Overcast Beauty

Like all landscape photographers and other lovers of the outdoors, I crave open space and fresh air, and there are days where I simply like to amble in solitude with camera in hand to see what calls my attention. One overcast day not too long ago I went out to Point Reyes National Seashore to walk the simple trail along Abbot's Lagoon, a place used during World War II for dive bombing practice by the Naval Academy. As life is wont to do, the flora and fauna adjusted and flourished after this trauma, especially after the area was protected as parkland, and now over one hundred different bird species can be spotted there, some permanent residents and other transients. Most are alive although a few decaying carcasses dot the shore.

That day, accompanied by a pair of what-I-believe-were ravens (and lots of bunnies), I found myself enraptured with the plants growing along and within the south part of the lagoon. Sadly, I don't know whether they are native species or invaders, beneficial or detrimental. I only know that I found myself intrigued by the textured surface of choked water under cloudy skies, the riot of tendrils creeping into and out of the water, and the feather corsages floating just above the tangle.

Here, then, a few images from that day. 

Nourishing Affection

“Art depends on there being affection in its creator’s life, and an artist must finds ways,
like everyone else, to nourish it.” 

Robert Adams (Why People Photograph)

I love how, etymologically, the root of the word "affection" -- which includes inclination, passion, enthusiasm, love, and attraction -- comes from the past participle stem of afficere, "to do something to, act on," i.e. to affect something.

I think a lot about this when I am in the presence of trees. I know I am not alone in my affection for them. I suspect I also am not alone in my feeling that trees may very well have an affection for us. And, at least in the etymological sense, no one can deny that they do. They are certainly central to our life as providers of oxygen, key participants in the water cycle, and suppliers of food and shelter. Their action in our lives is paramount to our well-being. But for some of us their affection extends much further. They do something inside of us, inspire us to feel something, something grounding, nourishing, and lasting, something we want to acknowledge by making a portrait. 

By seeing them so intently, many of us also feel seen, as scientist photographer James Balog conveys so beautifully in Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, 

“Though my affinity for trees is obvious, I don’t usually indulge in romantic, druidic speculation about them. When I’m in the presence of trees like this oak, though, I can’t help wonder who truly is the observer and who is the observed. While we watch them, do they gaze back at us? It is easy to understand the reciprocity of the visual exchange when a creature has eyes. Does a plant have some other sense that we mammals lack the capacity to understand?" (124).

I certainly have felt the same and I often wonder if and how much trees can sense. Do they feel our presence? Are they responding, or do we simply see our own reflection bouncing back to us? I don't know. I do know, though, that they nourish my affection and I will continue to reciprocate that affection by photographing them. It is one small way of expressing my gratitude for all they do for us.

Journey-work of the Stars

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of
     the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and
     the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of

                           -- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Here is my first effort at star photography. Much to learn! Happy to have taken a workshop with Don Whitebread.

Nicasio Reservoir

“I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a natural work of art," writes Pablo Picasso. He continues, "Nature and art, being two different things, cannot be the same things. Through art we express our conception of what nature is not.” Picasso's statement reminds me of Magritte's painting of a pipe under which he wrote, "This is not a pipe."

In both instances, these artists ask us to reconsider the subject of the image. Although the subject may appear to be something in the external world, realistically the image better represents the internal experience of the artist. This appears to be true even in instances where the artist's intention is to reveal the external world exactly as he or she sees it. (As one would expect, there is considerable debate in photographic circles about this.) That the subject of the image is not the external world but rather the internal experience, is not "nature" but what "nature is not," is easier to recognize when the image has been rendered by some media other than photography, such as in watercolor or oil, or in cases where the artist or photographer has clearly asserted his or her artistic will onto the image. It is not so obvious, though, when the photographer tries to render the scene exactly as he or she sees it, which is what I have attempted with these four images.

While driving out to Inverness yesterday morning to meet with a colleague, I rounded the corner to discover an exquisite reflection of Black Mountain in the Nicasio Reservoir. This picturesque scene in pastoral West Marin immediately lifted my spirits. I felt something wonderful inside -- the dawning of a sense of hope I hadn't felt in a while -- a feeling I wanted to nourish with further contact and did not want to fly past in a sealed up car at 50 mph. I pulled over and stepped out of the car to a rush of bird song so beautiful I could hardly breath. Alone by this reservoir, I felt for one instant as though the world was perfect, beautiful, whole, and peaceful, as though it was suffering neither the strain of human hubris and greed and the threat of mass extinction nor the stress of interspecies competition and the fight for survival. Those "facts" are hidden in my images because at that moment they were absent from my mind. I simply wanted to honor the beauty I experienced. Call me romantic. I won't mind. I needed to capture my sense of hope for later viewing. I needed to convince myself that even though these images represent my internal experience at that particular moment of contact in that particular place, they might, just might, also reveal something about the nature of nature and the fundamental truth of a beautiful and hopeful world.


Gentle Revelations

The Santa Venetia Marsh Preserve and the John F. McInnis County Park lie on opposite sides of South Fork Gallinas Creek. Here dog-walkers, power walkers, and joggers wend their way along the water's edge into the wetlands under the flight path of noisy Canadian Geese and an occasional small airplane making its way to the tiny Marin Ranch Airport. My husband and I like to frequent this place in the early evenings and we often stay out until dusk when Mt. Tamalpais glows on the horizon and bats dart busily above.

A transition zone between land and the San Pablo Bay, this is a place where housing developments, soccer fields and a golf course cede to the hunting grounds of hawks and falcons, herons and egrets. The creek water rises and falls with both the tide and the season and year-round birds adjust to migrants while rodents tend the soil in the thick grasses. It is a rather humble place, unpretentious in its beauty, a place thus gentle in its revelations. 

Lodged Reminder

“Photography . . . promises a view of the world,
but it gives us a flattened object in which wrecked
reminders of the world are lodged.”
James Elkins, What Photograph Is

A Poison to Memory

Art historian and critic James Elkins believes photographs are "poison to memory, because they remain strong while memories weaken." I consider this as I review several photographs made last weekend when family and friends gathered for a goodbye brunch for my nephew after his brief visit to the Bay Area. The foggy, stormy, blustery day belied the calm light we all felt in good company and the gratitude we held for my nephew's survival of brain cancer.

I find Elkins' idea compelling; I marvel at his metaphor. In what ways might a photograph act as a poison, a substance that when absorbed creates a disturbance in an organism or, when too powerful, leads to death? Why implicate the photograph? Don't all moments following a given moment essentially poison or kill the moment before? Isn't every moment dying to the next eternally and always?

Yes, but would we be so aware of this if not for the photograph? It reminds us of one particular moment, a moment which otherwise would have ceded effortlessly to the next, a moment we would not likely even have distinguished as a "moment," that is, as a puncture of time. Worse, the moment, out of flow of its original time and now an image -- something Paul Strand calls an "organism" with a life of its own -- begins to work upon us; each time we look at it we absorb something new, we see something that wasn't part of our original experience but which was nevertheless there all along.

You see where this is going. Whatever we all experienced at that moment on the beach -- the slap of frigid air on the back of our necks, the sound of Molly's laugh above the crash of the waves, the sudden downpour as we dashed across the street, the firm crush of my nephew's hug -- is no where in these photographs and the photographs themselves contain a host of things none of us experienced at the time even though we were there.

Poisonous though they may be, I nevertheless find them restorative. I guess that is the way it is with many things that ride that fine line between poison, death, and cure, say, for instance, chemotherapy. 

The Dark Mother

Among the many photographers I admire very much is Brad Cole. In a wonderful conversation he had with John Paul Caponigro almost two decades ago, Cole spoke, along with other things, about moving beyond the "patriarchy" of the light and looking instead into the dark depths of the Earth mother. He muses, "It's not that I'm against the light. I just want more in the minor key." 

I think about this a lot these winter days when that misty air I spoke of in my last entry is closer to an impenetrable fog and the space, therefore, is hemmed in and mysterious in its obfuscation. I think about it as I note the mouldering clematis on my back patio. I think about it as I cross the creek separating the parking lot from my office, observing the meagre signs of spring in the exposed creek bed.

Like Cole, I like the minor key, as evidenced also by every song I have written. 

Here, then, is a small tribute to this winter's dark mother minor key.

Beauty Bringing Beauty into Being

“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. 
It makes us draw it, take photographs of it,
or describe it to other people.” (Elaine Scarry)

The misty light these winter mornings demands to be photographed. Three mornings now I have pulled out of my driveway, started down the street toward work, stopped abruptly in awe at the forest light, ran back to the house for my camera, and gotten lost in the woods for a half hour before finally leaping back into the car and racing off to work.

Beauty is a quite a task master; she doesn't take no for an answer and doesn't care if I have other appointments. It seems, in this way, she is very much like death.

Spirit Stands Still

Once it has selected a photographer
spirit always stands still long enough to be recorded 

-- Minor White

Ailing Forest

After looking at the galleries on this site, a dear friend wrote the following to me: "One thing I wanted you to explain more about is why you call the forest 'ailing.' Because to me, except for the obvious dead bird, it seems incredibly alive in its haunting beauty. I want to know more about why these evergreens are in 'demise.'"

The funny thing is, when I first created the site I debated about whether to include some of the myriad images I have made of the signs and symptoms of the "ailing" trees in this little valley, both those in the park outside my door (mostly bay laurels) and those on the hillsides surrounding my community (various species of oak combined with bay laurels), but I couldn't decide where to put them if I did. Would they belong under "galleries", a word which signifies to me something of an artistic intention? Or should I create a separate section called "projects" to house images of my six year obsession with documenting the slow demise of these trees? This naturally led to an internal debate about the goal of this site. Is it a place to simply display some of the work I find most meritorious of the label "art" or is it also a place for raising awareness about my shared little corner of this big, round planet, i.e. can my galleries also include "documents"? And why do these two goals -- art and documentary -- seem somewhat in opposition?

That they might or might not be in opposition is a long debate in the history of photography. I'm not going to go into all of the details here, as the post would be long indeed. I will, however, share a salient quote from the late Allen Sekula, photographer and art theorist, who points out how this tension plays out in every single photograph:

Every photograph tends, at any given moment of reading in any given context, towards one of two poles of meaning, the opposition of which is: photographer as seer vs. photographer as witness; photography as expression vs. photography as reportage; the onus of imagination (and inner truth) vs. theories of empirical truth; affective vs. informative value; metaphoric vs. metonymic significations (Sekula, "On the invention of photographic meaning").

Since I'm not going to resolve this inherent tension any time soon, I'll just go ahead and create a new gallery called Ailing Forest. I'll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide if one gallery contains "art" and another "documents" or whether, indeed, each are reflective of both. I do notice, though, that I tend to fall in line with Ansel Adams, thinking of photography as art in those instances when I try to convey my emotion and wish to convince others of the subject's beauty. (Beauty doesn't have to be beautiful . . . How is that for a paradox?) But Adams' thinking is old fashioned now. Richard Misrach represents the thinking of many photographers today. Adams, Misrach says, was busy "deflecting us from reality with the commitment to beauty" (qtd. in Chianese). By this account "reality" is not beautiful and beauty is therefore merely a human construct. I'm not sure I agree with that assessment, but I do notice how I put more time into the post-processing of a photograph I think of as art than I do one I think think of as a document.



A wandering eye

I've been wandering around with camera in hand in the forested park just outside of my home for over six years now. My wanderings have been in fits and starts. Some weeks I am drawn into these woods daily. Some weeks I practically ignore the quiet insistence of the park and it becomes, as David Abram and others have said, merely the "pleasant backdrop" of nature. Over the years I have engaged in all sorts of photographic adventures: documenting the demise of these evergreen trees with close-up shots of leaves covered in sooty mold or denuded branches; responding to their formal beauty with artful pictorial images; capturing the goings on of the birds at the feeder and the turkeys doing their mating dance. 

As I've engaged with the forest in these ways, I have intentionally drawn the camera away from the built environment surrounding this tiny city park, preferring instead to willfully imagine this park as an isolated entity, a vestige of a forgotten time when this whole valley was wild. Inspired by photographers featured on Wilson Cummer's New Landscape Photography site, I have decided to experiment with allowing the human-constructed elements to simply have a presence in these photographs and/or to intentionally engage with them. I'm not sure the following images are great art nor why am I obsessed with wanting to make "great art," but I like their honesty, their matter of factness. And, if I'm going to talk about Gelang photography as a practice of belonging, then I had better acknowledge, respect and engage with all that belongs with this park, all that shapes it as it in turn shapes us, rather than averting my eyes. I have to admit, though, it feels a bit like sneaking a peek into the lives of my neighbors. I feel like the animal hidden in the forest peering out into the human-made world.

Here are some examples from this weak-lighted winter morning.