II. Atmosphere

Sheep In Meadow Fog

This is the 2nd in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow the series, go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts click on “Archives” and select a date.

Atmos is a Greek word meaning “vapor.” Sphaira in Greek means “sphere.” Combined, scientists use the word “atmosphere” to describe the layer of gases surrounding a planet, held in place by gravity. Artists refer to “atmosphere” when weather conditions become apparent within a work of art.

Perspective: Scientists have said that Earth has an atmosphere impossible by the laws of chemistry. Its gasses should have burnt each other up long ago. Yet if they had, Earth would have no living creatures. As it is, every molecule of air we breathe has actually been recently produced or recycled inside other living creatures… Earth’s creatures make and use almost the entire mixture of gases in the atmosphere (which is) held very nearly 21% oxygen all the time. A little more and fires would start all over the world, even in wet grass. A little less and we, along with all other air-breathing creatures, would die. 

Willis Harman

Sun Rays On Corn Field

Outdoors, atmosphere usually occurs naturally in the form of condensation, precipitation, or particulate matter such as steam, smoke, fog or smog. One of my favorite times to photograph is when the weather changes abruptly so there’s early morning fog; being on location before sunrise can extend the shooting time to two hours or more. Fog creates diffusion and the softening of elements closer in. At greater distances, it reduces color saturation and creates blurring.  

Wild Barley

In the studio, an atmosphere can be created in a tabletop situation with an aerosol spray called “Atmosphere.” I haven’t used it for health and environmental reasons, but it’s sold in camera stores and online. I’ve never been a fan of fog filters either. They apply the softening effect evenly over the entire image, which looks unnatural. To make the above image, I set a clump of weeds on a table about four-feet from the computer, which was displaying a photo of a storm taken in South Dakota. The image on the computer was sharp, so to blur it and increase the effect of distance, I set the camera’s aperture to wide open, thereby reducing the depth of field. I made the exposure solely by the light of the computer image. 

Application

Sunset

Because of its propensity to soften and blur by reducing the acuity or sharpness of objects, atmospheric effects are best used when the objective is to express, to create a mood or feeling rather than convey information. Atmosphere contributes to mood and reduces information.

Reflections On Atmosphere

The atmosphere of a place is its “sensibility,” the impression we get when we enter an environment. Consider the distinction between a restaurant where the floor is concrete, the furnishings are metal or hardwood, the tables and utensils are plastic, the lighting is harsh, and the bare, hard walls and loud music make conversation difficult, with a restaurant where the floor is carpeted, the furnishings are soft and comfortable, the tables are wood with cloth coverings and the napkins are cloth. There’s silverware, soft lighting, barely audible music, and acoustic features that dampen the sound of multiple conversations. These are examples of “hard” and “soft” atmospheres. 

Gas Station Interior

Home and workplaces have characteristic atmospheres. They can be ordered, cluttered, noisy, spacious, sparse, inviting, off-putting, busy, dynamic and more. The same with the meeting, entertainment, and sports venues, gatherings of all kinds. Atmospheres effect us personally. They can depress, confuse, exhilarate, empower, or suppress. I’m reminded of the time Linda and I, curious on a vacation to the Bahamas, entered an upscale casino. In less than three minutes, we turned around and walked out because the rooms were permeated with cigarette smoke. Toward the other end of the spectrum, there are individuals, groups, and places that are conducive to the life of the mind—like libraries and lecture halls, atmospheres where we can experience ideas and values that uplift, empower, educate, and inspire. 

Linda's Bedroom Window

As human beings who seek a variety of experiences, many of us, at one time or another, explore the full spectrum of available atmospheres. With age, I find a definite propensity toward those that are quieter, softer, and gentler, more inspirational than informational, more meaningful than entertaining. It only takes seconds to read an atmosphere.

A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy dare live.

Bertrand Russell

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The Aesthetic Dimensions—A New Series

Autumn Barn

This posting begins a series that will focus on the aesthetic tools that visual artists and communicators use, singly and in combination, to create still and moving images that accomplish specific communication objectives. Knowing the objective before we pick up a camera can help us select the most appropriate visual tool—or a combination—to maximize effectiveness. While the aesthetic dimensions (line, contrast, symmetry, gradation, composition…) are discussed in “how-to” art books, they generally don’t make the connection to either expressive objectives or communication strategies. To follow this series, go to <davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com> and click on “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page).

Photography provides a way of relating to the world in ways that are more conscious and engaging. In order to apply image making to these ends and accomplish specific objectives, there are some fundamental questions to consider. Why am I photographing? What subject matter and locations interest or attract me? And what are my aesthetic preferences? It’s this latter question that prompts this series. Being aware of our aesthetic tools as we photograph and then analyze the results, we gain clarity about our preferences, and that’s how we develop an “eye,” the ability to consistently produce images that successfully accomplish their objective. For instance, in the process of attenpting to make photographs that feed my soul, I discovered that the dimensions of Simplicity, Exquisite light and   Geometry, singly or in combination, more often accomplished that objective—images I regard as “numinous.”   

In studying healthy people, psychologist, Abraham Maslow, expanded his “hierarchy of needs” to include “Transcendence” and “Self-actualization” at the top of his pyramid. Just below these, he situated and described “Aesthetic needs, the appreciation and search for beauty, balance, and form.” My postings, taken together, constitute an abbreviated course in visual communication and aesthetics. If you’re serious about developing your “eye,” you could list the titles for reference, perhaps even copy and paste the descriptions to have at hand. Then, as you experience these dimensions in your image-making, by noticing which of the dimensions that hold the greatest appeal, you will be able to narrow and specify your preferences and work more consciously with them.

In addition to the information relating to the aesthetic tools and how best to use them toward accomplishing an objective, I will include contemplations or reflection on the personal and social significance of the topic or a keyword that relates to it.

First In The Series:  I. Abstraction / Abstract Thinking

 

Glass Candy Dish

Anthropologists and sociologists consider thinking in abstractions to be one of the key traits in modern human behavior. It developed between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. They believe it was closely connected with the development of language. For instance, the word “Happiness” is an abstraction, referencing a state of being. The word “community” is an abstraction that references a kind of social grouping. (Above: An inverted candy dish).

Abstract thinking and seeing involve a process of inductive reasoning, synthesizing particular facts into a general conclusion or theory. In 1620 BCE, Frances Bacon, writing in Novum Organum, encouraged thinkers to collect specific facts before making generalizations. Before then, deductive reasoning was the norm, even prior to the ancient Greek philosophers. For instance, Thales (624-546 BCE) believed that everything in the universe was fundamentally water, and from that generalization, he deduced its forms as ice, snow, rivers, and seas. Deductive reasoning says “X” is bad (or good), therefore every example of “X” is bad (or good). It’s irrational because it begins with an assumption or opinion. On the other hand, scientific thinking is inductive, working from particular facts to develop generalized theories. It says every example of “X” has been proven to be bad (or good), therefore “X” is bad (or good). It’s rational because it synthesizes—constructs truth—from proven facts.

The universe is constantly moving in the direction of higher evolutionary impulses, creativity, abstraction, and meaning.

Deepak Chopra

 

Railroad Wheels

Artists and visual communicators use abstraction as a way to capture and hold attention. Subject matter that’s abstracted may not be readily identified, so viewers sometimes have to linger a while with an image in order to understand what they are seeing and why the artist chose to present it in a frame. Is there some meaning here, or is it just a pleasing image? (Above: Railroad wheels side-by-side)

'74 Javelin

Taken to extremes in modern art, when the image or form is unconcerned with literal depiction altogether, we refer to it as an “abstract” painting or sculpture. Whereas abstractions bear some resemblance to the real world, abstract works are free from it. I’m reminded of a Steve Martin movie where, confronted with a purely abstract sculpture, he says with a lilting voice, “What kinda deal is that?” (Above: Fender of a 1974 Javelin).

As an aesthetic dimension, abstraction tends to invite the viewer to make a connection to the real world—and thereby make generalizations. Individual to general; inductive.  Purely abstract works, however, more often hide the artist’s intent and in the process create cognitive dissonance, challenging viewers to form their own opinion. Sometimes, the meaning of a work can be suggested by clues in a title, explanation, or artist’s statement. 

Abstraction demands more from me than realism. Instead of reproducing something outside of me, now I go inward and use everything I’ve learned thus far in my life.

Susan Avishai (Artist)

Hull Reflections

Application

In photography, abstraction is is an excellent tool to use when the objective is to capture and hold the viewer’s attention longer than if the subject could easily be identified. This is particularly the case when the photographer wants to challenge viewers to work a little harder to identify the subject and ideally to seek its meaning or significance. Because abstraction is largely a matter of minimizing easily recognizable features, it’s not good at providing information at a glance. (Above: highlights from water reflecting on the hull of a boat).

Reflections On Abstract Thinking

Psychologist Carl Jung wrote about abstract thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. In each instance, he said the process is inductive, requiring the rational-logical mind to assimilate and process the particulars in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding or feeling. In whole systems terms, it’s the relating of parts within a whole, ordering them in ways that produce a concept, picture, or sensation of the whole. Inductive process is higher order thinking in that it synthesizes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

The same is true in social relations as an organizing principle. In Nation Formation: Towards a Theory of Abstract Community, Paul W. James argues that “a nation is an abstract community bringing together strangers who will never meet, resulting in real but abstracted and mediated relations—as opposed to personal relations.” At election time the American social climate becomes supersaturated with abstract labels such as “liberals,” “conservatives,” Democrats,” “Republicans,” “nationalism,” “democracy,” “socialism.” If asked, twenty people in separate rooms would provide twenty different opinions on what these abstract words mean.

Even the guiding principles of the United States Constitution are expressed in abstractions—purposefully, to allow for interpretation—which ensures vigorous debate. Generalities such as “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice,” “welfare,” “prosperity,” “militia” are polarizing because we don’t have a common understanding of their particular meanings. Politicians use abstract terms to gain votes and pass legislation. Words like “jobs,” “civility,” “great,” and “integrity” are never defined, leaving the context—and too often the attitude—for us to create meaning. Take the word “integrity.” Adolph Hitler was a man of integrity, totally convinced of the soundness of his vision for Germany. And he remained true to it until the end. In my opinion, one of the great contributions that journalists could make is requiring politicians and other interviewees to define their terms—be clear about what they mean—specifically. 

Pay attention to minute particulars. Take care of the little ones. Generalization and abstraction are the pleas of the hypocrite, scoundrel, and knave.

William Blake

 

U.S. Flag

Systemically speaking, “the whole organizes its parts.” That’s what a Constitution does for a nation. With that in hand, it’s incumbent upon the parts—“members” in a living system—to function simultaneously on two levels: self and others, that is, to continuously maintain the health and functionality of the individual, while ensuring the health and functionality of the wholes within which the members play a part. It’s right relations from individual to planet. (Above: An American Flag abstracted).

The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.

Edsger Dijkstra

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Silence

Fence Shadows On Snow

 

Precious silence often accompanies a fresh and heavy snowfall. The contrast between it and the sounds we normally tune out, calls our attention to it. We go outside to watch and listen closely. We even seem to breathe easier as the snowflakes make a barely perceptible sound. Before the shovels and snowblowers come out, before the sounds of laughing kids and car engines turning over, there’s that moment when we stand still and relish the quiet.

I made this photograph in one such moment. I remember it well because it was one of those instances where, after I made several exposures, I lingered a while to listen to the stillness and watch as the evening light gradually diminished. For me, the sensibility of silence in this image is reinforced by the iron “guards” standing at attention with their spears, oblivious to the cold, wind and coming darkness. The regularity of the spear-shadows contrasts with the chaotic shadows of the trees, suggesting an integration of humanity (orderly lines) living in harmony and nature (disorderly shadows). Further, I notice that although the shadows take different forms, their brightness values are the same—a visual demonstration of unity in diversity.

In my experience silence seems to encourage more silence. Might the memory of past quiet moments, having been so refreshing and enriching—sometimes eliciting awe—prompt us to thirst for more? I think the centering that comes from being in nature at any time of year can be attributed as much to sound as to sight. The song of a bird, snow falling or leaves crunching underfoot, dripping or falling water or wind blowing through the trees are just a few of the sounds that connect us to the deepest roots of our physical being.

I find it curious, the role that the fence plays in contributing to the sensibility of this image. It seems the evocation would not be as potent without it. Wrought iron, being metal, dark and black somehow looks colder than the snow itself. Its spears, literally frozen in place, enhance the qualities of cold and silence. Workers and travelers often see snow as a nuisance. Kids see it as an opportunity for fun and a day off school. Practical considerations aside, stopping to take in its beauty and listen to the sounds of silence can be very enriching.

When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.

Ansel Adams

About This Image

Title: Wrought Iron Fence In Snow

Theme: Silence

File #: DSCF 0967

Location: Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, OH

We are fortunate in Cincinnati to have an enormous, beautiful and well-maintained cemetery that’s also an arboretum. I’ve been photographing there since the early ’60’s. Its many ponds, diverse trees, and landscaping make it as much a garden and woodland as a final resting place. I’ve photographed the monuments, but more often work the angles to avoid them. Whenever the snow is deep enough to cover the simple gravestones I pack up the camera, bundle up and head to Spring Grove Cemetery.

It’s only in late December and January that the shadows get this long before the place closes at 5 pm. On this particular day, the temperature was in the teens. My hands and feet were freezing. But considering the result, it was worth it. When I downloaded the file I thought the shadows were too saturated. After softening the blue and adding yellow to see how it would look, I decided to forego the adjustment. Also as a test, I straightened the fence to make the first “spear” perfectly vertical, but here again, I decided not to alter the image. The benefit of leaving it alone was an increase in the number of fence shadows in the distance that otherwise would have been cropped out.

Christmas Card

 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, Woods on a Snowy Evening

 

 

 

 

Winter Solstice — Renewal

Sun On Horizon

 

As December 21st approaches, I reflect on the significance that the winter solstice held for indigenous peoples and mark it in my own life as a way to attune, as they did, to the order and rhythms of nature and the cosmos. Having studied Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the ancient Maya, for forty-five years, I use them as my general reference here. But all indigenous cultures the world around, from Egypt to Indonesia, had rituals based on the summer and winter solstices.

Without instrumentation, the ancients developed their understanding of the world by observing the movements of the sun, moon, planets and other celestial bodies. The sun was viewed as the creator because it was known to be the source and sustainer of all life—an observation that is, of course, accurate, whatever name we attach to the sun.

For the Maya, Ajaw K’in, “Lord Sun” and his movements were therefore of primary concern. His risings and descendings made the day, and his journeys made the seasons. They didn’t take continuance for granted. Were the sun not to rise—perhaps from not being fed properly with prayer, incense and blood (considered the sacred sap of life; without it, there is death) the world would end. Every day, the sun’s ascension from the underworld was considered a rebirth. His dying, indicated by his descent at dusk, was seen as the necessary precursor for his rising or rebirth. The cyclical pattern established the model for everything that lives.

Every morning, for hundreds of years, generations of sun priests got up well before dawn and stood on the steps of a temple facing due east to observe and mark the position of the sun, sighted initially to distant poles on the horizon, and temple rooftops later on. From June to December the markers showed the sun moving in a southerly direction. Then, on December 21st or 22nd, the winter solstice, something astonishing happened. (The exact date can vary by a day depending on the location and year). The sun “rested.” It stood still. The next day the journey began again, now in the opposite direction. Continuing their observation, on the summer solstice, June 21st or 22nd, the sun paused again and began “his” journey southward.

The significance of this “turnabout” for the ancients was that it indicated a time of rest and changing direction. It was a time for renewal, new beginnings, and rebirth. Logically, since the sun and the other celestial bodies (all perceived as gods) were so orderly in their journeys, the way to honor them and encourage their continuance was to emulate them. As a consequence, ritual practices derived from the notion “As above, so below.” One of the reasons why I was attracted to the Maya was that they, more than any other culture, to a remarkable extent, modeled every aspect of their lives on the order, patterns and processes they observed in the sky and in nature. And they sustained that perspective and rituals for millennia.

For me, the winter solstice serves as a reminder to appreciate and align with the order of the universe, and pause to reassess my life’s journey. Is what I’m doing on purpose? What can I eliminate in order to better focus on what truly matters? Are my priorities consistent with my authentic values and goals? Am I doing at least one thing every day to realize my potentials, goals or dream? And might this be the time to prepare for or take a new direction?

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.

Black Elk

About This Image

Title: Sunset Over The Gulf Of Mexico

Theme: Winter Solstice and Renewal

File #: DC1444

Location: Indian Rocks Beach, FL

Just being at the right place at the right time with a camera.

Lifecycles

DF 753

 

When I was in high school, the authors of biology and chemistry textbooks considered independent motion as the defining characteristic of life. If it moved on its own accord, it was alive—organic. Viewed under a microscope, cells and bacteria move. Minerals do not. Water moves, but it was not considered to be “alive,” except that it contained living microbes. Now we know better. Everything moves. According to Einstein’s famous equation, motion is always in accord with and relative to the motion and condition of everything else. To be is to be related.

Because the movement of an object, substance, person, system or society is propagated by the larger system within which it moves and has its being, there is no such thing as independent movement. Nothing of substance moves on its own. Not even galaxies. The picture that emerges, of course, is that of nested systems within systems, wholes with wholes, holons within holons. The condition of life is cyclical interdependence. It’s why I chose the image of circles within circles as the masthead for this blog.

The image above prompted a consideration of seasons and how they constitute a cycle. Winter, marked by overcast skies, bare tree limbs, and snow, is one of the stations within a cycle of life on this planet, a period when we’re farther away from our radiating star. Motion begets change. At times the change can be random, but the pattern itself is constant and cyclical. Trees grow leaves in Spring and release them in the Fall.  Fish and birds migrate. People change jobs and the jobs themselves change. There are the rise and fall of rock stars and relationships, products and processes. Artists have preference phases and scientists alternate between breakdowns and breakthroughs. Effort and rest, the awake and sleeping states. Eating and digesting. Hearts beat and rest. Political parties, governments, and entire civilizations rise and fall. Likewise stars and galaxies. At every level, the cycling in and out of form or condition is a kind of breathing.

Practitioners of insight meditation focus on the breath to quiet the mind and direct attention to the present moment. The sound of a distant airplane, an itch, odor or thought is less a distraction than an opportunity to focus, accept and appreciate what is, and shift gears. Perhaps less noticed in this process, the awareness of breathing in and out carries the added benefit of attuning the meditator to the cyclical nature of his or her being—of all being and being itself, the quiet experience of life happening. Flow. Masters of this practice advise students to observe how it’s not just the breath that rises and falls, everything is rising and falling, just at different frequencies and rates. Diamonds, for instance, have value and symbolize “eternity” for us because on earth they are the hardest of minerals with the longest lifespan. Nonetheless, they are not eternal. They rise and fall like everything else.

One of the reasons for my attraction to native cultures has been their knowledge of and connection to nature. The ancients went to great, at times monumental, effort to observe the natural world and attune themselves to it through language, art, architecture, costuming and ritual. We moderns hear about the solstices but few of us understand that these calendar points mark the time in the yearly cycle when the sun does an “about face” when sighted along the early morning horizon. We have one word for “rain.” Rainforest dwellers the world around have many. To us, the chirping of chacalacas in the morning is just a sound, perhaps an annoying one. To the ancient Maya, it was an announcement that the sun god was making a new day—something they didn’t take for granted. Where we would cut down a vine that blocks our way, natives use the direction of its growth like a compass when the sun is not shining. NOTE: Greenpeace estimates that today there are approximately 150 million indigenous people living in ancient forests worldwide.

In an attempt to better understand and connect to nature I have a number of practices. Besides reading, I watch the sky and the birds associated with each season. I used to observe the planets, and stars through a telescope, but because city lights make it difficult, I do less of that. Still, I know when to look for certain constellations, planets and stars. And it’s always a delight to see them. One example is Sirius, a nearby binary star that’s twice the mass of our sun and the brightest star in the sky. Another is Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation, which is easy to spot in the winter months. I marvel at this red supergiant because its radius is a thousand times that of the Sun. If it were placed in the center of our solar system it would reach beyond the orbit of Jupiter!

One of the mind games I play to become more aware of nature’s cycles is to guess the lifespans of familiar objects. It’s not that I look at a doorknob, computer screen, political party or cultural conflict and think about when it arose and when it will succumb to entropy. Rather, I note in passing that these substances, systems, and events are instances along a continuum of change. That they, like me, are moving along a temporal trajectory. One of the benefits of these observations is a sense of being carried along on a gentle wave—a local experience of the universal ocean of motion—consciousness. It’s a perspective that evokes spiritual relaxation and confidence that all is well. I still struggle in some areas, so I’m not there yet. But I’ve reached the point where, as the commercial goes, I want to “spend less time getting there and more time being there.”

Our minds are just waves on the ocean of consciousness. As waves, they come and go. As ocean, they are infinite and eternal. These are all metaphors, of course; the reality is beyond description. You can know it only by being it.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

ABOUT THIS IMAGE

Title: Winter Forest

File: DF753

I love to photograph in the snow. It’s one of the few environments that allows for simplicity. Also, it’s very quiet and there are fewer people out and about because of the cold. This image was made on a three-day visit to Amish country in mid-state Ohio. Unfortunately, I didn’t record the precise location. But it’s typical of the area where hills are unobstructed by telephone poles and electric wires.

In order for a camera to render snow as white—rather than the gray its electronics are designed to make of it, I changed the camera’s exposure compensation to plus 5. Shooting in RAW mode helps considerably, allowing control of more or less texture in the highlights. As you see, I made the sky slightly darker than the snow, not only to give some separation but also to maintain the sensibility of an overcast day.

Shifts In Perception

Scanned from negative

 

One of my long-standing pet peeves has been littering. I even won a speech contest by ranting and raving about it in my high school years. Linda and I were running errands recently and we saw several places strewn with litter. Two years ago when I contacted the person in charge of cleaning up litter in the city, he not only encouraged me to report areas of gross negligence, he followed through, even to the extent of notifying his counterparts in surrounding municipalities that were not in his jurisdiction. Gratefully, the areas I brought to his attention got cleaned up.

Around that same time I was picking up trash in the neighborhood on my too infrequent walks for exercise, when I picked up this beer can. Wearing my “waste management hat,” I saw it as garbage and the negative thoughts came pouring in. How many such cans are going into landfills or clogging up sewer drains? How much of the earth’s supply of aluminum is being used to deliver gazillions of beverages every month that take minutes to consume? And I wondered about people who litter—What are they thinking? Or are they not thinking at all about what they are doing? Also, how does a person get to the point where they have little or no regard for their neighborhood, community or planet, much less an aesthetic sensibility that makes them think twice about littering?

Some years back a young colleague observed a neighbor drop a bag of half-consumed fast food onto the yard of the apartment where they both lived. My friend knew this person well enough that he could ask about it. The man’s reply was “Why should I care? Nobody else cares. What has the world ever done for me?” That was insightful. Not everyone in this country grows up like I did—in a loving family, particularly one in which consideration for others and respect for property was strictly enforced—and modeled. And not all educational systems in the United States teach young people about the impact we’re having on the environment and that something—like recycling, not littering and cleanup initiatives—can be done about it.

Waste is a global challenge. Travelers to Germany report that their land and cityscapes are largely litterfree. In other countries littering and letting garbage collect is the only option. So how a society handles its waste is a complex issue, conditioned by historical, geographical, cultural, political and economic circumstances. As such, less developed countries deserve some understanding in this regard rather than judgment on my part. They just don’t have the resources to manage waste.

Closer to home and on a more scientific note, research by Keep America Beautiful has determined that people litter because they feel no sense of ownership, even though areas such as parks and beaches are public property. They believe that it’s the job of city, park maintenance or highway workers to pick up after them. Their other findings include:

  • People of all ages and social backgrounds have been observed littering, but individuals under 30 were more likely to litter than those who are older. In fact, age, and not gender, is a significant predictor of littering behavior.
  • 18% of all littered items end up in our streams and waterways as pollution.
  • 1. 9 billion tons of litter ends up in the ocean every year.
  • $11.5 billion is spent every year to clean up litter.
  • 50% of littered items are cigarette butts.

When I arrived home from my walk and separated out a bottle and this beer can for recycling, the dew on its surface forced me to put on my photographer’s hat. In its own way, this smashed can was an object of beauty, a common item that was now visually striking. And the negative thoughts it evoked in me made it, well, evocative. I’d considered this image for a posting, but put it off because I couldn’t decide on a theme. Then I saw a bumper-sticker that read, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

I laughed. But it was just the impetus I needed. My perspective shifted! One moment saw this beer can as litter, evidence of someone’s not caring and not taking responsibility for the neighborhood or planet, and moments later considered it an object of beauty. And then a bumper-sticker—comically but nonetheless poignantly—pointed to its place in the broadest of contexts. The can didn’t change, but my way of seeing it did. One of the aesthetic terms among the Japanese is “wabi-sabi,” finding beauty in things that are dying or decaying. It’s an appreciation of impermanence, including that which is incomplete or imperfect.

So this contemplation reinforces for me, how even the smallest, seemingly innocuous and possibly annoying things in life can be seen in a different light. It’s not that I gained a greater appreciation for litter. I didn’t. It still offends my aesthetic sensibilities, but I’m more at peace with it now, trying to rest in wabi-sabi.

Ultimately the best way of teaching, whether the subject is mathematics, history, or philosophy, is to make the students aware of the beauties involved. We need to teach our children unitive perception, the Zen experience of being able to see the temporal and the eternal simultaneously, the sacred and the profane in the same object.

Zen Teaching

ABOUT THIS IMAGE

Title: Smashed Beer Can

File: 903-A1

I didn’t want the dew on the beer can to evaporate by bringing it inside, so I left it out in the cold while I made preparations to photograph it on my copy stand. Once the camera and the background were in place, I brought the can in, turned on the lights, quickly centered it in the frame and clicked the shutter. What you see is the actual dew that was on the can. No spritzing needed. In Photoshop I softened the contrast to keep from blowing out the highlights. And I darkened the bottom part of the can so it would match the top part in tonality. Oh, and I recycled the can.

Home

The recent fires in California provide us all with a hightened appreciation for our homes. Our prayers and best wishes go to those who have lost their houses. Wondering what it takes to rebuild a home, I was reminded of a gathering of our families when my daughter made a reference to her “home” at the dinner table. I had a moment of wondering whether she was referring to her home with us, her parents, or her current home two hours away from us with her husband and son. I asked her, “What do you think of, when you think of home?” It was remarkable how the question sparked more questions and a fascinating discussion.

What do you think of, when you think of home? Is it people, place or circumstances? All of these? Around our table, one of the responses was, “I think of my college years. That was when I was happiest.”

What is the experience of being at home or feeling “at home?” When I was working on projects that involved frequent trips to both coasts, I felt so at home with the people I was working with I regarded them more as friends than colleagues. Having shared interests and goals was a factor. So also was resonance. But I would not have chosen to live with those people. On the other side of the coin, when I visited Palenque, a Maya site in Chiapas, Mexico, I felt so comfortable sitting on the steps of a temple there, I had the feeling that I was at home. I didn’t know anyone there, but I felt like I could have stayed there the rest of my life.

When were you most at home? I expected those around our dinner table to cite their present dwelling place. Not so. It took me several moments to discover the answer for myself—that where I live now is home. It’s where I feel most myself. If your current dwelling place is not home, is there anything or anyone that would make it so? I think most of us would agree with the adage that “a house does not a home make.” I wonder about people who have multiple homes. Are they equally at home in all of them? The notion of home as a quality of being is a curiously complex phenomenon.

What qualities and characteristics are essential for you to consider a place home? Location? Type of dwelling? For instance, could you consider yourself at home in a condo or apartment? If so, what would be necessary? If not, why not? And in your current dwelling place, what and how much could you eliminate and still feel that you are home? Now, pare down these qualities and items so only the absolute essentials remain. Write them down. And then ask what it is that these provide. Be brutally honest. For instance, cameras and a darkroom are on my list. Without them, I wouldn’t feel at home. I’d have to acquire them all over again in order to feel at home. The Buddhists would call this “clinging,” but the truth is the truth. When I asked myself what photographic equipment provides, the answer came quickly—the capacity to understand and express myself in order to better fulfill my purpose.

Are you at home in your skin? I like this question because it points to our dual nature—body and spirit or soul, whatever we choose to call it. “Am I at home in my body?” elicits the question, Who is the “I” who is asking? Am I comfortable with what I see and how I feel? How can I change these—if that’s desirable or possible. If not, might acceptance or forgiveness tilt the scale toward increased satisfaction?

What does it mean to be at home?  The protagonist in my novel, Jaguar Sun, discovers that home is a personal construction requiring both inner and outer resources. Before he can come to that place, he has to know who he is. From a physical standpoint, the nest in the above image is a composite of elements from the environment—like furniture—suited to warmth and protection. Certainly these are components for us as well. Might we also consider that, given our composite nature, the place we call “home” includes emotional and psychological environments that are conducive to comfortable living and peace of mind. Or is home just where we have our stuff? Is home the place where we live with our significant others? It has been said that “Home is where the heart is.” For me, qualifying further, home is the context within which I can most be myself and work toward becoming a better self. I’m reminded of my posting of a full image of an egg. Within it, there is nourishment, safety, comfort, connection and the development of potential.

If there is to be peace in the world,

There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,

There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,

There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,

There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,

There must be peace in the heart.

Lao-tzu

About This Image

Title: Robin’s Nest

Theme: Home

File #: 499-C1

Linda discovered this nest in the back yard. I took it inside, placed it on the camera stand and photographed it against a black background. The eggs are situated as they were found.

Gratitude

 

“Over the river and through the woods…”

I lived in the city growing up. My grandparents lived in the country about thirty miles from us. We visited them most Sundays, year round, from the time I was born through high school. This image brings back memories of our Thanksgivings there. Topping the list of the downside of going to Grandma’s house was the two-hole outhouse (Who ever thought two holes was a good idea?) with pages of the Sunday Supplement covering the walls, spider webs in the dark corners and, well, the odor. When I was little, I had to be convinced that I wouldn’t fall in and nothing would come out of there to bite me in the butt. 

Because the house was heated by a wood stove in the back room, aided at times by the kitchen stove, the downstairs was warm enough in the winter time, but my sister and I froze upstairs, napping under three or four blankets with our clothes on. With the exception of my father and me, the men in my family were very much into sports—and smoking cigars. So while they were watching “the game” and the women played cards around the kitchen table, it fell to my dad to keep my sister and me occupied. And that leads me to the upsides.

Dad took us on walks to the nearby Clermont County Fairgrounds, where we would wander around the empty livestock stalls and climb the steps of the grandstand that overlooked the oval buggy track. In the summertime we would go to the corner market where, out in front, there was a bin where we reached in and fished among the blocks of ice for a bottle of pop. At Thanksgiving the main event was always the meal. The scene in the dining room was like a Norman Rockwell painting. Grandma was known for her cooking, so the long table was pulled out even further to accommodate all its leaves, and extensions were added as needed. There could be fifteen or more people, passing turkey with stuffing, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, corn, peas, carrots, cranberries… And then came the cherry, apple and pumpkin pies, to accommodate everyone’s preference.

Like forgiveness, gratitude spoken out loud delivers benefits to those who express it as well as those to whom it is expressed. Studies show that a simple “Thank you” makes people more likely to seek an ongoing relationship. Psychologist Robert Emmons found that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression. A University of Kentucky study found that grateful people are more sensitive and empathetic toward others, they sleep better, have higher self-esteem, experience less stress and exhibit greater resilience when under stress.

Giving thanks at our Thanksgiving dinner has always presented me with a conundrum. The list of things I’m thankful for is impossibly long, so I have to prioritize when speaking them out loud. Words are inadequate. So I say to myself that I’m grateful for (capital “E”) Everything.

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

John F. Kennedy

About This Image

Title: Amish Country Road

File #: DC5729

Location: Walnut Creek, OH

My practice on overnight trips to Amish country in mid-state Ohio is to drive on the gravel and dirt roads, wherever I see horse and buggy tracks. At “magic hour” in the evenings, I tend to drive a little faster so as to cover as much ground as I can while the sun is going down. In this instance I stopped, literally in the buggy tracks, because the setting sun was strongly backlighting leaves in the dark forest.

With the sky so bright and the forest so dark, I set the camera on “automatic” to see what would happen. Reviewing the image on the viewfinder, I was amazed to see that it had captured some detail in the trees but left enough definition in the highlights that the sunset was apparent. I didn’t need to take another exposure.

Phase Transition

For me, every element of this image provides opportunity to reflect. The color alone evokes the sensibility of winter, the time of year when, for many of us, the often overcast sky tends to dampen the desire for activity. The lines where snow meets ice meets water recall phase transitions: changes of state, chapters in our life where, instead of changing form—as the combination of hydrogen and oxygen do under different temperature conditions—our perceptions and attitudes change under the influence of experience and reflection.

The little ripples in the water evidence both wind and energy alternatively reflecting light and darkness as life moves forward. In the tree I’m reminded that my personal reality is a reflection of Absolute reality, allowing me to interpret its reflection freely. I understand that the reflection is not the tree, but does it even come close to representing it faithfully or fully? Of course, that’s the great mystery. When we look at images of stars and galaxies, are we seeing the universe as cold and lifeless, a place filled with immense objects that collide with unimaginably gigantic consequences? Might the processes—there and here—be the very means by which consciousness expands as part of its reach to attain fuller realization of the Absolute? Of awareness itself. Might spacetime on this planet be a local phase transition for consciousness as it reaches for that awareness?

The “tree” of our personal reality may at times appear to be barren with only the forces of change and chance moving the branches. But wait! Within them lies the  potential for new growth and radiant color. I observe that on the right side of the reflected tree, life appears to be solid and gritty. On the other side, it’s liquid and flows smoothly. In between, in the center, stillness propagates a reflection. And as this image demonstrates, the greater the stillness the fuller and more true the reflection of reality.

Zooming into the molecular level, I find a social consideration represented along the “shoreline” where water meets ice. Indeed, at 3:1 magnification on the computer it closely resembles the coastline of Maine. On one side the molecules stubbornly seek to maintain the status quo as a liquid, whereas the molecules on the other side are just as rigid—literally so—to remain solid. By zooming in even closer I arrive at the place where individual molecules conflict. I imagine their conversation. “I’m liquid and I’m going to stay that way.” “Well, I’m solid and there’s no way I’m going to change!” Well and good. But they are forgetting two things. They are both the same in substance. Irrespective of location and form, they are both water. And they do not exist in a closed system.

A change in the climate, particularly the temperature in this case, would force the change in one direction or the other depending on the presence or absence of heat. Living systems are self-making, but their fate is inexorably determined by changes in the environment. The inevitable choice for all living systems is either resignation or transformation. As George Land put it in his classic book on transformation—“Grow or Die.”

Because atoms and molecules are invisible we tend to think of them as being still, lifeless and without consciousness. Of course it depends on how we view life and consciousness, but if characteristics such as individuality, vitality, self-making (autopoiesis) and community building are part of the formulation, the universe is literally teeming with life and consciousness.

The interface between opposites is the place of transformation.

William Erwin Thompson

A new phase occurs when communication between agents makes cooperation and interdependence more beneficial than conflict.

Eva Jablonka

 

ABOUT THIS IMAGE

Title: Tree Reflection; Water  and Ice

File: DC1757

It was February and I was photographing in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery where there are several ponds and a wide variety of trees. On one of the ponds there’s a fountain and it created the ripples that inched against the ice that was forming along the shoreline. I made several exposures from different angles, some emphasizing the ripples, others the reflection of the tree. As a result of this contemplation I now understand why this particular image appealed to me—it illustrates a phase transition, a phenomenon I always found fascinating.