Thursday, April 30, 2009

Magic Words

So, what’s the deal with dogs in cars? The words “Wanna go for a RIDE?” will get most any canine pal jumping loop-d-loops or running in excited circles, maybe even peeing on the floor (fortunately my dogs don’t do that.) Dogs are absolutely ga-ga about tagging along with us wherever we need to go.

What’s up with that?

I mean, I’m a dog-lover of the highest magnitude and my respect for the creatures knows no bounds, but believe me, my company when I’m driving a car is not something you’d want to wet the floor over.

Last weekend I saw a forlorn-looking four-legged, waiting in an old Karmann Ghia while his owner shopped at a local Saturday Farmers’ Market. The picture speaks volumes about the way dogs feel toward their humans. I hope we’re even a little bit worthy of such high esteem.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Springtime Light

I see the light and the color and I just have to stop and look. I sense that the critters around here feel the same way.

I’m out walking the dog in the morning and we are visiting with the horses in a nearby pasture. Or I’m heading to the barn to feed the sheep in the evening. Those times at the beginning or the end of the day can be moments of big-time magic. Angular sunshine skitters across grass that’s neon-green in its springtime newness, and it’s really something to see.

We stop and look.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Every once in a while one of my photographer friends will ask me -- fairly pointedly, I might add: “Why do you do that blog-thing?” I guess my friends think the doing of this must be time-consuming (it’s not, I tell them,) and my friends also hint that there’s something a little weird about putting oneself and one’s personal (non-professional) work out there, in public, on the freaking worldwide Web, fer god’s sake.

My friends are correct on that second point: Going public like this is weird, and I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the question: “Why Do I Do This?”

I have two answers:

--As a photographer, I began these posts over two years ago thinking it would be a worthy thing to do a blog that talked about the creative process, rather than cameras and lenses.
--As a human being who lives in a rural area but understands that most folks now live in cities, I thought I could sometimes share pictures and thoughts about farm animals and gardens and other earth-based stuff I see outside my front door.

This week I seem to be seeing, uh, eyes:
-- There’s a white horse who’s been brought to pasture just down the lane from our house, and he’s got the most amazing eyes. I’m told they’re called ghost-eyes.
--As always, our cat, Basil, invariably winds up in some of my home diary pictures.

Of course I didn’t intentionally seek-out these two, circularly similar pictures; it was absolute coincidence that they presented themselves in the same week. Then again, I suppose it’s possible that the mice spinning the wheels inside this photographer’s brain decided “This week, let’s do CIRCLES!”

Maybe my photographer friends and I should get together and discuss MICE!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pushing Buttons

A number of years ago a big topic of debate among photographers was Film vs. Digital. The debate struck me as a kind of distraction, an issue that was beside the point of how good images get made.

Though I have been making my living as a photographer for over 30 years, personal experience has taught me that each day I have the opportunity to grow a bit in how I see and make photographs. Longer than most photographers I know, I stuck with film cameras because they worked for me. Slowly, as digital cameras have gotten better and better, I’ve adopted them as my tools.

One thing I do find that I like about digital is that the instant-feedback camera encourages me to play a bit more than I could with my beloved film cameras. Once I’ve made a digital photograph, a simple push of a button on the back of the camera allows me to check the technical aspects of an image (focus or exposure, for example,) but I can also look at potential crops. This morning I made a photograph of the magnolia that’s blooming in our front yard. Two versions of the same image are posted here; the version below is simply a tighter crop.

Personally I like them both.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Too Cute?

Holy Hallmark Cards, Batman! A bit over a week ago I posted photos of newborn baby lambs, warm-and-fuzzy pictures I shot at my neighbor’s place. After that I posted photographs of our cute kitty-cat, followed by several posts showing Buddhist monks making a sand mandala that, among other things, would help spread prayers for World Peace.

Today I share an image I shot yesterday of a bird in a blossom-filled tree in our back yard. I looked out my door, saw this amazing little creature flitting around in the blooming red plum, and went running for my SLR and a telephoto lens. My neighbor -- who coincidentally is also a photographer, and super-coincidentally is quite serious about photographing birds -- says this little feathered miracle is a Ruby Crowned Kinglet. He was a tiny bugger, about the size of a hummingbird.

But...what I'm wondering about myself is: Can I get any squishier in the content of my pictures? What kind of happy pills is someone slipping into my morning cup of herbal tea, anyway?

Maybe I need to switch to regular, caffeinated know, the hard stuff.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Making the Mandala

Each individual grain of sand seemed to be the object of mindful concentration. Each grain seemed to matter, to deserve loving intention as it was placed into the mandala.

Ten monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in India, in exile from Tibet, visited the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma last week. For three days I watched and photographed them as they constructed a mandala painting of colored sand in the University’s library. Students, faculty and individuals from the community watched quietly. Seven hours on Thursday. Nine hours on Friday. Several more on Saturday. The monks put a large framed photograph of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, out on display. He too seemed to be watching.

The making of the mandala was an amazing thing to see. Each monk worked with a traditional metal funnel called a chakkpur while he moved a metal rod back-and-forth on the funnel’s grated surface. The vibration caused the colored sand to flow like liquid into the mandala’s design.

Though the weather outside was sometimes damp and the sky typically Pacific Northwest leaden, there were moments when the most incredible light filled the area where the monks were working. As fleeting and fickle as that light was for me to photograph, I realized that the sand mandala was equally impermanent.

The post (titled "Blessing and Destruction") below will explain what I mean...

Blessing and Destruction

The mandala was an artwork created with a most unusual intention: Upon completion, it would be destroyed.

For hour after hour I watched as the grains of sand were poured, slowly and with unbelievable care, into the emerging mandala. Students and faculty came by to watch the process, some staying a few minutes, other hanging around for hours. One female student watched the monks work for much of an afternoon. Thinking back to my own college days, I teased the student that she appeared to be spending as much time in class as I had -- which wasn’t much. The young woman insisted that she didn’t have a class that afternoon, which I took as the truth. It’d be seriously bad karma to tell a lie in the presence of 10 monks.

The making of the mandala began at noon on Thursday; by noon Saturday it was completed. The monks held a ceremony to bless the mandala, and I was moved to see the emotion the moment stirred in those from the local Buddhist community who were in attendance.

A monk held a gold, palm-sized ceremonial object called a vajra in hand. Though I understood that the ritual we were witnessing was leading up to the destruction of the mandala, I was startled nevertheless when the monk leaned over the mandala and -- as easy as you please -- pushed his fingers through the sand, erasing the design first from one direction, then another. Three days’ worth of painstaking work was undone in a matter of a minute.

Leah used her snapshot camera to shoot a close picture that I like of the monk’s hand. Many onlookers in the crowd recorded the moment with cameras in their cell phones. It was 2500 years ago that the Buddha traveled around India, I suspect on foot, and began to share his insights on impermanence and other philosophical concepts. I thought it was interesting to note that today the ceremonies that dramatize Buddhist philosophy are recorded on digital pixels, then passed from cell phone to cell phone by way of instant messaging. Everything changes. Nothing is permanent.

Later about 25 onlookers joined the 10 monks on the shoreline of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. In drizzling rain, a monk poured the sand that had once been the mandala into the water. The monks offered a prayer that the now-sacred grains of sand would spread peace throughout the waters of the Pacific Northwest, and eventually the world.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Seeing Cultures

There are many endangered cultures around our world. I really didn’t have to travel halfway around the globe to find one to take to heart.

Heck, just 10 miles from where I live in the Pacific Northwest, there is a new tribal center, a beautiful structure built by a local Native American tribe. Part of the function of that center is to help carry-on and preserve the tribe's cultural traditions.

And yet it was a year ago in Kathmandu, Nepal that Leah and I wandered from a crazy-loud, incredibly intense urban bazaar where animals were being slaughtered in the streets as part of a cultural festival, into a quiet and peaceful square surrounding a Buddhist temple. In the months since those moments in the square -- there were many experiences like that on that trip -- I’ve been reading about Buddhist philosophy, and thinking about how Buddhists seem to be at peace in a chaotic world. I’ve also turned my attention and my cameras toward Tibetans, whose Buddhist culture is being brushed aside by the Chinese government, intent on “modernizing” Tibet.

I’ve made a number of new friends in the Seattle-area Tibetan community who have graciously educated me about their grassroots efforts to keep their ancient culture alive. Yesterday I traveled to the campus of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, where Tibetan Buddhist monks, visiting here from the Tibetan refugee community in India, will spend the next three days sharing their culture.

There will be Tibetan music and dance, and the monks will construct a four-foot wide mandala sand painting. Millions of grains of brightly-colored sand will be painstakingly poured into place, only to be swept away once the painting is completed two days from now.

The monks are allowing me to hang out with them again today and tomorrow. I plan to photograph the many hours of work they’ll put into the construction of the sand painting, and also its destruction. I invite you to check my post next Tuesday for a look at what I see.

Here a link to more information:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cat Cult

I think that I should one day write a book and maybe go on the lefty lecture circuit proposing a new, ultra-edgy witchcraft cult, an admittedly bizarre coming-together of the worship of black cats and the photographic image.

It seemed like every time I turned around this week, our cat, Basil, was doing something that was image-worthy. I began to feel that, more important than a camera or lenses or a quick eye, the photographer on the hunt for images needs to keep a black cat around.

Strong Magic, those black cats. Good photographic juju. I think we photographers should consider putting a black cat in our camera bags. When we find ourselves stuck for subject matter, presto!, pull out the kitty.

Just remember to also to pack your Ansel Adams exposure guide. I can tell you from experience that when you've got a black cat in your image, trying to get detail in the shadows will drive you batty.

Friday, April 3, 2009


As a photographer, one of the most amazing gifts anyone can give me is Trust.

When people allow me to bring my camera into their lives -- even if it’s simply to photograph something perfectly innocent like baby lambs -- I don’t think I have words to explain how flattered I am. I mean, look at the Inbox in your e-mail. My guess is that even the best spam filter doesn’t keep you from getting e-mails from scam artists and slimeballs, right? I think we all get to the point where we’re tempted to build fences around our lives, hoping to put distance between ourselves and the Outside World.

And yet I got a call from a neighbor several days ago, inviting me to come over to take some pictures of their new lambs. In a world full of barriers and fences, I was invited inside.

It’s no wonder that such sweetly humble photographs resulted.