Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why the heck is he taking a picture of that?

A while back, I blogged about a series of images I call "Photographing the Photographer" diptychs (or PPDs), consisting of two side-by-side images: one image - taken by my wife - is of yours truly happily snapping away with my camera, oblivious to everything except what is in front of the tripod; the other, is of the "final print" of whatever it was that caught my attention at that instant. While the dissonance between the "final print" and the - sometimes bizarre - postures I assume while setting up a shot (and/or puzzling places in which I set up my tripod to begin with!) was not as great as in past adventures (e.g., look here and here), my wife managed to catch me "in the act" during three shots I took during our recent trip out west (see previous blog entries). Of course, each has its own story.

In the diptych at top, I recall both our boys (Noah, 13, and Josh, 9) circling around, curious about what caught my eye. "Is there a bird?", Noah asked. "A frog?" inquired Josh. "Just a log, guys," I answered. They gingerly walked up to the nondescript log by the water, giggled, and with an obligatory, "Dad, you are so weird!" went back to frolicking about the lakeshore (we were standing at the northern end of Yellowstone lake). In truth, it was more the light, and the play between the light, grass, and contrast between the log and grass that caught my eye, but my hunch is that a fuller "explanation" would have induced more giggling. 

In this shot, I stood locked in my hunched position (for which my back repaid me later by locking up completely at night) for 30-45 min, moving ever so slightly left-right / up-down trying a number of subtlety different compositions. My kids (along for a family hike at Bear Lake, CO) did not even bother to stop to inquire, though I caught a "Yep, at it again" as they made their way up the trail. I did get a few quizzical looks from passerbys, one commenting to another (a bit too loudly I thought), "Why the heck is he taking a picture of that?" This abstract root-contusion is among my favorite shots of the whole trip!

This final diptych finds me hunched over a a shot of Yellowstone's Lower Falls. In contrast to the earlier images, in which I "slaved" over myriad attempts to find a pleasing composition, I took but one shot here (worth keeping), but had to stay glued to my spot for what seemed like an eternity because of the swarm of visitors, a few of whom - sad to say - were less than polite. I was stomped on, pinched, shoved, yelled at (true!), had my tripod yanked (twice!), and even had to do a quick duck and cover to save my camera as a burping baby got a bit too close for comfort with recent-meal-induced projectiles. Though I needed no more than 10 sec to compose and click, it took 10-15 minutes (!) to find a stretch of uninterrupted time into which I could fit those precious 10 sec! As I got my shot, and turned to leave, I found my wife quietly and contentedly standing behind me, having gotten her shot of me almost immediately after I set up my tripod. Smiling (and in mock resignation), she simply asked: "Just how long does it take you to get a simple shot?"

Postscript. I was "yelled" at for having the gall to wear a NY Yankees hat in Wyoming... what insolence! ;-)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wordless Influences

"The mountain photographer is interpreting the face of nature–that mysterious infinity, eternally a refuge, a reservoir, an amplifier of spirit; a mother of dreams; a positive though elusive voice in whose depth lies its subtlety. They will interpret best who are never so content as when under the influence of situations where silence is rich in the mute assurance and beauty of mountain surroundings. The quality of emotional knowing has a finer integration with our spirit than anything that comes from barren intellectual processes. This point of view only accumulates slowly, out of long experience and contact with wordless influences. Under the spell of solitude and of natural beauty the root system of this kind of awareness establishes itself. Great art is usually created under some such saturation of awareness. The work is then permeated with an inner perception of beauty and an inner personal philosophy. The hope for our photography is that it shall retain these high lights of more than beauty, that through it symbols shall be preserved of response to our mountains, keeping them to a flow, a golden thread, in our experience." - Cedric Wright (1889 - 1959)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lenswork Portfolio eBooks Available for iPhone & iPad

For those of you interested in seeing the complete editions of the two most recent portfolios I've had published in Lenswork - Micro Worlds (Issue #76, May/June 2008) and As Above, So Below (Issue #95, Jul-Aug, 2011) - eBook versions for the iPhone and iPad are now available:

The Micro Worlds portfolio reveals an extraordinary and mysterious cosmos within an ostensibly "ordinary" everyday world. The project that produced these photographs cannot have started more innocently or unexpectedly. One day, as my family and I were sitting down to dinner, my wife placed two small acrylic candle holders on the table and reached for some matches to light the candles. A veritable universe of nested "worlds within worlds" of trapped air bubbles immediately grabbed hold of my eye, my soul, and - of course - my camera.

A portfolio of Luray Caverns (in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Consisting of over 60 black & white images of this natural wonder, the portfolio was made possible by the generosity of the Luray staff, who allowed this photographer essentially free reign of the caverns over the course of an entire day. My hope is that at least some of the extraordinary beauty, mystery, and majesty of this subterranean cosmos is revealed in the images in this book.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Same and Not the Same

"Wholes and not wholes; brought together, pulled apart; sung in unison, sung in conflict; from all things one and from one all things...As the same things in us are living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old. For these things having changed around are those, and those in turn having changed around are these...Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not." - Heraclitus

When my parents, my dad's parents, and I visited Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser in 1970, I remember it as an unassuming "mound" with steam coming out (before the awe I felt upon witnessing its eruption for the first time as a 10yo!), nestled slightly beyond a small walkway from Yellowstone's famous old faithful inn (built in 1904). There were no main thoroughfares, no parking lots (save that for a relatively small one near the inn), no boardwalks. We parked our car right by the geyser, walked out to Old Faithful, waited about 20 minutes or so for it to erupt (it was a bit more regular than it is now, thanks to myriad small earthquakes over the intervening years that have affected subterranean water levels), and were on our way. My, how times have changed! Or have they...?

Nowadays, the area around Old Faithful resembles more a small town - with a major parkway leading into it, several huge parking areas, lodging, shopping, a nature center, and more boardwalks than Coney Island and Atlantic City combined (or so it seemed) - than some "not easy to be discovered" marvel of nature. One could be forgiven for missing the geyser entirely, given the voluminous activity swarming all around it, passerbys appearing more interested in licking ice-cream cones and texting their friends back home about how "great Yellowstone is" than waiting for Yellowstone's patient sentinel to burp its superheated water for a few minutes. More than once did I hear a child ask her parents, "Where is the geyser, mommy?" while standing almost directly in front of it!

While it is easy to lament the "loss of innocence" (I lamented a different, more personal, loss in my last blog entry) associated with the development of any natural park designed for public consumption (the deepest personal lament of this kind may arguably be ascribed to Ansel Adams, who - in revealing the stupendous beauty of Yosemite Valley to the public - also rendered it forever impossible to experience as an isolated wilderness, I will not dwell on this aspect of our experience of Yellowstone; instead, I will muse on what I found at Old Faithful in more general terms of what it says about the impermanence - and permanence - of reality.

On the crudest level, Old Faithful remains "Old Faithful"; i.e., it is a geyser (located about 17 miles west of West Thumb Basin) with a more-or-less regular eruption schedule (about 65 minutes in 1940 to 90 +/- 10 minutes today). The dynamics of its eruptions has remained the same, even as the individual molecules of water continually change from eruption to eruption. But as I've just described, the visitor's experience of Old Faithful is dramatically different from what it once was (and was for me in 1970). Where, in decades past, one could view the geyser in relative isolation (if one so chose) - a communion, of sorts, between civilization and pristine nature - such a communion is now all-but-impossible, as Old Faithful must compete with impatient swarms of jostling and always-chattering bodies, not-so-distant belches of diesel-powered RVs and trucks, and an occasional screech of tires as cars and buses attempt to avoid wandering hordes of tourists lost -or soon to be - in vast parking lots. Meditation helps, of course, to refocus the mind on the Old Faithful; and, truth be told, the sheer wonder and delight of seeing a massive 150+ foot column of super-heated steam and water suddenly erupt from a hole in the ground never gets old. The child-like state of innocence I wrote about in my previous post was, during this trip, perhaps easiest to realize at Old Faithful, where one cannot help but stand slack-jawed in awe of nature's magic. My experience of the erupting geyser - sans surrounding noise and clicking cameras - was essentially what I remember it being 42 years ago.

But, in the end, what do we really mean by "Old Faithful"? Is it the geyser? the geyser erupting? the water underneath the geyser? the surrounding area? the "experience" of watching "it" erupt? the tourist-driven infrastructure that envelopes "it" (and all surrounding geysers)? What has remained the same, and what has really changed? Labels, labels, and more arbitrary labels, all pointing to "something," and yet none describing anything of lasting meaning or value. 

And so, how fitting it is that an old "faithful" wonder - the same and yet not the same as it once was - sagely reminds this self-professed observer of wonders of the folly of wondering about the labels of things. "Old Faithful" is as an imprecise, imperfect label of a "geyser" in Yellowstone as "Andy" is an essentially vacuous label of a "photographer on an RV trip to Yellowstone with his family." Impermanence bleeds from words and arbitrary attachments; and permanence is but an impermanent illusion. All things are the same and not the same. And Old Faithful is no "thing."

"We are like the spider.
We weave our life
and then move along in it.
We are like the dreamer who dreams
and then lives in the dream.
This is true for
the entire universe." 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Numinous Self-Actualization

"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization. This term ... refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." - Abraham Maslow (1908 - 1970)

Forty two years ago (and, in view of the commentary to follow, a faint echo of Adams' answer to life, universe, and everything), my family and I took a trip out west that I have never forgotten. My 'family' back then was made up of my parents and both grandparents on my dad's side. I have never forgotten that trip for two reasons: (1) it was the last trip that all of us were together on (my grandparents were - in 1970 - well into their 80s and it was upon our return to 'home' that year - on Long Island, NY - that health issues that would eventually take both their lives first appeared); and (2) it was the first time my 10 year old self was exposed - and spiritually awakened to - the extraordinary aesthetic riches that mother Earth offers.

Now fast-forward to the present; more precisely, to 10-25 August, during which time my family and I (including my wife, our two sons and my mom, who just happens to be the same age as my grandfather was in 1970) flew out to Denver, CO to rent a 32-ft RV and used it to explore the Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone national parks. (This trip was 2/3 as long as my 1970 trip, but covered many, if not all, of the memorable sights and sounds I remember from long ago.) Long in planing (dating back about three years, at least), I wanted to make this trip for two reasons: (1) to provide my kids an opportunity to experience a similar reverie of nature's beauty and/or a "spiritually awakening" as I had at their age (mission accomplished on both counts!), and (2) to give myself an opportunity to re-experience memories of a bygone time that I now, and will always, cherish. It is in the unabashed failure to achieve this second goal that I wish to focus on in the words that follow.

Despite my longing for - and all my earnest efforts to recreate - the exuberance of my youthful adventure, and though there were certainly moments during which time's ineffable veil parted just a bit to reveal to my mind's eye a dim indistinct sepia-like 'print' of what I saw 42 years ago, the sad truth is that I was thoroughly and at all times aware of being inextricably mired in a 51 yo body, with all its attendant life's bumps and bruises, experiences, and never-ending responsibilities; a fact that my 10 yo self could neither fully anticipate nor fathom! Try as I might, and cliche-ridden though it may be, I found it impossible to recapture the essence of my remembered youth. Except - that is - through watching my children dance to the tune of their own blissful reverie, and by engaging in photography.

What I yearned for most of all (from my experience as a 10 yo) was what I remember as a pure innocence of being; a joyful and unconscious participation in nature's rhythms. I had absolutely no concerns, no worries, no pressures of life (or panic over whether - after enjoying the "view" at 12K ft on Colorado's trail ridge road - I would be able to safely drive a 12 foot wide RV down twisting hairpin turns in lanes barely a foot wider and roads that fall off 8% grades and plunge thousands of feet down on either side!). I remember just "being in the moment," playing, laughing, hiking, splashing in lake water, and pausing on mountaintops - with nary a conscious thought - to gaze out into the infinite expanse of our western landscapes. But there were far too many distracting and nagging thoughts intruding into the 51 yo version of my younger self to allow such innocence (though memories of how easy - how effortless - it once was - and is, for my children! - reminded me that it is not the state that is inaccessible, but my all-but-convincing left-brain attitude that makes it only appear to be inaccessible). In truth, it was not my 51 yo body that was the problem, but that I had forgotten that the "I" that had experienced all those wonderful things in 1970 has not aged at all. 

Rather than quietly and gracefully surrendering to the flow of time and nature, I was, so to speak, swimming against the tide, desperately trying to turn back time to reinsert myself into a long-deceased body and mind so that I could re-experience the past exactly as it - and I - were back then, 42 years ago. But my soul was already where I needed to be; where I was, in 1970, in 2012, and whenever - and wherever - else I need to be. It is a timeless, yearning-less state forged by a numinous connection between self and nature. And, as so often happens (with me, at least), photography reminded me of my foolishness. 

The child does not yearn to return to anything, or to any time or state; it simply delights in being, in experiencing. As I tuned out my incessant left-brain confusion, and refocused my attention on the beauty around me, my hand instinctively reached for my camera, and all yearnings ceased. Numinous self-actualization...

"It's also helpful to realize that this
very body that we have, 
that's sitting right here right now... 
with its aches and it pleasures...
 is exactly what we need 
to be fully human, 
fully awake, fully alive."

- Pema Chödrön (1936 - )