What had to happen for these leaves to be photographed?
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.
This is one of the first photographs I made as a student at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), not as an assignment, but attempting to explore how the light without could reveal the light within. I felt that the black and white photographs of masters such as Ansel Adams, Ed Weston and John Paul Caponigro pointed to or evoked sensibilities beyond and deeper than representation. They not only increased my appreciation of subject matter, they helped me see deeper into essences through the patterns in creation.
My photographic contemplations usually begin with an evoked feeling or question. With respect to Leaves By Lamplight, the question that comes to mind as I write is one of the most common because it can be asked of every photograph irrespective of subject matter — What had to happen for this subject matter and image to exist? And that includes the circumstances that gave rise to them. What had to happen for me to be wandering the streets of Rochester, New York in the dark, with a 4×5 camera and tripod, looking for something to photograph?
The answer, of course, is EVERYTHING! Everything since a speck, tinier by far than a grain of sand, dramatically burst forth and expanded to become the cosmos 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, some 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 unbelievably precise conditions to produce the water and atmosphere that gave rise to living organisms, all of human evolution and technological development up until that cold September night in 1962 when I made the exposure. Had any one of these events, elements, object or process varied even slightly—including my birth and life experiences up until that moment—the tree, the lamppost 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 humbling 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. And we are the result of their success down through the ages. Now, we are the leading edge of the future, determining what it will be.
So in this image I see evidence of the perfection and success of being itself—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 is and doing what it needs to do. Here and now, in and through us, the universe with all it’s blessings and blemishes is, in us, reflecting upon itself, coming to self-knowledge—the Love that we are—through infinitely diverse and creative expression.
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 many decades ago to stop and notice them. Due to the law of attraction they captured me and it turn I captured their image. Part of the wonder is that, although those leaves are long gone, they are still present and operating in my life—and now, because of their presentation here, beyond it.
About This Image
I’d driven out to the residential district of Rochester, looking for something to photograph. Realizing that I was spending more time driving than taking pictures, I stopped the car, got out my 4×5 camera, film holders and tripod 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 backlit leaves I set up the camera. When I saw on the ground glass how the street lamp was an out of focus 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 decided to try it.
I composed the elements 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, inserted a film holder in the camera, removed the dark slide and held it in front of the lens to block the light. With the shutter set on “T” for time-exposure, I waited for the wind to stop. They never did. But when they quieted I lifted the dark slide from the lens to allow the exposure. When moved a lot 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.
As it happened, the processed negative elicited an immediate WOW! Dumb luck or happy accident, I didn’t care. It worked. Later on I submitted the photograph for an assignment and received an “A+.” After class, the professor, Charles Arnold, returned it to me with a comment—”That’s a really nice image!” That photograph was one of the ones that set me on the path of a lifelong aesthetic quest.
A beautiful image filled with the wonder of life and such a breath of light and fresh air in the midst of the mounds of snow outside today. The contemplation shows that an image you took so long ago still has relevance and even, new life in your experience of it today. Thanks for the enrichment on a snowy winter day!