Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Farm Noir

MAXWELL BODENHEIM: "Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Every old, working farmstead has at least one old, rusting truck ready to drive me off into a 1940s sunset. Some of them have stories attached, but most are mute like this one. Brent, often full of stories, shrugged at my inquiry. "Gee, Grampa's International's always been there." I returned last week to discover he'd removed the Weber barbecue that had been snuggled into the passenger's seat for almost as long. It couldn't have happened at a better moment; the light was perfect.

Even by published standards for decaying farm vehicles, this one is a prize. There is much beyond what I photographed here. Where exterior surface remains unrusted & uncrusted, it has patina that ranges from cranberry to custard but which is mostly variagated slate. Where it has not been colonized, the finish is sometimes as smooth as egg-tempera paint. But much of the old International is teeming. The swooping fenders are a cornucopia of multicolored lichens and rust. Since the light is pretty good for much of the afternoon, one can compose these elements into compositions for hours. But best of all, the setting sun shines directly into the windshield. That's great for shots like this, but it also creates a glancing light across fenders and sides that is image dynamite.

The light pouring through the windshield was irresistible, and the window on the driver's side was long gone. I set my tripod there, by the driver's side door. I wanted to get close, but debris made it difficult. It took me awhile finally to get this close. Alas, as the photo shows, even at f22 I was too close to keep both wheel and windshield in focus. Sometimes a technical flaw is a compositional virtue; does the soft focus dash suggest the view of the last groggy driver, slumped on the wheel, opening his eyes momentarily, shortly after his last accident?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Rabbit Hill, Winter, 2005

WALKER EVANS: "When you say 'documentary' you have to have a sophisticated ear to receive the word. It should be documentary style because documentary photography is police photography of the scene of a murder. . . .  That's a real document. You see art is really useless, and a document has use. And therefore art is never a document, but it can adopt that style. I do it. I'm called a documentary photographer. But that presupposes a quite subtle knowledge of this distinction."

WALKER EVANS: (from a wall label for an exhibition of signs and photographs of signs): "The photographer, the artist, "takes" a picture; symbolically he lifts an object or a combination of objects, and in so doing he makes a claim for that object or that composition, and a claim for his act of seeing in the first place. The claim is that he has rendered his object in some way transcendent, and that in each instance his vision has penetrating validity."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: March is the time of dead land. Change is in the bud and cracking up through the hard earth, but the ice is not yet melted, and the buds are tight shut. I strain for the least hint of color and wait for the warm rain. Tentatively I am crossing my fingers and hoping my dungeon labor at the computer is done. The backup genie seems satisfied for now. Enough! One more photo from 2005 suggests the mood I can't quite throw off.

I spent all of today shooting on Rabbit HIll where brisk wind drove the patchy remnants of tired storms over the hill. Later in the day breaks occurred promising, "theater lights." I scoped and waited. The sun frequently bathed next the hill south and later lit the hills north, but there were only thirty second when it fell on Rabbit Hill. An inky track of impenetrable gray gloom moved all day long over rabbit hill stopping the sun.

The photo above shot in January of '05 has never been shown before. Until recently I was bothered by the position of the wires. My compositional aesthetic is more reminiscent of painting. I don't seek a documentary style. Then again, the sense of moment is acute enough here that I've come to find this more documentary-style composition quite intriguing. Best seen, like the previous TODAY'S, full screen.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Corn Grater


My daily dungeon labors subvert all new photographic work. I hike and shoot as often as possible, but I do so knowing I must return to a stubborn and ill-tempered computer that balks at transferring almost 170 DVDs to new hard drives. As each folder of photographs is transferred I must move the link that ties it to my catalogue so that notes and keywords will be preserved and no images lost. For reasons I don't understand the transfer process devours much of my computer's power, so other work must be curtailed. My guru tells me to imagine a new Macbook. My son has been telling me to upgrade for years. All this stress and loss of work time is necessary for my backup genie to keep pace with the backup task. He won't stop nagging me until I'm done. Until then I must fight for every bit of concentration and know that I will have no time afterward for processing new work.

This photo was made the same morning in 2005 as Winter Burn. The contact sheet is always a record of consciousness. The first exposure of the day was taken on top of Rabbit Hill at 8:45 AM. It was a day of both making and taking. It appears that I stopped my car in two places and walked and shot a bit in each location. I made a number of exposures before the sun appeared dimly, but wind and snow forced me into the car at 8:58. I tried shooting through the car window. I took one "Impressionist-like" shot of whiteout before moving on.

Twenty minutes after reaching Rabbit Hill I was off the hill and shooting beside Lake Waramaug. Winter Burn was taken at 9:12. In fifteen minutes I made 26 exposures comprised of an initial exploratory group and 4 distinct compositional groups. That's very fast work, even hasty. The contact sheet is always a record of consciousness and sometimes of unconsciousness. My fitful wanderings show my struggle. The best shots in the set had compositional issues that might have been avoidable at the time of capture. Exposures were perfect. Seeing was imperfect, and it wasn't the whiteout.

By 9:29 I was back at the top of Rabbit Hill and shot this image. I think it was Atget who made the point that the hardest part of photography is knowing where to stand. This shot isn't as simple as it may seem. The fundamental idea is just that this strange sun should be of a certain size and in the center above the snow-blown tract. The corn field is a force field. If one walks along the edge (or had I greater wisdom or fortitude then, down into it) and keeps the sun centered in the image, the most important change will be in the angle at which one looks down the cornrows. How quickly and in what direction should the cornrows lead the eye? They are a bit like the rhythm section in that - how best to make the tempo harmonize with the background hills? How to let both set off that frozen fire.

Today I wouldn't be satisfied with this shot without walking the walk along the edge of the field and shooting along the way. Often I won't know what "the best place to stand," is until I've passed it. I snap as I go, each shot, hopefully, a refinement or improvement on a previous one. I never know what the scene will look like until I get there. Back then I was new to landscape photography, and didn't appreciate the importance of this last maxim; I was in the approximate right place. I took just three images. They reveal some of the details I was struggling with. Then I moved on to the Scottish highland cattle, covered in snow in the woods across the street.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Winter Burn

MINOR WHITE: "Let the subject generate its own photographs. Become a camera."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: I took this photo during the first snow storm of 2005. Back then I was still a bit nervous about being out on the roads at the storm's worst and wasn't sure how much snow abuse my equipment could suffer. I knew enough to realize the sun was worth experimenting with, but I had no idea how powerful it could be in the finished images or how to properly expose for it. I got lucky, but had I known then what I know now, I might have spent the whole event at the top of Rabbit Hill and never driven down to the lake.

By the time I got there the snow was falling again and the sun was still trying. I stopped the car determined to make a solid effort at shooting, even though I hugged my car like a security blanket. If it were today, I would pull into the lot by the state park and walk, as I do on clear days, until I saw shots. I would have been relaxed and taken my time and known what I had when I went home. Back then I shot, excited by the beauty but convinced something even more spectacular must be happening over the next hill.

In spite of myself I made a few shots that day that I've often returned to, but this and one other taken a few moments earlier were milestones when I shot them. I've decided it's time to reinterpret this one in a new, finished image. The hardest part is getting the whites right. Too light and the sun loses impact. Too dark and the mist and snow can no longer be accepted as filtered and shadowed white. I've also removed branches from a tree that intruded from the side.

The image was used as the cover for the Winter, 2006, Washington Art Association Seasonal Bulletin.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

First Lights

WALKER EVANS: "Leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities of human talent, brains, taste and reputations, the matter of art in photography may come down to this: It is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is defining of observation full and felt."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: I did succeed with a few of the images I shot into the sun with my old Nikon 4300, but it was always a compromise. Without a tripod the only way to reduce lens flare was to angle the camera further away from the lens than I really wanted. The result was to reduce the wattage of the grass.

This is the most successful of the grass images taken before returning to 35mm SLR format. It was taken at the north end of the Macriscostas Preserve in September of 2005. When I took this, I knew I had a future in grasses no matter how sinful shooting into the sun was. Three months later I purchased a Nikon D70 DSLR (suddenly regretting all the Nikon lenses I had sold a few years back), and the great file swelling began.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Meadow Gold, Macricostas Preserve, 9/9/06

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  I spent much of the summer of 2006 standing in Macricostas Meadow shooting images into the sun. It was a summer of meadow textures in preparation for a fall show. Even before attending Freeman Patterson's workshop in Shamper's Bluff, New Brunswick, I had pointed my lens toward the sun, but I did so guiltily and went back into the woods. The images I made were more swiped than composed. As expected, the images were filled with lens flare, but the little, hand-held Nikon 4300 I was shooting with left little chance to shield the lens. That December I returned to shooting with a single lens reflex camera and bought a hat with a wide brim.

My last morning in Shamper's Bluff, right after Freeman's workshop had ended, he invited me back to his gardens. For the first time all week the sun came out. After using the best of the morning light making compositions from the textures with early sidelight, I began packing up. Freeman suggested I go to the foot of the hill and shoot back toward the sun. I stayed and shot from there for an additional hour or two. Freeman had validated what I'd wanted to do, and I shot into the sun shamelessly.

Meadow Gold is but one of many photos made at Macricostas Preserve over the summer of 2006. Such backlit meadow textures were a significant addition to my photo palette and a favorite way of shooting even today. Throughout the summer of 2006, Macricostas provided an ever-changing variety of shapes and colors as layers of plants kept unfolding, throwing shoots and buds, blossoming, and going to seed. Each stage brought its own host of insects and the activities of the birds changed with the seasons. Every few days the show changed as I continued to look for new ways to shoot the same fields and new things to shoot in them. 

Looking back now I realize how important the experiences of that summer were. There were few barns that summer, but I'm still wading into grasses.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Freeman's Meadow

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: I have several reasons for changing the name of this not quite daily scrawl. First, "journal" more accurately reflects the way I have come to regard these pages; a place to jot down thoughts and musings of many kinds that flow from weekly shoots. No change in content: recipes, reports and ruminations from my photographic odyssey. The name change comes now to leave a mark that here the hard drive failure has led me to review old files and take stock. Where has this odyssey traveled?

I came out of the woods in the spring of 2005 - gave up mushrooms, tree toads, and indian pipe for the openness of the meadow. When it happened I was standing at the edge of an old pasture shooting toward a bolted-iron windmill out in the field. As I set up the shot - stone wall, vines and branches leading the eye to the windmill - just then the light changed and there was a Monet moment that fired up the branch. Thereafter, walking the tall grass I saw painterly textures of all kinds, many more than I had seen in the deep woods where there's no room for the light to spread out.

This photograph was made in the gardens of Freeman Patterson the following spring (2006). The painterly textures of the meadow have been drawing Freeman's lens for many years. In the fields that stretch from his house down to the loch in New Brunswick, he has encouraged a wild meadow of myriad surprises. The sun rises early behind his house and sets far away across the water. The meadow produces an ever changing palette from which he makes photographs of great beauty. As students in his workshop we were lucky to be able to play in his garden. I'd completely forgotten this photo and was pleased to rediscover it this week.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Misty Morning, October 8, 2008

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The backup genie and I have been talking lately. It all started when communication with the Dark Continent went dead. The Dark Continent is a 1 terabyte firewire drive that has been managing my 25 gigabyte/week photo habit. The drive was just five months old. When I bought it in October the backup genie said, "Sure. A better backup medium is just around the corner. Let's wait to act" The backup genie promptly hibernated.

The problem with the Dark Continent began when it spun up but failed to boot. A few moments later came the death rattle and my stomach rolled. Months worth of images flashed before my eyes. The backup genie was lying beneath the desk snoring thunderously. I shook him to attention, "Where are my files?"

He squinted from his left eye, "What files?" He and I have been talking a great deal since last week when the Dark Continent died.

It's clear that the backup genie was exhausted by the October's push to get multiple dozens of files crammed onto tiny DVDs, so we've been talking about how to make my gigabyte habit manageable. As to The Dark Continent, it's still under warranty, and the hard drive dealer routinely tries to retrieve data and load it onto the replacement drive, but I am convinced Dark Continent was beyond moribund before I received the RMA.

I suppose all this has come with a feeling akin to mourning, but the loss is just photographs, and most of them weren't very good. All "finished" work resides safely elsewhere. However, lost were images still in RAW form that I was eager to work on; five months of work gone and only the thumbnails in my catalog to remind me what I had. Gone are two more ice textures, planned to follow those just posted and two glittery, ice sunsets that I was especially proud of. Surviving are a handful of images that had at some time been emailed somewhere. These exist only in reduced resolution jpg form.

The photo above is one such image. It was the prize of many taken at this old farm last October. I was aiming to see what it was like in all four seasons. Unfortunately, there is probably not enough resolution left for a large printed version. A few more postings and I hope to be out of mourning. The loss, however, is only of photos, and most of them weren't very good.