“Kate”

Posted on Jan, Sun, 2021 in Black & White, Musings from Still Point

“Kate”  A Walk into a New Year

Fourteen years ago today I took a photograph of my wife, Kate, as she walked the same path that had led to the title of my first book, “The Way Home”. Oddly, other than birthdays and holiday snap-shots, it was the first time I included a person in a photograph I published.

Ten or fifteen paces ahead, and unaware I was taking her picture, she maintained her usual brisk, deliberate gait, always seeming to know her heading, if not particularly concerned about the final destination. Earlier in the day gray clouds had descended into the dull opacity of the season, all but absorbing the landscape’s color. Worn black from deer passing, an earthy redolence of the forest floor was suspended in the air along the path as it meandered through the tall, close-quartered beech and white pines competing for sunlight. By late afternoon and the end of our walk the metaphoric veil of gray was lifting, light finding its way between the trees, revealing a clearing ahead.

From time to time I look at this photograph and wonder how an elemental image holds the capacity to evoke such emotion in me, or to communicate qualities of an individual or the relevance of a place it depicts. Moreover, it calls into question how much of our own experience and existence can be ascribed to or reflected in our art – a fundamental question for any work I suppose. An artist’s perception, of course, relies as much upon personal experience as on his/her powers of observation and attempts at objectivity.

What others may take, if anything, from this particular image is difficult to know. From the general lack of detail, a random viewer might see only the banal, an androgynous figure, an indistinct path and a locale sufficiently lacking in context to place. For me, however, the photograph captures Kate’s authenticity, humility, and reverence for the natural world, the same qualities I’ve valued in nature and that have illuminated my way home through difficult times. Presumptuous to think others might have similar notions about this photograph but one must ask, even rhetorically; is there not some universality in an image or any work of art, symbols perhaps that transcend the experience of the artist or viewer, that, in the end, confer meaning?

I send this image on as an expression of gratitude and love for Kate and as a symbol of mystery and goodwill to each of you as we embark on the new year.

Geoff
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“Black Willow and Bittersweet”

Posted on Dec, Tue, 2020 in Uncategorized


A black willow’s cornice of gold showcases a bittersweet vine the last week of November, 2010. This was a wholly unexpected moment when a serendipitous break in the clouds gilded the landscape moments before sunset.

As a boy I remember cutting lengths of bittersweet for my mother’s Thanksgiving table. At the time, the jeweled vine was a prized discovery and I would scout new patches each summer in the woods around our home. That was 60 years ago when bittersweet was scarce, but in recent years it has proliferated as its beauty renders silent death to countless saplings and trees across the state. Apart from its stunning color, an ironic beauty also is to be found in the wake of its destruction, in the “impermanence” it brings to the landscape; a paradox to our western aesthetic that seeks wholeness and immutability.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Death is beautiful when seen to be a law and not an accident.”

In nature beauty often attends death, quietly, inexorably. Consider the bittersweet vine, its autumn beauty spreading deliberately along the margins of northeast Ohio’s hardwood forests. For the vine, the act of commingling seems less a random desire than a living imperative, sustaining itself as it does by robbing its host of light and nutrients. And any suggestion of symbiosis or benign reciprocity between vine and tree is illusory only, a black willow in this instance struggling silently beneath the weight of bittersweet, its vine as thick as a thumb, twinning about its host and, not without irony, explodes in a splendorous display of coral berries and orange calyx.

Thoreau further laments there is only “as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate … How much of beauty—of color, as well as form—on which our eyes daily rest goes unperceived by us?”

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“Bracing, First Snow”

Posted on Dec, Sun, 2020 in Landscapes, Musings from Still Point

On the east bank, perched on a shelf of shale and siltstone 15 feet above the Chagrin River and less than a half mile south of the Gates Mills bridge, a trio of American Sycamores flanked left by young beech, right by a small hoary oak, brace for the first storm of the season. Yesterday my own mood, no doubt informed by radio reports, had me observing the landscape through a lens of apprehension. Quite conceivably the anxiety was also being shared beneath the forest floor, through messages exchanged between trees in a neural and biological network as beautiful and complex as that which grows above. Within that network of roots and ribosomes, early warnings manifest for changes in weather, disease and nutrients; challenges trees address through shared resources and a sense of community.

Ghostly, like bleached bones, the great white sycamores of the Chagrin Valley stand, erect, dendritic fingers reaching toward heaven. I’ve written before of their majesty which is only fully visible in late autumn and winter. Observed during a heavy rain yesterday afternoon, this transient scene was textured, filled with subtleties and wonders along the banks of the river, on the forest floor, above and below, seen and only to be imagined.

Today the landscape is white, dead and two dimensional.

Would that you and I, that we, in this moment of despair and need for community, behave as sycamores.
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“Chagrin Valley, Fairmount and Chagrin River Roads”

Posted on Dec, Sun, 2020 in Landscapes, Musings from Still Point

Reminding us of nature’s caprice, the arrival of a brief cold front 10 days ago, accompanied by the usual suspects (rain and wind gusts), was sufficient to strip much of the color from the slopes above the Chagrin river at the intersection of Fairmount and River Roads. The panorama below is a composite of 12 photographs taken a day later as maples, poplar, exposed oak and sycamore were left bare. Cherry and beech had lost their leaves a week earlier.
Returning this afternoon after yesterday’s (Sunday, November 15) heavy winds, all that remain are the bones of black oaks (right foreground) gesticulating, flanked by ghostly sycamores and random pockets of spruce and white pine. These slopes rise above the river to the east and west to form the Chagrin Valley, creating some of the most spectacularly iconic landscape in the country. And, with their mercurial personality, the trees anchor our affinity for nature as they remind us of its impermanence.
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“Autumn Rails III”

Posted on Nov, Sun, 2020 in Uncategorized

In 2007 I published “Autumn Rails I”, an image of this railroad track disappearing into the morning fog. Five years later (2012) I published “Autumn Rails II” taken from the same section of track in the blue light of early morning. The night before, heavy winds had stripped the trees of color, all except a small Hawthorne its auburn leaves intact, defiantly bracing into winter. This latest image was taken the last week in October. For me it’s a metaphor of promise, ephemeral of course, but one that augers well for future seasons of renewal.

Looking north into this frame the tracks form the western boundary of Schweitzer marsh. For five decades I’ve walked these rails, through each season, through the twilight of many mornings, through countless days and occasionally moonless nights.

Following a morning rain in late October this year I found myself seduced by the perspective, a narrow vista of burnished rails and colors converging, its sensate hues and geometry pulling me into a vanishing point. The element I found most provocative and compelling, however, was a black cherry tree listing overhead, content with the passage of time as it slowly, deliberately, etched its shape and form through space. This old tree, leaning in, its imperfect arch only inches above and beyond the passing trains seemed to taunt the cars closer. Something I could relate to, growing old, not yet fully resigned, a few leaves still clinging, still taunting.

The tree … an artist’s design?  Divine agency?  Nature’s beauty, arbitrary but unrelenting, finds its path … by an artist conceived, or a bird perhaps.
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“Chagrin Valley, In Memoriam”

Posted on Nov, Tue, 2020 in Uncategorized

“Chagrin Valley, In Memoriam”

 

At Fairmount and River Roads, on the eastern bank of the Chagrin river, for one week only, an acre or two of sugar maple stake their claim in time and space. Rising above oaks and pines, beech and sycamore, a cloud of burnished gold like souls ascending; 231,000 but who’s counting?

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“Splendor”

Posted on Oct, Fri, 2020 in Uncategorized

Splendor

“Splendor”
I almost named this “In Praise of Restraint” (see below). This is an autumn scene I took Monday atop the Miles road bridge spanning the Chagrin river in Bentleyville. I was looking for a view that might illustrate this year’s extraordinary range of fall colors without resorting to computer enhanced, hyper-saturation, the increasingly popular artifice employed in post-processing, especially during this season. My own favorite time to photograph the leaves is shortly after or during a rain, when the colors are naturally saturated and the contrast is enhanced by the soft intensity of color against dark, almost black branches and tree trunks. In this image I actually had to desaturate colors somewhat, a concession to the value of “restraint”.

One of the very interesting elements from my vantage point above the river was the vast number of easily identifiable trees. I suspect this compressed photograph will make it difficult to discern specific leaves but northeast Ohioans will recognize many species by the tree’s overall shape and color. On my original full sized image file I found yellow maples, sugar maples, American sycamores, American cherry, beech, honey locust, ash, red and white oak, spruce, white pine and possibly hemlock. I’ve stood above Vermont’s amazing Quechee Gorge during the height of color and, apart from the altitude, would say our views compare very well.

The challenge for many new photographers is that iPhones and most consumer level cameras process and save image files in a jpeg format that by design and default over-saturate the image. Color amping landscapes is especially seductive in autumn because the “pop” is easy to create and addictive initially. Photoshop and similar post processing software provide filters and sliders that make it easy to pervert the color spectrum into luminescent neon with a click of a mouse. These garish colors seem to exist because they “can”, not because they are in any way faithful to the colors we experience. Notwithstanding the principle of artistic license, most serious photographers have a threshold for image manipulation, some committed to reproduce an image precisely as experienced, some comfortably adding or deleting information purposefully, and some simply resigned to gratuitous changes without regard for an aesthetic.


My own preference is not to rely on computer algorithms (i.e. computer engineers) to make those choices for me. Over saturating, adding too much contrast, etc. usually does not contribute to the power of a landscape. To the contrary, it introduces visual noise that detracts from an artist’s intent, especially his/her ability to communicate subtleties that may otherwise be lost. This is a consideration for all photographers that I’ll address with more specificity in a future post but it has become increasingly disconcerting in the last decade to see the profusion of photographs from iPhones and digital cameras posted on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) that so distort the natural world. I would encourage photographers of all levels to consider photographic restraint when venturing into the farms, forests and fields. Many if not most cameras can be adjusted (see your manual) to save files in a raw or tiff format. Desaturation during post processing is also a good alternative through photo editing programs such as Photoshop, Capture One, Skylum Luminar, Adobe Elements or free basic editing programs offered by most camera manufacturers.

Some grist for the mill.
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