours away and I'd already been scouting and scoping for 4 hours. Had I been closer to home, I'd have come back later, but the round trip was a bit over an hour. All shoots are driven by weather and light. Pacing and timing are everything.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring Water

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Scouting - I've been thinking lately about my shooting methodology.  In the four years since I've returned to shooting, I find I have unconsciously developed patterns - strategies - processes for finding images. These work for me; they may not work for anyone else. Identifying the things I do over and over, putting words around them, and understanding how & why they work allows me to control, evaluate, and improvise on the processes. Maybe I'll also find tiny insights into how my conscious and unconscious mind finds flat images amid space.

To break these processes into three steps is to be too precise. Sometimes two or all three steps occur together, and sometimes a good image is there when I am doing nothing.  However, at least for the moment, I identify three. How nice that they all begin with "S":
1. scouting
2. scoping
3. shooting

Today I was mostly scouting. On such days my camera may not even be out. Today it was, and I shot more than I should have, but really I was following new trails, trying to get the lay of the land, seeing where I wanted to get and trying to get there to see what I could see once I was there. Once I actively stopped, scoped and shot, but mostly I was scouting.

I'm always scouting for new sites, places that make me eager to shoot and sometimes I just drive the back roads within roughly a 60 minute radius of home. I know, it's not the green thing to do, but this drive is essential to the end goal of photographing the place I live. I like the back roads, partly because I can dawdle a bit, but also because I'm often trying to catch glimpses of the vanishing past, or perhaps the truth is I'd rather listen to birds and streams than cars. Of course step 3, shooting, will require me to forget the stream and the bird sounds.

Scouting can also occur on foot along trails or roads, even some I've walked dozens of times. Returning, I look for new stops along the way, places to explore. If I meet people I sometimes get new tips, new access, and even bits of folk lore and history. Often I get no photos. On a four or five mile loop there can be lots of nooks and crannies in the muffin.  Of course, to find new muffins I have to get back in the car.  I don't enjoy being in the car; I'd rather be out in the field being "productive," but I do enjoy the adventure of coming on new surprises.

Like all aspects of my photography, scouting is controlled by the weather, the light, and the seasons. For the past few weeks we've had rains that have finally washed the last bits of snow from the forests. The streams are gushing and everything suggests this is the time to shoot water sites. Except in Collinsville, shooting has been in fits and starts because for all other sites I'm pretty much in scouting mode. While scouting Kent Falls for shots this week I liked the old leaves that had settled into rock pools beside the falls. The leaves have darkened, thinned, begun to dissolve back into earth, a sure sign that spring can not be too far. I shot this photo there, but really I was just scouting. I moved on to other sites to see what things looked like with the rivers and streams gushing. My focus never reached the intensity it does when shooting.

Friday, March 14, 2008


PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: To go nameless is to accept the will or whim of the viewer, to permit viewers to rampage recklessly, trampling my image with evocations of their own.

The photographer's defense is in images that can counter that recklessness; that can strongly "allude to things or states of being" relying on little more than color, form, and texture. Add a name to this image and it is immediately less than it might otherwise be. Once the wind has stilled, the allusive power of light is subsumed in wood siding.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In Time

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: When did I first become a time traveler? I must have been one at about age 6 when I noticed chips on the door frame of my bedroom. New York City apartments sometimes pass through many tenancies. The landlords' painters who repaint for each new tenant have a certain reputation; the chips were deep, the layers clearly defined. Each chip revealed a multi-colored stratification of paint layers, each a key into to a lost space - forgotten dynasties had thrived in my room, had occupied the places of my parents and family and me. From the number of different colors there might have been 15 or 20 such reincarnations of my space. Who were these people and what had become of them? What had happened where I stood?

At age 6, to my tiny years, the immensity of those 15 or 20 occupancies seemed as beyond reach as the moon and endlessly intriguing. Even then I felt charged by vague tendons through which the past grips the present.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Water Power

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - Of course it is water that has taken me to Collinsville. Large snowfalls have been followed by drenching rains, and much of Connecticut has been under flood watches and warnings for the past few days. Route 7 is under water just where route 7 always goes under water. Simsbury is threatened where SImsbury is always threatened, and it all gives the news channels much to yack at. Even the little river across from my house is raging, and the dirt road we live on is all muddy and rutted - four-wheel-drive advised.

The mystery of water that turns the planet with its constant motion. Water built the Collins Co. and then destroyed it, and water continues to flow through the channels between and under the buildings - channels where the water was powerful enough to turn great shafts that transmitted energy up several floors and along banks of machinery. Engines whirred and made the walls rumble. Once it was all water-powered, and even now there is only one large smoke stack. It has become a venerable place of transformations.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Manufractured in the U.S.A.

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - One can't get much closer to the roots of the American manufacturing tradition than to spend some time in Collinsville, CT. The Collins Company was founded in 1826 to make axes to carve the future. That was the year Sam Collins purchased a sawmill where the Farmington River bends and passes through a narrow gorge. Soon he was not only manufacturing axes but financing homes for workers and running the bank which financed much else. In 1836 Collins Co. opened the first Congregational Church in town, and over the years Sam Collins bought out a drug store and two hotels to prevent alcohol from being sold in Collinville. The Collins Co. offered more than a job; it offered a way of life.

Collins axes were known for high quality and were exported around the world and are still sought today. Eventually the the Collins Company made a variety of other hardware products. It reached its peak in WWII but never transitioned for peacetime. When the great floods of 1955 washed through town there was considerable damage from which the company never recovered. It ceased operations in 1966. The factories as they existed after 1955 are still intact. However, after the floods of 1955 the town was sliced by a new state road that speeds traffic through town right where the bend in the river was prettiest and the old road had shyly hugged the cliff. The old rail line that once hustled hardware to the corners of the globe is now a bike trail.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Shadow and Light

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: After living with this image since last fall, my strongest impulse is to want to go back to Straight Farm to find other angles that will solve problems and make better use of what was best there. Alas, the likelihood that such an opportunity will come again is low, nor am I totally displeased with the composition.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Tiffany Autumn

EDWARD STEICHEN: "The photographer establishes a relationship, an intimate relationship between himself and whatever he is photographing whether it's a can of beans, a landscape, or Greta Garbo."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I confess it. My spirit has begun to yearn for different colors. I woke at 6:15 this morning and was surprised by the strength of last night's snow. It was a moderately adhesive snow that clumped on the hemlocks and made fish scales on the windward sides of the oak trunks. Had I secretly hoped for the snow to peter out as it had appeared it would the evening before?

I rolled over and nudged my alarm ahead, but duty pushed me out from the warmth of our bed an hour later. Surely there was much that should have captivated my eye, but I was home by 10. It is the depth of winter, and my spirit is ready for spring, its only refuge, this fin de siƩcle photo from last autumn.

Yesterday's Spring Challenge wafted a number of zephyrs my way and I return zephyrs to Wendy, Judy, Ed, Rosemary, and Garl. Among their contributions were:
"Hokey Pokey"
The hideously puntischievous, "Dolly Lama Yoga Studio"
"Photography for Dummies" to which was appended, "no reflection on your photo... pun inadvertent."
"Slightly Less Creepy When Headless"
"Invitation to a Beheading"