What’s the difference between a sculpture given pride of place in a museum and a tree trunk washed ashore after being sculpted by countless tides? One is human-made, one isn’t, the places where we see them are nothing alike, and we attach very different meanings to each object. You can probably think of other differences. But what if we untangle the threads that make up the answers and see what’s left? Perhaps finally, the object itself is all that remains, without any stories “about” it.
What I’m talking about is the idea of removing layers of received wisdom from the experience of seeing, the encounter with the subject. A few weeks ago I photographed a handful of objects at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Essentially my approach to looking at art objects isn’t so different from my approach to looking at objects anywhere. That afternoon I didn’t ponder who made the work, why it was made, or how it fits into history. Those are good questions, no doubt. But I prefer to encounter art more directly. After all, the objects I was looking at were free from expectations or ideas about me. So, to the degree my mind was open, maybe I could approach them on the same terms, without distracting preconceptions.
Objects appear in my visual field as form, light, color, texture, structure, pattern, and perhaps other qualifiers that haven’t occurred to me. I enjoy taking them in on those terms. When I roam the landscape it’s the same: form, light, color, and texture present themselves in various guises. There’s no need to include extraneous thoughts (not that I don’t torture myself trying to remember the names of plants). Staying with the physicality of objects, leaving concepts and projections out of the relationship, one can embody a fresh appreciation of the world.
One thing that’s enjoyable about a museum experience is that the objects on display are presented with enough space around them to allow the viewer to rest in the encounter with the subject, to give oneself over to it. Focusing on objects individually, one after the other in conscious appreciation of their particularity, our attention is honed and heightened. I’ve noticed that after I walk out the museum door the experience doesn’t stop. I find I’m attending to the makeup of everyday objects in a deeper way. I’m more engaged with everything. In fact, even in the museum I often see chairs, shadows, and other “ordinary” objects as aesthetic subjects in their own right. That’s one of the pleasures of museum-going.
You probably already figured out what I’m doing with the images here. Each pair of photographs includes an art object and an object I photographed outside of the museum context. Maybe the pairings can help point toward a taken-for-granted fact: valuing one object over another is a choice we make or don’t make. I’m not suggesting that the log, the kelp strands, or the industrial valves I photographed should be in a museum. I’m suggesting that whether we’re in a museum or in a desert, at home or on an elevator, it’s possible to meet the world with fresh eyes and directly experience beauty without extra layers of mental activity.
Some of these pairs may be more obviously connected than others, which I think is fine. The point is to suggest a kind of universality of perception. There’s no need to see objects in museums differently than you see the objects you photograph. Conversely, everyday objects really benefit from the close, special attention that we give museum artifacts.
Some photographers create “Best of” wrap-up posts at the end of each year and this year, I decided to join the tradition. It wasn’t a simple task – I couldn’t begin to decide which are the best photos I made this year. What’s more subjective than one’s own opinions about one’s work? Mired in indecision, I persevered and finally chose to post a collection of images from 2021 that 1) appeal to me and 2) represent the scope of the year. Many of these were posted earlier this year, a few were not.
Reviewing the year’s work got me thinking about what I do here on WordPress. I don’t post individual images, though many photographers I admire do. There’s a lot to be said for posting single images; the viewer’s attention is fully centered on one photograph, with no distractions. But I like to create posts that can be experienced more like a short story or a film short focused on a particular theme. Often my subject is the observations I glean on a local walk but increasingly I’m drawn to concept pieces with images and text. The interplay of ideas and images intrigues me and the challenge of balancing text and photograph so neither detracts from the other keeps me engaged.
Because I spend a lot of time constructing these visual narratives, I tend to see and think about my photos in groups. How they relate can be more important than how they stand alone. Typically some photographs are like main characters, moving an idea forward, while others play supporting roles. I enjoy the flow that a series of images can create as the photographs “speak” to one another through qualities like color, tone, subject, scale, etc. Composing a “Best of 2021” series is challenging because there isn’t one idea or one place to represent – over the course of twelve months, there have been many ideas and (in a year of limited travel) at least several locations. Some cohesion is lent to the group by the fact that primarily, I photograph nature. Hopefully, a personal style also lends some consistency.
As I looked back over the year, I realized that it’s been a year of gear changes. During the first six weeks of 2021 I was using the camera and lenses that I had grown accustomed to for five years. Holding that camera was as familiar as holding a pencil – it even had nice wear marks on the grip. Then the unthinkable happened: the camera died. There was no fixing it. I could replace it but it was an older model so it made sense to research newer iterations of that camera. That led me to consider other cameras that take the same lenses. At least I didn’t allow myself to be tempted to switch to an entirely new system!
For about a month I wavered. I had a backup camera to use while I thought about which camera to buy. In March, I made a decision to buy an Olympus Pen-F, a slightly smaller, lighter camera than the one that broke, which was an EM-1. Smaller and lighter is a good thing and the elegant-looking Pen-F has a special way with black and white, which interests me. But I was constantly comparing it to my old camera. Small things like the feel of the on/off button bothered me; a bigger issue was that the camera is not weather resistant. Lovely as it is, the camera wasn’t quite right. In June, I ordered the newest version of the one that died, the EM-1 Mark III. (I am not made of money but I rationalized two camera purchases by the fact that I spent little money on travel for the last two years). The Mark III is weather-resistant, has excellent image stabilization, and offers a host of features that I haven’t even tried yet. The buttons and levers feel right. The ergonomics are good, too, and it’s smaller than most comparable cameras but it weighs more than I’d like. Nothing’s perfect.
After nine months, it still feels a little new to my hands and I’m a long way from being comfortably familiar with all its ins and outs. What I’ve realized this year is that a camera you’re used to is one you don’t think twice about, which allows you to concentrate on being creative with your little black box. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time behind the camera thinking about technique. Of course, that isn’t all bad but I’m eager for this camera to be so familiar that I never pause to think about which button is where or how to quickly find a setting. I want it to be an extension of my hand in service of my vision and that’s going to take a while.
In the meantime I know I’m lucky to have a good camera that I can use anytime I want. What’s more, I’m grateful for the community of creative people with whom I share my work. Thank you for being here and thank you for all that you do – you keep me going more than you know.
Abundant rainfall in the lowlands, deep snow in the mountains. Next year Mt. Baker will release its white coat as river water, nourishing all creatures and plants in the river delta before merging with the Salish Sea. The paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceous) will fade long before then. I will plant them outside. Maybe they will bloom again, maybe not. Cycles of life.
No, I’m not one of those super-organized people, never have been. My parents were well organized. There was my father, the disciplined, German-American chemical engineer with a steel-trap mind, and my mother, who put balanced meals on the table promptly at 6, made sure all three kids were properly cared for, and still had time to run the Parent-Teacher Association. Her advice was that I should try to form “good habits.” I thought to myself (but didn’t dare say) “What’s good about a habit?” Spontaneity has always been more my style.
That being said, there is something comforting about organization, isn’t there? If you know where things are and when things are supposed to happen, you feel more secure and you can get more done. Even observing examples of organization around us can be comforting: neatly laid-out buildings set on grids of streets, symmetrical patterns, charts. They resonate with something deep inside our brains – even mine. Perhaps in these days of pandemics, climate change fears, and political uncertainty, the predictability of order in the environment is especially valuable.
As a hypersensitive person whose sense organs never seem to dial back a notch, I get overwhelmed when there’s too much input. Don’t seat me at the restaurant table that’s halfway between two sound systems playing different tracks: I won’t be able to eat. And how did I ever get through that summer job at a noisy factory where Hai Karate aftershave and other strongly scented products were packaged? Ugh!
Sensory overload is inevitable in this world but introducing a little organization into the environment can lessen the sting. A rhythmic body movement like foot tapping, stacking loose papers so they line up neatly, arranging clothes according to color, making lists – I’ve used those and more tricks to corral an overwhelmed nervous system. No wonder I respond so strongly to patterns in nature. And architecture, a natural vehicle for introducing organization into the surroundings, can quiet frazzled nerves with its square angles, gentle arcs, and repeating patterns.
A keen appreciation for the visceral pleasure of buildings’ square-framed spaces may have begun when I was around 9 years old. A small development of new homes was going up near our house. On weekends I could wander through the just-framed structures by myself, soaking in the neat order of repeating right angles, inhaling the fragrance of freshly-sawn wood, and imagining how the finished rooms might look. Later I took great pleasure in the grid of streets that makes Manhattan so easy to navigate: north is uptown, south is downtown, east side, west side – it all makes sense. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate breaks in the grid, I did (and do!). But I relied on that grid when I lived in the city to help me organize my life.
Even humble buildings can have an attractive aura of balance and symmetry – architectural aesthetics don’t reside only in classic Greek temples or modern masterpieces. I saw this building on a country road in southeastern Georgia and photographed it head-on to emphasize the symmetry. It must be long gone now because that was around 1967.
Have you ever noticed how shadows can organize a space?
The Judd sculpture is arranged in a mathematical sequence, an imposition of order on the materials. I’ve played with positioning various grids in front of the camera lens as a way to illustrate the push-pull that I experience between ordered space and disorganized space, for example, in a flower garden:
Symmetry, order, and repeating patterns can be found everywhere, perhaps more obviously in human-made things but also in nature. The design below borrows from nature.
I’ve been extolling the virtues of observing order in our surroundings but don’t expect me to give advice about being organized – that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to set before you a visual buffet that illustrates one person’s notion of observed order. If this sparks a new thought, creates an island of pleasure in your life, or even a modicum of inspiration, I’m happy.
A cool breeze scatters leaves. Was it from the ridge-top?
The jagged, black edge of the island? Or
did the wafting breath arise
fifty miles east,
in the center of the dark, cold Salish Sea?
Here, now, air manifests
in gentle waves of cedar boughs,
flutters of tender huckleberry leaves,
prickly bumps on old arms.
Air and mind
focus and release in shuddering waves
like the darting squirrel
that was perfectly still a second ago.
Back and forth,
we’re eachall centered in herenow
in the bottom of the green ravine
where the I loosens and
dovetails into the forest.
Note: This poem appeared earlier this year in a slightly different version, with different photographs.
In Washington state’s Deception Pass State Park, a double loop of intersecting trails climbs in and out of a dry, coniferous forest and a deep, wet ravine. In the depths of the ravine, a massive Western redcedar tree (Thuja plicata) stands. This is the tree in the first photo and the photo below (with a person for scale). Well off the beaten path, the trail that winds down into the damp, fern-filled valley where the cedar grows is quiet. It feels remote from the built environment. Fallen trees coated with thick layers of moss from which younger trees sprout vie with ferns for the weak light that filters down through tall conifers. One can relax into the feeling of losing oneself in this forest, with only the sound of a distant raven and a nearby woodpecker punctuating the silence.
If you continue past the big cedar you’ll find more trails; go one direction and you climb out of the park, past the remains of an old mine and a decrepit log cabin, and back down to a quiet road. Walk another direction and you’ll emerge into a rough, cut-over area where blackberries thrive in the sun. I usually climb a steep, rocky trail leading out of the valley to a gentle ridge above Pass Lake, pictured above. The small lake’s cold water provides food for Great blue herons, Bufflehead ducks, River otters, and other beings who are intimate with the shoreline’s nooks and crannies. Humans must fish from non-motorized boats and throw the fish back to the water. We protect the lake, a breathing being itself that loves fog and holds it close on cool days before it floats away, nourishing the forest as it goes.
Sometimes early in the morning, I pick up the camera and make a few photographs right where I am, which is often in the kitchen. I might wander through the house then, looking for more possibilities. Using the camera before the day’s sensory impressions flood my brain can yield interesting results. The mental filters aren’t all in place yet. The mind is a little more open, a little looser. Often the photographs aren’t particularly good, but results aren’t everything – stimulating one’s aesthetic muscles can be just as important.
Since I can remember a keen appreciation for form, light, and color has characterized the way I look at the world. Like most kids, I enjoyed making pictures and as I grew older I kept drawing, leaning more and more into art, in spite of an expectation that I would hew to tradition and attend a liberal arts college. But that route held no interest for me. After a few blind alleys and bumps in the road, I enrolled in an art school. That was a gift; plenty of people who would thrive in a creative environment never get the chance to experience it because finances or obligations prohibit it. Art school was invigorating but after graduating I had to make a living, which meant relegating art to the sidelines of my life. Having a child left even less time for making art.
But I never stopped looking and thinking about what I saw. Wherever they appeared, colors and textures were noted and analyzed, shapes and forms were admired, and lines were studied. Whether it was a landscape, a piece of clothing, a chair, a face – anything could be a vehicle for appreciation and consideration. Even the simple act of arranging objects in the house satisfied the aesthetic urge. However busy or preoccupied I was, the art gears kept turning.
Over the years I moved frequently and learned to invoke a feeling of home through the basic activity of putting things in places. Maybe the human instinct to arrange objects into some kind of order goes beyond practical necessities. The way we locate the things around us can satisfy deep aesthetic needs. Even in temporary spaces, setting down a few objects can transform a corner into a personal expression of beauty.
Vignettes of found objects can reflect the moment, rooting current preoccupations into place. The objects I handle remind me that wherever I am, a core set of interests informs my identity. Making photographs exercises the same aesthetic urge.
As I gathered photographs for this post the story shifted from one about how the act of arranging and photographing one’s space keeps the artistic fires burning to one that considers the rolling narrative of experiences in various places where I lived and evolved. The unifying thread is the act of paying attention, of recognizing the beauty inherent in the everyday. Some photographs date from the 1970s and are worn with age, some are documentary, some reflect aesthetic concerns. The stories they tell you are surely different from the stories they tell me. We all see the world differently. That’s a good thing.
“Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.”
Have you ever heard of asemic writing? The Cambridge Dictionary says asemic means “using lines and symbols that look like writing, but do not have any meaning.” The word “asemic” breaks down to without (“a”) and meaning (“semic”, like semantic). Meaningless script, why would you want that? Perhaps because there is something inherently beautiful about script itself, even without its meaning.
The word asemic is often used to refer to art made using script-like marks. The work can’t be read, only admired (or not) aesthetically. If you’re curious here’s a review of a book that delves deeply into asemic art. An example of asemic art by American painter and collage artist Cecil Touchon can be seen here. The Belgian poet and painter Henri Michaux is known for using script-like marks in his work. Maybe you’re familiar with the American painter Cy Twombly, whose paintings currently sell for tens of millions of dollars. He used gestural marks as well as actual words in his work to great effect.
You could say that the hinge on the door to meaning is well oiled in these works; wide swings can both reveal and obscure meanings.
And what does this all have to do with photography? Maybe you already guessed or scrolled down and figured it out. I have been noticing script-like marks in nature for years and I’m drawn to these lines and shapes, with their natural affinity to what I see on the page. I’ve always liked to read – put me in a bookstore or flash a text at me and I’m instantly alert. Not just the meaning, but the simple shapes of letters and the linear, orderly appearance of text appeal to me, too. I suspect that the pleasure I get from reading and an attraction to the look of text gradually became conflated in my brain. Maybe that led to my tendency to find text-like marks in nature. As I walk along the beach, the strands of eelgrass at my feet give afford as much pleasure as an elegant piece of calligraphy or a perfectly executed classic Garamond font. A birch tree’s bark, a white page with black text – both elicit a tingle of pleasure.
Reading can be aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually gratifying. Many kinds of writing, from Arabic script to Medieval manuscripts to Japanese calligraphy, can be just as gratifying, in the eyes of this beholder.
What’s meant by this title is that there’s no need for pursuit; the world comes forward and meets you. It’s something akin to what photographer Paul Caponigro described:
“Gradually, some very few photographs began to make visible the overtones of that dimension I sought. Dreamlike, these isolated images maintain a landscape of their own, produced through the agency of a place apart from myself. Mysteriously, and most often when I was not conscious of control, the magical and subtle force crept somehow into the image, offering back what I sensed as well as what I saw.”
Paul Caponigro, ‘Landscape’
It may seem that the world meets us more beautifully and in more interesting ways in certain places. But I think anywhere and anytime you can be receptive and effortless, it becomes apparent that the world comes forward to meet you. There’s no need to pursue photography or strain yourself, trying to grasp an elusive ideal. Get out of your own way, quiet your mind, and attend to what’s in front of you: sights, sounds, smells, and all the rest.
And there it is.
Though this philosophy applies anywhere, there’s no doubt that one of my favorite places to take a walk and see what happens is Bowman Bay. Heeding the muted, internal voice that often nudges me toward one place or another, I find myself on the road to Bowman Bay regularly.
Bowman Bay is a salt-water bay that happens to be far from the ocean; it receives water flowing through the 96-mile long, 15-mile wide Juan de Fuca Strait – the same Pacific Ocean water that sloshes around Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. Because of its opening to ocean water, Bowman Bay is tidal, experiencing two low and two high tides each day at its two small beaches. Crescent-shaped Bowman Bay and its evergreen-topped rocky headlands are on the southwest shore of Fidalgo Island, where a west-southwest exposure means occasional strong windstorms and a rich upswell of nutrients.
Decades ago, a fish hatchery operated here. Besides ponds and buildings, the enterprise was responsible for “armoring” the beach: a quarter of the shoreline was “protected” by dumping 2,000 tons of stone on it. This is destructive to a shoreline’s natural processes but happily, most of the bulkhead was removed when work was done to restore the shoreline to its natural state. A pier built long ago is still in place but otherwise, few traces of the fish hatchery remain. Native plants and immense driftwood logs that wash ashore with the tides are creating a more natural habitat. All this is protected now because Bowman Bay is part of a state park called Deception Pass.
What I enjoy about this place is impossible to put into words, but it starts with the profoundly relaxing experience of being near open water. Then there’s the light that bounces off the water – crystal clear or foggy, bright and sunny or dark and brooding, it’s always different from the last time I visited. The ground beneath my feet varies from evergreen forest to pebbly beach, and from wetland edge to sandy beach. And rock – there are rocks to be reckoned with here! The two “pocket beaches” are divided and flanked by steep, rocky cliffs that invite exploring. There are delicate spring wildflowers, long, flowing lichens hanging from the trees, and oddities to be searched for under rocks at the lowest tides. Of course, there’s wildlife, too: herons, kingfishers, gulls, and sea ducks abound, Pileated woodpeckers and river otters are regular, if infrequent sights. Finally, there is the air – always fresh, it sometimes wafts nose-assaulting dead seaweed scents my way but and other times warms my skin deliciously.
Here’s a sampling of photographs from this magical place – not photographs I took but photographs I received with gratitude.
Anytime I can see the river otters that make Deception Pass their home I feel lucky. This summer I had not seen them for months and assumed they were staying hidden because there have been so many people around. Last Friday that quiet voice I’ve learned to pay attention to told me to go to Bowman Bay. I was surprised at how few people were around as I followed a path behind the beach. Investigating a small wetland, I heard rustling in the bushes behind me. I turned around to see a young-looking Douglas squirrel just an arm’s length away, with a big rose hip in its paws, nibbling it like corn on the cob. The squirrel didn’t seem to mind me. Nonchalantly, it tossed the partly-eaten rose hip away and scrambled through the thorny native roses. Maybe there was a tastier one in there somewhere. I marveled at the way its tiny feet avoided the thorns and thanked the little squirrel for letting me watch. A bit of tart fruit to balance all those cone seeds is a good diet choice, I suppose.
I walked on, climbing a steep, rock-strewn path up and over the cliff that separates the two small beaches. The sandy second one is very nice to walk on so I strolled onto it and studied the remains of the last high tide. Scanning the bay, I thought I saw them – the otters, yes! Barely visible, they swan slowly out in the bay in typical leisurely fashion: swimming in circles, coming up for air, going back under, coming up to look around…it was impossible to tell how many there were but it looked like a nice number – maybe six?
Only one other person was nearby, a woman who pulled her kayak in to rest against a piece of driftwood. It looked like the otters were heading toward the other beach so I was disappointed they were swimming away from me. But I was very happy to have seen them.
Then I realized they had changed course and were heading straight my way! I had a 60mm lens on my m4/3 camera, equivalent to a 120mm lens on a full-frame camera. It’s not a lot of reach for wildlife photography but that’s not what I do so that was all I had. Of course, when the opportunity presents itself I’m happy to click away with whatever lens I have. Later I regretted not being quick enough to locate burst mode in the camera menu or to switch to video. But it’s all good. And it was more than good as I was treated to the spectacle of eight otters coming ashore in fairly close proximity, digging in the sand (which I’ve never seen before) and generally being their amusing otter selves as I watched, enthralled.
In the slideshow the first photo is out of sequence and the rest are in order, showing how small the otters looked when I first saw them, how they gradually swam closer, came ashore in their inimitable humpy way, dug in the sand, got scared, lept back in the water, emerged again, and then ran straight across the grassy path that separates the beach from another bay behind it. I followed them, working the shutter and running through the forest to a rocky promontory with a good view of the bay they were in. Finally, I could no longer see them. All eight disappeared into the swift, turbulent waters of Deception Pass – or maybe they stayed closer to land, but I lost sight of them. I smiled a big thank you.
Slideshow below – click the arrow onthe right.
(The otters’ heads are just small dots at the bottom right in the last photo. Note that these are River otters, which also live in the sea – not Sea otters, which rarely come onshore).
I’ve been trying to remember to pause, think, and look for the essence of a scene when I’m out with my camera. Often, that can be accomplished by simplifying the composition. I’m inherently detail-oriented and my attention constantly wanders so when I’m outdoors, I scan a world where thousands of details flash by, all seemingly of equal weight. My basic desire is to include everything. Why? Because I deeply appreciate this world, in all its guises and permutations. There is a lot to love.
But including everything in the frame is not a good formula for making appealing photographs. Time and time again I’ve sliced off the edges of my files in Lightroom, trying to whittle down an overwhelming amount of information. Gradually, I’ve learned that a better way to make stronger photographs (and a way that sharpens my aesthetic sensibility in the process) is to try to grasp the essence of what I see.
Merriam-Webster calls essence “the most significant element, quality, or aspect of a thing or person.” Wikipedia’s entry about essence talks about “the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.” We could easily get entangled in words and concepts by trying to define essence but it’s not really complicated, is it? I think we know what it is, we just don’t always pay attention to it.
For me it’s often a matter of recognizing fundamental shapes when composing a picture, a process akin to abstracting visual information. It doesn’t have to be about the shapes though, it can be the colors, the play of light, the texture, or some other quality inherent in what is seen, that seems to be fundamental to its identity. I don’t only photograph particular objects so the essence can also be something fundamental to the overall quality or atmosphere of a scene.
Whatever this significant aspect may be, I don’t believe it’s a fixed quality. In the end everything is in motion, constantly changing, without a permanent self or essence. Ever shifting, essences appear and disappear. An essence of something needn’t be fixed in time or space. What I try to look for (when I remember!) is a quality that simplifies what I see, eliminates distractions, and strengthens the composition. The photographs below, all made this year, may reflect this idea.
You may not think this concept of looking for the essence of a scene is worthwhile, or you might not think these images exemplify that idea. That’s the beauty of human individuality; each of us has our own subjective experiences. It would be interesting to hear about what you look for and think about when you’re out with a camera or when you’re mulling over your writing, music, or any creative work.