Time and Tides

April 14, 2017

"Mattabesset Spring 2016" by Eric Rennie

What you see is what you get.
-- Annie Dillard

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam,” wrote Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  She was using light as a spiritual metaphor in her fine essay on seeing.  But it occurs to me she might also be speaking for every visual artist who works with natural light.  Think of Monet’s haystacks or his series on the Rouen cathedral.  Monet was not painting objects but the light falling on objects.  For his cathedral series, he set up his canvases in rented space by the front window of a lingerie shop across the street, working from dawn to dusk on ten paintings in succession to capture the changing light on the cathedral’s façade throughout the day.  He worked from February to April in two succeeding years (1892 and 1893) to render the same seasonal light.

For a landscape photographer like me, your palette is essentially determined by what nature gives you.  Yes, Photoshop allows you some leeway.  But if you want to be true to the light that falls on your subject, you have little choice but to put yourself in the path of its beam and go from there.  A studio photographer has the luxury of moving lights around to achieve certain effects; those who shoot outdoors must move themselves around instead.  Ansel Adams once said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”  True enough, but you also need to know when to stand there.  As Monet well understood, the light changes by the hour, as well as by the season.

Lately I have been taking pictures soon after sunrise at a favorite stomping ground along the Mattabesset River in Connecticut.  The river meanders for 18 miles through a tidal wetland, ending at the Connecticut River, about 25 miles upstream from Long Island Sound.  I have shot here in every season, but my immediate interest is in documenting the brief period after the trees have budded in the spring but before the foliage has obscured all sense of distance.  In this neck of the woods, that interlude occurs between the end of April and the first week or two of May.  I have in mind a particular vantage point at the end of a narrow channel that extends west for perhaps a hundred yards before emptying into the Mattabesset.  At high tide on a clear day, with the sun spilling over the horizon behind me, the still channel mirrors the trees growing on either side, so they appear to be reaching simultaneously up to the sky and down into the water.  The light pours down like honey from the tops of the trees at this hour.

I do not just happen to be here.  I already know the terrain from my many previous outings, and I have long since staked out the vantage point at the head of the channel.  Since I live nearby, I know how far the season has advanced.  The sun has already risen by 6:00 AM, which means I have to be in place early to catch the light.  I consult the hourly weather forecast the night before to make sure the sky will be clear at sunrise.  I must also consult the tide tables; otherwise, the channel might be a mud flat rather than a mirror reflecting the sky and trees.  With luck, all the elements will come together.  “Of course it’s all luck,” said Henri Cartier-Bresson, a street photographer.  Yet I also seem to recall Louis Pasteur saying that “in the fields of observation, fortune favors the prepared mind” – in art as well as science, it would seem.    

In her essay on the subject, Dillard identified two ways of seeing.  The first is what Buddhists would call “clear seeing”, or vision unencumbered by thought.  She writes, “When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied.”  In contrast, there is the kind of seeing you might do with a camera in hand.  As she puts it,  “When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter.”  Certainly there are tens of millions of people today armed with their smart phones who go around taking pictures unencumbered by any real seeing.  But where does that leave serious photographers who use cameras to make their art?  Without true seeing there is no art, but this necessarily involves reading a light meter – to say nothing of checking the weather and tide tables.  Even William Blake, the most visionary of artists, invented a technically demanding printing process to integrate text and drawings in his illuminated books.  Art and science go together.  Even Dillard would concede that to put yourself in the light’s beam, you have to know when the sun comes up.      

Wetlands 2017

March 31, 2017

In Deadman's Swamp by Eric Rennie

For more than 10 years I have been taking pictures in Dead Man’s Swamp, the largest forested flood plain along the Connecticut River, which runs more than 400 miles north and south from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound. Located about a mile from my home in southern Connecticut, the 500-acre wildlife preserve is an important stopover for migratory waterfowl and other birds. I am usually careful to steer clear during hunting season, since about half the acreage is owned by a fish and game club.

The photograph above is one of two of my images selected for a national juried competition called Wetlands 2017 at the Holt Russell Gallery at Baker University in Baldwin City, KS, near Kansas City. The exhibit runs from April 6, 2017 until April 28, 2017.  The juror is Michael Schonhoff, director of KCAI Crossroads Gallery: Center for Contemporary Practice.  

The Company I Keep

March 14, 2017

When my work appears in a gallery or museum exhibition, I like to check out the other submissions to see what kind of company I am keeping. The better the caliber of the artwork, the more pleased I am to have been included. This morning I received my copy of the International Photography Annual (INPHA 4), and I was very pleased indeed.  Published by the Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center in Cincinnati, it is an elegant volume with some stunning photographs. My contribution was not pictures this time but two short essays that have also appeared on my photo blog.  They are entitled "Stop Time" and "Mind Games Forever."  


February 28, 2017

"Dark Canyon" by Eric Rennie

Good shots are where you find them, and this one was waiting for me outside the upper-story window of a hotel room in Boston where my wife and I were staying last spring.  The conditions were hardly ideal.  I was shooting at night with a hand-held camera through a window.  I don't often do cityscapes, mostly because I don't live in a city.  But when I am visiting one, I often bring a camera along.  This image is one of 40 selected (out of more than 800 submitted) for the 2017 Open Juried Competition at the Vermont Center for Photography in Brattleboro, VT.  The juror is Karen Haas, Lane Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  The exhibiton runs from March 3, 2017 to April 2, 2017. 




February 14, 2017

"Aunt Mildred's Favorite Chair" by Eric Rennie

The image above is one of ten selected for a juried competition entitled Identity at the Midwest Center for Photography in Wichita, KS.  The exhbibition runs from February 24, 2017 to March 10, 2017.  The photo is part of a series taken at a small New England dairy farm that once belonged to my grandfather and that remained in my family for more than a century.  The 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 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 earlier 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.  A bathroom had been attached to the back of the house when indoor plumbing came along, then a kitchen with running water. Electricity had been installed, but there were no built-in light fixtures. Some of the rooms upstairs were illuminated by naked bulbs dangling from the ceiling. Clothes were hung in armoires because there were no closets. There were steam radiators rather than heating ducts, and a single radiator in the upstairs hall barely kept the bedrooms from freezing in the winter.

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. 

In the mid-19th century, when photography was still a novelty, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote prescient essays about its impact on civilization. Until then, portraiture was a costly adornment rarely seen outside a narrow circle of aristocrats or wealthy burghers.  Mohammad, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc and Christopher Columbus all passed into history without leaving a likeness behind.  For Holmes, photography had enabled even the common man to achieve a kind of immortality.  "It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old," he wrote.  "They remain with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables; they rest upon our bosoms; nay, if we will, we may wear their portraits, like signet-rings, upon our fingers.  How these shadows last, and how their originals fade away!"  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.  They are only perishable memories and pictures, including photographs of photographs, bearing mute testimony to all those who had gone before.