Kindred

August 10, 2017

"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.


Scenic Overlook

July 31, 2017

Lone Cypress Tree, Pebble Beach, California

On a trip to northern California some years ago, my wife and I took a spin along 17-Mile Drive south of Monterey, stopping for a look at the Lone Cypress perched atop a jagged outcropping of granite along the Pacific coastline.  This venerable tree, which has survived the vicissitudes of wind and waves for more than 250 years – as well as an arson attack in 1984 – is now held in place with steel cables.  Although I did not bring my camera along on this expedition, I noticed a sign at the top of the overlook that read: “Photographs or art renderings of the Lone Cypress for commercial or promotional purposes cannot be taken or created without written permission from Pebble Beach Company.”  Really?  I knew that a silhouette of the tree was used as the company logo at the nearby Pebble Beach resorts, but this was the first time I had ever heard of anyone claiming trademark protection for a living tree.  It was true that the granite outcropping on which the tree perched was owned by the Pebble Beach Company; indeed, the entire length of 17-Mile Drive was a private toll road belonging to the Pebble Beach Company.  Still, intellectual property attorneys not affiliated with the company are doubtful the courts would go along with its claim that its trademark protection extends to the actual tree.  Although the company has been zealous in defending its trademark, it has never actually had to file a lawsuit for trademark infringement.  Few artists or photographers have the resources to take on such a big company; in fact, none has to date.

Whatever the merits of the Pebble Beach Company’s position, the Lone Cypress holds a lesson for any serious photographer.  It is this: If the thing you want to shoot is so familiar that someone has slapped a trademark on it, you should probably point your camera elsewhere.  Trademark protection or not, there are subjects so familiar that they are better suited to a postcard than to a work of art.  Even if you present a well-worn subject with consummate skill in a new light or from a better angle, you must still overcome the viewer’s sense that he or she has seen it all before.  This is not to say you can’t take your shot anyway, only that you have a lot to overcome.  As a general rule, it is probably best to avoid the scenic overlook where you must elbow your way through the crowd to get a clear shot.

Having said that, I do not think the pursuit of novelty for its own sake will necessarily yield much beyond novelty for its own sake.  I am struck by something Arthur Schopenhauer said:  "The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees."  Schopenhauer was a philosopher, not a photographer, and he was speaking about truth, not a work of art.  Yet I believe the same principle applies.  If the photographer can take what has been staring you in the face all along and make you see it as if for the first time, then he has done his job.


Country Lane

July 13, 2017

"Nooks Hill Road Underpass at Dawn" by Eric Rennie

Years ago I set myself the task of photographing whatever I could find within walking distance of my house in Cromwell, CT, a small New England river town.  This image is part of a series on Nooks Hill Road, which runs from the Holy Apostles Seminary east for about one-and-a-half miles to the Connecticut River.  Travel its length and you will see much of it was developed before modern zoning laws.  Homes, factories, farms and a riding stable have all grown up side by side.  The two-lane road narrows at one point to a single lane to squeeze through an old stone railroad trestle.  The town’s taxpayers defeated a voter referendum some years ago that would have widened the underpass to two lanes – so much the better for my picture taking. 

This photograph is on display at the 82nd Annual National Art Exhibition at the Cooperstown Art Association Gallery in Cooperstown, NY.  The exhibit runs from July 14, 2017 untiil August 18, 2017.  The juror was artist Larry Brown.  

 


In Focus

June 30, 2017

Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more.
-- Walker Evans

I was rinsing out a glass mixing bowl in the kitchen sink one Saturday morning as sunshine streamed through an east-facing window.  The mixing bowl had contained the egg batter I used to make French toast.  As water from the tap swirled around in the bowl, tiny bubbles formed on the surface of the yellowish liquid, gleaming like translucent pearls in the morning light.  Such exquisite beauty, and so unexpected!  I stood momentarily transfixed at the sink, like a gallery patron contemplating a work of art.  But the moment passed, the bubbles dissipated, and the bowl was soon rinsed out, ready for the dishwasher.  It was a moment as small as the bubbles swirling around in the mixing bowl and might easily have escaped my notice altogether had my mind been elsewhere.

"Change the focus of the eye," the mythologist Joseph Campbell once advised. "When you have done that, then the end of the world as you formerly knew it will have occurred, and you will experience the radiance of the divine presence everywhere, here and now."  I have no idea what Campbell specifically had in mind when he said this, but phrases such as "the end of the world" and "the radiance of the divine presence" would suggest something momentous.  In my experience, however, such changes in focus are a minor adjustment and can be made simply by paying close attention to the task at hand, even if it is only rinsing the dishes after breakfast on a Saturday morning.

As a photographer, I know something about adjustments in focus, at least as they apply to a camera.  The zoom lens I use most often for landscape work has a ring around it to adjust the focus manually and a switch for automatic focus -- a useful setting for aging eyes.  By turning the ring, I can bring objects into focus at various distances, with the most distant setting labeled "infinity."  There is a separate dial on the camera itself to adjust the lens aperture, which controls how much light strikes the sensor when the shutter is pressed.  The narrower the aperture, the greater the depth of field, which determines how much of the picture remains sharply focused when you are shooting at a distance.  Generally speaking, I keep the camera at its narrowest aperture setting when I am photographing landscapes, while I may use a wider setting for a shallower depth of field when I want a particular object or person to stand out from its surroundings.  Finally, I must not omit the most important tool at my disposal: the viewfinder.  Through it I can select from the vast dome of the world around me the small rectangle of light that will become my photograph.

Psychologists since William James have used the workings of a camera to explain how human beings pay attention to things.  According to James, who devoted an entire chapter to the subject in his landmark Principles of Psychology (1890), attention enables us to carve a coherent understanding of the world from the “aboriginal sensible muchness” that greets the newborn. James laid the groundwork for the so-called “spotlight” model of attention that, with some refinements, remains the starting point for any discussion of the subject today. Our field of consciousness is narrowed down and concentrated by a mechanism that has a high-resolution focus, a lower-resolution margin and a fringe, or border area. A later refinement, called the “zoom lens” model, allows for adjustments in size to the area of concentration.
 
Many metaphors have been used to describe the process of discovering what Campbell called "the radiance of the divine presence everywhere."  Often these metaphors involve light or seeing, but Campbell may be onto something when he talks about changing the focus of the eye.  Focus is all about seeing things more clearly, including things that are already staring us in the face.  Yes, we are drawn to the light.  We set our sights on infinity, longing to gaze directly into the sun that fills our east-facing window.  But that will only blind us to the tiny miracle that bubbles up at the kitchen sink as we are rinsing the breakfast dishes. 


Ephemera

June 14, 2017


Ephemera – pl. n., things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.

Whereas many companies advertise their products as durable or long lasting, the purveyors of Snatchat happily tout theirs as an “ephemeral” photo messaging service.  By ephemeral, they mean photos and videos sent from their social media app disappear forever within ten seconds of being opened – a critical selling point for young users seeking to shield their messages from the prying eyes of grownups.  The idea has caught on.  On its first day of trading, Snap Inc.’s stock opened at $24 per share, putting its market capitalization at $33 billion, roughly the same size as Marriot or Target.  This despite the fact that the firm lost more than half a billion dollars the year before, exceeding its revenues by a substantial margin.  Although the company duly warned investors that it “may never achieve or maintain profitability,” the market clearly saw huge upside potential in a product that comes and goes in the time it takes to tie your shoes.  

Ephemeral photos are a disheartening development for photographers like me who can spend hours working on a single image with the hope that it will one day hang in a gallery or a museum.  To those who embrace the latest technology, such notions no doubt seem quaint.  But, of course, there is nothing new about “instant” photography as such, although up until now the emphasis has been on the speed of photo processing rather than the speedy disposal of the finished product.

We do well to remember that the old technology wasn’t always old, and when it was new the critical selling point wasn’t its perishability but something more nearly the opposite. On the eve of the Civil War, when photography was still a novelty, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a series of prescient essays in The Atlantic about its impact on civilization. Until then, portraiture was a costly adornment of the privileged few.  Now, Holmes marveled, this “mirror with a memory” 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!”

Death was an omnipresent fact of life in the Victorian era, when women often died in childbirth and many children did not live to adulthood.  Three of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons died an early death, a tragic -- but by no means unheard of -- circumstance when Holmes wrote that “those we love no longer leave us in dying.” Until the late 19th century, post-mortem photographs were a popular way to memorialize the recently deceased, particularly infants and small children.  Many commercial photographers specialized in them.  Photographers went to great lengths to capture life-like poses of the dead: infants ostensibly asleep in their cribs, children cradled in their mothers’ arms, adults propped up in bed or even sitting in chairs. 

Yet even when photography was still in its infancy, Holmes complained that too many people took it for granted, preferring novelty to immortality.  This may be the single through-line from that time until this, with glass-plate negatives giving way to film cameras, thence to digital cameras and smart phones.  The movement was always in the direction of instant gratification: faster shutter speeds, faster film, quicker photo processing, instantaneous uploads and downloads – all culminating in those self-immolating Snapchat messages, known in the trade as “snaps.”  Snapchat is photography without a frame.  It is not meant for a gallery wall or a photo album or even a photo file on your smart phone.  One entrepreneur explained Snapchat’s appeal this way: “…instead of trying to freeze the moment and capturing the experience shouldn’t you focus on the moment itself?”  

Moments, by definition, have no duration, so Snapchat has a way to go before disappearing entirely into the now.  Still, it is not hard to see why Snapchat’s target market is 18-to-34-year-olds who have grown up on an exclusive diet of TV sound bites and social media.  According to a Microsoft study, the average human attention span shrank by roughly a third between 2000 to 2015, from about 12 seconds to 8 seconds (less than a goldfish’s nine-second attention span).  Admittedly, there is a certain chicken-and-egg problem here: it is not entirely clear whether electronic media are to blame or are merely responding to the fact that people can’t pay attention anymore.  We certainly have our suspicions. Technology writer Nicholas Carr has warned that “media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.” So what is taking shape out of all this? Hard to say when it comes and goes in under 10 seconds.