“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

Destigmatizing Mental Illness

In any given year, fully one in five Americans, that is, more than 60 million people, will meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis.  Yet nearly two-thirds of these people will not take advantage of the lifesaving and burden-easing help they need.  A primary reason for this is the stigma society attaches to mental health conditions, which are all too often seen as shameful, as something best hidden and denied or ignored. 

We attach no similar stigma to physical ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.  But science has shown that the body and the mind are closely linked, each affecting the other in profound ways.  That stigma is so powerful is not only unfortunate but also seriously detrimental. Misunderstanding about mental health conditions puts an unwarranted burden on the affected individuals and, indeed, all of society, which would be healthier if only the public took a more balanced viewpoint.  Some of us face more serious problems than others, of course, but none of us is ever truly “normal”; most of us will experience a significant mental health challenge at some point during our lives.  Accepting illnesses of the mind as equivalent to other ailments will go a long way to enabling those facing mental challenges to obtain needed relief.

Medication and therapy in combination have the potential to do wonders for many types of emotional conditions.  To reach all in our community who could benefit from professional help, it’s important that public perceptions of mental health catch up with modern and sympathetic understanding of the issues.

In Praise of Shadows

Photographers often use the phrase “it’s all about the light” as they seek to create compelling images.  And it’s certainly true that variations in the amount, direction, and quality of light are important to making the kinds of images that draw attention.  At the same time, it’s important not to neglect the shadows in photographs.  However, they’re often relegated to subordinate roles and neglected as the places where light did not happen to fall.  That’s unfortunate, for shadows hold critical importance in making images that demand attention.

Shadows have critical importance for images that demand attention.

Shadows merit being seen as more than the absence of light.  For one thing, especially when they take on definite shapes, shadows can comprise compositional elements within photographs.  Also, while it’s true that a viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn to the lighter and brighter parts of an image, without the presence of shadows as a counterpoint those brighter tones would lose their power of attraction.  In the extreme, deep shadows make up significant areas of negative space with a total image and are essential to drawing attention to the zones where you wish the eye to rest.

This Civil War cannon at the Manassas Battlefield Park in Virginia is silhouetted by the setting sun.  Silhouettes are an especially effective use of shadows.  They work best with sharply defined subjects and simple compositions.

But more than that, the tonal range of shadows is quite wide, ranging from total black to subtly textured tones to more gently shaded areas within overall bright images.  At their greatest depth, shadows impart a sense of mystery by withholding details and thus inviting curiosity and speculation.  Finally, by revealing the direction of the light’s source, shadows add meaning to the interpretation of the light areas of an image.

The light in this tunnel at the ancient Cornish fort at Tintagel is an illustration of receding shadows.  The bright outdoors light at the end of the tunnel is reflected toward the position of the camera which remains in near total darkness.  The blackness of the tunnel’s roofline also exemplifies the use of shadows as background to frame a subject of interest.  The overall effect is one of mystery and offers a sense of discovery.  Might the legendary King Arthur have traversed this pathway, one wonders?

Shadows can impart a sense of mystery by withholding details and thus inviting curiosity and speculation.

The photos presented here are chosen to reflect some of the types of shadows identified by Michael Freeman in his recent and excellent book Light & Shadow.  His work has inspired me to reexamine the ways I’ve used shadows in my own photography over the years and to heighten my sensitivity to the power and possibilities for using shadows to create stronger and more compelling images.

As Freeman notes, post-processing shadows is an art in its own right, and careful treatment is needed to prevent the deeper tones of an image from being averaged into middle tones.  As he emphasizes, modern cameras and processing software are designed to handle the middle tones the best.  To avoid losing the depth of creative potential from shadows, careful exposure and attention to the histogram is essential.  Post-processing is a much deeper subject than I can discuss here.  Freeman’s book is highly recommended for those who wish to delve more deeply into the subject.

For my part, I’ll continue to explore the ways I can use shadows to strengthen my own photographs to make them more powerful and inviting.  Thanks to Freeman, going forward I’ll have a keener awareness of shadows and how I can use them to improve my photographic output.

This image of the Pima County, Arizona, courthouse dome is an example of volumetric lighting.  In this example, gentle shading from right to left reveals the volume of the dome.  Had the lighting been frontal, the dome would have appeared to be flat.
Shadows from the overhead beams at a tourist rest stop in Arizona create sharp geometric lines that outline the view of saguaro cacti appearing in the window.  This exemplifies both the use of shadows as background, as cast shapes, and as repetition in composition, all effective means of employing shadows to engage viewer interest.
A range of mountains in Arizona shows layers of silhouette as they recede into the distance.  This is a specialized form of silhouetting that relies on haze, fog, or smoke to separate the distant layers of mountains.
A young elephant in Kenya whose profile is outlined by backlighting.  The rim lighting on its head and ear, as well as the dust at its feet, contribute intrigue to the image. 
The spiral staircase in the Queen’s House, Greenwich, England, exemplifies a gradual progression of shadows that Michael Freeman calls “graded shadow.”  This type of shadowing reveals structure through gentle variations in tone.  It is found most often in architecture and studio setups but only rarely in natural settings.
The sharply-defined shadow of a steam locomotive is an illustration of a cast shadow, in which the shape of an identifiable subject is projected onto a nearby surface.  Cast shadow images sometimes also include the subject whose shadow is reflected.
This Québecois glassblower, lit by a single light source from above and behind, suggests chiaroscuro lighting.  Chiaroscuro lighting, as it is now understood, relies on a single light source uninterrupted by the atmosphere but filtered through intervening objects.  Chiaroscuro lighting can result in sharply patterned shadows or, as in this instance, dramatic profiling of the subject.
This image of an arcade in one of Washington’s federal government buildings illustrates several types of lighting.  The gently receding shadow from the foreground into the distance exemplifies receding shadows.  The soft outlines of the pillars onto the pathway show a gentle form of cast shadows, as well as the compositional device of repetition.  And the photographer in the foreground is in silhouette.  This combination of shadowing makes this image especially effective.

A Love of Trees

Recently, I’ve been enjoying a small, illustrated volume by the early 20th century German author Hermann Hesse. Appropriately titled Trees, it is a compilation of Hesse’s essays and poetry about a subject he clearly loved, the many species and situations of trees that graced his life.

Sensitively written, his writings explore the features of the trees he encountered from his childhood to his declining years. At the same time, he is often introspective as he probes the trees’ meaning for his life. This charming book is filled with Hesse’s own paintings of the trees that populated his time on earth.

I, too, have a long fascination with trees, and I include here some of my favorite photographs of trees.

What role do trees play in your life? Are there trees in your current life or in bygone years that have special meaning for you? If so, honor them and give them a special place in your heart.

A small grove of trees in the middle of a fallow cornfield not far from my home
A stand of aspen trees in fall colors in northern Arizona
The limbs of this elegant tree reach skyward as a brilliant sun pokes its rays around the massive trunk. On the grounds of the Frank Lloyd Wright Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago
Acacia trees populate the plains of Kenya
A venerable oak tree that long graced the road between my house and town. Alas, it was blown down in a violent wind storm and no longer exists
A stand of trees not far from my home
This tree enhances a hillside not farm from my home
A sycamore stands in the middle of a river in West Virginia
A lone acacia tree at dawn in northern Kenya

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.