Craft Matters

A Lesson in Chai

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I always seem to return from my annual Zion National Park trip with a life lesson or two. Or ten, if I’m really in a need of a smack down. The canyon has a way of calling you on your “stuff”.

But, this time around, a key lesson came courtesy a friend. A friend who invited me over for Chai tea. I enjoy Chai at home and often whip up a cup in about 5 minutes. But this Chai was made from scratch. It took time. A lot of time compared to our modern leanings towards immediate gratification. Raw ingredients were cut, processed to fine granularity, blended in warming water, tasted, refined, tasted again. And eventually served. Strong, rich earthy flavor. More character than the Starbucks variety by far. But knowing my friend, good unique Chai was to be expected.

What wasn’t expected was how I settled into and relished the passing of time without much going on. Hardly my strong suit. In the time it took to make the tea, how many stock options were traded, how many airliners (and satellites) passed overhead, how many FedEx packages were delivered? How many tweets, texts, and likes? A mind boggling number indeed. But, in the canyon, trees stood quietly anchored by their roots, waters flowed no more than stone and gravity allowed. Clouds silently passed by overhead. And I sat on a stool watching my friend make tea, talking, joking, fully present in the moment. Not much happened. Yet everything happened.

There is a Japanese proverb that says “The wind howls, but the mountain remains still.” My life has seen its share of howling wind. I don’t regret it. But the realization now is that I want the mountain. I want a life more in sync with the mountain than the wind.

Maybe I’ll start with some homemade Chai.

Prayer for Words

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I’ve been remiss in my recent commitment to posting. Steeped literally and emotionally within the deep canyons of Zion for the past two weeks. I usually journal during the trip and just couldn’t until two days ago and it’s been something of a flood.

Looking for words to help clarify what I feel, I just happened to turn to one of my favorite authors, novelist and poet, N. Scott Momaday. In his short book, “In the Bear’s House” there is a poem, “Prayer for Words” which I share here:

Here is the wind bending the reeds westward,
The patchwork of morning on gray moraine

Had I words I could tell of origin,
Of God’s hands bloody with birth at first light,
Of my thin squeals in the heat of his breath,
Of the taste of being, the bitterness,
And scents of camasroot and chokecherries.

And, God, if my mute heart expresses me,
I am the rolling thunder and the bursts
Of torrents upon rock, the whispering
Of old leaves, the silence of deep canyons.
I am the rattle of mortality.

I could tell of the splintered sun. I could
Articulate the night sky, had I words.

Zion Magic

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Leaves in Oily Water

Back in Zion. Like visiting an old friend. I learn a little more of her nuances each year. But the mysterious power of this place never ceases to humble and amaze me. The leaves here rest in oily water reflecting late afternoon blue sky. Last year this spot was nearly bone dry.

Richard Koci Hernandez on modern photography

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A thought provoking video essay by the Emmy winning, Pulitzer Prize nominated, UC Berkeley professor, strongly counters the naysayers who lament photography’s “demise” at the hands of the filter happy Instagrammers.

I believe anything that makes it easier for humans to make art is always a good thing.

but, as if to clarify this wide open point, he laters says:

If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.

So we have the problem defined. Social smartphone photography has exploded and is everywhere. And the ease of the technology it’s wrapped in lures people into creative laziness. Creative laziness is the enemy of art. An aspiring photographer who desires to rise above this morass, must begin to ask fundamental questions. Why do I photograph? What is my intent? What is it I wish to communicate? How can I use the tools available to me to most strongly convey my message? The answers to these questions will help define the direction one should take in advancing their photographic skill.

Hernandez’s philosophy is to “get there any way you can”. He’s arguing that “photographically, it’s about how images make someone feel, not the camera the image was made with”. One specific example to illuminate his point:

“In the end I care about destination. Is it cheating to take a plane to Los Angeles? Are you telling me that it would be more authentic to take a horse and buggy?”

And here we differ. Destination (the end photograph) is indeed important. But the journey the photographer takes and the process employed in arriving at the destination is, to me, fundamentally more important.

Compare the casual smartphone photographer who applies a “tintype” Instagram filter to a snapshot family photo versus the photographer who painstakingly works with actual tin and chemistry to create a true physical tintype, of which a digital representation is loaded up to Instagram. True, the casual viewer on Instagram may emotionally react equally to each photo. But, upon learning how each photograph was created, which creative experience is more authentic? Which photographer is richer for the experience? Which journey would you rather take? And what then is the viewer’s interpretation of the photograph if given such contrasting context? Taking the horse and buggy could indeed make all the difference.

I believe what lies behind a photograph is as rich in communicative power as the photograph itself. Yes, by all means “get there”. But mind the road you choose.

CNN probes Art in Photography

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Some photographers have thrown every filter and post-processing technique at a photo and called the result art.

Yes. And they did this with film.

Viewers of commercial and art photography now assume images have been manufactured, regardless of whether they’ve been retouched.

Not surprising.

Photographers must put concept first, and think of their work as a body of work, rather than one-hit wonders.

Everything’s different. But nothing (i.e. the really important stuff) has changed.

“He said that the negative from your camera is the musical score and it tells you where to go,” Mellia said.

And Ansel Adams is still misunderstood.

Read the full article.

Aspen Reflections

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Aspen Reflections

Water reflections have recently become a favorite subject of mine. I’ve found that the best time to photograph them is often the middle of the day when light is strongest on the reflecting objects — not ideal for most other types of landscape photography. The water should be in shade to help “cool down” the reflected hot tonalities. With the right balance of conditions, the light and color are simply gorgeous.

The image is post processed with black and white point adjustments to increase overall contrast plus some light vibrance. No saturation increase at all. Subtle dodging and burning balance the overall tonalities for a rich even feel throughout the final print.

The Gift of the Unexpected

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Leaves and Raindrops

Last Thursday, I headed into the Sierra Nevada for a rendezvous with friends at Twin Lakes, near Bridgeport, California. On the way through Yosemite, over Tioga Pass, I was greeted with unexpected heavy snow and just made it over the pass ahead of temporary road closures (one friend got caught and was delayed over 8 hours).

Safely down the eastern side with a bit of extra time, I decided to explore an area called Sinnamon Meadows. From previous trips, I knew there were some aspens at the north end of the meadow I’d wanted to explore photographically.

I arrived at the meadow about 4pm. The clouds had parted and the snow melted but crossing the meadow was an exercise in ankle deep marshiness. I found myself meandering a long loop that was going to take me behind the trees I was trying to get to. As I wound around, I came up over a tiny ridge and found a completely unexpected 2 foot deep creek shored up by a small wood damn. The creek nearest the damn had collected aspen leaves dotted with lovely well formed raindrops. I spent nearly an hour exploring the scene and waiting for the right light to execute the photograph here.

Had I not rushed over the Sierra, nor committed to navigating the cold marshy meadow, I never would have found such rich photographic subject matter. The aspens were happily left for another season.

Well Worn Tripod Holes

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Horseshoe Overlook, Colorado River

Down river from Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River has carved out a big 180° loop aptly named Horseshoe Bend. South of Page, Arizona, off HWY 89, a short 3/4 mile trail leads out to Horseshoe Overlook. It is a popular tourist destination and photographs on Google Images are aplenty.

To serious photographers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of avoiding “echoes” of others’ work, of slipping into well worn tripod holes. I admit, I often avoid crowds and popular places precisely for that reason. But, I’d argue, if unique personal inspiration is found even in the most oft photographed places, then you must follow that inspiration and work for an image. Your experience and interpretation is no less valid than anyone who has come before you. Places I visually take for granted are often awe-inspiring to others.

On a long weekend roadtrip, my primary interest in Horseshoe Bend was revealing it to my daughter who’d never experienced an equivalent. Rain was threatening as we hiked out and the ground was damp from earlier showers. As we reached the canyon edge and the river’s bend opened up before us, I became keenly aware of the soft colored tonalities contrasting with the deep blues and greens in the calm cool water of the river. Light was very even but emphasizing the main butte directly in front of us. The potential of an image, particularly a detailed large print, served as more than enough inspiration.

While a 21mm or wider lens will capture the entire area (foreground rock, river, and horizon), I find a slightly cropped angle of view equivalent to about 24mm feels more formal and adds a subtle atmosphere of mystery to the composition. Post processing required setting black and white points, slight vibrance and saturation, and dodging and burning to balance the overall image.