The journey continues…

My car finally reached the condition where it’s not possible to fully trust it.  For over a decade it was simply a matter of turning the key, putting in gear and going wherever I wanted without wondering if I’d get there and back.  It’s a credit to the skills of designers, engineers, assemblers and mechanics that this car has carried me over 200,000 miles with very infrequent repairs.  And for each repair, there was a sense of it being a part that had just reached the end of it’s expected life, not something catastrophically breaking.  Unfortunately, in the past year, these end-of-life experiences have gotten too frequent and too unpredictable and I’ve started to wonder whether I will get to and from my destination.  So, I”m ending this car experience to take on a new one.

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The guiding advice in buying a car used to be avoid the first year of a new model; let the bugs get worked out first.  I was fully expecting to follow this advice but circumstances worked in a way that it was better to ignore it.  In 2002 Saturn introduced their long-awaited SUV, the VUE.  We were moving across the country and I wanted a car that would not only haul more stuff than my small sedan, but would also be able to get off the road in to the woods.  The first VUE I sat in just fit for all my expectations and was the one I drove off the lot.  I’m sure neither of us foresaw the next 12 years and how we would together to become a symbol for this time of change.  The traditional advice was wrong for me with this car, but I suspect the “traditional” advice was wrong about most Saturn vehicles.  The experiment that was Saturn opened new doors in American manufacturing to create new ways of thinking about quality and endurance.  Although the experiment was killed by business people who didn’t understand how to broadly apply that new thinking, those of us who have owned Saturns are glad we were part of the experiment.

c440948aIn this car I’ve moved across the country and back, twice, for work and photography school.  We loved the west so much we returned there several times in the VUE, hauling photography gear to national parks and small towns from Nebraska to Washington.  We explored the route of the transcontintental railroads, across the plains and mountains.  We wandered around the states we lived in without any concerns, driving up hilly, dirt roads to see where they went and zipping along interstates to get to the next adventure.  I like to think me and this car together became what people thought of when they thought of me – willing to try anything and go anywhere, taking some fun along to see what would happen.

As a photographer it’s important to have a car that carries all your gear and gets you where you need to be in order to make the shot.  An then there are the other benefits.  The window makes a great substitute tripod, especially when getting out of the car is a little hazardous.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere have been so many VUE’s on the road their shape and size is a perfect reference point to give a scene perspective, as well as a nicely reflective surface to frame a composition.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe original idea of a car that would do more than go down a road, one that would get me to places a bit off the beaten path, that idea has been fully realized in my time with this car.  Rocks, snow, mud, water, ice, rain – been through all that safety, usually have pictures to show it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking through my photos I realize how few I have made of my car.  Maybe it’s because I tend to keep man-made objects out of the image.  Or maybe it’s because I rarely see it as more than the means to get somewhere, not really a part of the destination.  Much as my cameras and gear, it’s a tool to aid in turning my vision into actual images.  Why would I get sentimental about a car?

We are inundated with anthropomorphic stories of objects around us, from fairy tales to Disney movies to Pixar animations.  As a culture we seem to endow personality and character onto objects as a way to create a relationship with them.  Even an un-emotional attachment has to realize the connection with a car as each of us adapts to how it handles, the features we love, the way it can be packed with stuff or even the way it sounds.  Over 12 years it is easy to think of my VUE as a partner in all the adventures owning it has made possible.

As with any consumer product, each year of manufacturing sees changes in design and construction.  The VUE morphed to more of a small family vehicle as the years went by, leaving behind the tougher, go-play-in-the-outdoors image the original marketing campaign was built on.  Even were Saturn to still exist today, I wouldn’t see replacing my VUE with a current one; just not my style anymore.  No, 2002 was a point in time when all the aspects of outdoor life I was interested in coincided with the intentions of a few renegade car makers, and was all wrapped up in a simple SUV that just worked for me.  And continued to do so for 12 years.

I’m sure in my next SUV I’ll adjust to where the controls are and how the steering handles and how to get into and out of trouble trying to find just the right perspective for that perfect image.  And although I’ll miss my VUE I will remember that this lifestyle was brought about in many ways by owning it when I did and not worrying about it letting me down.

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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.