Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.
I begin this blog at the beginning, featuring one of the first of my photographs to demonstrate that the light without can reveal the light within—that photographic images could point to something beyond and deeper than representation, that they could increase my awareness of subject matter, environmental and aesthetic preferences and prompt me to take spiritually enriching, imaginary journeys. In 1962, when I made this photograph, I thought of these journeys as meditations. Years later I realized that they were more properly considered contemplations, sustained thoughts about a particular subject.
My photographic contemplations usually begin with an evoked feeling or question. And they can vary over time. With respect to Leaves By Lamplight, the question that comes to mind as I write now is one of the most common because it can be asked of every photograph irrespective of subject matter. It’s the question: What had to happen for this image to exist? What had to happen for me to be wandering the streets of Rochester, New York in the dark, looking for something to photograph for an assignment in my Photo Illustration class at R.I.T. (Rochester Institute of Technology)?
What had to happen? EVERYTHING! Everything since a speck, tinier by far than a grain of sand, dramatically burt forth and expanded to become the universe that we know—all of space-time with its invisible fields of energy and clumps of matter, the galaxies, stars and planets including their patterns of organization, 13.7 billion years of evolutionary unfolding, the position of planets with respect to the Sun, the cooling of the Earth and the shifting of the continents, the precise conditions to create the water and atmosphere that gave rise to living organisms and all of human evolution and technological development up until that cold September night in 1962 when I made the exposure. Change any one element, object or process, even slightly, and the above image would not exist.
According to cosmologist, Brian Swimme, if the rate of the expanding universe had been slower by even a millionth of one percent, it would have recollapsed. Conversely, if the universe had expanded faster by even a millionth of a percent it would have expanded too quickly for structures to form. So if the unfolding of the universe had not occurred exactly as it has, this image, the photographer and you the reader would not exist.
It’s a perspective that leads me to appreciate that those of us alive today stand as the pinnacle achievement of the evolutionary process, the result of countless lines of ancestors going back to just a few individuals in Africa more than 40,000 years ago. They survived to reproduce. We are the result of their success. And now we are the leading edge of the future. The entire universe, the rise of complexity and consciousness, led to this particular tree in Rochester. And me. And you. And now this blog.
So in this image I see evidence of the perfection of being. All being—as it happened and as it is. Though we humans may be imperfect in our becoming, we and everything around us is perfectly being what it needs to be. Here and now, in and through us, the universe with all it’s blessings and blemishes is reflecting upon itself, coming to self-knowledge through infinitely diverse and creative expressions.
Just as Morning Glory blossoms attract hummingbirds to extend their line, the young leaves on this particular tree in Rochester, New York attracted a young college student four decades ago to stop and notice them. I captured their image, but in a very real sense they also captured me. Part of the wonder is that, although those leaves are long gone, they are still present and operating in my life—and now beyond it.
About The Image
Leaves By Streetlamp
Theme: What had to happen?
Negative: 033 (3)
Rochester, New York. 1962
One of the assignments in our Photographic Illustration class was to shoot at night with available light, using a long time exposure. I’d driven out to the residential district, looking for something to photograph, when a stylishly dressed female manikin in an boutique window caught my eye. I made some exposures of the window because it qualified the shot for the assignment, but I wasn’t pleased with it. I found that I was spending more time driving than taking pictures, so I stopped the car, got out the equipment (4×5 camera, tripod, light meter) and started walking.
Within moments there were some low-hanging leaves blocking my path on the sidewalk. They were backlit by a globular street lamp about fifteen feet away. The veins in the leaves were exquisite but the light meter indicated that the level was too low to even move the needle. Especially mitigating against making a photograph was the nearly constant wind. A time exposure would result in a completely blurred image. Nonetheless, I was so taken by the backlight on leaves I set up the camera anyway. When I saw on the ground glass how the street lamp was an out of focus and radiating ball of light I got excited. There were no guidelines for making this kind of exposure, but I’d read about a technique and I decided to try it.
I composed the elements as you see and set the aperture close to wide open to insure that the streetlamp would be out of focus. When the wind died down, I critically focused on the tip of the brightest leaf. I inserted the film holder in the camera, removed the dark slide and held it in front of the lens to block the light. I opened the shutter, which was set on “T” for time-exposure, and waited for the wind to ease. When the leaves quieted I lifted the dark slide from the lens to allow the exposure. And as soon as they moved again I covered the lens. This went on for about five minutes. The leaves were moving so much I was sure I’d overexposed and the image would be unusable. I didn’t want to waste film, so I only made one exposure, deciding that the shot of the manikin in the window would have to do for the assignment.
As it happened, the processed negative elicited an immediate WOW! Dumb luck or happy accident, I didn’t care. It worked. I received an “A+” for the assignment and after class the professor, Charles Arnold, called me aside to comment that it was “A really nice image!” Looking back, that experience was one of the ones that set me up for what was to become a lifelong aesthetic quest.
© Copyright, David L. Smith, 2014. The images and the associated contemplations on this site are protected against any and all commercial and promotional use without the permission of the author. However, permission is granted for individuals to download the images and print them for private, non-commercial, non-promotional use.