The Moment of Now

I brought a film camera to Cuba last year for two reasons. For a week I wanted to leave behind all the trappings that surround digital (charger, batteries, hard drives, cables, laptop), and be free to go from photographer into mojitos and the non-stop river of adventures, without sinking into the time abyss of editing. The second reason, truthfully, did not become clear until I was in Cuba. At sunset along the Malecón, Havana’s vibrant seaside walkway, teenage boys were leaping into the water, showing off to each other and their girlfriends. They would run at full speed towards the concrete wall, leap blindly up, over, and into the sea, and then swim back to do it again. And again. It was then that I reconnected to the idea of “now”. When to press the shutter . . . now.

Boy Leaping

 

The same sensibility kicked in thirteen years ago when my son was wobbling down an Avignon alley. His foot rose up . . . now.

Adriel Avignon

 

Or standing in an autumn stream, waves being tossed as they hit hidden rocks. When do I push the shutter? Now.

Surfing into Autumn

 

Just a week ago, back in Havana, a dancer leap higher than I thought humanly possible. Lying down to accentuate his leap, I waited for the moment.

Havana Dancer

 

We arrive at a place, attack it with the technical onslaught of auto-bracketing, motor drives, and continuous shutters, often disconnected from the idea of what might unfold. My Malecón moment brought me back to a time-tested path. Pay attention, become the leap, become the little foot, become the wave, press the shutter. Right now.

When Wonder Leads

Dancing in the Light

There were hundreds of little insects flying over the water, backlit by the sun, zigzagging in a mesmerizing parade of movement. I squinted, tried to follow one, tried to figure out how they flew in such a crazy looking pattern, and tried to see if they ever collided. And for fun, I held the camera up and wondered how far they flew in part of a second. That happens a lot:  I wonder, get lost in the coolness of it, and then reach for the camera.

Galaxy

Hopping between rocks along a stream in northern Maine I found myself staring at a particular swirling of water. In the lowering light of early dusk I squinted again, letting go of details, and the water transformed into a galaxy. The details of water dissolved, and the idea of interstellar movement took over.

Dreaming Up

Lying down in the autumn woods outside Kyoto, dreaming up into the canopy of color, I let go, and floated upwards. I live for moments where I get so lost in the connection, that nothing else matters. Time stretches, and what would be a few minutes on someone’s watch, turn into my own eternities. That’s why I do this; it continually seduces me. The branches blow in the wind and I feel like I am rocking in a hammock, gazing up at a rainbow-backed stage. Leaves let go, and I follow their pendulum drop towards me. And I start to drift off, my focus softens, and I see an image to hold onto.

Photography can tug at the technical inclinations of some people, and torment those that don’t have a technical clue.  In the end, it is the magic of discovery, the distillation of a moment, or the seduction of beauty that pulls me along, keeps me curious, and puts the camera at the end of the line. I like it when wonder leads.

 

Important Photos – Misty Dawn

Misty Dawn

There are times when you intuitively hone into an idea, and only later put your understanding into words. For years I worked on a series, “Gentle Edges”. It was a celebration of the beautiful line where sky and water met. Living in the high mountain deserts of New Mexico, it was a slow growing project, left to the whim and luck of short trips to the ocean. As I continued to verbalize the idea of the sweet edge, I thoughtfully settled on a perspective that showed just three things:  Sky, water, and the edge. Showing more became distracting, and it was in the process of deciding what images would enter the body of work that I learned to be a tough editor. An image that showed a lot of land pulled me away from the idea. An image that showed a grand amount of space meant that the focus on the edge disappeared. There were many images that tried to sneak into the collection. Images that were quite nice, but in truth were not about the gentle edge. I took these lessons with me, and they have always kept me vigilant in keeping a body of work consistent.

This image, “Misty Dawn”, more recently allowed me to explain another idea I had been instinctively practicing. Sometimes we need to let go of the giant reality in front of us and connect to the essence we want to convey. Here is what I saw at sunrise as I walked down to the shore of the lake: Water was gently lapping against the stones in front of my feet. There were patches of reeds that rolled the waves into a series of light hills and shadowy troughs. The immensity of the lake was mostly dark, especially to my left where hills of white pines and dense forest cast a shadow into the dark silver water. Fog had settled into some, but not all of the lake. And right above the densest part of fog, a yellow glow from the out-of-sight, but rising sun was pushing into the misty veil. In this dawn moment there was a lot going on. It was beautiful. I was happy. It was a moment to savor. And as a photographer, I was there to capture it. But capture what? My instinct, and what has now become a thoughtful process, was to show the intimate essence of the golden light coming through the fog swimming across the lake. Showing more, as pretty as it was, was fraught with technical dilemmas of extremes in light, but more importantly, would have pulled the viewer into other ideas, other distractions, away from that particular jewel of a moment that sang to me.

We can be too close, and we can be not close enough. One way I work through this is to think about the essence, the intimate essence, I want to convey, and then reach for the tool, the lens, to show exactly that. In the glory of these moments I need to step back and think about the idea I want to frame.

 

Important Photos – Spring

Last May I was asked to teach “A Natural Eye” for The Cuyahoga Valley Photographic Society. They are sitting smack in the middle of a photographic gold mine, The Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just south of Cleveland. I seldom have time to make my own photographs during a workshop, and turn that part of me off, but one afternoon we all went to a place they knew had beautiful cliffs and spring vegetation that was just starting to emerge. I said I would wander along a particular trail, and would be happy to look through cameras and answer questions. Most folks split on their own to try new ideas, and after about an hour of helping a few people, I found myself alone. The biggest technical difficulty I was pointing out was that while many people were struck by the beauty of the new leaves above them, they had to be careful not to include the sky on this bright overcast day if they did not want big pieces of blown out white in their compositions. It was a challenge to be sure, since the positioning of the trees, cliffs, and sky was not easy. I rounded a corner and noticed a steeper cliff wall than I had seen before, perhaps fifty feet high. Part way up was a giant rock that had separated itself from the wall, landing on its side like a giant table. And right above it, nestled against the wall, was a delicate young tree with a lace work of fresh green leaves and slender black branches. “That’s it”, I thought. “The right place to get the right angle without the sky. Often when you change your position everything else changes, and great ideas stay just that, but in this case it all worked out. I played with focus, letting the dark rocks fall away, and in printing have kept the rocks a background element, letting the viewer’s focus be on this essence of spring.

Important Photo – My Son in an Alley

It is possible that the most important roll of film I ever shot was of my son in an alley, at midnight, in Avignon, France. Important because it was about family, images from that roll ended up holding weight in the ultimate viewing space of any artist, the refrigerator, but it was also an important roll, because I made so many images I liked. Truth be told, I liked most of the thirty-six images even though I know there is at least a pinch of Dad bias thrown in.

Here was the scene. Our family had recently arrived in France. Two adults were fried, and the fifteen month old was very well rested, and on his very own time zone. It was midnight, and he was going full speed. I took him outside the hotel to the alley running along its side, and let him go. Up and down, back and forth, wherever he was pulled. He was in the penguin walk stage, waddling and often flapping his arms as he explored. At times he seemed more like a drunk little man. I had my camera over my shoulder, and in it was high speed black and white film. I had learned to come back with an image I wanted in low light by not stubbornly clinging to only one kind of film. 3200 film was beautiful with its grain in these old, dark cities, and I knew I could choose a shutter speed I could hold.

When I look back on that roll I wonder why it worked. Was it because I was excited to be in a new place? Was it because I was a fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson, was in his country, and had often noticed how he would find a background first, and then let the subject fill it? Was it because it was my kid and I was very committed to the moment? Probably yes to all.

For the duration of our walk, which I made last for over an hour to help push him into the zone of sleep, I studied how the light fell on him, how he moved in and out of shadows, how the background of the alley helped set the stage, and how it sometimes helped pull the eye into the image. All these ideas had huge applicability to my work in the natural world, and make me often think how important it is to work outside my genre and my comfort range, just to improve the way I respond to what I know most.

 

Turn Your Bad Photographs into Great Paintings

Two years ago, during a long delay at London’s Heathrow Airport, I spent a couple hours in a very large magazine store. The selection of photography magazines from across Europe surprised me, and also gave me something to focus on during the delay. One headline on a digital photo issue grabbed my attention. It proclaimed, “Turn Your Bad Photographs into Great Paintings”. Wow, I thought, you can be bad in two things – you can’t take a good photo and you don’t know how to paint – and you can still make something great.

Last year during a workshop I watched a student open a box of prints. The first was of a water lily, but it had been put through a digital filter to make it “look like a Monet”. The next was posterized, sending colors of something, maybe a cat, into psychedelic neon nostalgia. There was one of a rose that was heavily blurred with digital brushstrokes. Each and every print was different, and each was heavily manipulated by the application of a digital software filter. My mind wandered, thinking that if one of these pieces were to hang on a gallery wall, the title card might read:

“Tulip, ala Cezanne” – by Ema Ture and Photoshop CS5, or . . .

“Cute Animal in Blue Period, Underwater” – by Nat Myonne and Acme Special Effects

I was fascinated by the thought of being honest about who really had the skill, and with this idea holding a lock on my mind, everywhere I looked, images had been taken far beyond what could be done in-camera. Okay, you say, isn’t the negative just the beginning? Mr. Adams proclaimed that the negative was like writing the score, and making the print was voila!, the masterpiece, the final expression. You’re right, but Ansel was doing his personal darkroom dance (a great place for private bogeying, but I digress) using his hands and simple tools, deciding that a particular spot over there needed a little more light, and that one needed less. In the digital world he would have been a master of selectively using tools to achieve his vision. And that is the point. Selectively using a tool to finesse the vision. Not scrolling through the choice of filters, and tripping with the mouse on “Ocean Ripple” or “Fresco” or “Mezzotint”,  and going, “Cool, that looks great. Another couple sips of wine, and this will be quite an evening!” It is like going into a candy store, not knowing what you want, and getting seduced by the M&M’s, and maybe some Gummy Worms. And look at those Snickers . . . What we are missing is taking the time to become an expert at using the tools. And it is easy to see why, because the river flows strongly in the opposite direction. Many digital software classes teach the flash and not the vision. It’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s quick. Everything about photography is quick these days, from capture to viewing to publishing. But developing and building a vision is a journey.

Important Photos – Mushroom

In earlier days I worked with an earth education organization that was trying to do vital and different work in helping kids and adults build life long relationships with, and understandings about, the planet. It was good stuff, and as you might imagine, it was pushed away by mainstream education. At the end of those years a friend in the group went off to make a difference in the way Alaskan adventure companies ran their businesses; he started down a path of green tourism before it was a word. I was beginning my journey in photography, and the two of us fell out of touch. I can’t remember what brought us back together, but in the mid-90’s he asked if I might come up to Alaska and photograph one of their camps in Denali. Get myself there, no pay, a tent out back, and food. It was an easy choice. I had a blast with his like-minded staff, but many days of rain were frustrating given my “assignment” of showing the lodge and cabins in sunny, blue sky light.

While I still felt new to the photographic journey, it was all I did. I was a new instructor at The Santa Fe Workshops, had just moved to Santa Fe, and photographically was still in the tradition of everything being sharp from front to back. By chance, right before I left for Alaska, I heard Keith Carter give a presentation at The Workshops. His work at the time was deeply rooted in the east Texas communities close to his home. Technically he placed shallow focus on his subjects, giving the rest of the image a dreamy, magical quality. He mentioned that he used one camera and one lens.

In Alaska, on a particularly wet, cold day, hunkered down in the tent, my spirits sank a bit, wondering if I would even make a good image for my friend, let alone for myself. That afternoon there was a slight break in the weather, the clouds started to part a bit, and uncharacteristically I grabbed my medium format camera, one lens, and nothing else. No tripod, no camera bag, but I am sure, I brought along the words of Keith Carter. And off I wandered in the woods around the camp. That is when I found the mushroom. It was huge. It’s presence called out to me and I sat down in front of it, placed the camera on the ground, pushed the lens into vegetation, opened the aperture, and made an important photograph, different than my sharp front to back photos. I have often said that I had a choice of making an image that might go into a guidebook on mushrooms, or making a photograph of a mushroom that seemed like a leprechaun might come and rest under it. That day, wet, cold, and empty of images, I pulled out a story from a photographer in a very different genre, and made something new. Something important.

Important Photos – Iris

Breakthroughs and moments of clarity are precious. “Aha” moments can catapult us further in our art and our understanding, and yet they can be elusive and infrequent. We wonder “How come mine don’t look like that?”, and sometimes look in the wrong direction, like towards software. Truth be told, a commitment to the journey is the first step, but then comes the nebulous idea of paying attention, being awake when the time is right. You might get nothing out of a line in a movie, whereas the person next to you just had an epiphany.

“Iris” may be the first image I made where a couple light bulbs went off. Up until then I was pretty much taking landscape photographs that had no soul, that felt compressed and inaccessible. The setting was an Artist-in-Residence experience on Isle Royale National Park, a fifty mile long boreal forest island in Lake Superior. Three weeks alone in a cabin to write and shoot. I took this opportunity very seriously. I was going to a place I loved, to immerse myself in a dream about expressing myself about the natural world. I was new to photography and writing, but seasoned in exploring, wandering, and thinking about the natural world. On one hand I was well read, with John Muir, Also Leopold, Alan Watts, Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez, Sigurd Olson, and Ed Abbey assimilated into the way I thought. Mentors in ecology and education instilled a thoughtful, holistic, and journey-focused, not destination-based, mindset. Yet photographically I was weak. My historic appreciation was shallow, my vision young, and skills mediocre.

My first several days on the island were pummeled by a powerful Northeaster. The cabin rocked, the old pane windows shook in their gutters, and the fire crackled. I love storms, and I ventured out several times a day, without my camera, and explored the water inlet and rocky peninsula that the cabin was perched on. One afternoon I noticed a little pond sunk in the granite, a stone’s throw from the lake. Along one edge was a little clump of irises, not yet in bloom. The rocks were covered in beautiful lichens and lavender harebells, and I made it a point to pass by each day during the storm. On the morning of the fifth day I awoke to silence. No wind, no rain. I wiped the sweat off the window above my bed, looked out, and everything was enveloped in fog and stillness. I grabbed my gear and walked over towards the rocks and the pond. And there was the iris, in bloom. Now a familiar stop, I hunkered down in front of it and smiled. But here is where I responded differently than ever before. Instead of coming in so close to only get the flower, or pulling way back for a snapshot of too much information, I walked into the pond and made a photograph that for the first time captured the feeling of where I was. The essence. I remember moving up and down to get the iris by itself, not colliding with the distant background rocks. My years of wandering into water, lying down on the forest floor, and scrambling over the world, eliminated the hesitancy I have since witnessed when people stand away and zoom in, keeping intimacy at a distance.

On this important morning I learned about going back to a place, I started to embrace the idea of essence, I immersed myself, and I had a moment where I saw the relationship between a subject and a background. It was a morning that would have profound importance as long as I made sure to stop, take notice, and do it again. I needed to make these insights part of my new photographic work habits.

Inspiration in Amsterdam

I head to museums hoping for insights and ideas, to be shaken or enlightened. Sometimes I find solace in pretty art, and sometimes I leave riveted with the unexpected, perhaps challenged to think way outside my box. That’s what happened a few weeks ago in Amsterdam. I had booked a night and a day on my return home from Tanzania, hoping to slow down the toll of international travel, and planned to walk over to the museum district. I wanted to see The Van Gogh Museum, and friends said I should  also check out The Rijksmuseum.

I have been a fan of Van Gogh’s color, his bold brush strokes you can only see standing in front of the work, and the energy bursting out of his paintings, but I was limited in what I knew about him. I had no idea that almost all his work was done in ten years from 1880 to 1890, and that he had almost no formal training. His early work surprised me, and compelled me. Take a look at “The Cottage, 1885”.

Dark, moody, rich in feeling. And get this, he was actually turned off by what The French Impressionists were doing with color. Five years into his ten year career he moved to Paris, briefly lived with his brother Theo, an art dealer, and was introduced to the likes of Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and Camille Pissarro. And his work took a radical change. Place and who you hang out with matter. Every piece of work we know of Van Gogh’s was painted from 1886 to 1890. He experiemented with color and with how he painted, and in turn, profoundly affected peers and the future of painting.

My next stop, The Rijksmuseum, shook me. I have never paid much attention to 17th century Dutch paintings. They seemed like so many stuffy portraits of aristrocratric families. I had seen a Rembrandt or two as a child at Chicago’s Art Institute, but the subject matter never grabbed me. Wow, have I been missing something. Take a look at “The Jewish Bride”.

The subjects rise beautifully out of the rich, dark background. In person, the application of paint gives the light areas a shimmering quality that sparkles and separates it even further from the background. The same is true with “Maria Trip”,

She also rises up and out, and the detail work in her white shawl is hard to imagine. Almost four hundred years ago. No wonder Rembrandt was in high demand as a portrait artist. He also revolutionized portraits by bringing in motion to his subjects. Consider “The Night Watch” as an example. A blank canvas, a brush, and paint.

And I was not finished being wowed. Johannes Vermeer, also from the 17th century finished me off. He painted everyday workers, and his treatment of gentle light, and subtle color blends was both peotic and breathtaking. The use of subtle color is hard to see away from the source, but the quality of incoming daylight is still easy to see. Have a look at “The Kitchen Maid” and “Woman Reading a  Letter”.

I left both museums estactic and moved. In the case of Rembrandt and Vermeer it was not the subject matter as much as their use of light and color. Photographically all three painters have a great deal to teach me. Van Gogh’s celebration of wild color and interesting perspectives encourage me to push boundaries. The Dutch painters made me think of a comment Sam Abell made to me years ago when I was printing for his retrospective, The Photographic Life. Sam often wanted his subjects to rise out of the darkness in the background. It was a beautiful idea, a photographic aesthetic that has a lot of power. Vermeer’s use of daylight gently filling a room and his subject, together with his attention to the blending and shifting of gentle color palettes speaks so importantly to paying attention to the foundation of light.

Books about Van Gogh and Vermeer sit in front of me now in the studio. Paging through them during breaks will keep me swimming in reminders, encouragement, and new ideas.

Someone Has to Look at All That

Ten thousand. That’s what got me listening. I was in a workshop, during a break, and a group of students were chatting in the corner. Someone said he had been on a winter photo tour to Yellowstone National Park recently, and in four days, shot three thousand photographs. Okay, I think it was at that point I started to listen. But then he went on to say he wasn’t the winner. (Gotta love that choice of words, because it completely reinforces the idea I am approaching here.) The winner, he said, shot ten thousand photographs in four days. I froze. My god I thought, who is going to look at all that . . . and then I realized I had to turn that number into something I could touch. Ten thousand clicks of the shutter is seventy rolls of film for four days. Wow. And in winter with short days up there in Wyoming. That’s a lot of visual diarrhea, to borrow a phrase from a buddy who heard Ernst Haas use it years ago. If you have hung around photographers using digital cameras recently you know they are making a ton more photographs than they did several years ago. Consider the workshop world. Five years ago if someone turned in five rolls at night you knew they had some serious eyeball work the next morning. Ten was almost unheard of. Seventy? And here’s the thing. Are those two hundred and eighty rolls pushing out of the box into new and experimental ideas? Are they really nailing the finished, thoughtful image that comes from working it, paying attention to the moment, grasping the essence of the place, and thoughtfully pushing down the shutter to say “This is the moment, yes, this particular moment.” Or is it, and I can only guess from seeing it first hand time and time again, a lot of visual diarrhea?

Announcing . . . A Natural Eye DVD

We will be shipping my new dvd on December 11th. 100 minutes featuring the key ideas in the Natural Eye workshop, plus ten photo adventures in the field, reflections on the photographic journey, and fundamental skills.  For more information, and to learn about the special offer good through the 11th, go to:  http://www.eddiesoloway.com

Photo Diary 6

On The Road: Barstow, 9-11-09

Open the truck door and it’s like being paddled into a pizza oven – with outlet stores. Why would anyone stop in Barstow?  Vegas crossroads – a maze of eighteen wheelers refueling – cell phone talking/texting Starbucks clutching LA exiters – God, it’s 11pm and everyone’s wired – I’ve dropped into an over-heated circuit board – one night – just one night.

Sunrise – bring my duffel to the truck and bam! it’s twenty degrees cooler just high 80’s – gotta leave – Kingman never looked so good – Yes! I see clouds, monsoon miracle up ahead! – the road bends, the clouds go off to the right – please, please let me drive into the heart of that storm – any storm – I can hear the truck sigh, cool down – turn right – there they are – the arrow of my truck strikes – No! – the storm strikes – Flash! – torrential white knuckle windshield hyper wiper – can’t see for shit -  slow it down -  doesn’t help but I asked for it yes I did – where’s the camera? – this is good – there’s lightning – how far apart? – crank down the aperture and pray – not that way, but it’s still praying – Now! – damn, it’s processing the file and flash! – missed it – try again – and again – for miles – a semi plows past sending an ocean splash all over the windshield – where’s the road? – I’m feeling it like you feel a forest path with your feet in the dark – feeling it and doing the real praying – stay alive – think that way – but it’s time for a strike of lightning – press the shutter – hold the ship on course with my left hand – lightning Yes! hits and the semi plows through the exposure – how wild! – it’s there – I know it is – somewhere.

It’s alive time – I’m fearless – knowing about instant death out here – so strange how it relates and completely doesn’t to scrambling over, leaping over, balancing on rocks in the wilds of Maine, Iceland, anywhere – it’s the same right now – totally alert and alive and thinking about staying in my lane – shit – on the road – and getting ready for the next semi to shake my Etcha-Sketch reality away – yet! – thinking about the image – always – and the timing of the lightning – and damn that truck was a bit too close.

On The Road: Hotel View

sea_fireworks1

Years ago I used to only pull the camera out when I was in the woods. Now the whole world shows up as interesting. Case in point, recently I arrived at my hotel in Seattle late in the evening, a little out of synch with what day it was. In the morning I was heading to a workshop on the Olympic Peninsula. I took a shower to wash off the travel, and that’s when I heard and felt loud booms, like muffled explosions. Once at the window I realized what day it was, and started to make photographs of the celebration.

Seeing “Foggy Beach”

Foggy Beach

In recent years my mind works differently when making a photograph.  Sure, I still react to the beauty in front of me, but more than before I react to what is in me, brought forward and alive by what is in front of me.  A couple months ago I was along the Big Sur coast of California.  My buddy, Richard Newman, and I are making a dvd.  That’s another story I want to talk about, but at this particular moment we were watching fog come into and envelope the coast.  It turned a day of details and clarity into a day of simple lines, gentle edges.  I thought about how fog is one of several weather elements that can tug at our emotions.  Depending on where you are (in life, right now!), it can surround you with different feelings, perhaps loneliness or solitude.  At that moment I felt peaceful and still.  The surreal bliss of being alone and feeling alive.

It is as if I now let go of the quick reaction – snap the pretty picture – and connect intuitively to what is going on inside.

The Doom and Gloom Channel

Buffalo Float

I am paraphrasing Mike Mills of The Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, Arkansas.  And I am substituting photography for canoeing.  One of the disasters for photography has been The Weather Channel.  Without a doubt.  Case 1:  Buffalo River a month ago.  We were set to float the Buffalo, ten of us.  But someone logged on to the internet connection in the lodge, and The Doom and Gloom folks said we should start building an ark.  Long story short I floated the river alone in a kayak. There was a perfect, light spritz of mist on and off throughout the day, fog settled into the river, colors glowed, and the river was mine.  No doom and gloom.  Case #2:  Anywhere I teach.  People actually check the weather from Seattle ten days before their trip to Santa Fe or Maine, and start to pre-stress about the storm, heat, wind, monsoons, tsunami from thousands of miles away.  How crazy is that?  They actually e-mail me with questions about what to do about this upcoming tragedy.  I conducted a little study over the last two years.  Pretty official actually.  I showed my photographic prints at about twenty outdoor art shows across the U.S.  My little booth was set up on the streets of Chicago, Fort Worth, Minneapolis, Houston. San Francisco, Ann Arbor, and elsewhere.  There were times when I worried that all my work, sitting in a little booth on the streets outside, would be too vulnerable.  Weather happens.  Rain and high winds can destroy your booth as well as keep the public away.  At night from my hotel room, nine hours to go, I would check The Doom and Gloom Channel.  So here’s the truth: These folks were wrong about the forecast more than half the time. Yup.  Not even 50/50.  Imagine being wrong that much in your job.

I talked with Mike the day I floated the river.  He says his business takes a huge hit when people believe these inaccurate forecasts.  And I see people, already focused on fear, holding on to one more thing to worry about, and as a result, missing experiences.  Go.

 

 

Seeing “Koi Paintbrush”

koi paintbrush

I realized I had been staring at the koi in the pond for a long time. They were swimming back and forth very slowly, almost hypnotically.  Around and around in a little outdoor Hawaiian pool.  And as I watched them, lulled by their gently swishes of movement, they transformed into orange paintbrushes.

A visit of a just a minute would not have revealed this.  I needed to hang out and see the rhythm.  I needed to lose the koi and find paintbrushes.

Photo Diary V

Seeing “Texas Flowers”

tf2

Some days I find myself looking for natural filters in order to make photographs into the sun. Laying on my stomach I peered out and focused on distant petals while the nearby petals were so close to the lens they became ethereal washes of pink, orange, and yellow.  Shifting my position left-right and up-down allowed me the ability to bring in certain colors, let go of others, and lead the eye where I wanted it to go.

I unrolled my sleeping bag under a giant white pine . . .

I unrolled my sleeping bag under a giant white pine, a lone sentinal on the granite promontory where I had pulled up my canoe a few hours earlier. As I sat with a steaming cup of tea, warming my hands around the metal, looking out across Lake Richie, I could see several more old giants scattered around the lake, their branches creating distinctive silhouettes against the early evening sky. I could tell they were white pines, yet each seemed so different from the others — one with its crown blown off, another filled with limbs all the way down to the forest canopy, a third looking sparse, an old lightning bolt scarring its entire length. Tonight I would sleep under one of these great trees.

As evening changed to night I took the canoe out onto the lake one more time. The day’s paddle had been difficult, with strong, cold winds blowing down from the Canadian Shield. I had been pushed around a lot, feeling as if every stroke I made barely pulled me ahead of the wind’s easy efforts to set me back. But now the wind had vanished. Along with the sun, it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

I leaned back against the stern and lazily poked around the shore. The full moon had set hours earlier, and now the sky was brilliant with stars. Starlight so bright I cast a faint shadow moving across the water. Cold and clear, the essence of a North Woods autumn night. I tried to lift paddle-fulls of reflected liquid starlight, then pour them back in. Or swirl starlight together, a rippling of white reflection in the dark lake.

Back under the pine, I bundled up in wool and stuffed myself into the bag. Sleep, I thought, would come easily after another full day of exploring. I lay looking up into the dark forms of branches, dreamily wondering whether, if I could get to the lowest branch some twenty feet up, I could then connect the branches with steps all the way to the top. Somewhere in my climbing fantasy, I started to drift off. I seemed to enter a dreamland where I heard . . . geese. Lots of geese flying through my lazy dream, sleep just about winning the battle over wakefulness. But not so fast! I opened my eyes and thought, “I do hear geese.”

Over my head, over the white pine, up against the sky, flocks of geese were flying south. Today’s cold wind, which had created my own personal struggle, was the heralding call to send these geese on their annual journey south. They flew over, and then there was silence. I listened hard. The silence was enormous. Reaching my ears out, straining to listen, I had to still the loudest sound, my own quiet breaths. I heard more, like a distant train whistle. I couldn’t tell if my mind was making up the sound, but no, it got louder. This time, looking up through the branches, I saw individual stars being blacked out as the geese passed beneath them. I couldn’t see the birds themselves; I could only hear goose music and see vanishing stars. I spent the entire night listening to geese. Thousands of geese, slipping south through the night sky.

an excerpt from One Thousand Moons, Eddie’s book of images and essays. © Eddie Soloway

Re-connecting to Instinct

Richard Benson’s new book, The Printed Picture (published in 2008 by The Museum of Modern Art, New York), is a thorough and fascinating read on the history of the print and printing processes. In a chapter on “Where do we go from here?”, in a section on calibration, he offers, “This is a terrible thing.  Artists have always placed technique on a lesser level than visceral impulse; when they don’t they become craftsmen instead. The line between these two activities is soft and blurry, but the great technical prowess of the finest artists never obscures the fact that their work is valued because their craft carries something far more interesting than the craft itself. A work of art expresses the wisdom of the artist and the craft is the mechanism that brings this wisdom to physical form. . .”

Photo Diary IV

I am thinking about the meal that lasted all night in Tuscany.

I am thinking about the meal that lasted all night in Tuscany. In one way or another my Italian friends talked about food the whole evening–what we would prepare, sensual memories of what they had eaten the night before, lots of stories about food, plenty of passionate moans, constant nibbling while cooking, no shortage of red wine, and to top it off, dreams of what they might have tomorrow. It had been a four-hour dinner, at least. No, counting dessert, espresso, and more wine, much longer.

The food was simple and pure, bursting with flavors unknown to the mainstream American palate. A dribble of stone-pressed olive oil from the tree right over there, passed generously over porcini mushrooms (picked in the woods right there) and wide thin slices of local Parmesan cheese. We started there. And as exquisite as each course was, I realized that the concept of nourishment goes far beyond feeding the body. It has a lot to do with sustaining the soul.

Now here I am, starving. And I know what to do. In a side pack I put a bottle of water, a hunk of fresh bread, and an apple. That will take care of hunger, and out the door I go, to take care of my soul. I walk several blocks west, the pavement ends, and a dirt road disappears into a green tunnel of alder. The road becomes a trail, hugging the bank of a clear little creek. The trail ends and I stop. The thought I left home with was to follow the stream, searching out reflections and movement. But a splash of red–is it a flower?–has pulled me up the side of the bank and into the forest. Already feeling more nourished, I tear off some bread and smile. Adventure has hooked me again.

an excerpt from One Thousand Moons, Eddie’s book of images and essays. © Eddie Soloway

Photo Diary III

Seeing “Windy Night”

I have learned to let go of any expectations when I set out to see and possibly make a photograph.  A few years ago I arrived on Nantucket Island with ideas of images filled with sea grasses, waves, and sunset light.  Soon after the weather quickly turned into a wild, windy, and wet storm.  The island was hunkered down and I was bummed.  I could not make the photographs in my head.  I remember the moment when I shook off my disappointment and decided to go for the essence of storm.  From that point on I learned to let go of my pre-conceived images and enter a place wide-eyed and curious about what it had to offer.

Stretching Perception

In the autumn of 2007 I visited the work of Masao Yamamoto at The Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, California.  I had seen his little jewels before, but never in an exhibition.  The prints were perhaps an inch by an inch and a half.  One wall might have but one print.  Another had a cluster of many tucked together off to the side.

The artist statement was as follows:  ”When looking at my installation, I would like the viewer not to try to understand.  Rather, as a landscape, for example, please just view or take a look.  Haiku moment is a translation of the moment when a haiku takes shape, and it is probably a moment that comes to you suddenly, striking your feelings.  Likewise, my installation often reveals its story in front of my eyes at the last minute before the de-installation. It is difficult, however, to describe it by words.”

Photo Diary II

The old man told me there was a cave . . .

The old man told me that there was a cave a few days by canoe down the river. “It’s a big cave, the kids will love it, but it’s hidden by the woods. The only way you can tell it’s there is from the creek that flows out of it down to the river. Good, cold water,” he added.

I went back to the group of twelve students waiting on the gravel bar. In a moment we pushed off to begin a week floating down the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas. I wondered what to do about the cave. I love caves, always have–the intrigue of finding one, and then the reality of exploring it, never knowing where the claustrophophic passages might lead, the thrill heightened by stories of treasures, skeletons, and unsolved mysteries. Caves hold a high position in my adventuring mind. I almost mentioned this one to the group as we set off in the canoes. But I held back, thinking that such an announcement would send a few students into a hell-or-high-water race to the cave, possibly creating an obsession for the next few days at the expense of everything else this river and its banks had to offer.

Three days later we rounded a bend and there, emptying into the river was a creek, clear and cold. I suggested we pull over and send some people up the creek to refill our water bottles. I smiled when, moments later, the forest reverberated with their shouts of “Cave! We found a cave!”

an excerpt from One Thousand Moons, Eddie’s book of images and essays. © Eddie Soloway

Seeing “Maples, Birch, and Rock”

One of my challenges is to convey the essence of a place, a season, a time of day, or a moment. Over the years I have swung between showing the big picture and coming in close to show the details, and for the moment enjoy what I think of as an intimate, intermediate landscape. In this case, an image that gives you a feeling for both the place – an autumn birch and maple forest – and the details – the leaf covered rock in the middle of a stream.

Photo Diary I

One particularly calm evening . . .

One particularly calm evening, I took the canoe out onto Lake Superior. This lake, which holds one-tenth of all the fresh water in the world, is not to be messed with. The wrecks of numerous ships, big ships, lay well-preserved deep below the surface. For the past five days, northeasterlies had prevented me from taking the canoe out beyond the harbor and into the open waters. But tonight, with a full moon rising, the normally wild and awesome lake lay silent. A dark, deep blue, in the hour before pure black, the lake mirrored the sky, both of them melting into an edge hard to discern.

I pushed off into the cool night air, cutting a clean slice with the bow. As I left the protective waters of the harbor, an animal-like alertness tingled across every nerve. From land the lake had seemed calm, glasslike. Sitting on top of it, separated only by a thin hull of aluminum, I felt as though I were balancing on the belly of a very large, sleeping beast. With each breath, a quiet, tremendous force pushed me higher, then moments later set me down. Gentle and massive. Spurred by the same unexplained curiosity that dares a child to touch his tongue against metal on an icy January morning, I dipped the paddle into the rich cobalt water. Then again, and again. For many minutes I pushed farther into the deepening night.

Good sense finally took charge and I stopped paddling and looked back. I could see the shore, but not well. I felt the beast take a deep breath. In the stillness my little canoe rose many feet, then just as quickly fell. Another breath, and back down again. This time I noticed that as I rode into a deep trough I completely lost sight of land. Very much alive, and humbled, I carefully turned the little craft at a right angle to the next wave coming my way, and paddled toward the island.

Back in the arms of the cove, I turned and looked over my shoulder again. The lake took another breath, rose up, then easily pushed me the last few feet to shore.

an excerpt from One Thousand Moons, Eddie’s book of images and essays.  © Eddie Soloway

Seeing “Golden Pool”.

“Golden Pool” was a pivotal image in what was to become a long journey looking for and creating images based around reflections. Walking along a stream in western Maine I bent down and saw the water sing with gold. It was one of those “aha!” moments where I learned that by moving all around – up, down, and to either side – I could discover amazing reflections being bounced from bright sunlight hitting autumn leaves in the canopy above, then once again being bounced off the stream that itself was moving. Little did I know that several years later I would take this idea of bounced color and light, and bring it into new work based upon the abstraction of shapes and details.

Which wolf do you feed?

Journalist Bill Moyers tells a Cherokee story about a tribal elder telling a story to his grandson about a battle he was waging inside himself between two wolves. An evil wolf full of anger, envy, ego, guilt, and all the characteristics that describe evil. And a good wolf, full of joy, purity, love, humility, truth, compassion, and all the characteristics that describe good. His grandson listened, then asked, “Which wolf won?” To which his grandfather said, “The one I feed.”

Moyers was talking about democracy and the press, but I see strong parallels right in front of me with photography. Why we photograph, how we spend our precious time, and what we choose to give our attention to, to feed.

Brainstorming what the blog should be about while circling above Denver.

I have been thinking a lot about what I can contribute with a blog. And I have been taking note of what I want to stay away from. I want to tell stories. Stories about art and making art.  Stories of my own about the nature of experience and experiencing nature.  Profound stories from other people with kernels of insight or inspiration.  And of course, stories captured in an image.  Here we go!