Living Well Is the Best Revenge

All apologies to the late George Herbert for appropriating his title. But it’s an apt approach to weathering the crazy and noisy political zeitgeist of 2017. Of course it’s important to stay concerned, informed, and involved. But it’s also important to practice fierce self-care, to stop to smell the roses, and to remove oneself from the fray frequently, in order to recharge the batteries.

These photos I’ve taken remind and reassure me that the world is still a beautiful and incredible place.

2016 Odds & Ends

Vimeo—one of the services where I host my videos—offers a recurring workshop they call the Weekend Challenge. The 2016 Memory Bank episode challenges filmmakers to create a short film (under 3 minutes) out of their orphaned video clips from the year.

Until I learned about this assignment, I hadn’t given much thought to how many videos I’d recorded incidentally over the course of the year, nor whether they would fit together into a coherent narrative. I was surprised to discover that yes, they did. I hadn’t done very much work in this “video montage” style, so it was a new and interesting challenge.

I’d also never begun a movie project with the music. Previously, I had only added music to films after making the video part, like adding spices or a garnish to a meal. But using that approach has often resulted in movies where the music seemed like a poor fit or an afterthought.

This time around, I approached the project as a music video. (I was a big fan of MTV back in the early 1980s.) I started by writing and recording the music using Apple’s GarageBand software, overdubbing piano, synthesizer, and drum loops.

Then I imported the song into the Final Cut Pro video editing software, and added video clips to the song’s rhythmic timeline (versus the other way around). I liked this approach—it shifted my way of thinking and got me out of a couple of ruts I had slipped into.

I’m not exactly sure of the overarching theme among the clips. In 2016 I traveled more than usual. I had surgery. I got sick a couple of times. I had a good year at work and some pretty great times with family and friends. I got outdoors and did some hiking and bicycling. I played hockey. I grew some amazing garlic. I made sprouts. I learned to roast my own coffee. I took a bunch of photos and movies. I made four paintings. I published. I tried to improve. I learned some new technological skills. All the while a relentless and dissonant political battle raged in the background. My team lost, twice.

Perhaps the theme is one of continuing to be kind, creative, resilient, graceful, and happy despite the challenging nature of the times. Or maybe the lesson is simply to focus on the good stuff in life, because there really is so much of it to be enjoyed and shared. Hopefully this short film captures some of the happy highlights.

Nightfall over Providence

Recently we made a quick overnight trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to help Rebecca’s daughter settle into her dorm at college. The view from our hotel (Omni Providence) was pretty nice, so I got to try something I’ve been wanting to do: make a time-lapse movie of day turning into night in an urban environment.

I suppose I could have used my iPhone’s time-lapse mode and called it a day (into night—ha), but the quality of the iPhone’s photos suffers in low-light conditions. So I got my “good camera” ready, and embarked upon a little project.

Check out the short video above to see the result of my experiment.

Some notes on the equipment I used and how I set things up:

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II micro four-thirds format (great camera, awful name—I propose Zephyr)
  • Lens: Panasonic Lumix/Leica 25mm f/1.4 (equivalent to a 50mm focal length in “full-frame” camera terms)
  • Tripod: GorillaPod Original
  • Fortunately, the window of our 12th floor room was able to be opened about four inches, so I didn’t have to shoot through dirty windows or contend with room reflections in the glass.
  • I spent a good 15 minutes obsessing about whether to use a wider-angle lens, to capture a bigger view of the city. We could see Waterplace Park and a portion of the river from our room, and had it been a WaterFire night, that might have influenced my decision toward the “more-is-more” direction. But Rebecca, bless her, helped confirm my hunch that what this particular scene needed was a tighter crop of a specific subject: the domed Rhode Island State House at the other end of the street.
  • I settled on the 25 mm lens, set the camera on the tripod, aimed it through the open window, and composed the shot through the viewfinder.
  • I used the brightest f-stop available (f/1.4) and set the camera to aperture priority mode, so that the shutter speed would vary and the “after dark” shots would be adequately exposed.
  • I manually focused on the State House so that the camera wouldn’t waste any battery energy automatically refocusing for every shot. Also, auto-focus doesn’t always focus on the right thing—especially when the scene is dark—so I figured I’d take control of that aspect.
  • I set the camera to take medium-resolution shots. Again, I was concerned about battery life, and shooting RAW or high-resolution JPGs would have drained the camera’s battery too quickly.
  • Sunset was going to be at 7:17 p.m. I figured that if I started around 6:00 and ended around 8:00, I would capture the transition from light to dark nicely.
  • As far as the frequency of the shots, I started obsessing with the math, calculating how many shots I’d end up with if I set the camera to take a photo every 5, 10, or 15 seconds, and what the frame rate of the final video would need to be, to create smooth animation. I ultimately decided on one shot every 15 seconds, figuring that I could sort out the timing considerations later, in software. The camera has a programmable time-lapse mode, so I set it up, crossed my fingers, and pressed the shutter button.
  • We left to get some dinner, praying we would not come back to find that a flight of pigeons had taken up residence in our room. (They hadn’t.)
  • I’m glad I chose the 15-second interval, because as it happened, the battery died and the camera stopped taking pictures before I manually intervened. Fortunately, just enough shots (514) were captured.
  • Back at home on the computer, I imported the photos and used Apple’s QuickTime Pro 7 software to convert the image sequence into a movie. I tried one at 60 frames per second (FPS), one at 30 FPS, and one at 24 FPS, to see which one worked best. Ultimately I kept the 24 FPS one.
  • I brought that file into Final Cut Pro X software, cropped the composition to the 16:9 proportion of HD video, and rotated it a half of a degree to correct a slight listing feeling. Also, I shortened the movie somewhat at the beginning, as it felt like it was dwelling too heavily on the “day” side of the transition.
  • I exported the movie to Vimeo, and embedded it into this page.
  • The biggest lesson for me was the consideration of battery life. Olympus sells an add-on battery pack for my camera that combines two batteries, but it adds bulk and weight, and part of the reason I chose this camera in the first place was its compact form. If I plan to do longer time-lapse projects in the future, I might consider investing in it. But then again, I might simply switch to a 20- or 30-second interval, and make sure I start with a freshly-charged battery every time.

First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.

My Photographic Process

Some tips and tricks for making better photographs.

Here’s a photo I posted on Facebook (by way of Instagram):

Haviland Pond

Lots of friends “liked” it and a few commented. One comment in particular stuck in my mind:

How do you capture light as you do? No, don’t answer. I’m content believing you have some magic.

The magic, if there be any, consists in the miracle of consciousness and attentiveness. I approach a composition as a little meditation, full of gratitude and reverence for the moment, and I am rarely let down. I love that other people enjoy my work and think I have a special talent, but I believe that making beautiful pictures and movies is a learnable skill. Anyone with the will—and access to a few essentials—can cultivate a style all their own and a powerful body of work. In this spirit, I share some of the techniques and approaches that work for me.

Choose your subject matter

Mount Norwottuck, as seen from Mount Pollux

The subject matter I’m most interested in is the light. Indeed, it is the fundamental ingredient in photography. I like the way sunlight plays on natural environments, and in some cases the human-made structures that occupy them. I especially love the quality of light and shadow that the sun makes in the early morning and late afternoon. I rarely use a flash. I love dramatic clouds.

I live in a bucolic area, so I have access to a lot of natural beauty. You may live in a city or a desert or somewhere else, and that is fine. The sun doesn’t discriminate. Figure out a subject that resonates with you, and continue to photograph it at different times, in different seasons, and from different angles. Back in art school I heard this referred to as “thematic development.” Eventually your oeuvre will emerge.

I don’t often publish photos of people. Partly this is out of respect—I don’t particularly like for people to publish photos of me unless I’ve approved them. I do take a lot of portraits for my private collection. Mostly, it’s that I’m more interested in studying and photographing landscapes, which predated humans, and will probably outlive us.

If your situation is such that getting out into the wild isn’t practical, you could make an interesting series of photos of nothing but things lying around your basement or kitchen, or of origami sculptures you’ve made. Or clouds. Play around, and be creative.

Scout a good location

Pond in the woods

Once again, this relates to attentiveness. In the course of my daily travels I encounter dozens of spots that I look forward to photographing. Sometimes I’ll leave early or stay late, and allow myself a little extra time to explore. Other times, I’ll make a mental note to return to a particular spot at a different time. Obviously, if you’re scouting a particular scene and you see a double rainbow, a thick bank of fog, a moose, or a tree about to fall, drop whatever you are doing and take that picture now.

Oftentimes I see a scene and mull it over in my mind a while before I actually get out on foot (or bicycle) to capture it. How is the subject situated? Cows on a hillside might make a nice picture, but will they be back-lit later in the afternoon (i.e., with golden highlights across their backs)? If so, that might make for a better composition, so I’ll plan to come back later, or on another day. Similarly, a perfect mountain photo might be made even more perfect if taken on a day when the sky is filled with clouds.

Study interesting compositions

Barn interior

Photography can be a lot like juggling. There are so many things to think about and keep in balance in a single moment. It’s a little overwhelming at first. But keep practicing and it will become second nature. Think about exposure (the overall amount of light in a scene), contrast (the relationship between the light and the dark), saturation (the intensity of color), focus, texture, conceptual juxtaposition (e.g., natural vs. human-made), and compositional balance. This last one is subjective, but there are some rules of thumb that can help.

Mt. Tom. Rule of Thirds illustration.

One such rule is the so-called “Rule of thirds.” It’s one of those esoteric principles like the Fibonacci sequence (on which the golden rectangle is patterned) that occurs in nature, and resonates with us on a subconscious level. The idea is that you divide your picture plane (whether it be a rectangle or a square) into imaginary vertical and horizontal thirds. The four resulting points where the dividing lines intersect are where the most compositional excitement occurs. It’s a rule that can be broken, of course, but it does provide an anchor for locking in on a great composition. Sometimes I will move forward or backwards until some combination of elements in the viewfinder align with these points and lines.

If a composition has a horizon line, I usually try to keep it as horizontal as possible. If the angle is off by a little, an app might help to fix the photo after it’s taken.

Know your equipment

Icicles

Most of the time I use an iPhone 6 Plus, and a combination of a few apps. I have a “real” camera (an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II—crazy naming scheme) that I use when I want to control depth of field, experiment with different lenses, zoom in on subjects, or make a long night-time exposure. But the advantages of the iPhone camera are obvious: I can take a picture, do a little editing, and post it on the web without going through the rigamarole of getting to a computer, connecting cables, managing files, etc. The computer workflow is great for a certain kind of work, but it’s not my main workflow for everyday posting. The adage “the best camera is the one you have with you” is so true. Fortunately, the iPhone camera is a pretty good camera to “happen to have with me” most of the time.

If you don’t have a great camera, fear not. A lot can be done with whatever you’ve got. Even a homemade pinhole camera can make some amazing photos.

Edit

This might sound strange, but I usually take anywhere from three to around a dozen shots for every one that I publish. I like to try different angles and exposures until one seems “just right.” Needless to say, I turn off the feature in apps like Dropbox and Flickr that offer to upload all of the photos I take.

forestdale

My secret weapon is the Pro HDR X app. It takes two exposures in succession—one metered on the highlights and the other on the shadows—and overlays them. The catch is that to use this app successfully you have to stand shock-still for a second while the app takes the two exposures. With this app, I have no qualms about taking pictures looking directly into the sun.

I also like to use the Aviary app for general post-processing, like cropping, straightening the horizon, sharpening, blurring, color-balancing, etc.

I initially capture images in full color, but sometimes a composition will benefit from being converted to black and white. My favorite tool for doing this is the Vint B&W app. Of all the apps I’ve tried, this one offers the best tonal sensitivity. Its photos most closely approximate the look of real black and white film photos taken through an amber or red glass filter.

I’m not a big fan of using retro “filters” on most of my shots, but I make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Often the Pro HDR app will deliver exactly the look I want, right out of that app. If you happen to use a less-capable camera, then a filter might enhance your shots. Follow your gut.

Publish the work

Ludlow as seen from the bridge to Indian Orchard

Right now I like Instagram. At first I had mixed feelings about being limited to the square format, but I’ve grown to like it. The square is a great canvas in its own right, but it works particularly well on today’s mobile web, where you’re never sure how people will be viewing your photos (phone, tablet, or computer).

Often I mirror my Instagram pictures to Facebook, where they receive more feedback than they do on Instagram itself. Sure, Facebook can sometimes be a sea of unedited thought, sensationalism, commercialism, and privacy violation. But it’s possible for the cream to rise to the top and become a signal among the noise. A thoughtfully illustrated post by a real person with purity of intention will easily hold its own against a typical click-bait article. If I manage to add a bright spot to someone’s day with one of my pictures, then I will have succeeded. For some reason I’m not compelled to post every day or even every week. There needs to be some digestion time—I just post whenever it feels right.

Flickr is another service I use, but only half-heartedly these days. Back when I first joined (2007) the interface was a lot more functional and less cumbersome. But as of this writing, both the iPhone app and the desktop website feel a little heavy-handed in their emphasis of the slick user interface at the expense of easy access to the photos and community features. That slickness quickly falls apart as soon as you try to use your browser’s back button, or scroll to the bottom of a page. As Jeremy Keith succinctly put it, “Infinite scroll. A footer. Choose one.

But Instagram has a flow that feels light, simple, and unfettered, so that platform is where I’m publishing most of my photos now.

Video is another matter. All the aforementioned services—Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr—compress and degrade video quality to an extreme degree (if I can even get video to load on Flickr). Vimeo, on the other hand, does web video right. YouTube offers pretty good encoding quality, but there is little control over what shows up after your video plays. I’ll write more about video in the future.

I could of course post all of my photos here on my own website. But it wouldn’t be as much fun without the social features and the attentive audiences offered by one of the social networks.

Above all, enjoy the process of taking pictures and sharing them. Thanks for reading.

A Tree for All Seasons

A fond farewell to my old friend, the oak tree.

This is the last photograph I will ever publish of this old oak tree, and the lovely meadow over which it presides. I’m not bored with the subject; who could ever tire of looking at clouds like these? No, the reason I will never photograph this place again is that it is slated to become a Walmart store.

I was devastated when I learned the news. I have come to revere this old tree as one would an elderly person sitting on a park bench, seemingly marginalized and passed over by a fast-paced world, but exuding a quiet confidence that tells a thousand stories.

This is not an indictment of Walmart. Despite criticisms that one could (and many do) levy against the giant, Walmart is a business. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do; exactly what we the people tell it to do. Nor is it an indictment of the host city. Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, would benefit (at least in the short term) from the jobs and the tax revenue. This is more of an indictment of a modern society that values convenience over open space and natural beauty. And in this sense, it is an indictment of myself. I have shopped at Walmart before, and at some point I probably will yet again. Every dollar I spend is a vote for the kind of world I want to live in. In my own small way, I will have helped to kill this tree.

I generally prefer to support independent local retailers over “big box” stores. Sure, the service at a small business might take longer and cost a little bit more, and the selection of products may be limited. But the overall quality of the shopping experience feels more human, as does the sense of shared connection with our community and respect for our environment. But is it enough to support our local retailers? Or do we need to more closely examine the impact of satisfying all our commercial desires? At some point way back in the Twentieth Century, Walmart started out as the quintessential local retailer with one store: Sam Walton’s Five and Dime. And now, scaled up by orders of magnitude, look what “shopping local” hath wrought.

I am under no illusion that I’ll be able to stop the relentless forward march of the bulldozer. Our modern, convenience-addicted society demands more goods, lower prices, and stores that are closer to us. Never mind that we already have everything we need: the Holyoke Mall, a CVS pharmacy, a Kmart, a Bed Bath & Beyond, a Petco, a Barnes & Noble, and a Stop & Shop grocery store are all located within a mile of this soon-to-be Walmart. Competition is the name of the game here. My hope is that Walmart and its developer will see a little bit of the same magic that I see in my friend the oak tree, and will find a way to spare it. Can you imagine parking lots peppered with old-growth shade trees? I can.

To be perfectly honest, my photos of this meadow are somewhat fictional. What you don’t see—what I prefer to exclude with my camera’s lens—is the yucky stuff: the “no trespassing” sign at the field’s border, the impenetrable brush, and the doubtless thousands of mosquitoes and ticks that it harbors. The surrounding neighborhoods are nothing special either: some modest ranch houses on small lots; a few downtrodden apartment complexes; a handful of businesses; a fire station. And hidden beyond the precipice at the far end of the field is yet another shopping center. The whole place is sort of an oxymoron: a busy road in the middle of a pseudo-industrial limbo that used to be farmland.

But I find such oxymorons intriguing, and I have learned to train my camera on them at every opportunity, building a repertoire of images of a fleeting world I’d love to hang on to.

When the world exasperates me (as it often does), I like to invoke the wisdom of others to guide and inspire me. There is one thought in particular that has been resonating with me lately, in all sorts of situations:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

—Richard Buckminster Fuller

What, then, will be the new model that I build? Will I relocate next to a cemetery, an ocean, or even further out into the sticks where no one would possibly want to plop a big box store? Will I simply acquiesce, accepting thoughtless commercial expansion as an unavoidable by-product of a cancerous capitalism? Or will I intensify my efforts to photograph the dwindling natural beauty that I find in unlikely places, creating an illusionary cut-and-pasted paradise that represents “the way we could have been”? I’m liking this latter approach.

It is with much gratitude and great respect that I have had the privilege of photographing this particular meadow over the years. Now I will move on and find another willing subject. Farewell, my friend the tree. I will see you in the cosmos.

The Making of a Painting

A time-lapse movie documenting a year’s work

In the summer of 2010 I started to work on a large painting commissioned by the owner of Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) Several of my earlier paintings had already been on display at the café, so I knew that this new one needed to fit stylistically and thematically. I settled on the subject of a carnival at twilight, inspired by the traveling carnival that visits the Amherst Town Common every spring. The format is the largest stand-alone painting I’ve ever made: 5 feet by 8 feet (I’ve painted murals directly onto larger walls).

Never before had I documented my process of making a painting, so I thought it would be an interesting side project to set up a video camera in my studio, film the process from start to finish, and put together a time-lapse movie showing how the painting developed. What you see here is about fourteen months’ worth of intermittent work (nights, weekends, and holidays) condensed into a two minute video. This is whittled down from tons of original footage. Highlights of the movie include a fair amount of non-painting “prep work” (a.k.a, “getting into character”), a significant composition change (around 00:53) in order to situate the painting on the Amherst Common, and the fact that I wear nutty outfits while I work. Most notably, I showed my sartorial support of the Boston Bruins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 for the first time since 1972. I’d like to think I helped with that!

While I edited the movie, I experimented with various background music tracks, but ultimately didn’t find one with the vibe I was looking for. So in the spirit of that Zen saying, “Don’t speak unless it improves on silence” (and because it is a predominantly visual experience anyway) I decided to leave off the audio track altogether. Listen to whatever music you like as you watch this movie (or enjoy it without a sound).

Update: as of November 2016, this painting lives at Bueno y Sano in Northampton, Massachusetts.

The finished painting: Carnival

Carnival painting by Trace Meek