“The enjoyment of beauty is a kind of escape from, a going out from, the urgencies of place and time.” ~ Virgil C. Aldrich (American Philosopher, 1903-1998)
There was a point early in my career where I realized that the process of creation was no longer an option. The act of creating had became an escape from the everyday stresses of life. If I didn’t get into the field at least once a week, I went into a low level depression (withdrawal?). Being out in nature was a big part of what drove the creative process. The science is clear about the benefits of being in areas of woods, around water bodies; even just looking at pictures of nature lowers stress levels.
I have come to realize as well that beauty itself drives my creative process and can serve as an escape. One of the benefits of working in the arts is the ability to create things of beauty. I can create my own escape when I need it. In my farmhouse studio space I can explore subjects in detail at my own pace and experience a world of beauty all to myself. For me art is all about experiences.
The image above was the result of an exploration of a silk moth which I found on our farm earlier this spring. Discovering its intricate wing scale design was a joyful experience. It felt like I was looking at a mosaic of tiles when I viewed a section of wing close-up. For the period of time in which I created images I thought of nothing other than the wonderfulness of the color and pattern. With its rhythm of scales though, it was the curve of the wing that I was drawn to most.
Curves introduce a feeling of tension. While sensual in form, curves imply resistance. Straight is less tense while driving; a curved road requires more expenditure of energy to maneuver. A river that flows through an oxbow is constantly fighting the curves. Straightness implies a fight with gravity which is lost, or even a struggle with death no longer fought. Leo Stein (American art collector/critic, 1872 – 1947) remarked, “Tension in line can be observed if one will follow the outline of a vase and notice the force it takes to bend the line of a contour.” Curves to me speak to a life force, something I think art can convey uniquely.
My first foray into the medium of photography was in making close-up images, technically called “macro photography.” Growing up in a city, even in rather suburban-like Northeast Philly, I had access to limited nature. My interest in nature drove my image making anyway. Because of this, I had to find my inspiration in very small areas (square feet instead of square miles). A macro lens allowed me to make images within a field of view of inches. At that level of exploration, everything becomes interesting and new.
Since that time, the content of my images has expanded to include every scale of nature (wildlife, landscape, even the universe!). Now I live on a farm (very un-city like). And, I find myself looking to explore again at the macro level. I find that I can express as much in the space of a few inches as I can in a landscape depicting a few acres.
Images of the macro kind are made with the same thoughts and feelings as any other type of image. I still deal with experiences, metaphors, color, line, shape, texture, light — just in a smaller area.
Above is an example of an image I made a while ago at Longwood Gardens (just outside of Philly). It is a minimalistic piece with strong color. The color content is harmonious more than complementary. The yellow against the red is very powerful. Keeping the brighter yellow as a small part of the image, I feel, keeps the image balanced.
“Just as you say that a body feels warm to the hand, so you might say that it feels red to what you see with” ~ Virgil C. Aldrich.
My approach to the medium of photography is as an artist. Because of this, I try not to have preconceived notions about how photography “should” be done and think instead only of the imagery I want to create. I do however work within the medium to create images that are best rendered as a photograph, not in a contrived way in order to make it look falsely like another medium.
My approach means that the images I create are conceived to be made primarily in the
field through the use of traditional photographic methods, i.e., camera and lens. For an impressionistic image like the one above (titled Opus 1), I used an old 120mm f1.9 Carl Zeiss Jena film projector lens which had been fitted with an adapter giving it an M42 mount. With that mount, I was able to then add an additional adapter to allow it’s use on a Fuji digital interchangeable lens camera.
As a film projector lens, it has no focusing mechanism, no aperture control, and no way to communicate with the camera. The M42 adapter on the lens has a built in helicoid which allows me to “focus” it buy turning the lens and causing it to be closer to or further away from the camera sensor. With no aperture, the lens is only usable at it’s f1.9 rating. This large aperture means lots of light gets in and depth of field is very thin. But for me that’s the whole point of using this big, hazy, scratched, and fungus growing, chunk of glass.
The lens is a beast and unruly on a camera, but I feel the rendering matches my aesthetic very well. As I continue to develop a view of the world which is more impressionistic, I find myself wanting to use this lens more and more. For the image above, I had been struggling with modern traditional lenses to isolate flowers in this meadow and simplify the background. The fall off of focus with this projector lens is very sudden and creates a unique type of bokeh that I have not achieved with any other lens.
Many people think that Opus 1 is a painting. I inform viewers that it is in fact a photograph, but one done in a painterly style. By painterly I do not mean the use of artificial brush strokes, but rather an emphasis on color and form instead of linear definition.
I am in the unusual position of writing a blog entry in late February with the windows open and still being slightly warm in my studio. It reached the mid 70’s today in north central PA. But it is still winter and the visual stimuli that excite me about winter are still forefront of my mind. It wasn’t that long ago that I made this image even though the temperatures suggest it should have been months ago.
I’ve always enjoyed the visual aesthetics of patterns in nature. I work with them not strictly out of a sense of design but because shapes convey emotions. The same way that human posture conveys feelings, so do the curves, lines, and geometries that are all around us. In some ice forms, those curves, lines, and shapes can be very complex. As an artist I am working to compose an image that expresses movement, joyfulness, tension, harmony.
This image was made along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Using a Nikon D810 and an quite old 28-105mm Nikkor lens in macro mode, I isolated a section of ice and grasses frozen into a geometry that I found quite stirring. A small aperture created the necessary depth of field. This depth had to balanced with a sufficient shutter speed to hand hold the camera during the exposure. Because of where I chose to compose this image, using a tripod was not practical.
Knowing why we do something can give us insight into what we are doing presently and motivate our choices going forward. I came across one explanation of why artists create the work they do which I find apropos. Artists, it is suggested, create works that help them fill in for something that is missing in their lives. I can see that explanation of motivation being true with certain works I make. There have been times when I felt the need for more beauty, peacefulness, or simplicity around me. There are many stressors in life, and creating imagery that balances those stressors by emphasizing peace and simplicity seems like a logical explanation. These works then are expressions of that desire.
One piece that I come back to often when feeling a desire to unwind is titled A Ripple, A Blade of Grass. It is an image of grasses reflected in pond water in Acadia National Park . A minimalist image, it really only consists of lines against a monochromatic background. I find it both soothing and engaging though. The simplicity of it is calming, yet there are lines that create triangles (due to the grasses reflection in the water), a shape that imparts a sense of action. Also, the ripples in the water have created zig-zag patterns that serve as visual contrast to the straight lines and add a sense of tension through the implied motion. I applied a sepia tonality to the piece to lower the visual harshness of a stark black and white.
This type of imagery is not easy to make because as a result of it being minimalist, every element that is included becomes more important to the piece. Finding the right balance in a minimalist work is part of the challenge however, and for that I am often working from a gut feeling.
I’ve been looking back at images I made in the last few years. It’s an annual practice that I enjoy at the beginning of each new year and is an important part of deciding which images will be introduced as new prints.
In moving some things around, also an annual process, I came across a box of slides from 1991. Yeah, I can’t believe how long ago that was now either. This image however was not representative of my style then. It is more abstract than my work was then. It is a much more subjective image. In the last several years however, my work has become increasingly subjective — more about form, texture, color, and minimalist. In some ways I feel my work has become more about mood and more expressive.
It’s not that I haven’t created expressive imagery before, it’s just that I’m making and exhibiting more of it now. I find it very exciting and freeing. I’m creating work that is both authentic and in the moment. I’m expressing my personal aesthetic without concern to ultimate use and really enjoying it.
In some ways I enjoy the subtlety of late fall more than the peak color period. I find a certain quietness about the limited color palate and less abundant screaming vibrance of November woods. It is then that I respond to the nuanced beauty of fall. A single leaf that didn’t quite make it to the ground but instead is woven between the blades of tall lake-front grasses. I seek these type of situations especially on overcast days when the light is even and soft. To enhance that mood further I worked with a long telephoto lens which allows close-focusing and limited background detail. My composition is designed to emphasize the diagonal “movement” of the grass blades to contrast with the tension of the vertical movement of the Maple leaf momentarily halted but still under the strain of gravity.
For this image I used a Nikon D300 camera with a Nikkor 200-400mm f4.0 lens on a Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff bullhead. Like much of my work, this image was made at Lake Galena in Bucks County, PA.