Tag Archives: abstract

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

A few weeks ago I visited New Lake in Hyde County North Carolina with the Carolina Vegetation Survey. We were looking for natural lake shore vegetation, a type of natural community that grows along these shallow bay lakes. No one in our group had been to this lake before so we hoped the community was in good condition. I had seen natural lake shore vegetation at other lakes and they can be quite lovely, large cypress trees marching out into a shallow lake with grasses swaying in the waves. We were disappointed to discover that the cypress trees had been cut long ago. Weathered stumps marked the places where ancient trees once stood. A new forest of young cypress now lined the lake shore.

If I had been alone I might have turned around and gone somewhere else, but the team I was with decided the rest of the vegetation was in good enough condition to sample so we decided to stay the rest of the day.

Carolina Vegetation Survey

Carolina Vegetation Survey

The trees I had hoped for were gone and the light was too harsh for landscapes. After a few minutes of dreary thoughts that were not producing photographs I decided I should see what sort of macro subjects I could find. It did not take long to discover tiny sundew plants growing in the shade of the young cypress trees.

Water Sundew

Water Sundew

 One advantage of young trees is the foliage is easy to reach. These trees were mostly pond-cypress, very similar to the better known bald-cypress but the foliage is more like a rope than a feather and it points up from the stem rather than out.

Pond Cypress Foliage

Pond Cypress Foliage

 After making the pond-cypress foliage photo I was out of ideas so I decided to sit quietly and observe until an idea was revealed to me. There was just one problem, there was no where to sit. The ground went from damp to soggy to shallow lake. The only dry place I could see to sit was the old cypress stumps along the lake shore. Most were weathered into very uncomfortable shapes, but after searching I found one with a very nice dry top that fit my bottom quite nicely.

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

My photography process has a lot in common with meditation. I sit quietly without thinking and just let the images I see wash over me. I try not to judge or think, I simply observe. After a time an idea for a photograph is usually revealed, provided I can remain open enough to see it.

After sitting there for a time I realized the images of all the stumps I had searched while looking for a place to sit were running through my mind. When I first arrived at the lake I looked at them in a negative way, they represented the loss of something great that once existed. But now I was seeing them without judgment, just the physical objects detached from their meaning. Each was different, weathered, and spectacular in its own way. The Universe had spoken, I needed to photograph the weathered cypress stumps!

Weathered Cypress Stump #1

Weathered Cypress Stump #1

Weathered Cypress Stump #2

Weathered Cypress Stump #2

Accidental Abstraction

For years I have been toying with the idea of making very abstract photographs. One thing that intrigues me about abstract images is how they free the viewer to imagine their own meaning. Also, I find trying a different style or subject matter teaches me things I would not learn from my usual photography. This photograph of storm clouds over Boundary Bay in British Columbia was one early attempt.

Blue

Blue

It was the color and contrast that attracted me to this scene. I used a telephoto lens to isolate the most interesting part of the sky and eliminate the horizon and any sense of scale. Although this is more abstract than my typical landscapes, it is still recognizable as storm clouds.

Another attempt at an abstract image was with a flame azalea flower. The stamens on these flowers are very long and extend quite far from the petals. I pointed a macro lens straight down the center of the flower with the stamens pointing into the lens and with the petals filling the background. A wide aperture resulted in a very shallow depth of field which rendered the petals in the background completely out of focus.

Orange

Orange

I did not want the details in the petals to show because I wanted to make this image more about the color than the structure of the plant. But the sharp focus on the stamens anchors this image in reality and tells the viewer this is a flower.

While these images are more abstract than what I typically create, there was something about them that did not sit well with me. I liked them but they were just not the abstract images I was after. I did not understand what I was missing until I had an interesting accident.

Back in June I was trying to photograph a plant in an open field but it was far too windy. In desperation I dispensed with the tripod since it does no good to hold the camera steady when the plants are swaying in and out of view. Instead, I hand held the camera with the fastest shutter speed I could to avoid camera shake. To improve my odds of a sharp, detailed photograph, I set the camera to allow the shutter to release only when focus had been achieved. Then I manually focused the macro lens to give me the close framing I wanted. My plan was to just keep trying to frame the plant as it moved in the wind and hopefully the camera would only fire when the plant was in focus. My plan worked, by the way, but that is not the point of this story.

While trying to get my body into position for this shot I must have had my finger on the shutter release because the camera suddenly went off. Some random blade of grass had passed through the autofocus sensor at just the right distance and triggered the shutter. You can see the point of focus near the center of the frame.

Green

Green

Although I gave this image little thought at the time, something compelled me to keep it. Only now, seven months later, do I think I understand why. This is just the sort of abstract image I had wanted to make! I usually base my compositions on some unique character of the subject. My earlier attempts at abstract photography were still locked into this way of thinking. Even though they were more abstract than my usual work, the idea for the photograph was still based on something visual about the subject. This composition is completely abstract; it is not based on anything! Maybe now I will be able to consciously break out of my usual pattern and make an abstract image on purpose.

The beach is very different at night

I was reminded how different my experience is from most of the visitors to wild places while waiting for the passenger ferry to take me to Hammocks Beach State Park. Several families were also waiting for the ferry. I could tell from the coolers, lawn chairs, and swimming clothes that they were going over for the day to frolic on the beach. They could tell from my backpack, tripod, wide-brimmed hat, long sleeved shirt, long pants, and hiking boots that I was not. One man asked me if I was going camping. I said “yes.” Then he asked his young son if he would like to go camping sometime. The son said, without hesitation, “no!” The father asked, “why not?” The son said, “There are spooky things at night!”

I had forgotten about that feeling of being afraid to go into wild places at night. I love wild places, and the night can sometimes be most impressive. When the sun is high at the beach, I struggle. The sun takes a lot out of you, especially when you have fair skin. My favorite time at the beach is when the sun is near the horizon or at night.

When the sun is near the horizon, it highlights the patterns formed by the wind on the sand. I have always been fascinated by these patterns. The same shape line will repeat over and over again but with slight variations.

Sand Pattern #1

Sand Pattern

The beach is very different at night. It becomes a soft and gentle place. Soft starlight is bright enough to see by when it is clear, and if you are far enough from city lights, the stars can be spectacular.

Beach by Starlight

Beach by Starlight

Another universe

Last month I went to Swift Creek Bluffs to see if I could find some salamanders to photograph. I don’t have much experience with salamanders, so I did not have much luck. I knew they layed their eggs in ephemeral pools. These pools dry up in the summer, so there are no fish to eat the eggs. I found lots of egg masses in the pools but did not find any salamanders. I spent the rest of the morning photographing wildflowers and ferns and then headed back to my truck. I often run into people I know here, and this time I bumped into “Rock” Turner. With a nickname like “Rock”, you might expect him to be either a brute or a geologist, but this guy loves reptiles and amphibians. You have to put his nickname together with his last name to get the joke. Oh, and you have to know a little about what is involved in finding these sorts of critters.

 When I saw Rock I thought, “this is my chance!” I asked if he could help me find some Salamanders. He agreed with his typical enthusiasm. We found several slimy salamanders, but they did not want to be photographed. Then Rock came up holding a salamander egg mass. I had seen them just beneath the surface of the water earlier, but I never tried picking them up. Out of the murky water it was easy to see lots of interesting details and color. Looking into this jiggling mass of gelatin in Rock’s hands was like looking into another universe. I had Rock hold the egg mass in the sunlight as I tried to make a photograph. He did not get his nickname for being “rock” steady, and every little body movement was making the egg mass jiggle. He had to hold his breath and brace his arms against a log to try and stop the egg mass from jiggling. After a bit of effort, I was able to make a sharp photograph, but because I was looking down into his hands, I was not able to get rid of the sky reflected on the surface of the egg mass. Still, I liked the idea of the photograph and decided I would come back another day after I figured out how to solve the sky reflection problem.

Spotted Salamander Eggs

Spotted Salamander Eggs

I came back about a week later thinking I would be able to do something similar and block the sky reflection. That trip was a total bust; nothing I tried would completely eliminate the sky reflection. I just could not get the image I wanted. I wanted the image to feel like you were in amongst the salamander eggs, like being in another universe. But as long as you can see the reflections on the surface of the gelatin, it gives you the impression you are on the outside looking in. Then I remembered the miniature aquarium I built.

Back in 2002, I was making photographs to tell the success story of the salmon habitat restoration work of the Alouette River Management Society. I wanted to make photographs of the young fry in the river as part of that photo essay. I spent a lot of time chasing those little fry with my camera under water, but they were just too small and fast to make a decent photograph. To solve the problem I built a small aquarium designed to keep the fry within the depth of field of my macro lens so I could get an up-close and detailed photograph. This little aquarium was made out of two 4 inch square pieces of glass and a piece of metal strap used to bundle lumber. I attached it all together with silicon adhesive. It cost me nothing to make since I had all these materials lying about. It worked great; the only difficult part was catching the fry. This photograph, by the way, has been published more than any of my other images.

Steelhead Trout Fry

Steelhead Trout Fry

Anyway, I realized that if I put the salamander egg mass inside the aquarium, I could shoot horizontally rather than down and eliminate the sky reflection problem. Also, by pressing the gelatin up against the glass, it would eliminate any hint of the surface of the gelatin and give the impression of being inside it.

Spotted Salamander Eggs

Spotted Salamander Eggs

The last piece of the puzzle was the lighting. The ambient light was too soft and did not provide the high contrast I had seen that first day with Rock. I tried several different flash setups and decided the one I liked best was one flash from directly above. This gave the eggs a strong spherical shape and helped define the bodies of the young salamanders.

Spotted Salamander Eggs

Spotted Salamander Eggs