#1054. Photographic Covid Ramblings – part 2

By Lad Sessions | Art & Creativity

Oct 29

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!

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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Great article, Lad. We ought to lock you up more often, to stimulate you to produce more of this articles!

    “How could nature select such harmonizing colors, and create such an artful display? Sheer accident or something more?” Easy – nature is more clever than we are!

    ” . . 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” Quite – exactly – that, and the study of light.

    “there really is beauty in nature” – and with your seeing eye, it will engulf you.

    “Two weeks later I discovered that someone had mown down the whole patch, proving once again the evanescence of beauty.” Actually it proves that not enough humans were spanked enough, as children, and now think they are free to do whatever they choose – including senseless distruction.

    Mushrooms – I can’t resist them either – but don’t eat those ones!

    Golden light – well my wife claims that we’re a mismatch, she’s a lark and gets up early, I’m an owl and go to bed late. She’s probably right – I’ve always regarded sunrise as a rather pale, anaemic imitation of the rich warm red blooded sunsets that have crowded my life. And now you’ve blown me up – that golden hour sunrise is sensational.

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Pete, Thank you very much for this encouraging response, though locking me up seems rather severe. I’m delighted my piece resonated with you.

      A side note on the mowing: the flowers were on the side of the boat launch area, and I suspect over-zealous park employees somehow thought they obstructed the really important things–like getting boats into and out of the river (they didn’t)–or else they were just mowing everything in sight.

      Don’t worry, I never eat field mushrooms! I know just enough to know that I really don’t know the difference between delicious and deadly.

      And sunrises are every bit the equal of sunsets, occasionally, but they are usually harder to access. I’m more of an early bird myself (more accurately: I have insomnia caused by lower back pain) but an equal-opportunity photographer.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Now I am wondering. Sunrises. And sunsets.

        Is my perception “different”, because no matter where I move to, I always seem to end up on a western coastline – with sunsets over a western sea?

        You are in Virginia, so your sunrises are presumably over an eastern sea.

        Not quite the same, but similar to my sunsets.

        Not quite the same, because early morning air lacks the humidity (and pollution!) of the atmosphere at sunset.

        But all of this could explain why I’ve always thought sunrises were rather anaemic, in comparison.

        Who’s a météo man?

        • Lad Sessions says:

          Pete, I always appreciate your comments! Geography does indeed affect our best sights. We live in the Valley of Virginia, between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Alleghenies to the west, with lots of ridge-and-valley terrain to the west. It’s heavily forested, so not always easy to get the long view, and it usually requires a considerable hike, which I’ve not been able to take over the last half-year due to Achilles tendonitis, though I’m gradually healing and my rambles are gradually lengthening. But at any rate we are hundreds of miles from the Atlantic, and so any water you see in my photos from here will be lakes or streams. I think both sunrises and sunsets around here can be equally magical, though you’re certainly right about how meteorology affects the views. Humidity is usually high here most of the year, not much different early and late in the day. What matters more is time of year: the slanting rays of September-October and March-April seem to bring out their best. At any rate, I always think: take what nature gives you when and where you are, and make the most of it; don’t obsess about being somewhere else! Cheers.

  • Kelly-Ann says:

    Just beautiful, the writing and the pictures. Thank you!

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Thanks, Kelly-Ann. I take this as a supreme compliment: to reflect the beauty of nature in my work is my aspiration. I am surprised a bit that I enjoy this effort so much!

  • Sean says:

    Hi Lad,
    Tour “… Achilles tendonitis… ‘ fuelled “… serendipitous rambling …” looks very well executed and accomplished, for me, in greyscale. You craft a darn a good greyscale image. This possibly comes from your competency in your management of colour. Master colour and a good greyscale is assured; well, that’s what I’m getting out of what I see above in your selected images, shown above. I also relate to Pete; my wife is clearly nocturnal, but myself ‘I get up with, and go to bed with, the chooks’ (as my maternal grandfather would say). This statement of yours is a clarion call too “… We are limited, finite creatures, not infinite gods…” and as Cartier-Bresson once remarked, using words something like ‘Life if once, forever’. You’re expressively making the most of your allotted time.

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Sean, thank you for your comments. I don’t want to claim anything masterful, but I do appreciate the compliments! I am quite interested in monochrome—at least sometimes, on the appropriate occasion of light and subject-matter—but consider it harder than color to achieve in a purposeful way. When I do desaturate an image, it seems like more serendipity than intention.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    You’ve done it again, Lad: given us a detailed and delightful recounting of various trips to see what you could “see” – and see you did! As you stated, the seeing must come before the expression, something that you demonstrated well with your images. You seem to have been spoiled for choice, but chose ever so cleverly in every location. Even though it was a hard choice, my favorites are the dead leaves, Passion flower, the silhouetted trees on House Mountain overlook, and the single mushroom & leaf – lovely, one and all.
    You leave me wishing for a Part 3.

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Nancee, Thanks so much for the generous comment. I find in going back over the 150+ images I’ve accumulated so far for this project (culled from many more, and doubtless to be culled further for the intended book) that I am happy, even thrilled, by many of the images. They recall our experiences, which I treasure, but also are for me a delight just to look at. I share your choice of favorites as well, although I seem to like all my “children”! 🙂

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Nancee, I failed to note that I am indeed contemplating a Part 3, though I want to accumulate more images and reflect on what I might say before sending anything to Pascal. Any suggestions?

      • Nancee Rostad says:

        Here’s just a suggestion, so I won’t hold you to it if you decide on another theme for Part 3.
        I’m always interested in why people do what they do, especially while “doing” art. So, it would be interesting if you chose one genre from your remaining Covid Ramblings (be it botanical, landscape, structures, etc) and detailed why you stopped to take a particular photo. Was it the subject, composition, color, unusual lighting….whatever. And, maybe most importantly, what your intention was. Basically go through your “process” – as a few of us did earlier this year. You might go back and read the various posts to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Pascal could locate them for you. It’s a terrific exercise to help you understand your own photography.
        Just a thought.

        • Lad says:

          Nancee, Thanks for this intriguing idea. It’s food for thought, and I’ll chew on it for a while. I came up with two possible projects the other day—one in a couple of months, for a rather philosophical meditation on image and concept, photography and writing, the other at the end of the year’s project, reflecting on the whole. The latter might be a good place to think hard about “process,” which I agree would be salutary.

        • Lad Sessions says:

          Nancee, Could you please send me your email address? I have some comments I’d like to share with you in response to this suggestion. Thanks

  • philberphoto says:

    Lad, you hit another one out of the park with this post. And again you help me get to the most satisficing place for the weeks of lockdown which are the lot of all people residing in France. BTW, regarding your tendinitis, I was once striken with chronic tendinitis, to the point I couldn’t walk for than 50 m, or hold anything heavier than a fork with my left hand. I was rid of it with acupunture. Just sayin’….

    • Lad says:

      (philberphoto–I do need to learn a proper form of address!), Thanks for this, and I also appreciate the words about tendonitis. I’m mostly recovered, from a place not far from yours (although my wrists weren’t affected, just both ankles), though the orthopedist tells me tendons don’t really heal/regenerate, they just scar, so that I’ll never recover full strength or flexibility. Sigh. I was warned old age ain’t for sissies, but first-hand experience is a hard master!

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    What a delightfully serene way to clear ones mind of all the panic porn that was and sill is being peddled by the media around this thing that goverments have used as an excuse to attempt a global reset.

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Well, Lad, you’ve done it again. Your photos are beautiful and inspire a peace that is also home to creative impulse. You remind the rest of us to get out and look close to home for inspiration, thereby turning a dark time into a rediscovery of possibility. While I like your photos here in general, if I may, I would say that I find the monochrome images particularly attractive for their texture–I am thinking about picture 5, of the trees You bring the scene to life by emphasizing the richness of detail and combined, of course, with the pleasure of composition–lovely. Thanks for these fine images. Claude

    • Lad says:

      Claude, I do appreciate your appreciation. It’s a joy first of all to take pictures (or to receive them?), but another joy to find others who appreciate your images. I imagine you have experienced the same pleasure. I do like the “Middle Earth” atmosphere of the trees along the river. But I am a little daunted by monochrome, as it seems more exacting and demanding when color can’t do at least some of the work. I probably could use some instruction here. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks again!

      • Claude Hurlbert says:

        Hi Lad, I’d hesitate to offer any suggestions to you, considering how good your photos are. Contrast, texture, tonal quality, composition–you have everything you need. As I tell myself, again and again, just keep shooting. In other words, I really appreciate your post–as I did the last one.

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