Friday, December 23, 2011

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas

I'm Dreaming Of A White Christmas
Garden of the Gods - Colorado

"I've been scraping little shavings off my ration of light."
--Bruce Cockburn, "Isn't That What Friends Are For"

It's been a warm December here near the bottom of Florida. There's something about Christmas and air conditioning that just seems a bit oddly equatorial instead of elfishly polar. Still, good cheer and goodwill is more the theme of the season. Temperature and humidity are just circumstances overshadowed by sweet light, laughter and kindnesses shared.

I was with friends a few nights back. We were streaming a video of a yule log burning in a fireplace over Netflix. I stared into the fire, thinking about how images often take us to places in our memories; this connection is what bridges the gap between a flat image and one that touches you in some way - means something to you.

Memories are tricky travelling companions. Our mind's data and storage computers often record little videos that are a strange blend of sensory and binary input: smell, light, shadow, sound, touch. These videos, much like their pre-digital counterparts, often do not age well, becoming at best, wispy illusions. Reality shifts with interpretation and time. This is part of what makes the art in photography so exciting to me - and an equally scary conundrum. Despite fluctuations in technology, the ability of your art to evoke human responses so often comes down to something you cannot really teach or explain.

Yesterday, I was working on photo editing with my young friend and photographer, Matt Milligan, and in our hilariously rambling photography discussion, I tried to explain how all photographs are essentially "sweet lies". They are illusions. As photographers, artists and humans, we can be literal or abstract. Either way, in any form, we are interpreting our own realities. And our realities are anchored by our memories. This helps us understand how, like the snowflake cliche', no two humans can be alike.

Having more than paid my snow dues, I have a mountainous snowbank of white Christmas memories. During this warm December, far away from the chill of holiday seasons past, I light a candle scented with balsam fir, say a prayer for kindness, understanding, peace and love, and revel in how blessed I am.

May your holidays also be blessed with memories - both old and new - of exquisite light, love and laughter.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 24-120mm VR, a retreating snowstorm, a solid gold memory

Friday, October 21, 2011


Least Tern Courtship
Wiggins Pass, Florida

"Let the beauty of what you love be what you do."

Each year in the late spring/early summer, I have the privilege of following flocks of least terns around as they cluster on this area's sand and oyster bars to mate. It's an exciting time of year for any fan of these tiny and comical birds, and I am surely a big fan. As I've mentioned in previous articles, these birds are packed to the pin feathers with personality!

Their courtship is a comedy show on wings. Females group together in tight clutches - or in a "straightness", the official name a group of least terns. They yak it up with loud peeps, keeping a coy eye turned upward to the many males who fly overhead on their way to dive bomb for bait fish.

And the males - well, let's just say it's just not easy to be them. First, they have to be really lucky with bait fish. First rule of dating: no fish, no girls.

Rule number two: you gotta have your swag on. I watched male after male finally spear a shiny little fish, then land on the sandbar near the ladies, announcing their arrival bearing gifts with loud bravado. The ladies, for the most part, ignore them. These poor guys strut up and down the sandbar, offering the wiggling fish stuck on the end of their beak to any female he can find. Rejection runs rampant, but occasionally, one of the ladies will step out of the crowd and curtsy her acceptance of his fish. The photo above is one such exchange. You can almost see the smile on the face of the male, right?!

The rest of it gets a little complicated. Acrobatics are involved, including a bit of walking on backs (see below). As awkward as all the posturing seems, the prospect of being ignored seems just really sad alternative. One poor fellow strutted, then paraded, then walked, and finally wandered around with the same speared fish on his beak for at least 30 minutes. Despite his persistence, and then his pitiful wandering, he couldn't get a lady to show the slightest interest - not even a glance!

No matter what the species, dating just seems like one scary high school prom.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400 VR, the intrepid kayak and a dollop of patience

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Fall

The Falls
North Carolina Mountains

"Every picture shows a spot with which the artist has fallen in love."
-Alfred Sisley

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 12-24mm, a beautiful day.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Drama in the Sky

Drama in the Sky
Big Cypress, Florida

"A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship."
--John Muir

It seems fitting that as I write a few words about a photograph taken during last year's rainy season, spring storms are inching down the Florida peninsula, headed this way. Tornado warnings are posted and the radar maps are alive with reds, oranges and yellow/greens.

At one of my recent art shows, a northern snowbird visitor to my booth remarked that Florida seemed "boring" because there were no seasons here. While it's true that we don't experience the beauty of a snowfall or the joy of the first buds on the trees, anyone who has lived in Florida for long will tell you that the seasons are palpable.

Some will say there's "snowbird" and hurricane season. Others might say "hot or gorgeous". Scientists explain that Florida has two seasons: wet and dry. Whatever the lingo, seasons are more than apparent in Florida. For me, I often look to the sky. Winter brings wide expanses of clear blue for days on end, punctuated by cold fronts that blow through, and sometimes bring a smattering of brief storms followed by more clear blue.

Summer, as in the photo above, brings such drama in our skies. I love to take a drive into the Everglades and Big Cypress Preserve and watch such drama unfold. The sky roars and the earth drinks eagerly. Storms replenish our fresh water supplies for another year's dry season in such a magnificent way, with every bit of pomp and circumstance nature can provide.

I just don't think "boring" has never been in Florida's nature vocabulary.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 12-24mm, a dusty road and the thrill of good timing

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wave Good Bye

Wave Good Bye
February 2011
Barefoot Beach, Florida
"You're searching...
For things that don't exist; I mean beginnings.
Ends and beginnings - there are no such things.
There are only middles."

~Robert Frost, Mountain Interval, "In the Home Stretch"

I am preparing for more shows and gallery receptions today. The doors and windows are open, and the yard is alive with a just-arrived Florida spring. There are more blossoms on the avocado tree than there are stars in the sky. The warmth of the last week has birds singing avian operas in my grapefruit tree.

I believe the songs mostly belong to the mated pair of cardinals who've decided to share the garden and fruit trees. I like to think it's my love of their brilliant plumage that keeps them here, but I know it's the food I lovingly leave in the new bird feeder by the office door. It was my first purchase after losing my 20 year old cat in the fall, and has made the adjustment of no pet friend to greet me at the door just a little easier.

The cardinals apparently don't give my purchase very high ratings. The male perches on the edge of its recycled plastic ledge and head-butts all the seed onto the chaise lounge below, then calls for the female and they both feed from the chaise. Who knew a bird would reject a feeder's architecture? Once they've filled up and leave, the doves arrive. They're too plump to head-butt any seed for themselves, so they waddle around the bottom of the chaise, cleaning up the over-spill on the ground. It's an interesting pecking order.

And so it goes on this day. Birds fly in, they tweet, they eat, they fly off. I work. They don't seem to mind my presence anymore, so long as I stay on my side of the door's threshold. It's a territory thing and it works.

I'm matting and framing this very photo today, but I'm stuck at the name part. I like this image for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are the amazing colors reflected at sunset and the soft blur of water at really low shutter speeds, a technique I was teaching to a student when I took this image. Often, when I get a shot I am pretty sure I'll frame, a name just arrives in my brain instantly, like one of those cartoon word bubbles. Today, though, I'm stuck. Everything is too cliche ("sunset's soft wave") or too weird ("waiting to become"?) or too geeky or too much just not right. I can't finish framing until I sign the mat, and I can't sign the mat until I have a name. Stuck.

Waiting is not my strong suit, but I'm getting better at "diversion all dressed up as patience", so I move from the Logan mat cutter to my computer and find an email from a friend in California who tells me a mutual friend who had been struggling with life lately died last week. She's gone. It's not surprising, but it stuns me nonetheless.

We talked a bit ago, my friend and I; a sad talk about her difficult life. When I said goodbye, I didn't really mean it quite so literally. Today, to the tune of cardinals singing about full bellies, I am sitting here wondering where she is. Has she found peace? We always shared a love of adventure (and flaming marshmallows flung into the ocean), so I wonder if this new adventure is making her spirit light again. Do we ever lose the ones we hold close? If we remember them, and remember those times of laughter and joy and adventure, how can they possibly be gone?

And then, just like that cartoon word bubble, I know the name of this photograph.

For you, dear friend, on your new journey. I am waving a very good bye.

Nikon D2x, 18-200mm VR, graduated neutral density filter, and a loving wave.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dreaming Awake

Fade to White
My Garden

"I love art because it doesn't have any rules."
--Harry Callahan

It was born a humble, quickly forgotten photograph; just some shiny little green leaves hanging by a thread in the sunshine. They caught my eye and so I captured them. I captured them and stored them with the hordes of other photographs of mine that languish in that place between mildly interesting and hey, I like that shot now.

Fast forward to recently, years later. I was trolling through said hordes for a candidate [victim] for a little darkroom experiment I wanted to try. I was thinking about how I sometimes dream in negative images, rather than positives. I'm sure we probably all do, those of use who remember our dreams a lot. Instead of attaching some deep emotional meaning to them, I often wonder if maybe dreams are one of the passageways - rabbit holes - for our creative inspiration, so I try hard to remember mine.

I'm always so captivated by creativity - where it comes from, how other beings channel it, what it means to them and ultimately, to us. Artists like Jerry Uelsmann take those surreal, negative images I sometimes see in my dreams to a whole new dimension, painstakingly using many layers of different image's negatives to create a single print. They're an inspiring sight to see.

But back to my negative.

It's more than a little peculiar to think about an image in negative. What I mean is that it's often hard to pre-visualize, especially for those of us who live in a more realism-based theme of photography. The negative of a color image, after all, is all about contrast and tonality and nothing about color. For a color/saturation junkie, that's just...well, peculiar. But it's good to let go in life. It's good to push outside the edges of what can seem like comfort food to our eyes.

And so, on a recent sleepless night when I was prowling the darkroom of Lightroom, all fired up for something new but clueless what or where it would be, these little leaves found me. And suddenly, I simply saw them in reverse; I saw them as negatives. Just like that. It's funny where this stuff comes from.

Dreaming awake is still dreaming. I like it.

The Birth Photo

Nikon D100, Nikkor 24-120 VR, spot metering in bright sunlight a long time ago

Monday, January 3, 2011

A New Year

Brown Pelican
Wiggins Pass, Florida
January 01, 2011
"We are all the same age inside."
--Gertrude Stein

Morning came early for me New Year's Day. After a long stretch of even longer workdays, I had an entire day to myself. No work, no functions to attend...just me and my kayak. The tide was especially low, so I had time to enjoy a wonderful cup of coffee and a slow start - a perfect way to begin the day.

There haven't been many spare moments for "fun" photography lately, which is ok, because any kind of a moment behind the lens is a good moment. Still, I was looking forward to water and mangroves - and maybe I'd get lucky with a bird or two.

But it was to be a short trip...or rather, shorter than usual. Wind, currents and way too many power boats made me long for home. The birds were scarce - perhaps they knew it was a major holiday, too? And so, it ended up being me, a few pelicans, a coupla terns and an even fewer "peeps" on the quickly disappearing sandbar in the Pass. Surrounded by a good cross chop, I could only stab at the shutter as the boat - and I - rocked in the waves.

One of the first books I ever read on my Kindle device was about the first team of Special Forces dropped into Afghanistan after 9/11. It was a harrowing story about fighting alongside the Afghan army, riding tiny mountain horses with their knees pressed to their chins, and battling acres of Taliban soldiers with handfuls of poorly-armed me. The book talked about the kind of shooting technique used by the Afghan soldiers called the "spray and pray". They would simply blindly point their rifles and pull the trigger with no particular attention to aim or precision, hoping something would hit something else.

Reading that description back then, I thought about how similar my own "shooting" technique is. In the kayak, I often simply point and, well....shoot. Shoot and pray something takes. My camera has a setting for what I call "machine gun" mode. It let's me fire off several shots (or FPS - frames per second) by simply holding down the shutter. As I rocked there in the waves in front of that little band of birds, that's exactly what I did...shot and prayed. And then I packed it in, and headed home.

Some days are like that. You have to shift your priorities, tweak your hopes and expectations, and be grateful for the blessings the day delivers: water, mangroves, and a safe arrival back at the dock.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400 VR @ 400mm, strong tides and a brand new year