Scale

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. 

 

 

 

 

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