Eagle

I intended to have these pictures for you in the middle of November.  Then we had the election, and I didn’t have the heart put them in the blog.  But I can do it now.  So here they are and I want to say a few things about them. 

I just had a few minutes to stop by the fish hatchery to give our dog, Molly, a little walk.  It was already mid-morning.  I thought I had missed the good morning light and I thought all the birds would have had their breakfast  and gone.  But I brought my camera anyway, just on general principle.  As I walked through the woods and over the small hill that runs down to the fish ponds, I saw something odd in the closest tree.  It looked like a big squirrel’s nest or a bag of feathers.  I still wasn’t sure what it was, but then it suddenly flew and I was able to get a few pictures.  They weren’t very good pictures but by then, I was starting to wonder…  I knew it was a big hawk at least, but could it be possible, down that low?  Then I played the pictures back inside the camera.  And yes, by God, it was an eagle.  

I’d never seen an eagle down in the trees like that but only way up in the sky or out of reach on the high-tension wires.  I thought I had lost my chance and kept on walking.  Then on the other side of the ponds, there he was again, in the lower branches of a tree.  I started to try to be stealthy, walking perpendicular to the place where he was, first using a building and then a truck as a blind. 

As if that even mattered.  As if he hadn’t already seen me from the moment I came over the hill, and possibly from the moment I arrived at the hatchery.  I finally realized he wasn’t afraid of me or of Molly, that he could take us both if he wanted.  Then I was free to take picture after picture, to get as close as I felt I could.

I have to tell you the best thing, the very best thing about photography:  It is the way I get to be surprised.   This is the definition of hope for me, or how I learned to hope, because there have been hundreds if not thousands of times like this, when I went out and I got a picture that was more than I’d ever seen in my whole life, more than I could have imagined.

I will now share with you the most important secrets of the Grace Bochain Luddy school of fine art nature photography.  First, go outside.  Second, have your camera with you.   Oh, and have your battery charged, and your camera turned on and have a memory card in it.  And take the lens cap off.  And have it set up already so that when something suddenly happens, you won’t have to stop and fiddle around.  Third, when you try to talk yourself out of bringing your camera, speak to yourself, as follows. 

You: “I don’t want to bring my camera.  I’m too tired.”  You:  “You don’t have to take any pictures.  You only have to bring your camera.”  You:  “Nothing is going to happen.  It’s the wrong time of day.”  You:  “That’s true, but bring your camera.”  You:  “But don’t you think it’s the experience that matters, and won’t I experience more deeply if I’m in the moment, without having to take any pictures?”  You:  “You can have your experience.  You can be one with the entire universe.  Just bring your camera.” 

So do this every time.  Because I can tell you that the best things have always happened exactly when I didn't expect them to happen.

I also want to tell you about this eagle.  He is approximately four years old.  I know this because his brown baby eyes have already turned to yellow, and his head and tail have begun to transition from brown to white.  I like to think of this eagle, powerfully soaring around at the fish hatchery.  I like to think of him there right now.  I like to think that he’ll get through the winter, and that he will come into his full adult plumage in due time.  And I like to think that when that happens, he will be so fine.

 

 

 

 

 

Night Light

The Block Island Ferry, turned around and backing up to get to the dock on Block Island.  See the deck hand, waiting in back, and the line of light defining the shoreline?

I remember when we were building the house on Block Island, that sometimes we would come in the winter and stay at the Blue Dory Inn near Old Harbor.  I would go out at night and walk around by the ferry.  Or I would walk on the beach.  I could make my way with just enough light to see the edge of the ocean.

Here is the ferry, already docked, and some of the lights from Old Harbor.

It was new in my life back then, and something I have only found on Block Island, the feeling that I could be free and safe to walk around outside at night.  There was so much space and emptiness, just enough light, and beautiful, beautiful sounds, with mostly quiet, and just the sound of the water or the wind or a fog horn or something far away.

Here is a long-ish exposure, with extra time to collect the bright moonlight.  This picture was taken on the beach on the way to North Light, facing back to the parking lot.  The big stone next to the scrub is Settler's Rock.

I have a friend, a very fine person, who says, “Reach for a star.”  She says, “You may not succeed, but you will never know until you try.”  She says this over and over, to everyone she cares about.  I think this is her superpower because she’s done this in her own life and she makes people believe that they can do it also.  She makes people want to go for it, to take the risks, to act with passion and commitment, to find something they truly love and give it what they have.  So I've decided to do that.   I know that takes many forms at different times in life, including working long hours, getting turned down, getting turned down again, going to school on weekends, sitting in traffic, being interrupted, being pulled in too many directions, being up at night with elders or with children.  That also includes making conscious choices, becoming more generous in every way, finding out how strong and good you can be, finding out what matters.

For me, right now, it means I’m working on some projects.  It’s all very new to me and it involves computers, so each step is a whole foreign country.  I’ve been spending a lot of time and I don’t know if what I'm making will be successful.  So I’m faced with fits and starts, and often with starting over, but it's OK.  In the years, I've learned that times like this are good, very good, and not something to be avoided.  I remember in work like this, that it seldom feels on any given day, that I've made a lot of progress.  It's only with doing it over and over that patterns emerge.  I remind myself that what I do when I don't know is the most important part of any truly generative action.  It occurs to me that I can only reach for a star at night. 

At times like this, I have learned that I will only know what to do next while I’m in the process of doing it.  I can keep on working, letting each step bring me to a place where I can see a little more.  I remind myself that in the past, my vision when I started anything has always been much too small.  I know that sometimes the best, most interesting things are only accomplished through a process of discovery - the unfolding that happens, as not knows turns into knowing and that in turn, creates something completely new in the world.  And that creates a life that before that, wasn't even possible, a little at a time.

This is taken after sunset, really in the dark.  When there is no light in photography, you just need to set up, use a tripod, keep your shutter open, and wait.

There has always been an impulse, a little hunch, and each time I have taken its direction my confidence has grown a little bit more.  I know that I am being made by what I am doing.  So in that sense, whether I achieve my apparent goals or not, I can at least say something has happened.  It’s hard to say what’s more important - what I am doing, or the effort do it, or the development of courage to know who I am, and do what is mine to do.   

So I’m fine.  I keep going.  That's my current plan.

Same thing here.  A long exposure, taken in the dark.

I’m sending my heartfelt good wishes to all of you, for all the changes and projects and tasks and dreams in your lives.  May we be grateful and happy and bold.   May we do it because of love.  Happy holidays, everyone.

A Place to Stand

What if nature makes no judgments, has no worries, carries no regrets?  What if everywhere, in everything, all the energy from the sky and earth goes into making life happen?   I look out my window at the shad and the blackberries and at all of the scrubs and vines that densely intertwine in our maritime climate.  Where they were bare and frozen just over a month ago, their shoots are suddenly shining through all the tangles and prickles in all of their new, green glory.  That’s where the energy is going.

I, on the other hand, forget this.  I habitually put my energy into forming extraneous concerns.

For example,  I mailed the big lens back to Canon a week ago, this past Monday.  That is, the $11,000 lens I had borrowed under the Canon Professional Services Program with the promise to get it back to them on time.  I used priority, registered mail.  So the lens got to Boston (it was going to Virginia) and sat there for a day and a half.  I went on line and tracked it, sometimes every five minutes.   I called the US Postal Service customer “help line.”  I encountered one of those automated phone systems carefully designed to be a blank wall.  I got mad.  I called again.  Called again.  Called again, until the system finally hung up on me.  I drew conclusions about the entire federal government and the direction of everything in general.   I voiced my opinions to my husband, painting a picture of a future where everything will exist at the pleasure of an infinitely obstructive and impersonal machine.  I considered moving to Alaska and living off the grid. 

The lens was still in Boston on the day that it was due. I called our postmaster who carefully explained that registered mail is secure enough to carry gold bullion; that each package is handled like a precious child of the universe and kept under lock and key; that the 2 – 3 day promise in this context or should we say, "estimate," means… (she said this more professionally but this was the gist of it)… nothing.  Our postmaster went out of her way to care about my problem, even to the extent of researching and calling me back with more information, but could not do anything about it.   I finally called Canon.  I explained the situation and they understood.  In fact, they were extremely nice about it.  They looked at the tracking number and said that it was clear I had mailed the lens in plenty of time.  They said not to worry.  They said (exact words), “no harm, no foul.”  They gave me an extension.  

Problem?  Solution.  I could have skipped all those hours, all that head banging, all that smoke and steam in between.

So I set an intention to preserve and protect my precious state of mind.  I thought of the pure life energy pouring and running through everything.  I said, “It is there for me as much as it’s there for the blackberry bushes in my yard.”  I said, “As vast as it is, it’s completely generative and completely intimate and personal, exactly the opposite of the electronic call-in system of the US Postal Service.”  I said, “I will be calm.  I will skip all the fretting and stewing.  I will match the world.  I will put my energy completely into life-affirming action.”

So do you know what happened next?  I got back to my car with my dogs, in the rain, and could not find my car keys.  I reminded myself that my life was not at stake but I got upset anyway.  I cleaned the car, combed the brush and grasses around the car, re-hiked the entire hike I had just finished.  I finally found them in a strange spot where I think Molly, my golden retriever, had put them.  I also got upset about something with the summer rental of our house.  Then got upset because a good friend is sick.  Then my cousin was upset so I got upset for her sake.  Then I got upset, just because I was so upset about so many things at once. 

Then I worked on my pictures.

I saw how this blue heron let the wind pass through and ruffle her feathers to slow her down for landing.

And how she landed in between the branches without poking her eyes out or skewering her wings.

And how she flew through the shadows with the open field and the luminous leaves in the distance behind her.  And I thought that seasons have always changed like this, that light has always shown through new green shoots, and that birds have always flown like this, since primordial days.

And that is how I calmed down. 

I know it is one thing to aspire to a state of mind and another to achieve it.  I'm glad to have found this practical, physical thing I can do that works for me, this thing that brings me to such peace and wonder.  This doesn't change my circumstances, I mean, we all have things to be upset about, but it does give me a foundation of trust in the natural world, and that gives me a place to stand. 

PS.  These pictures were taken with my regular equipment because the extra special super amazing lens was already glacially working its way back to Canon.  I had been to this same place with that lens the week before and the heron were nowhere to be found. 

I don't want to talk about it.

 

 

 

Big Picture

I took this picture at Patchaug Forest from very far away.  I was surprised to see how the watery light bounced up onto their yellow bellies. 

I borrowed a giant super telephoto lens from Canon Professional Services again this year.  I waited for what I thought would be the best time, like it was this time last year.  I was very excited.  I have been enjoying the way that photography has been letting me see so much more about animals.  I wanted to see the looks on their faces and find things about them that I didn’t even know. 

I went to the fish hatchery.  If you saw my blog last year, you’ll remember  there were eagles, and ducks and heron and turtles.  But, this time?  Nothing.  It was like an abandoned city.  It was like there had been a war.   I went the next day.  There was one heron in one pond.  There were none in the trees where they always wait, sometimes by the dozen. I finally went to Patchaug and found a few turtles.

One blue heron in the shade.

Then I went to the island, hoping for great white egrets and swans.  But it was hot on the mainland and the island was socked in with fog…fog so thick I could stand on the beach and not see the ocean.  Fog like I’ve never seen.  Fog for four days, and still counting.  I went out again and again at all different times and all over the island, hoping to catch moments where I could see something.  I got an occasional shot, but it wasn’t what I had hoped for. 

Have you ever wondered what fog looks like when you take its picture with an $11,000 lens?   Now you know.  This is a picture of North Light, taken looking over the water, from the parking lot at the end of Corn Neck Road. 

This was taken near Beach Road, when the fog had cleared a little.  This small egret is there all the time and is used to people.  But he saw me with the lens and his head snapped up so fast, like, "Who are you and what is that thing you are pointing?!"

I had to send the lens back yesterday.  I never got the pictures I had imagined.  And because of the way the program works – the loans are actually equipment evaluation loans, you only get to try each piece of equipment one time - I’ll never be able to borrow that particular lens again. 

That lens was so tightly, smoothly made.  It could focus so fast and reach to such a distance.  It was made with a fluorite lens element (made out of super expensive man-made crystal) and other high tech "ultra low dispersion optical glass".  That means that light didn’t break apart into its prismatic colors when it passed through.  That means there was no distortion.  That lens was a wonder.  My father, an engineer who worked in the aircraft industry, would have gone crazy over that lens.

But there is a balance to strike between the power of your equipment and what it takes to use it.  If a bird suddenly flies for example, you’ve got to lift your camera.  When you’re using extreme magnification, there’s a lot of space in which to find one bird.  You’ve got to get that bird in the view-finder and track it as it flies and keep it in focus.  You can do it, but it’s not easy. 

Sometimes it’s good to not to try so hard.  You can get good pictures that way too, because it's unpredictable anyway, and when your chance comes,  you'll have your lens with you, the one that you can realistically carry where ever you go.

Getting close is wonderful.  Wonderful.   I’m going to keep on striving to get the look in those eyes, or perfect wings of birds in flight, to the best of my ability, with the best tools I can afford.  But equipment isn't everything.   The picture is also about the whole situation, the whole context.  It’s even about you, the one behind the camera, being out there in it, because it’s where you meet the world and it meets you.  It’s about what you choose from all the myriad things in your field of vision, it's what the picture makes you feel and understand in that very moment. 

 

 

 

 

I was at the fish hatchery, having not gotten all my amazing bird pictures, and the dogs and I went deeper into the forest.  We sat by the bank of a stream.  The spring-swollen current was hitting a log, pushing under, coming up and boiling the surface.  There was something that I couldn't see happening under the water, maybe stones on the bottom and smaller branches that vibrated in the current, because the water was coming up all complicated to where it looked like sound vibrations.  And that thrumming surface was  reflecting the new green leaves and many naked branches and the old blue sky above.  Something about it connected, told me about all the things that are always happening all together all the time, and I felt that they would always keep on happening.  That current is still running, for example.  That water is dancing.  Now. 

I want to make sure I tell you that I didn't see all of this detail at the time.  I didn't know it looked like a map of a landscape, a range of mountains, the trunk of a tree.  I couldn't take particular delight as I do now, in the way that nature seems to repeat the same patterns from different materials, over and over.  I simply couldn't process fast enough an image I took at 1/1000th of a second.  (I had to show it to you the long way to make it big enough for you to see.  You might want to hold it sideways, to see how the river was flowing left to right.) 

I just saw the boiling, roiling water, the colors more merged together, but I did feel something about it.  For a second, I felt like I was part of it, or that it was part of me.   I think that is something I will remember from now on.  So photography can be like that, the chance to bounce off the surface of that, to notice that, stay with that, take a picture of that, learn from that, and then to see it after, in ways the human eye can't normally see, to see it new, to take a moment, to feel what is actually going on in this world.

So much of photography is for me, about being available for what ever happens. I couldn’t change the weather and couldn’t make the birds come, not even to their regular places. I was upset about the fog,  but then I had to laugh at myself for holding on so tightly to what was out of my control.  Maybe a good thing is not so hard to find.  Maybe I don't always need special birds or special weather or special equipment.  Maybe it’s under my nose.  It is.  I think so.  At the end of it all, I had some pictures that were new and unexpected and I learned  and now I am very pleased.

Well, if life gives you fog, you can make foggy pictures.  I liked how the cormorants lined up in formation.  They only did so, west of the Boat Basin dock where I was standing.  There were none on the corresponding piers on the east side of the dock.  That soft grey smudge on the horizon is Champlin's Marina.  These piers will anchor the floating docks that I'm sure are going in any day now, and soon they'll be a few more boats, oh, like a hundred more boats in this marina.  That is, if the fog lets up.

PS.  At 7:15 this morning, the National Weather Service cancelled their dense fog advisory.  At 7:16 they put it back in place.

PPS.   The more I work with wildlife, the more I feel I should leave them alone.  Their lives are hard enough.  It's one thing to take pictures of birds whose natural habitat includes people.  It's another when they are nesting or forced out of their natural range, like snowy owls.    If you chase them around, you could actually help them starve to death.  I had some great white egrets in sight yesterday, and I took a few pictures, but they flew to another spot and I knew it was because of me.  So I stopped.   I just have to wait for my moments.  A lens with big reach will help, and I'm looking into cheaper alternatives now.

PPPS.  No offense to myself, but I got a little dizzy looking at that river picture, especially up and down like that.  I had to rest my eyes on the last picture.

PPPPS.  I did see blue heron in some of the other ponds and rivers.  I saw them in pairs at the far ends of hidden places.  So they are not gone, just moving out.  Maybe they have to be more careful now, because of the eagles.  I saw one, flying at speed, staying low, threading it's way through the narrow spaces above a small stream, twisting and turning like those big birds in the movie, "Avatar".  A wonderful sight.  Impossible to get a picture with that big lens.

 

 

 

Reach

I am interested in this picture.  I am so used to working for good pictures of birds – sharp focus, good light through their feathers, good wings in flight.  But I used a higher ISO and so this picture had greater depth of field – good focus on the trees as well as the bird.  Maybe it was the way the shapes in the heron’s wings mirrored the shapes in the reaching branches.  It made me feel that the heron was in its natural home, that this landscape and this bird fit together, that their lives were entwined, inseparable.

 

The camera allows me to see much more than I can see with my own eyes and this is how I come to these conclusions… this heron’s tongue for example.  I never imagined it would be shaped like that.  What a delicate tongue to be protected inside that long beak, to poke into the mud.  How perfect to wriggle out those little morsels. 

The heron settled into its tree in its classic heron pose.  I waited with my telephoto lens at what I hoped would be a non-disturbing distance across a little pond.  I was preparing to stay, like scores of other mornings, with a heron who wasn’t moving and who might not move for hours.  I’ve always admired the ability of birds to wait.  I think it is important to their survival, as important as their ability to hunt or fight  - their ability to rest, to wait, to collect their strength.  So as always, I sat there, trying to match her, wondering what she saw and thought and felt, wondering what was it was like to live her life. 

It was a cold morning, but I could feel that spring was coming.  I considered this.  I mean, after I forgot all the extra stuff, like the fact that taxes were due in two days, after I forgot all the other things in my constructed life, there was how it felt after a long winter when the air was cold, but the sun had just risen and I could feel it warm on my face.  I thought, “We all know this.  We know it across the human race.  We’ve been knowing it, whether we’re humans or other creatures.   We’ve been knowing it together for hundreds of thousands or millions of years.” 

The heron and I were at the hatchery together, she with her instincts and I with mine.  So we waited and I want to tell you that what happened next was something I’ve never seen.  The heron reached, turning and craning her neck, tracking something across the sky.  I turned also, and there was an eagle circling.  The eagle passed and she immediately settled down, groomed her feathers, and went back to her rest. 

Then my dogs began to tussle and the heron turned and looked at us.  If you ever have a large wild bird look at you, something will happen. I’ve felt this a few times, once with a hawk, once with a snowy owl and now this time.  Something in the oldest part of my brain woke up.  There is no word for this that I know of, this I’m-being-studied-and-measured-and-thoroughly-seen-by-a-large-wild-bird feeling, but there it was.

There have always been dozens of heron at the fish hatchery, but I’ve been there all week and I’ve only counted three.  It could be the exceptionally difficult winter, or it could be the eagles are eating them or driving them away.

I learned some things this week:  (1) That the heron have pointy tongues.  (2) That everything reaches, that the trees reach and the birds reach in very similar shapes and for very similar reasons.  (3) That the heron and the landscape are inseparable from each other.  (4) That it’s important to rest, to really rest, to practice resting as a necessity for life.  (5) That the heron reach first with their eyes, like photographers do, and that their whole bodies follow.  (6) That now that the eagles have come the heron might be gone from the fish hatchery, and soon. 

Falling Water

My friend's husband died unexpectedly, just a short time ago.  And yesterday, we travelled to see my other friend Lisa, and together we made a ceremony. Lisa, who led, was impeccable, just as I knew she would be.  And my friend put things into a fire - family photographs and a letter and tools for her husband's craft.  And she put a picture their daughter had painted into the fire.  And socks to keep his feet warm.  And his baseball cap - although she commented that in his current condition he might have more hair and not need it so much. And then she spoke to him about their lives together, about their children and grandchildren, about all the things he did well, and about everything she hoped for him now.  It was difficult for her to put her daughter’s painting into the fire and also difficult to put in the baseball cap because it smelled like him.  She said other things and I don’t want to say too much about the things that were just for her and her husband.  But I will tell you what I thought as she was speaking: “This is how you love someone.”

Then we walked down the hill and into the state park where there are many waterfalls.  And we went down and down to the bottom of all the waterfalls and then we had a ceremony for ourselves.  Each of us put something into the water and said our requests for our lives and the lives of those we love.  It didn’t take long.  I would be surprised if any of us spoke for more than a minute.  I think that was good.  We were so done with any need for sounding articulate or for trying to make something happen.  We were simple and honest and when that was accomplished, we didn’t need anything more. 

We went back this morning and I took pictures.  My friend took pictures also, and you might like to know that when she got off the trail a little bit, and got a little bit lost and deep in the woods, she found a baseball cap. 

The first picture I ever took was of a waterfall.  I took it up in Nova Scotia, during the summer between the third and fourth grade, with my father’s camera.  The water that was in that picture has got to be somewhere.  I know it’s still water.  I know it has gone around and around.  Maybe some little molecule was even in these pictures.  The things we put into the water yesterday have already passed from one river to another.  They may be in the Connecticut River already, or even in Long Island Sound.  

I watched how Lisa was with my friend and I tried to learn.  Because Lisa knows because she also lost a husband years ago.  We hoped for small things…whatever my friend wanted… a little rest or a change of scene or some nourishment for a journey that is going to take some time.  And meantime, we like to think of the smoke rising and the water falling, carrying our memories and wishes.  And the wind is blowing in all directions.  And the water itself is carried.

Seasonal Migration

Very early morning, Quinebaug Valley Trout Hatchery, Central Village, CT.

So I realize I’ve been invisible lately and I wanted to catch up and tell you about it.  We’ve been back in the house for just over a month and I’ve been going though a bout of weirdness.  I mean, it’s good, but there is a process to moving back in, and it surprises me every year.  It’s not like we’re moving back home.   It’s more like we’re moving in to a place that hasn’t been home all summer and now we’re making it home again.  It takes a while. There are questions under the surface, the answers being acted out as I slowly put my cupboards and drawers in order.  How are things different this year?  What have I learned?  What is important this time?

We are not the first people to live a life entirely measured and changed with the seasons.  This is one thing I like about it.  It’s an old way, marked by big transitions.  It creates many seasonal chances to choose and recreate a life.

Take photography, for example.  If this year is like other years, putting a camera around my neck will soon will be as automatic as picking up my car keys.  But in summer it’s different.  It’s difficult to be out with all the people and the equipment and two dogs.  Inertia carries me for a while, and then I just stop.  And then I can forget that I ever took pictures.

Light is everything in photography, as you know.

I went out the other day.  It was interesting to watch myself unpack the process, especially to watch the progressive removal of the obstacles I had constructed for myself.  I gathered my equipment, convinced that it would be hard to get all the lenses and batteries and memory cards together.  But it wasn’t hard. 

Then I went out to the fish hatchery where I didn’t even want to go.  I was sure that I had seen everything already, like heron.  I thought, “Big deal.  I’ve seen them hundreds of times.”  But I began to notice the light.  You know, it was a beautiful morning.  

See the blue heron in the fog?  That's a shot I didn't expect.

Dawning light in fog through the grasses.

I didn’t want to bring different lenses because I didn’t want to carry my backpack, but I did carry my backpack.  I didn’t want to change the lenses back and forth because that is such a pain.  I said, “It won’t make that much difference.”  But I did change them back and forth and it did make a difference.


This is what a close up lens will do for you.

And when I saw the seagulls dashing around, I initially dismissed them.  I said, “I’ve taken so many seagull pictures that I can’t imagine getting new ones.” But then the light played on their wings.   And the contrast with the dark forest made the white in their feathers shine so fine, and the gulls were feeding…wheeling and turning, their feathers splayed to show what I always hoped to show in feathers, everything wild and akimbo and spreading and flashing, and at the same time, so ordered and skillful, so effortless and perfect.

If you look closely at the seagulls in the water, you'll see that the one on the right has a fish in it's mouth.  All the other gulls immediately knew and are converging on that spot.

The commitment to the dive.

I thought I had seen it all with seagulls but I got to see something new.  And it was good enough when I was out there taking the pictures, but this is the thing about photography.  I got to take them home with me.  I got to see them, really see them, see like people could never see before they had cameras, see the moment the seagull turns, or drops the fish, see the whirling motions stopped forever.  See the gulls, see the look in their eyes, see their bodies dropping through the laser path cut with their eyes, see them enter the water and come up with a fish, see the water splashing, the fish twisting and dying, the light dancing.

When you do this for a while, it changes what you think about.  It changes what you dwell in. It changes what you know.  It changes how you feel about everything.

Two gulls, one with a fish.

He dropped it.

Last night, we sat on the floor with our grandson who will soon be one year old.  He and his father fed the cat.  I had forgotten how tricky it is to get kibble into a scoop and drop some of it onto the floor, then to carefully pick up the little bits, to have them stick to your fingers, inspect each one, and get them into a dish.  I am so glad our son loves to be with Julian through all the time it takes to do this… that he never gets tired of being with Julian, seeing through Julian’s eyes.

This is what photography is for…to see like Kevin does with Julian…to have the wonder of seeing again.

Sometimes morning light is silver like this.

My sister’s husband Paul is at his home with hospice care right now because of throat cancer.  A few nights ago, he went out naked to see the stars.  He didn’t care that he was naked.  He didn’t even care that it was a cloudy night.  He knew it was his life and he wanted the fullness of his moment outside and under the sky.  This is also what photography is for.

Digital cameras can perform certain actions to reduce the size of the file, turning them into “.jpegs”.  (This process reduces the file to 1/10th of its original size.  It stands for “joint photographic experts group”.)  But many cameras can also shoot “.raw”.  Pictures taken this way are not compressed. No decisions have been automatically made about what’s important.  Nothing has been filtered or removed.  The files are large and unwieldy, but everything is there.  

I think this is a good aspiration as I reconstruct my photographer self for this season.  I would like to be raw…to be more transparent to the process, to forget what I think I’ve done before, to have fewer opinions, to make fewer snap decisions, to let more in.

I realized last night about Julian.  He was all about feeding the cat.  But he couldn’t see what we saw, that it was not about the cat at all, but about him, and what he is becoming through all the busy things in his day.  And of course Bill and I see something else, how Kevin and Royah are working so hard, loving Julian every second.  And how that love is getting into them, shaping their lives, forming them.    

This is detail from the picture above.

I do put up my own obstacles but every time, every single time I move around them, every time I inconvenience myself or believe my way past some doubt or objection, or every time I just keep moving, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, even if I don’t think it will work, it moves me by degrees.  I know there are life circumstances to contend with, the way things are, and I often don’t know where things are going.  Sometimes I know the next step I can take, but I don’t know the one that comes after. But I find that life is always there to meet me, returning every effort I make with something of its own.  I think when I open up it’s a small thing, but when life opens up, I mean, when the whole thing opens up, then it’s really something.  It’s so big.  It gives a hundred or a thousand or a million times over.  And then whatever defense, whatever protection I think I need, whatever I think I’m not good enough to hope for, whatever is left of the wall around my heart, starts to soften because the world is so beautiful.   So I think I’ll work with that a little bit more.



And very beautiful seagulls in flight.

Done and Done

So I had the opening of my show on Saturday and I want to give you a full report.

First, I thought you might like to see the pictures on the walls at the Spring Street Gallery.

Looking into the show space.

Right wall.

I said before that I would feel happy and grateful when I got the pictures all done but that was not exactly the case. 

As the opening got closer, it was more like I felt stretched and strained.  Because we were still not living in the house, I made up a policy at the last minute that there would be no food at the opening that had to be chopped or cooked or prepared in any way. So there was a strong emphasis on grapes and crackers and cheese and wine, which turned out to be just fine. 

Gallery members rushed forward to help, bringing flowers, music and lemonade, arranging platters of food, serving wine, cleaning up and so on.  I wanted to kiss every one of them.   Friends called or wrote to send good wishes.  My sister Cathy and her children came.  Bill came.  Many friends came.  We had a nice party.  It was over by 7, which was great because that is a very good bedtime on Block Island.

Left wall.

The next morning we moved back into the house.  My friend Gabby, who manages our “turn-over” cleaning, brought two big guys and we moved all our stuff around.  By noon, bedrooms were turned into offices and all of our boxes were at least in the right locations.  I had carefully taken all the clothes out of the drawers in the spring and put them away, all organized in special boxes.  I had forgotten I had done that.  I was surprised and pleased with myself.

I’m beginning to feel like one of those toys you can buy where sponges are compressed into tiny packages…then you put them in water and they slowly expand and turn into animals or alphabet shapes or something.  I'm like that right now… slowly decompressing….

I’m working in the Gallery every morning this week on account of my show.  The most interesting people have come in.  I have very much enjoyed our conversations.   I realize that I am slowly feeling the gratitude that I expected I would eventually feel, because every day I get to gaze at my pictures and they are all together and look so finished and gallery-esque.  And finally now, I have a chance to dwell on each picture and remember all those moments when I took them.   I like all of the pictures in my show and I love some of them.   I love them so much that they feed me every time I see them, and that is a lucky thing.

 

The Heart of a Place

This picture is from Block Island.  It's called "The Sun Drawing Water".

So I’ve been feverishly working on my show for several weeks and I wanted to tell you about it.   (The show by the way, is this coming Saturday, from 5 - 7, at the Spring Street Gallery on Block Island.)

I went through my pictures for the year.  I picked out a little over a hundred pictures, and then I studied them every which way.  I culled through the pictures and then culled them again, favoring the ones I liked the most and the ones I hoped others would like.  I also imposed upon the good graces of family and friends to give me their opinions.  I kept casting around for a concept… a story to tell that would make the selection of pictures make sense.  That was tricky because I liked so many pictures from so many different places.

OK, well there are waves from Block Island.  What a surprise.  But have also have many others.  I should tell you that I actually desaturated this picture from what you saw before, taking it half way to black and white.  While the actual colors at sunset were more vibrant, I liked the softer colors.

I finally got down to a few dozen pictures.  I printed some small ones to see how the colors on the screen would work out on actual paper.  I made adjustments.  Then, I started to think about sizes.  I liked some when they were nice and small… only six inches square, and some got bigger and bigger and until I had a few that were almost four feet tall.

This is one of the small ones, only six inches square.  It's hard to give you a sense of scale, here in the blog, because some pictures change completely if you change their size.  I'm doing this one, both on paper, matted and framed, and on wood in encaustic wax.

Here's another Block Island wave picture, taken the same evening as the one with the big rock above.  The real colors were in melon oranges and greens but the black and white was my favorite.

I printed them and then there were the inevitable reprints.  I was framing one large picture, leaning over a 19” by 29” image, and a drop of my sweat fell on the picture.  Another one was entirely about a large span of perfect calm water, glowing through the fog.  After I printed it, I found a few tiny dots from sensor dust.  There was another long picture, with rocks going back into the distance.  It posed a classic photography problem because a camera “sees” in a narrower “dynamic range”, or span from light to dark, than a person sees.  So the bright water and the dark rocks stood in more contrast to each other than was actually so on that day. I lightened the rocks to be closer to what I remembered.  Then, I thought they were too light and so I went back and reprinted the original file.  But then they were too dark and I went back and lightened some of the rocks.  Then I changed my mind and went back to the one I printed the first time.

This is the one from Nova Scotia where I kept fooling around with the color of the rocks.  What happens is you see it on the screen when it's back lit and then when you print on mat paper it's darker.  So you have to account for that.  The folks at Pro Digital Gear (see below) are suggesting I buy a calibrated monitor, where what I see here on the screen would be much closer to the actual print.  I'm tempted.  It would save a lot of time.

I made this one really big, and as you can see, if there is the tiniest little spot in all that expanse of flat calm water there is no place to hide.  I had to reprint it.  This is also from Nova Scotia.

Now it was time to give them names.  Sometimes an excellent name pops into my head, and sometimes not so much.  Edie named the first picture in this blog, “The Sun Drawing Water” because that’s what her father used to say when rays of sun came through the clouds, presumably sipping water from the ocean.  I named the one with all the stones “Long Walk” because that’s when my 85-year old mother got a much longer outing than we planned on the tippy shores of Nova Scotia.  At other times, I fell back as usual onto the simplest, most functional names.  It’s like when I was a kid and the six of us children could not agree on a name for our cat.  So we finally named her “Cat”.  So I have names like that:  “Egret 1, 2, and 3”.  And “Blue Heron 1 and 2”.

There were also moments of synchronicity.  For example, I’m doing a new thing this year because of my friends Karen and Robin, called “encaustic wax”.  You prepare a wooden base and then glue on a picture using special stuff and then you paint it with bees wax mixed with resin and then you take a heat gun and you melt some of it off.  I asked my friend Larry to make the wooden bases for me.  I went to see him in Moosup, bringing the intended pictures, so there would not be any mistake.  We took an hour one morning and measured very carefully together. 

Now, Larry’s work is perfect.  I’ve never known him to measure anything incorrectly. But he made the wooden bases and I went and picked them up in Moosup and I could see that they were too tall.  I decided to save them for another time.  Then I thought of a pair of pictures I had worked on.  I was attached to them because they were from the morning of the anniversary of my father’s death but they were an odd size and I had put them aside.  I didn’t want to do them.  I argued with myself.  I had enough pictures.  I had never done anything that big in wax.  I didn’t have the time and isn’t that why I drive myself so crazy anyway, trying to do too much in too many directions?  Wasn’t it better to simplify?  That would be my new motto…to simplify, especially when I’m living like a nomad in the summer… That was the secret… the key to everything…to live an orderly, serene, intentional life.  But I couldn’t get those pictures out of my head.  I finally said, “Oh fine.  If the pictures are the right size I’ll do it.”  And they were.  They were 23 ¾ inches wide and 43 ¾ inches tall.  When things slot in like that, who am I to object?  So I’m not making any promises but I’m going to work on them.

This will be a super big one in the encaustic wax.  There is another one to go with it, taken at the same time.  As I said, I've never done this size before, but if it works, they'll both be in my show.  Waterfront 1 and 2.

Pretty soon, I’ll see the final pictures, all matted and framed or covered in wax and done.  As my niece Elisabeth (who helped me, by the way, with matting) would say, “Done and done.”  That’s when I will feel lucky and grateful. 

Because everyone has his or her own way of seeing and choosing what to see.  And not it's just people who do so.  In my whole year of pictures, there were Wilson and Molly, and birds and turtles and deer and insects and many other creatures and they were all out there seeing exactly what they needed to see, in exactly the way they needed to see it, for their own particular purpose.  Every landscape, every crashing wave, every still, calm pond, every span of stones sweeping into the distance, was holding a world of creatures, alive and breathing and watching.  And there I was with my little camera in one particular spot and I got to see it in my way also.

It is something to review your life as represented in a year of pictures.  And then to choose and choose, progressively narrowing down to the ones that seem most beautiful or significant.  And then to have them in front of you, and then to put them up on a wall. 

You feel exposed at first when people come into the Gallery and start looking, but sometimes you get to know a person in the connection that is made around a picture, and you know her in a way that is beyond the ways that people often get to know each other.  And because people are normally kind and because you get stronger, you become willing to take more risks in your pictures and more willing to stand up and let yourself show what matters to you and in that way, you get to be more of who you are.

Our house is still rented, and will be until the day after the opening for the show.  With moving around so much and with my congenitally short attention span, there is major coordination going on all the time just to know where my toothbrush might be.  (It is missing at the moment.) That means I’m tired.  That means that putting a show together, with mats and frames and papers and printing and all the associated stuff, not to mention the food for the show, not to mention figuring out what I’m going to wear when I’ve worn the same thing every day for three months, is going to be interesting.  But things are moving along.  It will all get done.  It’s getting done now. 

I hope when you read this you don’t get overtaken with all the complications.  I mean, they are there. I just have to get through them.  And if I didn’t have this pressure, this show to put on, I would never have pushed it the way I am pushing, I would never have begun to find out what is possible.  In the end it’s wonderful.  It’s my life, affirmed in all these pictures, lived and seen and remembered and shared.

This is one of three egrets, creatively named Egret 1, 2, and 3.   They are little 6" pictures, on paper, matted and framed.

Now I’m standing back and looking at all my pictures for the show, which are arrayed because of boundless generosity and kindness, along the walls of a bedroom at our friends’ Paula and Greg’s (and Ricki and Alex and Max's) house.  There are the ones you've seen in this blog and then if the encaustic goes well, 17 more.

Why did I pick these particular pictures?  I was always looking for light… light on or through the water… special light breaking through the fog… the last light of the day or the first light of morning.  I am struck by how much is always happening everywhere… light dancing, wind blowing, waves crashing, plants growing or going to seed, birds flying.  The pictures remind me of what was happening on the day of each picture, of what those places mean.  They reflect what I hope is close to the heart or spirit of these places, at least to my eyes.   

So that will be the name of my show, The Heart of a Place.  That’s whether it’s Block Island or Moosup or Nova Scotia or anywhere, there is always a heart to be found by paying close attention. 

This wave is from Block Island again, and it's similar to some of my others.  I like it because it looks a little smokey.  I called it Salt and Smoke.

 

PS.  For those of you who are photographers, I want to tell you about some colleagues who have also become friends through the years.  I go to the folks at Pro Digital Gear in Salem, CT. for my cameras and lenses and papers and printers and inks.  They are the people who cheerfully helped me when I spilled a can of soda on my camera or when I have to do a repair on my giant printer myself rather than bringing someone over from the mainland.  I also went there just last week because I have another big project and they were very generous with their time and expertise.  John Fast, one of their experts, is having a photography show this coming Friday.  Here is info about his show at the Artist's Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, RI. And here is Pro Digital Gear's website.  Best prices anywhere.  These folks are professional and good to every single person who calls them on the phone.

And also Stu-Art Supplies.  They cut my mats and provide me with the parts to do all my framing.  They have beautiful, thick, museum quality materials and Nielsen frames.  If there is the slightest question or problem they help immediately, even if I am stammering my way through an order on the phone, calling at the last minute. getting dyslexically confused between mat outside sizes and inside sizes and frame heights and widths and so on.  They are wonderful people also.  Here is their site.    And here is their blog.

You've seen this picture before if you've been following this blog.  It's a great old tree from Amy and Stan's farm.  It's one of the pictures I still have to frame and I haven't named it yet.  Or maybe it will be Great Old Tree.  In any case, it's in the show even though it's different from the others because I love it so much.






Time Study

 

I've continued to be very busy.  The Gallery opened yesterday.  And I've sort of hit a wall.  I've declared tomorrow an official Sabbath.... (these come on me suddenly in my tradition...  when I can't do one more thing... when I feel I'm a danger to myself and others... when I can no longer finish a thought and when I bump into door posts as I did yesterday at the Gallery, I declare a day of rest).  So.  No Gallery... no getting the house ready for rental... no big photo projects...  no emails...  no web browsing.  I need this rest.  I really, really do. 

But I didn't want to let any more time go by before giving you a weekly posting.  So here I am on my Sabbath-eve and I'm looking through my photos for something to show you.  If I could pick one or two things from all the pictures, something simple and brief and nice, what would it be?  So I decided on these pictures. 

These are pictures I took with a tripod.  I took them as the light was fading and also later, in real darkness.   I made the exposure long enough to collect the light that was there.  It collected light I couldn't even see. 

These time exposures play with my head a little bit around the whole question of time.  The picture above was taken in late dusk.  The shutter speed was 8/10ths of a second.  You can see the wave starting to get blurry around the edges.  The picture below was taken about a half an hour later.  That was in real darkness.  (It's amazing when doing this kind of photography, what a difference a few minutes can make.  It changes second by second.)   

The shutter speed for this picture was 25 seconds.  Way longer.  And look what happened to the waves.  In the first picture you can still discern the form of the wave, but not in the second picture.  Waves came in and out again and again, each leaving a trace on the sensor, but nothing defined.  All the waves accumulated into the ghostly, smoky, richly colored nothing you see in this picture.  And of course the stones were there the whole time, substantial and solid, with nothing to do and all the time in the world.

I like this a lot without having too good of a reason... the idea that perception of the passage of time might be optional... that we might experience time at a certain pace and that another creature... say a bacteria or even a little insect that only lives for a day might feel like she has lots and lots of time.  Maybe there are creatures who know time and see the world the way the camera captured the waves in this picture. 

I'm not a very good rester.  I'm sure my mind will conjure some emergency or some new hobby such as learning a foreign language to try to get me back into my comfort zone of zooming around.   I've done this before, declared a Sabbath and decided to start it after finishing just one more thing.  So then a Sabbath turns into a half an hour sitting on the beach just before making dinner.  But I really need this time and I'm determined.  And the tourists who have suddenly arrived and are already walking in the middle of the road will be much safer if I get some rest.  So this is a public service.  I've already decided and now I'm telling you.   I might live on a different time scale tomorrow with nothing to think of, nothing to solve, nothing to start or finish, and plenty of time.  If that's too difficult I'll watch my favorite movie.  Apollo 13 or possibly Star Trek into Darkness.

The sun is setting in a few minutes.  There is a cap of  clouds over the island.  The sky is clear at the east horizon, and the sky is light pink or melon... similar to the color on the water in the picture above.  The ocean is turning into deeper and deeper blue.  It's beginning to get that wonderful indigo color.  It is soft in the west... nothing fancy.  Sometimes the softest colors are beautiful too... just shade of grey, with faint touches of pink and traces where it's glowing in the color of pearls.   Oh, but now the sun has dropped under the clouds and it's like a burning coal on the horizon, and it's beginning to bring fire underneath, and now that's spreading.  Maybe it will light the whole sky like it does sometimes, but now I don't think so... it's darkening, deepening, more purple now.  It's going.   

Maybe in a world that's made like this I don't have to do everything all the time.  Maybe the world will turn without my opinions or directions.  Sabbath is starting now.

 

 

In Close

My stepdaughter and her friend came to the island for the holidays.  We went out as often as we could to take pictures.  I made arrangements to borrow a special lens for a few days… a 600 mm lens that could be used with an extender, making our effective reach 1200 mm.  That’s powerful enough to make out the houses on the mainland, 13 miles away.  It allowed us to take pictures of wildlife in a resolution that I have rarely had a chance to experience.

Emily took this picture from very far away.  (By the way, when photographers hang out together, they refer to camera lenses as "glass".  As in, "What kind of glass were you using?"  If you are a member of Canon Professional Services, you can, amazingly, borrow this lens.  Then you can casually say, "Oh, it was just the Canon EF 600 mm f/4L IS II lens."  You can be humble about it.  It's like if you said, "I was just putting my groceries into my Jaguar.  You know, the back seat is so small."

 Josh and Emily and I were taking turns using the camera.  I don't know which of us took the picture.

Josh and Emily and I were taking turns using the camera.  I don't know which of us took the picture.

I have said that every lens is like a language.  It is also like seeing with new eyes.  This is one of the things I love the most about photography.  It's great enough to have vision, but I am used to that.  Seeing through different lenses allows me to see things as if for the first time.  Maybe, in that sense, it brings me closer to seeing with the eyes of a child.  With this lens, we could get in closer, especially with wildlife, see their natural behavior without affecting them with our presence.  A high powered lens like this takes practice.  It was quite a trick to see something so far away and locate it in the viewfinder, as Emily did for the deer.  

The seals are still arriving.  We counted eight or nine near Old Harbor Point on the 31st of December and twenty-five on New Year’s Day.  They’ve come from Maine and Nova Scotia to the relative warmth, here in balmy southern Rhode Island.  I debated about using this picture of the seal with the injured face.  It's not pretty but it's true to the reality of their lives.  I remember when this first happened, years ago.  I'm glad to see this seal's resilience... it keeps coming back.  I wait for it.  They say adult seals are solitary creatures.  When I look at them fanning out like a basketball team, evenly spaced to control their territory, or resting together like this, I'm not so sure.

It's good to see them back again, to see them lounging after their travels.  I hope their smiles mean the same thing on their faces as they do on ours.  I think we'd have to have a biologist weigh in here, but I'll just say I've seen them angry and I've seen them alarmed, and their faces seem to match those emotions in a way that I can understand.  I've also seen them blissed out and napping on these cozy rocks.  They look pretty happy to me. 

 Here is a little one, able and independent after just a short time.

We went to North Light and the Coast Guard Station and Cormorant Cove and Rodman's Hollow, and to Southwest Point and Old Harbor Point.  We took pictures of deer and seals, and chickens and peacocks and turkeys.  We saw them in close because of our super cool equipment.  We did this together. 

How did I ever get so lucky?

Take Pictures of the Things You Love

This is an egret on Great Salt Pond this past September.  I used "paint daubs" and "spherize" in Photoshop to alter this image.

My step-daughter keeps telling me that a blog can evolve and that's good to know, because I want to write for a while about taking and working with photographs. 

The main thing is - go out and take some pictures.  Don't think too much about it.  Just notice what you are drawn to.  Photography is interesting in this way.  You think you are taking pictures of the world, and you are.  But there is so much to choose and you're the one who is choosing.  So it's also about you.  You catch yourself in the act of seeing the world.  It's your perception that meets the world as only you can see it.   I think I could take the best picture that was ever taken, the most famous picture, and still, one day it won't matter.  But I think the fact that I was outside taking pictures - that I met the world and it met me - or that anyone is out there also -  I think that will always matter. 

So what is important to you?  What do you find beautiful or interesting?  What do you love? 

Assuming you're using a digital camera, take as many pictures as possible.  That's how you find out about the generosity of this process.   Do you want to take 100 pictures over here and then go over and take another 100 over there?  You can.  Do you think you've made a mistake with a photo?  Take another.  How many chances do you want?  100? 1,000?  More?  Go ahead.  How much beauty and light do you want in your life?  You can have it.

Then go home and look at your pictures right away.  This is what my father and I used to do.  We'd go out and take pictures, or I would take pictures, and he would come with me and stay in the car.  I'd park where he had a view of the water, and I'd set him up with his radio, his snack, his paper, his water, his walker, and his binoculars.  At night, we'd look at the pictures.  In that way, I could bring him to all the places I had been.  I'd have hundreds of pictures and we'd scroll through them quickly.  He'd say, "nothing" "nothing"  "nothing",  giving his verdict with a regal flick of his hand.  Then finally, he'd say "Oooooh!".  In every case, it would be a picture of a wave, a bird or a deer.  It could have been the worst picture -  blurry,  bad light,  the ass end of something - but those were the things he loved.  We'd crop them this way and that way... look at them again and again.

It was important to look at the pictures right away.  It caused me, very naturally and intuitively, to connect my results with the act of taking pictures.  It taught me more about what I wanted, made me pay closer attention.  It also showed me when I needed to learn a specific technical skill, but in a way that was always directly useful, relevant to what I wanted to do.  This is the way I learned how to do photography.

There were a few human instincts at play.  One was the instinct for sight, and another for hunting, and another for seeking light, and another for knowing beauty.  There was also the instinct for learning.  I love this about photography:  It works with what humans do best, with what we've been doing for 200,000 years.  Photography affirms all of us in what is to be human, and it affirms each of us, specifically, as individuals.  We each have our own way of finding beauty.  It is about what is inside of us as much as what is outside.  We do have something to show to others. 

So I practice my skills (and those become mostly automatic after a while), but I always lead with what I love in taking pictures.  I tell myself the moment is more important than the picture.  I try to relax.  I follow what I'm drawn to and what I love.