Friday, August 29, 2008

Harvest Vortex

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: It's always about light, but it's not enough to stop there. Images like this point up the fundamental importance of tonal balances. How bright was the brightest straw catching the late afternoon sun? How dark, how penetrable were the shadows? No photo, painting or movie can make the constant adjustments eye and brain make in understanding what is seen. Photography can't duplicate the visual, and more importantly, it is not my purpose to try.

The problem I'm solving is not, "What did it look like?" but "How do the forces of the composition balance & resolve?" Here, I found it essential to create continuity as the rough texture of the straw became shadowed. A bit of glare on the left, too deep a shadow on the right, and the eye hesitates. As the eye moves left to right, it must be able to move smoothly through these zones; the photo must remain essentially one rectangle of even texture. At the same time, the shadow area must be dark enough to give form to the whole composition.

When I printed this for the Gunn Library exhibition, I found I needed to reinterpret those balances. Print on paper is a different medium than computer screen. Neither has much in common with what we see.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bog Hollow Fog #2

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - The fog silence of Bog Hollow, isn't really quiet. A fluttering of wings brings another dove to the silo dome. A bit later, from a nearby tree another takes off into the fog. Somewhere in the distance the sound of a tractor - - - echoing in the hills it sounds as if under water, an unearhtly whooshing. As the echo decays the soft chittering of the swallows returns, an effervescent froth, hovering in the leaves, it fills the damp farmyard. The tractor returns, the sequence repeated, again and again at roughly five minute intervals. Occasionally the fog thins for a moment, everything glows a bit brighter, and the chittering increases and quickly subsides.

I'm alone in the fog and trying my best to make images of this.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bog Hollow Fog


The fog began at Bog Hollow.
Because it hadn't been there a few moments before,
I figured it would soon lift,
but it stayed as long as I remained.

I followed the road up into the hill.
The shorter way is through the wallow where the cows have made a trail,
but I'd done that once.
I knew where I wanted to go.

I had planned for this,
familiarized myself with this tangle of wild pastures, the cow trails,
so I could be east of the farmstead when the sun came over the mountain.
I had planned on sun.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Stowing Hay

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I arrived one afternoon at Twin Elm Farm to find them unloading hay from one of the hay wagons. I'm told that the square bales must be put away quickly before they begin to rot. The roll of the round bales gives them protection. The water can't get in, and I've seen some left in fields over the winter and used in the spring, but this is not a blog on the technology of baling hay.

I would have liked to have included the head of the man in the hay wagon. I shot the photo from two angles. Two of the images caught him standing upright, and the back of his head completed his form. In the end, it became a choice between showing the back of a head or showing the two bodies' tensions engaged together in work.

Equally important to the composition: In the alternate angle, the barn is more foreshortened, and the whole hay wagon is included. Instinctively, I knew it was the wrong spot, but I might have "unbeheaded" moments if I moved there. Looking at the two compositions now I see clearly why the move was wrong. Here the action begins with the man feeding hay onto the convayer; there it begins in partly empty wagon - we stumble. Here the receding roof line of the deep barn is at an angle to continue the movement of the men's work; there, the cupola is directly above the front corner of the roof, and the diagonal of the receding roof is clipped, compressed before it can develop any force; the cupola no longer "crowns" the composition, it stops short. Whether one likes the shot or not, here the full diagonal of the composition is put to work; there it is wasted.

I experimented with closing in more on the wagon to make the "upstream side" proportionally much larger, but doing so sacrificed much of the old barns and the sense of place.

The import of all this is to again recognize the need to give oneself room to respond to instincts whose motivations may be obscured. A few quotes return to mind from earlier posts:
MINOR WHITE: "Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence."
EDWARD WESTON: "Composition is the strongest way of seeing."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Moving Hay

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: They call it Twin Elm Farm. It's just down the road from what I will now call, "Barlow Farm," yesterday's TODAY'S. The land of Twin Elm and Barlow stretch well up the side of the mountain behind them and fill a good part of the Webatuck basin. Twin Elm was the largest farm in this part of the valley, and the farmstead is a tangle of barns, sheds and backhouses. They surround farmyards on multiple levels. Some of the farmyards are overgrown, and its clear few people go there anymore. After 40 years of farming, the pace is slowing a bit. This will be the first year they're not raising corn and filling the silos, but they've been busy. The first haying is mostly done, and they're gathering hay bales from the distant fields for use over the winter. They've given me an especially warm welcome, suggesting good spots to shoot from and sending me up the old farm road to spots high on the hill that overlook the whole valley.

The constantly shifting hay wagons, tractors, and hay bales provide a steady stream of compositional possibilities, and on every side details and textures invite photos. I would not be surprised to learn the house is from pre Revolutionary times, and the barns and cupolas have some delightfully restrained detailing that looks like it may be from the 19th century. However, Twin Elm presents shooting challenges. This is the west side and catches the setting sun beautifully, but it's hard to find other angles on the barn complex. I'm drawn to spaces, walls and windows on the east and south, but everything there is overgrown - hard to get to and hard to compose.

Today I systematically worked my way down the hills mostly following cow paths to find more angles on the barns. The further out in the field one goes, the weaker the cow paths, and far out the thistle and other inedibles begin to take over, and the field becomes a labyrinth of blind passages among prickly bushes. Often I wasn't sure the way back would be easy, and I found it reassuring to come around a corner and find a cow or steer observing me curiously. It seemed I was everywhere before I finally reached the field near the bottom which I thought would provide the desired angle. Of course the light was wrong. It was nearly 5 PM when I got there, but now I know where to go and how to get there, and I look forward to spending my next free morning there. It will take awhile for the sun to come above the mountain. If I'm there by 6:45 there's a chance I'll get a good show, and maybe some of the liabilities of this new angle will turn to assets.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Making Hay

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Sunrise is definitely more than the flip side of sunset. It is the time when earth sweats, and fog rolls through valleys, across ponds, and over hilltops. Dawn is especially productive in late August and September when the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures produces the best fogs, and when the sun rises at a more humane time. For such graces I'm grateful.

On Saturday I stood for two hours in a recently explored field near Bog Hollow.  The grass, just mowed and baled when I explored, had grown back and was above my knees, and by the time I was high enough on the hill for the shots I wanted, my socks were waterlogged, and my boots were squishing.  As I stood and shot, I wicked dew, and it was not long before I had wet knees, but I was still there more than an hour after taking this.

Catching photos in the morning fog poses another challenge. The fog was floating by quickly and a mix of fog and low clouds was playing shadow puppets with the sun as it rose; every moment the light was different. At times I could look right at the ball of the sun without squinting, and a moment later I'd have to turn away. At other times the sun was obscured, and I'd wait and watch and try to guess where the next shot might open. Landscape photographers are used to things standing relatively still. Such rapid changes made every shot a chase. When the shooting was good I had to force myself to slow down and compose carefully. Too often, by the time I had moved to the right location and composed, the event that had moved me had moved on.

I've held this photo for a few days hoping to get back and find a more dramatic sky and fog, but I like the quiet way the eye is invited to linger over the hay bales and the farm and silo before considering the hills and the distant water tower. In a shot like this sky and landscape are welded together and it would tax my skills to "fake in" a different sky. The hay bails from midsummer cutting remain littered across the fields and provide an essential element to link foreground and background. There's a chance that I can get back this weekend to see what more can be made of them in the hour just after dawn. I hope I can find the fortitude to leave the comfort of my warm bed at 5:15; I hope the hay bales will still be there; I hope the earth will be putting out a good sweat.

Friday, August 15, 2008

"Invitation to a Tale," Unwound

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The perfect blue sky, the perfect field of flowers - sometimes it is over the rainbow where skies are bluest. It may be that the true answer to the mystery of the little house and barn, the field of sunflowers and the clear, blue sky are somewhere near where a house was dropped close to a certain brick road. Look carefully at today's photo. You will note a skulduggery has been perpetrated. Compare TODAY'S photograph with last Sunday's.  Somebody has swapped in the wrong sky. Don't you just hate when that happens?

But which is the real sky and which the fake? Regardless of which is fake, they beg the question, "What is photography?" 

If one can so easily swap out parts, what is the photographer's obligation to what really existed when the shutter was clicked? I'm not reporting the news or documenting a crime scene; how much license do I have? Or, looked at the other way, how much license must I be responsible for? Because my aim is evocation of feeling, am I obliged to always change the sky if the actual sky does not perfectly suit my intentions? Must I, in fact, go beyond changing the sky and assemble digital collage? And because the medium is so free, must I be a virtuoso in its manipulation?

The photographer is the creator of his own creative space.  Documenting a place and a moment is far less important to me than finding the expressive power of a composition, but I don't want to spend all my time at the computer.  I shoot because my subjects draw me outside to shoot them. Whatever inspiration or feeling I get comes from the place and the time at which I shoot. Stuck at the computer when photo weather is happening makes me fidget. So I try to find my images whole or very nearly so, images that capture visual reality and moment to convey an experience that is more than visual. Plausibility is usually essential. I like real textures and light that imply painterliness rather than painterly distortion of reality.

Perhaps, it's good to articulate such goals, but I'm more interested in the implications of these two distinct compositions. Last Sunday's composition asks us to look beyond the horizon. Perhaps this is part of the, "Once upon a time... " impulse I felt. One person thought it was "Oz-like." It made some people uneasy, perhaps in the way of Oz where the prettiness of bright poppies conceal danger, and things that seem dangerous and evil often turn out to be harmless.  

One friend wrote of last week's photo, "It gives the impression that the sunflowers are racing in a movement to plunge themselves into the gap." How much more slowly TODAY'S composition moves with a bush and a hill and few extra clouds to counter the pull of perspective and let us dally by the sunflowers.  How evenly we are led by the continuity of wall and hill. Maybe a bit too evenly for my taste.

Knowing that one photo has a stand-in sky, some viewers will probably guess that both skies have been faked.  Alas, too often, the necessary sky doesn't appear when everything else is in order, but if the right clouds had appeared, would you be surprised to learn the photo would have looked more like last Sunday's TODAY'S than this one? In reality there was no bush or hills as above, and, but for some nasty, power lines, the original photo leaves us perched almost as unsteadily on the top of the hill. It was that hilltop rush I chose to shoot.

In any case, though I find this one too comfortable, it pleases me at this moment, and I put it here to see how it will wear in a month or a year, but I prefer the bit of surreality of the previous TODAY'S, and I enjoy knowing that it really could happen that way but for a few power lines. I'm interested in knowing which one others prefer.

So where do I draw the line on "faking it"?  I'm not sure I know the answer yet.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Invitation to a Short Tale

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Once upon a time...

Somehow, the enigma of this photo, the field of sunflowers, the little house, alone at the top of the hill, is the invocation for a story whose characters and plot are lost. Two people I showed it to found it, "disturbing," but were unable to say what disturbed them.

I would be indebted to anyone who might be able to say what happened here, once upon a time. The next TODAY'S will not appear until next weekend, and I hope by then someone will have helped me unwind the tale.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bog Hollow Melody

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The past week has taken me back to Bog Hollow (1), (2), (3), (4). Those of you nearby know that the weather has been producing daily, localized, drenching storms and the kinds of clouds that send landscape photographers scrambling for foreground. The two farms near bog hollow have lots of foreground as well as hilly pasture for the middle ground over which the storm clouds can sail the high ground like white galleons through my photographic images.

One of the farmsteads is deserted. The fields are hayed, but the buildings are silent. A circle of crumbling barns and sheds surround a farmyard of high grass and wildflowers going to seed; its a pleasant place to "settle into my viewfinder" and compose images. These last few days I've been arriving at Bog Hollow in the late afternoon and shooting until sunset. I reach here last, - this farmstead, the cloister of my sunset vigil, two mourning doves, the choir.

It is a hard heart that does not soften to the sad cooing of these creatures. Why does it touch us so? What is it in the core of human nature that makes this music powerful? Whatever the reason, it's reassuring to know such responses seem to be a part of us, built into our genetic makeup.

The other day my vigil led me to photographing one of these barns where the sunlight caught rusted wire screening and cast a shadow on a ruined, shed wall. I was composing the overlay of side-lit wire, shadow, and rotting wall. Inside me and out, the meadow was buzzing and doves were cooing, and I was absorbed in making images. When my attention turned fully on the doves, I realized one was just above my head, high up on a cupola. I'd photographed the cupola earlier with the dove as finial, but I'd been far off and instead of moving in on the dove, I'd turned to shooting wire screen and its shadows. What surprised me was that he was still there even though I was fewer than fifteen feet as the dove flies. I was just beneath him.

While the music of mourning doves is haunting, I've often thought the birds quite homely. They are utterly graceless on our patio pecking seed or flapping down to perch on the top of a silo, but in the evening light I was admiring the bluish bronze mottle of the mourning dove's coat and the brightness of his eye. Well, I had to photograph him; he demanded a portrait and posed until I complied. Then he flew off. Where in the scheme of things does the morning dove sit. I don't do birds, and I don't do portrits.

Here Comes the Sun #2

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I don't do birds, not that there's anything wrong with doing birds, and their songs and antics are welcome off-stage accompaniment at shoots. Sometimes they come on stage for bit parts, but bird photography requires an entirely different stalk, and it is best left to birder photographers. Therefore, my long held goal of making a beautiful image of a heron with wings spread in the process of lifting off or settling onto water remains an unlikely prospect, even a delusional fantasy. I've already chronicled my misses in, "Where's Waldo."

I know where several herons live, and from time to time I pass their ponds and take a friendly shot at them. Today the LENSCAPES workshop class was near one such pond. Melissa had spotted the heron before I arrived. He was across the pond on the top of a bird box near the far shore, a long, gray, bony, stringless marionette. His long beak poked this way and that as he watched the pond. He was a bit too far, and the angle was wrong, so I began walking around the pond to find another clear shot. The one I found was almost 180 degrees from where I had first seen him. The band of trees was a natural blind, the light was good, and I poked my long lens through a gap... one, two, I was ready... CLICK. I had a premonition even as I clicked my one shot that I was about to miss the shot I wanted. I got the bony thing standing on his box in decent light, but the next moment the wings opened, he lifted away from the post, two giant wings lofting legs, body, and that incredible neck and beak, a creature of volume and beauty. Then he was gone. I guess I'm a landscape guy.

On the other hand, at the Sunflower Festival in Griswold I was not expecting three mischievous goldfinches to dance into my shoot. Their reckless greed for fresh sunflower seeds overcame their uncertainty about the man among the sunflowers. I already had my lens aimed to catch the lighted petals of the sunflowers when I noticed them darting about. One paused to measure the the risk, and I snapped him as he watched me. Then it was all a riot of little leaps and dives. They were down among the sunflowers, sometimes hanging upside down snatching sunflower seeds, and I tried to catch their feasting. Sometimes I got all three of the finches at their work. Golden finches contorting among golden sunflowers are a tough shoot to compose; in my shots the birds got lost among the petals. In that first shot, however, as the lead finch watched me, I got just enough of the catchlight in his eye to make the shot work.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Here Comes the Sun


Moved by
within the pulvinus,
only a change
in turgor pressure.

Or is it
that frees the sunflower
to turn its head
and follow
the daily path of the sun?

How many
trigger ions
to make a hand withdraw from fire,
or a heart crave love,
or a spirit strive?

Our lives in the flux of
earth's teeming consciousness -
What is the beat of the sunflower's dance?
What is the mode of the mountain's song?
Where do our cadences begin?
How far off are they felt?