Pick a Number …

At the heart of all photography is an urge to express our deepest personal feelings – to reveal our inner, hidden selves, to unlock the artist. –Galen Rowell

There is value in stepping back from our work and looking at it from different perspectives. In doing so, we will learn more about ourselves and our path and patterns. Our images reveal not only what we see, places we’ve been and what peaks our interest, but also how we see them and, if we’re lucky, how we feel about them. We can observe images and easily recognize and remember our disconnectedness from a subject. We wish for better. Then, there are the images that bring us back to a moment and evoke a palpable sense of engagement and attention. Those are the images and subjects that speak to us and our audience below the surface. Those are the ones we allow to be imperfectly perfect.

MAN ON STREET ACROSS FROM CAPITOL BUILDING This is an image that haunts me. I cannot “un-see” it, and I cannot forget that it was taken immediately after visiting one of the most beautiful buildings I have visited. This man was on the sidewalk across the street.  I wrestled with myself about taking the picture and almost didn’t. In that moment I learned something about myself. I don’t ever want to take another image like this unless I can do more than capture a broken moment in someone’s life. It was only one image, but one I will never forget.

We all know and have seen images that have been worked to perfection on a technical level and yet are void of impact and emotion. (We’ve probably taken them, too.) While we can appreciate the efforts of technical mastery, these are the same images that lose our interest quickly and are easily forgotten. Then, there are images that yank us in, draw our attention and keep us there – not because of technical perfection but because they speak to us on a deeper and more connected emotional or spiritual level. They touch our souls. We as the photographer/artist (and the viewer/audience) connect with what we have chosen to put in the frame and how we have chosen to finish the image in our refinement process.

If you want to learn more about your work, how you see the world, or patterns within your vision, take a closer look. How do you photograph places you spend time in? Are you a “big picture” person, and your images reflect that? Do they speak to the essence of places that touch your heart or do they simply document what you’ve seen and say “I was here”? Do you tend to see and photograph the smaller stories, intimate landscapes, moments that might have been missed by others, or even by you, if you had hurried by? Or do you find yourself going in deeper still to the point that “context” and place are not part of the stories you tell?

FLOWING IN THE PETALS OF A DAHLIA – This image was created using the Tamron 90mm macro lens with Nikon 6T supplemental close-up lens.

Take a good, long look. See what you learn about yourself by looking at the images. Can you remember what made you stop? What held your attention then? What holds your attention now? Are they the same? Do you see something more or different? Do your images reflect those moments? Do they bring you back in time? Challenge yourself to gather a cohesive collection (or more) from your archives. See what you discover.

One way to embark on the challenge is to follow the “Seeing in Sixes” project by Lenswork. To give you some insight, Lenswork describes these sets as “a visual cousin to the haiku or six-word storya compact expression of a single nature, possibly a story, definitely a theme, held together stylistically, and making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Tight, distilled to the essentials, impactful, deeper than what is possible with a single image.”

DAHLIA STILL LIFE – This image was created with the Lensbaby Velvet 85 in my living room and a texture from Topaz Texture Effects.

Over the course of the last six months I have heard in three different ways the call to “see in six.” First, from a fellow photographer who submitted to the Seeing in Sixes project. Then, two other photographer friends shared with me the first two volumes of the Seeing in Sixes books. Finally, a challenge came through an in-depth mentoring course by David DuChemin (The Compelling Frame). I got the message, and I did it.  It has been an enlightening endeavor, even with the constraints I gave myself with the dahlias. It has inspired me to look at and gather more collections that reflect a part of who I am, how I see and what I love.

DAHLIA PETALS IN ABSTRACTION – This image was created using the Tamron 90mm lens and adding the Nikon 6T supplemental close-up lens.

For my set of six, I chose images I had taken within a six-week timeframe. My dominant subject during that time was (and still is) my “dates with dahlias.” Along with the constraints of time and subject, my third requirement was that each frame needed to reflect something more about me and my connection to the subject. Each one needed to be personal and unique to how I see and feel about dahlias. There were no other “rules.” The six images shared here are “me.” Each one speaks to more than “This is a dahlia.” I recognized and accepted long ago that I am not a documenter. I am an interpreter. My best work reflects not only what is “real” and what I see, but rather what I see and how it makes me feel.

DAHLIA IN BOTTLES – This image was created using the Lensbaby Edge 80 optic and a French Kiss texture called Purple Prose.

Whether consciously or not, we notice things that touch us below the surface, that tug on a part of our heart and awaken a sense of wonder and more. What those things might be are different for everyone. They also change along the way as we experience life, learn new things, meet new people and grow as individuals.

Take a look … pick a number. I challenge you. What does your set look like? What does it reveal about you – as a person and as a visual artist? What does that collection say about what touches your heart? Give it a try and see where your “look back” takes you. Discover what your work tells you about yourself. And keep looking. Those touchpoints have and will continue to change and grow as you do. It will reveal insight and be reflected in ways that may surprise you.

DAHLIA IN BOTTLE WITH ANTIQUE PAPER UMBRELLA – This image was created using the Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens and blending two images – one of the dahlia, the other an antique paper umbrella.

Remember, we all begin our photographic journey with little knowledge of the technical aspects of the craft. What we bring first is a good portion of life experience and a sense of wonder that is in a continual state of evolution. Much of what took my breath away in the beginning of this journey still does – sometimes in the same way and for the same reasons, but not always. Life and learning and people and places along the way have expanded my vision and inspiration, and it always will.

DAHLIA AMIDST MAGICAL COLOR — This image was created with a Lensbaby Sweet 80 optic and blended with a Topaz texture called “Dreamy Day.”

So, pick a number … any number. Add your own constraints for this exercise so that your focus will be limited and purpose-driven. Challenge yourself to do something (ie., same subject) differently, to veer from your usual approach and comfortable style of shooting. See what you see, what you learn and what you feel. Be open and inspired.

DAHLIAS IN SIXES – And here are those six images that fall within the boundaries of a timeframe, a subject and that each reflect a part of me and how I see and feel about the dahlias.

A Look at the Journey: Coming of Age as a Photographer/Artist

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he (or she) grows up.  —Picasso

The Painting_NLP7937

Yup. I did it. This masterpiece is my “first” painting, It clearly illustrates a lack of knowledge and limited passion in the process. We all start somewhere…

Here’s a picture I painted using another much more refined painting as my guide (I added the fish in weeds and the little heart). It’s not good, even though I had the assistance of a five-year old girl directing what to add and when to stop. So, because I painted this, am I now “a painter”? Absolutely not. I know very little about the art and physical craft of painting pictures. In truth, I know more about painting walls and furniture than painting works of art.

So, what would move me closer to being an artist or painter? How about learning the fundamentals of painting and art from those who know far more than I do? What type of canvas do I use, how do I prepare it, what kind of paints should I use, and why? What brushes? How much paint on those brushes? How do I mix colors, create relationships between shadows and light or show textures in two-dimensions? Without direction, guidance and lots of practice, my vision could easily be lost. (Refer to my first attempt at painting, done just for fun and with little vision.)

One of my favorite images as it might have been painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. (Thanks for the help, Topaz Impression!)

These same ideas apply equally well to photographers. It took a long time for me to be able to call myself “a photographer.” It took even longer for me to call myself an artist. It is a good feeling to be able to own and identify myself as a “visual artist”. It confirms for me an understanding of my craft and my vision, and that in my favorite images those two are one. Both are fluid and evolving. If either one becomes static (especially my vision), my growth as an artist or photographer stops.

In the beginning, when I bought my first “real” film camera, a Nikon N70, and two lenses, I knew how to load the film, look through the viewfinder, zoom the lens and press the shutter – not much more. As a result, I took pictures and relied on the camera and photo lab to help me capture things I saw and present them as I saw them. I got “lucky” sometimes, but more often the images fell short of speaking to what I saw and was responding to with the camera. I was armed with a vision, but lacked the technical knowledge to successfully capture with my camera. I needed to know more, but had not a clue as to how much more there was to learn. What I know, even now, is that there is never “nothing to learn.”

Morning Marsh Maple from 1998 captured on slide film at Hoot Hollow workshop with Joe and Mary Ann McDonald

Morning Marsh Maple slide from 1998 at Hoot Hollow workshop with Joe and Mary Ann McDonald

One of the many turning points for me as a photographer came in the summer of 1998. I gave myself a week-long photography workshop in Pennsylvania at Hoot Hollow with Joe and Mary Ann McDonald. I had that Nikon and two lenses, a flash I knew nothing about, and tripod with a head I hated. I drove ten hours to get there and was super excited to learn. That first night Joe said, “And, tonight we’re going to start with a metering exercise!” I cringed and wondered how small I could make myself before I was invisible. I had no clue. I heard comments about metering “here” and adding “+2/3” or there and setting at “-1.”  This confirmed that I was at the very beginning of my journey to becoming a photographer and artist. I thank Joe and Mary Ann for scaring me straight.

From that point in 1998, what did I do to build my skills and knowledge? I joined Carolinas Nature Photographers Association and North American Nature Photography Association in 1999, attended annual meetings and Summits wherever and whenever they were held. I met excellent photographers and some very fine people along the way – people who have become friends and mentors, inspirations and encouragers. I took advantage of every learning opportunity that came along, workshops, seminars, shooting opportunities. I went out and took pictures, not always good ones. In fact, many of the early pictures I took back then had “issues.” I can see them now and have learned from them.

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Slow vertical motion blur (in camera) at Carver’s Creek State Park highlighting fall color in the cypress trees.

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Whether you’re looking to express your vision in a landscape or single bloom, every ounce of knowledge you have in the craft will help you present it as you see and feel it.

I am “self-taught” in that I have no formal training in art or photography, and this is okay. In fact, at least one of my very favorite artists, Vincent van Gogh, did not go to art school. Education comes in all forms. I have learned from all the books I’ve read, all the music I’ve heard, all the art I’ve seen. I’ve learned from every person (including artists, photographers, musicians) I’ve ever met or spent time with. Every challenge and every moment of peace has taught me something. And those are the things that are infused in my art and temper my view of the world. The same is true for you.

Wasp in Nest_NLP4288

Sometimes, when people know you love the small and unusual, they will give you just the right material to work with.

What did I and we need to learn? There’s so much … lens choice, exposure, metering, composition, timing, lighting. And, now, in the digital age, there’s also post-processing and image management. Where do we start? Begin at the beginning, and it doesn’t start with “go out and buy a camera.” My first question would be, “Why?. Why do you want the camera?” Do you want to capture moments with family and friends or do you want to do more? Whatever the answer, it’s all good. The answer simply points you in the direction of what camera and how much you need to learn to do what you want to do well.

I grew up with parents whose favorite phrase seemed to be, “Go outside and find something to do.” I did, there was no negotiation in that regard. They also took us camping and encouraged our plundering the trails, gardens, woods and shorelines of nature. Here is where scenes and light would be stored in my memory. With my camera, I knew I wanted to do more than document. Without knowledge of the craft, I would forever be a picture taker and not the image maker I aspired to be. The tools would rule, and my vision would appear only when luck met chance upon release of the shutter. In those early days, I was not able to articulate vision. Yet, I wanted the images to say more than, “This is a (fill in the blank).” I wanted my work to say, “Look! Look at what I see and feel!” This is the path on which I have been walking and loving and sharing.

Soft Blooms_NLP6268

Freedom from “tack sharp” and creative tools like the Lensbaby open up more windows for expression.

From a creative, kindred spirit perspective, the person who helped unleash the artist in me was Nancy Rotenberg. We first met in a small add in the back pages of Outdoor Photographer magazine in 1999. I had already bought my first macro lens and was working to create images that captured what I saw and felt in the world of small. I had the vision, but it wasn’t coming through in my slides. One phone call and a weekend with her at the farm in Pennsylvania began a friendship. From there, my work began to reflect my vision more clearly. The gifts I received from my time with Nancy was inspiration, encouragement and permission to be the artist/photographer. Here again was another turning point. There are many others who have helped me grow. I am certain there will be many more.

Finding and going with your own flow . . . be a noticer and let yourself fly.

Finding and going with your own flow . . . be a noticer and let yourself fly.

To echo the questions from childhood road trips, “Am I there yet?” No way. As Robert Frost once wrote, there are “miles to go before I sleep.” There is so much more to see, experience, learn and even more to share. This journey of mine may have had a distinct beginning, but it is one that will not end until my time on earth is done. For that I am grateful.

What fun it is to move and play in a forest tree surrounded by wonderful green grasses.

What fun it is to move and play in a forest tree surrounded by wonderful green grasses.

And for those who are just beginning, might I offer some encouragement? There is a lot to learn along the way. Always will be, that part never ends. Don’t give up. There are images you will only make if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone. Be brave. Be patient with yourself. Be true. Aspire to be the best you, not another version of someone you admire. Your vision will become clear and unique to you. Let it be. Let it grow.

Learning new things, like long exposures, can give you tools to capture the beauty of decay and slow the waves in the ocean.

Learning new things, like long exposures, can give you tools to capture the beauty of decay and slow the waves in the ocean.

Falling in Love with Velvet

Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.‑ E B White

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The fluid dance of maple wings with Lensbaby Velvet 56

There’s a special kind of dance we do when we fall in love. It happens in the mind, but mostly in the heart. And we can’t always explain why we love, just that we do. It used to be that when I heard someone say the word “velvet,” it conjured up memories of my childhood and family vacations. Remember the “Velvet Elvis” and so many other people, critters and scenes painted on black velvet gathered together in a roadside market? Not very romantic really, just a curious sight that sticks in my mind. Or how about those lusciously soft and luxurious velvet dresses in black, red or green that were work in winter … to church or special parties? Fancy stuff, but not at all about love.

 

 

Cactus Curves_LBV56_8045

Softness in the edges and points of a cactus with Lensbaby Velvet 56

No, I’m talking about the new Lensbaby Velvet 56 manual lens. You see, from the moment I saw the images being created by “Miss Velvet”, I knew I had to have her. There was music and dancing in my most visual mind and heart. It’s kind of like touching and feeling the fabric . . . there’s an emotional, visual and tactile response that happens when I would run my hands across the velvet dress. It’s distinctive and has varied degrees of smoothness and texture depending on the direction of the rub.

We all know that the world of love is not about straight lines or direct routes. There are curves, twists, turns and always some rough edges. It’s about going with the flow and letting things happen . . . and rejoicing when a moment catches our breath and we capture it in a frame or two. The Velvet 56 offers that magical combination of smoothness and texture, ease and challenge. It offers one a world of creative possibilities that embrace the world of soft focus and ethereal imagery with its wide f/1.6 aperture. For someone like me, a lover of macro and close-up photography, the minimum focusing distance of 5″  and 1:2 macro capabilities is awesome. Even better? I can add my Nikon 6T close-up diopter to get in even closer to the magic. This lens is solid, yet sleek and smooth in its feel and movement through the focus range.

Going with the flow of peony petals with the Lensbaby Velvet 56

Going with the flow of peony petals with the Lensbaby Velvet 56

Suffice to say, I LOVE (and am in love with) this lens. It awakes the dreamer and the seer in me, opens my mind and heart to all the possibilities. It allows me to capture the moments that catch my breath and make me stop. If you have the opportunity to try one, you won’t want to let it go and you won’t be able to deny the magic or the music.

Nothing more magical than finding a "Perfection" pull on a Williams Pipe Tone Organ and capturing with the Lensbaby Velvet 56.

Nothing more magical than finding a “Perfection” pull on a Williams Pipe Tone Organ and capturing with the Lensbaby Velvet 56.

(Lensbaby has been kind enough to provide me with demo units of the Velvet 56 and other inspiring optics for my New Life Photos workshops. Wonderful opportunities to dance to a different beat and discover hidden treasures within your own creativity.)