Under the Icons

Migrant Madonna (Dorothea Lange, 1936)

Migrant Madonna (Dorothea Lange, 1936)

It all started with a conversation with someone much younger than me (and face it, most people are). She showed me a photo she loved, a sweet image that reminded me of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Madonna. When I pointed that out, she admitted never having heard of her before, but then immediately recognized the famous photograph when I showed it to her with a quick Google search. And this gave me pause to reflect. Iconic images may resonate onward through the generations, but the people who made them? Not so much. I’m a little saddened by that.

Truth is, I can only think of three photographs that can claim true iconic status in the American canon: the Migrant Madonna, most certainly; Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal, and Earthrise, taken from the Apollo 8 capsule on its way to the moon. You may have one or two on your own list, too (I sometimes think of Ansel Adam’s Moonrise photo as iconic, but probably just among us photographers). But these three posses an undeniable universality.

Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima (Joe Rosenthal, 1945)

Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima (Joe Rosenthal, 1945)

I can’t help but think that when a photograph achieves this level of iconic status, the emotional punch — and the photographer’s own story — gets lost somewhere along the line. It’s the iconography of a commemorative postage stamp, perhaps, or an inspirational meme, but not human triumph and tragedy, and that’s what those photographers saw and shared with us.

Earthrise (William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission, 1968)

Earthrise (William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission, 1968)

Well I suppose in the long scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. Any photograph you look upon is a rorschach, and if you pay it any attention you’ll bring to it your own experiences and biases, your likes and dislikes, and read into it what you will. Plus, the events these represent — the Great Depression, WWII, the race to the moon — are so far removed from us today that the men and women who took them have just naturally faded into the background.

And that’s alright with me. None of us in the creative arts can reliably expect not to fade away, ourselves. As for me, I haven’t photographed anything more culturally significant or artistically revolutionary than the contours of my own (admittedly off-kilter) mind. No earth-risings, no flag-raisings; just quiet moments with me and my camera. And maybe that’s all those photographers expected, too.

It’s just that the world happened to get in their way.

Notes From The Edge

Magnolia blossom and pine needles 2016

Magnolia blossom and pine needles 2016

Things are interesting on the edges. And I’m speaking photographically, it’s not that I’m living on the edge, mind you. This isn’t a testament to my sanity, such as it is. No, after a lifetime in photography - learning, teaching, making a living - I’m uniquely unqualified to speak in any terms other than visual. And visually, all the interesting things are on the edges.

Edges, of course, must mean there are centers, and there, I think, are where the uninteresting photos dwell. And you’ve seen them - that tree, that mountain, in broad daylight, no shadows, no mystery, no excitement. Even a brilliant sunset is usually a photo from the center. If it’s the color only, without context, the eye quickly grows tired of it and looks for other sources of entertainment. I want to see what that sunset is shining on. I want to find its edge.

It’s what I mean when I say I’m always looking for that perfect light: it’s fleeting and frustrating and subject to the vagaries of time and space. Its the yin and yang of light and shadow, where a landscape hides as much as it reveals, where the soft shading of a human face plays with our emotions, where the last moment of a setting sun is captured in the inky blackness of a watery foreground.

Lily pads 2014

Lily pads 2014

Maybe I’m over-thinking it; I usually do. Maybe summer and winter are just center months, and I need to wait out my dulled senses for the edge months of spring and fall to come back around. That’s when the light is changing, the seasons are in flux, and our visual worlds get turned upside-down. It’s zen photography, and the zen of photography, and it occupies my head and heart.

I’ll just keep on wandering and looking, no matter what. In a former life I’d have said I’m fueled by coffee and dektol, but now I’m just fueled by coffee and, well, more coffee. But I know I’ll always find light that is good and interesting and edgy. On occasion it’ll even be perfect. Kurt Vonnegut said “Out on the edge you can see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” So my advice is to take his, and stand as close to that edge, camera at the ready, as you can.

Try not to fall.

Zen and the Gentle Art of Looking Sideways

Fernhill Reservoir; Washington County Oregon  2015

Fernhill Reservoir; Washington County Oregon  2015

I'm reading a delightful book on photography. Ok, that's not such a stretch, so let me explain. I love books about photography and photographers, and even the occasional nuts-and-bolts kind of thing. There's always something to learn. But I find myself moving into uncharted territory, and so far it's a pretty incredible trip.

The book in question is Zen Camera: Creative Awakening With A Daily Practice In Photography by David Ulrich (Watson-Guptill, 2018). Yeah, not the usual f/stop and shutter-speed kind of thing, but one with much deeper implications than your typical how-to

I have long been a practitioner of zen photography, I just wasn't aware of it. When you make your living at it, you sometime go on auto-pilot. But here's the thing: the yin-yang of creativity is pretty compelling. On the one hand, it is autobiographical: it is a statement to the world, a reply to the universe. On the other, it is intensely private, a singular moment of personal reflection. Photography in particular is built upon a lifetime of these moments.

Vanishing Park Bench, Clackamas County Oregon  2018

Vanishing Park Bench, Clackamas County Oregon  2018

I see pictures constantly throughout the day; some are virtual and remain in my mind, while many others compel me (often unconsciously) to bring the camera to my eye. When this becomes your meditation, it's no longer possible not to see. "The camera" says the wonderful Dorothea Lange, "is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera."  This is my practice of zen photography. This is what's starting to make sense.

I have my own students now, informally, mostly, though I am forever a student myself. I do my best to lead them astray. Really, we're all just a bunch of happy wanderers. I hope they -- and you, as well -- keep developing a life-long vision and philosophy about what is beautiful and honest. Your eye will always be looking inward and outward, forwards and sideways. I'm working on it myself, and so I hit the books from time to time. I really like them.

Even the nuts-and-bolts kind of thing.


A Recommended Daily Dose of Museum

An Orchard on Sauvie Island     2016

An Orchard on Sauvie Island     2016

You wouldn't think winter is a great time to travel, but it's actually a great time to hit the road and reflect on the view. And I'm not talking tropical vacay, no; my latest little walkabout was a late winter/early spring jaunt to the cold climes of Chicago -- one of my favorite places any time of the year. Visiting family there is a joy I look forward to every year, but the sublime pleasures of this city are nestled in the art galleries and museums. (There's a couple great bars there, too, but that's probably a different story.)

While wandering about the magnificent Art Institute, I found myself completely taken by a landscape painted by Camille Pissarro, considered by some the father of French Impressionism. The Chicago Art Institute houses one of the world's finest collections of Impressionism, and photographers -- even those otherwise unfamiliar with art history -- consider it influential. It's easy to see why.

As I sat there gazing at the painting, trying to lose myself within it, I was struck by its immediacy, how it captured a fleeting light, a composition at once worldly and, paradoxically, quite ordinary. It was, in a word, photographic. And this, of course, sent my mind wandering to far off places.

Market and Delicatessen, Chicago   2016

Market and Delicatessen, Chicago   2016

The Impressionists and photography came into this world at roughly the same time, and I think both have had a profound and lasting effect on each other. Art historians and scholars (if you haven't noticed, I am definitely neither) can argue this point, but I can speak for me. My earliest training and influences were all in painting, long pre-dating my entry into the photographic world, and I recognize that consciously or unconsciously I have always tried to somehow incorporate that influence into my work. I don't want my photographs to look like watercolors or oil paintings, no, but as I've gotten older in this field I've begun to recognize that I've walked down their paths too, and carried some of the dust along with me. It's been a fine and beautiful stroll.

Couple of good bars along the way too, by my reckoning.


Channeling My Inner (And Outer) Ansel

                               Cormorants-Eye View of the Morrison Bridge and Willamette River, iPhone photo, 2014

                               Cormorants-Eye View of the Morrison Bridge and Willamette River, iPhone photo, 2014

Let's review the old ways, shall we? The creation of a photographic image has always been a multi-stage process. Load the film, trip the shutter, unload the film onto stainless steel reels to develop, and then, finally, fire up the enlarger and have at it. Even in a digital world, the process is largely, if only slightly imperfectly, analogous. Insert card into reader, create folder, download images. In other words, it's always been, as Mr. Adams instructed us, a formally constructive event from beginning to end.

I have no problem with any of this, of course. In fact, I've been celebrating it for almost half a century, so I'm in no position to be critical. But I've recently discovered that the way I'm approaching my craft now has turned this paradigm upside down. I refer, of course, to my ever-expanding use of the iPhone, and my growing awareness of photography's zen. They arrived at this party in separate cars but are leaving it hand-in-hand.

What I'm embracing is the counter-intuitive way I go about creating the image now. There is no second-part after I make the exposure, no loading up the card-reader, no folders to create and label. I go everywhere with my iPhone and am constantly moved -- compelled, even -- to take pictures. These then magically appear in my Photos program on the Mac with no further effort on my part. They're just...there. It's a wholly dissociative process, and I'm happy to take creative advantage of it.

                                                                              Basket of Yarn       iPhone photo,    2015

                                                                              Basket of Yarn       iPhone photo,    2015

I'm allowed to actually discover, rather than re-construct, the image that had somehow captured my attention in the first place. Yes, occasionally it's disappointing (life is like that, sometimes), but more often than not it's fresh and surprising (life is like that sometimes, too). I've gone back, usually much later, to see and be moved by elements in an image that I was not really aware of at the time I took it. I'm seeing them again for the first time. And that's the point.

Photography is all about, and only about, being in the moment. I'm trying not to think about what will come after, I want only to be lost in the visual now. The discoveries will come later, and will arrive on the wings of their own moment. So I'm sorry, Ansel. I'm no longer pre-visualizing, I'm just, well...visualizing. 

Whatever process you use to feed that creative voice is great and legit and possibly even groovy; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But this is what I'm using more and more to find my voice, and my zen. It's been working, it's been fun, and it's all I really need.

Well, that and good walking shoes. And coffee.

The Right (And Wrong) Stuff

Mossy branches and blackberry bushes                  Oregon             2018

Mossy branches and blackberry bushes                  Oregon             2018

So I've already blown my New Years resolution to post a blog every week; lets just add that to my list to lose weight and cut back on the tequila. Fine ideas, noble even, but only marginally in the category of possibilities. But here I am nonetheless.

What brings me here are my reflections on a day trip my wife and I took this past weekend out to the Columbia Gorge -- specifically the Dalles and the Dalles Dam -- to witness a feeding migration of the great American bald eagle. We were invited to join a group sponsored by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, of which she is a long time member. When it came to the introductions, I mentioned that I was merely an acquaintance of said gorge, but the humor was lost on this august group so early in the morning as it was. In any event the eagles made a impressive showing. 

The problem is, I'm not really a wildlife photography guy, so I don't have any wildlife-appropriate lenses. If you know me, you know I'm philosophically opposed to the mindless accumulation of photography gear. Simpler is better, says I, although deep down I'm just as much a gearhead as the rest of them. But my longest lens, a 55-200mm zoom for my Fuji, was clearly designed for non-eagle shooting (although I have some great photos of squirrels raiding our bird feeder). My wife, a watercolor artist, was appropriately outfitted with powerful binoculars and an artist's imagination. I ended up taking photos of my beautiful surroundings, and made no complaints for the opportunity. It was a gorgeous morning.


Old fishing platform and the Dalles bridge on the Columbia River          2018

Old fishing platform and the Dalles bridge on the Columbia River          2018

It's pretty simple and obvious, really: if you aspire to be a wildlife guy (or girl) you have to get with the program and put out the bucks for some seriously long glass. You can only get so close to a bald eagle. Or a grizzly bear, for that matter. My little 200mm lens was the proverbial knife at a gunfight. I have friends who publish world-class wildlife photography with lenses that are upwards of 10-times that humble length. And all of them enjoy getting up before sunrise with much better attitudes that mine.

As for me, I'll enjoy the ambiance. The Columbia Gorge is a treasure; it's Oregon's gift to a barely civilized world (well, that, and a Willamette Valley pinot). And oh, that river. Rain or shine, blustery winter or blue summer, it never fails to impress beyond words. I'm hardly a sentimental guy, but in all my many years of gazing upon it (including my pre-verbal childhood in Washington, the son of an adventurous father) it always takes my breath away. A humble lens can capture its many moods, and probably capture yours too; eagles are only optional. That's why this gorge, and its river, has so many friends.

Or in my case, acquaintances.

Living In The (Very Early) Moment ~

I began writing this post, after such a long summer's absence, in the wee hours of the morning out on the Oregon coast. We rented a little house near Otter Rock, somewhere between Depoe Bay and Newport, with stellar views of the Pacific and the night sky. After a summer of far too many heat waves and the usual stresses, the overwhelming silence and cool morning breeze are treasured beyond words. I live for these moments, ungodly early though they be.

Our coast is a photographer's dream, yet here I am at daybreak in this fine study with an equally fine view, typing out words, channeling my best Ivan Doig as he writes Winter Brothers, and not slopping down on the beach in my flip-flops seeking the magical light. I blame the coffee and the solitude; they're both great company.

But the cool thing about this visit was that we were accompanied by my two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter. The sheer delight of her seeing the ocean for the first time was just amazing. That's what's so great about kids, and what we may find instructive: they don't just live for the moment, their lives are the moment. There's no past to reflect upon, no future to fret over. There's just right now, and right now is pretty darn sweet. As a photographer, I hope to take as much delight in seeking out those beautiful moments, regardless of how the effort is teased out by reflecting and fretting. Especially the fretting. It's in my nature.

But I think I know this: if I can truly live in the moment, with or without my camera, then I can use the gift of writing, awkward though mine may be, to reflect on that moment and find peace with it. Believe it or not, I think it helps my photography. It brings that moment -- that image, what I felt at the time -- into as clear a focus as the photo itself. It helps me go forward, and it brings me some joy. It keeps me from fretting.

Just wish it wasn't so damned early.

Party On, Camera! ~

Hold on to your hats; this coming Saturday -- August 19 -- is a pretty special day. Ok, maybe not as solemnly sentimental as Bastille Day, or as sweetly nonsensical as Valentines Day, but unless your profession has a day celebrating itself, this one rings loud and proud. It is, mis amis, World Photography Day. I don't know if there is a National Accountants Day, or a World House Painters Day; if there isn't, there should be. We should celebrate who we are, and what we do. Photographers understand this.

It's partly history, of course. The exact timeline of what we know as photography is a little murky. Somewhere in the late 1820's, a Frenchman with the unpronounceable name of Nicéphore Niépce made some non-permanent silver chloride images; actual fixing chemistry came a little later. We generally recognize 1839 as the official starting point of our craft. It was in this year that another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, announced a commercially viable process he called (wait for it...) the Daguerrotype. On August 19 of that year, the French government purchased the patent rights to the process and gave it to the world, a most unusual act of civic generosity. It makes for a fitting birthday, even if nobody knows how the heck to spell Daguerrotype without looking it up.

But history is all about reflection, not celebration, and I'm in the mood to party. Humanitarian and photography groups have formally set aside the day to create and share our photography for the common good. We're encouraged to get out there and take pictures, and there are several hosting sites where we can upload them to share. It's all well and good, even laudable, but I'm left feeling a little like the folks who only go to church on Easter: it ever so slightly misses the point.

Photography is a daily meditation, not an annual celebration, is what I say. Take photos today on your way to work. Heck, take photos at work. And tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day. And don't forget to take time to look at photography, too; online, in books, in magazines, Instagram and, yes, even Facebook. I look at tons of photos every day, everywhere I can, and a lot of them knock my socks off. I need the inspiration, I absolutely live for it, and I bet you do too. So don't forget then that this Saturday, August 19, is World Photography Day.

And you know what? Today is, too.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen ~

Only mad dogs and, if we are to believe Noel Coward, Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. I am neither. I don't like it out there. We Oregonians come in two stripes: those who soldier through the gray months to revel in our hot, sunny summers, and those who are just the opposite. Contrarians like me.

But I come to this sad state of affairs more or less honestly. I'm not a complainer -- Northwesterners seldom are, though we'd be easily excused should we start -- but aside from the heat and glare, the light quality positivity sucks. Speaking as a (albeit grumpy) photographer, I find that less of a challenge and more of an annoyance. It's not chasing light, it's being chased by it. There's little to recommend in hard, blocked-out shadows, and even less in squinty light where color and texture lay down to die. It's boring. It's hot. I need beer.

This past week, however, provided a brief respite from the solar ennui. It so happens that a big chunk of British Columbia (home, one might imagine, to more than its fair share of both mad dogs and Englishmen) is ablaze, and all that smoke has blown southward our way. The skies flattened out into a watercolor backdrop, muting both color and depth. Sunsets took on an appearance I can only imagine are commonplace on Mars. Emphysema be damned; I'm walking around in this with my camera.

The grayness and the rain and the lovely cool temperatures will return, as they always do. The colors will soften out and umbrellas will make an appearance. Herein lies the great unfettered joy of wandering about, seeking out those remarkable visual stories that the world puts forth when it rains. I stop whining, or at least cut back on it considerably. By October, it's photography perfection as the brilliant fall colors wrap themselves in a muted autumn sky. (It's also baseball's post-season and the return of hockey, otherwise known as my High Holy Days.)

Art is about passion, in photography and in all else. No matter what philosophical road I may choose to follow this day or that, it boils down to this: my passion is chasing that elusive, quiet, enveloping light.

And going out in the noonday rain.