Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pikes, Minnows, and Parks (and a Lesson, Oh My)

"The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

During a visit to see my mom on Long Island the other week, my younger son and I stumbled across a beautiful park - no more than a stone's throw away from the house I grew up in - that I never knew existed! Well, I knew of the place, and of its beauty, but not of the park's presence. And therein lies an important lesson that owes its origin to pikes and minnows.

Years ago, I read of an experiment in which some biologists used cameras to record the actions of a large northern pike inside of an aquarium filled with small minnows. Initially, the pike did exactly what one would expect a pike to do under those circumstances; namely, it enjoyed a feast of a lifetime, since it was surrounded by its favorite food.

But then the researchers placed a glass barrier between the pike and the smaller fish. Each time the pike attempted to grab a minnow, it struck its head on the glass. After many repeated failures, it simply stopped trying altogether. The researchers waited until after the pike was clearly hungry and removed the barrier, thus allowing the minnows to swim toward the pike. What did the pike do? Absolutely nothing! Having "learned" that feeding on the minnows was anything but productive (indeed, even painful), the pike blissfully ignored an aquarium-full of food source. It eventually died from starvation. Despite being immersed in a field of nourishment, it believed none was attainable.

And so we come to our newly "discovered" park... I have known about this place ever since I was about 10 or so (i.e., 41 years ago!). My family and I must have driven past it dozens of times a year. My attention was always drawn to a picturesque little "house" (well, I always thought it was a house, which I now know is an old unused mill, which appears in the image above) overlooking a pond with lovely water lilies. The property itself was on a tiny cliff overlooking a harbor, and surrounded by gorgeous trees.

I very clearly remember wanting to take pictures of the "property" when I started doing photography (when I was around 15), but never got around it; too "embarrassed" (as a youth) to act my resolve to ask the owners for permission. What I did not know - having inadvertently taught myself an incorrect truth (as the pike taught itself that its food was inaccessible) - is that this was a public park! Having gone through so many days in my youth during which I would wake up resolved to "go knock on the door of that house to ask for permission to take pictures," only to wind up empty-handed for whatever reason (laziness, shyness, forgetfulness, ...), my brain eventually defined the house and its property as a private residence, simply because (a) I had never thought of it in any other way, and (b) I never bothered to find out what it really was. The house was on private property, and that was that. And so, years and years would pass, with endless trips up and down the road that house still sits on; periodically, in passing, I would tell my mom, my kids, my wife (anyone in the car with me), "You know, one day..."

On this particular trip, I once again firmly resolved to... going so far as to deliberately pack an extra photography business card to present to the owners. Finally - finally! - I set aside some time to actually walk up to the door and ring the bell. And after 41 years of "knowing," I finally learned that I could have explored this property any time I wanted. Embarassing? Oh yes! And I truly have no explanation why this time proved different. Why did I go now, but not last year, or the year before that? Why not indeed?! Apart from some wonderful pictures (that I ought to have started taking 35 years ago), this experience has also taught me a lesson worth applying to all of my other "learned" truths as well. What am I blind to because I "know" I see it so well?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Three eBook Offerings from Blurb Books

Blurb, with whom I have self-published a number of portfolio books over the last few years, has recently introduced an intriguing eBook option for prospective authors. Though currently confined to be read only by Apple iOS devices (i.e., the iBooks app on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod-touch devices), Blurb's new eBooks are faithful full-resolution versions of their print counterparts. I am impressed with the ease of conversion (on the author-end) - as it essentially amounts to nothing more than selecting the "ebook download for Apple iBooks" option on the page for editing a previously published book, and waiting a few moments - how beautifully it is rendered on my iPad, and by the price, which (as expected) is vastly lower than for any of the print editions.

Indeed, I think this offers a viable alternative for people who do not want to invest $50 or more on a physical book unseen; and who typically decide to purchase a photo book based only on a low-resolution preview of however many pages the author has allowed to be displayed (and/or their own knowledge of the photographer's reputation).

Thus, as a test of sorts (and originally planned only for my sole amusement, adding perhaps that of members of my extended family), I offer the following eBook-versions for three of my more popular physical print books (at a nominal cost): (1) Seeing the Invisible, which is a portfolio of some of my personal favorite black and white images, and includes photos that appeared in juried exhibits, Lenswork magazine, B&W magazine, B&W Spider Awards, and private collections; (2) As Above, so Below: A Harmony of Contrasts, which consists of over 60 black & white images of Luray Caverns in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia (and a selection from which has recently appeared in Lenswork magazine); and (3) Sudden Stillness, which is a 250+ image portfolio expressed in four movements (each introduced by a short essay): chaos, order, complexity, and entropy. The first is available for $2.99; the other two for $4.99.

In each case, after clicking on the associated link, you will find the option to purchase an iPad/iPhone Version (which may be read using the iBooks app) at the top right of the screen.

If there is expressed interest in converting any other of my prior books (I currently have 14 in all), I will certainly make them available here and on my Blurb page.

Postscript: the same three three books are also available in the iBooks bookstore: link #1, link #2, and link #3.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Aftermath of Inactivity as a Probe Into the Creative Process

A few days ago I posted my first blog entry in over 3 months. It consisted of little more than explaining the long delay (attributed to "day job" related constraints), highlighting some recent publications, and briefly amplifying on an observation I made in a recent interview. But I left out a deeper thought; one that I think goes to the heart of the creative process. Namely, the degree to which what - not how - we choose to photograph defines who we really are; particularly after a long absence from doing photography. This is a point both obvious and subtle.

It is often said that the best (perhaps only?) way to discover who we really are is to see what we do in moments of crisis. I use the word "crisis" here not to label some profound existential angst or trauma, but simply to denote a "moment of truth"; i.e., some instant in time during which a decision must be made now. Perhaps we've delayed a decision, perhaps the problem or issue facing us is too ill-defined, or maybe a looming deadline is just too far in the future for us to care. But then the deadline comes near, or circumstances change, and a decision must be made right now. Malcolm Gladwell (in his book Blink) calls this thin-slicing, though his use of the term refers specifically to those situations where the person making a decision has very little time to make it. However, for the point I'm trying to make, I'd like to relax this last condition; i.e., I am interested in the "I need to make a decision now" process that allows the decision-maker time to reflect on her decision. Yes, a decision needs to be made (today, and not tomorrow, or next week), but you don't need to "thin slice" your response; rather, give the issue some thought - or take a "reflective slice" - and temper it with intuition. Now, what do you decide to do?

My (hardly original) hypothesis is that what we decide to do under these circumstances tells us a lot about who we really are (stripped of all the usual encrusted layers of decisions past and pending). In the context of photography, the problem is: "OK, Andy, you haven't been out with a camera for a while, and now you have an hour or so to prowl around, where do you go and what do you photograph?" My claim is that what I naturally - intuitively - train my camera's lens on says everything about me as a photographer (and about my creative process) that needs - and/or is ultimately worth - saying.

Paradoxically, the deepest insights come from moments of decision that follow long periods of inactivity. For it is only after we have not done photography for a while that the photography most important to us is best revealed. Immersed (as I usually am) in multiple simultaneous ongoing projects, the day-to-day (and shot-to-shot) decisions collectively sculpt only a fleeting image of a particular period of my creative process, as defined by the needs of specific projects; but they do not easily reveal fundamental truths about me as a photographer. While I may discover details about "what I am doing" by paying attention to what I am doing when "I am doing photography" (at times when I am immersed in doing it), I can only discover the truth that underlies all of my photography (perhaps my entire creative process) by paying attention to what I turn my attention to first after not having done photography for a while. It is only after not doing photography that our attention is naturally and strongly drawn first to what matters most deeply; not subject to the vagaries of whatever projects we have just finished or are next on our agenda.

Look at the first photographs you take after dusting off your camera. What do they say? Wherein lies their true meaning? Most likely it is to be found in what the photograph - as a whole - is about. The details matter little; indeed, because of the inevitable build-up of aesthetic rust, the details are just as likely to obscure the intended meaning as illuminate it. In Zen-like fashion, the time during which a photographer - who may normally be obsessed with rendering the tiniest of details in an image just so - is unable to focus on detail, is actually the best time for achieving the deepest clarity of vision.

And so I discovered (or relearned) a truth I've known for as long as I've been a photographer; perhaps longer, since photography is but another word for "seeing with a camera," and I've been "seeing" the world at least a few years longer ;-) To whit, after months of relative creative inactivity, my attention is first drawn to quiet, simple scenes in familiar locations in local parks; and my eye to humble uncluttered rhythms of basic shapes and tones. Though I will undoubtedly soon resume my journey towards ever-deeper abstractions in subject matter and imagery, I know that my creative heart yearns for nothing so deeply as glimpses of a simple sudden stillness.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Blurred Path Toward Clarity

"To be an artist is not a matter
of making paintings or objects at all.
What we are really dealing with
is our state of consciousness
and the shape of our perception."
— Robert Irwin, Artist/Theorist (1929 - )

It has been quite a while since my last blog post; the long hiatus due (as almost always) to the demands and constraints of "day job" responsibilities. As I slowly reacclimate my activities to nurture both parts of my brain, I offer a short and humble blog entry to highlight some recent photography projects and expand upon an observation about "how I do photography" that a friend of mine found interesting in a recent interview I gave (and that others might find amusing to muse on).

First, I am delighted to announce that I have had two portfolios published in the last few months: (1) my Luray Caverns portfolio, which appears in both the print and expanded DVD-editions of Lenswork (issue #95, Jul/Aug 2011), and (2) my Abstract Glyphs portfolio, spotlighted on pages 72-75 in the December 2011 issue of B&W magazine (images also appear on their gallery page).

While listening to my interview with Brooks Jensen (editor, Lenswork) for the DVD edition of issue #95, a friend of mine was intrigued to learn of a particular habit I picked up early in my photography (when I was just learning the art in my late teens, a few centuries ago ;-) I'd be interested in learning if others have had (or have) the same experience.

In recounting to Brooks how I started off my day-long sojourn to Luray caverns, I noted that for the first 30 minutes or so I just walked around without a camera (as I always do) and without my eyeglasses on (also, as I always do). Because I am very nearsighted, seeing the world without my glasses yields an almost abstract - certainly much simpler, distilled - representation of it. Since my eyes sans glasses provide only rudimentary information about shapes and tones, I find it a useful exercise to first "see" my compositional landscape (as it were) in these aesthetically simple terms, before fully investing - and immersing - myself in finding real photographs in it. This has been a vital part of my creative process for well over 35 years. But it started quite by accident.

When I was just starting out in photography, I found the physical act of using the viewfinder on a camera hard on my eyes. The constant shifting between squinting through the camera followed by focusing on something in the distance quickly tired my eyes. So, after even a few shots, I would usually take off my eyeglasses and rub my eyes a bit before resuming my camera work. One day, with my glasses off, I turned to glance in a direction where some commotion was going on. I could make out only some blurry lights and shapes, but whatever was going on it looked "interesting." Without thinking (and still without my glasses, which had also fallen to the ground) I lifted my camera to my eye and - without thinking and unable to really see anything - took a shot. I have long forgotten what that shot was a shot of, but I remember being mesmerized by the thought - later after I developed the film - that it had turned out better than OK; it was a really well-composed, lovely shot! But not one I would necessarily have taken of this subject (namely, a scene with people in it!) had I had my glasses on. The lesson taught me to always first "see" a scene sans glasses.

The middle panel of the triptych shown above depicts, roughly, what I "saw" when I first descended the stairs into Luray's interior. The left panel shows what the scene may look like to a robotic version of Andy that sees the world through an 'edge detect" filter. The right panel shows how a non-robotic version of Andy renders the same scene after he's had a chance to see it with his glasses on ;-)

FYI: a 40-min long mp3 file of my interview with Brooks Jensen is available for download from Lenswork for 99 cents.