Eric Rennie Photography | Blog

Magic Lanterns

August 14, 2018

"Bondhusbreen and Brufossen" by Samuel J. Beckett (ca. 1890-1915)

Long before Powerpoint or modern slide projectors, there were magic lanterns, an optical viewing device, powered originally by candles or oil lamps, that projected images onto a screen or wall.  Prior to photography, lantern slides were hand drawn or painted on glass.  Photographs were later printed directly on glass and hand colored, like the one above.  In an era before movies or TV, magic lantern shows were a popular form of entertainment in the U.S. and Europe.  Samuel J. Beckett (no relation to the playwright, so far as I can determine) was a British travel photographer who published a book called The Fjords and Folk of Norway (1915).  Bondhusbreen is a glacier in Norway, pictured here with the Brufossen waterfall behind it.      


To Wither into the Truth

July 31, 2018

 

"Withered Tiger Lilies 6" by Eric Rennie
 

Though leaves are many, the root is one; 
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun; 
Now I may wither into the truth.
--W.B. Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom with Time”


I am not a studio photographer, but lately I have been picking wildflowers and bringing them indoors to shoot close up under a high-intensity beam of light using a macro lens. I learned I have to be quick about it, because wildflowers, unlike the kind you buy at the florist, will often wither in a day.  Viewed at close range, they are so beautiful it is almost a crime to pick them. I console myself with the thought I am preserving them by taking their picture. 

Human beings, unlike wildflowers, do not wither in a day.  But if truth be told, they are often far more interesting to photograph when they are long past their ostensible sell-by date.  George Orwell once said that everyone has the face he deserves at age 50.  By age 50 we have lost the baby fat, the effortless good looks, the bloom of youth; our true character – or lack thereof – has emerged.  A lifetime is etched on that face, whether for good or for ill (most likely some of each).  For a photographer, such a face is a gift.     

The best portrait I ever took was of my father-in-law on his 100th birthday, and it was completely impromptu.  He was sitting in his dining room gazing off into space, as magnificent as an Old Testament prophet.  He was so deaf I don’t even think he heard the shutter click as I shot him in profile.  I have another picture of my own mother, taken in a nursing home on her 88th birthday. She had the thousand-yard stare typical of soldiers in combat and of patients who are far-gone in dementia. These obviously were not glamorous or flattering portraits, nor were they intended to be.  But they were true in the sense that Hemingway used the word when he talked about striving to write one true sentence. Hemingway’s best sentences were utterly without adornment or affectation of any kind.  To photograph people the way Hemingway wrote sentences, you have to shoot them as they are and not as they wish to appear.      

A portrait photographer seeking to get at the truth often finds himself dealing with an unwanted intruder who tries to get between the camera and his true subject.  The intruder is the part of us that strikes a pose when a camera is pointed in our direction.  Vanity doesn’t really explain it – or at least not all of it, since plenty of people are the opposite of vain when it comes to having their picture taken. These are mostly people who have been told they are unattractive or who think they are no longer attractive. They might frown or otherwise make a face.  My mother, who was beautiful when young, reached an age when she no longer wanted to have her picture taken at all.  I have had people turn their backs on me when I pointed a camera at them. 

Based on my experience photographing my beautiful young granddaughter, it appears people have already learned to strike poses by the age of two.  Not coincidentally, this is also the age when children acquire a sense of self.  Although we think of the self in individual terms, it cannot develop in isolation from others.  Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self” to describe how our identity is formed by imagining how we are perceived by others.  What better way to learn how we appear to others than to see photographs of oneself?  And unlike when I was growing up, we don‘t even have to send film away to be developed.  The feedback is instantaneous. 

One withers into the truth the same way Hemingway wrote sentences, by stripping away every adornment and affection and by leaving unsaid all that doesn’t need to be said.  You don’t necessarily need to initiate such an undertaking.  If you allow it, life will do that to you.  Suffering will do that to you.  By the time you have acquired the face you deserve, you should have been worn down to the nub of the real you.  And if you find yourself still striking poses, then prepare to suffer some more.              


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


Orientation

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.

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*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.