My friend asked me to shoot his beloved Jeep. Sport model, 4wd, 6 cylinders, 242 cubic inches, naturally aspirated, Chili Pepper red. Their adventures together had spanned more than 20 years, two hundred thousand miles, and hours on America's open roads listening to songs on an in-dash radio cassette player. Now, he was letting go, selling his 1998 Cherokee and he wanted pictures for his sales ad.
We planned the shoot for morning light in a local park. I promised him 15 images, and gave him a download link in advance. Then, I did some thinking. I thought about a Guy Tal webinar I saw, and ideas from Guy's book called More Than A Rock. A powerful idea reappeared: a photograph is both 'of' something, and, significantly, it is also 'about' something. I pondered what the experience was about for my friend.
After I photographed the images for his ad with my Nikon, I asked my friend a favor. I told him to sit in the driver's seat and hold his hands just above the wheel as I raised my Leica to my eye and made this photograph. It's titled "Letting Go."
Our photographs are "of" things, but they can also be "about" memories, emotions and our life experiences. And those of our friends.
Florida, Punta Gorda, Waterford Estates 2021: On May 8, the community development corporation cut down our "forever wild" area. As homeowners, we were told the purpose was to remove invasive species, so we watched a backhoe mow a 40 foot wide swath just behind our home. Like a sword of eternity, its sharp blade struck a gopher tortoise and I found its cleaved shell a few days later. My heart grieved. The next month, after hurricane Elsa's rain, plants grew up and a dragonfly perched next to the turtle's resting place. Seeing its wings shimmer the morning light, I thought of darkness and light, and our ever-changing living-dying moments. Things pass away. Others live on. Sometimes, death is the mother of beauty.
A photograph can be about a single subject. When this subject is in the foreground, they way it compels a viewer depends on many elements. One of these is the background. A background that is in spatial and color synchrony with the foreground subject makes for a more effective picture.
When we synchronize watches, we set them to the same time. A compelling photograph synchronizes foreground and background in time, and within the picture space. To achieve this synchrony with nature subjects, it helps to keep moving. Reposition the camera down, back, to the side and up. In other words, keep shifting the vantage point until subject and background synchronize.
Observation, light and editing are the where we live and work as photographers. Strolling through a damp, grassy field by the Peace River, I saw mangroves reflected in the dew drops suspended in blades of grass. In the sky above, slender cirrus clouds hung like translucent wings. I paused along the edge of a posse of white mangroves and realized I did not remember seeing any of the area I just passed by.
I was not hearing the soundscape either. I turned round, went back, and this time I walked along slowly and tuned out the inner dialogue. Details in the mangrove forest began to appear visually. I heard a soft buzzing. A patch of yellow hues came into view. Paper wasps were making building a six inch wide, umbrella-shaped nest on a tree branch a few feet above ground. Since they are a pollinator and feed on garden pests, paper wasps are beneficial; almost every pest insect on Earth has a wasp that feeds on it. A good buzz, indeed.
The wasps were calm and drying off from that morning's dewdrops. It seemed safe to photograph them close up. They are known to sting only when territory is threatened, and as I moved the lens very slowly, light from the sunrise lit their soporific bodies.
Observation. Light. Editing (OLE). To understand these three elements, let's borrow a metaphor from musical performance. Editing is like practicing a song multiple times to embody the timing and dynamics of the notes and phrasing. Light is like the melody. Observation is timing, rhythm and rest. OLE is getting all of it working together. Editing photographs is not about making them perfect, but the process making them express your message. Light has been my sidekick since my childhood; I love thinking about its qualities, direction and moods. Editing and light flow smoothly for me. Observation takes concentration and dedicated practice. Sometimes our art comes not from arriving, but in being almost there.
To look deeply takes practice letting go of my rabbit mind. Easter Sunday came along to remind me to let it go and pay attention to this land.
* Paper wasps have variable black facial patterns that signal their fighting ability. Wasps with more irregular black spots on their faces win more fights and are avoided by rivals, compared with wasps with fewer irregular black spots. These facial signals help reduce the costs of conflict, ensuring that wimpy wasps don’t waste time battling really strong rivals they are unlikely to beat. Like karate belt colors, facial patterns of wasps are like a biological “ornament” that shows the wasps fighting status. Wasps with elaborate ornaments are a greater social and sexual threat than those with less elaborate ornaments (Elizabeth Tibbetts, PhD, Dept of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ. of MIchigan).
“No matter that we may mount on stilts. We still must walk on our own legs.
And on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”
Becoming a teacher is a humbling experience.
This Spring, I taught an online photo course via Zoom called Better Pictures with your Camera. Teaching ten students, I learned a lot. There were memorable moments. Trying to work the Zoom interface, and share examples and lessons, I stumbled. My students forgave me and gave me a lesson in forgiveness, Trying to learn from my failures, but not taking them too seriously, I got help from the students, and on the way my mistakes nudged us into laughter and seemed to generate a relaxed, harmonious group mood.
The students in the class were motivated adults. Each one sent in photographs for review and offered feedback and insightful comments to others about their pictures. When we covered photo editors like Photoshop and Lightroom, one student told me about a editor new to me called Affinity. It is a Photoshop-like editor. I downloaded the free trial and got to work editing some images. The program was so well designed that I recommended it to a few other students in the class.
An insight came for me: assume that I will learn something interesting from each student about the world. Assume each student has something novel and interesting to offer. To join forces with students, a teacher can be humble. I photograph daily. Each time I wander out with camera in hand, I am acutely aware that I know only a little about photography. There is an infinite sky above, and photography is a vast ocean of knowledge. There are large areas of photography of which I know little, so there's a lot of room to grow.
If we get caught up in being “great” as photographers or teachers, we lose the ability to be humble. Now, I'm not talking about self-abasement. Here, humility is used in the sense of being un-selved, liberated from a sense of self, and prideless. Listening to pro photographers, I've learned from some that they picked up a specific ability over their careers. Learning how to shoot famous people who are stars of web and screen, these pros mastered ways of letting go of their own stuff to get the results they wanted, and get better images they might not have planned. Why? They knew how to collaborate. For example, Annie Liebovitz, a remarkable photographer, learned to work closely with the stars she photographed on film, when she worked for Vanity Fair.
Liebovitz's humility did not mean she lacked personality, in fact, she was able to take a humble approach to her subject and be personable. She grasped how to work with movie stars and those who, like Diane Keaton, truly disliked being photographed. To work with strong personalities, Annie Liebovitz learned to let go of controlling the situation. Working with teams of support talent, many of her better images emerged in the context of this collaboration. Yes, it truly matters with whom you surround yourself.
THREE IDEAS for HUMILITY:
I crawled in to a space inside the mangroves. Ensconced there, I sat on the sand, above low tide. Mangrove roots, and the mud they walked in, were one being. I could not tell if the tree roots went up or down. The spot was a quiet place to inhale the greenness. One could just be an silent animal, sitting within this short forest canopy.
An ibis flew overhead. Raccoon tracks trickled along the salty, muddy shoreline a few feet below me. A mockingbird landed, staring, from a perch on a mangrove branch nearby. Mangrove crabs scuttled past.
This mangrove forest biome bordered a canal, one of a canal grid along this section of Florida's western shore. The sound of motorcycle engines came from a highway at one end of the forest, the roar dampened by the density of the trees. These red mangroves, one of 100 species called mangroves, protect the coast from erosion and storm surge. Their roots are home to many living creatures: insects and spiders, reptiles, mammals, fish and birds. They are a source of blue carbon, carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere by coastal ocean ecosystems. Here in Port Charlotte's estuary, red mangroves are abundant. Dotting their roots, red berries of Brazilian pepper tree punctuated the greenery. I sat, relaxed in deep shade, exploring how pictures of the berries might look.
Bits of plastic and fishing line strands had washed up on shore from being tossed into the canal. While we may talk about pleasure boats, does their pleasure mean throwing trash into the common waters? We humans do so quickly, without a backward glance, and then we motor on. Possibly I am as guilty; I took photographs, but only packed out my own lunch wrappers, being too lazy to pack out any other trash. A question came to me; was it morally repugnant to photograph a wild area that was home to many species, now surrounded by plastic, without cleaning any of it up?
Having no answer to that, I wiped the mud off the lens shade, climbed onto my one speed bike, and peddled back to our floating home, its roots also at home in the water.
In Florida Bay, sixty miles south of Miami, we anchor in six foot teal water depths. Off to port, there is a familiar tail clefting and swooshing the water's surface: a dolphin is pushing sand around on the bottom with its bottlenose, perhaps hunting a stone crab. A waning full moon dots the sky.
Rowing ashore against the current in our dinghy Dog Paddle: a kingfisher percusses out from the mangrove forest, an osprey call pierces out across the water from its nest atop a gumbo limbo tree. Two white ibis nibble by red mangroves along the shore. We walk down the dock to the historic home and hurricane shelter; the latter has walls a foot thick. The home itself was built by a Miami chemist. Its walls are made of coral reef material.
Except for the osprey, the soundscape is quiet this Sunday morning. No rangers are working this morning on Lignumvitae Key, the highest land in the Florida Keys. We pay the park fee and walk a flat, mangrove-surrounded trail. This brings us close to banana spiders and their webs, which span the path we stroll. We pause, rest, and stroll back to the dock, and rowing home, black cormorants launch off a section of the closed dock and below them are hundreds of fish, hovering in a slight current. Portuguese man-o-war drift over shallows near the shore, where six ladyfish are motionless under the mangroves. On this calm, bright morning in the Florida Keys, we row back, stow the oars and greet a patiently waiting dog. The soundscape is broken by laughter.