“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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“First Light, Suttons Bay, Michigan

Posted on Oct, Wed, 2020 in Uncategorized

“First Light, Suttons Bay, Michigan

 

Sunrise brings form to the farms here in Leelanau county where the sweep of wind across the dunes is like the music of antiquity. 10,000 years ago the last glacier left deposits of quartz, ground through the millennia to sand by the weight of an ice sheet over a mile high, creating in its retreat the largest area of “lake” dunes on earth. Mimicking undulating sine waves continually recast by the winds, the dune fields advanced across Michigan providing a footing for timber, orchards, crops, cattle and wildlife. Traveling through these mountainous mounds one senses the mutability of time, the endless rhythms of the landscape, all coalescing into an ensemble, not of time only but a harmony of the trees, grass, sand and water. Like ancient tumuli, these migrating dunes honor a continuous narrative of the past.

Varieties of late autumn grasses provide the visual texture. At their origin along the Niagara escarpment, the sand dunes of Michigan’s northern lower peninsula follow Lake Michigan’s eastern shore from the Straits of Mackinaw to northern Indiana, their path swinging briefly north from Traverse City passing through the 45th parallel and the small town of Suttons Bay. Fifteen miles beyond, the dunes arc to the west around the northern tip of the Leelanau peninsula and dip southward past the Great Sleeping Bear dunes before traveling 300 miles south to Indiana less than 50 miles short of Chicago.

It was on the outskirts of Suttons Bay, however, that this sunrise scene presented itself in late October five years ago. Even the small roads and drives seem to trace the contours of the land. I thought this scene, illuminated by early light and long shadows, captured the visual rhythms and texture of the dunes. Swales and hollows form providing an anchor for vegetation as grass traps windblown sand. This image represents the typical farm with its sometimes random, sometimes deliberate copse of poplar that serves to arrest the landscape’s inexorable flow. Maples, cedar, oak, juniper, marram and bluestem grass are all visible in the landscape.

In the midst of today’s political and economic turmoil and the worst epidemic since 1918, Leelanau, County, Michigan provides a healing landscape and a magical outpost of nature for the weary. My earnest hope is for each of you to visit one day.
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“September”

Posted on Aug, Sat, 2020 in Gallery Image, Landscapes, Musings from Still Point, Musings from Still Point, Uncategorized

For sale at Still Point Gallery

September

My memory of Septembers in northeast Ohio are of crystal skies and filtered sunlight, a month as temperate as its equinox suggests.  The image here, taken September 8th, 2012 as I walked the center path of Squire Valleevue farm’s eastern meadow depicts a very different month, the portent of a seasonal change.  Stratocumulus clouds on the trailing edge of a cold front swept through that morning auguring an early winter. And in a moment of nature imitating art the landscape bore resemblance to layers in a Rothco painting, a study in color, horizontals and horizons.

This was the rare and restive September day with uncharacteristic temerity, an abruptness and “matter of factness” foreshadowing change, where the transition of seasons is rarely subtle. Even September with its few discordant days, skies prematurely brooding and bracing, still the meadow waiting, a renascent source for life through each season.

And yet most of the month a contrast, a nostalgic time when tall meadow grass makes its final surge then rests weary upon itself. Blue asters tenacious through their last days, Liatris and Ironweed bending reluctantly, folding and fading, their roots and rhizomes anchoring the meadow through time. I’ve often thought September in Cleveland, a mix of memories and wistful, melancholic longings for another place or for past friends and family. The comforting melancholy of  September is reflected in the last stanza of Robert Frost’s poem, “Reluctance”.

“Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?”

The barn, its weathered sides and growing clefts reminding us of changes ahead; each season – life’s measure and mystery.

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“Creative Musing As Process”

Posted on Aug, Mon, 2020 in Uncategorized

Heron, End of Summer

“Creative Musing as Process”

My inquiry into this topic began over 50 years ago as photography and art expanded to fill creative voids in my business career. A recent backyard discussion with a poet friend regarding his approach to writing has reinvigorated my own curiosity vis a vis photography, especially as it relates to “process” and its relevance in producing a finished work of art.  To that end a central question remains as to the role creative musing plays in the overall process of art generally and photography specifically.

Musing has been defined broadly as an act of reflection and contemplation, creative musing as a process from which inspiration and originality derive. For millennia, artists have engaged in creative musing as a critical step in the process of making art, and while not their exclusive domaine, artists do appear to spend a disproportionate share of their time musing as compared to those in other fields and disciplines, possibly because they simply have more latitude to do so or perhaps because it is so integral to creativity. If reflection and finding inspiration are critical process components then how they manifest in a finished work of art is a question for every artist, indeed for us all. Parenthetically it might be added that reflection and inspiration more often than not, are unplanned, extemporized moments when something (e.g. a sound, a smell, a symbol, a story, a work of art, etc., etc.) triggers further contemplation and convergence of past experience that may lead in turn to the creation of something new and original.

John Dewey, the brilliant pragmatist, psychologist and philosopher of the early 20th century is well known for his cardinal work, “Art as Experience”, assembled from the “William James Lecture Series” he presented at Harvard, 1932.  Dewey distinguished the physical manifestation of a finished work of art, the “expressive object”, from the artist’s holistic “process” of creation. Not his intent to relegate the “expressive object” to a second tier of importance, Dewey desired instead to focus on the inenarrable qualities of the creative process and its invocation and application of experience to understand how the finished work derived.

That a photographer or painter may use certain hard tools in his/her craft to create a unique or compelling image or painting was of little consequence without considering the contribution of “experience” to the finished work.  What fascinated Dewey were the softer, qualitative skills and the process through which they were invoked and applied to yield a piece of art.  Recognizing there are certain threshold levels (“must-haves”) of technology required to produce a work, an argument can be made for subordinating the relevance of technology per se during the early stage (i.e. creative musing) of the process.  An iPhone, for instance, may serve as a vehicle for expression, producing remarkable images in the hands of a creative photographer.  The photograph benefits from precisely the same process of reflection and imagination, limited as it may be by technological constraints (e.g. lacking the ability to produce 7′ prints).  In the end, however, these limits of technology are arbitrary and generally eclipsed by breakthroughs over time having little impact on the greater aesthetic.  Ultimately success relies on the artist’s ability to translate creative musings, abstract thinking and the totality of his/her experience into original works.

For many photographers, recording a scene realistically (“as it exists”) or freezing a moment in time, have become the paramount virtue of photography, coming at the expense of  creative musing and “process”.  For instance, Henri Cartier Bresson’s  “decisive moment” may have unwittingly helped spawn photographers who revere extemporaneity over process, firm in their belief that Bresson’s street images were wholly spontaneous, the product of a gifted photographer who pressed the shutter on his Leica instinctively – at the decisive moment. That perspective, however, vests heavily in the conviction artists are “born” with numinous talent, a notion dispelled by Bresson himself who has detailed the extensive preparation required, even for his street scenes, often taking 20 or more photos at a location just to get one “decisive moment” worth printing.

The question also arises  as to what elements come into play through or subsequent to reflection and inspiration. Ansel Adams wrote of the importance of pre-visualization,  a natural extension to creative musing. He would imagine both the physical scene and the subsequent steps of post-processing and printing required in the overall process of creating a finished print.  Edward Weston, like Bresson, was yet another to take dozens of photos to get an acceptable image; consider “Pepper #30” which quite logically had no less than thirty shots.  Meticulous anticipation and control of the variables were the hallmark of the great 20th century masters.  Photography has a broad existential aspect, one in which the photographer must make choices, many deliberate, others spontaneous, the artist ultimately responsible for understanding the variables and sequential steps that constitute his/her own process.

Upon viewing a compelling image for the first time, I’ve found photographers often will ask the artist about his/her “process”, first inquiring about the equipment (i.e. camera make and model,, lens, tripod, ball head, filters, lighting, firmware, etc.).  The inquest proceeds with a request for an accounting of the camera settings; shutter speed, ISO, aperture, file preference  (raw, tiff, or jpg).  These are not trivial questions of course, each requiring a choice that may affect the outcome, however,  the preoccupation with these technical variables simply because they are relatively easy to control or replicate overlooks more critical considerations . The interesting and elusive questions in the artistic process may be best represented by the ineffable qualities of imagination, originality and perspective that drive and gird the creation of art – photography or otherwise.  An anecdotal illustration may provide further clarity.

About fifteen years ago, an acquaintance and successful commercial photographer, tiring of her craft decided to supplement her interests and income by becoming a fine art landscape photographer.  She signed up for a course with one of Ansel Adams protégés (emerging by the score seemingly after his death) who conducts workshops in Yosemite.  After a five day immersion in spectacular surroundings, she returned ecstatic about her visit, anxious to bring one of her prints over for me to see.  Technically excellent, she had taken the photograph with her new professional camera and expensive lens. Though produced in color, it was almost identical in composition to Adam’s famous black and white, large format print, “Merced River, Cliffs, Autumn”.  There was something missing, however.  The image, superficially beautiful, struck me as a recording, wanting for its own soul, wanting to be interpreted and animated. She recounted how the instructors had positioned each member of the group in the Merced River at precisely the right location and time of day that Adams originally had captured the scene.  The instructors dictated the shutter speed and aperture and helped the students crop the finished product to imitate Adam’s composition. The workshop provided almost no discussion about the art of printing, one the most important elements in the process; indeed, throughout his career Adams asserted 50% or more of the art occurred in the darkroom, often spending a day or more (occasionally up to 40 hours) perfecting his vision through an individual print.  There had been no creative musing at the workshop nor time spent attempting to understand Adams’ vision, what may have been in his mind or how he translated intent into the finished print.  In short, the creative elements in the process were disregarded.

Creative musing sparked the interest of Ansel Adams and Fred Archer to understand and codify the visible light spectrum into the Zone System of photography.  Other photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Minor White and scores of early pioneers as well as contemporary photographers have regarded musing as the first step in the process. Subsequent steps of preparation and execution will remain fodder for another day.

My own musings … scratching the surface only.

C.G. Baker 8/4/19

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