My photographs I suppose would fall into the broad category of nature photography, but with a twist. I call it “serendipitous rambling,” and it was particularly useful during a pandemic when I was hobbled by Achilles tendonitis, especially at the outset.
Nothing systematic, nothing planned except for general locale—it’s little more than stopping to look around a small part of nature, to see what I could find. And lo and behold, what I found was both surprising and wonderful, mostly small but occasionally more expansive, at all times of day and conditions of light. So I might pull off the road to an overlook, and after looking over the larger vistas, attend more carefully to the details of the scene, the colors, forms, textures and patterns all around in infinite variety. Then I walked around a little bit, not trying an exhaustive survey or attempting a longer hike but attending to small bits here and there—and hoping serendipity would strike, which it often did, followed by enjoyment of the scenes I saw and the images I took.
Ramsey’s Draft is a wilderness area west of Staunton, which we visited August 13, not venturing far from the parking lot. I found this arresting portrait of dead leaves, and decided it looked best in black and white; somehow it reminds me of an old Dorothea Lange depression-era photo.
But there is a further feature of my rambling: satisficing (“good enough under the conditions”). I wasn’t looking for the perfect image, only the best image I could manage under the constraints of time, equipment, ability (and disability), and more subjective aspects such as desire, persistence, accommodation to a companion, and so on. So call it “serendipitous satisficing rambling”—a preposterously ponderous title for just taking some time to poke around a small patch of nature.
Here a pink Joe Pye Weed has company at Hidden Valley August 21: Ironweed, the visually-dominant purple flower in the extensive marshland. How could nature select such harmonizing colors, and create such an artful display? Sheer accident or something more?
The delights of such rambling include not only noticing the details of nature that might not be immediately apparent to a casual passer-by but also gaining a sharpened sense of seeing—novel perceptions and deepened perceptiveness. Becoming more attentive to nature, noticing what’s there to be seen but isn’t often obvious, is in my estimation an important gift of photography, particularly of my kind of rambling. You could say that my capacity to see has been refined; but you could also say that nature has become more present to me. I would commend such photography to anyone who wants to see more clearly and deeply what’s there to be seen, in nature or indeed anywhere. There is a virtuous circle of seeing and photographing.
Butterflies were everywhere August 28 along the Parkway, and I think this Monarch on Rosinweed is a lovely combination of colors and forms. It’s a small instance of the inspiring beauty of nature, at all levels, which we would do well to contemplate more often, and not only take photographs of it (not that taking photographs is wrong or bad or inappropriate; it’s just not the sole, or even the central, thing).
I am naive enough to believe what I see as beautiful really is beautiful, that there really is beauty in nature, not just in our seeing, and that while art may not always or exactly imitate nature, it can do worse than to emulate it by imaging it. Of course nature never comes to us “neat”—it is first screened by our eyes and interpreted by our brains to give us the representation we (think we) see. Then to get an image of that representation a photographer does all sorts of interesting things, some technical (e.g., f-stops, aperture, ISO, lens choice) and some more interpretive (e.g., point of view, focus, color balance), and all of these involve choice, whether conscious or reflexive, deliberative or impulsive. And choices always introduce some measure of “me,” of the subject witnessing the scene. I do not deny this inescapable element of subjectivity in imaging, and in fact I think it highly desirable; individuality introduces novelty and zest. But I don’t want to highlight that aspect of the process. Too often, I fear, discussions of photography are exclusively focused on the photographer, on his or her “vision,” “perceptiveness” and “creativity.” I want to change the focus (pardon the pun!) to the subject-matter instead. Rather than thinking of photography as creation, may we consider it as reception or perhaps re-creation (a good double entendre)?
I walked across the small parking lot at the House Mountain overlook on the Parkway August 30 and clambered up a small boulder. If you look closely, through the trees in the central distance you can see House Mountain itself, a Rockbridge County landmark, which appears here as only a small bump on the horizon, though it is actually a few feet higher than this overlook.
Both seeing and expressing are vital. Seeing I think is more fundamental (though this is arguable), for it means an openness, a receptivity to what presents itself. Expression is inevitable, however, and though influenced by style and fashion and training it will inevitably be my own. You will find both seeing and expression in these photos, though I hope more of the former than the latter.
I went out just after dawn September 6 to Jordan’s Point, an area along the Maury River that was the commercial hub of Lexington back in the 19th Century when river traffic (in wooden flat-bottom boats called batteaux) was the main way to move goods and services before the railroads found a faster and cheaper way. It’s now a city park, and flanking a path along the Maury River, trees lean aside to let me pas. I think monochrome lends a Tolkienesque flavor. But then Middle Earth is just Earth re-imagined, and so I have done with this originally saturated image—re-imaged it.
At the end of the Tolkienesque path I found this lovely bouquet of wildflowers, including Mistflower and Sneezeweed, all artfully arranged by Nature. This picture is a favorite of mine, for reasons I don’t fully comprehend besides the undoubted fact that it is pleasing to contemplate. (Two weeks later I discovered that someone had mown down the whole patch, proving once again the evanescence of beauty.)
Finally, the climax of my short journey around Jordan’s Point, I came upon a patch of these oddly beautiful Passion flowers. The flower looks exotic but this species of a mostly-tropical genus is actually a Virginia native! It’s so named for somehow calling to mind various aspects of Jesus’ Passion, but it also has medicinal uses in relieving anxiety, particularly before surgery. I think its strange beauty can also sooth the anxious observer.
All these photos are composed—i.e., chosen: in aspect, perspective, point of view, composition, focus, aperture, ISO and much else. But, more importantly for me, they are also found, not arranged or rearranged. I have tried to train my eye to see what’s there, or at least what appears there to me, and not to allow my mind’s eye to imagine how I could “improve” upon it and thence to alter nature according to my taste. The subjects are natural forms, not artifacts. Nature comes to us in many guises, all of them lovely to my mind; the subject-matter is truly inexhaustible. There are so many variables: size, shape, form, texture, orientation, color quality, light intensity, shading, hue, saturation (for which, as you will have noticed, I have an inordinate fondness)—all of them together in their own unique harmonies in every instance. My goal is not to dissect, analyze or interpret what I see (though doubtless that happens on a subconscious level) but rather to see what’s presented—or better, to be drawn into and reflect what presents itself to me in a visible way.
This is one of the many small waterfalls that constitute Wigwam Falls, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Buena Vista. There is a short trail up these falls, and it was a delight all the way, with wildflowers and mushrooms galore. I slowed the shutter down to 1/10 second to blur the waterfall, and since this was hand-held the focus is a bit dodgy, but I hope it conveys the gurgling tranquility of the scene.
8347: I can’t resist mushrooms, particularly when they are complemented by leaves or logs. There were many species at Wigwam Falls, September 11, all of them worthy of attention.
Light of course is crucial, and the best light makes the best photographs, though I believe that all light is good, merely better or worse, and that interesting images are possible under nearly all non-ideal conditions. That said, there are days when everything seems flat and uninteresting—or maybe that’s yet another pandemic side-effect! So I hope for bright but cloudy or misty days after rain for photographing plants, and sunny skies with puffy clouds for larger landscapes. We were fortunate to encounter many more good days than bad ones, as reflected in these photos.
On September 11, after a blissful hour or so at Wigwam Falls, we drove up the Parkway and down the Tye River to a picnic table near Crabtree Falls. We didn’t walk up the trail to the spectacular falls, “the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississipi River” (over 1200 feet), because it’s fairly strenuous (though with stairs) and there were, as usual, crowds of people, many unmasked. But we were alone at our picnic table, and nearby there was this sturdy bridge, which I thought looked like an invitation to another world, as indeed nature is for closeted humans.
“Photography” is etymologically a drawing or representation in another medium. Photography is therefore light-drawing, and photographing is drawing with light. But I find it is a drawing that in a sense draws itself; it impresses itself upon one. I choose therefore to emphasize the subject-matter drawn and not to celebrate the one who draws. Yes, photography is, like all human arts, the making (more or less skillfully) of some artifact, and not necessarily in some “hard copy” form. But I try to make that “graphical” artifact transparent to its luminous original photons. I do realize and appreciate that all seeing is selecting and interpreting raw data, and my photography is no different—even when I shoot (exclusively now) in RAW format, trying to preserve records of as many of the photons that strike my sensor as possible. The camera selects and interprets, but so does the photographer, and I clearly am culpable for a myriad of possible selections in taking these photos: subject-matter, camera settings, perspective, composition, colors (especially in post-processing). There is a lot of work involved in making these images, but I would rather draw attention to the subject matter imaged than to the process that generated those images.
On the last day of September, I managed a leisurely walk by myself on Brushy Hills, in search of mushrooms. And was I rewarded! This was one of many species I found, all intriguingly photogenic. It looks like a sea-anemone, backlit by the morning sun.
The Yin and Yang of mushrooms on one log September 30 on Brushy Hills. Light and dark, up and down, new and old. I don’t know whether they are two distinct species or merely one species at different points in its life cycle, catching the light differently—appearance and reality, another set of Yin/Yang twins?
For these photographs I ventured out into nature and tried to see what’s waiting there to be seen (of course this is a metaphor, but for me it’s a potent one). Then I tried to make the best light-drawing I could, limited always by time, gear, conditions, mobility and agility, experience, acuity, perspicacity and much else. But these kinds of limitation apply not just to photography; they are fundamental to any human endeavor, to human existence itself. We are limited, finite creatures, not infinite gods. We do the best we can with what we’ve got, what we find, and what we want—but our best, however skillful and creative, is not perfection. All of these photographs could be improved, though probably not by me on these occasions.
On October 5, I got up absurdly early and drove the 20 miles on paved and gravel roads to the top of North Mountain in the dark, to view the sunrise over House Mountain. (For some reason I couldn’t interest Vicki in this excursion.) I took this picture on the short path down from the overlook to my car; the views were inspiring. There is indeed such a thing as golden light.
Oh, and one very important last thing: I hope you enjoy looking at these images as much as I enjoyed making them, and that they help you reconnect to the beautiful world around you!
You can find part 1 of this post here.
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