Google+ Badge

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Chickadee Post

Mom (or Dad) arrives with breakfast



From the title you might reasonably assume that this is a blog post about chickadees. And you would be right. At least in part. This tale does indeed involve lovable chickadees. However, the 'post' referenced in the title isn't a blog entry, it is an actual 4"x4" wooden post that anchors one corner of our deck. 

So why does this 'post' share the limelight with nature's little avian harlequins? Let me tell you, Better yet, let me show you.


One day while watching TV I noted a couple of chickadees flitting back and forth between a wooden post at the far corner of our deck and branches in neighboring trees and bushes. Eventually one landed on the top of the post and then suddenly disappeared - apparently down into the post! Upon subsequent inspection I discovered that the center of the post had rotted out, creating a cavity roughly 2 inches by 1 inch wide extending deep into the post. Curious, I watched the activity at the post for the next couple of weeks witnessing the chickadees' repeated disappearance down into the post followed by their re-emergence moments later. I was eventually convinced they were nesting in the post cavity.  However, even with the aid of a light I was unable to see to the bottom of the cavity (which I estimate to be at least 12 inches deep) so could not confirm the existence of nest, eggs or chicks. Confirmation of my suspicion about nesting would have to await stronger behavioral evidence of nesting so I continued to observe the behavior of this pair to harlequins. Lo and behold, one day one of the little birds arrived with a beak full of caterpillar larvae, as in the picture at the top of this post! Momentarily it disappeared down through the hole, popping up to the surface with an empty beak moments later. How they manage to turn around in that narrow shaft just blows my mind! Since then this routine has been repeated - steadily, frenetically -  with both partners taking turns popping in and out of their post home to attend to another generation of diminutive harlequins.


The following pictures document one such in-and-out cycle. The final shot in the sequence leaves much to be desired from an image quality point of view but I decided to included it since it completes the cycle and imparts a sense of the energy the adults expend in the process. Apologies to my bird photography colleagues who no doubt throw up a little in their mouth when they look at that shot.


Now I am anxiously awaiting the emergence of the fledglings from 'the chickadee post'.



Getting ready for the disappearing act.

Head first.

Squeeze!

Is the coast clear?

First one leg then the other.

Off to gather the next course.




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Perfection is the enemy.....

'Waiting in the Wings'  Olympus OM-D EM-1,;Lumix G Vario 35-100mm at 100mm
(200mm full-frame equivalent); f/2.8; 1/200 sec; ISO 3200.

"Perfection is the enemy of the good."

According to my photographic 'education' and instincts, acceptance of this old Italian sentiment when it comes to photography is near blasphemy.  Photographs, particularly 'good' photographs should be technically perfect - or nearly so - according to the dogmas that have guided my photography to this point.  

Strict adherence to the letter of the law would have precluded my posting the image I've included in this post - "Waiting in the Wings." The same masters of the genre who advocate technical near-perfection also extol photographers to capture images that tell a great story, that pull the viewer in emotionally as well as visually.  Well, what happens when these two ideals end up at odds with each other? That is the situation I found myself in when taking this shot.

I was photographing my grand daughter's dance recital this past weekend.  While standing on the far right hand side of the stage as a group of dancers were performing I saw this solitary young dancer standing just behind the curtains on the opposite side of the stage watching with anticipation.  To me this was a visual story worth capturing - one that I knew would be fleeting.  My first 'educated' reaction was to think of all the technical problems that would plague the shot under the circumstances, reasoning that argued against raising the camera.  The lighting was terrible, I was shooting at a very high ISO (3200), my aperture was wide open (f/2.8), I was using a 200mm (full-frame equivalent) zoom lens at its maximum reach (for the interested non-photographer and the photographer interested in brevity, suffice it to say that these settings all adversely impact image quality).

The left side of my brain argued the logical case for foregoing the shot while my artistic right side articulated the 'compelling story' argument for doing so.  Recognizing these moments of indecision might jeopardize capturing 'the moment', over-riding the control my left brain ordinarily exerts over my right shutter finger my right brain quickly directed the muscles controlling my right index finger to press down firmly on the shutter button.  

I was shooting at 5 frames per second and got three shots before the tiny dancer walked out of sight. Whew!

I will be the first to acknowledge that the shot is far from perfect; in fact it has some real flaws from a technical standpoint (soft, noisy).  On the other hand, the resulting image matched my 'warm story' vision even better than my right brain had originally rationalized. 

Although I always aspire to technical proficiency if not perfection, I have created very few if any technically perfect images. Even my very best are flawed.  On the other hand I have seldom captured an image that tells a story as well as I think this one does.  The masters recognize the primacy of 'story' over technical perfection in the creation of excellent photographs.  They constantly remind us that technically sound images devoid of a compelling story are little more than boring, technically sound pictures. Therefore, in the formulation of a successful image it seems that 'story' might compensate for some technical difficulties in the creation of a good (but perhaps not great) images provided the flaws are not extreme. 

This shot was my experiment with this logic.  I think that the image tells a great story and that the flaws are reasonably well controlled in the final processing.  It is a good image.  In aggregate the technical and story components contribute to a final image I am happy I envisaged and even happier I took the chance on capturing.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Abstract Inspiration


Today I offer a glimpse at the life and work of the great American Abstract Expressionist, Aaron Siskind (1903 – 1991), a photographer who has had a big influence on my approach to creative photography.  Andy Grundburg of the New York Times characterized Siskind as “one of the most idiosyncratic and under appreciated figures in 20th century photography” (NY Times, Sept. 8, 1989). Anyone worthy of such a designation is someone I should know a little something about.

My introduction to Siskind came about when I read a post by John Paul Caponigro entitled Literally Abstract - Aaron Siskind .  John Paul commented that Siskind “emphasized that what he made was not a representation of something else, but “the thing itself”.” This really piqued my interest since I’ve been wrestling with a personal artistic dilemma.  Specifically, how can I claim to have created artistic works when I photograph objects which themselves are often the creative works of others (architecture or sculpture for example)? Caponigro went on to state “Sometimes a photograph looks nothing like the thing photographed. To photograph is to transform. A photograph is never the thing it represents and never just a photograph.” Armed with these words of encouragement and the work of Siskind identified as perfect example of this principle, I embarked on my journey of discovery, hoping to gain insights into my own work.  So what did I learn?


Siskind began shooting in a very representational – almost documentary style, artfully - but faithfully - capturing the identity of the objects before the lens.  Shooting in New York in the 1930s as a member of the New York Photo League – a group committed to depicting social aspects of the urban experience - he created his now famous collection of photographs of life in Harlem.  Although very “documentary” in style, the fascination with light and shadow, form and line obvious in this early work is a foreshadowing of the hallmarks of his later abstract work.

Siskind was close friends with prominent abstract expressionist painters such as Franz Kline (in honor of whom he later created a tremendous photograph homage series) and Willem de Kooning, and like them was influenced by the non-representational paintings of Wassily Kandinsky.  At this point in his career Siskind’s photography started to show signs of transformation from description to abstraction; from documentary to subjective creativity. It was in this transformation and Siskind’s perspective on his work that I found an answer to my own creative dilemma.  He said it all. “When I make a photograph, I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order.”

Siskind’s work is characterized by very tight, very flat compositions.  His images commonly incorporate letters, bits of signs or posters, graffiti and other calligraphy-like forms.  They are masterpieces of texture, line and visual rhythms; lights and darks; shapes and the shapeless. "Mr. Siskind's discernment of the poetic in the casual and passed-by aspects of every day reality are rich in their eloquence of line and shape and take their place with the serious expression of the modern American artists."

Although considered an abstract expressionist, Siskind’s work frequently contradicted the abstract principle of ambiguity by providing hints of recognizable objects in his compositions. But rather than decreasing intrigue I think his inclusion of a hint of context added additional dimensions of interest in his works.  Viewers wonder not just “What is it?” but “What was it?”, “What did it say?, What became of it?”  As he tells it, We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect... but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.”

So what does all of this have to do with me and my approach to photography?
Well, for one thing, like Siskind I share a similar fascination with tones, shapes, lines, textures and the relationships among them.  I also like to employ elements of abstract principles in my work.  Clearly my creative abilities in these regard are orders of magnitude inferior to the likes of a Siskind.  However, his work inspires me and provides insights to help me move in the general direction of his creative genius. 

But more important than similarity in style, Siskind’s perspective on photography offered me a firm foothold in my uphill struggle to understand how I might express unique creativity through the lens regardless of what is in front of it.  Two of his quotes summarize it best for me:

“Move on objects with your eye straight on, to the left, around on the right. Watch them grow large as they approach, group and regroup as you shift your position. Relationships gradually emerge and sometimes assert themselves with finality. And that's your picture.” (emphasis added)

“As the language or vocabulary of photography has been extended, the emphasis of meaning has shifted, shifted from what the world looks like to what we feel about the world and what we want the world to mean.”

Now that I have spent time with his photography and read some of his perspectives, Siskind will forever remain a major influence on my own creative efforts.

Thank you Aaron Siskind.



Check out these resources for additional information about Siskind and to view some of his photographs:




I’ve included a couple of my own images that I think are similar in style and intent to Siskind’s iconic work.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Photographer Jekyll and Fisherman Hyde


Like most avid trout fishermen, I like to boast about successful days in the field all the while being exceedingly evasive about the specific location of successful outings.  As a photographer I like to share images of successful days afield but have no misgivings about sharing location info.  

These schizophrenic attitudes towards location sharing create a real conundrum for me whenever I plan a post describing an outing that my Photographer Jekyll and my Fisherman Hyde go on together.  This post is a case in point.  

I had a terrific day photographing the beautiful bluffs bordering the trout stream I was fishing. The iconic bluffs are awe-inspiring and ever a source or wonder for me, revealing the geologic history of Wisconsin in their linear sandstone strata. Experiencing bluffs in tourist settings is impressive, but for me experiencing them in the Wisconsin wild is something akin to viewing animals on safari as opposed to in a zoo. So I decided to include some shots of them in the blog.  But how do I share them so that others can enjoy them for themselves someday, without giving away the secret of my fishing spot?



Well, after wrestling with the challenge for a while I think I have arrived at a solution. Here goes.

The fishing/photography trip featured today took place in the Ocooch Mountain region of Wisconsin.  

"Ocooch Mountans?" you ask.  Yes, the Ocooch.


  
The Ocooch Mountains, first referenced in Edwin James 1823 journals describing an expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, are located in the Western Upland region of Wisconsin, an area better known as the Driftless Region. According to James "The only hills worthy of particular notice, not only in this variety but in the whole section under consideration, are the Ocooch and Smokey mountains, which are broad, elevated ridges rather than mountains. The former is situated twelve miles north of the Wisconsin one hundred miles above its mouth."



So there you have it. The location of these beautiful bluffs in their native environment. Not exactly GPS coordinates, but pretty darn generous by Fisherman Hyde standards.  

The last pic today is included as justification for Fisherman Hyde's obfuscation. In addition to beautiful bluffs - 'Thar's gold in them thar hills!'


This beautiful brown trout was lovingly returned to the water immediately after
this shot.  We'll do battle again I'm sure.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

From the Ashes

Confidently entering the House of Representatives he seated himself in the Speaker’s chair.  Upon his commanding signal the assemblage immediately came to order.

“Gentleman,” he shouted, “the question is, Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?”

“All in favor of burning it say Aye!’ he declared.

He was temporarily deafened by the boisterous affirmative response.

As he expected, his second declaration “Those opposed will say Nay.”, was met with stone-cold silence.

“Light up!” he exclaimed, satisfied that this mockery of democracy he built into the execution of his order would only add insult to the damage he and his colleagues were intent on inflicting on the Republic.

No, this is not a transcript of the One Hundred and Fifteenth Congress and the speaker referenced is not the current Speaker of the House, no matter how tempting that deduction might be in light of the scenario’s similarity to today’s political predicament. 

The event depicted actually took place in Washington DC on August 24th, 1814, during the course of the War of 1812.  The speaker was Admiral Cockburn of the British Royal Navy and the assemblage was composed of officers and soldiers of the British army. The ‘harbor of Yankee democracy’ was the Capitol of the fledgling United States of America. 

And ‘light up’ they did.  Using the books of the Library of Congress as kindling in the north wing of the Capitol they ultimately burned the Capitol to the ground along with the entirety of the Library’s modest collection.

But in a Phoenix-like resurrection that by example might offer hope for the millions concerned about the prospects for recovery from the current challenges to democracy, construction of a new Library of Congress was authorized.  Completed in early 1897, the Thomas Jefferson Library Building succeeded in serving as a grand demonstration of the resilience of the United States of America and its commitment to education, literature, arts, law and science.

Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the new building was the largest, costliest and safest library in the world.  Its classical-inspired grandeur and rich artistic appointments make it one of the most impressive public buildings in the United States. In an unapologetic expression of the scope and capabilities of American art, commissions were given to nearly fifty American sculptors and painters to decorate the interior of the building. It is these great works and their common theme of honoring the arts, literature and science that give the Library its unique character and impressive visual appeal.

According to Herbert Small's 1897 publication 'The Handbook of the New Library of Congress':
'...as general interest is concerned it is the magnificent series of mural and sculptural decorations with which the architecture is enriched that has contributed most to give the Library its notable position among American public buildings. Although a similarly comprehensive scheme of decorations was carried out at the World's Fair in Chicago... the government itself had never before called upon a representative number of American painters and sculptors to help decorate, broadly and thoroughly, one of its great public monuments.'
Despite the fact that the splendid architecture and ornate interior rival better known structures in the Old World, only a small percentage of visitors to Washington DC take the opportunity to explore it.  This final entry in my Project 66 series features a small sampling of the Library’s beautifully ornate interior captured during a recent visit to the Capital. The images are paired with descriptive passages abridged from Small's 1897 ‘Handbook of the New Library of Congress'.  The passages describe the significance of elements featured in the paired images.

Shooting the interior of the Library with a handheld camera while trying to avoid inclusion of the throngs of visitors in the main atrium and galleries presented a bit of a challenge.  The images are woefully inadequate surrogates for the real thing.  Nevertheless, I hope they inspire readers to make a journey to view the exquisite Library of Congress for themselves.

Do it before the current occupants of Washington DC decide its time to "Light up!" again, even if only metaphorically.


'The ceiling proper rests upon a white stylobate supported on the cove. It is divided
by heavy beams, elaborately paneled, and ornamental with a profusion of gilding, and
contains six large skylights, the design of which is a scale pattern, chiefly in blues and
yellows, recalling the arrangement in the marble flooring beneath.... perhaps as fine an
example of gold ornamentation on a large scale as can be found in the country. It is
impressively rich and elegant without in the least overstepping the line of modesty
and good taste.'
'Beneath the second-story cartouches on the east and west sides of the hall are
tablets inscribed in gilt letters with the names of the following authors: Longfellow
Tennyson, Gibbon, Cooper, Scott, Hugo, Cervantes. A single moulding in the marble
cornice above is touched with gold, as an introduction to the rich coloring and the
profuse use of gilding in the covered ceiling which it supports.'


'The North, South and East Corridors on the first floor of the Entrance Hall are
paneled in Italian marble to a height of eleven feet, and have floors of white, blue
and brown marble, and beautiful vaulted ceilings of marble mosaics..... In all three
corridors tablets bearing the names of distinguished men are introduced as part of
the ornament.'
'Upon the newel post which terminates the railing of each staircase is placed
a bronze female figure upholding a torch for electric lights. The two figures
are somewhat taller than life, measuring six and a half feet, or eight feet to
the top of the torch, and ten feet including the rounded bronze base on which
they stand. Each has a laurel wreath about her head, and is clad in classic
drapery.'
'The vaulting of the broad passageway to the Reading Room consists of a series
of six small domes...The colors are light and bright, and three different patterns
employed consist mainly of garlands and ribbons, and of simple bands of color
radiating from a center medallion.... and eagles occur between the double consoles
which receive the weight of the domes upon the east wall.'

'The penetrations and pendentives are richly embellished with a great variety of
ornament, both conventional and otherwise.  The treatment differs in different
corridors, however, on account of the varying relative position of the paired columns
which support the arcade - from which results first a series of wide and then a series
of narrow pendentives.'



Wednesday, March 29, 2017

One brick short of a load


After my wildly successful treatise on Brutalism (Ha!) two high school friends encouraged me to continue my architectural forays by offering some enlightenment about that most utilitarian of building materials - the brick.  Now if I didn't know them so well, I might have assumed that this suggestion was a polite way of saying 'Who cares?' and consequently passed on the opportunity.  But as one is an engineer and the other is an architect, I knew they were genuinely interested and couldn't wait for this next installment. Little did they know that I love photographing brick constructions so my photo library is replete with images just ready to go. So, emboldened by their encouragement and having ready access to images, I offer this essay on the importance of the humble brick in architecture.


Writing a short synopsis of the history of a building material whose use spans the greater part of human history poses a real challenge, even if one were a skilled short-story expert.  For a retired Irish academic with time on his hands brevity is a damn near impossibility. So in order to make both the writing and the reading of such a synopsis more manageable I'll just acknowledge from the outset the significance bricks have played over the first 24 centuries of architectural history and focus in this post on their persistent but evolving role in the 20th and 21st centuries. Out of scope will be a narrative about the role of bricks in residential architecture, despite the significant, longstanding and defining role they have played in that venue. To that end a simple visit to Boston and New England will suffice.  Finally, narrowing the scope further, I'll key on some of the qualities of brick that make them visually appealing both architecturally and photographically.  After all, this is a photoblog.


The process of manufacturing brick imbues humble clay and earth with rich shapes, textures and colors all amenable to the brick-makers creativity. Skilled architects have used these rich features to advantage in the creation of simple and ornate designs, the possibilities limited only by the architects' imaginations and the load-bearing capacity of their brick creations. The evolution and use of steel and other structural materials and approaches in the twentieth century liberated bricks from primarily serving a weight-bearing, structural role opening up even greater opportunities for their use in decorative applications. Even the modernists found ways to incorporate bricks into the plain, smooth aesthetics for which their buildings are known.


Recently, new strategies for using bricks in the construction of modern buildings, techniques like the twisted veil, rippled skin, perforated grid and lattice layering techniques, have joined classic patchwork, archway and flat brick treatments. The nearly limitless variety of shapes, patterns, textures, geometries and color now made possible by the individual and collective properties of bricks present the photographer in me with an irresistible potpourri of photographic opportunities to capture the geometric abstracts I covet. I've shared just a few of my favorites in this post.


I realize I have marginal credibility when it comes to architectural critiques. So in closing I'll rely on the words of three architects with impeccable bona fides to authoritatively support my case - Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright.

While addressing a conference in Milwaukee Frank Lloyd Wright told the audience,
'Ladies and gentlemen do you know what a brick is? It's trivial and worth 11 cents; its common and valueless but possesses a peculiar characteristic. Give me this brick and it will be worth its weight in gold."
Citing Wright's declaration, Aalto stated that,
'That was perhaps the only time I heard in public, stated clearly and bluntly, what architecture really is.  Architecture is the transformation of a worthless brick into something worth its weight in gold."
But I think Mies van der Rohe said it most succinctly,
'Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins."
And here I'll end.

So, I may be one brick short of a load, but I know what I like.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Brutalism - An Architectural Metaphor for Today's Politics?


It was unarguably the most controversial and divisive architectural movement of the twentieth century and remains so among critics even into the twenty-first. Brutalism, characterized by monolithic structures of bold geometric forms constructed of poured concrete, brick and glass, was in part a reaction to the slick rational modernism that preceded it.  As championed by the architects Alice and Peter Smithson, Brutalist design prioritized function over form.  The relatively low cost of concrete construction was a seeming God-send to post World War II Europe seeking resurrection after the War's devastation.  Brutalist-designed public housing projects and government structures of concrete sprang up across a re-building Great Britain, Europe and Soviet Union, eventually even taking root across the Pond.

Buildings of the brutalist style can be found virtually everywhere.  Although virtually everyone has viewed them [the Humanities Building on the UW-Madison is a classic example], most don't recognize them as Brutalist on the basis of a knowledge of the defining characteristics of the style. Rather, they are made aware of them by a visceral reaction to what many consider their "brutally" ugly appearance. In fact, many incorrectly assume that the "brutalism" moniker assigned these structures derives from their aseptic, blocky, institutional look - 'one-eye-popping hunk of brush-hammered weirdness after another' (Nikal Saval, NYT, Oct 6, 2016).  The 'Brutalism' designation is actually derived from the French 'beton brut' - raw concrete - introduced by the architect Le Corbusier, one of the first to exploit the architectural potential of the material that has become the most recognizable hallmark of the Brutalist style.


Critical evaluation of the style based solely on a superficial appraisal of its outward appearance does the movement and its practitioners injustice, for there existed an important ethic in their design intent. The Brutalist architects embraced an architecture aligned with social democracy, an architecture designed to shape human interaction and social life, an architecture serving "the common good." In his seminal publication on Brutalism in 1955 architecture critic Reyner Banham asserted that Brutalism was first an ethic that only later was highjacked by external interest in aesthetics.  This was an architecture that attempted to address challenges facing society at the time and not directed at aggrandizement of the architects themselves.  Regrettably this 1950s architectural idealism was replaced by consumerist realities that emerged in the 70s and 80s and the subsequent emergence of the 'StArchitects'. Architectural politics shifted from social- to market- and ego-directed development.

Of the Brutalist architects Simon Henley (Arch Daily, 3/10/17) stated:
'Sometimes these architects' notions were naive, but there is no question that they worked with a strong sense of purpose and real conviction. Theirs was a hugely inventive architecture driven by a collective purpose, with the capacity for real humanity, however flawed, and for the picturesque and the sublime.  Today, where there is aspiration it is more often than not to serve the market, skin-deep and shortsighted, be it funded privately or by the state.  In practice, there has been a tragic loss of innocence - an innocence that for a generation served the future of society very well.'
Some flawed 'experiments' associated with Brutalist social concepts conspired with this shift away from socially-conscious motivations to lead to the literal and figurative decay of Brutalism.  Like the movement itself, many Brutalist structures have been demolished with many more clinging precariously to existence.


As an architectural photographer I enjoy photographing Brutalist buildings for the variety of abstract geometric compositions they represent. This essay was prompted by an interest in learning more about this architectural movement and its relationship with other styles as a way to guide my photography of these buildings.

But as I learned more about the movement I had a growing impression that the history of Brutalism could be viewed as a metaphor for our current political environment.  It seems to me that a genuinely socially-minded politic targeting 'the common good' in many regards is now threatened by a body politic that values benefits to the few, corporate interests and - ego.  Like the fate of Brutalism itself, I fear we face the tragic loss of 'common good' politics which, despite its flaws (and there are flaws), has 'for more than a generation served the future of society very well."


The good news is that Brutalism is enjoying a revival of interest among architectural aficionados and the public.  Activists are expending considerable effort to preserve and protect the most significant Brutalist architecture still in existence, extolling its important place in history and art.  Perhaps this speaks well for a revival of interest in the 'common good' emphasis of our federal government.  One can only hope so. For in the case of Brutalist architecture and 'common good' governance alike, waiting to act until "we don't know what we've got 'til its gone" will be too late for both.