Friday, March 22, 2013

Un-Still Photography and Refocusing the Photographer

My husband is a painter, and recently his mentor gave the following assignment to their group:  If I asked you to break one rule you have for yourself regarding watercolor painting, what would it be? It might be a rule from traditional approaches and techniques or one you've set for yourself...
I thought this was a brilliant assignment! Too many times rules (technical, aesthetic, etc.) keep us from discovery.

But it's not that simple. Like driving, I learned social customs late.  Stick close to the rules and no one will realize you've lived way (way) outside them for much of your life. And conformity has its uses and even benefits. At a four-way stop, we agree that the first person there gets to proceed first (though we are foolish if we don't check to make sure we're all on the same page about that). In my old world, there were no four-way stops, no roads of any kind. Every step was like a pebble tossed in a lake, rippling the surface in all directions, in no direction.  So I learned to like roads, stopsigns, and rules. However, rules can become walls just as the lack of them can become chaos. And I became a person on a ledge, hugging the walls for safety from the abyss. But between the wall and the abyss is something else. A universe.

I love Dale Chihuly. I love his work, but, even more, I love his freedom. Watch any video, watch every video of him and you'll see it. If anyone makes art look like fun and fun look like life beyond (not without) rules, it's him.  From his baskets to his gardens, from his ceilings to his forests, there is a kind of confident abandon, there is pure joy.

We'd waited for a sunny day to drive down to Seattle to see "Chihuly Garden and Glass" at the Seattle Center.  Photography was allowed but tripods were not.
I had no desire to use one anyway. Why would I take pictures of these beautiful pieces when excellent reproductions are available in just about every format? Granted, I have taken pictures of plants purely for botanical reproductions. They need to be accurate. They need to show the plants in all their forms. Leaves must show up clearly and buds and fruit as well as flowers need to be recorded. But I don't do much of this anymore. 

"Glass Forest" as still as I could hold it
So there I was, enjoying the exhibits. I had my camera, but not enough light for well-focused, hand-held shooting. So I started moving the camera in ways that reflected what I was getting from the pieces:  sweeping it, jiggling, even jumping it.  Keeping the camera absolutely still is a cardinal rule, particularly for botanical photography. Tripods, mirror lock-up, and cable releases are de rigueur.
So moving the camera around while pressing the shutter felt pretty freeing!  I did get some odd looks. Did I KNOW I wasn't holding still? Did I REALISE moving around was a bad thing with a "still camera"? Yup.  Not having to brace myself, hold my breath and gently squeeze the shutter was enough to make a person giddy. And giddy is exactly what a lot of Chihuly's work makes me feel.

Breaking the rules. I've got a "still" camera. Which means I shoot stills as opposed to moving pictures. But does that necessarily mean I have to be still?  Light "rules" in photography. You change your settings (if you can't change the lighting), or you can change your expectations. 

I found that shots that were just a little out of focus hurt my eyes. I guess the eye muscles were trying hard to get the image into focus or at least to hold still. But once an image was clearly (pun certainly intended) taken while moving, then my eyes accepted the result and relaxed.  And once they relaxed, they could register the view from the merry-go-round that had, a moment before, been a slightly soft-focused chandelier. 

Inside the "Glasshouse," light improved and so did my shutter speed.  The umbrella-like forms seem to follow the people as they walk through on their way to the gardens.  Gorgeous and expected.

 But then I changed my angle and looked up.  And the umbrellas had changed to an abstraction of swirling butterflies, garlanding the Space Needle.  I tried in Lightroom to get the lines "right" and correct the distortions.  Then realized the image was my experience.  The photograph expressed the ride I was on between the wall and space.


Friday, March 8, 2013

The Quirks of a Winter's Day

It's dark. 10:23 in the morning, and it's dark. Well, grey. And raining.  Evergreens green
in the backyard forest. And last-year's stalks and stems brown in the beds.  Yes, one resorts to verbing (converting nouns and adjectives into verbs) when so little activity can be observed in the garden.

  It's March, it's still winter. So why oh why are there primroses?

The first time I ever saw primroses, they were displayed outside a big box "garden center" (hardly a center and certainly not a garden, but that's for another time).  I thought they were fake. Even after squeezing the leaves and rubbing the petals between my fingers, I still wasn't certain they weren't another Monsanto product. And even after finding out FOR SURE that they were nature rather than HomeDepot made, I didn't feel the need to add them to my garden. However, this time, in this much grey (and green and brown) I just couldn't resist this blue striped wonder.   

 And then, once I picked it up and carried it around with me, it seemed I'd crossed some horticultural border and gone over to the other side. I photographed it (and its orange and red sisters purchased in some sort of colorized fever), but couldn't get the shots right. 

Perhaps something about them must have made me wince just as I squeezed the shutter.  The depth-of-field, the focus was never what I wanted.

 Maybe my eyes aren't yet ready for full-on summer color?

So what's actually growing and blooming right this minute in my garden?  Hellebores, for a start.  Yes, I know that these two colors (the primroses to the left and the Hellebore below)  clash horribly, but I'm making a point here.  Maybe my winterized eyes need to be eased into the very idea of color.  

And, what is more, many of these flowers with the muted hues of February and March face downwards.

Seems odd at first.  Shouldn't flowers open up for our eyes?  Isn't that why we plant flowers (rather than "plants")?  Some growers are even breeding Hellebores that face out and/or up to satisfy frustrated gardeners who have to contort themselves to see their flowers' "faces."  At least Beverley Nichols had a more reasonable solution. At a recent talk by Marianne Binetti, I learned that he walked about his garden with a mirror attached to a comfortable length of pipe. So if one must see inside a downward-facing flower, one could do so without disturbing the flower or oneself.  But what's wrong with mirrorlessly admiring what they do show?  

Bell-shaped flowers like the Pieris below would lose the beauty of their form and the color supplied by their peduncles and sepals if they hung any other way.  And apparently the double-flowered Hellebores on the left still resist attempts to genetically flip them upwards.  At their current angle, the multiple petals (sepals, actually) seem to float and flutter even on the (rare) windless day.  Fine by me.  

I haven't planted the store-bought primroses yet. Can't quite bring myself to do it in the grey light. Maybe during one of our sun-breaks, they will seem less inappropriate, and I'll get them in the ground before they entirely stop blooming.  Until them, I'll enjoy my downward-facing Snowdrops.