Slowly season parts

Slow time surprises us.  You glance at an object you see every day and suddenly it has changed, revealing a previously unseen aspect that appears almost by magic.  Were we not paying attention?  Did this occur all of a sudden?  Slow time creeps around us, touching everything with the inevitable finger of entropy.

Winter is leaving, in spite of what the thermometer says every day.  The days are getting longer, the fields are revealed without their white blanket, the birds are singing in the hedges.  It is taking its time, though, gradually withdrawing a bit at a time and by doing so leaving behind signs of its passing.

As a stalactite patiently grows down from the cavern ceiling, this twig extension slowly grew drop by drop, displaying the remains of the melting ice and snow from higher in the branches.  A little warmer for a bit, then a drop in temperature, moving water from one state to another while it flows inevitably to the ground.  Cycle after cycle, expanding the reach of the ice twig as the tree foresees the actual growth to replace winter’s surrogate.

Does culture bias our dynamic perception?

The vast majority of people in western culture perceive visual information from left to right, generally because that’s how our written language is displayed.  Confronted with a new scene, we usually look to the left first and scan to the right.  Research has also shown that we have a lower vs. higher bias – we tend to look downward before looking upward.  Knowing these biases exist reveals a little about the “power points” discussed in photography.

An image with the main subject in the middle of the composition is usually perceived as being static rather than dynamic, a documentary recording of what was in the scene at the time.  Photography instruction emphasizes compositions that are more dynamic, that imply motion in the scene or tension among the elements.  Applying the above biases, you can see where a subject that is toward the left and below the centerline of a scene will be perceived first in an image, standing out initially from the rest of the scene.

This image obeys those biases.  The milkweed pod is indeed below the centerline and to the left of the image.  Yet it feels not that interesting, not as dynamic as it could be.  I’ve made many images that followed these two rules and still disappoint.

There’s another aspect of certain subjects and that’s how they guide our eyes through an image.  A symmetrical subject will encourage our eye to stay focused on it but a subject with any directionality to it (a point, a bulge, a curve) tends to lead our eye along the asymmetrical part.  In the image above, the pods curve into a point, and that point is – well – pointing to the left.  Our eye wants to follow that point and does so right out of the image.  In order for the viewer to look at the right side of the image they have to re-enter the image.

Essentially the same scene but here the milkweed pod is more on the right side of the composition while still below the center line.  The “point” on the pod leads the eye to the area of the composition where the majority of the space is located, giving the eye plenty of room to explore within the image and return to the subject without leaving the frame.

Does it seem silly that a small bias like this might influence how we view images?  Does it seem annoying that visual artists exploit such biases to control how we enjoy their work?  Does it mean all I need do in order to create a “masterpiece” is to follow placement biases?

Well, artists work to show the world as they see it, sharing that vision with us but not compelling us to buy into it.  Great visual art has more subtlety about it than simply obeying (or breaking) conventional rules and I feel most viewers acknowledge that, perhaps even subconsciously, when they look and enjoy.

It’s important to understand that we have these internal biases and fun to know or speculate on how they evolved.  As a starting point in visual creation be aware of them but rigidly following them usually doesn’t reveal the artist’s real view of the scene.  For that one has to incorporate some form of expression – what is the scene saying to you, how does the scene make you feel, what compelled you to look at the scene and what compels you to continue looking at it?  Incorporate those expressions in visual art, working the known biases in favor of maximum function, and your images will start standing out from your prior efforts and those of others.

Out of the mountains behind the Swiftcurrent Lodge in Glacier National Park is a flows a clear, cool stream, rushing down the slopes to the shallow valley below.  Fed by the melting snow from high on the peaks, the water cascades down through open areas and dark forests, picking up volume from small rivulets along the way.

As the water reaches the flatter valley floor it spreads across a bed of rocks that have been deposited in its bed by years of erosion and raging floods.

The rocks show the results of the water’s relentless work, shaping and sculpting each one by the continuous flow into smooth, rounded surfaces.  Variegated in color like a well designed quilt, the creek bed reveals some of the history of geologic time that has passed to create rocks of multiple hues.

At the end of the stream’s brief life it joins other waters, siblings born of other peaks and valleys, flowing not over rocky beds but through still, open areas where lakes are formed and sparkle under the sun.  Wind here, not gravity, pushes the waters against the shore, continuing the gentle erosion that turns mountains into sand.

Oblivious of the deep time going on around them, wildlife moves through the glades and shoreline, quietly a part of the forest as much as the water and rocks.


Winter endures

Many people here are ready for spring, not because of the lingering snow as much as the single digit temperatures that just won’t go away.  I can see their point but isn’t it just wonderful the stark difference winter has to the rest of the year?  Don’t we appreciate the other three quarters because of the way this one fourth affects us?

Granted, much of my enjoyment comes from performance fabrics, appropriate footwear and layers of warm clothing.  I test myself against the rigors of the season intentionally, fortunate that I don’t have to be tested by an inability to be prepared.  There are unfortunate people who dread winter, unable to afford heating or enough food or even shelter.  I can’t imagine living just a bit removed from our ancestral caves, surrounded by a modern society finding winter a temporary inconvenience.  My perception of winter would be radically different if from a steam grate or corner of a bus station or in the back seat of a car that served as living quarters.

Being able to get out with my camera gear and compose images while inside of my high tech cocoon is not something I think lightly about, regardless of how I seem to talk about the season.  It’s hard on people and animals, the brutal relentlessness of evolution, biology and physics.  Keep that in mind when you have the opportunity to help someone or something less able to manage winter.

Break out your whittling knife

This winter has delivered a significant amount of snow to our part of Wisconsin, enough so the long time residents are starting to comment about it.  Our white Christmas has become a white winter.  Since I always think of the season in terms of snow this is great for me.

But what do you do with these piles of snow?

Obviously, hold a snow sculpting contest.  Turn all that snow into works of art for people to ooh and aah about.  And that’s exactly what happened this weekend on the water’s edge (well, the ice’s edge) at Lake Geneva.  Apparently it’s not the first time a bunch of crazy people have gotten together to celebrate the frozen stuff, either.  Read about it here.

And we’re not talking about really fancy “stack some big snowballs to make a snowman” sculpting.  These teams really get into the design and details of some pretty elaborate creations.  These would do justice to any other, more permanent medium but these people chose the more temporally (and temperature) challenged substance that’s lying around this time of year.

Local people bored with winter?  Oh, no.  Teams this year from Alaska, Colorado, Vermont, Nebraska, Michigan and other states worked their way from regional and state competitions to come to Wisconsin and compete for the national title.  And just to make them feel welcome, there were three hard-working Wisconsin teams right there with them.

You may be thinking how much work can this be, piling up a little snow and carving out some castles and such?  Well, start with a silo of snow nine feet tall.  Now remove all the snow you don’t need to make your creation.  And details count.

Here are some of my favorites.  Enjoy.

Macro study

Been playing around with tabletop compositions (much warmer inside than out in Wisconsin these days).  It’s fun to work on different distances to see what close vs far does for the subject.  I wonder if there isn’t a sweet spot for any subject, be it tiny objects, beautiful models or grand landscapes, and one objective for the photographer is to tap into that as part of the creative process.

I guess the distance is a function of the story you want the subject to be telling.  Close gives an intimate sense of being a part of the scene, a look into a world that resides right under our noses but is usually passed over in lieu of the more macro world.  Backing up some to see that larger scene gives a sense of place, a context for the subject to reside in and on.  Pulling back more to see the whole object reveals what it is and some of what its function may be at the time.

Part of this study was to simply use a different background.  I usually place objects on a black cloth but have been wanting to work on shadows.  Hard to reverse out shadows (wouldn’t that be cool, though; white shadows on a black background) so I got a white cloth instead.  Now I can use my light modifiers in a greater way, to control light on the subject and shadow.