Marching Forth

A mini-manifesto, and a photo essay you might like.

I’m trying an experiment. During the month of March I am avoiding Instagram, which has become unbearably laden with ads. Depending on how it goes, I may extend my “insta-cleanse” by a few months. (For some reason, the ads on Facebook don’t annoy me quite as much.)

I’m enjoying the peace and quiet, and the sense that I’m not addicted to my iPhone. I miss my friends’ lovely photos and movies, but I’m hoping to find better ways to keep up with people’s lives than seeing them play out against a backdrop of talking llamas selling car insurance, and other inanities greedily vying for a slice of our attention and money.

Frank Chimero wrote a superb essay that articulates how I’ve been feeling about the web. In the beginning, the web had such an amazing potential to develop into a public space that prioritized art, education, civic responsibility, and enlightenment. But lowbrow capitalism seems to have outpaced the loftier aspirations of the human spirit. Much of the web is now inundated with ads and other desperate attempts by people to take money from each other. It’s intrusive. It’s gross. And in a way, it’s irrelevant. I’m here for connection with humanity. Won’t you join me?

There has got to be a better way.

I enjoy the slow, deliberate process of crafting a blog post. I often tell myself that I should do it more often. It’s more like a handwritten letter than an email. More like a slow-cooked meal than a fast-food binge. More like a library than a dollar store. I’ll spend hours writing, editing, reading aloud, preparing visual accompaniment, double-checking everything, taking a deep breath, and then hitting the “publish” button. How often do I put this much care into an Instagram post?

I don’t know that publishing here on my independent blog is the answer, nor if it’s going to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. I certainly won’t enjoy the same degree of immediate feedback (likes!) from my audience of friends. But this feels like a small step worth taking—a miniature protest of sorts. A tug in the right direction. Will 2018 be the year that the zombie blog returns from the dead? We will see.

Felling a dead tree

Speaking of tugs in the right direction…

Up until recently, there was a dead tree on the edge of my property, leaning toward my neighbor’s land. I needed to figure out a way to bring it down safely and affordably onto my own property. Hiring a professional tree worker would have been too expensive. And I like doing chores like this myself, whenever possible.

In order to give myself leverage, I tied a string to a baseball and threw it as high as I could through a place where the tree trunk branched into a “Y” shape. This enabled me to guide a heavier-gauge rope around the tree, midway up. Then I used multiple ropes and pulleys to pull the tree as far as I could toward my yard. Once I had stabilized the leaning tree, I used my chainsaw to make the standard front notch and back cuts near its base. But the final act was a brute tug-of-war, which I documented in the video at the bottom of this post.

Tug-of-War with a Dead Tree
Playing tug-of-war with a dead tree. I had leverage on my side.
Force Multiplier
I used a system of ropes and pulleys to multiply the force of my pull.

Thankfully, it all worked out. Now I have some cleanup to do.

2017 in Photos

There’s a lot that can be said about the year 2017. I prefer to focus on the positive, and it’s easier for me to do so through images than words. So here’s a gallery of photos I took in 2017. Many of these images I’ve already posted on Facebook or Instagram, but it’s nice to have them all together here in a commercial-free environment. I hope you enjoy them.

Recently, for personal enrichment, I completed an online photography course taught by the legendary artist Annie Leibovitz. I am enjoying learning more about photographing people, and I’m looking forward to taking my photography to a new level in 2018.

Interested in purchasing prints or a license to republish any of these photos? Get in touch.

Bicycle Dream

Bicycle Dream

This is one from a series of about 50 “Gocco” silkscreen prints I made in the late 1990s (and one of the few that remain in my collection).

The original was a film photo taken by my dear old friend Ben Ostiguy (swimmer4buzzardsbay on Instagram). It’s a picture of yours truly on my bicycle, crossing the bridge over the Connecticut River between Hadley and Northampton, Massachusetts, circa 1991 when much of the Norwottuck Rail Trail had yet to be paved. Ben and I were out gathering photographic imagery for a painting class we were both taking at UMass, and we scouted out the nascent trail off-road style.

I first used the image to illustrate a haiku poem in a chapbook titled “Little Deaths” that I’d written, bound, and self-published in 1995:

When in a painting
you see a beckoning road,
then down it you go!

A few years later I happened to salvage a trove of genuine WWII-era aeronautical maps of Europe that the folks at the W. E. B. Du Bois Library at UMass had been planning to throw out. I used the maps as substrates for a handful of collages and paintings. But none of those projects were as successful as this print run, which supplied me with greeting cards for years.

I suppose I ought to scan the last two or three I have left, and make some giclée prints. There’s nothing quite like an original, though. The way the ink layers interact with each other and with the paper is hard to reproduce via modern printing processes.

Art Show

Update November 13, 2016: I took down the show. I have updated the tenses in this post to reflect the new reality.

I exhibited some of my photographs at Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream in Easthampton, Massachusetts, October 8th through November 11th, 2016. There was an opening reception on Saturday, October 8th (as part of Easthampton’s monthly Art Walk). I loved seeing you there!

Details

I like to take photos involving outdoor scenes, trees, water, earth, and sculpted clouds. These days I share a lot of my work online, but it has been a while since I’ve shown the physical artifacts of the process. When my friend and fellow artist Jim Ingram asked me if I’d like to show my work at his ice cream shop, I said yes.

Originally I was going to show paintings. I’ve made a few of those over the past couple of years, but not enough to fill a whole show. Later, I thought that I might show a mix of a few paintings and a few prints. But after reviewing my whole available body of work, I decided to narrow the focus to one medium, and stick to photos. I’m glad I did, because in this case it made for a more cohesive show. The prints for this show were all either 12 by 12-inch squares, or 11 by 14-inch rectangles.

Please enjoy the gallery above, which offers a glimpse of the photos that were in the show. Please get in touch if you’d like to buy one. Soon I will be listing them in my Etsy shop.

Venue

Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream
34 Cottage Street, Easthampton, MA 01027

What Happens in the Barn Stays in the Barn

I’ve been enjoying taking photos at night and at the blue hour, using my Olympus camera, a tripod, and a long exposure. The time of day (9:10 p.m.) was the crucial element in this shot, because at this time of year, at my latitude, there’s still enough ambient light to take a four-second exposure that reveals some details in the landscape.

Moreover, with the sun already sunk below the horizon, the sky’s light is predominantly blue in hue, which makes a nice cool counterpoint for the warmer LED light that spills out from my barn through windows and cracks between the boards, illuminating swaths of grass and garden.

Fireflies

My backyard is asparkle with them.

This was a fun shot to make. The photo makes it appear as if all of the fireflies are lit at the same time. In actuality, I set up a long, tripod-mounted exposure, and individual fireflies may have been represented multiple times.

In order to illuminate the peach trees and the rhubarb patch in the foreground, I walked around the perimeter of the scene with a flashlight while the camera’s shutter was open, reflecting diffuse light off a lawn chair turned on its side. I had to take a few shots to get the exposure just right. This one took about a minute and a half, as I recall.

I love the unexpected results of this kind of shot—it reminds me to appreciate the photography of yore, when long exposures were necessary under even the brightest conditions, and a degree of uncertainty was the norm.

I’m sure that some of the fireflies appear in the photo not because of their own phosphorescence, but because they are being lit from the side by my flashlight. The glowing effect is magical nonetheless, and hopefully it captures the spirit of an early summer evening.

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.

Autumn in New England

One of my favorite things about the place where I live: the awe-inspiring colors of foliage and sky

There is so much to be thankful for. This time of year, one of the things I am most thankful for is New England, the place where I live. The colors of the foliage and the sky are awe-inspiring. They make me want to paint.

I took this photo of Easthampton, Massachusetts from the Log Cabin, a banquet hall atop Mt. Tom, in neighboring Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Farewell to Summer

A photograph I took of a favorite old tree in a favorite meadow in a favorite town in Massachusetts

One of the things I love the most about living in New England is the drama of the passing seasons. Each one has its own distinctive feel and intensity. For many years fall has been my favorite, but I love the others as well. This past summer has been particularly sweet in terms of temperature, weather, personal discovery, and accomplishment.

Shown above is a picture I took this past summer, of a favorite old tree in a favorite meadow in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I’m just getting started on a painting of it.

But summer is gone, and fall is gearing up to unleash its fiery glory upon us. I can’t wait for blustery skies full of sculpted clouds, red, orange, and yellow leaves crunching under foot, cooler temperatures, longer shadows, mosquito-free hikes, jackets, hats, and scarves, pumpkins, apples, chilly bicycle and motorcycle rides, earlier, longer nights, cozy cafés, and a couple of extra blankets. Fall is almost here.