Birth of an Elephant

The opportunity to safari in Kenya was a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and photograph big-game animals in their native habitat.  Early on our first morning out in the Land Rovers, we chanced upon a herd of elephants in a state of considerable excitement. During the night a baby elephant had been born to a young mother, herself only half the size of the older matrons of the herd.

The members of the herd, about a dozen in number, milled about uneasily as first one elephant, then another greeted the newborn by touching it with their trunks and bellowing out their joy at this new addition to their community.  I stood up through the open hatch of the Land Rover and, balancing my Nikon and telephoto lens on a bean bag for stability, fired off shot after shot at this fascinating ceremony.

For a time, mother and baby became separated as other females took temporary custody of the baby.  Eventually, though, mother and child were reunited and the rest of the herd settled down to grazing on the branches and tree limbs that proliferated the dry and dusty environment of the Shaba National Reserve in the north of Kenya.  From that point on, the baby was on its own as it struggled to gain its footing, once humorously stumbling forward and landing on its nose.

But in the end, all was well, as can be seen by the smile on the face of this tiny pachyderm, a welcome addition to the threatened and dwindling herds of African elephants.

For the Love of Trains

There’s something about a train that’s hard not to love.  Many of their features are worth noting, but to my way of thinking, it’s the wheels that are most iconic.  This is especially true for the drive wheels of steam locomotives.  They were, after all, the motive power that moved heavy loads across miles of steel.

Relics of the past, the heaving behemoths they carried were once alive with breath and driving power that was visible for all to see.  Though mostly gone now, they remain an indelible part of our heritage and they live on in metaphor and memory, even if rarely seen.

These photos date from the 1970s and 1980s, when the Southern Railroad (now Norfolk Southern), the Chessie System (now CSX), and the Norfolk & Western (also Norfolk Southern) ran steam-powered excursion trains across northern Virginia, where I reside.  Trailing dark tinted plumes of smoke, they traversed miles of rural landscape and drew appreciative crowds at every crossing.

I rode behind these giants many times and even more often frequented the yards to watch them being stoked up and readied to depart.  It was then that these photos were made.  But the trains are now in museums, the yards transmuted into commercial space and parking lots.

The power behind these wheels and the rods that drove them is self-evident.  The wheels and the trains they bore were special.  And they are missed.

Ode to a Bookend

 Now the lion roars in silence
 Haunting phrases bound in covers,
 Mane on paws unsharpened resting,
 Stoic stillness never broken.
 Solidly he lies in waiting,
 Words unseeing, deaf to meaning,
 Yet in majesty he lives,
 Bringing joy to one who watches.
 Will that one the words uncover,
 Will the lessons he discover,
 Or will he, lion-like, live on 
 In ignorance of life and love? 

Fostering Creativity

Creativity is something I prize, and it is one of my constant goals. Whether in photography, woodworking, or the written word, I am always trying to break the bounds of conventionality and express myself in novel ways. Still, I encounter frequent and seemingly impenetrable blockages to self-expression, and I struggle to find ways to develop fresh ideas. Why am I blocked like this, and what might I do to unleash my mind?

Like many others, I succumb to the common belief that creativity happens through sudden and spontaneous inspiration, that it’s the product of serendipity. This viewpoint is well expressed by the cartoon image of a light bulb suddenly flashing on to illuminate the darkness with a bright idea.

Sure, sometimes fresh ideas do seem to appear out of the blue. But I strongly suspect that this is an illusion. More likely, for this to happen there has been some forethought about the situation, be it a problem or opportunity, even if subconscious. Inspirations that seem to be sudden are, as a result, not the flash in the pan they appear to be but the product of preparation, however inadvertent it may be.

But by adhering to the inspirational conception of creativity, I believe I cut myself off from a regular flow of fresh ideas and thus limit myself to randomly occurring thoughts. This is a restricted view of the creative process that contains its own limitations on new possibilities.

The larger question is, how can I foster creative thoughts as a regular practice? The research and writing on creativity contains a strong thread suggesting that creativity is less the result of inspiration than it is of the hard work of preparing the mind. Such preparation might consist of researching alternatives, assembling known ideas, carefully defining the situation at hand, and pursuing possibilities. According to this view, when the mind is thus prepared, it is better able to recognize viable ideas when they emerge.

This is not a conception that originates with me. The noted French pathologist Louis Pasteur is famously quoted as saying that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Others have expressed similar ideas. Thomas Edison is variously quoted as stating that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, said much the same thing in asserting that solid preparation sets the stage for invention.

So where does this leave me? If I hope to innovate, to spur fresh ideas, then clearly I must prepare myself for them. The more I consciously assemble my thoughts and examine the work others have done before me, the better I will have built a framework for assessing alternatives and recognizing good ideas for what they are.

Experimentation is one major means of trying out ideas. In a formal sense, it involves the repetitive trial of one possibility after another, looking for a best fit. But experiments need not be drudgery. They can be undertaken in a spirit of playfulness and when they are, the mind may be more open to previously unthought of ideas. So, incorporating more play into my daily practice may well be a major entry into new ways of doing things.

My daily practice of journaling is one example of this. By allowing my mind to range freely over whatever themes are on my mind each day, I probe the underpinnings of my thoughts and allow myself the chance to explore alternatives in a free form of expression. Therefore, if I apply the same free thinking and playful methodology to my photography, my woodworking, and even my public service, I may well come up with creative ideas that will better meet my needs and desires.

A Time to Give Back

Yesterday, I received word of my appointment to a three-year term of service on the governing board of the Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services (RRCS). RRCS is a publicly supported agency that provides a wide range of social services in the five-county region lying just north of Charlottesville, Virginia. As one of three representatives from Fauquier County where I reside, I’ll serve on the 15-member board that governs the agency and promotes support for its objectives.

The RRCS is a broad-based organization with programs for infants and youth, adults, and seniors in a broad range of areas that include mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disability services, as well as services for the aging.

This is an appointment I had eagerly sought for several years. I am, therefore, both gratified and excited to have received it. My reasons derive from my personal experiences with the mental health system over the two decades I’ve been involved with it. It has now been 20 years since I found myself in a life-threatening situation from which I was only saved by the support I received from caring mental health professionals. Because of that support and also because of my lifelong belief in the requirement that citizens should give back to the community that supports them, I have felt a strong need to give something back myself.

I was fortunate to have both insurance and the personal resources to use privately paid services for my support and recovery from depression and other conditions. But many in our society are not so fortunate and lack both the insurance and personal resources to afford private services. As a result, they depend on public agencies such as the RRCS for the help they require.

Mental health and substance abuse services, in particular, are woefully underfunded and understaffed nationally, and my region is no exception to this pattern. Some areas, in fact, offer no public services at all, so my region is fortunate to offer at least basic services.

Two challenges loom large in this area of work. One is the widespread but erroneous belief that illnesses that are brain-based or derived from chemical dependency somehow reflect individual flaws and failures. The other is the equally widespread failure to comprehend that wise investments in social services yield significant positive returns in both national productivity as well as quality of life.

It is my hope that in this new role I will not only help to manage the RRCS so that it is both efficient and effective but also to make the public case that mental health and substance abuse services, among others RRCS provides, are both valuable and good civic investments in a well-functioning economy and society.  To that end, I expect to write much more about these issues in the future.

As it is said in Ecclesiastes 3, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, . . .” In my life, it is now the time to give back.

Shoot Adjectives, Not Nouns

In a recent podcast, Harold Davis, noted photographer and author of many excellent books, advised photographers to “shoot adjectives and adverbs, not nouns and verbs.” What in the world did he mean by this, and what are its implications for photography?

I can only give my take on his meaning. I believe his intent is to shift the focus from things (nouns) and actions (verbs) toward qualities (adjectives and adverbs). This implies concentrating photography on concepts and meanings rather than on objects or events.

Yes, these nuts and bolts are objects and thus nouns, but they also represent the concepts of hardness and strength.

Following his advice could bring an entirely new dimension to photography. By placing emphasis on abstract concepts, ideas, and values, photography would be more open to introspection and interpretations. It would help engage thinking about the meaning of the photos at a deeper level of appreciation than simply being a pretty picture.

To me, this gently rippling water reflects calm, which can be both a noun and an adjective, the way I am using it here

Adjectives, of course, modify nouns and express qualities of the objects to which they relate. At a simple level, adjectives help define the physical features of a scene: large or small, heavy or lightweight, wide or narrow, light or dark, wet or dry, rough or smooth. But as we look more deeply, they become more conceptually interesting: for example, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, quiet or loud, separate or joined, safe or risky, crowded or solitary. Each of these adjectives, along with others you can readily imagine, can become the object of pursuit in photography. Imagine, if you will, a photo essay on the concept of strength or weakness as one possibility.

The adjectives wet or damp define this close-up photo of a water-spattered CD

Adverbs are somewhat more elusive. They modify both verbs and adjectives and express such things as number, place, time, frequency, degree, and level of certainty. As such, they convey how, when, where, and to what extent something is the case. Examples are such terms as some, often, frequently, and seldom. You might think of photos that portray progressions or repetition as means to reflect the adverbs that define a scene, as one example.

These feathers reflect lightness or gentleness

The samples I’ve given here are simple ones, at an elementary level of conception. More subtle and complex subjects can also be addressed and if so, they would bring an even deeper level of meaning to photographs. Often, these will relate more closely to the human condition. For instance, consider the anguished look in the face of one who has lost a friend or relative to Covid, or the harried expression of another in a quandary about financial difficulties brought on by the pandemic. But they can also relate to impersonal scenes with human implications, such as a dark and moody street corner. Illustrations like these will require more introspection and a contemplative approach to scene selection and technical treatment. However, they can also be more rewarding to the photographer and the viewer alike.

I like Davis’s advice and I intend to apply it to my own photography. Not only will it help me delve more deeply into conceptual meanings and thus add depth to my images, but it will also give me a goal, a purpose, a target for the creation of new images. And that, I think, will kindle a new fire of excitement for my photographic passion.

Seize Your Opportunities

Although many photographers are fortunate enough to take special photo tours and workshops where image-making is the chief activity, most of the time our photo work happens in spare time and odd moments between other activities. For these occasions, it’s a cardinal principle that when you come upon a good photo opportunity, do not pass it by.

This cotton field in southern Arizona seems well-suited for a landscape photo. Seeing it, I pulled to the side of the road and composed the shot. It has proven to be one of my best sellers over the years.

This is, of course, a case of do as I say, not as I do. I find it easy to bypass what might be good photo opportunities. Consider some of my reasons:

  • I’m in a hurry and don’t have time to stop
  • There’s no good place to park; I’d have to walk a longer distance than convenient
  • I’ll find a better photo spot later
  • I don’t want to attract attention
  • The scene is probably not as good as it appears
  • I’ll have to work too hard to make the best use of the opportunity
  • I’ll come back later when I’ve got more time or I’m not as tired

I’ve used all these excuses and I do so daily. Mea culpa.

The truth is, though, there is no “later.”  The lighting, which is probably what caught my eye in the first place, is sure to change. Seasonal conditions will evolve. Other elements that make up the scene may well be different later.

On an evening drive to Wyoming on a business trip, I spied this windmill silhouetted against a golden sky. It would have been easy to pass it by, as I so often do. But by taking a few minutes to set up my tripod and compose the image, I came away with a memorable shot.

Of course, what looks like a good photo opportunity may turn out to be disappointing. On the other hand, it may prove to yield spectacular even if unanticipated images.

So, here’s my point: if you’re serious about discovering photos, allow time for serendipity. And then, when you see what seems like a good situation, make the effort to take advantage of it. The chances are your opportunity to make an image that good in that place will never happen again.

I passed this stately oak tree countless times without stopping. Then one day, seeing it starkly silhouetted against freshly fallen snow, I parked and made this image. It’s fortunate that I did, for the ancient tree was later demolished in a period of high winds and is now no more than a distant memory.

As it is in photography, so also in life.  When an opportunity arises, seize it.  It may never again return.

Photographing Covered Bridges

One of my fascinations is photographing covered bridges. Often considered to be relics of a bygone era, they evoke a spirit of nostalgia. Though many have been replaced by steel and, more likely, concrete structures, many are still standing, more than a few in daily use.

Chiselville Bridge, a 117-foot town lattice type bridge, near Sunderland, Vermont

Though they can be found throughout the U.S., they seem to abound in the northeastern states, where many can be found lurking on rural roads. I’ve hunted them in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and other states in my quest to document these charming structures.

State Road Bridge, a town truss type. It is 157′ long and was built in 1983. It crosses Conneaut Creek in Ashtabula County, Ohio

I’ve had some fine and memorable days hunting these obscure and frequently well-hidden treasures. On one especially memorable day, my mother and I drove all over Ashtabula County, Ohio, which has one of the highest concentrations of these wooden structures of any county in America. She navigated as I traversed the countryside in search of often poorly marked locations. We delighted as much at our joy for this shared adventure as on finding and photographing our objectives on a fine, sunny day.

Henry Bridge, a 121-foot town lattice type bridge, near Bennington, Vermont

I’m hardly the only photographer with this passion. Numerous guidebooks to covered bridges are available and significant data and photos are easily found on the web.

Brown Bridge, a 100-foot town lattice type bridge, near Shrewsbury, Vermont

Lest I leave the wrong impression, these bridges, despite their horse and buggy history, are still efficient for their purposes in rural areas they serve. They are relatively inexpensive to build and maintain for use in low-volume areas. Some locales—Ashtabula County, Ohio, in particular—are using them as an important part of their transportation strategy and are even building new bridges to complement their inventory of historic bridges.

Meems Bottom Bridge, a 204-foot single-span Burr arch truss crossing the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, Shenandoah County, Virginia

Still, covered bridges are at significant risk. Many have been lost in floods or to vandal-set fires. Not all are repaired when this happens and so, once lost, they are wiped away from all but memory and the photos they’ve left behind. Adding to this visual record is one reason I’m motivated to capture images of them. But most of all, I simply enjoy seeing them and, I confess, reliving in my mind a time of long ago.

On the Whole I’d Rather Be a Bullfrog

I’d rather be a bullfrog
and lie about the pond
and dine on flies and skeeters
and things of which I’m fond.

I’d like to be a croaker
and stay up late at night
to blend my voice in joyful song
to all the pond’s delight.

I’d love to have long, limber legs
to jump from spot to spot
and when I want to, play with toads,
and leap away when not.

Oh, if I were a great big frog
all handsomed out in green,
I’d hide along the water’s edge
and never would be seen.

I want to have a long pink tongue
and shoot it out so fast
that if a bug flew near me,
its flight would be its last.

They say frogs taste like chicken,
and while no one eats their eggs
I’d have to be real careful
or I’d end up French fried legs.

Making Intimate Landscape Photos

One of my goals as a photographer is to make interesting and expressive intimate landscapes. I discussed these as an art form in earlier posting. To help my learning, I’ve been seeking advice about what makes a good intimate landscape and the practices that will help me succeed. I’d like to share what I’m learning.

1. Finding subjects is a specialized task. My eyes are trained to identify grand landscapes. In addition, I’m accustomed to making close-ups and macrophotographic images. But identifying good subjects for intimate landscapes, which lie in between, requires tuning the eye to see differently. One place to look is the foreground of an otherwise grand landscape, as long as it’s a subject that can stand on its own. But middle ground and even background images can also be used. The key is to look for interesting colors, textures, patterns, and relationships among the objects in the scene.  One advantage of intimate landscapes is that they can be found in most locales, so long trips are not needed.

Must they be limited to the natural world? Most photographers would say yes, that the hand of man should not be evident within the frame. But some photographers choose to photograph groups of manmade objects. While these photos can be quite effective, I’m not inclined to include them in my definition of an intimate landscape. That doesn’t mean I won’t make such images; I do and will continue to do so. But I’ll simply refer to them by another name.

What drew me to this scene was the color in the rock and the patterns of the white ripples against the brown of the river bottom. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
While I enjoy photographing groups of objects such as this block and tackle composition, I don’t describe them as intimate landscapes. Nova Scotia.

2. Lens selection should enable abstracting scenes. Normally, this means using either a medium telephoto lens or a 70-200mm zoom. The latter is favored by William Neill for its ability to reach into a scene and abstract portions of it from its larger context. However, at least one photographer argues that wide-angle lenses can also be used to good effect, though they need to emphasize the relationship among a few objects and does not pull in a wide scene.  At other times, longer lenses may be used with good effect to abstract small parts of a larger scene.

3. Lighting will tend to be a subordinate consideration. Flat lighting, either from an overcast day or a subject covered in shade, puts the emphasis on the subject and its colors. Effective photos can also be made during the “pastel hours” before sunrise and after sunset. This is not to say that intimate landscapes cannot or should not be attempted at other hours, such as in the golden light of sunrise or sunset. But the emphasis on the subject is stronger if the lighting is understated and does not compete for attention.

An overcast day helped emphasize the brilliant colors of this autumn scene in Virginia.
This grouping of ferns would have been blown out had it been photographed in sunlight. Instead, the flat lighting of an overcast sky allowed the richness of the greens and yellows to stand out. Maine.

4. Move in close for intimate compositions. Either by moving yourself and your camera closer to the subject or by using a longer lens, eliminate all the non-essential elements in the larger scene to focus on the intimate details. Usually, it’s best to keep the sky out of the photograph altogether.

A tight focus places attention on this suggestive composition of lichen-covered rocks. Isles of Scilly, United Kingdom.
Although intimate landscapes normally exclude the sky from the images, there are times when the sky can be an effective element in the composition, as in the case of this silhouetted tree. Chicago.

5. Composition is especially important. Intimate landscapes, if not crafted carefully, can easily be confusing and lack a clear focus or organization. The most successful intimate landscapes will be organized around shapes, textures, patterns, or colors that cohere thematically. The image usually needs some kind of focal point, toward which the other elements relate. The arrangement of the elements of the scene, their relationships with each other, can be especially important.

Though this image is quite busy with details, the diagonal alignment of the tree root gives it overall organization and coherence. The leaf and feather add points of interest to the composition. Proving that intimate landscapes can be made close to home, this photo was made in my own Virginia back yard.

6. Look for abstracts. Some compositions will appear as abstractions. Often these will be close-up images. Abstract images can be especially interesting and invite visual exploration by the viewer.

The flow of mineral-laden water from natural thermal pools creates a riot of color suggesting an impressionistic painting. Biscuit Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

7. Study the masters for ideas and inspiration. This is the, I think, best advice I’ve found. Identify photographers whose work you find inspiring and study their techniques. Eliot Porter invented the intimate landscape medium and his books, available in used markets, are an important source of inspiration. I especially like the work of William Neill, about whom I’ve written in earlier posts.

I’ll do my best to implement these suggestions in my own work. As I do, I’ll share my work in this space.