"Illuminated Tiger Lilly 2" and "Illuminated Hydrangea" by Eric Rennie
Two of my images have been selected for a juried competition called "The Garden Variety” at the First Light Gallery in Louisville, KY. The show, which opened October 6, 2017, is part of the Louisville Photo Biennial and is a benefit for the Waterfront Botanical Gardens there. The two images, “Illuminated Hydrangea” and “Illuminated Tiger Lilly 2,” are part of a series taken this summer of flowers photographed close-up in a darkened room using a single beam of high-intensity light for illumination.
"Nooks Hill Road Farm Stand" by Eric Rennie
This photograph is one of 25 images appearing in an exhibition called "Topographies" at the Midwest Center for Photography in Wichita, KS. The show runs from September 29, 2017 to October 13, 2017. Years ago I set myself the task of photographing whatever I could find within walking distance of my house in a small New England river town. As it happens, I live within walking distance of farms, fields, factories, an old rail line, a tidal marsh, a state park overlooking the Connecticut River, a Catholic seminary whose grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead's landscape architectural firm and a large nursery behind my house that grows trees and shrubs. I have photographed all of them at one time or another, although I confess I haven't always walked to my destination. My photo equipment is bulky, and my knees are a bit gimpy these days.
Debut Issue of LIfe Magazine
If you are an aspiring writer, you look to your favorite authors for inspiration. But where do you go if you are a budding photographer? For photographers of a certain vintage, the answer is – or was -- Life Magazine. Pictured here is the cover of the debut issue, featuring a photograph of the Fort Peck Dam by the incomparable Margaret Bourke-White. Although it would be decades before I took up photography seriously myself, I was unwittingly absorbing valuable lessons from some of the world’s best photographers as I pored over the pages of Life Magazine each week.
In 1936 publisher Henry Luce had bought out a struggling humor magazine called Life, stripped it of everything but its title and relaunched it as a weekly photo news magazine. The title of Life’s later rival, Look Magazine, perhaps better captured what Luce’s brainchild was all about. You were supposed to look at the pictures, and the text mainly served to explain what you were looking at. Toward this end, Luce hired some of the best photojournalists of the day, among them Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andreas Feininger, Dorothea Lange and Lee Miller.
Life took advantage of two recent technological innovations to deliver high-quality photojournalism to its readers. The first was the recent availability of compact and durable 35-mm cameras like the Leica with shutter speeds of up to 1/500th of a second, which enabled photographers to go just about anywhere to get a story. The second was the use of heavily coated paper rather than newsprint, which guaranteed excellent photo reproduction quality in a mass-circulation publication. To show its pictures to best advantage, Life was printed in a large format – much larger than anything on newsstands today. The magazine initially sold for a dime. But even though it was an instant success, the magazine took three years to earn a profit due to high production costs. Life remained the nation’s preeminent photo journal until it ceased weekly publication in 1972, the victim of another visual medium -- television.
"Flea" in Robert Hooke's Micrographia
In 1665, the year before the Great Fire in London, the polymath Robert Hooke published a scientific treatise that created a sensation. Entitled Micrographia, the work introduced readers to a whole new world that became visible through a new-fangled device called a microscope. Hook’s discoveries were accompanied by his own exquisitely detailed – and expertly rendered -- copperplate engravings of objects too small to be seen with the naked eye: the cellular structure of cork, a monstrous hairy-legged flea, an ant enlarged enough to send picnickers fleeing in terror. “By the help of microscopes,” Hooke proclaimed, “there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding.” He went on to say that “we now behold almost as great a variety of Creatures, as we were able before to reckon up in the Whole Universe itself.”
Like most other sighted creatures, human beings are engineered to see clearly enough at close range to catch their prey and far enough to spot predators before they themselves become prey. The invention of lens-based magnification devices in the sixteenth century vastly increased their ability to see in either direction. Telescopes opened up the heavens, but initially they did not so much alter our understanding of the stars as add vastly to the number that were now visible. Microscopes, by contrast, opened up a universe of small things that had existed undetected until then. Hooke’s contemporary Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch draper and amateur scientist, perfected the compound microscope and discovered the existence of bacteria, blood corpuscles in capillaries and the teeming life in a drop of water.
Cameras are lens-based devices that mostly work at middle distances. But they can also be outfitted with telescopic lenses to shoot distant objects or be attached to microscopes to capture the sorts of things Hooke was only able to record on copper plates. I rarely use telephoto lenses for my landscape work, for the most part only when physically prevented from getting as close to my subject as I might otherwise wish. On the other hand, I sometimes like to use macro extension tubes to focus more closely on a subject and with greater magnification than would be possible with a lens alone. This spring, for example, I screwed macro extension tubes onto my lens to photograph dramatic closeups of the pink and white blossoms on the crabapple trees in my front yard. A delicate litle flower no larger than a quarter now filled the entire frame of an image taken just a few inches from ts subject, and it was no longer possible to ignore its demure splendor.
What is most striking about the world as seen in extreme closeup is the attention to detail. Hooke’s iconic flea, blown up to the size of a gatefold illustration in Micrographia, is revealed to be a kind of armadillo on stilts, its body, legs and snout bristling with whiskers, each one carefully rendered. How many hours did Hooke spend hunched over his microscope, painstakingly recording by hand everything he had seen? And who originally lavished such detail on a creature smaller than a grain of rice? If you examined one of my digital photographs under a microscope, you would find it be nothing more than a pattern of dots. But if you examined any of God’s smallest creatures under a microscope, you would find it fully formed down to the last detail. If you examined a microcrobe in the intestinal tract of a flea using an electron microscope, there would still be no stinting on detail. So if you were looking here for evidence of God’s handiwork in creation, what might you find? You could only conclude that God is indeed in the details.
"Aunt Mildred's Dresser" (top) and "Aunt Mildred's Sitting Room" (below) are on exhibit in the main gallery at the Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center in Dowell, MD. Entitled "Kindred: Celebrating Our Ancestors," the show runs from from August 11, 2017 to January 28, 2018. For more on these photographs, taken at my grandfather's farm in Blackstone, MA, see below.
My grandfather’s dairy farm was in many ways like on old photograph, seemingly frozen in place as the world moved on. Stepping through the door of the little New England farmhouse that my Aunt Mildred continued to occupy until very recently was like stepping back in time. The interior looked much as it did when I first laid eyes on it over 50 years ago – and probably much as it did when my father grew up there during the Depression. It wasn’t just the antique furniture or the floral-patterned wallpaper or the lace curtains. The house itself had never really been remodeled, only added onto. My grandfather had bought the place in 1910, and the oldest parts of the house dated from 1840.
Taking pictures in the farmhouse, I often found myself photographing other photographs. Almost every flat surface in the front parlor, sitting room and bedrooms was occupied by family photographs, dozens and dozens of them. Aunt Mildred pointed with pride to a black-and-white portrait of her father, a Rhode Island state senator, from the turn of the last century. There were numerous portraits from the same period or older: various ancestors, stiff and unsmiling, in ornate oval frames. There were many later portraits and snapshots -- black and white or color according to their vintage -- of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. There were wedding pictures and group shots of relatives in their Sunday finery.
By the time I began taking pictures of the farm, the young farmer and his wife who bought the place more than a century ago—they and their descendants after them—were long gone. Of all those who ever lived there, the only one who remained was Aunt Mildred, and now she, too, is gone. The are only perishable memories and pictures, including photographs of photographs bearing mute testimony to those who had gone before. This photographic record can never truly make the world stand still. But it will have served its purpose if it can convey something of what once was and what is now gone forever.
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