The Photograph as Writing Prompt or What to do about Marcel Proust

Wilber Merton Deming, local photographer, and four Winsted businessmen circa 1893

… the title “In Search of Lost Time” gets to the heart of what the book’s about, because this very long novel by this very strange Frenchman is mostly a consideration of how time, as it were, slips through our fingers, how we are alive but most of the time not properly attuned to the world around us. In other words, we’re constantly wasting our time. — Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, interviewed on NPR (Time, Memory and Proust) December 2005.

 


It begins simply enough with two photographs—one of my grandfather, Nicholas Vreeland in army uniform, taken upon his arrival in France in 1918. He didn’t see any action, having arrived just in time for the armistice. Get off the boat, have your portrait taken, get on the boat and come back home. But this is not about him. It’s about two photographs and what to do with them. You see, we’re culling; we’re going through 43 Tupperware tubs of materials that have been neglected in a U-Haul storeroom for the past several years. We pay rent for that space, and now it comes to mind, how much more than money we pay for the objects of our neglect.

Alanna sorts clothing, utensils, small appliances that will go to the thrift stores, and stuff that will be given another life and put to use again. Stuff. That word, a vague catch-all. I’m tempted to apologize for it, but think it to be the most appropriate. Then there’s the other pile, other stuff that will be re-stored and reinstated as objects of neglect for another five to ten year sentence. Maybe less, it’s not going back to the U-Haul rental space; it may sit protected in a not-so-temporary-yet-not-so-permanent hiding place like behind a sofa. Out of sight may be out of mind, but five years is a stretch for exercising neglect in a living space.

The thought of a closet may have crossed your mind. Poor farmers built this house which, more than a century ago had but four rooms. A generation ago, an addition was tacked on. Now it’s a cottage with two closets. Both are stuffed.(That’s what you do with stuff, the noun. You can use stuff to satisfy stuff, the verb.)  There’s a spare bedroom that’s stuffed as well. It’s a store room except when we have an overnight visitor. Then it’s a guest room for one willing to sleep amid filing cabinets, chests of drawers, and other dubious furniture with overpopulated and overcrowded surfaces.

Alanna sorts through the tubs and hands me the two photographs with a gesture that says, “Do something with these.” I remove the portrait of my grandfather from its frame and scan it. The frame goes in the trash. Perhaps I should give the photograph to the Winsted Historical Society in the town where I grew up, and where Nick lived most of his life. The society might be interested but I have reservations. It seems to be more devoted to displays of Revolutionary War memorabilia. There is also the Connecticut Historical Society. Historical societies and public archives are great places to which decision-making dilemmas—such as what-to-do-with Old—Nick  can be passed. And I can hide the digital image on a hard drive, out of sight, out of mind. Until … I don’t want to go there.

It’s the second image that takes me down the rabbit-hole. In it, five men are seated around a table. I don’t know if they have been arranged with their heights taken into consideration. I don’t know if they have been posed. “Al, would you tilt your head a bit to the left? George, cigar in the right side of your mouth. Yes, that’s it.” Five men. The one on the left, Wilber Deming, sets himself apart, not by distance, but by appearance. He’s wearing a worker’s cap while the other four are sporting bowlers, or derbies as they were called in Winsted. Deming holds a long-stemmed pipe while the others have cigars clamped in their jaws.

A unique feature of this photograph is that the photographer is in the image. Wilber Merton Deming (1851-1916) was a well-know local photographer. Some of his images are in private collections, and some have been catalogued by the Connecticut Historical Society.  On this day, Deming positioned himself, and someone else pressed the cable release activating the shutter on his camera. I know this because of the penciled notes on its back. Howard Merton Deming, Wilber’s son, wrote in August 1943:

Picture probably taken before 1893, perhaps by Will Ackley, brother-in-law to Deming. Photo gallery was on the third floor of wooden block opposite residence of E.P. Jones. Picture found among effects of Edward R. Holmes, died 1943.

I’m taken as much by the notes as I am by the image, and my interest in the complementarity of photography and texts is rekindled. (My earlier blogged essays on this subject include, “Work that Matters and the Interdependence of Photography and Texts”, “Photographs and Texts — Functional Codependency”, Photo Stories — a Follow Up to Functional Codependency” about The Old World and Other Stories [House of Anansi Press] in which Cary Fagan takes photographs as writing prompts for short stories, “Fine Art, Photography and Texts: Bieke Depoorter.” Those essays are no longer available on line.) I’m particularly taken by Howard’s description of Charlie Chase. He notes:

Son of D.B. Chase, Plumber. Brother to Nettie Chase, home florist Prospect St. Chase shop was where Colt’s Block is now. After D.B. died, Charlie was with Wills Norton as Chase & Norton. Charlie ran Steamer Carrie for some time in its later years.

Steamer Carrie? That takes me deeper down the rabbit hole. The fruit of time spent in subsequent research informs me that the “Carrie” was a passenger boat on Highland Lake, a pleasure resort in the days when the town was prosperous and had a future, long before the summers I spent swimming and fishing there..

Take a look at Charlie. I see an attitude there, perhaps a braggadocio that wants to conceal the risks he takes as an entrepreneur. See how he’s the only one with his arms folded over his chest somewhat defensively. I see a guarded man with a lot of energy—a gamesman, a scrapper.

Howard tacks two words to end his notes about Charlie—“Shot himself.” Oh? There are branches deeper down the rabbit hole. Howard may have had it wrong. Continue reading

The Thrill is Gone, or what to do about Peppie, the Problem Fox

Peppie_the_foxPhotographers of differing skill levels, from occasional snapshotters to internationally known professionals, stalk icons. That should contribute to the proof that there’s a least 1001 ways of seeing the same thing. The more difficult quest is not as much for adding another image to our collections, as it is to see, and to show, the subject from a different perspective, or, to use the cliché, in a new light. On Prince Edward Island the most frequently hunted icons include lighthouses, particularly the one at Covehead, sandstone cliffs and stone formations such as Elephant Rock and Teacup Rock. Some photographers can’t pass the fishing village of French River without stopping and pointing their camera out the window. Some get out and stand by the road’s edge. They go to the wharf at Malpeque because of the way the boats tie up there–bows pointing out towards their lenses.  Province House is on the list, as are a multitude of farms and fields and lupins and heritage roads in autumn. And fox.

sylvester_foxBack in 2009, when John Sylvester’s work was published in Wild Island, he didn’t see a fox every day and he had to be patient. Especially patient in waiting for the instant when the fox leapt—a predation technique naturalists call mousing. In 2009 that was an unusual photo defining another sort of ‘decisive moment.’

Last year Dylan Roberts entered the Annual PEI Photo Club Show with “Playful Leap”—a quick shot of a silver grey fox jumping by the cannons at Victoria Park. Dylan was more lucky than patient. Sally Cole quoted Dylan in her June 10, 2017 article in the Guardian, “`I managed to snap a picture,’ says the Charlottetown resident, who won first place in the nature category for ‘Playful Leap.’”

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photo by Sally Cole, The Guardian

“`I was changing my (settings) when the fox started jumping, so I ended up shooting the picture from my chest. I knew that if I looked in the viewfinder I would never get it in time. I was hoping that I’d have one and, when I got home, there it was,’ says Roberts with a smile.”

Foxes are ubiquitous on the Island now. And so are images of them. Hundreds are posted on social media by folks with fox dens under their garden sheds. When the kits are born in the spring, the number of images posted increases seemingly by a factor of 10.  I know of one photographer who has given his backyard foxes names and who documents their lives like an unbridled grandparent. The animals are so ubiquitous that Riverview, New Brunswick, nature photographer Brittany Crossman comes here to shoot them. The CBC news captured the truth of the matter in the lead to its article: “Friendly P.E.I. foxes featured on National Geographic site — New Brunswick photographer finds Island foxes less shy and easier to photograph” (Shane Ross, CBC News Posted: Jan 01, 2017) The problems of climate change exist elsewhere, while nature is genial on the gentle Island.

Foxes have become so commonplace, there’s no need to hunt them. My wife and I walk the trails at Robinsons Island several times each week. This summer, two young foxes were often seen lazing about the parking lot—a parking lot usually crowded with vehicles coming and going carrying nature lovers and tourists who were taking advantage of Canada 150 free park passes. I suspect that some of the visitors fed the foxes because the foxes became nuisances. They followed the hikers. Then the Parks Canada vans and trucks were often seen in the parking lot with the uniformed folks scratching their heads.

problem_fox_II

“What are you going to do about them?” I asked one staffer.

“We’re going to get rid of them,” he said.

“How?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Had he been reluctant to tell me an ugly truth? Or was he without an answer?

Well, they started by putting up a sandwich board warning us in both official languages not to feed the wildlife. It sported a picture of a fox in case we needed a hint.  A week or so later, the signage increased. Posters were taped to the garbage bin and tacked to the posts. It wasn’t unusual to see lots of people toting cameras, crouched in front of the foxes in the parking lot. The animals seemed to have learned how to pose.

I thought about writing speculative fiction about Parks Canada deploying “tame” foxes in a pilot study to increase tourist traffic. One of the tamed foxes was named Peppie. He was the extravert—a real poser. His sister was a tad more camera shy. So much so, she didn’t earn a nickname.

My article would have quoted animal handler, Jamie Earnscliff, a UPEI biology graduate and former employee of the provincial government when the department was known as Fish and Wildlife. But Jamie said that because this was a pilot study, he really couldn’t say anything publicly.
problem_fox

The CBC ran an article in which Paul Giroux warned the public about feeding the foxes. “`They need to be respected’: Parks Canada reminds visitors not to feed animals–Reports of an aggressive fox prompted the reminder” (CBC News, August 5, 2017) My article would have included what another staffer whose name must be withheld said off-the-record about the experiment and how it might be extended to other national parks. “Our numbers are definitely up,” she said. “We’ve never seen traffic like this before in Brackley. The trouble is we don’t know how much of it is due to open park passes this year, or the renovations made to the trail system here at Robinsons Island, or the pilot study with the foxes.” She shrugged her shoulders. “There are just too many variables,” she continued. “Four, if you factor in the weather, but that’s a stretch.”

When I pressed her about expansion of the experiment, she said possibilities existed for introducing tamed foxes at Cavendish West and Greenwich. “What about other animals?” I asked.

“You mean the pet bears at Banff? You didn’t hear anything about that from me.” She gave me a stare, then smiled. “They’d have to be black bears. Grizzlies are too unpredictable, too dangerous. And the costs. Forget it.”

“But it’s on the books.” I said hoping for confirmation.

She shook her head.“You didn’t hear nothin’.”

“So, if Parks Canada sees record numbers, we shouldn’t be surprised to see prices of tickets and passes go up next year.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were doubled,” but don’t quote me on that. Don’t quote me on anything.” She gave me a frown and a pause long enough to let the frown register. “Why doesn’t anyone ask about the work we’re doing with the forests here? Haven’t they seen the cutting and the clearing and the planting? We’re bringing back the original Acadian forest.”

“You mean like the MacPhail Woods Project that started 20 years ago?” I realized my mistake as soon as the words were out of my mouth—words that didn’t make her any happier.

“Shit. I shouldn’t be talkin’ to you at all. We’re done.”

As I said, I’d have to say my piece was speculative fiction.  A week later, a much bigger sign went up. I honestly don’t know if things got out of hand, or if this was phase three of the study.  Some days the lot was so full, people were parked along both sides of the road along the cause way.

Back in the days when John Sylvester was rewarded for his patience, I had wanted to take a decent image of an Island Red Fox, but I’m not an icon-stalker. Let the opportunities come to me. But it was rare then that I saw a fox, and rarer still when I had a camera with me when I saw the animal. The foxes that did present themselves were wary and skittish. They hadn’t learned to pose and they didn’t stick around. As a photographer, you had to be patient and quick, and I was neither. I have to confess, I had wanted to take that different image, that different point of view to contribute to an expanding vision and countless ways of seeing the animal. I had wanted to capture an image of a fox as strong as the one imprinted on my memory one pre-Sylvester winter.

A clear, blue-sky day in January or February when the snow-covered fields seemed to radiate light. We were living in Darnley near the north shore in an old two-story farmhouse. The only upstairs window facing north was in my son’s bedroom. It was the only window in the house from which we could see the ocean. In the early afternoon, I went upstairs and happened to look out. I saw a large red fox, coming down slowly along the fence and the tree line, then approach the field beside the house. Blue sky above the thin, deeper blue line of the ocean, a red fox against pristine snow. The image framed by the window was stunning in the simplicity of its composition. Time slowed long enough to register as a moment. I was alone, as I had to be, because moments like this don’t happen when you’re not alone.  How much does the strength of such a moment, such a vision, lie in the fact that it is unshareable, unlike a painting or a photograph.

Now, when fox photos are as common as construction sites and roadway flagmen in July, I’m not so interested. Pedestrian should replace ubiquitous as the descriptor. So what does it mean when I drive out to Robinsons Island, park in the lot, and there’s Peppie the problem fox posing in front of the car? What does it mean when the fox is in my face?  I’ve learned to carry a camera most of the time, and there was only one thing preventing me from shooting Peppie from the driver’s seat. Dirt on the windshield. I grabbed the camera and got out of the car. Peppie didn’t move. I was alone, as I had to be. This is so not right, I thought to myself. “Hurry up,” Peppie seemed to say. “Because, you’re so boring, I’m going to lie down and go to sleep.”

I took a shot. Definitely not an iconic image; Tourism PEI wouldn’t want it. Think of it as a “revenge” image. A failed revenge image. What’s become of nature conservation? This is so not right. Like setting up beach umbrellas in times of tsunamis.

I remember a story I’d heard from the wife of a moose hunter. Every fall her husband, Todd and three of his buddies went to a hunting lodge in Newfoundland. They spent big bucks to an outfitter to get in by float plane. The idea was that they’d have five days to hunt, which was really five days of guy-time together in the woods. They wanted to bag a moose, but the animal was really an excuse to take time off, to get away and to enjoy each other’s company. One year they invited Jimmy. Jimmy wasn’t an experienced hunter and he’d probably never held a high-powered rifle before. Jimmy was also a very early riser. They flew in to the lodge site, carried in their gear and supplies, settled in and Jimmy was given rudimentary instruction in the handling of a bolt-action 30-06. The next morning Jimmy was the first one up, and as the mist was rising from the surface of the lake, he saw the moose through the picture window. If the lodge could have been said to have had a front lawn, that’s where the moose was standing.  Less than 15 meters from the front porch. Jimmy grabbed a rifle, checked to make sure a cartridge was in the chamber, just as he had been taught, stepped out onto the porch and shot the moose. The shot woke the others who scrambled out of their beds. They came down and looked out at the dead animal, steam now rising from the carcass. “Jeezus, Jimmy,” said one of them. “Fuck,” said another. “What,” said Jimmy, rubbing his shoulder. “Does this mean the holiday is over? Shit, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

Is the holiday over? Is that the meaning of the fox? One night Peppie the Problem Fox came to me in a dream—the kind of dream that replays itself over and over as though it’s trying to get it right and push on through to resolution—a borderline nightmare. The first time Peppie spoke, he said, “People have lost their totems.” He spoke without words being uttered—a fox language that surrounded the animal and emanated from it, like an energy. During another recycling of the dream, he said, “Who are you to call me the problem?”

Summer is officially over and the number of park visitors is declining. With intimations of cold weather, there are times when the parking lot at Robinsons Island is empty. And Peppie is not always to be seen. Yesterday, as I returned to the lot having completed my walk, I saw him sitting on the road at the entrance. An approaching SUV had stopped beside him, and the driver had lowered his window and was leaning out taking photos of the animal with his phone.  Peppie was sitting on my side of the yellow line and fortunately there was enough room for me to drive around him. He looked at the driver of the SUV, and then he looked at me. He wasn’t about to move.

Last night he returned in a dream and in fox language he said, “It’s time to wake up. I’m here. People notice but they’re not noticing. They see but they don’t see. Not like in the time of the ancestors.” As far as I can recall it, this dream was not cyclical, just a fragment among a collection of seemingly unrelated images from elsewhere. He returned. “Don’t you think it’s time to wake up?”

6 am. It was, and I did. But I don’t think that’s what Peppie meant.

 

“And that’s why my grandmother’s legs are hanging on the wall.”

Walter Everett Burt the Barber

December 2014 – January 2015, our third trip to Victoria State, Australia, my second visit to Walter, the barber. Walter Everett Burt has the Brown Hill Barber Shop on Hummfray Street in Ballarat. The shop was full of waiting customers, all seats taken, late one morning when my son, son-in-law and I dropped by. One of us had to stand. But not for long. A haircut needn’t be a complicated affair, and each of the gents ahead of us was in the chair and out in matter of ten minutes or so.

Walter’s shop is well decorated. Lots of signage, most of it license plates from Australia to Alaska and points in between, but none from Prince Edward Island. The first time we visited, I noticed that Walter had quite a collection from New Hampshire, and that’s when he told me us of his North American connections. His mother was from New Hampshire and his father from Nova Scotia, from places we knew. Picking up the conversation again this year, he mentioned that one of his regulars was originally from Musquodoboit, a small village near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Being able to pronounce the name of the village is half the proof needed to talk about it with some credibility.  A few minutes later, the man from Musquodoboit walked in.  Happy coincidence?

Eventually we got to the story of the legs on the wall.  “They were my grandmothers,” he said. “She was in the kitchen, and my grandfather had an accident and cut them off.” That was the short version otherwise known as bait. Who could leave it at that? We wanted to hear more.

“Well, they were getting pretty low on food, and grandpa said she had a good lookin’ shank.” We had a little laugh. Walter was teasing us and then he spoke more seriously. (You can see the legs above the swinging doors and the ‘Waikiki Beach’ sign.)grandmothers_legs

“He was a sawyer,” he said. “He had a saw mill by the house. That’s how my grandfather made his living. One day she came out to tell him that dinner was on the table, that he should come in and wash up. She goes back and then somehow the eight foot saw got away from him; you know, big round blade. It got loose and came off the mount and tore into the house. It ripped through the kitchen, cut her legs off halfway up her chest, cut through the next room and came out the front of the house.”

“My father was five years old at the time, his brother two. He had an older sister, and grandfather asked her to run to the neighbours which must have been two miles away,  and have them bring their car around. There weren’t too many cars in those days. In time the neighbour came and grandad picks my grandmother up and puts her in the front seat. Then he throws her cut-off legs in the back seat, and off they drive to the nearest hospital which was down in Exeter. There was a new bridge, and my grandfather said he was the first car to cross it. He was going so fast the police caught up with him and stopped him. When they looked in the car and saw my grandmother all bloody like that, and her legs in the back, they let him go.”

“Back in those days they didn’t do much. Just tied off the stumps. They threw her legs in the hospital incinerator. Granmother said she could feel her legs burning. She swore she could feel her toes, and the flesh burning.  When she was eighty, the doctors said they could do something. But by then, she said, ‘I’ve put up with it for this long.’ Those legs on the wall, that’s what she got by on.”

Now, a license plate from Prince Edward Island, we need to work on that and get one to Walter.

The Tree on Henderson Road

The Tree on Henderson Road - copyright 2015 Paul Vreeland

The Tree on Henderson Road — copyright 2015 Paul Vreeland

 

Three years ago (August 2011), my son and I were driving to his father-in-law’s home in Ross Creek. The sun was low in the ‘golden hour’ of afternoon sky when I saw this tree on Henderson Road. We stopped to photograph. Back in Canada, I processed the image. I worked with it again and again, but could not bring out in the image the magic of that moment. Returning to Australia in December, I knew I wanted to go back and photograph the tree. We waited for the sun to descend before heading back to Henderson Road. I think now, that maybe we waited a bit too long, which is to say that I’m more satisfied with the image, but not completely. Most probably, I never will be.

Bail_Eucalyptus

I’ve come to love the landscape of Victoria State because of the trees, particularly the Eucalyptus, more commonly known as gum. The ‘Tree on Henderson Road” is a gum, but I wanted a more precise answer. Without an arborist, the answer may be hard to come by because there are about 800 species. Australian writer Murray Bail isn’t one to waste that fact. In his modern-day fairy tale Eucalyptus (1998), a widower named Holland busies himself planting trees. Lots of trees. Lots of varieties. When his only child, Ellen comes of age and beauty, he informs her that she can only marry the first man to correctly identify each and every tree on the farm.  I’ll be looking for Eucalyptus, winner of the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and a New York Times Notable Book of 1998.

To say that the trees have character is an understatement; they have spirit. I’m not the first photographer to believe in trees. Continue reading

Every Image is a Lesson — Elements of Practical Critique: Part II

Versace_marriage_after_critique

“Marriage of Birch and Maple” – after applying suggestions from Gurushots.com critique. Copyright 2013 – Paul Vreeland

I submitted the image above, “Marriage of Birch and Maple” to the critiquing service of gurushots.com. Stay tuned. Below I’ll share with you the responses I received.

The title of this posting comes from Leslie O’Brien. Leslie and his wife Claudette had been members of the Montreal Photo Club before moving to Charlottetown. Recently they told me of their experiences with the club – a club that held weekly competitions. “We thought we knew about photography when we joined the club,” Claudette said, “but boy, did we learn.”

I suggested in part 1 that while we may want constructive feedback, and while we may devote ourselves to developing our craft, we may shy away from critique.  Perhaps we want to learn to take better ph0tographs, we want to learn the all the ins and outs of our camera bodies, lenses and lighting equipment, and we may spend hours learning all the hoops our image-editing software can jump through, but why do we shy away from learning to analyze an image? Membership in a community of artists, be it a writer’s group or a photo club comes with a price. There are dues to pay. And when we join such a community looking for help, we soon realize that we need to give as good as we get. If we ask for practical critique, we need to learn to give it.

Learning is at the heart of practical critique. I call it “practical critique” because I want to reinforce the idea that authentic critique is something the recipient can use. Critique can be nothing more than words that end in words, but practical critique would have those words leading to actions to improve the craft. It’s practical if a) the person critiquing the work gives specifics to the artist about what he/she can do to improve it, and, b) if the artists uses the feedback.

Learning to offer meaningful critique means learning to become a better photographer because the skill demands and understanding of how we see, how our eye responds to an image, and how we would want the eye of the viewer to respond. Having come to this understanding, how could we fail to apply it in the creation of our own work? Photographer Vincent Versace informs us of “the biomechanics of seeing”. He tells us that:

… the human eye scans a scene in a predictable sequence. It goes first to patterns it recognizes, then moves from areas of light to dark, high contrast to low contrast, high sharpness to low sharpness, in focus to blur (which is different than high to low sharpness), and high color saturation to low…

… when we view anything at all, there is both an unconscious and a conscious element involved. First, our unconscious eye, or the anatomical structure that makes up the eye, scans in the predictable manner I described above. Then, the conscious eye, the mind’s eye, interprets the image seen. It is how you control the unconscious eye that determines how the viewer interprets the image. ~ Vincent Versace

Another photographer, Katrin Eismman adds to the list. She suggests that the eye is attracted to warm tones, then to cool tones.

3 Questions Essential to the Critique Process

Keeping in mind the “biomechanics of seeing” we need to ask three questions when critiquing an image:

1.  What is the subject?

As a viewer, my impression of the subject may not be the same as that of the photographer. Another way of approaching this is to ask, “Why did you/I take this photo?” Or, “what is it that I as a photographer saw that I want you to see?/ what do I think the photographer wants me to see?”  The question is critical, because all elements within our control need to serve the subject. Having answered this, we can then ask how do the areas of light and dark serve the image, how does focus and blur (depth of field) serve the subject. How do all of the elements Versace mentions above serve the subject?

There may be several points of interest in the image, but only one is the subject. If the points of interest are not in service to the subject, they are distractions. However we need to consider how the subject may be the relationship between different points of interest—may be the story the relationship would tell.

2. What are the distractions

What are the distractions? Are there elements in the image that compete with the subject in unwanted ways? (Sometimes we may want a bit of tension and competition, but only when it serves the best interests of the subject.) Versace, in “The Lens is the Brush” – a talk he gave at Google  (check it out on YouTube  http://youtu.be/aiEuS5zX51E ) offered this:

“One of the ways that I look at my images is the way in which Michelangelo looked at sculpture. He viewed the rock as the living stone and what he did was freed the sculpture from the living stone by removing everything that was not his vision of the sculpture. Once I have the image – once the image has taken me, I look at the image and I view the file as the living file and what I am going to do is to remove everything that is not my vision of the way in which it felt when my feet were planted there. Again, my job is to create an image that moves the viewer the same way I was moved. That I don’t want to be in my photograph, that I want to be out of my photograph—I want to leave the photograph open to the viewer to be in there as well so that they get the same hit, the same buzz, the same rush that I got the moment the picture took me.

How often has the eye of another seen the distraction that I failed to notice?

3. How can I manipulate the image so as to accentuate the positive and minimize the distractions?

It is the third question that tells us how the image can be improved. The answers to this question are the essence of practical critique. Because every one of the elements listed by Versace can be controlled in pre and post production, and there is no reason why anyone with a basic tool like Lightroom cannot take the suggestions of a practical critique and make a better image.

Armed with this information, it helps to have a framework for critique. (See the Gurushots “Photo Critique Marriage_Summary
Summary” below.) I would recommend studying the critiques at gurushots.com. I have learned a great deal from the professionals who post to gurushots. What I most appreciate about their service is a focus on how to improve. But note as I wrote in the previous blog, “There is no such thing as gratuitous critique,” there is a fee for the gurushot service.

When I posted my first image to gurushots, I received an immediate response. My critiquer wanted to know what photo-editing software I was using, because he wanted to give me very specific instructions about improving my photo. Below is a portion of the critique of the “Marriage of Birch and Maple”.

Marriage_General_impression_how_to

5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It sucks.” – Elements of Practical Critique: Part I

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Rain on Wright’s Creek (after applying the judges’ suggestions) copyright 2013 Paul Vreeland

I entered a version of the image above in the 2013 PEI Photo Club Annual Show in the Black & White category.  The judging of the show took place a few days before the exhibition was installed at The Guild in downtown Charlottetown.   Three competent professional photographers, invited to serve as judges, had been given access to the digital images well in advance and had been instructed to give ample comments –critiques intended to help photographers to learn how to improve their craft.  The evening of the judging was the first time they had seen the actual prints, all about 8 x 10 mounted on foam core. The images were laid out category by category on tables for their assessment. I was among the club members in attendance, listening closely to the judges’ comments. (The judges, by the way, had not been given the names of the photographers.)  My image, “Rain on Wright’s Creek” was eliminated  early; it was one of the first to be put aside. “Nah. It’s been sharpened. It’s over-processed,” said one judge answering the rhetorical question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Another judge agreed. “A softer treatment would have served it better,” answering the question, “How can it be improved?”

I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed.  I liked the way my eyes would not settle, but jumped from raindrop ring to raindrop ring, much in the same way as they did when I had stood on the banks of the creek. And while I was disappointed—a disappointment that was heightened when the image that I had submitted in the next category was also quickly eliminated,  I was also heartened by the comments. I knew I could go back to the image and work to improve it. In less than a minute, I had learned something.

Learning is at the heart of critique.

If you want to learn how to write, you have to learn how to read. You learn from reading, reading, reading and from writing, writing, writing. You cannot improve your craft without continual learning, and the best, most relevant source of learning is from the skilled critiques of trusted fellow writers. If you want to learn the art of photography you have to get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot, study the photography of others, and learn to give and receive meaningful practical suggestions.

Before discussing the elements of practical critique, I’d like to discuss two things I have learned about the nature of critique:

  1. Practical Critique is neither praise nor condemnation

Several years ago when I took up my pen and dedicated myself more seriously as a writer I joined a writer’s group. Since that time I have been a member of a few different groups. In each of them, however, the members took time to study the work of another member and to offer comments to help the writer improve. But when I joined that first group, I was looking for praise.  I wanted others to ooo and ahh say things like “wow!” and “Hey, that’s great.” When I moved beyond the need for praise, I wanted the comments and plenty of them. I took the critiques home and re-worked my pieces.  I may have moved beyond the need for praise, but I have not overcome it; I’d be lying if I said I don’t want praise.

Praise may feed my ego, but it teaches me little. Similarly condemnation teaches me nothing,  but it is much more dangerous. It serves no useful purpose and can kill my creative spirit. (See 5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You It Sucks below.)

I had an idea of how to critique a short-story or an essay and I did my best to offer constructive criticism.  My first writer’s group met every week and I was blissfully happy with it for the first few sessions. Then a member brought poetry. While I had written the occasional poem, I had no idea how to critique poetry. I fumbled. I didn’t give the poet her due. She gave me her skilled and considered suggestions, but I was unable to reciprocate. I signed up for a course in poetry writing with Sue Goyette ( http://writers.ns.ca/members/profile/87 ) through the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia. I became a better poet, and I began to learn to critique poetry.  As much as I wanted the writer’s group to help me to become a better writer, my experience with it taught me that I had to give as good as I got. In other words, if I wanted help in becoming a better writer, I had to learn how to give a better critique.  Which leads me to point number two.

2. There is no such thing as gratuitous critique.

Writers and photographers and unnumbered artists of other media post their work on the web. I’ve cruised the communities on Google+ and I’ve looked at sites promising forums for photo critique. I have posted my work to Picasa, Flickr and 500px accounts. I have seen many fledgling artists upload their work begging for feedback. And what I find, in the case of photographers, is an abundance of dim praise and a dearth of positive and/or negative criticism.  When it comes to writers posting on-line, I’m sorry. but I’m not about to give freely of my time to read the work of a stranger, let alone take the additional time to compose a thoughtful list of suggestions. My time is not that free. And so it is with most other artists. The posted appeals for critique go unanswered.

Writer’s groups work, or at least the most of the ones I’ve been associated with do (okay, my first group was a disaster, but that’s another story) because it takes face-to-face time to build knowledge and, more important, trust. Knowledge of the others’ competence as writers will determine the credibility I give to their critiques. If I truly admire a person’s craft as a writer, it is most likely I will give his/her comments about my own work more serious consideration than the comments of a person whose writing is, for me, questionable. There  have been times when I have gone to accomplished writers in my community and have asked for more detailed critiques, and writers have come to me for the same.

It takes time as well to build trust.  The writer’s group to which I presently belong (TWiG—The Writers in Group), is a safe, comfortable environment in which I feel free to reveal myself by sharing the drafts of my precious creations. And I am comfortable with the feedback I receive, because I trust the other members’ intentions to help me.  I dare say, there is a great deal of love among us; we share a sense of common vision and purpose, and we are aware of ourselves as a community. I doubt that this can be accomplished among on-line strangers.

If you want serious critique, you have to pay your dues. You have to earn trust and credibility, and you have to give as good as you get. For these reasons, I believe the face-to-face meetings of photo clubs can be the greatest resource for practical critique.

There is no such thing as gratuitous critique, and outside of a well-groomed photo club, gurushots.com is the best place I know to learn about the art of practical critique. If you want detailed critique from the professionals at gurushots, you pay a modest fee.

And, as promised, here it is:

5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It Sucks.”

  1. “It sucks,” is a form of condemnation and condemnation serves no useful purpose.
  2. The desire to create is a spiritual gift mirroring the impulse of the divine. My job is to enkindle the flickering flames of that desire with a kindly tongue and practical advice. What right do I have to extinguish the fire.
  3. Condemnation does not build trust or contribute to a sense of community and common purpose. If you want to lose your membership in the artistic community, offer condemnation. The reciprocity of the Golden Rule applies.
  4. Condemnation does not accept the pursuit of artistic development; it does not accept the potential and possibility that my work can/will improve.
  5. Saying “It sucks,” reveals more about my ineptitude than it does about your craft.

Coming up: Part II – “Every Image is a Lesson.”

There is a spirit here

Numen_Inest

According to Wikipedia,  “The expression Numen inest appears in Ovid’s Fasti (III, 296) and has been translated as ‘There is a spirit here’.  The titles to my photographs are not given casually. I want my titles to capture as much attention as I would want my images to do, and where possible, I’d like the titles to reflect the essence of the particular photographic experience. Numen inest is the title I gave to this photo – a photo that I’m proud to say garnered 1st place Photographer’s Choice and Best of Show in the 31st annual PEI Photography Club exhibition. The show opened last night (September 4, 2013) and will be hosted at The Guild in Charlottetown until September 28th.

There is a spirit here. Every time I visit my mother in northwester Connecticut, I rise before dawn, and more often than not, I drive a few miles to this spot in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts – a spot I have known since early childhood. How often did my late father bring me here – a place he knew in his own Huckleberry childhood. How often did we fish the Housatonic and the Konkapot tributary that feeds into it. How often did he put his boat in at the bend in the river. And how often did our family climb aboard to cruise the placid meanders startling the painted turtles that sunned on the bleached limbs of elms fallen from the banks.

Bartholomew’s Cobble is but a five minute walk from here. During my childhood I heard rumours that at least one Disney animation artist had used the Cobble as an inspiration for the setting of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs (1937). The rumour may be unfounded, but the spirit of the place begs one to believe it.

It is no rumour that the American composer Charles Ives was inspired by the Housatonic River when he wrote the third movement of his Orchestral Set # 1 – Three Places in New England.  “This piece was inspired by a walk Ives had taken with his newly-married wife, Harmony, in June 1908 on a honeymoon hiking trip in western Massachusetts and Connecticut, a rural setting they enjoyed so much that they chose to go back to the Berkshires the very next weekend. While there, they took a walk by the Housatonic River near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Ives recalled,

‘We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember.’

Two days later, on 30 June 1908, Ives sketched some ideas to try to capture the atmosphere of this rustic scene.” (Wikipedia)

Housatonic is a Mohican name meaning “beyond the mountain place, and “Where beyond the mountain place it bends”  is the title to one of my first attempts at a panorama. It was also taken near dawn very close to where “Numen inest” was captured – or where, as Vincent Versace would have it, the image took me. The bend in the road follows the bend in the river seen at the far left of the panorama. This image is comprised of 10 vertical exposures stitched in Photoshop, and it won an “Honourable Mention” in the photo show’s panorama category.

Where Beyond The Mountain Place It Bends

While this spot has been endowed with meaning by my family history, I am not the only one attracted to the location.  During one pre-dawn visit I found another photographer there. He and began to chat, but when the sun’s early light rimed the tree tops we were spellbound; we stopped and turned to our cameras.  I have sometimes come across fine art painters working at their easels capturing the late afternoon light when cooler autumnal temperature have called for the annual performance of the foliage magic.  Visit the many galleries in the area and you’re bound to find visual art inspired by the Housatonic.

Last year another of my Ashley Falls images, “Housatonic Dawn”  (below. Sorry, that title could have been better chosen.) won 2nd prize in the Reflections category. All of these images were taken within 100 yards of each other.

Reflections -- Paul Vreeland -- Housatonic Dawn