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“Know Thyself”

“Know thyself,” the famous words inscribed on the ancient temple at Delphi, underscore the importance of understanding oneself deeply. Self-understanding can be achieved at varying levels, however. One’s principal likes and dislikes, one’s inclinations toward or away from certain behaviors, even one’s chief virtues or vices lie at one level. These may be easily seen and in a sense tend to be superficially brought to our awareness.

But deeper self-awareness is not only desirable but possible. Many of our character flaws and weaknesses lie beneath our ready ability to see. Others, perhaps, may see what we cannot see or are unwilling to confront. Likewise, we may undervalue our strengths and talents. We may hide them out of fear of failure, or we may be oblivious to their existence at all.

Uncovering those deeper traits can be a difficult and sometimes painful process. It calls for deep introspection. It requires constant attention to the nuanced feedback we get from others. And it demands willingness to admit, at least to ourselves, the errors and failures we commit.

I readily admit to my own imperfections. To help identify and overcome them, I continually try to understand myself, my deeper motives and proclivities, and how they condition the ways I act. To prod myself to dive more deeply into my character traits, I find it helpful to have a source of inspiration. For that reason, I collect quotations and pointed advice from any sources I find helpful. Many of these are collected in a short book I published, On Living Well: Reflections on Creating a Good Life (Amazon).

I wrote this book for me, though others may find it helpful as well. I carry out a daily practice with the book; I open my copy to a random page and absorb the wisdom that’s printed there. This helps me elevate my thinking to a higher plane, above the mundane, and pose probing questions that will help me achieve more profound self-knowledge.

I’d like to share a few of these expressions to illustrate my point. Perhaps you, too, will find these to be meaningful.

Marcus Aurelius, one of the “good” Roman emperors and an incisive practitioner of the Stoic philosophy. His Meditations have been a source of inspiration to millions over the two millennia since their writing,

“It is much harder to judge yourself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself, it’s because you are truly a wise man.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is distraction, yet that is the greatest of our wretchednesses. Because that is what prevents us from thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to damnation.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 33

“A great failing: to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Fragments, 476

“Few people have sense enough to prefer blame from which they can benefit to praise which leads them astray.” La Rochefoucauld, The Maxims, 147

“Our evil is not just in the outside, it is within us, it is seated in our vitals–and it is that much harder to attain health when we do not know we are sick.” Seneca, Epistles, 50.3-4

Abstract Photos as Art

I’ve started a year-long course in creative photography with Lori Lankford. The course is designed to expand my photographic vision and stimulate me to take new approaches to creativity. The class is conducted on-line, with participants sharing their work and offering helpful comments on the postings.

Each month we will have a new theme. Lori provides guidance for approaching that theme, along with inspirational materials to stimulate us.

The theme for January was abstracts. Three subjects were suggested for creating abstract art through photography:

  • Natural elements
  • Household objects
  • Reflections of light through glass

Lori stresses several elements that go to make up successful abstract photos:

  • Simplicity
  • Angle of View
  • Shape, Texture, Line and Form
  • Composition
  • Lighting
  • Mystery

I had a lot of fun with these themes, and here I share some of the work I created. I hope you find it enjoyable and I look forward to your thoughts about these images. As you can see, I had the most fun, and I think success, with the third theme–capturing the lines and colors of light as it passes through glass of different hues.

This image is a close-up of a thistle teasel, edited first in Adobe Lightroom and then in PHotoshop.
This image is a row of staples, highly magnified, and lit with a blue Lume Cube light.
This photos is a macro shot of several glass bottles backlit with a small Lume Cube light. I focused on the intersection between the bottles to get the linear effect.
Another close-up shot, highly magnified, of the intersection between several differently colored bottles.
This image is also a highly magnified close-up. I think it has a mysterious look to it, which Lori emphasizes as an important aspect of successful abstracts.
The brilliant colors of this image, while eye catching, nonetheless show mystery.

The Pleasures of Fountain Pens

As I write this, I am keenly aware that I live in a Golden Age—of fountain pens.  I’ve used fountain pens nearly exclusively since my days of making classroom notes in college.  Back in those days, it was the Shaeffer cartridge pens that sold for a dollar.  I refilled the cartridges from a bottle using a hypodermic syringe to save much-needed cash and wrote with them until the nibs—the writing end of the pen—wore out and broke off.

Since those early days, fountain pens were nearly eclipsed by ballpoint pens, at first the ever-present and evidently multi-functional BIC, then later by more sophisticated and capable models.  But fountain pens never entirely disappeared.  And they have now rebounded in astonishing variety and wide availability.

Today you will find many makers of fountain pens, offering an expanding and ever-changing range of models.  They’re produced in many countries, with Italy and Japan among the most prominent.  But high-quality pens are produced in England, France, Germany, and, yes, the United States.

An English Yard-O-Led Astoria Grand, one of many colors and designs of pens available today

The key to a good quality fountain pen is in the nib, the iconic pointed end that is what glides across the paper and applies the liquid ink in a smooth, continuous flow.  Nibs come in many sizes and shapes, from extra fine to Italic broad, though fine and medium nibs are the most popular.  My preference is for a medium, which fits my style of writing best.  The material from which nibs are made also varies.  The finest are made of gold, and these range from 14 karat to 24 karat in fineness; the higher the karat number, the smoother the writing experience that can be expected.  To hold down costs, though, many makers offer pens with steel nibs, sometimes rhodium coated to enhance smoothness.  Steel nibs tend to offer a stiffer feel than gold nibs, though even steel nibs vary greatly in quality and some rival golden ones in smoothness.

An Italian Stipula Etruria with an 18 karat nib

Pens come in a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns.  This, frankly, is one of their attractions—that one can choose a pen, or many pens, that suite one’s personality or the whims of the moment.

The cap of this Stipula Gladiator pen reflects the symbols of that trade

To be sure, writing with a fountain pen carries with it some liabilities.  Freshly applied ink can, if carelessly handled, smudge.  Fingers sometimes accumulate stains in blue or black or another hue.  Raindrops—or sneezes—can spot carefully drafted letters.

But the benefits of expressing oneself with a fountain pen far outweigh these minor inconveniences.  Fountain pens offer an unparalleled opportunity for expressive writing.  Consider first of all the experience of a pen gliding effortlessly across a page, the ink flowing smoothly, evenly, boldly.  For those whose hand forms clean and shapely letters, fountain pen writing can be elegant in a way no ballpoint pen or rollerball can ever hope to achieve.

An American made Wahl-Eversharp Skyline

And then there is ink, the lifeblood of fountain pen writing, that essential fluid that lays down letters that resolve into words and phrases.  Inks are as variable as their many makers and a large variety is available to sample and apply.  Black inks and shades of blue are perennial favorites, but they hardly stand alone.  One can find almost any color in various hues and degrees of saturation—more than enough to fit any personality or mood of the moment.

As for me, I perform all my writing, from daily journaling to creative writing to grocery lists and entries in my planner, with fountain pens.  I abhor the stiff, unresponsive feel of a ballpoint and I’ll only use one to fill out forms that require pressure to show through on underlying copies.  It’s true that I own a plentiful collection of pens to accommodate the varied uses to which I put them, my moods at any moment, and simply to assure that I always have a fully charged writing instrument at hand at all times.

An Italian Aurora Optima pen, featuring an Italic nib

I love writing with my fountain pens.  They make the process of writing enjoyable, so much so that I rite as often as I can make the chance.  This essay, for example, was first drafted in black with a fountain pen—in cursive, but don’t get me started on that sore subject. Nothing beats a good fountain pen.  If, like me, you’re a lover of letters, words, and phrases, you’ll surely like composing them with the fluidity a fountain pen offers.  If you haven’t yet experienced one, I recommend that you give it a try.  To find one, just search the web for fountain pens and you’ll find many dealers and a wide range of offerings.  If you do, you may just, like me, fall in love with them.

A Blanket Chest Creation

I recently completed a blanket chest that I made on commission for a friend. It is made of unsteamed walnut and features a live edge front, which serves as the lift for the top. Most walnut goes through a steaming process during curing. This creates a uniform dark walnut color throughout the whole board, a feature that’s desired by the furniture industry. But that process robs the wood of its natural color and character. I was fortunate to have access to some walnut that had not been steamed. This wood, as the photos illustrate, has a lot of character in the grain, which is the principal feature in the attractiveness of this piece.

The front panels feature swirling grain that gives the chest a dramatic look. The top grain is also visible in this photo.

The “live edge” is the rough, natural edge of the board, uncut from its original shape. I left it on the front edge of the top to give the piece a natural, rustic look. The edge protrudes about an inch from the front of the chest and allows the lid to be raised by grasping the front of the lid.

The lid is attached with wrought iron strap hinges that fit the rustic character of this piece. The lid is held in position by a traditional method, a prop stick that fits into a notch cut into the underside of the lid.

The dramatic grain on the lid is visible in this image, which also displays the prop stick holding the lid in the open position

While the body of the chest is built of walnut, the bottom is unfinished cedar, which will allow the natural cedar oils to infuse the contents and help ward off attacks by moths. Cedar has long been used for moth-proofing in chests, drawers, and closets.

Another view of the chest, showing the strap hinges that attach the lid to the case

This is, in my opinion, one of the finest pieces I’ve ever built and I’m proud to have made it. I am sure it will be an heirloom in the family to which it will be going. Oh, and yes, I did sign the chest, on the underside of the bottom!

I don’t do many commissions. But I have some of this same walnut left from this project, and it is going to be used to make a baby cradle for my stepson and his wife, who are expecting in a few months.

Lunar Eclipse

Last night a lunar eclipse was visible throughout much of the world. The sky where I live (in northern Virginia) was perfectly clear, which gave me an opportunity to make a few photos of this celestial event that show the stages of the lunar eclipse. These images were all made from my yard, which gave me a clear view of the moon as it evolved through its phases. I present some of my photos here for your enjoyment.

The photos were made with a Nikon Z9 and a Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm, tripod mounted of course. They’ve been enlarged here to emphasize details.

First quarter of the lunar eclipse
First quarter of the eclipse

Second quarter of the lunar eclipse
Second quarter of the eclipse
The nearly total lunar eclipse
The eclipse is nearly total

In the Museum Garden

Yesterday, my photography club, the Shenandoah Photographic Society, held a photo shoot at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia. We arrived in mid-morning and, after greeting each other following a long Covid-enforced separation, we each set out on our individual paths to photograph the environs. I chose to go to the garden area. The gardens were the formal gardens of the Glen Burnie House of James Woods, one of Winchester’s eighteenth century founders. The gardens feature many pathways leading to a variety of points of interest. The photos that follow reflect some of the sights that attracted my attention and that of my lens.

A squirrel poking out of a hole in a large tree greeted me as I entered the garden
One of many statues, this one in the Japanese garden portion of the park
The sundial says it’s 11:05, just as my watch confirms!
This Japanese maple, dressed in fall plumage, graces the edge of a small pond
A weary traveler resting on the step of a stile in the stone fence surrounding the gardens
A long arbor leads to a statue, here rendered in black and white

Seeking Deeper Meaning

As a photographer, I’m striving to make not merely pretty pictures—I’m adept enough to make beautiful postcard shots—but to achieve what might be considered art.  What art is, of course, is a deep subject with philosophical considerations I’ll leave for another day.  For today, let me state it another way.  Influenced by the work of Edward Weston, Minor White, Huntington Witherill, among others, I am persuaded that there can and probably ought to be deeper meaning in good photos than the surface representation of what lies before the lens.  But how does one see that deeper meaning?  And, can it be defined in terms that are actionable?

I’ve just begun reading a used bookstore find, Wynn Bullock: Photography, A Way of Life, compiled by his daughter, Barbara Bullock-Wilson.  In addition to presenting a selection of his photographic output, it probes the thought processes he underwent in approaching his subjects.  Though I’ve only begun reading and studying this book, already I’ve gleaned some important messages.  I think they may offer me the handle I’m seeking to enhance the meaning in my own work.

Bullock recognized that the words we use to describe things and the categories to which we assign them, while helpful in daily living, impose often severe limits on our ability to perceive their essence.  As a photographer, it is impossible for me to represent that essence unless I’m able to strip away convention to see what exists in full reality.  Looking at the world though new, fresh, unburdened eyes is thus the challenge I need to undertake.

I am only at the start of my journey to enhance my capacity to perceive.  My intention is to study not only Bullock and his work but also Edward Weston, who Bullock took as his model.  I will revisit my books on contemplative photography to mine them for methods of stepping beyond surface appearances.  But most important, and most difficult, will be my attempt to approach the world with eyes not encumbered by convention, by established definitions, by culturally imposed constraints.

Sea washed and sun bleached, this driftwood tree is reduced to its skeletal essence

I’ve chosen three photos to accompany this essay.  They represent an illustration of my present ability to seek and portray deeper meaning through my images.  Have I succeeded?  How much better must I do to achieve my intention?  If nothing else, I think my choice of tree roots as my subjects quite unintentionally symbolizes the fact that I must, if I am to succeed, return to basics, to strip away the culture-bound way of seeing to which I’ve become habituated.  That prospect is at once exciting and humbling.

Embedded in a snow-dusted embankment, this gnarled tree struggles to retain its grasp

I’ll pose one additional thought.  The images I’ve presented are in monochrome.  Both Bullock and Weston are also noted for their extensive work in black & white.  Is there are necessary relationship between expressing the essence of things and the choice of monochrome to reveal it?  Does color inevitably get in the way?  What do you think?  I’ll leave this weighty subject for speculation on another day.

Gate Post Ornaments

Fences are a favorite photographic subject of mine. There are, in the area where I live, many types and situations of fencing, which makes quite a variety of interesting material for my camera. One of the variations on this theme is the range of gate post ornamentation.

For the most part, the ornaments are representations of animals of one species or another. Lions and eagles are perhaps the most common, but as the following photos illustrate, numerous other animals are represented. Occasionally the figure of a child is used to attract travelers. And inanimate objects, most prominently the pineapple, are found.

The photos that follow show the range of ornamentation to be found in my region of northern Virginia.

Figures of lions are common guardians of gates. They are found in a variety of sizes and poses.
Fox hunting is an aristocratic sport in my region, and foxes are often used to connect with this local avocation.
Another lion is dressed in a poinsettia wreath for the Christmas season.
While eagles are common, other birds such as this turkey are not. Yet wild turkeys are common in this area and a turkey on a gate post seems appropriate.
A squirrel guards its hoard of nuts.
Although not statuary, a horseshoe is a fitting symbol for Virginia’s horse country.
Yet another fox guards the entrance to a home.
Pineapples are a frequently seen bit of statuary.
A variation on the pineapple theme.
The angel seated on an orb is perhaps the most unusual gate post ornament I’ve found, this one dressed in holiday garb.

Autumn in New York

We went back to Letchworth State Park for a second day of photography, this time focusing on intimate landscapes rather than the grand landscapes I showed in my last posting. The colors of the leaves remained at their peak, creating brilliant displays of the best the season has to offer. Following are some of the images I created. I hope you enjoy them. If so, feel free to leave comments.

The sun backlighting the yellow leaves created brilliant patterns in the dark woods.
The oranges and yellows of the leaves stood out against the dark tree trunks of the forest
There were fewer birch trees than expected, but the ones we found often provided a dramatic contrast to the darker trunks of other trees
Detail from one of the birch trees
Another view of the bright yellow leaves lit by sun coming through the trees from behind
The dark tree trunks point upward toward the wonderful rusts of the leaves
A final image of yellow sunlit leaves

Autumn Colors at Letchworth

This week I’ve been touring Letchworth State Park to photograph its dramatic scenery while adorned with autumn colors. You’ve been where? What’s Letchworth? Let me explain.

Letchworth State Park is located about 50 miles from Buffalo and Rochester in upstate New York State. It consists off a valley with dramatic cliffs overlooking the Genesee River gorge. It is home to several dramatic waterfalls. It has been rightly voted the number one state park in the country, though it has some stiff competition, and also known as the Grand Canyon of the East. In this season, it is gorgeous in fall drapery. I happened to be here, with my wife and good friends, at just the peak time!

What follows are some of the photos I have made thus far while touring the park. I hope you enjoy them. And, if you live anywhere near the park, I encourage you to come and enjoy its beauty!

The northern section of the gorge, with the Genessee River flowing through brilliantly colored cliffs
Farther south, the Genessee River winds through more dramatic scenery
Some dramatic leaf detail viewed from above
Middle and Uppper Falls
A closer view of Middle Falls
A rock formation resembling a face appears in Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park, New York
This delicate waterfall has no name that I know of, but I was taken by its beauty
Upper Falls and the railroad bridge that crosses the gorge; we were not lucky enough to see a train crossing it, though we did hear one from a distance

Busted

I was just setting out on what I hoped would be a great photographic venture, a peak leaf season voyage to upstate New York’s Letchworth State Park.  Known sometimes as the Grand Canyon of the east, this large expanse not far from Rochester was carved by the Genesee River.  Here one finds magnificent high cliffs, panoramic vistas, spectacular waterfalls, and—in the autumn—the brilliant red and golden hues of the season.

Along with me was my beloved, relatively new Nikon Z9 camera, the flagship of the Nikon line and a beautifully engineered and crafted creative tool.  It rested safely, or so I thought, on the rear seat, protected behind the tripod I’d stored in a soft carrying bag.

A tractor trailer crash on the Interstate blocked all lanes, so I chose a rural route through scenic landscape to avoid the otherwise inevitable miles-long backup.  A wise choice, but with unforeseen consequences.

Two cars preceded me on the two-lane highway.  Though following at a safe distance, I nonetheless suddenly found my car closing rapidly on the car in front, which had stopped for first car to make a left turn into a tourist trap.  To avoid a collision, I applied the brakes, vigorously.  Too vigorously, as it turned out.

My car lurched to slow speed.  As it did, I heard a clunk coming from the rear seat as things shifted around. I thought nothing of it. 

Only when I arrived at my destination did I discover my camera lying on the rear floor and the damage that had occurred.  As the photos show, the LCD screen was punctured, probably by a sharp point on my tripod.  The screen’s functioning was destroyed, and with it went my chance to put this magical piece of image-making gear through its paces.  My camera was well and truly busted.  And so, my fond aspirations dashed, was I.

Detailed view of my cracked LCD screen