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Saturday, May 9, 2009


Imagine this.
Suppose you have a growing collection of photographs and you need to make a portfolio that would be representative of your best work. Or say someone asked you to make a ‘coffee table book’.

How would you pick the ‘best’ images?

I can’t figure out how to do it.

Inevitably, when ‘other’ people look at a given collection of photos, they always pick out favorites for reasons that can only be described as mysterious, questionable or ….just wrong.

It goes way beyond the obvious to suggest that we all have personal preferences.

Photos are seldom just artistic compositions – they are really more like snippets of memory. Most of us simply aren’t trained to subjugate our memories and the emotions they trigger for the sake of judging a picture by something as abstract as strong compositional design elements.

Note to self: Maybe a good narrative image is one that combines snippets of memory with design elements to better preserve the emotional content of the…umm…sorry – getting ridiculous.

Take this picture for instance. It’s blurry. And the subject is pretty much dead center in the frame (which I’m told violates some golden rule of thirds). I had to do quite a bit of Photoshop tweaking just to get it to this point. It’s a 'less than optimal' photo – but I really like it.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it reminds me vividly of the moment I took it. I was climbing up the face of a columnar basalt cliff.

Mind you, it wasn’t really rock climbing, because there were plenty of places where the columns had eroded and crumbled away leaving slopes of sand and proto-soil - little gateways to the top of an otherwise fortified plateau. For the low price of an escalating oxygen debt, I managed to buy enough elevation to create the illusion that I had mounted the world. Trespassing in the high interface between sky and land where birds touch down only briefly to rest or purchase leverage to dismember captured dinners, I stopped to bask in gentle early-spring solar radiation and view the expanding horizon.

Fact is, I was the only human on the top of an island in the middle of a mighty river. The last thing this crow expected to see was a pale fat hominid sitting cross legged in the middle of ‘crow territory’, sucking down a Pabst blue ribbon.

When it did see me, it executed a classic double take so extreme, that I was reminded of how Wiley Coyote always used to hang suspended briefly in the air for an impossibly long instant before plummeting to the valley floor far below.

What captured my interest was the gestural expression of the feathers at the wingtips.

ballet hands

“I’ve learned at times it’s best to bend, ‘cause if you don’t, well those are the breaks…”
– Jim Croce.

stressed feathers grasping at the air like an epileptic swimmer

a sense of tangible atmosphere

testing the envelope

an impossible instant ‘U’ turn.

a body adapted to flight – awe at the cumulative power of natural selection

mutual curiosity - the crow circled ‘round to survey the implications of my intrusion.

Any food?

Any danger?

I wish the picture was pin sharp. I wish that I could see more details. I wish I had taken it a fraction of a second later. But somehow it’s enough. I can remember how in that instant we surprised each other.

This throwaway image of crows abandoning their perch on the edge of an old school building continues, for me at least, to evoke a connection between flight and music.

notes written on a staff

flight gestures

As the taker/owner of these photos, I suppose they serve a function for me that they can’t serve for you – they are flashcards for my memory. They both trigger the memory, and I suspect they ultimately shape the memory.

When people ‘like a photograph’, are they really being swept away by color, shape, balance or asymmetry… by strong diagonals … or are they spurred to dredge up the vivid experiences stored in their own memories…not really seeing the photograph at all?

Moments pass, never to be repeated. Sometimes you’re in the perfect spot to capture them. Sometimes you’re not. Given enough experience, you can be prepared for some of these moments, but given my experience level, I’m almost guaranteed not to have the proper settings dialed in on my camera or to have a suitable lens for the circumstance.

Taking pictures from a canoe is problematical for at least a couple reasons. First, it isn’t a stable platform. Even if you had a tripod set up, it just doesn’t matter because you’re in a moving boat on moving water. There is going to be a certain percentage of fuzzy, motion blurred pictures no matter how careful you are.

And did I mention that a canoe isn’t a stable platform? If you don’t have waterproof camera gear, you’re gambling that you can afford to replace all your gear if you should happen to tip over.
Despite all that, despite the dark exposure, despite the motion blur, or perhaps because of it, I still like the picture of courting ducks … or rather, the horny, persistent but clueless male duck chasing tail.

The harassed mother duck had her ‘hands’ full attending to a trailing row of baby ducks and wasn’t the least bit interested in getting knocked up again.

Time to give up and look for a skanky, single duck.

Ducks sitting on a lake go about their business looking for food, watching for danger, and perhaps gossiping and maneuvering for social status or sitting in circles telling each other jokes. As the evening wanes and the long shadows stretch across the water, the ducks give up their foraging and retire to safer locales. As they begin taking off, it becomes clear that some of their aquatic adaptations have come at the expense of aerodynamic efficiency.

My camera had been set for slow exposures of old trees when the proximity of my canoe caused a cluster of stubby winged ducks to relocate.

funny to see pears running on water

Once hominids figured out how to keep and maintain fire, it became immediately obvious that they’d next have to come up with lawn chairs and cold cans of beer so they could sit around fire pits late into the night telling hunting stories.

Playing with long exposures, I noticed that the sparks leaping from the fire were leaving improbable paths. But the intense light from the blaze was masking all but the brightest embers.

Aiming my camera just over the fire revealed an unexpected vision of the flight dynamics of fiery particles. Maybe this would make a good action painting, but as a photo, I don’t know, it just seems to be a snapshot of a second in time.

I capture flying embers doing a credible job of simulating flight paths that almost seem to reflect willful navigation. It raises a host of questions. Is it the changing shape and surfaces of the burning matter that cause the abrupt changes in direction? Does the gentlest breeze contain infinite micro-turbulence? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but when the wind blows dry brittle leaves into some concrete corner or another and they swirl around in a little dance, I think about the lines traced by sparks, and the expression in a birds wing and marvel how things that are visible can teach us about the things that are invisible.

Two entries ago, I already pointed to the connection I saw between this stream in the sand, heading for the ocean…

…and this Palouse landscape snapped from the side of the road…how the stream seemed to present a condensed version of how land might flow from geologic epoch to epoch.

Everybody and there uncle takes pictures of cats.
I don’t have a cat.
But maybe you can see that the cat in this picture isn’t at all a well cat.

I saw this cat at Dignity Village. I used to collaborate with a piano player. He would play benefit concerts, and I would prepare images to project on a screen to accompany the music. Because of one of those concerts, we found ourselves delivering a pickup truck full of food to the homeless people who had created the slightly illegal camp that made up the village.
It had been a day of rain showers and Dignity Village appeared to be emerging from a vast shallow lake. Rain showers can seemingly last for months in Portland. Everything turns gray and moss green and it can become psychologically oppressive – people fear they will never see the sun again.

The homeless encampment had been in the news recently, and I was curious to explore it and see what it was all about. While I looked at the creative mix of impromptu housing solutions, the sun broke through the cold gray ceiling and began drying spots here and there on the blacktop.

This frail kitten dragged itself out from its hiding place. It looked dangerously thin and its back legs didn’t work right. But it found a place in the sun and just sat down, shut its eyes and …basked.

Maybe that was the last thing it ever did.

Flowers are interesting. But it’s hard to come up with a fresh angle for taking pictures of them. I thought maybe the golden light that precedes dusk would illuminate something I hadn’t seen before, but while I liked the mix of warm and cool spring colors, I knew I didn’t have anything remarkable.

Not all the flowers are beautiful and perfect. I took pictures of flowers that didn’t have all their leaves. But nothing really grabbed me. I remember seeing the red bug dancing on top of the flower, but that observation misdirected my attention, and I didn’t see the rest of the horrifying drama until I got home and reviewed the images on the computer.

First, the red bug wasn’t dancing so much as it was killing and eating an aphid.

But then a closer look revealed a bee, sitting in a cup formed of petals, as if it was standing on a little podium. I wondered if it got stuck there trying to collect pollen.

But then I finally noticed the terrible pale white spider.

So, I have this great story idea for a movie about aliens that sneak up behind people who are admiring flowers, grab their heads with hideous white claws and suck their brains out.

Whatever you do, don’t look behind you.

1 comment:

  1. "that can only be described as mysterious,questionable or...just wrong." that's hilarious.....My 12 year old boy, who enjoys your site, (he's always marvelling about how anyone can have a blog). Asked me what the word "wrong" meant and I said "you know when your teacher asks you a question and after you give the answer your teacher makes a funny face and says something like..that's an interesting way of looking at it, or, does your father say that at home? or does anyone else have a different answer? well, a shorter way of saying that is 'WRONG', but teachers can't say that anymore because it's against the law." so my son said, "You know dad, that answer was strangely similar to that narrative image guy's crow photos." whatever that means.



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