Up Before Dawn

July 12, 2018

"Up Before Dawn 9" by Eric Rennie

Those of you planning to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer may wish to drop by the Cooperstown Art Association's 83rd Annual National Juried Art Exhibition, where you can see my photograph above.  The show runs from July 13 - August 17, 2018.  The juror is ceramacist Yulia Hanansen.  This image is part of a long-stading project of mine to take pictures within walking distance of my house.  In this case, all I had to do was step out of the sliding-glass door in my living room to photograph my neighbor's property shortly before dawn on a winter's morning.  The Cooperstown Art Association is right across the street from the Baseball Hall of Fame.    

Memory of Place

June 30, 2018

Two of my images (see below) are among 40 selected for a juried competition called "Memory of Place" at the Southeast Center for Photography in Greenville, SC.  The exhibition runs from July 6, 2018 to July 28, 2018. The juror is Susan Spiritus, owner of a fine arts photography gallery of the same name in Irvine, CA.

"Abandoned 2" by Eric Rennie


"Eight Chairs by an Old Barn" by Eric Rennie


June 14, 2018


NASA "Blue Marble" Shot (1972) by Apollo Astronaut Harrison Schmitt

The physicist Fred Hoyle predicted in 1948 that once a photograph of the entire earth was taken from outer space “a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”  His words were prophetic.  NASA’s famous “Blue Marble” shot, taken on the final Apollo manned moon mission in 1972, created a worldwide sensation when it was released.  Nearly 50 years later, it remains the only image taken by astronauts of the entire globe and is believed to be one of the most widely reproduced photographs of all time.  Our brilliantly illuminated planet, pictured looking up at Antarctica and the continent of Africa from below, does indeed appear like a giant blue glass marble set off against the inky blackness of space.  

The photo op had not been part of the original mission plan.  The shot was taken five hours into the flight, with the Apollo 17 spacecraft positioned so the entire planet was lit up as it sped toward the moon.  Astronaut Harrison Schmitt* seized the opportunity to take the earth’s picture with a modified 70-mm Hasselblad  – the only camera not stowed away for use later in the flight.  

The curious thing is that the photo was published upside down.  You would never know it to look at the image, because Antarctica appears at the bottom of the picture where you would expect it.  However, the spacecraft was oriented in such a way that the South Pole was actually at the top of the world and the Arabian peninsula at the bottom when the picture was taken.  The photographer was 28,000 miles from home in zero gravity and would have had no bodily sense of up and down.  There is, of course, no particular reason why north should always be up and south down. Presumably NASA decided to adhere to earthly convention so as not to confuse people.

Humans have been mapping our world for some 16,000 years, but only in last few centuries has north been consistently positioned at the top.  For example, although Christopher Columbus navigated by the North Star when he set sail for the New World, he thought of east as being the top of the world because he believed that was the direction of paradise.  North only took top honors starting with the Mercator map in 1569, which attempted to account for the curvature of the earth on a two-dimensional surface.  The map was especially useful for navigation, most of which took place in the northern hemisphere at that time, so it made sense to orient the map that way.   

To what extent is our basic orientation in space and time simply a matter of convention?  Granted, “up” and “down” are arbitrary designations if you are looking at a map.  But is there some fundamental alignment of direction with the sun and planets?  The answer is yes and no.  The planets all orbit the sun on the same plane in the direction of its rotation: counterclockwise when viewed from the sun’s north pole.  And the planets rotate on their axes in this same direction, with the notable exception of Venus and of Uranus.  Uranus rotates on its side, possibly because it got knocked off its pins after colliding with an earth-sized object long ago.  A collision may also explain why Venus’ north and south poles are essentially the reverse of most other planets relative to the plane of the Solar System.  The so-called ecliptic, which is defined by the orbits of the planets around the sun, is at a 63° angle to the Milky Way, and the universe as a whole appears to be a complete jumble.  If you whipped out your Hasselblad to take a 360° picture of the entire universe, there is no way you could determine which way is up and which is down.


*Schmitt’s fellow Apollo 17 astronauts, Eugene Cernan and Ron Evans, also claimed to have taken the shot, but evidence suggests Schmitt, a geologist by training, was most likely the photographer. 


May 31, 2018

Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenament  by Jacob Riis

My first camera was a plastic Kodak Brownie, which came with its own flash attachment and sold for about five dollars when it was introduced in the 1950s – a lot of money to a kid back then.  The flash operated with disposable flashbulbs that had to be changed every time you took a picture.  They produced small but blinding detonations of light that left subjects seeing spots.  Needless to say, there was no firing off shots in rapid succession.  For one thing, those flashbulbs were hot after you took a picture, so you had to wait for them to cool off.  Essentially, you were working off light from a controlled explosion that was contained within a small plastic bulb.  

Flashbulbs were a distinct advance over early flash photography, which relied on combustible powder ignited in an open container.  This was the method that journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis used to obtain his muckraking photographs of New York slum tenements in the late 19th century.  He had originally relied on sketches to depict the deplorable conditions in the city’s tenements, but he realized these didn’t have the impact of photographs.  However, the interiors were too dark to permit photography – at least not until Riis heard about a pair of German chemists who first mixed magnesium and sodium chlorate to produce flash powder.  The stuff was dangerous to mix and dangerous to use, but it enabled photographers to pierce the darkness for the first time.  Riis and the photographers who worked with him were among the first Americans to use flash powder, and they approached their task with messianic zeal, exposing the squalor and human misery that had heretofore been hidden in darkness.  His work was published first in Scribner’s Magazine and then in a best-selling book entitled “How the Other Half Lives.”  It was greeted as a revelation by the public, almost as if Riis had photographed the dark side of the moon.

God Is Light

May 14, 2018

"Illuminated Lily 3" by Eric Rennie


Was it Cezanne who said, “God is light,” 
and went South to paint?
Or was it someone else who did not know
that we can take only so much light,
without going crazy?
-- From “Desert Light” by Reena Ribalow


Louis of Bavaria, son and heir of Charlemagne and emperor over much of Europe, died of fright during a total eclipse of the sun in 840 CE. I gleaned this fact from Annie Dillard’s magnificent essay, “Total Eclipse,” which described her own experience of an eclipse in such vivid terms that you can understand how the elderly emperor (he was all of 62) might plausibly succumb. She wrote:

  The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour….We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.  

Eclipses were not unheard of in Louis’s day. The ancients had been accurately forecasting them for centuries. But, as Dillard so harrowingly noted, nothing really prepares you for the actual event. The only preparation you usually get is advice to use protective eyewear, like the welder’s goggles Dillard wore. Except for the two or three minutes that the sun is entirely obscured by the moon, you will damage your retinas by staring directly at an eclipse.

Not long ago the shadow cone of a total eclipse cut a 195-mile wide swath across the United States, racing at 1,800 mph from Oregon to South Carolina. I live in New England, far from the cone’s path; still, the sun was two-thirds darkened at the peak of the eclipse in our region. My family and I were driving from Connecticut to Cape Cod at the time. Electronic highway signs en route cautioned us to turn on our headlights. But there was no need. The sky remained brightly lit at the midday peak, although the sun dimmed by two-thirds. Even on its low beams, the sun offered more than enough light to get us safely to the Cape. 

If Cezanne actually said, “God is light,” I can find no source, although he did go south to paint, presumably because the light was better. If too much light makes you crazy, Cezanne showed no signs, unlike poor Van Gogh, who also went south. Cezanne did say, “We are an iridescent chaos,” which might sound suspect if taken out of context. However, he was talking about his landscapes. (Presumably, a little crazy-talk is allowed if you are an artist.) The English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner would stare directly at the sun for such extended periods that others wondered how he could do so without destroying his eyesight. His dying words were reportedly, “The sun is God,” thereby confirming critic John Ruskin’s characterization of him as a pagan sun-worshipper. 

Photographers have long known there is such a thing as too much light, which is why they normally don’t point a camera anywhere near the sun, except at sunrise and sunset, when the light is highly refracted in the atmosphere. Lately I have been photographing flowers close-up in a dark room, using a macro lens. I have been achieving dramatic effects by shining a single high-intensity beam from an LED flashlight on the blossoms. However, as I am discovering, I must be careful not to overwhelm the image with concentrated light. I am usually directing the beam from below in order to capture the delicate translucent petals, but it is easy to wind up with a blown-out image, much as if I had pointed my camera too close to the sun.

Light has long been a metaphor for God, and before that people simply worshipped it. Archeological excavations of Neanderthal settlements have found that dwellings, ritual sites and graves all faced toward the rising sun. Megaliths in Britain and elsewhere are aligned with the sun and moon. Lest we dismiss such pagan practices, Christian churches were traditionally oriented to the east, and priests were instructed to celebrate Mass facing in that direction.

Divine encounters in the Bible were often accompanied by intense displays of light. Moses was warned when he went up Mt. Sinai that he could not directly look upon God’s face and live, so he hid himself in the cleft of a rock when the Lord passed by. Jesus went up a mountain with three of his disciples, and he “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light."  St. Paul was blinded by a light from heaven on the road to Damascus, presumably because he wasn’t outfitted with welder’s goggles. However, there were no recorded instances of biblical figures driven mad by too much exposure to light from heaven. 

I wonder what it would be like trying to take a picture of God -- or at least God as he is portrayed in Scripture. Suppose a photographer had accompanied St. Paul on the road to Damascus or followed Moses up Mt. Sinai. According to the New Testament account, Paul was blinded by a light from heaven and therefore saw nothing. I suspect the same would be true of the photographer, unless he had the foresight to bring welder’s goggles.  Even if he got off a few pictures, I suspect they would be completely blown out.  As for the photographer who ventured up Mt. Sinai, he would probably have followed Moses’ lead and hidden himself in the cleft of the rock. He might have gotten a few shots of the Lord’s back, which would be par for the course, since all of creation, in effect, is the Lord’s back. Would Moses (and the photographer) really have died if they had taken a peek at God’s face as he passed by?  I’m not sure we need to take such accounts quite so literally. As the hapless emperor of Bavaria demonstrated, too little light from heaven can be far deadlier than too much.