Musings on the Creative Process – Marty Knapp
Selected Essays About Photography & the Creative Process
Essays are listed in reverse chronological order. All material ©2000-2015, Marty Knapp.
Finding Your Photograph:
Going deeper by slowing down
October 16, 2013
I believe that the creation of an expressive photograph is born from a dance between the rational and the intuitive. Each faculty is fundamental to and inseparable from the creative effort. Both the heart and the mind must participate if the photograph is to have enduring value… to express something deeper than the mere surface of things.
I know from first-hand experience that making an expressive photograph through sheer will-power alone is not easy. I’ve learned that my ability to discover and express what I see and feel works best when I let go of my willfulness and pre-conceived ideas. I set aside a specific time for creative connections to occur. I try to slow down to connect more deeply with what I see. It may be difficult to let go during this time, but I know that if I do, the creative rewards can be richly fulfilling.
To create, I need time to wander, with no pressing family or work obligations. I’ll set off slowly, exploring my back yard, or perhaps I’ll walk around the neighborhood, or amble around at a nearby natural location. This is not a time for multi-tasking, so I don’t try to do any cardio-vascular working out at this time! I empty my mind, forgetting any ideas of what I might or should photograph. Sometimes I’ll leave my camera behind, and “photograph” with my eyes, making a mental note to return with camera if something beckons. This working without my camera can open up new ideas. I see things I never noticed when I had my camera glued to my forehead. When I do carry my camera, I keep it tucked away in the bag, and resist making any photographs, unless something calls out — strongly. When that happens it’s a little like falling in love… creative juices begin to flow. My response comes more from my heart than my brain.
Everything slows down. I approach the object of my interest with care and respect. I become fascinated, drawn. I become involved, sensing that my participation is being requested. I offer my undivided attention. I approach slowly, moving up for a closer look. Still no camera, I simply use my eyes, moving my body into various positions checking the changing shapes, perspectives and relationships of things to each other as I move side to side, close and away. It is during this time that I will decide whether I will make a photograph.
I rarely make a photograph based on the very first way I see something. There’s something about spending the time, delighting in seeing the various aspects, a prelude to deciding on a composition. This is where I really get to see! Something of me, my connection to this scene, has a chance to arise as I explore in this way. And this is where art has a chance to occur– A collaboration of the scene and my reaction to it that I hope will become embedded and expressed in my photograph. When the process works, these feelings and thoughts will also come across to the viewer of the image.
Now it’s time to take out the camera
Looking More Closely
Photographing Barn Interiors
October 10, 2012
Last Thursday morning I drove to a remote part of Sonoma County to check out an old barn during morning light. I’ve recently become fascinated by the patterns that daylight creates when it spills through the spaces between the old boards. I find the light patterns so compelling that sometimes I lose track of time as I wander around, searching for compositions. I don’t practice formal meditation, but find that these visual meanderings can quiet my mind in much the same way. It works best for me if I don’t have a pre-conceived idea of what it is I am going to photograph. The creative spirit awakens in me best when I’m quiet, in a receptive mode.
There are times, though, when the wilfulness of a preconceived idea gets in my way. Having a tendency to fall into the trap of compulsive orderliness, I can miss seeing what is right in front of me. I may set out with such a specific goal for my photography that I am unaware of what is actually present before me.
Such was the case the other morning when I went to photograph the patterns of an old barn in Tomales, California. Having had some success capturing some beautiful, architectural patterns of light in my first barn, I was hopeful of adding to my collection of such photographs. When I first walked in, I slowly scanned the room for a version of what I had in mind. I was disappointed… nothing there. I fretted some about the preciousness of time and how much of it I must have wasted driving to this building.
The impatient, frustrated part of me was already headed toward the door. The rest of me–body, heart and soul–was just about to join the resignation. Fortunately, a calmer part of me, stepped forward. I took a big slow breath and relaxed into the exhale. I wasn’t through. I walked slowly around the perimeter of the barn. Suddenly, a loud fluttering of wings! Above me, a magnificent winged creature, a barn owl, flew from her mid-barn perch, out through the open gable to the bright sky. She must have been watching me. I never saw her.
And there, in the corner, I saw light glowing from a small crack in the wall. I walked over to look more closely. Weathered redwood planks revealed their hardened wavy grain, like bones, memories. Such small exquisite details, and spotlit but for a few moments on the day’s stage. And then, in another crack, the light got in to create a radiant glow on a feathered seedpod and gossamer webs. These tiny scenes drew me near. I was awed. I had not expected this. I attached my macro lens to the camera, and knelt as though in prayer as I gazed on the magnificent beauty of these small wonders.
Tips for Photographers:
The Tripod – when and why you should use one.
September 12, 2012
With today’s advances in digital technology, the tripod is becoming an endangered species. You certainly don’t need one for street photography or casual shots of friends and events. However, there are times when a tripod is an indispensable tool for high quality imaging. Here are a few reasons why you should make sure you have a decent quality tripod in your photo toolkit:
Super close-up photos of very small objects such as flowers, insects, jewelry improve dramatically when a tripod is employed. If you want to get more of your image in focus, you’ll need to close down your lens to it’s smallest aperture. As a consequence, slower shutter speeds will be required. A suitable tripod will allow lock down your camera to prevent movement for these longer time exposures. Another added advantage is the ability to fine tune the composition in ways that are difficult if not impossible while hand-holding your camera.
Wildlife at a distance
In Point Reyes, bird-watching is very popular. Dedicated birders have viewing scopes mounted to tripods in order to prevent the shaking and blurring that occurs when looking through hand-held optical devices. For the same reason cameras with very long telephoto lenses should be mounted on tripods. You’ll end up with sharper images, especially in dim light when slow shutter speeds are required. As a bonus, you can pre-focus your shot and take a break while you wait for that magic moment when momma brings dinner to her fledglings.
When light is very low, longer exposures are needed to capture the scene. Again, the tripod is the solution. Beautiful night star trails can only be done with a tripod that securely holds the camera in place as it’s pointed to a specific area of the sky. Photographing the full moon, using manual focus or focus peaking from a tripod is the way to go.
Fine-tuning the composition
I have found that setting up a shot and locking it down with the tripod helps me see and consider the scene in a deeper more reflective way than if I just shoot away hand-held. When photographing the landscape, I spend much of my time finding the right, general position to set my tripod. Once there I continue making small tweaks in the height, the angle of view and axis of view as I fine-tune my composition. The tripod allows me to make the all important fine-tuning adjustments to my composition that can spell the difference between a good photograph and a very fine one. As a bonus, I can walk away from the tripod-mounted camera and explore other angles while I wait for the light to change, or simply relax my thinking in regards to the composition without losing “my place.”
If you are working on your composition in a field photography workshop and would like your coach to critique your idea, you’ll need to have your camera mounted on a tripod. You won’t be able to hand your camera to your teacher and explain what you are pointing your lens at! Nor will your teacher want to look at the results of your practice on the small screen at the back of your camera. Real time critiquing, from my point of view, is folly unless you can lock down your composition and let your teacher look through the viewfinder.
Rediscovering the Joy of a Small Camera
April 4, 2012
I’ve been making photographs of the landscape here for nearly 40 years. I started with a 35mm Pentax Spotmatic and worked my way up through an assortment of cameras, each one larger and heavier than its predecessor. My first kit, with only a few lenses, weighed about 8 lbs, and traveled in a camera bag not bigger than a shoebox. It was easy to grab. I took it with me every time I left the house. Because I always had it with me, I benefited from some great photo opportunities. I was prepared and new worlds were revealed to me and my camera at seemingly every bend in the trail or highway.
In the pre-digital era, landscape and still-life photography begged for bigger film. The bigger the negative, the better the quality of the subsequent print. So, I graduated to increasingly larger film cameras. Eventually I settled on a Horseman 985, 6×9 view camera. The Horseman is heavy, and with it’s various lenses and film holders weighs about 25 lbs. I’ts bulk required a much larger camera bag for protection. The increased costs of working with this larger camera were justifiable, as I was rewarded with many fine negatives whose prints are still valued. Over time, though, a hidden cost of using my large film camera became apparent. My heavy camera had begun to become a burden to the degree that I became reluctant to bring it with me.
Even now, my neck and limbs ache from the memory of slinging my tripod-mounted camera from one shoulder to the other, to gain relief as I prospected the trails here. The joy of making photographs gradually slipped away from me. Increasingly, I avoided shouldering the tools of my trade. The joy and ease of working with smaller, lighter equipment became a dim memory. All this changed when my wife and I moved to our new home and my new studio in the spring of 2011. Two key events: my acquisition of a digital camera and my subsequent retirement from traditional darkroom printing, reignited my creative spirit.
These days I’m smitten… the joy is back. My Panasonic G1, micro 4/3 camera with two zoom lenses weighs in at less than four pounds. It’s changed the way I work, the way I see things. I take it with me everywhere I go! I’m again making new photographs. I have all the lenses I need including a vintage Canon macro lens that has opened doors for me to the incredible world of super macro photography. My 65-year old body feels young again as I explore the trails looking for new photographs. It’s been a year since I’ve made the change. I’m still struck by how much fun I’m having with my nimble new gear. It brings back the joy I felt when I first started making photographs with my first 35mm film camera.
Because I now take my camera with me again, I’m paying more attention to my surroundings . My morning walk with Lily the Lhasa took me by an abandoned milking barn. Curious about the inside, I went in to explore. I’ve returned several times with camera to record the ghost-like quality of this place. The photograph above is of one of the corners. If you’d like to see more of these photographs, please go to Ghost Barn for a look.
Point Reyes, California
The New Print
Transitioning from silver to pigment
September 13, 2011
I’ve been making traditional black and white photographic prints for almost forty years. Until recently I made every print in my darkroom. I projected my film onto light-sensitive silver papers and developed the images in chemicals. In 2010 I bought an advanced pigment (inkjet) printer and made my first digital prints, a series of fine notecards. Buoyed by the fine quality I was able to get, I decided to make a gradual transition from silver to pigment digital printing. Meanwhile, in my darkroom, I continued to make my larger limited-edition prints on silver paper. It was a comfortable arrangement. I had the security & familiarity of my darkroom backing me up as I learned how to make fine digital prints. I would take my time. I was in no rush.
Then, something happened that changed everything. In early 2011, Jean and I needed to find a new home. We found a house near town that suited us perfectly… well, almost. The new property lacked a suitable space to set up my darkroom. The timing wasn’t perfect but I wasn’t heartbroken about this shortcoming. After spending thousands of hours over 30 years printing in a damp, darkened room in a fog of noxious chemicals, I was ready for a change. What I wasn’t prepared for was the daunting process of learning how to print all over again.
The next several months were a roller coaster of emotion. I was exhausted from the rigors of our move and felt unsettled in my new surroundings. However, I bravely put my darkroom equipment up for sale and immediately jumped into learning digital printing. I armed myself with a puffed-up bravado that masked my underlying uncertainty. I told my wife and friends that I would be just fine without my darkroom, thank you. As I struggled with the alien complexities of calibration, profiles, and color spaces particular to my new method, I wondered if I was up to the task. I became frustrated. I longed for my old darkroom as I watched the trash can overflow with an endless stream of my failed prints. It would be so simple, I thought, to make my prints in the old familiar way – just warm up the chemicals, make a few tests and be done with it. I knew how to do THAT. My bravado deflated as I began to wonder if I had made a big mistake.
I knew that many of my colleagues had made successful transitions to digital. Their accounts indicated that they were getting excellent results and were also pleased with the new technology. I knew I had to keep on trying, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Little steps forward. Fortunately, persistence eventually overcame frustration and I began to have some small but significant successes. My new prints started looking good. I thought, “I can DO this.”
It takes focused effort to make the first acceptable print and the trash can still overflows with the ones that aren’t good enough. But now the time that I used to spend in the darkroom is spent improving the digital image file. Things are fun and exciting again. New possibilites have arisen and I feel creative. These new pigment prints are fine indeed. They rival, and some even exceed, the beauty of my best silver prints. I have powerful new tools that allow me to express nuances in the print that aren’t even possible to get in a traditional darkroom print. I’m so glad now that my wife and I had to find a new place to live!
My new prints start out as either high-resolution scans from my original film negatives or direct files from my digital camera. Either way they’re imported into my computer for digital wrangling before being exported for printing on my pigment printer. For those of you who are interested, here’s what I use to make my prints:
MacBook Pro 2GHz Intel Core i7 w. 8GB Ram, OS 10.6.8
Adobe Lightroom 3.2
Epson Stylus Pro 4880 w. K3 Ultrachrome Inks
Epson Advanced Black & White Print Driver
Optica One Cotton Fine Art Matte Paper
Position is Everything
March 13, 2011
We landscape and still-life photographers are faced with a number of decisions whose outcome will profoundly affect the quality of our images. Of these choices, none will have a greater impact on than where we decide to position our camera. The slightest adjustment of our lens’ position relative to our subject can have a profound effect on our photograph. This is especially true with wide-angle photography. Here, position is everything.
During a recent coaching session, a photographer asked me to help her compose with a new super-wide angle lens. She was in unfamiliar territory. Her lens created an exaggerated view, one much broader than her normal vision provided. Objects viewed through this lens were closer than they appeared. Since I was familiar with the peculiarities of wide-angle photography, I led her to an area with compositional elements I thought suitable for her lens.
We stood at some sensuous patterns which had been carved in the sand by a creek. Textured cliffs side-lit by the morning sun provided a dramatic background. We walked slowly, carefully surveying the location. I knelt down to consider camera angles and foreground details which are essential to a wider than normal composition. After identifying a particularly promising spot, we set her camera there upon its tripod. Slowly and with great attention, we scanned the scene on her viewfinder. During our search, we made very small adjustments in the position of her camera/lens relative to the subject.
As we tweaked the position of the camera, my friend was fascinated to see how profoundly the composition changed. Juxtaposed shapes and lines dynamically re-arranged themselves into more, or sometimes less, pleasing arrangements. Seemingly insignificant camera movements resulted in striking compositional changes, a feature particular to wide-angle work. After much consideration, my friend decided on a composition that pleased her. She proceeded to make a very fine photograph, one that she could have never recorded if she had not taken the time to so carefully position her camera.
Next time you’re checking out the scene with your own wide-angle lens, do yourself a big favor. When you think you’ve really found your shot, stop. Don’t make that shot! Instead, look deeper, move around very slowly. The real gold may be hiding right nearby. Squint your eyes as you watch the shapes, the lines and the light move as they rearrange themselves into a more deeply considered composition. When satisfied, set up your camera and then make your photograph. Position truly is everything.
Access – Getting there, taking the time to go deeper
December 9, 2010
Physical access has been key to the creation of my Point Reyes landscape photographs. Having lived in the Point Reyes area since 1973, I’ve had many opportunities to photograph the rugged beaches and rolling hills here during varying times of day and year. The ability to easily return to this compelling landscape, has provided me with rare glimpses usually unavailable to the occasional visitor. I’m grateful for this fortunate nexus of my home and vocation. Because I’m here and I’ve had the time, I’ve become more aware of the changing moods that light and weather create on the landscape. Continuing access has helped my perceptions to deepen and has evolved the way I see and photograph this place.
Simply having physical access to interesting subject matter is not enough. Recently I went through a long dry spell when I was unable to get outside to photograph. Even though beauty of Point Reyes was nearby, I felt blocked from shooting it. When the light was photographically promising, I was booked. When I was free to shoot, there was no good light… or so it seemed. Although these constraints came both from outside events and personal choices, the obstacles were no less real. Fortunately, I was able to get out of this rut by creating new photographic accessibility. Some coincidences resulted in my being drawn into my studio where I found some fascinating subjects to explore. A huge bonus was that I was no longer dependent upon the weather or changing natural light. I could create photographs at any time I was free. I wrote about these changes in a couple of earlier essays which you can read here: Musings on the Creative Process
Sometimes access to a promising location and ample time for deep exploration may not be enough. We are capable of wasting, misusing the access available to us. As photographers/artists it’s our job to record and express what we see and what we think about that in a compelling and expressive manner. None of this happens if we move too fast. Being there means little if we aren’t present to the moment and the place. I learned that lesson during a photo trip I made to the Southwest some years back.
Having just acquired my first 4×5 view camera, I treated myself to a grand Southwest photo expedition. I flew into Albuquerque, rented a car and took myself on a whirlwind tour of the iconic photographic landscapes of the Southwest. In eight days, I travelled 3,000 miles, stopping only briefly at each famous view to make my own version of these over-photographed landscapes. It seems crazy when I think about it now. I had raced madly around like a crazed tourist. What was I thinking? To this day, not one of these exposures has found it’s way into my portfolio. I failed miserably because I tried to do too much, without thinking. I did not allow enough time to go deeper at any one location. I had physical and time access, but not the reflective state of mind needed to find good photographs. I would’ve done much better to have stayed a while at any one of these spots. I could’ve wandered about for a day or two and watched the light and weather as they worked their magic on the shapes of the world.
Early this Autumn, I planned the itinerary for a photography workshop I would coach in the Eastern Sierras. The destination was to be the Alabama Hills, near Lone Pine California. The landscape there is a fantastic, surreal array of boulders, strewn on a plateau with the snow-capped Sierras providing the backdrop. Within a few square miles there are endless juxtapositions of shapes and vistas that are modified further by the sun’s changing angle. As I considered the itinerary, I was tempted to add one or more other fabulous locations, within a few hours drive of Lone Pine. Seducing me were the tufa formations of Mono Lake, the Bristlecone Pines of the White Mountains and the dunes of Death Valley. All of these places are highly desirable destinations for we landscape photographers. It would be tempting to move the workshop each day to a new, fantastic location.
The problem was that this could easily turn our event into a rapid tour of great photographic spots. Since I had already been there, done that, I decided on another approach. Instead, we would stay at and go deeper at one location – the Alabama Hills. I wanted us to return again and again to the same areas over a number of days during varied times of the day. It could be powerful to witness our landscape as it was being modified by the changing conditions of light and weather. Taking the time could help us know our landscape deeper, and provide us with potentially more insightful and evocative compositions. That is what we did. We stayed in the Alabama Hills for 5 days and by the end of the workshop, we all began to notice and photograph aspects of the landscape that were beyond our imagination during our intial forays there. Taking the time provided such rich rewards to our access of the Alabama Hills. We travelled fewer miles, but oh so much more deeply.
Becoming a Photographer – Earliest Memories
October 5, 2010
When I recall the touchstones, the defining moments that led to my becoming a photographer, my memories are both visual and kinesthetic. As a young child I gazed with binoculars at the stars sparkling in the heavens. Time stood still. I was fascinated– all aglow inside. At Christmas, I squinted my eyes at the tree’s lights until my vision was filled with streaming silvery rays… nothing else mattered. My sister and I discovered and “mined” quartz crystals that grew from the granite shelf in our Connecticut backyard. We called these glittering rock fragments “silver” and I treasured them in my dresser drawer. I took them outside to admire under the shining sun. These memories are magical. They heralded a life-long attraction to things luminous, harbingers of my life’s work. I smile even now as I recall them.
In those days I still had not seen or thought about cameras or photography. It was all about seeing and the delight of seeing. Light sparkled around me – I sought it out and it was irresistible. In those moments of light, I felt a deep smile, which started deep inside of me, then moved happily out to my fingers, toes and nose.
For my 11th birthday, my grandfather gave me a camera. It was beautiful, a treasure. I was stunned, fascinated with the arcane numbers, the curve and gleam of the lens, even the brown velvet-lined leather case that protected it. As I held the camera I felt that big smile glow from inside me again – this was love for sure and I set out to make my first photographs!
Somehow my camera went missing later that summer. It seems odd that I would lose it, but I did. By high school I never gave photography a second thought. I became distracted by sports and girlfriends. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I held a camera in my hands again. That good, just-right feeling returned. I felt solid, balanced, warm inside and very happy. What a feeling…. It’s a fount of inspiration which returns to me sometimes these days. Back then, I did not know that I was already a photographer and an artist. There was no one in my family who had an art background, so I wandered during my early 20s, simply enjoying the camera as a good friend. I lived in San Francisco where I made photographs of my friends and family, and occasionally I even shot a still life. I had no idea what fate had in store for me.
Looking back from here, it seems clear that my fascination with light and the empowering feelings I got while holding and using a camera were clear signals that I was being called to the art of photographic expression. However, I was too distracted by other adventures and misadventures to pay heed to my muse.
As a child I was strongly encouraged to become a physicist. Early on, I spent much of my time heading in a direction that others wished for me. My heart wasn’t into it, but in those days I wasn’t good at listening to my heart. Once it became clear that science wasn’t for me, I rebelled and set out to become what I thought was the exact opposite of a scientist. I re-set my sails and headed off on a visionary quest of a romantic, pseudo-spiritual nature. I teetered between two worlds neither of which were wholly true to my nature. It took me many years to bring my craft safely back to port, out of those tumultuous seas. I have come to realize that I am a synthesis of both the scientist and the visionary artist. I think that’s why photography has been so right for me.
I’ve not regretted the diversions in my life, for they are integral to the place I have come to now. However, with less time on my clock, I pay closer attention to the feelings that arise inside of me. I think that my creative block came because I had forgotten to listen inside. My creative spirit returned because I began to listen again. Now when I forget and lose my bearing, I try to remember the stars in the sky and how I felt when my grandfather gave me my first camera. It makes all the difference.
A Most Fortunate Blunder
August 11, 2010
We call them mistakes, accidents, and blunders. Sometimes we refer to them as roadblocks, messes, or hassles. Our dictionary is filled with words that describe the various ways we can be blocked, delayed, or discouraged from what it is we were doing or had hoped to accomplish. We choose to deal with these in many ways. We can turn away, walk around, ignore, curse, become agitated, lose our bearing, give up. Or….
I sat, leaning slightly forward on a hard wooden stool. Oblivious to my body’s growing discomfort, I stared at a cosmos of luminous spheres which appeared in my camera’s viewfinder. I was transfixed, and felt as though I was floating in an immense sea of radiant light. I could’ve been voyaging to the far reaches of interstellar space. This evening, when I had journeyed into the super-macro world, had been enchanting and satisfyingly productive… so far.
On my table was a clear acrylic vessel filled with viscous liquid. A single spotlight illuminated the thousands of micro-bubbles suspended in this liquid. My camera was perched on its tripod, inches from the container. Through my macro lens I scanned this minute world, finding one incredible vista after another. For over an hour I delighted in these views. I was fatigued, but like an addict, I thought “just one more….” I reached for the adjustment nob on the tripod head to change the angle of the lens.
As I loosened the knob the camera suddenly lurched forward. I had turned the wrong knob! As it swung down the lens kicked the vessel, spilling a pint of sticky liquid across my table. I stared in disbelief at this goo. What a mess! I shook my head and scolded myself for “over-doing it.” I was tired and irritated…, ready to call it a night. As I walked away to get some cleaning gear I glanced back at the mess. The light glinted off the lustrous surface of the spill highlighting the wavy edges of the surface, creating gorgeous patterns. This spill glowed like a treasure. Now, I felt awake, very awake. I re-positioned my camera, and began to explore the surface. Slowly scanning this magnificent surface, I photographed for another hour. Here is one of my favorites, Terrain #86, made during the night of my fortunate blunder.
A small world becomes incredibly large
June 17, 2010
When I was a little boy I would gaze with rapt wonder at the sparkling stars in the midnight sky. At Christmas-time, the ornaments on my family’s tree twinkled and sparkled, beckoning me. I’d squint my eyes to enhance the optical effect of the rays as they streamed from the glowing bulbs and sparkled from the globed ornaments. These timeless moments of visual delight were a joyful reverie. I smile now, as I must have done then, as I remember these moments. Little did I know that my childhood’s fascination with light and what glowed and sparkled, would return to manifest itself in my chosen life’s work, photography.
I felt grateful when, just recently, these same joyful feelings of wonder returned. On a day in late April, the low afternoon sun raked across my table, its rays back-tlighting a bottle of clear liquid. Suspended inside this clear liquid, thousands of micro-bubbles came alive. They sparkled, star-like in this liquid universe. Drawn by this magnificent display, I stopped everything and walked closer to look more deeply at this profoundly beautiful phenomenon.
Within the fluid, I discovered a surprisingly vast universe. There seemed no end to the views both deep within and along the surface. I mounted my Canon macro lens on the digital Lumix G1, and in turn attached that rig to my tripod. I brought my lens very near, nearer, and nearer still. I was soon exploring, inch by inch, a fantastic world. I looked deeply, and viewed the horizon from every angle as I made photographs of the fluid’s interior. As I slowly scanned the territory, remarkable landscapes unveiled themselves. Transfixed and barely stirring from my stool, I felt I had travelled millions of light years into the far reaches of interstellar space. Hours later, I arose from my seat, straightened my back, and pulled the camera back from the scene. I had discovered and recorded scores of photographs, some good, some not so good during this first of many photographic evenings. I was on fire like an explorer discovering a new world …. a world boding much promise.
Tonight, and now nearly every night, I feel the longings to continue my exploration. The fact that there are many times that I am unable to follow my quest fills me with a most bittersweet joy. I keep this desire to make new photographs alive within me. Perhaps this is one of the fundamental secrets of the creative spirit…. that once the fire kindles, do not let it die. Cherish and keep this ember alive so that it can glow again…. and again. Tonight my own ember smolders in me.
Discovering the beauty of a smaller world
March 30, 2010
It’s been difficult to think about, let alone write about this.
For the last year I’ve struggled with a serious bout of creative inertia. I’ve had trouble motivating myself to go out and make photographs. Dramatically beautiful clouds and radiant lighting have come and gone. I’ve noticed these moments but they have left me feeling conflicted, a little sad. Until just recently I’ve been unable to even consider photographing what I’d been seeing. I felt somewhat guilty by my inertia. Gradually, I came to understand that I was going through a long-overdue change. Things were settling inside. I felt like a snake that was shedding a skin. I began to feel encouraged. Something new was coming, but I knew not what it was.
In September I wrote about my artist’s block to my long-time friend and collector of my photography, Richard Zirinsky, Jr. He replied cryptically, “We’ll have to talk about this ‘trouble making photographs’.” (Among his many creative talents and achievements, Richard is the co-founder and managing partner of Adventure Music.)
A few days later, Fedex delivered a small, neatly-packed box. Inside was a gift that would begin to change everything. Opening the box, I found a note from Richard and a beautiful Panasonic Lumix point and shoot digital camera. My heart beat like a little kid unwrapping a Christmas present. I started playing with this little gem, and soon I was carrying it everywhere. It has a superb lens, and it’s ease of operation seduced me. I began making photographs again, but in a wholly new manner. The new camera had begun to stimulate the creative in me. Even so, I still did not know where I was going with my creative spirit.
The winter came and went, and I still had not found my way. Even so, I felt encouraged, more confident that something was happening inside me. I told my wife, Jean, that “something new is coming… I just didn’t know what it is, yet.” I knew that I would be making some new photographs, of something, somewhere.
I liked Richard’s Lumix camera so much, that in February I purchased it’s bigger brother, the Panasonic Lumix G1. The G1 had certain additional manual exposure and focusing features I require to create the kind of photographs I was accustomed to. Also, this new camera had the advantage of accepting other lenses, including my legacy Canon FD film lenses which I had cut my teeth on over 20 years ago. In particular, I was delighted to discover I could use my 50mm Canon Macro lens.
During the first full moon workshop I taught in February, I experimented with the G1 and a couple of my old Canon telephoto lenses. The results were very pleasing to me. At home I started playing with my treasured Canon 50mm macro lens and was amazed at the beauty I discovered in the very small world. Magnified forms, glowing in new dimensions, drew me in. I was delighted… on fire again!
A week ago, I trained my lens into the depths of a pool of liquid. There, I found a universe of sparkling spheres backlit by the setting sun, suspended in the liquid. Then, later that week, I walked slowly along a trail at Lake Nicasio. Looking down, I saw millions of dew-covered baby plants sparkling in the morning light. Radiant fog was lifting from the lake, revealing Black Mountain. For a brief moment, distracted, I thought of photographing that scene. But, remembering what had called me, I looked down again at the dew-covered plants. I lowered my camera, knelt, and began to photograph this splendor of God’s new creation.
I still don’t know where this new work is leading me. All I know is that I have started waking up in the morning feeling alive and wanting to photograph again. It’s like when I began, over 20 years ago, and set out to photograph the beauty of Point Reyes. Back then, I knew I was being spoken through, inspired. Now, again, I hear that calling. I feel humbled and grateful.
DRAKES MOONRISE: The making of a photograph
February 9, 2010
On an October afternoon in 1990 I sat staring at a large map of the Point Reyes Peninsula spread out on my work table. Nearby, open to October, was an ephemeris calibrated for Point Reyes. The tables listed not only the time of the sun and moon risings and settings, but also the azimuth (compass bearing) of these events. And even more importantly, it detailed the altitude of these heavenly bodies, minute by minute for each date. On top of the map was a sheet of clear acetate that I had marked with an array of detailed compass bearings. As I slid the acetate over the map, registering the markings based on the data in my ephemeris, I was able to pre-determine a location and a date for a moonrise photograph I had in mind. I discoverd that an upcoming evening in October could provide a unique opportunity to photograph the full moon rising over the white cliffs of Drakes Beach. This was a photograph that I had long hoped to make. I marked my calendar and set aside all commitments for the upcoming event.
On the pre-selected date, I arrived at the beach 30 minutes before the predicted moonrise. I took the extra time to find my spot and choose my lens. I entertained myself with the compass, reconfirming that the moon would come up in the location that my earlier mapping had indicated. As the sun hurried down behind me, I saw the ghostly form of the moon peek from behind the grass-covered hills. As it first broke free from the cliffs, it lacked the brightness and contrast I hoped for. However, in a few minutes, the moon became startlingly vivid. I felt a rush of excitement as I witnessed this moment. The sun was nearly down, it’s last rays raking the tops of Drakes cliffs and the eastern ridges. I composed the scene through my telephoto lens and then made several exposures. The scene was stunning and the timing worked better than I could have ever expected. Drake’s Moonrise has become the most collected of all photographs.
Photography Without a Camera
A creative meditation
October 7, 2009
Take a walk without your camera this afternoon. Go to a place that you’d love to photograph. When you get there, stop for a moment and simply relax. Slow down and then, with no goal in mind, begin walking around this place. Walk with soft eyes and let yourself go. Gradually, you may begin to consider what you might photograph if you had your camera.
If the light is gorgeous, you might feel anxious because you could be missing some good photographs. Stop then, and take a long deep breath. Have faith. Trust me, there will be other rich opportunities awaiting you at future moments in other spaces. You are here, now, to learn to see deeper. You’ve come to learn more about what you love–to know it and yourself better. You’re here to prepare yourself to see through your camera more fully once you do pick it up again.
So, for now, simply relish the beauty. Pause often to feel it, to contemplate it. Be an explorer of the great delights of this space…, this moment. Notice what you love, what attracts your attention. Look far, look near. Make a window of your hands and frame a scene. Far away, and then up close. This angle, and then that. Okay, are you starting to see what is you, what is that? Is there a place that they might meet, spill into one another? Then, think about how, with an image, you could express what you have seen and felt. Later, when the time is right return–with your camera.
September 2, 2009
This last spring I hosted some informal photo shooting sessions on Saturday afternoons. I’ve facilitated several now, and each has produced valuable insights. I’ve long been a believer in the mutual benefits education offers to both student and teacher. These informal outdoors sessions have confirmed my belief.
Before the first session, I spent several afternoons scouting a location close to my studio. I checked the angle of the light during the hours I would later be taking my photographer friends. I felt comfortable that I knew the terrain and would be able to bring folks to the right place at the right time. As well-prepared as I thought I was, the unexpected still greeted me during the sessions.
During the first outing, we stopped on the sunlit side of a meandering ranch fence that curled down a grassy hill toward the edge of an oak forest. I was a little nervous, trying to be helpful as possible to my student. After pacing around a bit, I found “my spot” and set the camera’s lens to a composition that I thought would be instructive. Bringing my friend, Larry, over to the viewfinder, I asked him to check out the image I was working on. “Hmmm..”, he said, “nice fence, but it doesn’t go anywhere.” I looked again in my viewfinder, and after a few seconds I accepted his observation. “You’re right. I wonder why I didn’t notice that!” I thought about this for a moment. The fence had seduced me ….it was very interesting and had potential. But, in making my composition, I had not provided it with any dynamic context. It was just a naked fence, kinda going nowhere, and perhaps a little indecisive too. I broke down my camera and thought I would try to photograph this fence at another time, probably from a different angle as well. And, so we moved on….
The next Saturday, I brought another photographer over to the fence. This time, feeling wiser, I did not suggest a composition. Soon, my colleague went to the opposite side of the fence from where I had earlier failed, and began to compose a landscape using the fence as the main element. I asked her what she saw. Her reply caught me off guard…”Marty, it’s like you said…. the sun angle is everything! This fence looks dynamic when it is back-lit.” Looking through her viewfinder, I found a photo begging to be taken. The fence had come alive and the background helped to enhance the fence’s presence. Using one of the principles I had taught her, she had located the superior lighting angle to make a compelling photograph of the fence.
Perhaps the lessons my students “taught” me were ones I already knew. But, what was significant was that I was offered a deeper understanding of the practice of seeing and photographing. What was valuable was that by being willing to go out and teach I got the rewarding experience of learning – seeing anew through another’s eyes. A few days later I walked back to the fence and made my own version of it in this photograph.
How good is your lens?
March 26, 2009
We photographers share a fascination with the technical qualities of our equipment. This interest is fostered largely by the marketing efforts of the equipment manufacturers. Photography periodicals are littered with charts that tout the advantages of the latest and greatest lens by manufacturer X. Complex graphs & charts comparing lines of resolution per millimeter and spectral responses of the “X lens” to it’s competitors are commonplace in equipment review articles. It is easy to be seduced into thinking that if only we had the latest example of the manufacturer’s X-Lens, our photographs would finally live up to the high expectations we have for them. And although I agree there are measurable, even discernible, improvements in quality in these ever-newer lenses, I think we may be missing the point.
My friend and mentor Bill Booras once told me that with the advent of computer-derived optical formulas and programmed robotic
manufacturing, the qualitative differences between lenses have greatly shrunk. Most lenses, even rather inexpensive ones, are highly corrected for most of the faults that plagued earlier, pre space-age optics. The “space age” began in 1957 when the first artificial satellites were hurled into earth orbit. Very good lenses have been made for quite some time, now! If all things remain somewhat equal, it must be something else that is the determining factor of a print’s sharpness. Bear with me–I do not have an engineering degree, and so my conclusion may lack the appropriate authority. I’ll go ahead anyway…..
Many visitors to my gallery remark on the sharpness of the photographs they see on the walls. To some it is a mystery and they inquire about the film used, the camera, the lens, and some want to know what developer I have used. Although all the prints are sharp, the various images have been made from a variety of films, cameras, lenses and development strategies. I have one image on 35mm film (technical pan film) taken with an inexpensive off-brand zoom lens. It is striking in it’s sharpness and resolution of detail. What it and the other photographs at my gallery have in common is that each one was made with a camera perched upon a rock-steady platform–a tripod. And every exposure was triggered with a cable release. So, before you strain the budget one more time for that super lens, consider dusting off your tripod and carrying it with you to your next photo shoot. You may surprise yourself with some new-found sharpness!
When is a Photograph Good?
February 3, 2009
The creative process of making a photograph is fraught with uncertainty. From locating the subject matter, to distilling your idea as you compose the image on the groundglass or in the viewfinder, there is no shortage of obstacles to overcome. These first two parts of the process alone are worthy of deep and thoughtful consideration, but today we’ll jump ahead to the middle part of this process, which deals with editing your efforts. So, assuming a modicum of success in the capture of your image, you’ll find that the real work has only just begun. Should a print be made? If so, what adjustments are needed? Also, dare you let anyone see this print? These are all decisions that I’ve made over the years. Today, I’m writing to you about the ways that I decide if an image is good enough to make into a fine photograph.
Everything I photograph is on film, but for my digital photography friends the same decision-making process applies. I won’t belabor you with the reviewing process, but suffice it to say that when a good photograph is being made, there are often variations of exposure or compositon to take into account. If your images are digital, don’t be hasty in the selection process. Don’t let the pressures of time cause you to delete what could eventually become the best image of a session. Editing in the digital world can be lethal. Unlike with film, your actions could cause you to lose a “lifetime” image. As an analog (film) photographer, I don’t have to deal with that issue, as my negatives and contact prints are never thrown away…..but I digress.
After spending some clear-headed moments reviewing your exposures, identify the images that you think are contenders for your portfolio, publication, a competition or your own personal pleasure. Then, make a very good 8×10″ print of each of the candidates. When done, take one last look at the group you’ve made, and either put them away in a folder or a box, or pin them to a wall that you pass by fairly regularly. In either case, walk away from them for now.
Taking as much time as you can allow for editing, come to visit your photographs once or twice a day, and briefly look again. At first, defer any decisions, but notice how you react to them as some time passes. Perhaps that “blue ribbon winner” isn’t looking so great after all? Maybe that print from the digital file that you nearly deleted, is starting to shine, eh? In any case, give these prints the time they need, and yourself the distance you need to start seeing them better. You will be surprised at what happens if you stay still for a while. The time spent away from your images allows things to settle in you. It also removes you from the emotion you may have felt when you saw and made the original exposure. Believe me, in most cases, the emotion you may have felt when making a photograph is not easily communicated to the viewers of your work.
As time goes by, remove the lesser images from the box or from the wall. If you remove all of them, don’t despair because you’ve guaranteed that your future efforts will be much better. The future photographs you make will benefit from your rigorous and thoughtful editing! If, after this review, one or more of your images still remain, then it’s time for the next step. This is a big one. Your new job is to make the very best print of each of the finalists. Determining the size of these prints is just one of several personal decisions you will next make. I’ll write more about this in a future column.
Ansel’s Shoes and the Rooftop Shooting Platform
Labor Day Weekend, 2008
Today I removed the rooftop shooting platform from my 1987 Toyota Van. This sun-blistered plywood perch had travelled with me atop my camper for thousands of miles for more than five years. During those years I had hauled myself and camera gear up onto it, perhaps, a half-dozen times. Regrettably, apart from a group portrait I once made, I’d not created one memorable image from my deck. Even so, the thought of disassembling and removing the stage stirred up a mix of emotions.
My shooting platform was inspired by a story I had read about a similar rig that Ansel Adams had fabricated. His set-up was mounted on a vintage station wagon and was used to make several important photographs, most notably “Moonrise over Hernandez.” Ansel used his to avoid the roadside obstructions of fenceposts and other man-made casualities. We photographers try to create the illusion of an earlier, more natural and pristine landscape by keeping such modern debris out of our viewfinder and off of our film. I had intended to use mine for the same practical purpose.
As I twirled the locknuts securing the plywood to the rooftop racks, I remembered the hopes and plans I had held for my shooting perch. I had found just the right collapsible step-stool to use for accessing my platform. It fit perfectly behind my van’s back bench seat. I even wistfully recalled the time I had spread out a blanket to take a sunbath atop the van in the Alabama Hills! As I walked around to the other side of the van to continue my disassembly, I wondered if I would regret my decision.
Then my thoughts drifted back to Ansel. When I started to photograph I knew little about the history of photography. My formal education came from subscriptions to photo journals, borrowed photo textbooks, and a few precious photography volumes purchased from the bookstore. Among these published works, some oversize Ansel Adams wall calendars stood out. I marvelled at the stunning and majestic beauty of Ansel’s creations, as gorgeously reproduced by Gardner Lithograph. These calendar prints were my original inspiration, and in my early years they strongly influenced the style of work I created.
In recent years, though, things have begun to shift in me. I’ve gradually lost my interest in the majestic views that had earlier seduced me. It’s a smaller, more intimate scene that I now find appealing. I am gradually becoming more attuned to and committed to my personal vision. With this shift I’ve begun to feel a wee bit estranged from Ansel. He’s still a dear old friend and mentor, and I owe much to him. For the longest time, I must confess, I was trying to fill Ansel’s shoes. As I finished lowering the sheet of plywood to the ground, I realized that I’ve moved on.
Why I’m an Artist
March 24, 2006
I think most parents would think twice before encouraging their child to become an artist. After all, who would wish a life of financial uncertainty and a difficult path toward unlikely success for someone you love? And yet, nearly every day, someone eminently successful from the world of business, science, technology or law comes into my gallery, and tells me that they envy the life that I have. Sensing the excitement, freedom, and glamor in leading an artistic life, they’ll say, “I bet you’re out there on those trails for hours and days on end, just following your heart.” Or, “Don’t you think it’s wonderful being your own boss?”
The short response to both of these comments, is “You bet, it’s great!” But, I seldom give that short reply, because it’s really not that simple. I’ll say that I do what I do because I have no choice. I’ll also remind my visitor that because I do this artist thing, I take a big risk. I trade away my chance for financial security for the freedom to lead what I call an “authentic” life…to be who I truly am. And, lately, when I feel my 60 year old bones & ligaments ache in new ways, I wonder if I’ve made the right choice.