Nature's Refrain

February 15, 2024

"Japanese Maple after Rain" by Eric Rennie

As I’ve gotten older, my world has gotten smaller — a not uncommon phenomenon among people my age.  You’d think this would be problematic for a landscape photographer who must be out and about to practice his craft.  I still mange to get out and about, just not so much nor as far.  At the same time, I find I’m more alert to subjects closer to home, sometimes no farther than my own front yard.

For some time I've had my eye on a Japanese maple outside my kitchen window.  When it rains, I watch silver droplets dripping from dripping from its rain-slicked reddish leaves.  A few times I’ve gotten out there with a camera and macro lens that allows me to photograph the leaves close up.  But I had not yet captured anything as good as what I see in my mind’s eye.  Then one day recently, the sun broke through right after a rain shower, and I thought my moment had arrived.  In short order I was parked under the tree with my camera and tripod.  I framed my shot and pressed the shutter.  Nothing happened. I checked my settings and tried again.  Still nothing.  My heart sank.  The camera’s battery was dead, and I had no backup.

Equipment failure — to say nothing of human error — is an occupational hazard among landscape photographers.  Not to mention to the vagaries of nature itself.  But it’s not as if my battery failed as Big Foot sauntered across my lawn.   I knew that my moment would come again; indeed, the sun broke through after another rain shower only a few days later.  As another Connecticut resident, Mark Twain, quipped long ago, “If you don't like New England weather, wait a few minutes.” 

Landscape photography makes you very aware of what naturalist Rachel Carson was getting at when she said, "There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter."  Dawn comes after night, and tomorrow it will be the same.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  And likewise the seasons, spring after summer, year upon year.  With such precision do they arrive — sunrise, sunset, summer and winter solstices — that you can time them to the second.  

All of which comes in handy if you’re a landscape photographer who must be out and about. It is one thing if I intend to photograph the Japanese maple in my front yard.  Then I have only to look out my kitchen window to see the lighting conditions.  But if I have to travel any distance, I may wish to consult an on-line app called an ephemeris.  Just plug in any date and time of day, and it will show you on a Google map the exact angle of the sun in relation to what you want to shoot.

Nature consults no calendar or timepiece, so how is it able to function with such uncanny precision?  The short answer is that the earth operates as a giant metronome that marks time for everything on it.  Since our planet started spinning 4.5 billion years ago, dawn has come after night some one trillion times, slowing by only 1.8 milliseconds per century during that time.  The earth is tilted 23.5 degrees on its axis with respect to the plane of its orbit around the sun, which accounts for the changing seasons as it tilts toward and then away from the sun on each circuit. 

All plant and animal life is governed at the cellular level by circadian rhythms (from the Latin circa diem, “about one day”) keyed to the earth’s rotation on its axis.  Individual cells react to changes in light and temperature from the resulting cycles of day and night.  These circadian rhythms ensure that everything is done in due season: the mating, the budding, the blossoming, the pollination, the nesting, the hatching, the birthing, the flowering, the molting, the migrating, the hibernating.  Humans are no exception.  Circadian rhythms control our body temperature, along with cardiovascular function, metabolism and sleep patterns. 

We begin to see why, as Rachel Carson said, we find the repeated refrains of nature so infinitely healing.  We do not exist apart from nature; it literally pulses through our veins.  From the earth’s orbit around the sun, to its ceaseless pirouette day by day, to the circadian rhythms that animate all life on this planet, we are all dancing to the same tune.


Picture a Brand New World

January 14, 2024

Print Ad for Kodak Disc 4000 Camera (1982)

The title of this entry is taken from an advertising slogan cooked up by the best-selling mystery writer James Patterson when he was still a creative director for the J. Walter Thompson agency in the early 1980s.  You may be forgiven if you have never heard of the slogan or the product it advertised, a Kodak disc camera that never really gained much traction in the marketplace.  Yet Patterson was sufficiently pleased with his word-smithing that he mentioned it in a memoir published 40 years later.   

As it happens, I think “Picture a Brand New World” is a nifty bit of advertising craftsmanship, even if the product itself never really lived up to the promise of Patterson’s words.  As a photographer, I can tell you they succinctly capture what I try to do when I pick up a camera. It may sound pretentious to say so.  By this I do not mean to say I try to see the world in a way that has never been seen before.  I mean that the world itself is brand new, and I try to see it the way it is.

The author of Ecclesiastes said long ago that there is nothing new under the sun.  According to tradition, this Old Testament work was written by King Solomon —  reputedly the wisest of Israel’s king — more than 3,000 years ago.  The sun has risen more than a million times since Solomon said there was nothing new under it.  The things Solomon complained about then still plague us now.  So when he says he has seen it all before, there are ample grounds for his lament.

When I say I try to picture a brand new world, I’m referring not so much to what I see as to how I see it.  Any geologist can make a good case that the rock on which we’re standing has been around for billions of years.  But when I look through the viewfinder of my camera, I am seeing things with new eyes, which makes everything new.  I don’t often photograph sunrises, because it’s hard not to produce a cliché.  But when I’m up with the sun, I don’t care if it has risen a million times since King Solomon.  For me, it is still the dawn of creation. 

“Behold, I make all things new,” the Lord proclaims in the New Testament’s concluding Book of Revelation.  The Greek word kainos, translated as “new” in this passage, does not mean new as opposed to old.  Kairos means “new” in a qualitative sense, as an advertiser might use the term, as in ”new and improved.”  When  God Almighty says he’s making all things new, he’s not conjuring up something out of thin air.  He’s restoring it to its original condition.  It is the world as God created it.



December 14, 2023

"Illuminated Mountain Laurel Blossoms 1" by Eric Rennie

I was out walking in the state park at the end of my street and came upon a mountain laurel growing by the side of the path I was following through the woods.  The bush had clusters of pink and white blossoms, like tiny umbrellas not yet fully open.  I broke off a sprig and brought it back home with me.  I put it in a small crystal vase and began photographing it under a beam of white light using a macro lens.  

A macro lens enables you to photograph flowers the way Georgia O'Keeffe painted them: larger than life.  O’Keeffe was not a miniaturist in the usual sense of the term. Her subject matter might be small, but she painted her flowers as big as a mountain or a skyscraper, which she also painted.  O’Keeffe, who grew up on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, spent much of her early career in New York City, where speed and size were the order of the day.  Who had time to notice a tiny flower growing in a bustling metropolis dominated by skyscrapers?   “Paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it,” O’Keeffe remarked.  “I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”  

As a young artist, O’Keeffe had fallen in with a group of “city men,” as the onetime farm girl described them, notably the gallery owner and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, and his protege, Paul Strand.  From them she learned first-hand about such photographic techniques as close-ups and close cropping, which enabled her to fill her canvases with objects that we normally think of as quite small.  O’Keeffe had made an important discovery about the uses of scale in her art. 

When we talk about scale, we are normally referring to human scale: how large an object is in relation to how big we are.  A mountain is much bigger than a human being, for example.  An artist would normally have to reduce the scale of a mountain considerably just to fit it within the frame of a picture.  However, the artist might depict the mountain in relation to something much smaller, like a house or a tree, in order to convey some sense of its actual size relative to a human scale.  Landscape painters of the Hudson River School frequently used this technique in the 19th century, as did the photographer Ansel Adams in the next century when portraying Yosemite’s Half Dome.  

For all practical purposes, human scale means how an object appears to the human eye.  The retina — itself only 30-40 mm in diameter — admits light from an enormous range of objects from the microbes to whole galaxies.  Using a variety of lenses, including those found in microscopes and telescopes, I can photograph any of these by adjusting my distance from the subject. Not long ago, NASA released the first infrared photographs of deep space from the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope.  There were more stars and galaxies in these images than anyone had ever been seen before — and the photos were taken of a patch of space no larger than a grain of sand held at arm’s length.

Lately I have spent much of my time photographing objects on the other end of the scale, like those tiny mountain laurel blossoms I brought back from my walk in the state park.  I photograph them for the same reason Georgia O’Keeffe painted them, because they are beautiful down to the smallest detail.  I hope that my images will do them credit, but I take no credit for their existence.   “God is really only another artist,” said Picasso, who ought to know.  From my experience I can tell you that God -- an artist whose canvas is the whole universe -- is also an exquisite miniaturist. 





Be Astonished

November 14, 2023

The Buddha, like Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth, left behind no writings of his own, which made him susceptible to having others put words into his mouth.  A case in point is the saying attributed to the Buddha that can be found on more than a few gauzy internet memes:  "Those who are awake live in a state of constant amazement.”  The only problem is that the Buddha never said it — of if he did, there is no record of it.  The saying may be found in "Buddha’s Little Instruction Book" by Jack Kornfield, published in 1994.   Similar words were put into the mouth of Meg Ryan’s character in the film "Joe Versus the Volcano," which was released in 1990.  She tells Tom Hanks, “My father says almost the whole world is asleep….He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant, total amazement.”

Whether the words were put into the Buddha’s mouth or Meg Ryan’s, it’s the thought that counts.  There is a reason why these words wind up as gauzy internet memes.  Awakening is a common metaphor for what Buddhists call enlightenment. Spiritual seekers who are trying to wake up are certain that whatever it is, it will be amazing.  Who wouldn’t want to live in a state of constant amazement?  

These days I come at the subject from a more mundane direction, informed by my practice as a landscape photographer.  Apart from some technical considerations, photography really boils down to paying attention.  Something catches your eye, and you snap the picture.  The issue is not so much what you see as how you see it. What you see may be perfectly ordinary, as such things are normally reckoned.  How you see it is a matter of learning to behold the world as if for the first time.  As W.B. Yeats once put it, “The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” 

The late poet Mary Oliver — no stranger to internet memes herself — captured this approach in her poem, “Sometimes":

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

What jumps out at me is the exhortation to “be astonished.”  You might think that you can’t be astonished on cue.  And yet, if you are really paying attention, the astonishment is never far behind.  You might even say that to truly pay attention is to be astonished.  

What is perhaps most astonishing is that the world is always like this, full of magical things, and most of the time we don’t see it.  We are lost in thought, which always seems to be directed elsewhere, toward some neverland —  somewhere that once was or ever shall be but is not what is happening right now.  Virginia Woolf wrote that the whole world is a work of art, yet there were long stretches of what she called “non-being,” when we slog through the dull humdrum of everyday life without noticing. “Every day includes much more non‐being than being,” Woolf said.  “One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding.” Most of us spend little time bookbinding or writing orders to the maid, but you get her point. 

There is a third part to Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life: to tell about it.  You might have been shaken from the dull revery of everyday life.  Say you are Moses tending to your father-in-law’s flock on the slopes of Mt. Horeb, and you are riveted by the sight of a bush that burns but is not consumed.  You turn aside to see and on that turning turns the whole history of western religion.  You tell everyone you know about this curious sight, and then you go and tell the pharaoh to release your people from bondage in Egypt.

For most of us, of course, that turning aside to see will be much less consequential.  For a photographer, it may be nothing more momentous than a look on someone’s face, a fold in a curtain, a certain slant of light.  Something catches your eye, and you snap the picture.  Then, if you are working with a digital camera, you load your pictures onto a computer.  And if the image still astonishes you, you share it with the world.  That is your way of telling about it, just as this is my way of telling you.


Letters, Numbers & Symbols

October 14, 2023

"Aunt Mildred's 100th Birthday" (2008) by Eric Rennie

My image, "Aunt Midred's 100th Birthday," has been selected for a juried competition at the Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis, MN.  The exhibition, entitled Letters, Numbers & Symbols, runs from October 21, 2023 until November 11, 2023.  The juror is photographer Dallas Crow.  The image was taken at a family birthday party in 2008.  At the time of her death at age 106, my Aunt Mildred was said to be the oldest resident in the state of Maine.  

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