The City


Dictionaries tend to define a “city” as an inhabited place of greater size, population or importance than a town or village. While size is a factor, social scientists emphasize that a city represents the collective consciousness—beliefs, values, aspirations and visions—of the people who live and work in a center of commerce and culture. Reflecting on this image of the Cincinnati skyline, I see the city upside-down and observe that it evolved from the Ohio River up, so to speak.

Since the mid-forties I have witnessed both top-down and bottom-up development—wealthy individuals initiating major projects and major progress being made by small group initiatives. Across time and diverse cultures, monumental structures came into being as a result of charismatic and wealthy visionaries—pharaohs, kings and queens, religious leaders, captains of industry, philanthropists and business executives. Those at the top of the proverbial pyramid provided livelihood incentive and opportunities for those below. And they in turn, sufficiently motivated, realized their visions.

City skyscrapers may be monuments to commerce that reflect the dreams and aspirations of those at the top, but those buildings and the city streets below would be empty and would crumble were it not for the simpler and more fundamental values, aspirations and visions of the everyday workers who sustain them. We can recite the names of corporations, philanthropists and business people associated with grand structures, but it’s important to remember that without the legions of laborers, craftsperson, artisans and professionals who struggled to feed their families and advance through education and hard work, they would never have been built.

When I see the downtown areas of cities in crisis—abandoned office towers and stores, dilapidated housing, broken sidewalks and trashed neighborhoods—I have to remind myself that cities are dynamic living systems, that people congregate and care about a place when they catch the spirit of something appealing that’s happening there. When that spirit is gone, the buildings become empty shells. Revitalization initiatives often fail or fall short because the substantive challenge—beyond window dressing, attracting businesses and government loans—is the more difficult task of generating and vitalizing a new spirit for the place, one that gives people a reason to care and to be there.

The world around, ancient indigenous peoples vitalized a place by ensouling it with guardian spirits in many cases, and by continuously enacting rituals that brought people together. Respectful attention is how “sacred sites” came into being and were sustained. I’m reminded of an early morning photograph I took of a man sweeping the dirt in front of his little shop in Taxco, Mexico. This small act is a demonstration of respect for himself, his family store and those who  would come to browse. It makes me wonder what American town centers and neighborhoods would be like if more people and businesses cared for the property they own, manage or rent. Continuous and respectful attention to a place keeps its spirit alive. As a photographer, I observe that the slightest tasks such as cleaning a lens, editing images, signing prints, cutting mattes and entering metadata are acts of respect. They demonstrate caring for the whole by attending to each of the subsystems—like the Mexican man’s sidewalk—that constitute and determine the quality of the experience and its output.

Systemically, by attending to the integrity of the parts, the functionality of the whole is maintained and the dark shadow of entropy is averted. At least for a time. Conversely, the way to obliterate something, to hand it over to the forces of entropic dissipation and decay, is simply to deprive it of attention. “Give it no energy,” as the saying goes—neither positive nor negative thoughts or deeds. From this perspective the reflected Cincinnati skyline prompts me to see the city’s populous, our interaction and commerce as a consequence of collective, enduring and respectful attention payed to specific values, dreams and aspirations. And the help to define us. Personally, it encourages me to pay attention and offer respect to the aspects of city life—the people, places, institutions and events—that I find uplifting, educational, inspiring and empowering.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

Lyndon B. Johnson

About This Image

Title: Cincinnati Skyline Reflection

I’d purchased a new, wide-angle lens for my view camera and went to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River to try it out. Windows and signs in the distance were especially good for testing the lens’s resolving power and area of coverage. I’d made the black & white exposures, and because the sky was clear and the river calm I got out the digital camera and took some color shots. This was one of them.



The image of this drop of water on a stem reminds me of a common metaphor used to describe the nature of the human-divine relationship. While each drop of water is singular, unique, separate and ever changing no matter its shape or location, in essence it is water. Human beings are like individual drops of water in the ocean of the divine.

Considering the mass shootings that are occurring so often, one of the predominant patterns being reported indicates that the perpetrators were disenfranchised individuals, people who for various reasons “fell through the cracks” within their social systems—family, school, church, workplace or other. Even those involved in hate crimes or terrorist activities are often individuals who were abandoned, abused or otherwise marginalized in their youth. Whether an individual is mentally ill or has a troubled background, feelings of anger and resentment escalate when a person is disregarded or discarded. I’m not a psychologist, but common sense suggests that these individuals need the right kind of attention, whether it be love, support, encouragement, empowerment or regular medical care. When they don’t get it, when they feel disconnected and hopeless they may want to strike back.

Linda tells about the nuns in high school who encouraged their students to never let anyone feel excluded. Her group in particular took it to heart by inviting a particularly shy and quiet girl to sit with them at lunch. Years later she sat with them at their fiftieth reunion. Another example of this was my mother who, on “Fun Night” at her retirement center always invited people on the sidelines to dance. Several of these widely diverse people—who said they didn’t dance, but did for her—became her best friends and helpmates. Of course there’s no way to know how those lives might have been otherwise, but engaging people who tend to be shy, alone or even preferring to be alone, whatever the reason, is something that everyday people in everyday situations can take notice of and make a difference in someone’s life.

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu observed that “Persons… come into being only through social interactions. The interacting person finds the meaning of his life in his relations with other persons and their thoughts and activities.” Without interaction, an individual feels—is—adrift. Social psychologist Erich Fromm articulated the consequences of feeling alone, disrespected or ostracized. “Unless a person feels that he belongs somewhere, unless his life has some meaning and direction, he would feel like a particle of dust and be overcome by his individual insignificance. He would not be able to relate himself to any system which would give meaning and direction to his life, he would be filled with doubt and this doubt eventually would paralyze his ability to act—that is, to live.” The statistics on teen suicide are additional evidence of this, and a call for those who see something to say or do something.

In this drop of water I also see an individual filled with potential. Although the details within it may be obscure, they can come into focus through engagement with other drops. Together, they can constitute an ocean.

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by he Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

About This Image

Title: Raindrop

There’s a condition under which I can almost always make images that evoke a Wow! in me. It’s after a hard rain- or snowfall when the earth is still and the sun shines brightly. Conditions like that urge me to get out in the garden or walk the neighborhood with a camera, a closeup lens and a tripod—necessary to do fine compositional and depth-of-field adjustments to increase or decrease the sharpness of the background. I mention this because this happens occasionally—at home.

This particular image however, was made at Longwood Garden in Kennett, Pennsylvania. I wandered their magnificent conservatory with a closeup lens and tripod, and came into a section where the plants had just been watered. By opening the camera’s aperture as wide as possible, the struts in the window behind the plant blurred out completely, but you can still see them in the drop. Notice also the slight blur in the vine due to movement caused by the air handling system. The sharpness of the drop could not have been made without the tripod.



The Free Dictionary defines dialogue as “An exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially with a view to reaching an amicable agreement.” In the image of these spheres—diverse in size, tonality and texture—I can imagine the exchange of electrochemical information that resulted in harmonious interaction within this dynamic system where drops of oil sought to maintain their integrity within a vessel of water.

The order and pattern of the spheres provide evidence that, although the water and oil molecules are diametrically opposed to one another, they continuously strived for, and in this instant, reached an “amicable agreement” where the whole system, enhanced by diversity, contains more information and complexity. Aesthetically speaking, there’s balance and harmony among opposites. It’s a picture of individual elements engaging each other in the context of a common purpose within a shared environment—”culture” we might say. Individual integrity (read dignity as well) is maintained, and from our point of view the system displays stability and organization. The molecules of oil didn’t ask to be deposited in the vessel of water, but once there the interaction and exchange of information within the system became more a dance than a battle. Accommodation rather than destruction. Indeed, true dialogue is a kind of discursive dance.

And it’s unique. It involves discussion, but “discussion” just an exchange that tries to sort things out. The emphasis is on back-and-forth inquiry and analysis where there may be many points of view. Discussions can be amicable or heated. Either way, participants generally aim to win an argument, score points or have their opinion prevail. “Debate” is another kind of discourse. Here, the individuals do battle with one another by offering proofs and counter arguments so their point of view will prevail. The context is purposefully polarized so there is a winner and a loser. Having been on a college debate team I can attest to the occasional glory of winning and the frequent agony of defeat.

“Dialogue,” on the other hand, is a process that flows from a base of commonalities and allows conflicting views to court each other so a fuller perspective can emerge from spirited but respectful interaction. It occurs when the participants follow their hearts and souls, when they are allowed to have their full say, are heard and taken seriously—within an atmosphere of trust and discovery—where there is open mindedness, respect and a mutual desire for achieving a common goal. Simply put, dialogue is how we think things through together so we can individually learn and make sound judgements on behalf of a whole system.

Whether in a small informal group or a large formal setting, the practice of dialogue is not easy. First, it requires a clear and commonly held picture of the whole system, its purpose and goal—what it needs in order to grow and evolve. With a goal agreed upon, points of agreement need to be identified before differences in perspectives and approach are specified and argued. Throughout, broader truths, those relating to the well-being and development of the whole system, must be allowed to emerge. According to Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, the goal of dialogue is to allow us “To comprehend each other well enough so that common goals and understanding is possible.” True dialogue builds and maintains good relations among the participants as it builds consensus among them regarding what’s best for the whole system.

Psychologists observe that, as individuals, we tend to think we know what’s best for ourselves and the larger systems within which we participate. We believe our perspectives are not only right, they’re the best. Others just don’t know what we know. And so there’s a strong tendency to champion our perspectives and methods above all. But where there’s an openness to discover what is actually best for the system, that tendency can be tempered by structuring interaction as a formal (true) dialogue, and making sure that everyone knows the Multicultural Ground Rules For Dialogue before hand.

I have observed evidence of dialogue happening in families, special interest groups, religious organizations, universities, corporations and non-profit organizations. That we humans have evolved the capacity to rationally and respectfully think through and transcend our differences while safeguarding our relationships and seeking the common good is reason to hope. It will likely remain the great legacy of Senator John McCain.

Dialogue is the art of thinking together. It involves listening and thinking beyond my position for something that goes beyond you and me.

William Isaacs

None of us knows the truth, but together we can come closer to it.


Intelligence requires that you don’t defend an assumption. The proper structure of an assumption or of an opinion is that it is open to evidence that it may not be right.

David Bohm

About This Image


File #: CDC 882

I positioned a 4×5 camera over a light table, filled a tall one-quart photographic graduate with filtered water and set it on the table. Using an eyedropper, I deposited drops of vegetable oil on the surface to form a two-inch “cell.” After some experimentation with lighting, I cut a hole in a sheet of black paper so it was a little larger than the circumference of the graduate and set it on the light table with the graduate in the middle. This created the contrast between the bright center and dark bands.

To gain control over the composition and dust on the surface of the water, I substituted an electronic flash for the incandescent bulbs in the light box. Still there was dust, and it was visible on the surface because that was the point of critical focus. The fix was to work quickly, to cover the graduate with a piece of clear glass between exposures. With the cable release in hand and the shutter cocked, I stirred the water and watched the interaction. When the moment was right I removed the glass, made the exposure and quickly covered the graduate to prepare for the next shot. The more vigorously I stirred the water the more the bigger cells divided into smaller ones.

A full description of this process and more spherical images can be found in LensWork Magazine #39 February-March, 2002. For readers who approach photography as a medium of aesthetic expression, I highly recommend LensWork Magazine and it’s many initiatives. I consider it to be the Rolls Royce of photography magazines.

The Railroad Yard

(More images follow the text)

I’ve been photographing in and around railroad yards since I first picked up a camera. The forms are primarily linear and round and there’s an abundance of raw material. Steel objects and metal surfaces are particularly appealing because they are highly reflective—resulting in contrast, texture and deep shadows. And these are ideal for maximizing the full tonal range of black and white film. Images on a computer screen can only approximate the “silvery” quality that’s evident in photographic prints. When photographs with this quality are lit well, as they are in many museums, there’s nothing like it.

Be like a train; go in the rain, go in the sun, go in the storm, go in the dark tunnels! Be like a train; concentrate on your road and go with no hesitation!

Mehmet Murat Ildan












Linda’s Garden


(More images below)

Everything about a flower is meant to attract—its odor, color, shape, line, texture and geometry. These are its aesthetic dimensions. Flowers are the quintessential demonstration of how beauty ties to function and propagation in the natural world. My long-standing attraction to them as photographic subject matter has mostly to do with their color, texture, and geometry, features that combine to evoke the nature and sensibility of all living things, particularly process and change. Flowers may not last long, but the contribution they make to the environment and the human spirit is immense. I find that a flower’s aesthetic qualities are amplified when the camera is close up and the light is coming from behind to emphasize form, or from the side to reveal texture. Color is a given.

I’ve learned from watching Linda that maintaining and nurturing a flower garden is an integrating and humbling activity. The challenges require planning, creativity, knowledge of the subject, patience, management skills, discipline, and hard work, even knowing where and when to get the best quality items at the best price. And there’s a healthy dose of allowing due to fluctuations in the weather and invasions by unwanted pests and weeds to name a few. While I couldn’t do what Linda does, I’m so grateful that I get to share in the end result. Year round I have subject matter to photograph. More importantly, we’re surrounded by beauty every day. All of these photographs were made in her garden.

Gardening is the art that uses flowers and plants as paint, and the soil and sky as canvas.

Elizabeth Murray






Tulips: Diana









Graphic Images


(More photos at the end of the text)

The word “graphic” comes from the Greek graphikós, “to draw.” Photographs that  contain only solid black and pure white values with little or no mid-tones are regarded as graphic because of their resemblance to drawing. Strong black lines and shapes help the eye to focus on the linear essences of a subject, their form and geometry. Curiously, there can still be a sense of depth, even when the background has been dropped out.

As with sculpture where stone is chipped away to reveal the subject within, graphic images strip away information—units of visual change—in order to create impact. In the Buddhist tradition, aspirants are encouraged to eliminate identification with their body and mind in order to realize their true nature. Likewise, the transformation of a continuous tone photograph into a graphic image involves the elimination of  elements that don’t contribute to the subject’s identification. It reveals form as essences.

I find it interesting and beautiful that the arc of life moves from simplicity to complexity and back to simplicity again—building, amassing, and complexifying reaches a point where the tendency reverses toward reducing, eliminating, and simplifying.

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

Edward R. Tufte

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry







About These Images

These images were all made by contact printing an original negative with a piece of Kodalith film. That produced a positive image, which was then exposed in contact with another sheet of Kodalith film to make a negative that could be printed. This film, manufactured by Eastman Kodak Co., is no longer available—in part because the same effect can be achieved digitally with much less time, effort and money.

Magic Hour In Ohio

(Several images to follow)

Ohio gets its name from the Iroquois word ohi-yo meaning “great river.” In Japanese the sound-alike word, “ohayo,” is an informal way of saying “good morning.” In filmmaking parlance, the time when our place on the planet turns toward the sun is the equivalent of a “fade-in,” a transition from black screen to a scene. The fade-out of the day is dusk of course. Photographers and others refer to these periods of grading sunlight as “magic hour,” and for good reason—the world puts on a different face as darkness gives way to yellow and increasingly bluer light and long shadows. The change in color temperature is so gradual it’s barely perceptible—except when you’re out with a camera and you have to rush to get the shot before the light changes. In those moments, seconds can make the difference between a shot that elicits a “Wow!” and one that doesn’t.

The ancients speak of the day as being “born” when the sun rises. Standing in the early morning fog, poised in the silence interrupted only by croaking frogs and geese taking flight, I understand that. In the dark, sitting in the car next to a lake or forest, waiting for the first rays of light to brighten the sky, there’s the feeling of pure potential. When the fog and details of the scene slowly appear—as the possibilities becomes actualized—it’s time to get out of the car and respond to the atmosphere, forms and colors.

Being alone in nature to witness the birthing of a new day is indeed, magical. In the observation of life as a complex of interacting processes, there’s a hint of the primordial—like this is how it was before cars and telephones and people. There, in front of my camera, the universe is expressing life, manifesting infinite variety and complexity in a process of realizing unlimited potentials.

In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Khalil Gibran
About These Images

I plan my photographic excursions so I can  settle into a lodging facility by five or six o’clock in the evening, depending on the season. A half hour later I set out with my camera and shoot until dark. I’ll have something to eat and go right to bed so I can get up and out in the morning while it’s still dark. I’ll shoot through magic hour, and then return to the room to shower. Depending on the location, I’ll photograph during the day if conditions warrant, but more often I just scout the countryside for interesting locations.

I usually choose an area for its particular ecological and geologic features. Once there, I try to get lost. With a GPS system, I can always find my way back to the motel. I favor dirt roads, always keeping an eye out for ponds, streams and interesting vistas. Always, it’s the quality of the light and atmosphere that determines my direction. As much as possible, I keep the sun on the driver’s side so it backlights the landscape.


Early Morning Pond

Early Morning Pond

Weeds on Pond

Early Morning Pond

Early Morning Pond

Early Morning Pond

Early Morning Pond

Tree Reflection in Pond

Early Morning Pond

Sheep In Meadow Fog

Georgetown and east to Paris, KY




The Shaker Aesthetic


Shaker Clock


The Shakers were founded in England in 1747 by Mother Ann Lee. They practiced celibacy. Men and women lived apart in dormitory-like buildings, but they came together to work and pray. They believed in personal communication with a God who was both male and female. They had hymns and work songs. Observing their rhythmic swaying and dancing, outsiders gave them the name “Shakers.” At their peak, they had about 6,000 members, with eighteen communities in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, one of the largest of which was 300 strong.

The men were shrewd about making money, producing and selling objects they made or invented, including a circular saw, washing machine, and flat brooms. They quickly gained a reputation for the simplicity and durability of their furniture items. One example is the ladder-back chair shown below.

These photographs were made over the course of several visits to Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. We went as a family and stayed overnight in rooms furnished and appointed in the Shaker tradition. There was much to see and photograph, and the produce served in the restaurant was grown in a large garden outside.  Altogether it was an experience of peace, quiet, and simplicity conducive to reflection.

For me, the appeal of the Shaker aesthetic is that it is an excellent example of how the design principles of sacred geometry—demonstrated in nature, ancient sacred sites and cathedrals—suggest grandeur and spiritual presence. In the case of the Shaker aesthetic, these include symmetry, the “golden mean” or ratio, long lines, centeredness, openness, muted consistency of color, a lack of clutter, the unobstructed control of natural light through windows, and light grading across rounded surfaces such as ceilings.

Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful;

If it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.

That is best which works best.

Beauty rests on utility.

Simplicity is the embodiment of purity and unity.

Shaker dictums






Shaker Meeting Hall



Shaker Measuring Tools



Shaker Meeting Room







Shaker Candle Holder





Shaker Window


Shaker Dressing Room



Shaker Schoolroom


My  portfolio site is: David L. Smith Photography



For me, one of the best things about summer in Ohio is corn! Considering my affinity toward Central America, I prefer the term “maize,” an Indian word meaning “sacred mother,” or “giver of life.” The ancient Maya creation story features the maize god—referred to as “First Father.” When the waters that covered the earth receded, the first mountain to appear contained enormous bounties within it. Having sacrificed himself to defeat certain flaws, the maize god descended into the Underworld. Chaak, a lightning and rain god, came along and with his mighty axe split open the earth, which was perceived as a great turtle or crocodile. The maize  god ascended through the crack, thereby defeating death and distributing the bounty, maize in particular. First Mother ground the maize into a dough and that became flesh for the first human beings. The ancient Maya were known as the “People of Maize” because they literally believed they were constituted of it. And ever after, the maize plant has been a primary metaphor for the human lifecycle.

First cultivated in Mexico, maize was developed by natives living in Central America—Olmec and Maya—at least 7,000 years ago. It was heavily traded throughout North, Central, and South America. Native Americans used sweet corn leaves as chewing gum. Columbus brought it back to Europe. The early settlers in the New World learned from the natives how to make various dishes including corn bread, corn pudding, corn soup, and fried corn cakes.

Maize is a domesticated grass. It does not exist in the wild. The tassel at the top of the stalk is the male part and the silk of the ear is the female part. The tassel releases millions of grains of pollen, and some of them are caught by the silk. There’s one strand of silk for each kernel on a cob. Depending upon the cultivated type, the crop may be ready for harvesting in 65-90 days. On average an ear of maize has 800 kernels in 16 rows, and there is always an even number of rows on every cob. Amazing!

The U.S. corn crop acreage, put together, would cover all of Germany. In the U.S., it takes 91 gallons of water to produce one pound of corn (European word). Maize is cholesterol free and a good source of vitamin C and A, potassium, thiamine and fiber. It’s very high in antioxidants, is 100% whole grain, and high in natural sugars/starches.

If you wish to make an impact for one year, plant corn; if you wish to make an impact for a generation, plant a tree; if you wish to make an impact for an eternity, educate a child.

Chinese Proverb

Reverence For Light

Reverence For Light


I dedicate this posting to my friend, Marty Ducheny, who kept me laughing and admiring his ability to turn a phrase. On one of our many walks in Spring Grove Cemetery—where he is now buried—he commented that my photography reflected a “reverence for light.” It was such a fine and true statement, I put together an exhibit of about eighty black & white photographs and exhibited them at Xavier University’s art gallery using that phrase (and this image) as the title. It was very well attended; very gratifying. Afterward, I published a Blurb book by the same title, using this photograph for the cover.

Light is energy and it’s also information, content, form, and structure. It’s the potential of everything.

David Bohm

Light created the eye as an organ with which to appreciate itself.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe

About This Image

I was rearranging my darkroom and had a common hardware store reflector with a 150 watt bulb in it, clamped to the rafters above my bench. It was just a work light. Linda came to talk and I noticed her beautiful fingernails. Wanting to photograph her hands and work quickly, I tilted the reflector up and had her hold  her hands in front of it—with her elbows on the bench to keep them still. I guessed at the exposure, took one hand-held shot and discovered that I was out of film. Some things are just meant to be.

One of the good things about self-publishing with Blurb, aside from the printing quality, is that visitors to the site’s bookstore can review a book by turning all the pages. If you care to visit, here’s the link to Reverence For Light and my other Blurb books.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

An a reminder: My current email address is: