The Writing On The Wall
The title of this post may be somewhat deceptive. Most of us think of writing on the wall as actual markings of some kind made by man (or woman) for the purpose of communicating something to others. And, while a couple of the images included here do feature pictographs and petroglyphs, Most do not. Instead, they are images of natures writing.
This pictograph is on a wall about a quarter mile from my home. It is on the side of a state road, but most people who drive by it are unaware of its presence. Like most drawings of this sort, the meaning is unclear, and lost to the ages but someone in the distant past felt the need to scribe these images onto this rock.
This canyon wall and talus slope is located along the Green River near Hardscrabble Bottom in Canyonlands. I was attracted to the contrast between the rock wall and the living tamarisk as well as the no longer living cottonwood tree. I love the desert varnish on the sandstone and the beginning erosion of what will one day probably be an amphitheater.
This cross-bedded sandstone near the Escalante River in southern Utah speaks for itself. Its story spans ages, and now it is revealed as a work of art millions of years in the making.
These petroglyphs are in the backcountry of Monument Valley. They are called the Eye of the Sun Petroglyphs because of their proximity to an arch bearing that name. It is perhaps someone’s tale of the animals he came across that day, or perhaps a boastful recounting of the game he had killed.
These young aspen trees are growing against a sandstone wall which is covered with lichen. The combination creates a tapestry in which the trees reflect the stains on the wall and overlay them with a filigree of branches.
Here is another example of cross-bedded sandstone. I made this photograph while kayaking with my daughter and her husband in the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. The colors of the stone combined with the intersecting fracture lines, the lichen, and the small, but tenacious, plants caught my eye almost immediately.
That Was Then; This Is Now
Yesterday I cleaned my cameras and lenses…all of them. It took me all of the morning and part of the afternoon. I hadn’t handled my Nikkormat FTN in quite a while, but it felt like an old friend which, in fact, it is. It is the first SLR I ever owned; I bought it in 1971 at the PX while I was overseas. At that time, the FTN was a favorite of photojournalists covering the Vietnam War because of it’s sturdy construction. It is now considered a classic. While I had it out I decided to pose it next to my latest DSLR–a Nikon D800.
The juxtaposition started me thinking about how photography has changed over the forty plus years since I bought that Nikkormat. There have been many upgrades to the Nikon line in that time; I own several of them: two Nikkormat FTNs, an F3, and two F 100s. But, the changes over the past ten years have actually been a paradigm shift. Of course I’m referring to the advent and rapid growth and development of digital photography.
I wanted to do a comparison of the work I was doing then and the work I’m doing now, so I dusted off my collection of old negatives and prints to see what I could find. In those days, I shot primarily Kodak Plus X (ASA/ISO 125) and Kodak Tri X (ASA/ISO 400). I developed and printed all of these early images in a “wet” darkroom, and although I get a bit nostalgic looking at them, I don’t regret my switch to the digital realm. True to form, once I crossed over I never looked back.
This is a self-portrait I made just before I was discharged from the army. I was really into dramatic side-lighting at that time. I made dozens of portraits of friends from my unit and they are all lit the same way. When I shoot portraits now, I usually use at least one flashgun, on camera or off, umbrellas, reflectors…Seeing these simple available light images makes me realize how effective that kind of lighting can be. I do miss the catchlights though.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 50mm f1.4
My friend Kim Bong In and I went to Inchon to do some sight-seeing. I made this portrait of him at the Inchon Memorial Pagoda. Kim was a DJ at one of the clubs in Tongducheon which is the village next to Camp Casey where I was stationed. He and I became friends during the time I was there, and he introduced me to everyday Korean life, the one beyond the clubs and “working girls” which is all most GIs ever saw. I went to his grandfather’s funeral and was invited to the celebration when his son was born.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 135mm f2.8
I caught these four young chin-gus (friends) hanging out on a busy thoroughfare in Inchon. Their expressions were all over the map: unguarded disdain, shy curiosity, nervous apprehension, watchful suspicion. Ours was a brief encounter; they went their way and I went mine. But, looking at this image more than forty years later, I wonder how their lives have played out. I wonder if the expressions they wore that day reflected the men they would become.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 50mm f1.4
Once you made your way beyond the section of the village that tailored to the American servicemen, you found yourself in a different place and time. There were no supermarkets, the people bought their food at small street markets like this one. The woman in the center of the image was obviously in charge. Her produce is arranged rather haphazardly around her, cuts of meat hung in a display window. I was telling a story here. I was in a photojournalistic frame of mind.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 35mm f2.8
I got to know this Korean elder through regular interaction with him in the village. We communicated with pidgin Korean and English. I don’t remember his name, but he was kind enough to pose for this portrait. The one thing I don’t care for in this image is the slight motion blur. Because I was pretty new to shooting with an SLR, my camera technique was not very good. I remember that I usually shot somewhere between 1/125th and 1/200th second, but there were times when I would end up down around 1/60th and this was probably one of those times.
Nikkormat FTN, Nikkor 105mm f2.8
Fast forward to 2014. I have lived in the small village of Jemez Springs, New Mexico for thirty-nine years. Not much has changed as far as the eye can see. It’s a sleepy place, especially on a Wednesday night in January. I handheld my camera while making this image. I dialed the ISO up to where I needed it to get a suitable shutter speed with an aperture of f8. I reduced what noise there was in Lightroom. This would not have been possible with the available technology just a few years ago, let alone in the 1970s.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8
I’m not big on self-portraits. But, there are times when the location demands one. I spent several years trying to find this stone wing which is located deep in the heart of the San Juan Basin. When I finally located it with some help from a photographer from southern California using Google Earth, the actual experience was a bit anti-climactic. I decided to pose Robin and myself under the cantilever with the waxing gibbous moon overhead.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you want to make good portraits, you need to be able to engage your models. It’s not the easiest thing to approach a stranger and, in a short time, make him comfortable enough to open up to you. So, when I saw this fellow at a powwow last year, I went over and started talking to him. Predictably, he was a bit stand-offish at first, but after a while, the walls came down and he agreed to pose for me.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8
My youngest daughter Susan is a natural when it comes to modeling. I made this image of her at a waterfall not far from my home. It was shot RAW as are all of my images; I converted it to black and white and added a sepia split tone in post processing. This kind of control over the ultimate look of an image is only possible by taking advantage of a RAW workflow.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8
At the end of last summer, I travelled to Wisconsin where my daughter and her husband live. We spent part of that time in Bayfield on the coast of Lake Superior. While relaxing on the porch of the house where we stayed, I made this image of them.
In looking back over my development as photographer, I see that I have come full circle. I am technically more proficient than I was when I started, and the visual journey I have made has enabled me to add another layer to my vision. It’s evolution and that’s what it’s all about.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 24-120mm f4
Water, Water Everywhere
I have lived in the desert southwest for nearly forty years. So, when I suddenly find myself in an environment where water is plentiful, I am taken a little by surprise at the seemingly extravagant abundance.
Such was the case when I recently travelled to Wisconsin to visit my daughter and her husband. We spent a great deal of time exploring the natural wonders in and around Madison where they live. While visiting Olbricht Gardens, I was especially impressed by the Thai Garden and Pavilion. There are several reflecting pools and a fountain which has a gravel bottom. The contrast between the smooth surface of the water and the rough texture of the gravel provides a nice touch to the image of the pavilion below.
The Thai Pavilion is constructed of plantation grown teak and finished with gold leaf. It was built in Thailand, then de-constructed, transported to Madison and re-constructed on-site by Thai craftsmen. There are no nails or screws in the entire structure.
Not to be outdone by a fountain, Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in the world, made a lasting impression on me. It covers over thirty two thousand, eight hundred square miles. We paddled twelve of those miles in kayaks while exploring the sea caves at Apostle Island National Lakeshore.
I made this image from my kayak while my daughter’s friend Karin was paddling through a sea stack about half way through the trip. Lauren and Prasanna, her husband, can be seen to the right of the stack. In the image below, Karin’s kayak rests on a remote beach where we stopped for lunch.
After lunch and a short break, we began the trip back. I made this image of my daughter and her husband paddling their kayak with Karin and the expanse of Lake Superior beyond them. I kept my camera in a water-proof bag, so each time I wanted to make a photograph, I had to take it out of the bag and then put it back in being careful not to drop it in the lake.
Below is one last image of Karin who is an experienced kayaker as she makes her way through the deep waters of the lake with Sand Island, one of twenty-two islands in the Apostle Islands archipelago, in the distance.
Stepping Out Of My Box
When I go on a photo expedition or lead a tour, I take two cameras and all the lenses I could possibly need, all packed into my Lowepro AW 300 Trekker backpack with my tripod strapped to the outside. It’s a load and can sometimes become a bit much after trekking through the desert all day. But, I do it because I know I’ll have whatever I need to capture the images that I see.
Recently, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my lovely daughter Lauren. The baggage and carry-on restrictions prevented me from bringing along all of my gear, so I made the trip with one camera, two lenses, and a flash packed into a shoulder bag. As a result, I was forced to look at my photography in a whole new way, and I am quite pleased with the images I brought home.
I made this portrait of Lauren on one of our early morning dog walks. If you knew Lauren as I do, you would also know that this is the perfect setting for a portrait of her.
I made this image at Lake Mendota, the bigger of the two lakes which border Madison on the north and south. This gull was walking up and down the pier like a miniature Charley Chaplin. It was pretty comical and I made close to forty exposures of him, but when he stopped and looked over the edge, he provided the perfect counterpoint to the fisherman.
Believe it or not, this image was made in one of Madison’s many dog parks. This one has its own wetlands complete with a green heron. Luckily, I spotted the bird before Lauren’s dog did.
This last image is of a lotus flower and lily pads in the Japanese Garden at House On The Rock in southwestern Wisconsin. House On The Rock is an amazing place and deserves more than just a nod in a photography blog. If you’re ever in that part of the world, I highly recommend the tour.
So, aside from spending a wonderful week with one of my favorite people, this trip also forced me to look at my work in a different way. Art, like anything else in life, needs to evolve; otherwise it stagnates and looses its appeal.