Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Joyful Meditations in a Subterranean Cosmos: Part II

“Three Rules of Work:
Out of clutter find simplicity;
From discord find harmony;
In the middle of difficulty
lies opportunity.”

As a follow-on to my previous entry on my recent day-long photo excursion to Luray Caverns in northern Virginia, I'd like to make a few remarks about the aesthetics of capturing the caverns in a photograph, and - ultimately - a fine-art print. The short version is that it is not easy!

There are several reasons for this: (1) light (as in "lack of control over"), (2) contrast (as in "there is too much of it"), and (3) innate dissonance (between everything and everything else that consists of light and form;-). As these are all interrelated, I'll discuss them as a group. Light, arguably the single most important component of any photographer's repertoire of "tools," is in this case unnatural (as it is due solely to the intensely locally bright orange tungsten lights), imposed (since it is installed and fixed in place by the park engineers), and fixed (because it is either on or off, never in any "in between" state or alternate projection angle). Thus, the photographer must deal with the lighting conditions as they are defined in situ; in particular, this means that there is no opportunity to "wait for the right light." One might argue, of course, that this is a general quandary all photographers find themselves in; we always "look for" shots, no matter the environment. But what renders this a particularly difficult compositional problem in a cavern is the second reason I've cited for why this task is difficult, namely contrast.

Luray Caverns' lights are bright; very bright; sometimes blindingly bright! And are often focused on relatively small patches of stalactites (dripstone formations that hang from the ceiling) and/or stalagmites (that build from the floor upwards). Again, while contrast is generally a good thing (certainly for black and white photography) and thus not necessarily a problem ("Well Andy, just find the blindingly brightly lit patches you happen to like!"), it can be a problem - certainly an aesthetic one - if what one is ultimately after is not finding the "best" composition that minimizes the impact of brightly lit patches, but one that best respects the totality of forms - including but not restricted to those both defined and hidden by lights and shadows. While visiting Santorini, Greece in 2008 with my wife, I also had to deal with strong contrasts, but at least there the contrasts were predictably variable. Since their strength and location changed throughout the day, I effectively had a degree of control over them; for example, I could decide when and where to set up my tripod (or just wait for the best conditions to arise). In Luray - and, I suspect, all other "public" caverns - there is simply too much fixed contrast to make this possible.

It was extremely difficult to find pleasing compositions of any forms larger than human-sized chunks simply because of the dizzying array of competing light sources. In those instances where I was able to find a pleasing composition of larger and more widely spaced elements (such as in the example that appears at the top of this blog entry, which is a panorama than spans about 100 ft from left to right), my post-processing in photoshop involved many more layers of local dodging and burning than is my norm. Mind you, this is not a complaint; it is merely an observation of one aspect of what makes photographing caverns difficult; difficult compositionally, and - even more so - tonally.

The last "problem" (both defined and exacerbated by the first two) is the caverns' innate dissonance. Nothing in the cavern is smooth, or smoothly varying. Not the light, not the forms, and not the textures. Indeed, the "forms" - such as they are - are best described as large to massive needles made of rock, arranged in staccato fashion throughout "rooms" that themselves range in size from smaller-than-cramped office cubicles to mini cathedrals. Far from a harmonious whole, the caverns are - at least at first sight - a visually loud cacophony of not-always-obviously correlated patterns. Everything is in contrast to - and in dissonance with - everything else in these caverns! There are certainly none of the smooth gradations of light and contour that one finds in the slot canyons of the southwest ;-) Yet, somehow, the photographer must craft a holistic harmony out of these ostensibly discordant compositional components.

So what to do? I chose (by deliberately going to the caverns) and now continue to choose (by spending even more time post-processing what I "saw" there) this experience as an opportunity to find ways of aesthetically balancing discordant parts. As Alan Watts reminds us, "...what is discord at one level of your being is harmony at another level." Yes, the forms are dissonant; yes, the lights are blindingly bright and often ill-positioned; yes, the tonal gradations all tend to yell and scream rather than sing in melodic verses; but my physics background (if not an even deeper intuition) insists that what appears, on the surface, as a confused tangle of a mess, is - at its heart - a wondrous harmony. Stay tuned...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Joyful Meditations in a Subterranean Cosmos

"Meditation reveals that
the obvious place to begin
is not in some other place,
it's right here."
Being Black: Zen and the Art of
Living with Fearlessness and Grace

People often ask me (when I am out photographing), "You must spend a lot of time doing that, eh?" To which the answer is (and this is not a cop out), yes and no. Yes - obviously - because it is a life's passion of mine, and I "think about photography" most of my waking hours, even when pouring over equations and computer code in my day job (as a quick parenthetical aside, even as seemingly a mundane and unartistic an endeavor as putting together powerpoint slides for a technical presentation involves all kinds of compositional and graphical design elements, essentially indistinguishable from the unconscious processing going on behind the scenes of a photographer's craft). No - equally as obviously, but only after a moment's worth of thought - because, in truth, I do precious little active photographing while ostensibly engaged in photography!

Allow me to explain, and set the stage for the picture you see above and what all of this has to do with meditation. As a practical matter, the time I have to devote to real photography (i.e., not quick "point and shoot" grabs, but when I am out and about on a photo safari, mindfully settling into an area, senses tuned to visual possibilities ...) is short and comes in bursts. A few hours here and there on every other weekend perhaps; certainly more when my wife and I are on vacation, or when the family is visiting relatives in different states (hence my archive of portfolios generated in Florida's beauty, which is where my in-laws live). But even then, such as when we visited Greece and Scotland, my "real photo time" was diffused among an endless (but oh so welcome!) parade of 10-15 minute long patches of time during which we parked our car somewhere beside the highway or landmark and "explored for a bit." Then it is back in the car, and the reality of an equally endless parade of pictures that might have been captured - a common lament of all photographers - until the next roadside vista. While there are exceptions to any rule, it is generally rare to have more than a handful of minutes to do photography.

Thus the context for this post, which is intended as a short meditation on the joyful day-long photo safari I was privileged to have on an otherwise nondescript mid-week day last week. Going back a few months, I finally gathered the nerve (after pondering the issue for over a year before; I am a slow ponderer ;-) to leave a comment on the website for Luray Caverns, a popular tourist attraction in northern Virginia. I would have preferred a personal email, but I couldn't find an address on their website, so settled for sending a brief note in a "comment" post. In it, I introduced myself as a "professional fine-art photographer" (after wrestling a bit over whether I can really call myself one, since photography is far - far - from paying any meaningful fraction of my bills; I rationalized that at least the "fine-art" part was correct, since what I do as a photographer is emphatically not defined by anyone's demands but my own), and inquired about the possibility of having a "few hours to myself" inside the caverns with my camera and tripod. I heard back within a week from Luray's publicist, who could not have been nicer or more generous. Provided I choose a day other than a weekend, and one that falls before the April crowd rushes in, Luray would be happy to provide a full-days worth of unencumbered photography! A piece of heaven, I thought; and I was right.

I was greeted early in the morning by a staff member (who herself could not have been nicer or more accommodating; offering just the right mix of "Can I get you anything?" with a sincere "I'll leave you to your work" - it was not work, of course, but I guess carrying around two tripods, a bag with two DSLRs, four lenses, a speedlight, a portable drive for backup, a notebook, and an iPad, looked like it was work;-), led into the caverns, asked to wait a bit until all the lights were turned on (which took but a few moments), and then - music to a photographer's ears - told that "the caverns are all yours!" I essentially had the run of the place all to myself from 9:00am to about 5:40pm or so, armed only with a small bottle of water and a package of trail mix from Starbucks). There was a steady but quickly disappearing stream of visitors every hour or so; but they mostly hung around for a few minutes before moving on and out of eye and earshot. All told, I had over 8-1/2 hours of essentially uninterrupted "quality photography time" in the caverns; easily the longest such stretch I've had in over a decade. In a word, and I'm choosing the word carefully, Wow!

At the end of the day I was utterly exhausted (more so physically than psychically, as the strain of crouching and bending my 50 year old body in odd positions for "just the right" angle eventually took it's toll on every joint and muscle whose toll could be taken), but felt exhilarated; my inner state can best be described as a profoundly deep joyous inner calm. The kind of feeling one gets when one has accomplished exactly what one has set out to do; not to produce something, per se (the quality of which I am as yet unsure, as I have yet to start on the mountain - well, all 800+ images of a mountain - of post-processing work that awaits me in photoshop), but to simply engage in the creative process. And engaged I was. I will not soon forget these joyful day-long meditations on the visual delights I found in the subterranean cosmos known as Luray Caverns!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Gates and Journeys

"Those who seek the truth by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away from it. Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind is motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the Gate." - Huang Po
"The longest journey
begins with a single step."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Beauty and Wonder

"Both the grand and
the intimate aspects of
nature can be revealed in
the expressive photograph.
Both can stir enduring
affirmations and discoveries,
and can surely help
the spectator in his search
for identification with the
vast world of natural beauty and
the wonder surrounding him."
- Ansel Adams

"Beauty is eternity gazing
at itself in a mirror."
- Kahlil Gibran

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Self-Assembled Interdependence

“The farther and more deeply
we penetrate into matter,
by means of increasingly
powerful methods,
the more we are confounded by
the interdependence of its parts...
It is impossible to cut into the network,
to isolate a portion without it becoming
frayed and unravelled at all its edges.”

“There is a constant
and intimate contact
among the things that coexist
and coevolve in the universe,
a sharing of bonds
and messages that
makes reality into a
stupendous network of
interaction and communication.”
Systems Theorist
(1932 - )

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Seeing Order by Forgetting Names

"When I make a photograph I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order; Unlike the world of events and actions, whose permanent condition is change and disorder." 
Aaron Siskind Photographer (1903 - 1991) 

"To see is to forget the
name of the thing one sees."

- Paul ValeryPoet / Philosopher (1871 - 1945)

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Meta-Musings on my B&W Photography Workshop

The graphic illustration you see above is a wonderful visual depiction of some of the key differences between how the left (analytical, logical) and right (creative, artistic) sides of our brain process information (it is part of a Mercedes-Benz advertising campaign). The point of my posting this image is not to engage in a dialectic on what is known, unknown, or merely believed about how the brain functions (though the popular distinctions are largely correct, the functional division is not nearly as "clear cut" as they purport, and much is still shrouded in mystery); rather it is to simply show it (because I think it is a really beautiful visualization) and to use it as a conceptual backdrop to asking myself a "meta" question about my experience of giving the B&W photography lecture this past saturday: "Just what did I actually convey about doing black and white fine-art photography?"

Let me go back a step, and begin again by recalling a chat I had with an artist friend at work (who was unable to attend my talk). When we met on the monday after my lecture, and as we sipped coffee together while viewing the slides I had used, my friend made the kind comment, "Andy, you've done an incredible job at elucidating exactly what's on your mind when you're out taking photos...what you look for, what the best compositions are, how to put feeling into your shots. Just beautifully done!" While his praise means a lot (my friend is a prodigiously gifted artist, and his "eye" is second to none), and I thanked him for his kind words, my immediate reaction - and the origin of this blog entry - was a giggle, followed by outright laughter.

It struck me that, far from elucidating exactly what is on my mind when I take pictures, there is nothing on my slides that speaks about what is really on my mind - on a conscious level (of which there is, in truth, very little) - as I take pictures (which is not to take anything away from the information about photography that the slides provide). Nor, I believe, can anyone expect there to be. This point is both a simple (almost trivial) one, and very subtle (possibly deeply subtle): when I am out with my camera, I am emphatically not thinking about shapes, or tones, or patterns, or textures, or any of the other things I talked about during my talk. Of course, I am mindful of light, of lines, of shadows, of planes of focus, and of a myriad other things that go into the "gestalt" of the process, but am so entirely on an unconscious, preattentive level. I've written about this timeless-state experience before, and of the mystery that surrounds it, psychologically, cognitively, and spiritually. But my talk has made me appreciate another aspect of this experience, and how it may contain certain universal truths about engaging ourselves on any boundary between cognition and artful creation.

In my case, the boundary was cognizing about photography; or, more precisely, attempting to communicate something about what "doing photography" is about by describing what one end result is (namely mine) of having done it. As a speaker, I was allowed (rather, constrained) to use only words, images, and short animations to convey something - i.e., cognize about such concepts as tone, shapes, texture, principles of design, and so on - that describes what "doing photography" is about. Only that's impossible!

The speaker's constraint is rendered inert at best, and self-negating at worst; and - if you think about - assumes this Pythonesque-level absurd form: "You are allowed to use any and all means of expression except those that are equivalent to what you are trying to describe." More succinctly, you can only use left-brain cognitions to convey right-brain creations. Even more simply: "Explain photography by not doing photography." Absurd. DOA.

I cannot "explain" photography using words (or images, or even giving an impromptu "demo" of what it's like for me to go out and take pictures) any more than a chef can "explain" what making a gourmet meal is really like (or what is on her "mind" as she prepares one); or any more than Baryshnikov can explain what is on his mind when he dances, or what "dancing is like" in general. One cannot convey anything meaningful about any process of "doing" via lifeless "symbols of doing," however elegant their form and manner of presentation.

Of course, the Zen masters have known this all along. For that is why they have long "taught" by not teaching. The master can point the student toward the path; he can supply the shoes, the books, the camera and lenses, as it were, even offer hints on where to look, why and how to look, give advise on what do afterwrads when the images are viewed in a darkroom or computer; but no words, no teaching, no "follow these easy steps" tutorials, will ever - ever - convey the essence of what it is like to experience what stirs in your soul as your finger clicks your camera's shutter.

"The purpose of a fishtrap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to." - Chuang Tzu

You will know that you are "doing photography" precisely when you are out and about with your camera (or just with your I's eye), with nary a thought in your head, or memory of someone pestering you with a bunch of slides about tone, light, gestalt, .... pontificating on how photography is done ;-)

Postscript: My wife reminded me of an incredible (and incredibly apropos) presentation by Jill Bolte Taylor at TED. Taylor is a neuroanatomist, and author of Stroke of Insight, which describes her experience of living through a massive stroke (!)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

B&W Photograph Workshop II

This is just a quick note as a follow-up on the B&W talk I gave at Belnavis Art Gallery & Custom Framing in Springfield, VA on Feb 26; and to announce that I will be giving a second (repeat performance) at the same gallery on Saturday, March 26 (same time: 1:30 - 3:30 pm).

Though fewer people showed up than either Michelle (the gallery owner) and I had hoped for, I want to thank those that did. However, the intimacy of the small group made for a great informal class, where lots of ideas were discussed back and forth. Indeed, by group request, the "2 hour" class effortlessly grew to 3 hours, and all involved enjoyed the collective musings.

Speaking for myself, I was yet again reminded of the truth behind the cliche-ridden "time flies..." adage. Without taking so much as a minute's worth of a break during the entire session, I was shocked when I glanced at my watch near the 2 hour mark to discover that the class was ostensibly over! When one is truly in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's flow, time stops, and the world assumes both a simpler and deeper local structure. It is also the meta-pattern that connects all art and creative acts; whether they consist of being out with one's camera, oblivious to everyone and everything save that which one's "I/eye" is drawn to, or speaking about a subject one is impassioned about (in my case, photography and art) with a group of people who are just as interested. Art is its own wellspring of energy and nourishment.

Here is the outline of topics covered in my talk, along with the approximate number of slides for each subject (most slides have multiple transition elements, so that "one page" in reality ranges from a single page to, in some cases, eight or more):

All of you, dear readers, who are within earshot and/or a stone's throw away, remember... I give a repeat performance at Belnavis Art Gallery & Custom Framing in Springfield, VA on Saturday, March 26,1:30 - 3:30 pm. And, as before, as an added inducement to attend, I am offering the first 10 people who sign-up for the workshop - free of charge - signed copies of a portfolio / booklet I won in the British B&W Magazine's book contest a few years back, along with issue #76 of Lenswork magazine (that contains 16 exhibit-quality duotoned reprints of my Micro Worlds portfolio).

Please email Michelle, the owner of Belnavis Arts, to register as early as possible if you'd like to attend.

I'd love to see you there!