On “Capturing” versus “Taking”

Fence and Oak. Garden of the Gods, Colorado, 2015
Fence and Oak. Garden of the Gods, Colorado, 2015

Most people have always said–and still say–that we “take pictures”. What is it we are “taking”, anyway? Do we strip off a thin veneer of a subject each time we snap the shutter and walk away? If millions do it to the same scene, repeatedly, will the scene itself start to fade away, desaturate, and eventually collapse into a pile of dust once enough of it has been “taken” by the snapping turtle masses?

In some cultures, the “taking” of a picture has a very real and dangerous spiritual implication–as in the idea that photographing someone’s physical manifestation can steal away a part of the soul.

In our culture, there are many folks who do not like their pictures “taken” and maybe they, too, feel an instinctive response to protect their privacy…to protect their soul.

You’ll find that now, especially after the advent of digital photography, that many speak of “capturing” an image. As in, “I captured this image of Camp Counselor Carl on his moped in a dark alley in Hoboken.”

When I first starting hearing the term, I thought it sounded rather presumptuous. I visualized Phineas P. Photographer setting a high tech trap with a special net to gather up all the relevant photons pertaining to a particular scene. (Maybe that’s not so far off, considering how digital sensors work!)

After reflecting and digesting this topic over the years, I feel like the word “capture” is probably more accurate. After all, I don’t physically “take” anything and don’t wish to. I simply want to capture a unique moment in time and preserve it, for my personal satisfaction and to show others. (On a subconscious level, maybe I also “capture” as part of a very weeny and ultimately vain attempt at immortality…the staving off of the inevitable that awaits us all once all our cells give out. But that’s a topic for another day.)

So, I am trying to drop my habit of saying, “I take pictures”. Instead, I try to use the word “capture”–along with the oh-so-useful “create”. So it might sound a stilted something like this: “I captured that wonderful scene so that I might create this artistic image that you now enjoy.”

Hmmm…it all still sounds a bit contrived, doesn’t it? Pretentious, even? Does it matter? Yes, it probably does. The words we use directly affect how we eventually internalize a concept.

What do you think?

Searching for the Un-Iconic

I remember hearing about a photographer who led workshops in Yosemite Valley. She had many folks sign up, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to collect the iconic Ansel Adams images of El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and so on.

Well, imagine their chagrin when this photographer led them off to some obscure no-name side canyon and told them to go after it. At first, she said, the workshop attendees would sigh, slump their camera bag-draped shoulders, and express their disappointment and dissatisfaction at the location. Pretty soon, though, they would resign themselves to the wagging of the flying fickle finger of fate, and start–grudgingly–looking for images.

Obscurity was the key.

Had the group simply planted their tripods into the same holes left behind by Saint Ansel, they wouldn’t have done anything to develop their “seeing”. They would have simply collected yet another Iconic Trophy for their digital files. And, as I have heard it oft-quoted: “No one is going to do Ansel better than Ansel.” (In case you wonder why he is considered an artistic genius, you have to see the prints themselves–the “performance”. Internet links don’t even come close.)

This particular workshop photographer, by having her group go to work in an unfamiliar location, forced them to peel open their droopy eyelids and start looking–really looking–at the landscape around them. Sometimes they would just sit like Gump on a log and look around for many minutes, doing nothing. Eventually, though, the creative side of their brains would kick in and new and exciting images would start to appear, like shimmering ghosts, out of the scene before them. She said it was amazing to see the work they came up with–really original stuff.

Here is a personal example, using Garden of the Gods, in Colorado Springs.

At first, you might be tempted to simply go to the high point on the loop road, use the pull out, and make this image from your car window:

Garden of the Gods, #972. Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2015 (#972 million, more like it.)
Garden of the Gods, #972. Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2015 (#972,000, more like it.)

The problem is that a million others have made the same image–and probably much better, unless you have a lot of skill and the luck to find highly unusual weather and light conditions. (Go HERE to see how many photographs were captured at this very same spot.)

Instead, why not take a slow walk through the Garden pathways. Stop and sit on a rock. Observe. Let your mental focus drift off to old Star Trek episodes, then drift back to the scene at hand. Look at the larger scape, then at the micro scape. Do you see patterns, lines, shapes? Odd formations or juxtapositions of structures? How about faces or creatures in the rock? Unusual color patterns? Wildlife? Birds? Rabbits? Pigeons? Can you see any interesting layered compositions with the grasses, plants, and scrub oak? What about cloudscapes? How would things look with various lenses…a super wide angle…a super telephoto…a macro? “Street shots” of the tourists even?

Let your mind wander. Bring it back into focus. Then wander away again somewhere else. Eventually, your creativity receptors will start warming up and crawling out of their hibernation dens.

When you do this, you just might come up with something completely different, like this:

The Greek Oracle. Garden of the Gods, Colorado, 2015
The Greek Oracle. Garden of the Gods, Colorado, 2015

This particular image I have never seen in any presentation of the Garden of the Gods. I have never seen it on a postcard rack. I wonder how many photographers have walked right by it without noticing it? (It is right along one of the paved trails.) I like it because–at least IMHO–it is uniquely mine. It is certainly UN-iconic.

That is the idea, then: search for something you can call your own…something very personal. Go for the un-iconic.

14er Report #17: Pikes Peak (Winter, Northwest Slopes, First Attempt)

Socked In. Pikes Peak from Garden of the Gods, Colorado, 2015
Socked In. Pikes Peak from Garden of the Gods, Colorado, 2015

 

Attempt? Attempt? Howie, it can’t be! After all, there is a road and a railroad to the top of the dern thing. What do you mean attempt?

Well, the plan was sunrise photography at the summit and a very early morning climb via the Northwest Slopes, or Crags Route. But it was not to be…the narrow weather window I was shooting for, and the route finding, didn’t work out.

The trench through the frozen Styrofoam snow was packed solid by previous feet–perfect for microspikes–all the way up through treeline. Above that, though, the windswept slopes did not hold enough snow to leave tracks for me to follow and I was still not using my new GPS (I will from now on!).

At 4:20a.m., I ended up on a ridge (turns out, pretty close to the route) at about 12,500′, but just bit north of Devils Playground), in the dark, and surrounded by wind-blown, swirling clouds that were increasingly obscuring the lights of Colorado Springs far below.

With me not feeling comfortable about being alone, and a bit disoriented, and with the prospect of sunrise photography looking somewhat bleak, I tracked my own intermittent tracks back down through the tundra and picked up the packed snowshoe trail to the trailhead. (I could have stood there on the ridge, dancing on my feet behind a rock for an hour, awaiting first light for visual clues, but that didn’t seem too appealing at the time.)

Some basic lessons…

–Even an “easy” 14er can become quite difficult if you insist on doing it in the dark and with even slightly unstable winter weather.

–I know of several survival stories in which hikers have mistakenly dropped down the wrong drainage when visibility was limited, only to find themselves bushwhacking (and panicking) through zillions of downed trees and hip-deep snow–it could happen quite easily in the dark, in the clouds, or in a whiteout. Throw in a bit of hypothermia, and you have the makings of a disaster.

–A GPS loaded with detailed maps of the area (or even with just the tracking feature enabled) can be a powerful antidote to disorientation–assuming you carry it with you and know how to use it.

–A 14er will always be there.

–A 14er shouldn’t ever be taken casually.

–If things aren’t going right, there is no reason not to just shrug and say, “Oh, well. Maybe next time.” As we used to say in my aviation days, “It’s always better to be safely on the ground wishing you were ‘up there’ rather than ‘up there’ wishing you were safely on the ground.”

POSTSCRIPT: After the trip, and some analysis, it turns out I could have just kept the wind at my right-rear quarter and walked semi-blindly through the dark and clouds and across the flats until I hit the Pikes Peak Road. At that hour, no one would have been patrolling it (it is prohibited to walk it; you have to use the near-parallel footpath) and I could have easily walked it to the summit. In addition, a look at the summit cam later that day showed the summit above the clouds–so perhaps that sunrise photography would have been ultra-spectacular after all. But, you know what they say…hindsight is 20-20.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Certain landscape locations tend to be known among photographers as a “good place for sunrise” or a “good place for sunset”–but usually not both. Based on where the first rays of the sun fall at dawn, this is often true–many places are indeed good for sunrise but not sunset, or vice versa. (As always, consult The Photographer’s Ephemeris for data on the site in question.)

But there are always slight exceptions…and even full-on exceptions.

I tend to get locked into this kind of groupthink, too. But, now and then, it’s fun to experiment and go to your typical sunrise spot for the sunset. Or go to your favorite sunset vista for the sunrise. You certainly might be predictably disappointed…but just maybe–just maybe–you will be pleasantly surprised with the light you encounter.

As an example of a slight exception, here are two images captured within the past ten days or so from nearly the same spot (albeit differing cloud and ground conditions), at a place that I typically thought of as “only for sunrise”–Marshall Mesa, just north of Boulder. For the curious, yes, the large tree is the same one in both images.

At sunrise…

First Light on Longs Peak. Marshall Mesa, Colorado, 2015
First Light on Longs Peak. Marshall Mesa, Colorado, 2015

At sunset…

Classic Flatiron Sunset. Marshall Mesa, Colorado, 2015
Classic Flatiron Sunset. Marshall Mesa, Colorado, 2015

Shadowy Photography

The Monday Photography Group, Shadows. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
The Monday Photography Group, Shadows. Boulder, Colorado, 2015

One reason I really enjoy winter outdoor photography is that the low sun angle really enhances the shadows, giving dimension to the landscape. The farther north the latitude, the better.

Sometimes it is fun to try capturing the shadows as a subject in and of itself–whilst attempting to avoid the cliché. Shadows, to me, imply the existence of a parallel world, often ignored, but filled with spirits, movement, and mood.

So, this was the plan yesterday, as we–our Monday afternoon youth photo group–sauntered around a few city blocks in Boulder making images. The theme o’ the day was shadows and squares/rectangles. My eye kept seeing mostly shadows, but an occasional square or rectangular shape did creep into the viewfinder now and then. My tool of choice was the iPhone.

The results? It will be interesting to see what the others came up with when we get together again next Monday–everyone “sees” things soooo differently, you know.

In the meantime, here is my short photo essay, “The Shadowy Other-World of Boulder, Colorado”…

Boulder Sidewalk. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
Boulder Sidewalk. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
Chicken, Tree Swing, and Fenced Man. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
Chicken, Tree Swing, and Fenced Man. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
Family with Baby Carriage. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
Family with Baby Carriage. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
The Tree. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
The Tree. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
The Cyclist. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
The Cyclist. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
Two Photographers and a Pole. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
Two Photographers and a Pole. Boulder, Colorado, 2015

The Creativity Well (How deep is yours?)

Underpass Abstract, #3. Boulder, Colorado, 2014
Underpass Abstract, #3. Boulder, Colorado, 2014

What is the source of our creativity?

A few of us have been having an ongoing, and probably never-ending, discussion about the source of an artist’s creativity. Some people seem to have oodles and noodles of it just bursting from every obscure pore in their body while others struggle to tap in to a deeply-buried and very elusive source.

Do you have to live a life of suffering to tap in to true creativity like Amy Winehouse, Ed Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Vincent van Gogh, for instance? Some believe so. What role does our capitalist consumer society (and, thus, our schools) play in crushing our creative potential? Do we all start out with it, but then let it whither way or allow it to be destroyed?

If I had my druthers, I’d rather be of the former of the two examples above–the oodles and noodles case. The creativity and the vision is the hardest part about art. If one has that, one can eventually develop the necessary technical skills to bring the vision to fruition as a well-executed work. My significant other is of this type–she has more creativity in her pinkie toe than I seem to have in my entire corpus humanus. Ideas seem to flow from her non-stop like a river in flood. The technical aspects, though–Photoshop, various plugins, how to size, label, and catalogue her images, printer settings, matting and framing, etc.–bore her to death and here she struggles. With time, though, she has worked hard on the technical side of the artistic equation and her work–already uniquely creative–has acquired a higher degree of overall professionalism.

Then, there is me. I have the discipline and interest to learn the technical aspects of a camera, of Photoshop, of cataloguing images, printing, framing, and so on…but, I struggle with zeroing in on what type of imagery is truly me–imagery that flows from deep inside and reveals exactly who I really am. I seem to like everything, so I make pictures of [almost] everything. Maybe, like Garry Winogrand, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” I am curious. I like clichés–sunrises and sunsets, old trees–and I like traditional landscapes and nature abstracts. But, I also like cityscapes–street/people, strange juxtapositions, weird architecture, grungy urban abstracts. Yin and yang.

So, I have the opposite problem as does my wife: I probably have adequate technical expertise to bring the image to print–but the bigger question is: What, precisely, should those images be? With time–and this has been a slow process–I have learned to listen carefully to my inner emotional reaction to something I create. I have noticed that there are some images–typically, the more disorienting abstracts or photographs with an unusual perspective–that satisfy me more than the others. (Even if some viewers find them confusing or not understandable.) What I need to do then, is to continue to listen closely to these innermost whispers and follow that track into the wilderness.  Hopefully, as the years go by, I will continue to develop the acuity I need to really tap in to that elusive creative fount.

What is the solution for the average beginning photographer in search of creativity and vision, then? I would say just go out and make pictures–a lot. Like a sine wave, you’ll initially be all over the place, testing the extremes, with your imagery. With time, as you begin to focus in on what turns your Model T crank (your passion), that wave will start to settle into a gentle, pleasing pattern as you focus in (sic) on what your heart is trying to tell you.

My dos centavos for the day…spend them wisely!

Bear Peak Sunrise, Again

With some promising clouds just visible in the night sky, I was up the trail at 4a.m. this morning in hopes of capturing yet another spiritual sunrise from atop Bear Peak, above Boulder. The winds were howling like a freight train on the summit–indeed, I could hear the warning horn. But…that actually turned out to be from a real train chugging up the steep grade through nearby Eldorado Springs Canyon.

Nice choreography.

For folks who are out-of-state and, say, living in hot and humid lowlands with little experience with Colorado sunrises, you might be wondering if these pictures are typical or if they are, in fact, outrageously awesome. You might even wonder if I have a “parameter of sunrise awesomeness”. Well, as a matter of fact, since you asked…

On the Camp Counselor Carl (CCCarl) Scale of Awesomeness (SOA), this morning’s celestial event comes in about average (say, a 6 on the 1-10 scale). Very nice, but Colorado can do much better…and one always hopes for something extra special when out and about this early, especially given the physical effort involved.

Some images…

I like the play of color–the gold, yellow, and red with the semi-frozen, silver-blue of Marshall Lake:

20150125-8193 eOrange-City-Blue Ver2

 

The next photograph is a good index of the population pressure as it builds against the foothills of the Front Range. At least, in places, Open Space provides a buffer.

Had we had a Texas/Arizona/Florida growth philosophy, that carpet of lights (already imposing) would have rolled densely all the way to the west to the crest of the foothills and beyond.

Note the isolated semi-circle of reddish lights on the lower right–the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR):

Front Range Metropolis at Dawn. From Bear Peak, Colorado, 2015
Front Range Metropolis at Dawn. From Bear Peak, Colorado, 2015

I like the red-to-pink palette with a “winged summit” in the middle. You can just see Pikes Peak far away to the left and a distant Mt. Evans to the right under the big wave cloud:

Last Steps to the Summit. Bear Peak, Colorado, 2015
Last Steps to the Summit. Bear Peak, Colorado, 2015

A similar view, but moving the tripod higher along the summit ridge, bringing South Boulder Peak into view. It’s always good to experiment with even slight changes of perspective:

Pikes-Bear-Evans. Bear Peak, Colorado, 2015
Pikes-Bear-Evans. Bear Peak, Colorado, 2015

The rising sun hits the foothills and the Flatirons. Green Mountain is just visible to the left and the geology of this uplifted zone slides away into the distance:

Boulder View. From Bear Peak, Colorado, 2015
Boulder View. From Bear Peak, Colorado, 2015

The giant plasmic meatball heaves into view across the Great Plains:

Sunrise. From Bear Mountain, Colorado, 2015
Sunrise. From Bear Mountain, Colorado, 2015

Spam Humor

Hwy 93 Morning Rush Hour. Boulder, Colorado (Even spammers have to go to work...)
Hwy 93 Morning Rush Hour. Boulder, Colorado (Even spammers have to go to work sometime…)

The spam that constantly flows into one’s website, much like community sewage, is quite varied and tasty in its own disgusting way. You’ll find all kinds of colors, textures, and chunks therein.

There must be a way of randomly selecting a few of these lines and putting them together to make an entertaining, artistic, literary composition (derivative turd?) of some kind.

Maybe like this? (Created from actual spam text found in my spam queue.)

It is only an excellent product or service, especially for men, who wish to learn to flirt or enrich it. WOW, just what I was looking for. It is such as you read my mind! You seem to grasp so much approximately this, such as you wrote the ebook in it or something.

Ohio Birding, the primary spots has tremendous variety involving environments on a slightly manageable areas. Hand out speedily by using the being melted Creole butter numerous crusty bakery into dip with the butter. He wanted weight this stewpot, based on him, smiling widely deep under an individual’s eye-catching handlebar mustache.

I was actually moved enough to create a thought. I do have some questions for you if it is okay. Is it only me or do some of the responses appear as if they are written by brain dead people?

I love what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and coverage!

The unique and suspense-filled plot already has me sucked in…amazing writing! Go spammers!

NOTE: For spam first aid, the Akismet plugin is about the best I have found for filtering out the scatological effluence from the legitimate comments.

Art Opening: María Rosa Fusté

Just a reminder: her opening is tomorrow night at Boulder Digital Arts, showing photography that is a little different than what you might be used to (as you can tell by the PR poster).

Come on out to socialize and talk art! There will be light snacks and music by the trio, Tridium, as well.

See you there!

POSTSCRIPT: Thanks for all who turned out! María had a wonderful time as did I, chatting with all the friends and visitors. She even sold a couple of the larger pieces and a handful of smaller, loose, prints. Her work almost requires a full 35-piece show like this to understand what she does and see it as a “cohesive body of work” (to use The Phrase)–looking at an individual image on a small computer screen just doesn’t fly. See everyone at the next exhibit, whether it is ours or yours!