This was the scene waiting for me as I walked across campus into work this morning. Our campus is over-run by rabbits and bunnies, a very vibrant colony that's grown considerably in the past few years. There are times leaving work in the late afternoon when I can see herds of them grazing on the lush grass. Surprisingly, in spite of the easy pickings, we don't see many raptors circling overhead.
None the less, every morning there is an early clean up crew that goes around picking up any carcasses - it's generally agreed that students should not be confronted by the horrors of the life cycle in the wild when making their bleary-eyed way to classes. Apparently this bunny was missed by the crew, or perhaps met an unfriendly predator after the clean up today.
Last week I acquired a shadow...two shadows actually. This is a picture of one of my new shadows - Momo, cat detective extraordinaire. Very bold, not worried about being found tailing me - walks between my feet at will, runs after me and past me, meowing a greeting. Very conscientious - never leaves me for a moment if at all possible. But just every other day. Her partner in crime, Appa, takes over on the other days, it's a full time, exhausting job to shadow me so they take it in turns.
Today Momo showed off some very impressive sleuthing. My home office is off-limits to kitties, and whenever I enter I make sure no kitty has followed, and close the door firmly. I was in the office early this morning, took the usual precautions and carefully closed the door upon leaving. About a half hour later, I opened the door to go back into the office, and found Momo on the other side of the door (in the office), ready to take her leave. How, I wonder, did she get in?
Momo and Appa are my sister-in-law's cats. She has moved to our magical, mythical island and is staying with us until she gets her feet under her. So I don't know how long I will be shadowed, but in the mean time, I'll have to think up a few tricks of my own to keep Momo sharp.
As I was leaving work today, I realized I had not got out a lunch time to do my daily practice. As I was walking along, I began to question if I really wanted to continue with it. There are just certain days when I feel as if not having to consider doing the daily practice would take a little pressure off and make life a little bit simpler. I think this periodic questioning about the practice relates not only to taking the time to do it, but it also involves how sincerely I feel I'm participating in the practice each day (some days it's literally a five minute activity) and my desire to process and post the image to this blog. I think this questioning is normal and part of the process, and I also think it serves a purpose in making me think about what it is I'm actually doing with the practice.
Just as I arrived home, I was immediately taken with an idea I wanted to try, and this is one of the images I made exploring that idea. I absolutely love the abstract composition, the interplay between line and shape, dark and light tones, solid and transparent. I believe that questioning of the value of the practice earlier provided much needed motivation to make something this expressive.
I have been following the photography of Chris Friel on Flickr and on his website. I find his images fascinating, most of them made using slow shutter speeds and a tilt shift lens. I have contemplated getting a tilt shift lens for my dslr, but the truth is that I'm awash in camera equipment and don't really need to add such an expensive lens at this time. But recently Friel posted a few images on Flickr from his travels that were taken with a compact digital camera without a tilt shift lens, that had a similar haunting feel. So I decided to try this out, but not being patient enough to wait for dusk, I took a walk in the woods around my workplace one day and tried the night mode on my little Canon point and shoot camera. Well, even in the dimmest light I could find, the images taken at 1 second were quite overexposed. Yet I found when I correct the overexposure as much as I could in Lightroom, the images had a quality similar to pencil or charcoal drawings that have been partially erased. The most outrageous "erasure drawing" ever made was Robert Rauschenberg's erasure of a Willem de Kooning drawing, but it is an interesting technique to apply to parts of a drawing.
Today's image is the fourth "subtraction" photograph I've made, taken today in those same woods out at work. What I'm producing is nothing like the images Friel makes, although our starting points are fairly similar, and that's something I like about this process - taking inspiration from another artist but going off in my own direction. I want to print a couple of these subtraction images big on regular drawing paper, and also use them as the starting point to do some drawing.
It's interesting how many people don't like, or don't understand, abstract art. They are generally more comfortable with representational art - photographs or paintings of "real" things, where they know immediately what it is they are looking at. Yet what we all perceive as real is the result of our capacity for abstract thinking. That capacity is what brought us to make frames of reference for the world around us that in turn were used to define things. We all recognize an apple and would consider a photograph of an apple as being representational. And yet "apple" is a construct for something that is wonderfully abstract, that consists really of shape, lines, tones and textures in terms of appearance (not to mention fragrance and taste which are again at their basic level abstract concepts that we have defined). I love abstraction because it is a different way of seeing and perceiving the world, it seems far less limiting to me and it relies upon those basic qualities that objects in our world have that are pure, that existed long before they were used to define and name those objects. What I also like about abstraction is the way it connects directly and viscerally with our emotions. When we look at a picture of a sunset, or a cat, or a sailboat on the water (or a picture of a sailboat on the water at sunset being piloted by a cat) we do have an emotional response, but it is measured and shaped by our perceptions of our world. It lacks the raw energy, ill-defined nature of emotional responses to abstract work.
Title: "She sat thinking beside the stream of fuschia blossoms"
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I've become more and more interested in learning about the functioning of the brain, because I think that the more I understand how things work, the more I can use that knowledge to my advantage in changing my way of living. I'm at the moment reading a book titled "The End of Overeating" by David Kessler. Kessler has put together a great deal of scientific insight into how the brain functions as it applies to our relationship with food. I'm not specifically going to write about that here, since while it is important it doesn't apply to the daily practice of photography. But there is a passage where Kessler mentions that at first we undertake some activity primarily because we expect to enjoy it and there is feedback in the brain that amounts to a reward system. The example he uses is coming home and having some ice cream. But he cautions that after a number of days of continuing that behaviour, there is a switch in the brain from a reward-induced activity to a habit. In this case the action becomes regular and automatic but not because one is necessarily looking forward to having ice cream - it is just done out of habit. For those concerned about their weight, this is an important insight because once the switch takes place, it becomes much more difficult to change the behaviour.
In terms of something like daily practice, there are two things about Kessler's example that come to mind. The first is good news - after a relatively short period of time, the habit of doing daily practice becomes established in a way that makes it difficult to abandon. The second thing I noticed is this switch from doing something out of pleasure to doing something as an ingrained habit. I suspect for creative activities like the daily practice, it is not necessary that there is a complete loss of pleasure when it becomes an activity of habit. But I do wonder if this switch explains why we sometimes go through a creative slump - we have perhaps at that point lost the pleasure aspect and have only the habit. At this point it becomes necessary to revitalize our interest and pleasure, but keep the habit.
Today I decided to expand on yesterday's darkroom experiment by using paper negatives to make lith prints. I found this nice, simple composition in the backyard (I've always admired similar images made by Adams and Weston), turned it into a digital paper negative and headed into the darkroom. I must say that compared to the excitement of the day before, today was more frustrating than satisfying. I really struggled to get a decent result. One good thing about keeping up a daily practice is it seems to level out the frustrations - if today didn't go as well as hoped, I know that I will definitely have another chance tomorrow. It also helps that I've been a scientist for so long - science is for eternally optimistic masochists because in spite of working extremely hard, typically experiments don't pan out 90% of the time. Fortunately the other 10% makes up for it all by the excitement and satisfaction it generates. Next time in the darkroom, I'll go back to making regular silver gelatin prints with paper negatives, since that process worked quite well. I'll have to work on the lith printing with these negatives over the course of a few weeks to get it more consistent.
I don't usually like to talk much about the process I use for making images, because I personally think these details detract from the message I hope to convey with any image. However, today was a day of experimenting with mixing digital and traditional photographic processes. I have been wanting to experiment with making silver gelatin prints by contact printing from digital paper negatives for some time now. I tried once before with some promising results, which prompted me to make a more serious effort today. I started by making a couple of digital negatives from Holga images I'd made a couple of years ago and I was happy with the gritty results of going from a scan of a cross-processed slide film to digital negative to darkroom print - there's definitely something worth pursuing there, I really like the degradation of the image that results. It occurred to me at that point that I could make a real print for today's daily practice, and off I went to the back yard with my digital camera to make a few images. I converted two into digital paper negatives, and made darkroom prints of them including the one above. The printed image doesn't seem very degraded, unless you compare it to the digital original. What I like is the freedom this new process gives me to explore a broader range of tone, line, mood and emotion from both film and digital images.
Title: "tired of listening to the whispering rain"
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"Nobody can ever hide behind a camera. Accept the fact that when you make pictures you are revealing a lot about yourself." Freeman Patterson wrote those words in his first book "Photography for the joy of it". He goes on to expand upon the thesis that technical perfection produces pictures of low impact, without soul, because the photographer has focused on technique and avoided being in touch with their own emotions. I met Freeman back in the late 70s when he gave a presentation at the university where I was a student. Somehow we struck up a correspondence, and recently I came across a letter he had sent me (of course, now I'm having trouble finding it). Inside the front cover of his first book, I found a postcard he sent me in August of 1979, thanking me for "...a splendid and thorough reply to my letter. It will be very useful indeed." I have no idea what I wrote to him, and I suspect he was being polite in sending such a generous message.
At the time I met Freeman, my photography was fairly mundane and my technique was mediocre. I had been a yearbook photographer in high school who had been briefly shown rudimentary darkroom skills. I loved walking in the woods even then, but the images I made were quite pedestrian. I found Freeman's words in "Photography for the joy of it" quite inspiring, but it took many years of life experience, a long break from doing photography or making any kind of art, before I was able to return to art making ready to really understand what those two sentences above meant. I hope I find that letter Freeman sent me.
Title: "Archelous' daughters singing the dark thoughts"
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We come to images as innocents, our reactions difficult to predict but usually specific. At first we "like" or "don't like" or "aren't sure what we think" an image. With a little instruction and lots of practice, it becomes possible to understand what the strengths and weaknesses of images are - both those we "like" and those we "don't like". It's exciting to arrive at that point, to be able to engage with art in a more meaningful way, getting past the entire "I know what I like" phase - the subtext here being that one may know what one likes but has no idea why. Staying in that first phase results in a very narrow understanding of art, and a very narrow personal definition of what is art. Getting beyond that phase, understanding how images work or don't work, opens up a definition of art with infinite possibilities.
The title of this blog is taken from Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series of books. Bertie is a wee precocious boy who's not allowed to be a child. His mother has grand plans for him, and has organized "The Bertie Project" to educate him well beyond his years. This blog is meant to be my own personal "Bertie Project" - a way to lead a more enriched life.