Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sea breeze in grasses: the intimate relationship between subject and photographer.

The subject is within you, nature giving only the suggestions.
Arthur Wesley Dow

I'm walking along the rocky headland called Beaver Point on Saltspring Island. This place is close to home and in the past I used to work here as a Park Ranger so it is very familiar photographic ground indeed. Here is subject matter all around, boats of all sizes race past, and yet this time I focus on the afternoon sea breeze waving tall stalks of grasses on the cliff's edge. There are interesting visual contrasts here between rock and sea and between the blur of grassy movement and the action of the waves. My subject is nothing unusual unless I make it so through how I visualize it, my camera settings, and how I frame it. Why am I choosing to take this image anyway and why do I choose this one specific point of view to shoot from?

When anyone takes a photograph he has to answer many questions which can be placed in the three categories of technique: 'Aesthetic, intellectual and mechanical'*.
Mechanical would be all about the machine we use, a camera. Intellectual answers the question why we are taking this particular image and not some other. Aesthetic concerns the way we organize the elements that comprise the subject to fully express what we are thinking about. For most of us this doesn't seem all that big a deal, but that is because we usually work within a narrow channel of perception where these questions do not readily arise.

Here on this cliff edge, facing the grasses waving in front of the waves I begin to make some choices. I am attracted to subjects that contain contrasts, and here I have several working together. I seek images that promise a glimpse of eternity and here is a harmonious association of wind, water and earth, animated by the wisps of blowing grasses. From past experience I know how to use my camera so the grasses will be caught in a blur, the waves stilled but obviously animated by the same breeze, and the curve of rock portrayed as large, solid and monumental.

It is in the proportions, where the line between the sea and rock falls, where the two stalks are placed within the frame, that my image stands or falls. That in the end is sheer intuition, the art of the whole process. If I were working to some rules of proportion, the image would have become frozen by convention; the applying of craft, so useful with camera settings, is inappropriate here where my mind must be free to wave and blur with the wind in the grass.

There is one aspect that most of us shy away from mentioning to others but which is essential to making my images, and that is my attitude, my inner intention. The poet Rilke expresses this well: “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is soulless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them”. The idea that a photograph, so mechanical, so rational and so craft oriented, could need anything like love, first to make it and then to view it, is definitely a challenge, but that thought of his really opens up the mind to a wider understanding of picture making*. This rocky and familiar headland, the fresh breeze forming the waves on the sea's surface and animating the grass stems; there is a deep reality here in this familiar place that I first experience and then express as love.

    * The camera makes an image – record of the object before it. It records the subject in terms of the optical properties of the lens, and the physical properties of the negative and print. The control of that record lies in the selection by the photographer and his understanding of the photographic processes at his command. The photographer visualizes his concept of the subject as presented in the final print. He achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique - aesthetic, intellectual, and mechanical.
    Ansel Adams

    * In our day to day contact with natural things, we establish emotional bonds. It is as natural to love Earth as it is to love one's human family.... The person who cares about Earth is likely to observe it thoughtfully, to see patterns of relationships between things that a casual observer does not, and also be cognisant of his or her own emotional responses to different aspects of Earth's content. While caring by itself does not ensure clear perception, real awareness of subject matter is impossible without it.
    Freeman Patterson, 'Portraits of Earth'

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Early humans are here in us still.

Latest research places early humans in Africa camping on the beach or in caves and living off the sea's resources. Just as some monkeys do today, just as did Neanderthals in Europe and the earliest migrations out of Africa that followed the shores to Australia and beyond. Early migrants into N. America did the same; sails, paddles, boats or rafts may have been one of the earliest inventions, not one of the last. Imagine the coastal voyages, the leapfrogging of small groups along long stretches of coastline, and then think how knowledge of wind patterns, ocean currents, the migration routes of birds, driftwood arrivals from windward and the paths of moon, sun and stars, must have been developed into sophisticated bodies of navigational knowledge, horded in the memories through song and poetry and passed on to succeeding generations. Like, say fifty thousand and more years ago.

This photo of children at the beach shows how easy and natural that must have been. Playing at the shore, wading, swimming, fishing, beach combing, are one of our most natural activities.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Evensong: a composition that is a crossover photo with music.

Taking this image was dead easy, just two almost identical images later combined within the camera to make a composite 'double exposure'. But of course the technical camera bit doesn't tell the whole story. While I did not work hard at the computer to create this image there really is no rule that says that sweat is superior to smart. I pulled this image from previous experience, from curiosity and a strong drive to experiment. I visualized this image in my mind first, in picture form, not in plodding words, so quick and easy was my visual path that interests me not simply as beauty but as thought.

'Evensong', as I called this image, is the music for Vespers, that end of day religious service that would have been found in the monasteries of the Middle Ages; the marking of the close of a day's work and the beginning of the shadow times before the dark. For me then, it has symbolic value as well.

As this was a musical piece, you can see the colour, the lines and textures, the rhythmical movements that sing in a musical flow and I found it interesting to compare real music which exists through a period of time with this visual equivalent. Music ticks through time, we cannot experience the whole thing at once and part of the experience is to find the repetitions and variations and to predict them. The visual experience allows the viewer to see it all in one blow,a different kind of thing, but satisfying on its own terms.

While this was an overtly musical piece, one can look for the same satisfaction in other visual works, the careful construction of forms, colours, lines etc. that make a strong visual composition to communicate the idea. That's half the satisfaction for the maker and for the viewer.