Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Idea of Farmhouse: Roots

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: This photograph doesn't look like a watercolor painting or a pencil sketch, but it doesn't quite look like a photograph either. The elements of the image that impressed me when I shot it are much the same as those that move the image now: the tree, the vines, the extremely tight cropping. In its original, unprocessed state I also found something surreal. Do these facts make it more of a photograph than if I had invented those qualities entirely in the computer? Is it less of a photograph now that I've used photoshop to cast a bit of unearthly light?

Wendy Costa sends along a link to this David Pogue article in the NYTimes:

Personal Tech: Photoshop and Photography: When Is It Real?

Pogue's list of "things that may not be photography," challenge thinking and were, for me, alone worth the read.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Winter Logs


When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marion’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The winter never passes without scenes that remind me of Shakespeare's poem. I know I've quoted it before, but Blogger no longer lets me search the full text of my blog at once. That means it's time to quote it again. It probably helps to know that the hissing "crabs" are crab apples. To make an image that captures even a small part of what Shakespeare ignites is a noble accomplishment. I keep trying.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Classic IV

ALEC SOTH: "This is the same problem I have with digital photography. The potential is always remarkable. But the medium never settles. Each year there is a better camera to buy and new software to download. The user never has time to become comfortable with the tool. Consequently too much of the work is merely about the technology. The HDR and QTVR fads are good examples. Instead of focusing on the subject, users obsess over RAW conversion, Photoshop plug-ins, and on and on. For good work to develop the technology needs to become as stable and functional as a typewriter."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Return to a typewriter? Never! Though I understand the complaint. No matter how much keeping on top of technology may resemble riding a bucking bronco, the images being produced using HDR and various Photoshop plug-ins are changing expectations about visual representation and what a photograph may be.

When a photograph winds up looking like a watercolor painting, or a pencil sketch, is it still a photograph? Are there essential qualities that distinguish photography as an art form? At what point does one no longer say, "I am a photographer," and say instead, "I am an image maker"? Or conversely, where and why does one draw the line and say emphatically, "I am a photographer"? For the moment I can only answer this question an image at a time.

Since upgrading my computer system I've been exploring some of the newest plug-in releases for Photoshop. Some small enhancements were made to this image using Topaz Adjust 3.2.5, mostly to give a bit more substance to the clumpy snow on the foreground tree. It also helped me add a bit more character to the sky and distinction between the distant mountains, but in shots like this the urge to clarify forms is in direct opposition to my frequent wish to represent whiteout. Here the veils of falling snow are used mostly to space out the distant hills, and I've sacrificed a bit of foreground snowiness to clearly define the foreground players. The software is designed for accomplishing far more radical photo renderings.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Blackout in Hidden Valley

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: HDR is a hot topic among photographers, but little is written on Low Dynamic Range photography. However, whenever one shoots through fog or in a snowstorm, what one gets is an LDR image. The thicker the weather, the narrower the dynamic range to the point where form disappears completely. A typical histogram of a scene in snow or fog might be a cluster of peaks all lying well within the top half of the histogram. In many photographs it's desirable to spread that spectrum out across all 255 levels thus mapping the misty, darkest tone as if it were black and the creamiest white as if it were bright white. Doing this to a fog or snow image usually has the effect of dissolving the atmospheric effect one was trying to capture. However, LDR images offer more tonal option before the image clots up than normal photography. I find they are also more sensitive to tiny changes, and moving an image from camera to screen to print is more taxing.

In any case, the work of photography isn't done until the light captured has been rendered into a finished image. How one chooses to render the image depends on what one wishes to convey. Here is a different rendition of yesterday's exposure. The only important change made was to dynamic range. I'm eager to hear what viewers think.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Whiteout in HIdden Valley

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: It has finally snowed. Should I feel guilty for wishing for the thing that is bedeviling lives further south?

Falling white from ear to ear,
So thick one could get lost,
A noisy stillness,
An agitated silence,
Tracks that fill as if they were never there,
Fingers numb,
Feet heavy,
Wrapped in solitude,
Opaque and awake,
Snowflakes on flesh melt like holy water.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Classic III

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: I visited Olana again this weekend, this time with several photographer friends. Again I found myself with little interest in shooting, and the experience leaves me again thinking about my goals as a photographer. My companions had no trouble, and when I asked one of them about my problem, I understood him to say he looks to play up the natural drama of the building, its towering height, its setting, its exotic style.

Of course, he's right. If I were creating a postcard or a flier that's what I'd do. Olana is far less beautiful and less well known than the Taj Mahal, but I'd face a similar problem there. Each of these buildings is such a distinct presence, a thing in itself, a finished work that it is hard to make something entirely new from it or find a universal in it or extend the thought beyond the thing itself. Is that my problem?

  • What is it that characterizes such sites?
  • Why didn't I face similar problems at the Wyeth sites? Could it be because Wyeth's painting of those sites initiates a dialogue and one can try to join in?
  • Is the situation the same in the middle of Times Square, or the Grand Canal in Venice? Perhaps if I stand where Turner stood and watch what passes today?
  • Would it help if there were a famous painting of Olana?

I guess the best course to follow at such sites as in Times Square is to photograph the visitors (Alas, few visitors usually at Olana.) In any case, the more exciting approach for me is to find angles as Steve McCurry did when he captured the Taj Mahal from behind a steam locomotive.

I've looked for an angle at Olana. In spite of having the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains as props, I haven't yet found it. I'll probably try in the spring to find a nearby hill and some favorable light. Or will I have to arrive at the crack of dawn when fog rising from the river makes Olana into a cloud-wrapped, Kubla Khan dream? Or do I have to cross the river to find my angle from the other side as the sun behind my shoulder kisses Olana's roofs at dusk. Or is it best to just move on?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Forest Fringe

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: File under the heading, My Eyes are Not a Camera. Spring, summer and fall the forest offers many beauties that defy photography. Sometimes walking or even driving beside or through a forest the passing trees flicker or wink, and where there is not too much underbrush, the eye is led deep, and the forest becomes spatial. Stand still and look at the same scene, and the lively, eye-catching texture is gone and part of the three-dimensionality with it. Close one eye to see more like a camera, and the depth disappears entirely; the forest becomes a wall; the elusive beauty has vanished. Photographing in the woods through most of the year I look hard to find things to lead the eye, a beam of light, a splash of flowers, a trail winding. In winter a layer of snow will reveal the contour of the land beneath and behind the forest and make a space there where the photo eye can wander.

During the next snowfall can I photograph a cathedral there?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

From the Ridge in Snow

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The snow continued well into the afternoon sometimes heavy, sometimes light, sometimes windblown and sometimes falling gently. The day was more variety show than high drama, but this scene out on the open part of the ridge is pure opera.

The view is back toward the same farmstead. To the left you can see the ancient farmhouse among the trees and, further to the left, the spot on the road where I stood to capture yesterday's image. Zoom in and look around.

I've been out here many times and at many different seasons. Because sky and fields provided a continuous background of white, the two trees are able to command the stage and sing their duet as never before.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Classic II

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Every snowstorm is unique, though there is usually a dramatic arc from first flakes' onset to gentle calm as the storm moves out, or perhaps it ends as rain. I make my guesses and meet this with a plan. On January 28th I wasn't convinced the storm would pan out, so I stayed close to home.

What is it that makes the terraine around Hidden Valley Farm especially fun to shoot? Certainly this farmstead, projecting out over the valley on its acropolis, is as picturesque as any. In addition, the valley is narrow and many angles are accessible. The land is open but retains many features: Buildings, trees, walls, fences are all potential actors in the drama. Of course snow transforms everything, and I wasn't sure who the characters would be with the land spread white.

I parked over the ridge beyond the farmstead so when I walked back, my first view was from above. My plan was to walk down the town road to the farmstead. If the snow stopped I'd still have good shooting close up. If it continued I'd either follow the road into the valley, or walk back up the hill, but I'd turn off the town road and follow the old farm road out along the ridge. Way out the ridge is exposed. Out there a moderate snow might make the hills very interesting, and the brush is wild, and there is a second farmstead that comes into view, and one gets to look back at this farmstead along the whole length of the walk out as various characters move between and beyond. There's nothing I like batter than wrestling with a broad landscape to extract painterly compositions, and I am a sucker for spots that preserve the look of another time.

Descending to the farmstead, potential characters were changing places frequently and I made a number of panoramas on the way down, but I stopped longer here at the switchback where the road comes off the slope and turns toward the barns. Right at this bend I am at the head of the valley. It is an ideal place to lead the eye deep, and the snow had conspired with the hills and trees to make the back field distinct. It's the first time I've been able to include the ancient farmhouse nestled in the hillside. That hillside is the backstop where the valley is finally fully played out and where the tiny spring that carved it begins. The original panorama included more area to the right where the view is framed by another tree cluster, but cropping it this way makes a stronger statement and gives importance to the cluster of trees at the first stone wall, like a family standing to admire the view.

Many of the features of this image are very much like Classic I. As a composition, it is entirely different and testimony to the power of moving a few feet. While I miss the simple statement of the horses here, they would be too indistinct to be meaningfull. In pulling back (both lens and position), the simple intimacy of the farmstead and horses, the cluster of trees set against the gray band of the hillside is exchanged for grandeur. Few locations provide a leading line as strong as this of road, retaining wall, fence, and distant hill. Hidden in the back valley, snow settles on the river. This is a view that wouldn't have looked too different 200 years ago.

I hope you can view it large because there's plenty of detail to zoom into. It is a stitched panorama of high resolution, and it is quite possible to make a sharp print that would be five feet by two feet. My computer screen is too small to show it properly.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

White Silence No. 2

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: A snow storm is a very private place where the landscape is made new; the trees stand out from the hillside, the ground is as bright as the sky, the falling snow is a skrim that sets the receding rows of hills apart, and every tuft of grass on the hillside that pokes above the snow makes its mark to reveal the torso of the land. And even as the veil of snow sculpts space, it fills it. It muffles sound and sets me apart, and as it settles over everything it almost seems to stop time or to enter a new dimension entirely.

My pleasure is wandering there as the hills and trees shift around me until the parts converge and something makes me stop and shoot, some sudden harmony or balance or snow flowers, newly blossoming. They grab the foreground and my tripod. As I wander, the snow is often changing, all at once pellets become large flakes, then they are sand crystals, the wind blows or it is still or the snow stops briefly and the color of the distant hills is suddenly more saturated. Then, in the distance I may see the next assault, the veils of snow closing in again. Being there in the solitude of snow is its own reward, seeing with new eyes and wondering at it all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

White Silence

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL - Just as white light is the combination of all colors of the light spectrum, so white noise is the combination of all pitches of a sound spectrum, but what is white silence? Each of us may look at this picture and try to give an answer, and many of us will never mention snow or winter or refer directly to this spot on a hillside where someone has planted a vineyard.

What I enjoy in the image is its simplicity, it's odd balance, and that with just a hint of color and shading the substance of a hillside can be suggested, and that at the same time it's less about hillside than about two areas of softly textured color and how they move my eye and about the whiteness of the paper or screen on which I view them. White silence is the feeling they convey to me. For all its realistic detail, for me it is almost abstract and analogous to the silence I felt while standing in the snow storm.

How different from yesterday's photo of classic New England winter, suitable for a Christmas card or to represent the month of December on a calendar. My pleasure in shooting it was about using these wonderfully evocative barns and landscape to retell a bit of Amercian mythology. In the real world such places are rare and never free of modern intrusions. So with the horses posing, how could I resist this one? Although not truly out of the past, the success of that image depends on making the barns, fence and horses as tangible and convincingly quaint as possible.

The two images were taken five minutes apart. In fact the very next subject I turned to study after the barns and horses was the subject above. Photography can be many things, even in the same snow storm.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Thank you to all who were able to visit the Blurb bookstore to check out my book and for the many encouraging notes in emails and in postings at Blurb, Facebook, here, etc., and to those who decided they wanted to own it.

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Photography is many things.

When I was a child my father was always, snapping, pictures. He referred to prints as, "snaps," but he mostly took slides. Some were of family, and I recall that for a long time I was puzzled; when everyone called, "Look at the camera." what was it we were all supposed to look at there in the lens? What didn't I see? Probably I was a slow learner. Eventually I figured out that there was a connection between that tiny box with the lens and the images my father projected on a screen some weeks later. The projector with its assortment of slide format adapters and a loud fan that blasted warm air, the rectangular, plastic trays that periodically jambed, and the leggy, screen contraption... these are still tactile memories even more than watching the latest box of family slides.

When I was five or six, I recall having a small kit. It may have been a prize in a box of cracker jacks, or a trifle from the barber shop for not making a fuss about having my hair trimmed. (Somewhere there must be pictures of me with my head recently buzzed.) In any case, the kit contained several clipped negatives showing animals, and school buses, and clowns. It also contained several negative-size cards of light sensitive paper; when we put the negatives and cards together and took them out to the light of 86th Street, the paper slowly darkened according to the negatives shades. That I remember the incident at all speaks to how impressed I was.

I'd like to think that it was then that an observant adult gave me my first camera, a Brownie Hawkeye, and showed me how to go into a dark room and load the film rolls which were sensitive to light like the paper cards. I have no idea how I got the camera or learned about loading film. I was already doing it before I got to summer camp and began spending hours in the darkroom there. What I do recall is my father, shirtless among rose bushes. He's down on one knee and the lens of his 35mm (Was it a Leica) camera is a few inches from an open rose. Somewhere there may still be metal boxes filled with roses and pansies and tomatoes, and the wings of airplanes beside passing clouds or sans clouds. He flew frequently on business trips, the sole remaining record of which may still be preserved in these airplane wing photos. Even then I wondered why anyone would want pictures of these things, hundreds of them. My father was a very practical person, but if I'd asked him why, I'm not sure he'd have had an answer.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

You've asked, you've begged, you've cajoled, you've waited, and at long last, it's finally here. Jane Roth proclaims the book, "Scintillating, a 21st Century Masterpiece!" Even the cat is purring about the, "deft cohesion Roth has brought to the blog journals." There are 80 pages assembled to illuminate themes of the year. Everything has been re-edited and polished for publication. This is the book you've waited for.

In all seriousness, it was a great deal of fun going back over the year's wanderings, discovering where I'd been, and realizing a bit more about why I'd gone there. It's easy to preview the entire book at the Blurb Book Store. There's even a button to view it full screen and a place if you want to leave a comment.

There are two editions. Check one out now, even if you don't want to own it. You won't want to wait until everyone's talking about the movie.

for the STANDARD EDITION of BEST OF TODAY'S, 2009. It contains the same images and writings as the deluxe edition, but in a comfortable 11" X 8" format.

Or click
for the DELUXE EDITION which was rebuilt and customized for the larger 11" X 13" format.

Monday, February 1, 2010


HENRY DAVID THOREAU (meditating on branching form melting sand and clay take by "a cut on the railroad"):
"It convinces me that Earth is still in her swaddling-clothes, and stretches forth baby fingers on every side. Fresh curls spring from the baldest brow. There is nothing inorganic. These foliaceous heaps lie along the bank like the slag of a furnace, showing that Nature is "in full blast" within. The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit- not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviae from their graves. You may melt your metals and cast them into the most beautiful moulds you can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into. And not only it, but the institutions upon it are plastic like clay in the hands of the potter."
PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The thaw was short-lived. The day after I took this, a great, warm rain washed the last of the ice and snow down the river, and then the weather turned colder, and soon it snowed. Winter is still in charge.