The Last Shall Be First

Subtitle: The last shall be first - or the mundane shall become interesting.

I was listening to a podcast of an interview with Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like an Artist” and other books. He said that the photographs that we consider rejects - our most mundane photos - will be the ones that will be interesting in 50 years.

Take my flower photography, for example. These are the works that I spend the most time on. Yet in fifty years, those flowers will look the same (unless they become extinct). The mundane street scene I take, or the picture of the front of my house will be the photo that will have the most power to me in the future. The pictures of my now 12 year old Prius may become more substantial than my picture of a wild azalea.

Flood of 1940

My Mom was born in 1928. She went to elementary school at a one-room school which still stands on Clito Road near Fries. The building is now known as Mt. Carmel Church and it’s at the fork of Knob Fork Creek and Elk Creek.

Mom lived about a mile from the school. She and her brothers and sisters walked to school every day - over a mile from their house. They each only had one pair of shoes so they went barefoot when they could.

The flood of 1940 was a devastating flood the likes of which have not been felt in the mountains since then. My aunt and uncle - both in their mid-80s remember how frightened they were from the flooding. They remember whole houses floating down the river.

The school at Clito survived the flood of 1940. You can still see evidence of how high the creek got at the school, because one of the students carved a notch into the corner of the building. You can see from the pictures 1) how far the creek is from the building now, 2) the red arrow showing how high on the building the flood waters rose, and 3) a close up of the notch.

Art Keeps You Warm Many Times

There’s a saying in the country that firewood keeps you warm 7 times - when you cut it, when you split it, when you load it, when you unload it, when you stack it, when you carry it in the house, and when you burn it.

Art is the same way. Art is gratifying many times - when an idea inspires you, when you are creating the work, when you edit it, when you review it, when you prepare it for exhibition, when you it exhibit, when you share it with others, and when you go back and look at it (even years later).

I might get inspiration for a photograph of an idea in nature. I go out and spend time in the outdoors creating the photograph. I go home and work on it and bring more ideas into the piece while editing it in, say, Photoshop. I am “kept warm” when I review the photo in the editing process. It’s gratifying to post the photo in an exhibition or online and to share it with others. I get a glow from looking at the photograph a week, a month, a year, or even a decade later.

The same is true with drawing or painting. I get inspiration, create the work, review and edit it, and enjoy multiple times after creating it.

Art keeps you warm many times!

Skies in Landscapes

John Constable, landscape painter of the 19th century in his letter to his friend John Fisher: “I am most anxious to get into my London painting room…I have done a good deal of skying, for I am determined to conquer all difficulties…The landscape painter who does not make his skies a very material part of his composition, neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids.” “(Skies) must and always shall with me make an effectual part of the composition…The sky is the force of light in nature and governs every thing.”

Constable was talking about oil painting here. The sky is an important element in landscape photography as well. The photographer must pay attention to what is going on with the sky in order to make successful and attractive landscape photos.

A bald sky, even if deep blue, makes for a boring photo in most cases. I have made photos where the complementary color of, say, Winter broomsage offsets a blue sky nicely. This is the exception, however. Clouds can make a photo much more interesting.

Constable’s quote above about the sky being a force of light in nature is well taken - even in photography other than landscapes. They sky is the largest outdoor light source and it obviously affects objects on the ground. An overcast sky makes a great light source for portraits. A beautiful sunrise or sunset can make a great light source for portraits or other photographs on the ground. Often when other photographers are pointing their cameras at the sunset, I have my back turned to the sunset and am capturing subjects on the ground bathed in the beautiful light.

Romantic Landscape Painters

I’m reading about landscape painters of the Romantic period of the 19th century. Landscape painting became more popular at this time and the artists were influenced by the Romantic movement.

John Constable was of this group. He wrote a number of letters which survive. Therefore, we understand his motivation and some of his feelings regarding painting.

One of my favorite quotes of his is, “…painting is with me but another word for feeling.” I would say the same for photography. To portray my feelings for photography, I would use the quote, “photography for me is just another word for breathing.” It is as natural and effortless for me as breathing at this point in my life.

Digital vs Film #2

It looks like Digital vs Film is going to be an ongoing topic on this blog - this is Digital vs Film post #2. I was listening to a podcast this morning. It was on film photography. The panelists made a couple of comments that started me to thinking.

One said that, in his experience, baby boomers are either all digital or all film. On the other hand, younger people embrace both. He said that if a baby boomer worked with film before the digital age, he came kicking and screaming into using digital, or she still uses film. They tend to remain in one camp or the other.

I am a baby boomer and worked heavily in film up until 2004 or so, when I got my first digital camera. I embraced digital and it is now my go-to medium. I find that you can do much more with digital than you can film, and the quality of digital is definitely equal to film. However, I enjoy using film. I still have a darkroom. I love the smell of the chemicals and I love the process. I still love the look of film. So, even though I’m a baby boomer, I have interest in both digital and film.

Another of the panelists said that film makes you a better photographer. He said that if you only have 36 shots on a roll of film, you will work harder to make them count. I would push back on that. I remember when I got my first serious film camera, I received the advice to run as much film through the camera as I could afford. The idea was that the more photos you take, the faster you learn. I think that’s true. Digital allows you to take more photos, plus you get the instant feedback of seeing what you’re getting. I will often start shooting a subject and realize that if I move a little to the right, or if I focus on a different element, I will have a better shot. Often, my best photo is the last one I take, because I have used the feedback to improve my shot. When you are shooting film, often after you process the roll, you realize that if you had moved a little bit the shot would be better. It’s too late then. So I think digital makes you a better photographer because you can learn from it as you go.

In Honor of Fiddlers' Conventions

Mid-August is always an exciting time in the Twin County, VA area (Grayson, Carroll, Galax). Two fiddlers conventions are held in this area every year in August. First up is the Galax Fiddlers Convention, which is the 2nd full weekend in August. The following week is the Fries Fiddlers Convention. It is sponsored by the Fries Volunteer Fire Department - they are as hard a working group of people as you will ever meet.

To celebrate the fiddlers' conventions, I would like to share a photo I produced decades ago. This is a scan of a photo I made at the Galax Fiddlers' Convention in 1979 or so. 

This thing, this object, has an existence of its own outside of the moment in time which it represents. It's a two-dimensional, monochrome representation of a four-dimensional, polychromatic slice of time and space. That moment, that place, is unique. There never was a moment and place like that before this moment, and there will never will be again. But here is this object which represents that moment and it has taken on a life of its own. I made the exposure and then printed the print 40 years ago - birthed it from the developer as though I were a midwife delivering a baby. The print was a possession of mine. It physically went with me in various moves from house to house.

I didn't know the people in the photo when I made the exposure. It was an interesting moment, so I took the picture. 

Two years ago, I scanned the photo and posted it on Facebook. Someone commented on the photo and asked if I knew the people in the photo. I did not, but someone later commented and identified the subjects. The banjo player is Harold Hausenfluck. The spectators are Gail Gillespie and David Forbes.

Once I digitized the photo (in 2004) and uploaded it to Facebook (in 2015), it took on a different kind of existence. Instead of being in a pile of my old photographs, it is now shared electronically world-wide. Social media has introduced some unpleasantness to our world, but it has capacity for good. This photograph is an example of the good. It reminds us of a time when things were different - a time when music was delivered by 8-track tapes, a time when the subjects (and the photographer) were 40 years younger.

Some things haven't changed. People still flock to the fiddlers' conventions to listen to the music which has resonated through the Blue Ridge for generations. Another generation or two has passed since this photo was made, however. This photograph represents a lesson in how things change and how things remain the same.


eight track tapes landscape.jpg

Look Again!

"I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them." - Photographer Diane Arbus

Arbus was onto something when she wrote this shortly before her death in 1971. She sought unusual people. She exposed her audience to diversity you wouldn't see in everyday life. I encourage you to do an internet search for her images.

The idea behind her quote informs my images, but in a different way. I specialize in capturing the beauty of the mountains of Virginia. We drive by the gorgeous sights offered to us ever day and do not really see what's there.

Whether it's a small scene of a wildflower alongside the road, or a different view of a landscape - my work exposes a view not otherwise seen.