Sunday, December 30, 2007

Doors of Perception

"There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception" - Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).

A camera is a portal to both ordinary worlds and otherwordly mysterious realms. Sometimes the two coalesce, but only for an instant, and hint at other unfathomable and inaccessible universes; all teasingly poised just beyond the impenetrable boundary between what we see and ... ?

What lies beyond the door of perception? What meets our silent inquisitive gaze as we gently push it open?

Would what we newly see change everything we've ever known? Would the world we leave behind seem as incomprehensible to us as the one we enter? Are all but Shamans truly blind?

How shall we describe what lies beyond? Will our old words and concepts be enough? Or will they merely be useless relics of the past; meaningless symbols of a misaligned reality?

What happens when we discover a new language to express our strange perceptions (assuming that such a language even exists, or that we are clever enough to find it)? Will new categories emerge, subjectively partitioning our world into newly objectified parts?

Or will the new, still unrecognizable abstract forms suddenly revert back to old meanings (or appear to), subtly revealing even deeper recessed mysteries to be explored...?

What was the world like, I wonder, before I stepped into this one? Is there anyone left to understand my answer?

"As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious." - Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Coral Gables Photo Exhibit Follow-up

One of the joys of photography, as a public art form, is attending an opening of an exhibit of one's own images; a rare privilege and honor I had on Dec 7, as my family and I greeted invited guests and any and all interested bookstore customers at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida. Twenty seven photos were exhibited in all (two are "invisible" in the picture shown above, hidden by the angle of the shot by the protruding wood panel on the left). About a dozen or so were taken in the Miami area; which was no easy task, given that I live in northern Virginia (though visit Miami on a regular basis).

It was fun to both "observe" people looking at my work, and to chat with them about what they "see" (often, and unexpectedly, at great length, with the added benefit of gaining new insights into my own imagery). One individual, for example, a local psychiatrist, was particularly mesmerized by a shot of an old boat on a beach, facing an endless ocean ("Patient Longing").

He pointed out something about this photo that I confess had escaped my notice (at least consciously). Explaining that he had grown up relatively poor in the Dominican Republic, he said this photo evoked strong memories of longing he experienced as a youth. Longing for escape, both physically and psychically. While I could understand why he was drawn to this image, with its obvious symbolism, his reasoning was far subtler than mine. He said he was drawn more by the rope than the boat. While he agreed that the boat conveyed a strong message of longing toward the mysterious, "unknown" horizon, he suggested that the rope injects a deeper melancholy by reminding the viewer that even if the boat were seaworthy (which it may not be), the rope might still prevent a traveler from using it to escape. The two combined - dilapidated boat & rope - were enough to elicit very strong memories of his "longing for escape from entrapment" in his youth. From my perspective, it was enlightening (thrilling even) to hear about how one of my images so touched another person. A perfect example of the power of art to tap into universal patterns and experiences.

On the other hand, I also learned a few lessons about human nature on the other side of the spectrum (the slightly "shallower" end;-) There was a harmless, but misguidedly belligerent, individual who - apart from being dressed as though he had slept three nights at the bus depot (which he may well have done), and apart from the fact that he neither bothered to even glance at the exhibit, nor was polite enough not to pile enough au devours onto his plate to feed a small army (along with a more-than-generous helping of the "free" wine) - proceeded to corner "the artist" (literally, in a corner) to inform me that his pictures are the ones that belong on the wall. As I was desperately trying to think of a witty and pithy response, he snapped open a large wallet of post-card sized snapshots of old photos of Cuba and embarked on an unfathomable soliloquy about his early years as a photographer. "So this is what an opening night of an exhibit is like," I thought to myself. (Thankfully, everyone else I met that night was, Ahem, slightly more socially adept ;-)

The exhibit runs through the end of December. I plan on being back in Coral Gables (and to hopefully chat with a few more interested passer-bys at the exhibit) 24-29 Dec.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

"Micro Worlds" Portfolio

I've been experimenting a bit more with my Indra's Net shots, and have put together a sample portfolio of some of my recent favorites. The portfolio is as much a display of my growing archive of these "micro worlds" as it is a test for a wonderful, and freely available, JAVA-based album creator, called JAlbum.

After installing the program, creating the portfolio could not have been easier. You simply drag your selected images into the JAlbum window (once opened, of course), select an album skin you like (I chose one called LightBox2, drawn to its simple elegance), go through the available options (row, column, display text, EXIF data, and so on), and click make album. I changed the background color and added a few lines of text in a standard HTML editor, but that's about it. Technology as it should be: it's there to provide all you need with minimal hassle, and the artist can just focus on the art. Highly recommended for those of you looking for simple - but elegant - album generators.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Photo Exhibit at Books & Books, Coral Gables, Florida

I am very pleased to announce that 24 of my photos (a mix of of landscapes, still lifes, and abstracts) will be on display 7 - 31 Dec, 2007 at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida. For those of you in the area with an interest in my work, please stop by for the opening of the exhibit on Friday, December 7, from 7 to 10 pm. Since Books & Books also has an in-house cafe, there will be ample - and free - (courtesy Dr. Rosa Abraira) munchies and drinks! :-) This wonderful local bookstore was founded by (current, and two-term, American Booksellers Association president) Mitchell Kaplan in 1982, and has since grown to become one of the best known and well-respected independent bookstores in the country. I am honored, and humbled, at having been given this rare opportunity to display a few of my works at this venue.

The photos will be grouped into two parts: (1) Natural Order, consisting of images that evoke a sense of spontaneously organized "orderliness" in an otherwise "random" natural environment...

and (2) Imposed Order, consisting of images of the natural environment upon which an implicit human presence has somehow knowingly, or unknowingly, imposed a nonrandom element.

The pictures are all duotoned digital prints, using 100% cotton rag, acid-free fine-art paper and archival pigment-based ink (to maximize fade resistance).

So please come, have some free food and drink and (hopefully) enjoy some photos!
(I plan on being there for the opening, and will likely stroll in a few times on the weekend as well;-)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Staccato Flow Abstracts

An alternative title for this blog entry could well be, On the art of transforming a visual vice into a virtue. The "visual vice" in this case (at least for this photographer ;-) being a bright, sunshiny day on the shores of the Potomac River at Great Falls park, Virginia. While there were plenty of areas of shade in which I could park my camera and tripod, and I could always use my light balancing disk to locally block out the strong sun to take closeups of plants or leaves, what I deliberately set out to capture one particular day a few weeks ago was the flow of water. Unfortunately, this is virtually impossible to do (at least in the manner I was envisioning) without cloud cover to provide ample diffused light. So, what to do?

Having hiked down some steep rocks to get close to the river, I was more or less committed to either taking some close-ups of rocks and crevices (which I did), or find a way to capture (and communicate) the flow of water without the diffused light I so craved. A mini epiphany saved the day, and planted a seed for future excursions.

My epiphany consisted of exploiting the fact that since the sun was so intense, it naturally left a strong visual trace of its cacophony of specular reflections. Ordinarily, such reflections show up as unwelcome burned out highlights. But what if I used them to accent the flow without bringing undue attention to themselves? Such as by showing / printing the digital equivalent of an analog negative? Blacks become whites, and burned-out whites become blacks; individual "points" tracing - in a vaguely pointillist fashion - the beautiful dynamic patterns of the flowing water. The images here are just a few samples of my (still ongoing) experiments with staccato flow abstraction.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Indra's Net

"Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number."

"There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number."

"Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring."

(Text quoted from Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977; Avatamsaka Sutra, page 2)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Sudden Stillness" Book to be Published

Though I can still hardly believe it, I have been told by the publisher (Eddie Ephraums, of Envisage Books) sponsoring the British Black & White Photography journal's "What's Your Book?" contest, that my book idea submission has won!

While there were several stages to the judging (see my earlier blog post), the last stage consisted of a two month long on-line vote (by readers of the journal) for one of three finalists selected by a panel of judges. Well, the voting site has closed, the votes have been counted, and my book idea seems to have bubbled ever so slightly to the top! In truth, as I had written before, I was thrilled beyond measure at just seeing my name on the shortlist of three finalists, with two other obviously gifted photographers. Trevor Crone and Michael Copsey both had superb entries, and beautiful photographs. I am also sure that both will also soon have their work published in a book, as the quality simply speaks for itself. It is a sincere honor to have shared a temporary spotlight with these fine artists.

My own entry consisted of six sample images (supplied on a CD), 20 additional images for a later stage of judging, along with some fine-art prints sent via mail, and the following title, strap-line and "short description" of what I envision a book of my photos looking like:

Sudden Stillness: Visual Echoes of Timeless Rhythms

Simple, Zen-like meditations on the mystery of nature's primal patterns, expressed in four movements (each introduced by a short essay): Chaos, Order, Complexity, & Decay. "Chaos" is disorganized and formless; "Order" is imposed structure; "Complexity" is self-organized and emergent; “Decay” is entropic death, but presages rebirth. These interpenetrating primal patterns drift quietly on an ineffable meta-pattern of energy. Collectively, the four movements quietly weave a visual narrative to reveal nature experienced as sudden stillness.

The final pool of images from which Eddie Ephraums and I are currently sequencing a selection for the actual book, consists of about 90 photos (though only about a quarter of these will appear in the final version). Eddie's working design for the book is quite interesting. He plans on creating a concertina-style - i.e., fold-out - book, a mockup of which appears above. I am told that these kinds of books are notoriously difficult to produce, particularly when using heavier than normal paper stock, which Eddie wants to use because it allows the book to stand up by itself when open. Fully extended, the book will span almost two meters in length! Eddie is also trying to achieve the finest possible tonal reproductions, so that the relatively small number of pages (about 20) is more than made up for by the quality of the photographs.

As this will be a very limited initial run of about 200 copies (!), one thing I must be mindful of is the potential audience and general level of interest for the book before it is published. I therefore humbly ask those readers of my Blog who might be interested in purchasing a copy to please leave a comment, or email me privately. I will be more than happy to put you on my list, keep you up to date on the book's progress, and let you know (as soon as I do) of when it will be available for purchase.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Borgesian Labyrinths of Mystery

One of my favorite authors is Jorge Luis Borges; though the "category" of creative endeavor to which Borges belongs - or, better, the creative endeavor that Borges defines - is infinitely richer than what is rather blandly suggested by "mere" author. For Borges is philosopher, mathematician, dreamer, mystic, seeker, visionary ... (the list goes on, perhaps endlessly). If there is one word that immediately comes to mind when Borges' name is mentioned, even before author or philosopher, that word is surely book; for Borges adored books. He adored writing them (or at least writing stories about books that would later appear in them), collecting them, thinking about them, even working with them (as when he was Director of the National Library of Argentina). Among Borges' well known tales and musings about books and libraries are the Library of Babel and Book of Sand.

"I pray to the unknown gods that some man -- even a single man, tens of centuries ago -- has perused and read this book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place may be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification." - Jorge Luis Borges

Borges naturally came to mind recently, as I stumbled onto a lonely, deserted, out-of-the-way dilapidated two-room shack, full of withered old books, somewhere off Route 66 in northern VA. How perfectly Borgesian I thought to myself, as I gingerly stepped into a roomfull of dry, pebbled, half-decayed tomes, most strewn haphazardly over the sunken floorboards. Even more in tune with the "Borgesian" rhythms echoed by the physical forms of the books, was the kind of books that adorned this deserted little shanty. For these were not your run-of-the-mill thrillers and boddice rippers. Rather, almost all were on subjects distinctly Borges-like, and ranged from Dostoyevsky, to Kafka, to Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, to Carlos Castaneda, to Fritjof Capra, to Stanislaw Grof, to David Bohm, to a study of Dreams, to the latest (c.1980) research on consciousness.

"A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships." - Jorge Luis Borges

All arguably and quintessentially Borgesian subjects and authors, except for - ironically - Borges himself. Try as I might, I could not find a single volume of Borges' stories anywhere on these shelves. It is impossible to imagine the former owner/occupant of this decaying Borgesian labyrinth of books, which still palpably pulsates with ideas and visions that only a lover of Borges can appreciate and understand, not having the collected works of Borges standing somewhere on the shelves. But then, there is also the basic mystery of what happened to the owner. Why are his/her (remaining?) books still here, neglected and/or forgotten after all these years, quietly turning to so much dust? Did the owner seize his one prized volume of Borges' stories - which had to exist! - before being forced to quickly abandon this tiny shack for some mysterious reason? Why did the owner (or someone else?) return - looking at the empty carton apparently being readied for storing books - only to vanish once again? Or is the carton empty only because new books were brought in to replace those that had fallen (or stolen)? In either case, why? How long have these books been rotting here? Why are some shelves completely empty, while others are still full? Why does each of the five books lying flat on the floor with exposed pages contain the word "secret"?

"The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books." - Jorge Luis Borges

I was entranced by the siren call of the ghostly volumes beckoning from the shelves, and silently reaching out from broken drawers. Are they all clues to some unfathomable puzzle? Is their "orderless" arrangement perhaps a clever illusion, and not entirely random? Are they a subtle palimpsest of eternal truths and wisdom, fiendishly encoded by some long dead genius that history has failed to record (or intentionally wiped from memory)? Did I unknowingly break some sacred code when I accidentally kicked a small rock off a page of an old Bible, thus relegating its cosmic message unintelligible to the one destined to decode it? Or did I just as unknowingly, and merely by entering, encode my own presence onto this living labyrinth, ineffably committing the one cosmically meaningful act my birth was prophesied to yield in this incarnation? Or is the reason why all these volumes are here, in this particular place and time, in this particular arrangement, itself but an infinitesimally small piece of a larger, even deeper, puzzle? A puzzle to be only discovered - but never solved! - by someone whose birth the puzzle master himself had not foreseen? Or has the destined solver unexpectedly, and prematurely, passed through this as-yet unripened riddle; unwittingly rendering forever unsolvable the very puzzle he - and he alone - was born to solve? Is the puzzle-master, perhaps, the solver?

Such was the gravity of my thoughts and emotions as I solemnly packed up my humble gear and bade farewell to this Borgesian labyrinth of mystery. A single eye, staring upwards from the cover of a dusty book (whose spine had inexplicably entwined the rubber on the heal of my shoe), seemed to follow me before the light finally grew too dim for it to see. I imagine it shifted its gaze back inward toward itself, to continue meditating on the unimaginable fate that awaits these relics, trying to remember its own long forgotten role in creating them.

Friday, October 19, 2007

On the Art of Finding Rust in Landscapes

A few months ago, I posted an entry about my family's blackberry-picking trip, during which I managed to snag some shots of rusted relics in an old barn and peeling paint off an old door (startling the proprietors of the farm into thinking they had a madman on their property, interested more in old doors than blackberry bushes!) Well, a similar thing happened to me this past weekend, though thankfully minus any startled proprietors this time ;-) Perhaps there is a pattern to my madness...

Our most recent outing was apple picking this past weekend at Stribling Orchard, in northern Virginia. And again, though I took a few pictures of the kids and even helped out with a bit of the picking, my "photographer's eye" soon strayed elsewhere, with nary an apple in sight. Eventually I stumbled (quite literally, while backing out of a hole in the ground I accidentally stuck my foot into) across a dilapidated barn with some old equipment. My eyes immediately popped open with anticipation and excitement. Rust, beautiful rust! I was in heaven :-)

I am reminded of a story I once heard during a documentary on Brett Weston, the second of Edward Weston's sons and, of course, an accomplished photographer in his own right. Brett, who like his dad, spent most of his time taking photographs in California (in places like Point Lobos and Big Sur), was one day invited by a friend to join him on a trip to Europe. Agreeing to go, after some cajoling, Brett and his friend visited Ireland, then Scotland, and later London. But Brett's eye, perhaps even more so than his father's, was tuned strongly toward abstraction. Thus, despite traveling though some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet before arriving in London, Brett had not once pulled out his camera to take pictures! "And what did he eventually come home to California with?", you may be wondering. Why, rust, of course! Brett had been so mesmerized by a patch of rust on the London bridge, that on one of the very last days of their trip, he finally whipped out his camera and spent several hours in photographic ecstasy, exploring nothing but a small dilapidated metal plate.

All fine-art photographers have been afflicted with this strange disease at one time or another (though some more so than others, much to the amusement and consternation of their understanding spouses ;-)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Luminous Companion

One of the special joys of photography is to discover something transcendent in what "objectively speaking" is completely ordinary; and use the medium to share your vision with others. A case in point, is a simple, humble, little tree, that I always see just outside the first level of the garage I use to park my car for work, and as I make the first turn to find a spot to park. I see a bit less of it as I continue downward to the second level, and it disappears from view completely as I weave my way to the third, and final level. I almost always choose to walk up to the entrance of my building using the outside stairs, rather than take the elevator directly from the ground level, because I want to enjoy "seeing" this little tree for a few extra seconds before beginning my work day. It has thus been a quiet companion of mine for years; and always puts a smile on my face as I embark on my workday, readying myself mentally to be immersed in my usual sea of equations and computer code.

I call it a humble tree, because that is how it appears to me. Its small and unassuming form is overshadowed by the thick trunks and dense foliage surrounding it. It is practically invisible, standing as it does just outside the garage, effectively lost among the scattered walkways, outside furniture and nearby construction. Sadly, it also does not appear to be doing particularly well physically this year, as its already lost most of its leaves, and very few achieved their usual rich autumn colors before falling. But there it stands, with its graceful arcs and branches serving as a subtle aesthetic ground to everything surrounding it. I silently lament how so few people ever seem to notice its delicate beauty. Though my coworkers frequently jog for exercise up and down the inclined hill on which it grows, few, if any, ever glance in its direction.

I resolved to show others what this serene sentinel has generously provided me for so long. I waited for a nice day (which, in photographer's speak, means an overcast, moist day;-), started my commute to work a few minutes early to buy myself some extra time, set up my tripod on the first level and took a few exposures. Some friends passed by in their cars. Most smiled quizzically, and squinted from their seats to try to make out the source of my fascination. One, a fellow photographer, stopped by to take a closer look, and nodded appreciatively. Another, not a photographer, also stopped by and was visibly perplexed that this "unassuming tree" was really the subject of my focus. "I'll show you what I see later, when I've had a chance to express it," I said. "OK," he replied, "but its just a little tree, and not a terribly interesting one at that," and walked away.

What my friend probably saw, was what my camera faithfully rendered with its CMOS circuitry, reproduced below...

What I saw, and what I almost always see when I pass by my humble little friend, is the image that is reproduced at the top of this blog entry. The tree seems to be both bathed in and to emanate a soothing, ethereal glow; as though its roots are not just joined to the earth but stretch into something beyond as well. The mildly duotoned black and white conversion conveys something of what I see when I look at this tree; and it is not at all obvious from the "straight" color image.

I admit to it being a very pure joy for me, as a photographer, to not only be able to "see" this tree in its more resplendently luminous form - to see its very soul, so to speak - but to be able to express (at least some semblance of) what I feel while communing with it. The tree thus now rewards me twice each day. Once, as it continues to paint a smile on my face when it greets me in the morning; and a second time, whenever someone comes into my office, notices the print I made of my luminous companion hanging on my wall, and says (usually, with some incredulity!), "That's not that little tree you were talking about, is it? Wow! Never thought much of it before. It's beautiful!"

As others have observed, one does not have to travel to exotic far-away places to find beauty.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A "Magic" Filter from Singh-Ray

When I was still in my teens, and just starting to learn photography, I recall two pivotal moments after which whatever doubts I may have had at the time about seriously pursuing photography evaporated, never to be heard from again. I described the first moment in an earlier blog entry; it amounts to seeing Minor White's "abstract expressionist"-like "Capitol Reef" print for the first time. I will not repeat what I wrote before, except to emphasize the spiritual awakening that White's image evoked in me. I realized for the first time that photography could be used to express not just the "objective" world - as it appears here and now, on the "outside" - but also an intensely subjective, private world that describes our very soul and its relationship to the corporeal.

The second moment, which occurred at roughly the same time in my life, took place as I was ponderously reading a rather dry textbook on photography; and is a direct precursor of why I am now so excited (30 years later!) by a magnificent lens filter available from Singh-Ray. Going back to my old self at 17, I remember being curled up in bed one day, while skimming through some pages explaining the basics of exposure. It was all standard material, with equally standard (meaning somewhat "dull") illustrations and photos highlighting the central points of the text. And then I ran across what I, at the time, thought was a stunningly dull photo: an image of an empty highway, taken in broad daylight. No cars, no pedestrians, no birds, nothing but asphalt and concrete. "Wow," I remember thinking, "these guys could use some creativity pills if this is the best they can do to illustrate a text on photography!" But it was a curiously puzzling photo, and strangely mesmerizing in its own way. I couldn't take my eyes off it for some reason. I kept asking myself, "Why aren't there any cars on this long stretch of highway in the middle of the day?" After reading the text more carefully (there was no caption underneath the picture except for the figure number), I had my second epiphanous moment.

The reason the picture showed nothing but an empty highway was because - during the extremely long exposure (about 1 min!) - nothing was in the frame long enough to register on the film! And how did that happen? Because the author was illustrating an effect of attaching a strong neutral density filter to the lens (in addition to using a very small aperture). A neutral density filter (NDF) reduces the intensity of light (at all wavelengths), thereby increasing the effective exposure time as the amount of reduction increases. NDFs are typically rated by the number of "f-stops"-worth of light reduction they impose.

For example, if a "filterless" exposure at f8 is, say, 1/500 sec, then a "2 f-stop" NDF will increase the exposure to 1/125 sec (at the same aperture); and an "4-stop" NDF will further increase it to 1/30 sec. Of course, one has to be sure that the white balance is preserved (so that there are no extraneous color shifts); which in practice simply means that you'll be investing in more expensive brands. I always carry at least two NDFs in my bag, one 3f-stop and one 6f-stop. The range is important, for it allows me to "experiment" with, say, a "frozen" water stream (using a fast exposure), a stream that is delicately blurred (for exposure times between 1/4 - 1 sec), and cloud-like flow "abstractions" (for t>5 sec).

However, despite the aesthetic allure of photos taken with my NDFs, I have often felt overly constrained by being able to reduce my exposure only by a fixed amount, as allowed and defined by a given filter's f-stop rating. Until, that is, a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a remarkable variable neutral density filter - called a vari-ND - by Singh-Ray.

The vari-ND allows the user to "dial-in" any desired level of light attenuation between two and eight f-stop's worth, simply by rotating a ribbed ring on the filter. Apart from the technical acumen required to make this work, by providing the photographer near instant control over a vast continuous range of effective exposures makes the vari-ND a truly remarkable device.

Well, I've had this magic filter - and it is magic! - for a few weeks, and had a chance to experiment "Seeing" with it; some examples of which you see sprinkled throughout this post. It works precisely as advertised, and is a lesson in elegant design and workmanship. There are two sizes - 77mm and 82 mm - which is not a problem for those (like me) with smaller sized lens, since you can always use a step-up ring to match the filter. Indeed, having a smaller lens is actually an advantage, since you reduce the possibility of vignetting at wider-angles.

Objectively speaking, the vari-ND does not provide anything that a photographer cannot achieve in other ways, using other tools. But oh how magnificently effortless vari-ND renders that work! If the possibility of creating lasting works of art depends, in even small measure, on the artist being unburdened from logistical/technical constraints, then - I say - the vari-ND is truly a magic filter! It is brilliant in conception, flawless in design, and produces stunning images.

If you are a seasoned photographer looking to expand your creative possibilities, have just started exploring the dynamics of light and exposure, or have ever wondered what it would be like to control up to 8 f-stops worth of light with a simple twist of a filter, go here, and order one of these magical devices for yourself. You won't regret it!

A philosophical postscript: I use the word "magic" in the title and in my reference to the vari-ND for two reasons. The first reason has already been hinted at in the text above, and has to do with how this filter "magically" renders effortless the willful imposition of desired exposure time (on a technical level). The second reason, unarticulated explicitly above, is decidedly philosophical. What this filter does, in effect, is to transform our normal, every-day perception of temporal flow - in which the world appears to move in localized snippets of time that last roughly 1/30 to 1/60sec - to glimpses of a supranormal, otherwordly, realm in which time moves at a slower, sometimes significantly slower, pace. It thereby also transforms us into temporally transcendent beings, that temporarily exist outside of time, and are able to marvel at time's own inner rhythms. Who is to say what is "real", and what is not? Is the "real" stream of water the one my eyes provide a visual imprint of?" Or is it the ethereal cloud of vapor that my "temporally transformed" eye glimpses, however briefly, with the aid of the vari-ND? Both are "real", but neither is definitively so, of course. Moreover, I would argue, it is this simple, but profound, realization that we have momentarily stepped "outside the normal flow of perceived time" - along with the even deeper realization that the clearest view of reality can only take place from some vantage point outside of it, on a meta-level - that points the way toward something approaching a "spiritual" enlightenment. Thus, the second reason I use the word "magic" in describing the vari-ND, is that it "magically" reveals a (normally hidden) spiritual realm.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Concerning the Spiritual in Photography

"The great epoch of the Spiritual which is already beginning, or, in embryonic form ... provides and will provide the soil in which a kind of monumental work of art must come to fashion," so prophesied the great Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky, in his masterful Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1914. Since then, of course, and to varying degrees, art has been replete with many aspects of the spiritual; indeed, the traditionally religious-centric interpretation of the term has on occasion been considerably expanded by art to include mysticism, ritual and myth, symbolism, the occult, and pure abstraction. A wonderful book - The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 - that chronicles much of the history of spiritual art, and contains many wonderful reproductions of important works, was published in 1985 to highlight an exhibit held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A recent Dover reprint of another classic survey - The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art - is also available; though it has only a relatively few black and white examples, the scholarship is first-rate.

The impact of the "spiritual" on photography is less clear, and has - sadly - less of a clear history. To be sure, the spiritual has never been far from photography's best practitioners; though not necessarily in overt form. Alfred Steiglitz's "Equivalents" are nothing if not quiet, soulful expressions of an inner reality, and are obviously infused with spirit in the deepest sense. Ansel Adam's portfolio of ostensibly "grand sweeping vistas" filled with Wagnerian-scale drama, are both creative affirmations of everything that is beautiful "out there," beyond the artist behind the lens, and of the poetic soul yearning desperately for a way to better communicate the transcendent beauty it sees on the inside. Adams' quest was a quintessentially spiritual one, much more so than merely aesthetic; a quest that is, regrettably (and profoundly erroneously, in my view), all-too-quickly dismissed by some latter day photographers as a product of "vision-less" Zone-system technobable and attention to irrelevant minutiae of craft. Many of Minor White's best works can be compared to those of Kandinsky, in the sense that both artists (used their respective media to) point a way toward a radically new grammar for spiritual expression. And Carl Chiarenza's visionary explorations of the "inner landscape" have been available for all to "see" for decades.

Still more recently, I've encountered the works of spiritually inclined artists such as Doug Beasley, Nicholas Hlobeczy, John Daido Loori, Deborah Dewit Marchant, and Jerry Wolfe, who each in their own way, pay homage to the spirit of Steiglitz's equivalents, and use their photography to reveal otherwise invisible realms of the soul. (Not surprisingly, Hlobeczy, Loori, and Wolfe all worked with Minor White.)

But, though there are plenty of other contemporary photographer / artists whose work is very spiritual in nature, there is little evidence to suggest that "spiritual photography" (at least in the sense I mean here) is emerging - or has ever emerged, for that matter! - as a bona-fide movement in photography. Indeed, if books such as reGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow (published, ironically, by Aperture, a magazine founded by Minor White and Ansel Adams!) are true indicators of the direction in which photography is currently "moving," that direction is visibly leading away from, rather than anywhere near, spirit. Deliberately staged images that shock and pound the senses into a surrealistic (and often numbingly ugly) unreality seem to be the norm; pictures that invite a quiet meditation or that simply, but sincerely, ask, "Is this not beautiful?" are rarely seen today - and when they do appear, are routinely scorned by critics as unimportant "pretty pictures" that convey no lasting meaning. (Christopher Alexander has been lamenting a similar spiritual decline in architecture and urban planning for a quarter century.) I hope I am wrong, for to move away from spiritual expression is, in my opinion, to move away from the most meaningful connection we have to the spiritual world - which is our essential wellspring of existence - as physical beings. Severing this connection, even if only implicitly by focusing our collective artistic / photographic energies onto more "sterile" - and spiritually inert - aspects of the world, means we must face the specter of losing ourselves in (or devolving backwards to) the merely physical.

For me, photography, or any other creative art form for that matter, is first and foremost a language of the transcendent; it represents a way for gifted "seers" - otherwise known as "artists" - to remind the rest of us that none of us are merely creatures of the flesh.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Few Basic Lessons of Fine-Art Photography

A young photographer recently asked me one of those "deceptively difficult" questions one encounters from time to time. While not quite in the unanswerable category that questions such as "So, what is life all about?" fall into, I was nonetheless hard pressed to give a quick respond to this question: "What are the most important lessons you've learned on your way to becoming a fine-art photographer?"

Leaving aside the temptation to reply either that "I'm not quite sure I'm a fine-art photographer yet, so..." or, perhaps, "I have no idea, but when you get a good answer from someone, please come back to share it with me!"...after some sober reflection, I decided that if I have anything of value to impart at all, after 35 or so years of struggling to find my own "eye/I" in photography, the basic lessons are these:

1. Never stop taking pictures. Always take pictures, constantly, even when you dont have a camera with you. Always pretend you have an imaginary lens in front of your eyes, and let them dart back and forth wherever you are; looking, seeing, composing, relating one part of a scene to another, imagining what it may look like with one filter or another, that lens instead of this one, and so forth. Don't let a day go by without at least the mental exercise of picture taking; better yet, wander around with a camera for an hour or two every day and take pictures. Photography is at least as much a lifestyle as it is a craft! If you are passionate about photography, you will photograph; you have to, it's who you are. Whether an interest in photography (or any creative endeavor for that matter) is a passing fancy or a deep passion can easily be determined by noting the extent to which you miss it when circumstances prevent you from practicing it. If the passion is real, you will begin (sometimes very creatively;-) sculpting your time to make sure you always have time for your art. The passion lives to the extent that you provide it with the one thing it needs: taking pictures, always taking pictures.

2. Forget about things and concentrate on feelings. Photography - especially fine-art photography - is the art of using the objective reality that sits squarely before you and your eye, and whatever means are at your disposal (beginning with your choice of where to look and what to leave out of a composition), to try to communicate to someone days, weeks, years later the feeling that came over you the instant you paused and said, to yourself, "Ah, I must take a picture!" This is something that is both very, very hard to explain how to do (indeed, I'm not even attempting to do that here), and will eventually become something that is very, very obvious to you about what you are really "doing" as a fine-art photographer (even if, as in my case, you fail at it much more often than you succeed).

"I do not photograph nature. I photograph my vision." - Man Ray

One day you will look at your own images, or better, look at someone else looking at your pictures, and you'll understand that you've become a photographer, not a snapshooter. You will realize that some image of yours actually made someone else feel pretty much what you felt while taking it. This is the essential core truth of all meaningful art, and is the first real step toward defining yourself as an artist.

3. Do not internalize (or take too seriously) what others tell you about your pictures; take the pictures that are important to you. Use your images as a way of going inward, into your own soul. Photography is first and foremost a process of self-discovery, not an exercise in literal capture of something "out there". Photojournalism aside (since my focus is on fine-art photography), the most timeless images of all are those that somehow capture a few notes of a deep universal rhythm; you know you're close when you see a part of yourself looking back.

“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”Jorge Luis Borges, Afterword to El Hacedor (aka Dreamtigers), 1960

The paradox is that it is only by looking inward, at who we are, and communicating to the world what we see and feel, that we stand the best chance of capturing a truth (and beauty) that others will recognize as their own. The least promising way to go about this is to take pictures that satisfy someone else's vision. While one may still manage to take technically well executed photographs, chances are slim that they will be infused with any deep meaning.

4. Learn the basics of technique, so that "technique" never again requires your conscious attention. While it's certainly important to develop the necessary skills of any craft, and photography is no exception, learn them well and internalize them, but then quickly move on to the art. It is far easier for a creative spark to emerge out of a sincere (but perhaps technically deficient) soul, than it is for art of any kind to arise in an atmosphere where the technical aspects reign supreme.

"Technique is what you fall back on when you are out of inspiration." - Rudolf Nureyev

If you put a homemade pinhole camera into the hands of a master photographer who has never used one, after a bit of fiddling, he or she is likely to produce the same fine-art caliber of imagery - with exactly the same depth of feeling - that he or she naturally creates. But put a world-class $15,000 Hasselblad in the hands of someone with "a photography degree", who perhaps knows more about what each button and dial does than the designers of the camera, but has little real passion for the art, and all you're likely to get is a snapshot taken with a $15,000 Hasselblad. The focus must always be on the art, and what you're trying to communicate with it; the technical side is there only to support you, and will take care of itself.

5. Never stop learning from the masters, and their photographs. Look at their work, and then again, and again; never stop looking at what other photographers you admire (and don't admire!) have done. I have never known a fine-art photographer that does not have a veritable library of books by other photographers (and I will share some of those in my collection in a later post). These are our teachers. They inspire us, they educate us, they provide us with ideas and stepping stones for us to forge our own path toward self-discovery. Second hand bookstores are a great treasure, as people tend to throw away the "old" uninteresting stuff. What a goldmine of inspiration I say! Keep looking, keep flipping though art books, and don't confine yourself to photography by the way. Art is art, whatever the medium. Everything I learned about composition, tone, form and texture - and, ultimately, about photography itself - I learned simply though watching my dad, who (though not a photographer) was a remarkable artist.

6. Forge your own path (strong form of lesson #3). The most difficult lesson of all, certainly the most difficult to follow, is to know that we will ultimately achieve little of lasting value if our work does not bear the fruit of our own uniqueness. How do you know you're on the right path? As Joseph Campbell wisely reminds us, "If the path before you is clear, you're probably on someone else's." This does not mean that your work cannot be "derivative" (or be labeled as such by others); it does not mean it cannot come "easily" (though only a lucky few ever experience it as such); and it does not mean you must always be "lost in the jungle" to stay away from every well-trodden path you see in the distance. It means only that whatever form your art assumes, that it arises naturally, from within, and sincerely expresses your unique vision. Ineffably, you cannot ask for it. You cannot choose it. You cannot guess it. You cannot will it. You cannot blindly hope it comes to you. But have faith in the humble truth that - if you are an artist, and your soul is pure and true to itself - your "vision" will find you, and when it appears, you will have found yourself.

"Art...comes inevitably as the tree from the root, the branch from the trunk, the blossom from the twig. None of these forget the present in looking backward or forward. They are occupied wholly with the fulfillment of their own existence. The branch does not boast of the relation it bears to its great ancestor the trunk ...because it is engaged in the full play of its own existence, because it is full in its own growth, its fruit is inevitable." - Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Spirit & Light Portfolio

I am delighted to report that my Spirit & Light portfolio has just been published in Lenswork Extended Issue #71 (Jul - Aug 2007). A few of the published images can be seen here (click on the "Spirit & Light" gallery at the top of the Adobe flash presentation that this link will take you to).

Here is the accompanying essay: Although I was raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition (and was an “altar boy” into my early teens), somehow – inexplicably - I have never before seriously trained my camera’s “eye” onto the rich aesthetic forms I had so long admired and that adorn most Orthodox churches. It has been quite a while since I’ve been part of a congregation, and I have tended to frown upon organized religion more than I have been attracted to it as I grew into adulthood. My spiritual core nonetheless owes much to my early upbringing.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to participate in a juried exhibition at the Washington National Cathedral, in Washington, DC (and I am proud to have two of my works on permanent display in its upper gallery). As I made my frequent journeys toward one of the city’s and the nation’s best known landmarks, I kept noticing this beautiful Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas Cathedral, standing off to the side. I remember admiring it from afar and making mental reminders to stop by before going home to see what was inside, but was usually so tired after a day of taking pictures at the Cathedral that I never got around to it. Until one day last year, when I finally resolved to make a special visit to St. Nicholas and see what I would find.

What I found was both a revelation and an awakening. A revelation, because I had, in some sense, “discovered” what was there in front me all along: an immensely beautiful church that I had essentially ignored in my erstwhile pursuit of the National Cathedral’s more heralded grandeur. An awakening, because it took but one glance at St. Nicholas’s ornate but soulful interior to remind me of my own spiritual roots, and my need to replenish those roots by revisiting them with my camera. And so began a quiet journey over the next few months that took me to several Orthodox Churches in the DC area, and the one closest to my heart (Our Lady of Kazan, Sea Cliff, NY), in my hometown on Long Island.

Somewhere along the way I also rediscovered myself.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Blackberry Picking and Abstracts

What does picking blackberries have to do with abstracts? Perhaps a better title (certainly more informative;-) would be, "How to bring home some abstract photos by listening to your wife!" Hot on the heels of my last Blog entry (which also credits my wonderful wife with getting me into position to get some shots despite myself by insisting I take my camera, when I professed "lack of muse", and didn't want to bother), my wife is to be credited with again reminding me what every photographer (except this stubborn one!) knows; namely, that photographs are everywhere.

The context for this latest denouement (i.e., and my embarrassing inability to learn this one basic lesson) was a simple, lazy Saturday. The sun was bright, the kids were anxious for something to do outside, and my wife was full of interesting ideas. "Let's go blackberry picking!" she suggested, something we had actually never done before. I was delighted to tag along; indeed, because of the horrible "photographer's weather" (i.e., bright sun, few clouds makes for ugly contrast-ridden shots; at least in general), I had already consigned the day to be "photo free" and braced myself for an onslaught of the obligatory photographer's lament and pouting about "another day lost". However, as always, my wife was far wiser than I: "Hun, you never know what you could find. Isn't that what you always tell me? Why not take your camera." As on our recent trip to Florida, I relunctantly grabbed my camera bag, but was inwardly smiling with the thought, "Yeah, I'll take it, but I won't be getting any shots today!"

So we went berry picking, my wife and kids loved every minute of it, and we now have more berries than we know what to do with. As for me, I knew I was in a photographer's Shangrila the moment our minivan sauntered into the dirt parking lot of a local organic farm. While my wife and kids were gazing out toward the berry patches, my eye was drawn to old tractors, farmhouses, dilapited storage bins, deserted cars and trucks, vine-entangled old windows and beat-up farm equipment. "I'm so glad I decided to take my camera along!", I thought (Ahem!;-)

All told, we spent two hours or so at the farm; my wife and kids picking berries, and with me prowling around looking for whatever might catch the eye. The owners were very nice, and gave me permission to roam their property at will. They were a bit puzzled, though, about my subject matter. While I took a few stray shots of tractors and some closeups of hay, I spent far more time admiring one particular section of a half-ajar door (full of other-worldly realms of peeling paint and other mysteries) to a trailer just off to the side from where the owners set up a small table to greet all incoming berry-pickers.

My wife mercifully came to my rescue as the owners' quizzical glances soon turned to outright panic that perhaps the strange man bobbing his head up and down and contorting his body in odd angles while keeping his nose barely three inches from the door is, after all, just a bit deranged. "Please don't be alarmed," she jumped in to explain, "My husband just delights in finding interesting patterns and textures. He lives for doors like this!" (She could have rightly added: "Of, course, he can only do this when he remembers to take his camera, even if it looks like it's a 'horrible' day for photography!";-)