It’s hard being green (apologies to Kermit)

Weather here has been what passes in Wisconsin as a heat wave, with the usual warnings about high heat indices and drinking enough water.  When the humidity builds and the sun shines freely it means just one thing to me – infrared and clouds!

All that water vapor rising from the ground to hit the cooler air up high makes for wonderful big puffy cloud days.  Combined with all the full foliage, the still air and bright light, infrared is the tool of choice for strongly contrasting and dramatic images.

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ISO 100, 20 sec., f/8, Hoya R72 filter, 14-54mm lens

Think of the first photographer who took out a film traditionally used for more utilitarian purposes, made some landscape images on a sunny day, and then processed them just to see what came out.  What a great surprise that must have been, to see what’s around through a different set of eyes.  And then to offer the world an expansion of photography tools to enable us to see the world in an alternate fashion.

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ISO 100, 15 sec., f/8, Hoya R72 filter, 14-54mm lens

Some may argue that digital is not the same, that “real” infrared film is only sensitive to those wavelengths whereas the sensor is sensitive to a wider band but has the greens and blues filtered out.  My approach is not that of a purist.  I’m looking for interesting, novel and unique images that are recognizable as infrared and give the high contrast and detail I’m fond of portraying.  I will use infrared film at times, but not that much.  It’s more fun to process a digital image to make it appear just the right way rather than “guessing” how to expose the film and then waiting to see if it was correct.

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ISO 100, 25 sec., f/6.3, Hoya R72 filter, 14-54mm lens

What’s surprising is you can’t always tell how the luminosity will appear.  In the picture above all the leaves on the trees are green, as is the surface of the tennis court.  Yet the trees all appear to be different tones, and the court surface is darker than most.  Funny – we see green but in the infrared there are a myriad of shades of which we aren’t aware.

ISO 100, 20 sec., f/5.6, Hoya R72 filter, 14-54mm lens

ISO 100, 20 sec., f/5.6, Hoya R72 filter, 14-54mm lens

Again, except for the sky, clouds, tree trunks and service lines on the court, everything in this picture is green.  For infrared, not all greens are created equal.  Ain’t that cool!?

Walk in the park

Once I accumulate enough film to justify the time and chemicals, into the dark I go for some processing time.  If I were more organized the mystery of what is latent in each roll of film would be minimal.  Not being that way, though, means I get to discover all those things attracting my attention over the past season or so.

The inability of glancing at a screen to see whether the image is desirable does change my workflow in the field.  I check and re-check the exposure (has the light changed?  is that cloud moving too fast? are those shadows where I want them?) and spend more time looking in the viewfinder to confirm the composition.  Still, pressing the shutter release remains a wish more than a certainty.  I marvel at the great photographers who just “knew” they had the shot.

My attention continues drawn to the iconic, and possibly stereotypical, compositions.  I feel like the beginning guitarist who simply wants to be able to replicate a favorite riff or melody.  If I can do it as good as “they” did then it means I’m learning this craft.  The challenge is when to step beyond “them” and find your own form, your own vision to be developed and presented to the world.

Or, you can just have some fun.

Continuing my pursuit of Eliot Porter’s intimate landscapes, I find the city weaving within itself these areas where nature has sway, where immersion in the local haven enables you to push away the metro buzz.  Milwaukee’s European roots run very deep, with an appreciation of how the city and the country can be integrated.  Efforts at reclaiming rivers and their banks, returning areas to a sense of wild and bringing intention to the interface between people and nature result in surprising vistas.  The concrete jungle gives way to the border environment, a shoreline where urban structure can meet and interact with the seeming chaos theory of the natural world.

I believe most people don’t crave the wilderness, the absence of civilized existence as a way to rejuvenate a soul.  I do believe, however, that the complete removal of nature is detrimental to all civilization, that people suffer in many ways by being divorced from the organic world.  A city should encourage semi-wild places where gardeners and planners have little authority, a place where people can recall that deep sense of wildness and exploration.  In their own way these are also intimate landscapes for those who turn to them with an explorer’s heart.

Rising toward the sun

Rising toward the sun

Reflection on a world's fair

Reflection on a world’s fair

Atget homage

Atget homage

Local thoughts on the woods

Local thoughts on the woods

Urban hieroglyphs

Urban hieroglyphs

Emerging from the shadows

Emerging from the shadows

Laughing tree

Laughing tree

Civilization on the prairie's edge

Civilization on the prairie’s edge

Dinosaur tracks in snow

Dinosaur tracks in snow

A river through the city

A river through the city

Trying a little of everything.

Wandering around a nearby state park, trying out some different techniques.  Nice day to be doing just about any type of photography.

First, with the strong morning sun and no cloud cover shadows were going to be black, but contain some interesting details.  So, go with HDR.

5-image HDR

5-image HDR

Nearing the top of the bluff with almost the whole lake spread out before us, good time to show the complete picture with a panoramic.

10-image Panoramic

10-image Panoramic

One of the most popular rock formations, and some clouds coming in for sky definition, along with a look at the rest of the lake.  Don’t want the distortion of a really short lens, so another panoramic.

7-image Panoramic

7-image Panoramic

More clouds coming in fast but still plenty of sunshine overhead.  With the contrast of rock, water, sky and foliage, time for infrared.

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On the way down, along a forested trail, turn from the grand landscape to the intimate one.

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All in all a nice walk through some varying terrain.  What better way to spend a holiday?

River personality

Growing up the south central United States the Mississippi River is a part of your life, even when you don’t live near it.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve crossed it from St. Louis down to New Orleans, going east and west to visit family and friends.  It becomes a standard feature of travel:  the bridges, the muddy water, the river towns, the seemingly languid flow masking the harsh current.  It’s always there, always looking the same, always exuding the same force of nature that has to be dealt with.  Eventually that becomes your image of the river and you expect it to be constant everywhere you have to deal with it.

But there’s an alter ego to the Mississippi, a more juvenile version if you will.  The Upper Mississippi shows a completely different face to the world.  Near its origin in Minnesota, the Mississippi isn’t a brown, muddy, sluggish, wide force of nature.  It better resembles a well-behaved river, one that is part of the overall environment rather than creating its own.  Seeing this southern beast in its early stages can be somewhat disorienting, flying in the face of expectation.

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From Iowa northward the Mississippi displays the behavior of a braided river, flowing through several channels and creating wetlands of tree-covered sandbars and oxbow lakes.  About halfway between St. Louis and the head of the river, the Wisconsin river flows into the Mississippi (the far right stream above is the Wisconsin) and the two create a flat plain that over the years has been settled by Native Americans and European explorers.  Occupying this plain at the moment is the town of Prairie du Chien, famous as a trading post as well as a launching off point for other explorers.

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Although the Mississippi is not a single broad channel at this point in its life, there remains sufficient breadth for it to serve commercial purposes.  Even here the barge traffic would be familiar to any southerner.

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However, the locks and dams farther north would be a surprise.

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History at night

Wisconsin is rich in Great Lakes history, where Europeans explored, traded, settled and changed what had been a forest civilization for hundreds of years for Native Americans.  Following the traditional highways of the 17th and 18th century, the multiple rivers of the region, these people created a network of communities tied together by commerce and agriculture.

Prairie du Chien was founded where the Wisconsin river meets the upper Mississippi, linking the great river highway south to the Gulf with the northern passages through the Great Lakes back to Europe.  French trappers and traders followed Native American tribes to the flat plain where the rivers joined to built settlements as launching off points to the western fur areas and a point of trading for goods from back east.

Periodically these adventurers attended gatherings called rendezvous, from the French for “present yourself!” as a means of converting their furs into staples and trinkets, as well as to party, relax, trade stories and catch up with civilization.

This weekend was the 41st annual rendezvous at Prairie du Chien, one of the largest re-enactments of this type in the Midwest.  Well over a hundred tents were set up near the Mississippi River, some to trade goods, some simply to enjoy the camaraderie of the gathering.  Chatting with some participants revealed they have been doing this for years, gradually gathering the goods and equipment needed to accurately reflect the era.

I wanted to capture a sense of this gathering but wanted to portray the quieter aspect of it, not the raucous activities.  There was a full moon that night so what better way than to make night images, letting the moonlight wash over the campground and tents, with the occasional campfire or torch giving light to where people were gathered.

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Seeing what isn’t there

One reason I enjoy working with infrared is that I’m really not that good at composing very interesting photographs.  I look at a scene, see something appealing to me, make an image and then get back to my computer only to discover the image does not portray the scene I saw.  Something is usually wrong about the depth, the color, the lighting – the image just doesn’t equal what I saw.

Some photographers advise you to make images that embody the feelings you had when looking at a scene.  In other words, the image doesn’t have to be a faithful reproduction of what you saw as much as eliciting similar feelings in the viewer.  I have a hard enough time recognizing the emotional appeal of a great photograph, much less figuring out how to embody that in a scene I’m standing in front of.

Hence, infrared.

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Sure, standing where I was to make this image you would see all the elements here – the stream, the grass, the trees, bridge and clouds.  But with infrared you couldn’t stand there and see this image, no matter how hard you tried.  Our eyes and brain prevent us from seeing infrared directly.  We can only see it after some tool that can see infrared processes the image for us.  And that means I can make it look anyway I want just to satisfy the way I “feel” about the look of infrared.

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Infrared images don’t care what colors you were looking at (OK, they do care but the final viewer is hard pressed to reverse engineer the image to know which colors make which “look” so really colors don’t matter), they don’t care about the soft quality of the light, they don’t care about pin-sharp details.  It’s all about the unearthly look, the glow of the foliage, the darkness of the sky and water.  The extreme contrast makes the image seem to have depth in a way the color version wouldn’t portray.  Getting rid of the color enables the photographer to draw attention to the tones; getting rid of most of the spectrum enables the photographer to point out a new world within the one right before our eyes.