Order And Coherence

Sphere 754


Initially, this image evoked in me an appreciation of the organizing principles that underlie manifested reality, from sub-atomic particles to the universe. The consistent spherical shapes, irrespective of size, and the way the light raked across them suggesting mass and texture and that led to considerations of order. Upon further reflection, my appreciation widened to include the forces of coherence that are displayed between and among the spheres.

I tend to think of ordering as the arrangement of parts within a system, and coherence the adhering property of those parts. Combined, the result is a balanced dynamic, a whole system that functions according to its design. Here, I observe subtle forces, a dance of pushing and pulling that maintains the shape and integrity of each sphere of oil as it seeks a comfortable place on the surface of a hostile environment—a graduate filled with water. This still image capturea a moment of adaptation in a turbulent situation. In a sense, the cells (oil drops) are “learning” about their identity and place, how to “live” in relation to the other cells given the reality of the environment.

Coherence in us means health: the optimum functioning of the body. When the body is coherent, its immune system is strong and resistant to disease. Everything we do either promotes or counters coherence and thus our and our environment’s evolution and development; it is either healthy or unhealthy, and is either constructive or destructive.

Ervin Laszlo

Perhaps because the larger sphere in the center of the image contains texture, I’m reminded of the processes of ordering and coherence that took place when the Earth was forming, trying to  take shape and establish coherence at a time in the planet’s history so violent we can barely imagine it. I marvel at the improbability of that happening. And yet, out of the chaos came order and coherence, the combination allowing the development of higher organisms and intelligent life.

The probability of life evolving through random genetic variation is about the same as the probability of a hurricane blowing through a scrap yard assembling a working airplane.

  Fred Hoyle


For atoms to bounce together haphazardly to form a single molecule of amino acid would require more time than has existed since the beginning, even a hundred times more than 13.7 billion years.

Mary Coelho


The chance that a livable universe like ours would be created is less than the chance of randomly picking a particular single atom out of all the atoms in the universe.

Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner

About This Image

Sphere 754

I positioned a 4×5 camera over a light table, filled a tall, one-quart 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 placed it under it. This created the contrast between the light and dark bands.

The out-of-focus edge of the cardboard—due to short depth of field—resulted in the gradations, giving a sense of depth to the spheres. With a little manipulation of the cardboard, and by adding more drops of oil, the image took on an organic as well as cosmic sensibility. But there were problems. The oil cells kept drifting to the side of the graduate and out of the camera frame. Worse, dust particles kept settling on the surface. I dismantled the setup and started again from scratch after creating nearly clean-room conditions—including working in my underwear.

To gain control over the composition and the dust 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 solution was to quickly cover the graduate with a piece of clear glass between exposures. With a cable release in hand and the shutter cocked, I removed the glass, made the exposure and quickly covered the graduate to prepare for the next shot.

After several exposures, I experimented with a variety of substances to see how they would interact with the large pool of oil in the middle of the frame. I dumped the water and reconstituted the oil drops maybe fifty times to get it right. In the end, it was a single drop of lighter fluid deposited in the center of the oil cell that created the texture. And it was dramatic! Within the sphere there was a highly active cauldron of swirling lines and craters. Whereas oil and water do not mix, oil and lighter fluid actually do battle with each other to establish coherence. Eventually, the oil won because lighter fluid evaporates.

I shot over 100 sheets of 4×5 film to get about 40 very different images—by using different vessels, types of oil and lighting setups. I did this in two, week-long sessions separated by about four months, the second one taking advantage of what was learned in the first. What prompted this project was my insatiable desire to make images that exhibit varying degrees of gradation.

A full description of this process and more of the spherical images can be found in LensWork Magazine #39 February-March, 2002. For readers who approach photography as a medium of creative expression, I can’t say enough about LensWork Magazine and its many initiatives. I consider it to be the Rolls Royce of photography magazines. It deals with technique a bit, equipment not at all. Instead, the focus is on the creative process. The magazine is only available in select bookstores, so I recommend a subscription.


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







Lecture Hall


In this image I see the next generation of professionals being exposed to the knowledge of both present and past learners. I also see the learning process accelerating, facilitated by the rapid and global flow of information involving many more people making more connections than ever before.

Going forward from the industrial revolution, we acquired knowledge about how the human senses, particularly sight and sound can be expanded, improved upon and extended far into the cosmos through the use of microwave and radio telescopes. Intricate surgeries are being successfully performed by robots acting under the control of surgeons at a distance. Animals are being cloned. Technology growth is advancing exponentially. And individuals by the millions are communicating globally and simultaneously. I look at this image and wonder if considerations of more and faster are also producing better results. Does more knowledge, better tools and increased capacities result in higher quality—more competent, ethical, responsible and caring human beings? More secure, economically sound and vital societies? In some cases “yes,” in other instances “no.” When it comes to tools of any kind, what matters is how we use them.

Certainly it’s easier, faster and more financially profitable to direct the flow of information and knowledge toward external changes, more so than addressing internal changes, those relating to the qualities of consciousness and character, which are neither sexy nor profitable. Reflecting on these qualities in relation to learning, I wonder what we’re educating for—at every level. And toward what ends should we be applying what we’re learning?

Constructive jobs and the professions are part of it. Wisdom born of hard experience is another part, necessary for intelligence and creativity to be channeled into understanding, improvements, health and well-being. And then there’s knowledge that contributes to personal growth and social development. Might there be less crime and corruption, perhaps even less political polarization, if more people understood the many ways in which all of life is interconnected and interdependent? And that all choices have consequences—for the whole as well as the individual.

I was a students in this very lecture hall. Back then, we took notes with pad and pen. And the focus was more on the teacher than projected images. Beyond the name of the teacher and the course, I have only a vague memory of the lessons that were taught in that hall. I do, however, vividly remember the teacher and his passion for the subject. He captured our attention, not only because he had expertise and experience in the field we aspired to; he lived it. We listened and watched because he provided the model for what we could expect at the executive level in the broadcast industry. And it proved to be an accurate assessment.

Years later, as a university professor myself, I learned that education is only partly about the conveyance of knowledge and information. Students can get that on their own. And they will pursue certain subjects when they’re sufficiently motivated to do so. What’s more difficult for them to acquire are the qualities of character that contribute to a life well lived with meaningful contributions, qualities that are best demonstrated rather than talked about.

Technologies in the classroom are essential resources, particularly for learning the externals—how the world works and how to enter into it. Equally, I think attention to the internals, the qualities of consciousness and character, is essential. And for that we need positive role models—parents, teachers, professionals and leaders in every domain.

The process of creating intelligence is not merely a question of access to information. Would that learning were as easy as diving into a swimming pool of information or sitting down at a great banquet table for an info-feast. Rather, education, which comes from the Latin educaré, meaning to raise and nurture, is more a matter of imparting values and critical faculties than inputting raw data. Education is about enlightenment, not just access. 

David Shenk

About This Image

Title: Lecture Hall

File #DC 4090

Zimmer Auditorium, University Of Cincinnati

Whenever I expect to be photographing interiors with available light, I much prefer shooting with a digital rather than a film camera. The ISO number (sensitivity to light) can be adjusted higher than film without significant degradation to the image. This same image photographed on film would have been very grainy and I would have needed a tripod for the long exposure.

My camera is usually set on “Daylight” color balance. Seeing how yellow the light was in the hall, I changed the setting to “Tungsten,” which produced the better looking image on the viewing screen. Next, I set the camera on “A” for aperture mode in order to maximize the depth of field so objects both near and far would be in focus. And then, because I was hand-holding the camera, I set the shutter speed at 1/500th of a second to minimize movement. Combining these factors, the camera indicated that I needed an ISO of 1500.

As usual, I bracketed the exposure by shooting several frames: normal, over and under the camera’s recommendation. Using Adobe Lightroom software, I increased the exposure to bring out more detail on the projection screens and reduced the overall contrast by boosting the shadows.

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



Subtle Attraction

Drydock Boat


There are many ways that photography can feed the soul. Recently I had reason to reprint Dry Dock Boat and, as the image was taking shape in the developer, my heart was activated before I even had a chance to reflect on the subject matter. Later, I decided to contemplate the impulse of heart activation, what I regard as a force of subtle attraction. In common parlance, it’s quite simply the energy of love.

When working creatively, there comes a pull—felt largely in the heart—that prompts a desire to explore the subject more thoroughly, to deal with it, perhaps to sustain or intensify the feeling, deepen understanding or connection. Likely both. Whether the initiating force is a person, place or thing, there’s an urge to explore the experience further. By delving into the minutest details of attraction, connoisseurs of wine, restorers of vintage cars, collectors of all kinds and animal lovers engage their subject with a passion. Whether or not it’s financially profitable as an investment of time and energy, the engagement itself is its own reward. I don’t know who said it, but I appreciate the definition of an artist as one who is compelled to do what they do, irrespective of money, expectations or the satisfaction of others. They create because they have to. Many artists don’t know why. I suspect it’s the craving of a hungry soul.

The act of creating is engagement with the energy of attraction. Love actually. For some it’s intensified by exploring the nature or appearance of the subject matter. For others the process itself, just working with the materials, can activate and deepen the initial attraction. I venture to say that for most, it’s a combination of these. For me, one of the wonderful things about the photographic film process as opposed to digital photography, is that there are greater challenges in terms of craftsmanship, more elements to deal with and wrestle toward impeccability. As opposed to manipulating pixels and printing images on machines, the process of making prints by hand is more tactile and arguably more engaging. And because the materials and processes require specialized knowledge and skill in handling as well as a discerning eye, there’s always more to learn and greater care to be taken. I photograph with a digital camera as well. But I derive more satisfaction from making rather than turning out prints.

Like opening a can of soup, I could have simply printed Dry Dock Boat digitally. But watching the paper emerge from an inkjet printer would have been a flat experience. Contemplating it afterward would have been enriching, no doubt. But as I watched this image blossom in the developer, it engaged my heart. Love immediately. Subtle, but nonetheless. And the experience continued as I moved the prints through the various solutions. Again when I moved them through the archival process. And again, as I spotted and provenanced the prints. Still, when I pull such prints from their archival storage envelopes I get a jolt of WOW! Followed by a THANK YOU! I refer to prints that trigger this response as “numinous.”

In my formulation of the creative process, attraction directs attention, which prompts exploration (consideration, testing, playing) which in turn can lead to eros that says, “This is nice. I’m getting somewhere. I’ll keep at it.” It’s love with hope or expectation. With further deepening (actually it’s an ascent) comes appreciation born of refinement—engagement in the details which, when accompanied by feelings of gratitude can lead to agape or selfless love, an appreciation of the thing itself. Love without expectation. Deeper yet is the domain of experiences, aesthetic among them, where the sensation of fullness, completeness and unity prompts identification with that energy. Even the mundane, approached with awareness or appreciation, can take us there. It’s not about the thing or the process. It’s what happens inside when we’re searching and receptive, open to be moved.

As with most refinements, I’m talking about very subtle energies here. These are not exciting, emotional or dramatic experiences. The world is full of these. Feeding the soul is not like taking a pill. Neither is it an exercise that requires a substantial commitment of time, money or discipline. It’s a matter of simply being and paying closer attention to whatever stimulates a pull, the energy of attraction. Strong enough love that it prompts an immersion into the details.

If I love the world as it is, I’m already changing it: a first fragment of the world has been changed, and that is my own heart.

Dumitriu Petru

About This Image

Title: Dry Dock Boat

Theme: Subtle Attraction

Negative #: 549-A3


Our family was on vacation in Toronto. I’d never been there before, so on an afternoon when I had some time to myself, I drove around looking for places to photograph. Being naturally drawn to boats, piers and marinas, I followed the waterways south of the city and came upon an area where several boats were drydocked. There were no fences and no one was around to ask permission, so I wandered the site and made several hand held exposures with my 2 1/4 camera.

I’ve used Kodak’s T-Max film since it was introduced, in combination with Xtol developer because I wanted the finest grain possible with high resolution and a long grayscale. Gradation has always been a powerful attractor for me. I don’t know why, but I crave it. There have been times when I’ve done elaborate lighting setups in the studio over weeks at a time, just to satisfy this craving. (My article on this entitled, “The Aesthetic Urge” including a portfolio of images entitled, “Gradations & Geometries” appeared in the 2002, February-March #39 edition of LensWork). When I saw how the sunlight was raking across the hull of this boat, accentuating the texture of the fiberglass, I became ecstatic. In my printing notes I tagged the image as “numinous.”

The virtue of the camera is not the power it has to transform the photographer into an artist, but the impulse it gives him to keep looking.

Ken Royster

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

The Evolutionary Spiral

Oil Tank Stairway #1


The metal stairway in this image evokes in me considerations of the evolutionary spiral, the universe’s operating system, which we know to “favor” increased novelty, diversity, adaptation, complexity and higher levels of organization. Along the bottom steps of the oil tank, I see the significant ordering that has already occurred. In the steps above and combined with the railing, the lighted way indicates that the direction is onward and upward. Finally, conveying purpose to this ascending pathway is the mass of the structure itself—the universe.

Extending the metaphor, I would place the current generation of humanity in the area of transition, where light and order are emerging from the darkness (wherein dwells ignorance, short-sightedness, intolerance and the illusion of separation). I imagine the transition toward the light being fueled physically by health and well-being, safety and security, strong economies, innovations in every domain, the pursuit of excellence and what works for everyone. And because consciousness gives rise to form, I imagine that love, compassion, tolerance, collaboration, empowerment, ethical behavior and the like are the energies of the leading edge of light.

To some this may sound saccharine or unrealistic, particularly in light of how we’re portraying ourselves in the mass media and entertainment venues. But evolution is a universal, unbounded and dynamic process that has operated, and will continue to do so, with or without human beings. What’s different in our time is that we understand this and we’ve gained some knowledge about the patterns that support living systems. For instance in his study of 26 societies Historian Arnold Toynbee, found that a civilization’s  prospects for survival were greatly enhanced by the movement of information and resources from the top of the society to the bottom. Those that accomplished this feat of uplifting citizens at the bottom, survived the longest. On the downside, collapsed civilizations had in common an “inflexibility under stress and the concentration of wealth into few hands.” He also observed that civilizations disintegrated when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and they “sank owing to nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority.”

Addressing the challenge of moving in the more positive direction, systems scientist Dr. Janis Roze, advises: “We must now give equal time and focus, equal or even greater energy to those human qualities that are constructive, growth enhancing, confidence and trust inspiring, so that the power of these qualities can be consciously developed and applied both to individual lives and to the directing of societal and world affairs.”

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi connected the dots, tying the individual to evolutionary process by observing: “What evolves is not the self trapped in our physical body, which will dissolve after death. Rather, what will survive and grow is the pattern of information that we have shaped through our existence: the acts of love, the beliefs, the knowledge, the skills, the insights that we have had and that have affected the course of events around us. No matter how smart, wise, or altruistic a person might be, he or she is not going to contribute to evolution except by leaving traces of complexity in the culture, by serving as an example to others, by changing customs, belief or knowledge in such a way that they can be passed down to future generations.”

As far back as we’ve been able to see, human evolution favors the passing on—physically, mentally and socially—of characteristics, qualities and consciousness that promote survival and growth. In the image of the oil tank, light isn’t emerging from the darkness. It dispels and gives form to it, creating well-ordered shadows. I observe further that the light shines from a particular direction. The direction toward a better life, individually and collectively, is in alignment with the patterns in the evolutionary spiral. Otherwise we’re just standing on the steps—or climbing down.

We live on a different planet now, where not biology but symbolic consciousness is the determining factor for evolution. Cultural selection has overwhelmed natural selection. That is, the survival of species and of entire ecosystems now depends primarily on human activities.

              Brian Swimme

About This Image

Title: Oil Tank Stairway

Theme: The Evolutionary Spiral

Negative #: 801-B4


Photographing around industrial sites can be complicated—getting close enough, obtaining permission and dealing with security guards. As sometimes happens, the light in this situation was so exquisite I had to act quickly. There wasn’t time to ask for permission. Besides, it was a  Sunday and the place was deserted.

Prepared with identification in case someone should come to inquire, I went ahead and set up my tripod on a weed-covered bank. There was a fence and railroad cars between me and the oil tank, so I was fortunate that the telephoto lens on my 2 1/4 camera was long enough to fill the frame with the tank and eliminate those distracting elements.

After shooting several frames I went looking for someone to notify in case they had a video camera trained on me. I couldn’t find anyone, but at least I made the attempt. Usually, when I set up a tripod on or even near commercial properties, guards or police will come out. This is why, in addition to my ID, I also keep a copy of one of my publications in the car—to prove that my intent is creative rather than commercial.

Because of the distance (about forty yards) I used a spot-meter to determine the exposure. Using the Zone System, I metered the scene and processed the film to maximize the full scale of shadows and highlights to extend the range of the graded tones.

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






Sky & Buildings


A mind game that has enhanced my appreciation of the scope of the universe began when, on a clear day somewhere in the 60s, I sat on a park bench overlooking the Ohio river. Having recently read about optics and laser technology, I pointed an imaginary laser into the sky and wondered how far the beam would travel before it would hit something solid. Practically this doesn’t work because gravity would bend the beam and a black hole would suck it in. (This is a mind game, so I can change the rules).

Irrespective of my position on Earth and no matter where I pointed the laser, there’s so much universe, it would eventually contact something solid. It would never get through to pure, empty, dimensionless space—if there is such a place. Despite the current estimate that only 5% of the universe consists of solid matter, the picture this painted for me was of a universe that had some solidity to it. It suggested a boundary. But now we now know better.

Anyway, I played on. Might the laser beam penetrate into another universe, the multiverse or other dimensionsions? Of course none of this can be known for now, so the game ends with these questions. But contemplation is its own reward. In particular, the simple act of thinking about immensity generates deep wonder, appreciation and perspective because at both ends of the spectrum matter vanishes into mystery.

According to physicist Brian Greene, “If the entire cosmos were scaled down to the size of earth, the part accessible to us would be much smaller than a grain of sand.” On the one hand, that unfathomable scale and the awesome beauty it evokes can make human beings, even the Earth, seem insignificant. On the other hand, we experience an inner universe which, according to some spiritual traditions (notably Hindu Vedanta), regards both consciousness and matter as One, constituted of pure awareness.

My fascination with immensity transfers to photography, often by pointing my camera up. If I had access to an electron microscope I would probably be photographing down as well. The above image is an example of the former. In contemplating this image, I imagine the vertical lines of the buildings as vectors that extend into the atmosphere and then space indefinitely—going, going, going… until they converge at the Big Bang. Scientists regard it as the beginning, and that may be true of our local universe, but if there’s an eternal multiverse as is being postulated, it wouldn’t have a beginning or an end. Given these perspectives, I never stop marveling at the fact that we are creatures who walk on the surface of this planet, and that overhead is unimaginable immensity, there to be observed and explored, day and night, just by looking up. To my way of thinking, it will take the integration of science and spirituality, objective investigation and subjective experience, before we can even come close to answering the perennial questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How does the universe work? And what does it mean?

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. 

Antoine de Saint Exupéry

About This Image

Title: Above & Below

Theme: Immensity

File # DC3780

One of my long-term creative challenges has been to make photographs that evoke the sensibility of immensity, of space and the many forces that pervade it. The sky has therefore become a regular subject for me. I often compose landscapes so the elements under the sky are tiny or small, secondary.

Because my work is largely oriented toward introspection and expression, the skies in my photographs are almost never about the sky or clouds or airplane trails. Although these can be present and are what others would say they see, my eye goes beyond them—to deep space as if the photograph was three-dimensional. The contemplative approach to photography is very personal for those who pursue it. While the above image is evocative for me, for someone else it’s just an ordinary photo of buildings. That’s why, when an artist makes images for personal rather than professional reasons, descriptions of purpose, approach and objectives can help others understand what her work about, perhaps even see what she sees.

I used to tell my students, the world doesn’t need another photograph—of anything. What it does need are individuals who, by engaging in a creative process, exercise and develop higher capacities such as love, caring, compassion, empathy, appreciation and meaning to name a few. Artistic expressions of these lift us up. And by association, the world.


  1. Geene, Brian. (2005). The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. New York, NY: Vintage Press.

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




Corn Field


When I photographed these orderly rows of young corn extending to the horizon, I was thinking about the farmer and his work, evidenced by the tractor tracks and the amount of time, money and energy it took to plant this enormous field. Reflecting on the image now, I appreciate the contribution of all growers and marvel at the process of cultivation, from conceptualization and planning to planting and harvesting. Having had no experience with farming, I hadn’t given much thought to cultivation. But now, reflecting on this image, I realize that it’s basically a process of deciding what is wanted, planting seeds and following through to realization.

Tracing this field back, I imagine that the farmer’s decision to plant a certain kind and amount of corn was motivated by a variety of factors among them family, economics, climate, soil conditions, insects, impact on the local community and politics. Even at this early stage, the field in this image provides evidence of the choices he made, including his thinking, caring and persistent hard work. And doesn’t that hold true for individuals, families, communities, schools, businesses, corporations, states and nations as well? A close examination of these social and corporate entities—their fields—provides evidence of their collective consciousness, including their view of the world, values, choices and actions. That which is manifest is a reflection of those who create.

So what am I planting? What am I cultivating? What are we causing to grow at work and in society? Especially I ask this of the “fields” that are most formative in our children’s lives—education, movies, television, advertising and the internet. And in the fields of energy, environment, health and health care, food production and national security? As individuals and as a nation, what are the values, behaviors, manners and speech customs that we are planting in all fields. It’s an important question, for “as we sow, so shall we reap.” The consequences of our current thinking and choosing today, show up tomorrow. The fields of our lives, where we live and work and come together to collaborate, provide the context and opportunity to plant new, more hearty, robust and nutritious ideas for ourselves and our children. And what about the quality of what we’re planting? Does it contribute to growth? By taking it in, will we be stronger and more resiliant against diseases of the social/global mind, heart or body? Personally, is the field that I tend and the labor I put into it, giving me joy? Just as a good cook becomes so by cooking with love, so we can become good stewards of the earth by sowing with love—and loving intention.

I like the analogy of soil cultivation and what we’re sowing in our families, occupations and society, not only because it encourages reflection and assessment of the present, but because it also provides the opportunity to start over and plant the seeds we truly value.


By their works they shall be known.

Matthew 7:15-20

About This Image

Title: Corn Field

Theme: Cultivation

File #: DC4934

Blunt, South Dakota

A few years back spent a week making a grand loop through South Dakota and Nebraska, the Northern Plains. One of the surprising delights of photographing in this area, aside from the grandeur of wide open spaces and dramatic skies, was the sparsity of telephone poles, fences and traffic. Another is photographing on the county roads where I would not see another car or person sometimes for half an hour or more.

Regarding this particular image, I was driving down the road looking as usual for the intersections of light, geometry and simplicity when I came upon this vista. I pulled over and walked about ten feet into the field. I took a wide shot, medium and closeup. It was as simple as it gets.

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

Of Seeds And Roots

Celestial Roots

Often in my contemplations there are both practical and ephemeral considerations. On the practical side, this image represents a critical lesson that, in my professional life, took me years and many trials to learn. It’s a lesson of strategy when trying to create a social entity such as a business or non-profit organization. Simply put the lesson is this: birth begins with a seed. Bottom up. I tried and was disappointed twice because my time, energy and money were invested in top down strategies, that is, developing business plans and initiatives to raise the money needed to purchase unique and highly desirable “trees,” (television entities) rather than grow them from seeds.

In each instance the vision was so clear, beautiful and sound from a business perspective, I and my colleagues assumed it would be an easy sell. On paper it looked great. But no matter how grand the vision, no matter how well it’s thought out, researched and presented, if there isn’t an established track record of financial success, investors are reluctant to take the risk. They want potential that has been demonstrated to some extent, not a vision.

Growing from a seed is a hard lesson to learn, particularly when the envisioned outcome is so obviously desirable. Those who can see it want it to become real as soon as possible. Were I to start again, my strategic model would be the oak tree. Find an acorn—a seed idea taken from an initiative that has enjoyed sustained succeeds—modify its purpose and design (DNA) appropriate to the vision, plant the seed in the real world by creating a start-up operation that’s as small as possible so the life force can emerge, nurture it according to its growth needs, cut out the weeds (naysayers) and let it grow. In business terms, establish cash flow.

Another aspect that I think is critical when growing a collaborative enterprise that’s unique: nurture, empower and engage the designer or visionary. The Apple “tree” that Steven Jobs envisioned, birthed and continuously refreshed has largely been successful because at the end of the day, his colleagues honored the vision and his commitment to it such that they kept him in the top leadership position. It was a rocky road, but what a tree they built together.

On the more ephemeral side, this image points me to the unification of the three worlds  (celestial, terrestrial and underworld) envisioned by indigenous peoples. Also, the window “roots” evoke a sense of the strength and light that are conveyed to the  tree. Or person.

All things must come to the soul from its roots, from where it is planted.

                                                                                                       St. Teresa of Avila

About This Image

Celestial Roots


Composite negative # 467

“Celestial Roots” was made from a combination of four negatives. In the original image the tree was already somewhat in silhouette. The sky was blank, so I looked through my negative file and selected an image that was mostly clouds. I didn’t want the clouds to superimpose over the tree when I double exposed the paper, so I made a 4×5 Kodalith (high contrast film) positive, and from it a negative that had no detail or texture in the tree. When I made some test prints to get the proper exposure I liked the strong silhouette of the tree, but the ground was pure black. I needed something to fill it.

I had several images of tree roots but none of them seemed appropriate, especially not in keeping with the strictly black & white high contrast effect. The stained glass window showed up in my search, but it was a full-round window. The idea of the combination was interesting because the pattern in the glass carried the sensibility of roots. So I made a Kodalith positive of the rose window and used Kodak Opaque medium on a brush to remove the top half of the window. From the positive I made a Kodalith negative.

Using two enlargers, I projected and sized the tree, window and cloud images onto a piece of  ordinary 11×14 paper and drew the outlines of each in order to get the juxtaposition right. From the drawings I made to cutouts using black paper, one to cover the tree, another to cover the window. I put a sheet of  11×14 unexposed photographic paper in the easel. Exposure one was the tree, made with the black paper covering the window. I moved the easel to the other enlarger, positioned the image of the window using the sketch, and made the second exposure with the black mask covering the tree and sky. The window negative was removed from the enlarger and replaced with the sky negative—which was aligned according to the sketch and the exposure made. This process was repeated several times until the exposures and alignments were what I wanted.

I had a satisfactory print, but the clouds looked ominous. I wanted them to have more light. So I  selected a negative that had both sun and clouds. The name, Celestial Roots, came while I was working on it. The image was made into a metal plaque and given as the highest award by a non-profit peace organization at their annual conference. My daughter and her husband used it as the theme for their wedding.

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

System’s Confidence And Trust

Guard Rail


How about a little snow in order to better appreciate the summer temperatures? Obviously, guard rails are intended to keep cars from running off the road—and to reduce the severity of an accident when they do. Not so obvious is the observation that their presence indicates a lack of trust. Appropriately so. Bad accidents, even death, may have occurred had we trusted—ourselves and “the other guy.” This image reminds me that, because human beings cannot be trusted, safeguards are necessary, increasingly so in proportion to the level of distrust, which in highly mobile societies increases with population density and social complexity. Without safeguards the odds of breakdown increase as more people are on the road with more distractions.

At the same time, the presence of guard rails on roadsides generates trust. These metal barriers actually have served their purpose. Systemically speaking, they are “syntropic.” They reduce the effects of entropy, which is the tendency of systems to dissipate heat. In other words, break down. In the case of a highway system, entropy amounts to the dis-integration of roadway integrity. If entropy goes unchecked by safeguards such as improvements in the areas of car design, road maintenance, guards and signage, more and more severe accidents will occur. The many innovations, requirements and regulations surrounding car and passenger safety are prime examples of how syntropy reduces the frequency and severity of mayhem and catastrophe.

I reflect on the human body, mind and spirit, which are equally susceptible to the forces of entropy—from tooth decay to depression. At base, advertisers are in the business of selling syntropy: products and services that help prevent, retard, manage or eliminate the effects of entropy. (In living systems, 100% entropy equates with death. Maximum equilibrium). So to gain more confidence in the components of our personal and social lives, ultimately to increase their  health and well-being, regulation is essential. A social example is the national economy. It’s heavily regulated, not so the few can disadvantage the many, but to insure stability and increase public confidence, which directly influences the nation’s health and well-being—and the economy.

The word “regulation” in some spheres—mine was the broadcast television industry—has been seen as a threat to individual liberty. “Don’t tell me how to run my business.” Whether the social unit is a family, church congregation, community, business, corporation, nation or the global family, without regulation entropy will inexorably result in more and more severe breakdowns. Systemically speaking, zero regulation equates with no growth and maximum entropy. Such an entity would completely dis-integrate if nothing were done to reign in the propensity to act solely in its own self interest and preservation. Socially, the free flow of entropic disintegration is enhanced when the members of a system act primarily in their own interest (in some instances justifying it as a “right”), as if their health and well-being are independent of the other members of the system. It’s not. Never was, never will be because human beings are socially bound, interconnected and interdependent physically, emotionally and  economically. Independence is both an illusion and an entropic idea.

At the same time, I tend to see systemic breakdowns, in part, as the impetus for breakthroughs. Futurist and author, Barbara Marx Hubbard, observes that “Crisis precedes transformation.” Crises are symptoms of breakdown, signaling that entropy is already having its way. Dramatic change is coming, unless something is done to repair, replace or transform the system. Currently, the rapidly declining state of our infrastructure is a poignent example. And sometimes we need to experience what doesn’t work in order to rethink and redesign the system so it does work—like a  highway system with guardrails, seat belts and back-up cameras. Learning through breakdowns eventually contributes to breakthroughs, even resilience as a consequence of learning.

Trouble is, getting to that point can take a lot of breakdown over a long time. The ideal would be to recognize the patterns as breakdowns increase so the system can affect a shift to a more viable paradigm or behavior before the system reaches the point of crisis. As we have seen politically in the past decade, the rigid clinging to ideas and ideologies including stubbornness at all levels and on both sides does nothing to retard the escalating breakdowns while debate continues.


If ten people walk beyond civilization and build a new sort of life for themselves, then those ten people are already living in the next paradigm, from the first day.

             Daniel Quinn

About The Image

Guard Rail

Theme: Confidence & Trust

File #: DC5711

Snowstorms often call me out with a camera. On this occasion I did an overnight because the heavier snowfall was about forty miles north of us. I was just cruising the highway, looking for something to photograph when I came to a stoplight at an intersection. While waiting I noticed how the guardrail divided the bright sky and white snow with a nice clean line.

Since one of my constant visual quests is to find or create simplicity, the fewest number of visual elements within a frame, I backed up the car, put it in “park” with the emergency lights blinking, got the camera and ran about thirty yards hoping the police would not come.

They didn’t. I hand-held several shots, each with the guardrail at a different position in the frame. This is the one I like best because there’s just a hint of snow and the immensity of the sky diminishes the man-made object. With no other objects in the frame, the rail provides some evidence of where we are as a society. Metaphorically and physically.

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








Energies And Expansion

Early Morning Pond

Drop a pebble in a pool of water and waves ripple out. Drop a word and thoughts ripple out. So too with emotions, behaviors and all the products of creativity. At some level, given enough time, everything affects everything. And because we’re interconnected—everyone.

I thought I would provide the entire image that I use for my home page this time because it illustrates a fundamental property and process of the universe and everything in it. Energy and expansion. From photon to cosmos, whatever the matter or medium, sub-atomic or cosmic, energy characteristically radiates out in waves. It’s not the water in this image, or any substance, that’s radiating. It’s the energy moving through it. Had a cork been floating three feet from the center of these waves, it would have bobbed up and down but remained in place.

Although physicists don’t know what energy is, they know a lot about its properties, effects and how to measure it. The textbook definition of energy is the capacity of a system to perform work. And work is defined as the movement of a force through a distance. That being the case, it seems to me that force is movement itself. Nothing in the physical universe stands still. Even the atom with its myriad of sub-atomic particles (more appropriately considered fields although they are still discussed as particles) cannot sit still.

And that begs a fundamental question. If the substantive characteristic of energy is movement, how did it get started? And what sustains it? What causes the motion? As a working hypothesis I’ve adopted the notion that consciousness is fundamental to the universe. Whatever it is, it precedes matter. So could it be that within matter there is—both grand and rudimentary (as in rocks)—a “desire” to expand? To express? To manifest? I like this idea because it ties to affinity or love energy, which seeks expression and therefore expansion, a view consistent with my belief that the universe is fueled by this “dark energy,” with dark matter as field from which physical matter precipitates, providing the medium through which consciousness and love energy expands.

Of course these ideas raise questions that cannot be answered definitively, but the expansion of this kind of thinking itself, call it dreaming, speculating or envisioning helps us create meaning and approach the Great Mystery. Where there’s a question there’s always the potential for an answer. And that provides some satisfaction. In this regard I observe that the surface of the pond in this image is largely obscured by fog that is clearing somewhat. As a species we may as yet be seeing through a fog, but what has been revealed so far is exquisite beyond words.

On a more personal level, the radiating waves evoke in me a quiet and soft sensibility that speaks to the potency of influence that occurs when the thoughts and expressions that ripple out are coherent with the deep currents of life, as opposed to the big splashes that are so bold and dramatic they interfere with or distract us from the energies of contemplation and peace. An example of this would be the energies of mass media adolescence, sensationalism, hype and trash-talk. Of course there’s a time and place for both excitement and calm. Wisdom,  I suppose, has to do with discernment and finding a balance.

Any being with energy will disperse that energy. To radiate is the law of the universe. And this is true of all manifested reality… The universe cannot contain the magnificence it houses. Instead, it is compelled to express itself in ten million different ways.

Brian Swimme

 About This Image


Theme: Expansion

File #: DC 376

Lake Logan. Logan, Ohio.

I like to take two or three overnight photographic road trips each year, most of them within a four-hour drive from Cincinnati. On this particular trip I got up two hours before sunrise so I could be on location to photograph the dawning and then shoot as long as the light held.

When there are no people around and the only sounds are those of nature—birds, frogs and ducks on this particular morning—it’s easy to get in the zone. It’s like the mind steps aside and the soul takes over, responding to moments of joy as the eye scans for compositions. There’s a release of thinking and an activation of allowing that occurs—letting the energies of attraction, love actually, direct my attention, and then letting the deep place of intuition determine whether or not the elements within the frame constitute an image that works.

When I arrived at the lake the fog was too thick to shoot. It was cold so I just sat in the car with the heater on. Gradually, the fog began to lift and the water was perfectly still. I made several exposures, then I picked up some pebbles and threw them one at a time as far as I could so the rocks and reeds along the shoreline wouldn’t show in the frame. With each toss I waited for the ripples to spread out before clicking the shutter. A tripod would have restricted my ability to center the circles since I couldn’t predict where the centers would be, so I held the camera with one hand and threw pebbles with the other. To insure that the image would not be blurred I increased the ISO setting to enable a fast shutter speed and set the aperture to f11 so the depth of field would keep the expanding circle in focus.

© 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.

Context And Order



I was thinking about the complexity represented in this image when I noticed that it’s also rich in context, providing both time and space perspectives. The nighttime and elevated point of view displays pattern, while the time-exposure reveals motion. Combined, the image speaks to me of complexity, interaction, order, flow and intersection. My contemplation could have gone in any of these directions—and perhaps will another time—but for now I’m drawn to considerations of context and order.

Information theorists consider “data” to be the objective and meaningless elements presented to mind: the letters that form these words, pixels on a computer screen, notes on a music score, tonalities of light and dark in a photograph. One of my favorite quotes regarding a step up from data comes from visual anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, who observed that “Information is a difference that makes a difference.” Alone, locked between pages or in a file, a gathering of words, pixels, notes or tonalities is meaningless data. But when a mind examines that data and finds that it makes or would make a difference, it becomes “information.”

For example, the above image is loaded with information for me. A traffic engineer would derive more and different information, as would a police officer or legislator. Each would notice things the others don’t see. And that takes us to context, considerations of time, place and perspective including the recording individual’s motivation, purpose and intent. Frames (context) such as location and time enable the formation of personal meaning, which becomes the springboard for judgement and decision making. Frames themselves—all frames—communicate. The one doing the framing or providing context says, “Focus on this, not that. Pay attention to what’s being framed. There’s significance here. You may find it meaningful as well.”

As part of our quest for meaning, we’ll sometimes place our everyday, ordinary perceptions of people, places, experiences and objects in larger frames. Broader contexts enhance meaning by providing more information potential. We’re standing on the curb waiting for the light to change, shifting our gaze from a car to a child and then to an ad on the side of a truck. And suddenly, for no apparent reason, our field of view goes from close-up to wide angle, like our consciousness has changed lenses. Awareness expands. And instead of thinking about the ad or the next appointment, we’re watching the unfolding life of the city, a sense of humanity as a whole rather than a collection of busy individuals. Context, framing does that. It happens with any dramatic shift in perspective. It’s how filmmakers manipulate attention. “Look here! Now there!” Wide to extreme closeup.

For some, the above image might provide insight or trigger a memory of a particular time or place. The photograph documents. It stores data so information can be had and meaning created. For others, it might express the orderly flow of traffic in a busy city. Still others might zoom in to the signs and lines on the sidewalk, the traffic lights, benches, newspaper boxes and streetlights, which could lead to an awareness of city highways, infrastructure and the individuals responsible for them. Point of view (POV) applies to the viewer as well as the photographer, particularly when the intent it to make images that are evocative.

For me, the linearity, coherence and convergence of the lights in this image evokes the flow of unique individuals, each with their unique perceptions, concerns, experiences, ideas, potentials, desires and pursuits—and in the blending lines, their convergence. Within this frame—a hotel window around the corner from Lincoln Center in New York City—I see the myriad of diverse backgrounds and thoughts ordered and blending, a demonstration that beneath the dynamic complexity and chaos of a city, there are organizing principles at work, guiding our actions and the ascent of life. The human project.

At the heart of the most random or chaotic event lies order, pattern, and causality, if only we can learn to see it in large enough context.

                                                                                                       Corinne McLaughlin


About This Image

New York Intersection

Theme: Context & Order

Negative: 585-C4

Lincoln Center, New York, NY

July, 1981

I was in New York City for a conference and by chance my room overlooked the intersection in front of Lincoln Center. I didn’t have a tripod with me, so I soaked a towel with water to make it heavy (and wrung it out so it wouldn’t drip) and used it as a camera support. I opened the window slightly and, with the camera strap around my neck—to prevent it from falling out the window—I pressed the camera into the towel to secure it as if it were a bean-bag.

I stopped the aperture down to around f16 to reduce flare from the brightest lights and I guessed at the duration. It was probably in the area of twenty or thirty seconds, however long it took for the lights to change so the traffic would be moving in all directions.

The next time you’re out with your camera, consider a point of view that’s broader—or closer— than “normal.” Pay attention to the visual elements. Know your objective: Information? Documentation? Evocation? Expression? And then eliminate from the frame anything that doesn’t contribute to it.