Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Hearts of Spring

One of the dangers of an inquisitive mind, and also one of its greatest pleasures, is the unexpected tangent. The train of thought or subject of interest, that when prodded and examined can lead to wonderfully surprising places. Today's unexpected journey began with a flower.

One of my favorite plants, commonly known as the Bleeding Heart, is a spectacularly beautiful and unusual flowering perennial. The scientific name, Dicentra spectabilis, meaning “two spurs worthy of notice” is aptly chosen. The blooms, though small, are one of the more interesting common flowers, borne in multiples strings of numerous blooms on hanging stalks. These little lovelies are presently in the peak of their blooming season in our garden. I caught one of the plants in a pool of late afternoon sunlight and grabbed a couple of photos with the 180mm macro lens. In the course of processing the images I became curious about the history and origins of these unique flowers and off I went. Here is what I learned.

The plant is native to Eastern Asia, growing from Siberia to Japan. The Chinese name is Hang-pak-monton-wha, or “pink and white flowers of the mountain”. One of the most successful of the Victorian horticulturists was Robert Fortune. Mr. Fortune, a member of the Edinburgh Horticultural Society, left Britain for China in 1842 and, among many other now commonly recognized garden plants, introduced the Bleeding Heart to Britain in 1846 after he discovered the species in the Chinese mandarin gardens. The popular cottage garden flower found its way to America about two decades later.

(click image to enlarge)

Such a popular and well loved flower is bound to have some folklore attached to it, and the Bleeding Heart does not disappoint. It has several different symbolic references attached to it. One is that it represents “undying love”, apropos for a perennial! Another is “hopeless – but not heartless”, which is rather less inspiring. Another bit of lore uses the the flower to divine your lover's true feelings: “if you crush the flower 'bleeding heart' and red blood flows, your love has a heart full of love for you; but if the juice is white, he loves you no more.”

A rather more fanciful and romantic story involves a brokenhearted prince and an arrogant princess. One of the unique characteristics of this story is that it incorporates the various parts of the flower into the story. The proper way to tell the story is to disassemble the mature flower as you go:

The Story of the Bleeding Heart

Once upon a time there lived a beautiful princess. Young men from far and near came to try to win her heart. But the princess was very vain and would have nothing to do with any of them. A young prince from a neighboring country fell deeply in love with hear. She ignored him like the others, though he tried and tried to win her over. One day the prince found a pair of pretty pink rabbits at the market.

(Peel away the two outer petals and you get two pink 'rabbits')

He sent them to the princess thinking,"these will surely melt her heart." But the princess went right on ignoring him. Then the prince sent her a pair of beautiful Oriental slippers.

(the two long petals from front and back of flower split into separate slippers)

Still the princess would have nothing to do with him. The young prince was so heartbroken that he took his dagger and drove it into his heart.

(break off the stamen and pierce the remains of the flower with it)

As soon as the prince was dead, the princess realized that she had really loved him. "As long as I live, my heart shall bleed for my prince," she wept.

(click image to enlarge)

The world is a complex, multi-layered and interconnected place. Even our gardens can take us on a trip through time and space if one applies a little curiosity and wonder. The Bleeding Heart, a flower of the world.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Road Trip

Time to get away for a day. Too much going on at work, too much going on home. Time to grab the trophy wife and head for the door! With the camera gear loaded in the back of the Jeep, we hit the road.

It is actually a bit early in the season for touristy stuff as we found out when we checked with our first chosen destination: the Japanese Stroll Garden – not open til next week. So, east it was. I put together a quick itinerary of possible places of interst, starting with the Horton Point Lighthouse. As a former sailor, I have a particular fondness for lighthouses and will eventually have photographs of all the twenty four (!) lighthouses on or near Long Island. Today was not the day, however. Upon arriving at the lighthouse grounds after an hours drive, we found the lighthouse closed. Discretion being the better part of valor, combined with the observation of a truck parked behind the lighthouse, we decided to honor the 'Closed' sign and moved on.

Next on the exploration list was a spot that I'd been wondering about for many years. On the North Fork, in East Marion, the island pinches into a very narrow passage, with the Long Island Sound and Orient Harbor separated by a few hundred yards of mostly marshy flats. There is a small bay with some interesting rocks visible from the road, but with no clear access into the area. A study of satellite imagery had indicated a trail system, so I figured it would be worth a closer look and it was. An easily missed, tiny, unpaved driveway lead to the Dam Pond Maritime Preserve.

Dam Pond (click on images to enlarge)

A delightful little jewel of a preserve, Dam Pond offers some very unique features. Of particular interest to me were a series of rocks scattered around the small, enclosed bay. We followed the trail around the shoreline and set up a few quick shots. We were unable to cross a marsh without a messy bushwhack, so headed back to the Jeep. I will come back to this spot for some dawn light shots, as the orientation of the rocks and shoreline is just right for morning light. We next headed further east – Orient Point, next stop.

Part of the draw was just to reach the end of the North Fork,which we hadn't seen in several years. We found a ferry getting ready to depart for New London, Conneticut and I quickly set up and grabbed a few shots of this very purposeful looking working craft. We then walked east along the stone covered beach towards Orient Point and it's lighthouse. Switching to telephoto, I took a few shots and then sat in the sun with Nancy for a few minutes to enjoy the scenery.

Our last stop of the day would be the town of Greenport. In spite of the early season, the sunny, if brisk, weather had brought out quite a few visitors. We grabbed the last parking spot in the municipal lot and walked around town for a bit. Not too much had changed since our last visit, but there were some new shops and sights. The most notable, and obvious, was the Bounty. Built in 1960, this ship was built for the film “Mutiny on the Bounty” and it was also used in “Pirates of the Carribean”. The Bounty happened to be in Greenport for a few days. It was an excellent opportunity to shoot such a wonderful, complex craft. The sky was overcast and the light on the wrong side for the detail shots, but I took a series of images anyway. Even less than ideal conditions can give interesting results if a little imagination is applied in processing and opportunities should never be passed up.

The Bounty

We visited a few shops and stopped in the Terrence Joyce Gallery. Mr. Joyce was in the Gallery and we hit it off immediately. By the time we left the Gallery, I had been invited to display my work and details had been arranged. This was an unexpected development, but I am excited about the opportunity to show my work in a new market. We broke for a late lunch/earlydinner of fish 'n chips at Claudio's and finished by taking some photographs of “Morning Call”, the 9/11 Memorial in the form of a stunning wire sculpture of an osprey perched atop a recovered beam from the World Trade Center.

'Morning Call'

A full day, all-in-all, and just the mental break I needed after the crazy business of the last few months, topped off by the excitement of a new gallery for showing my work. Definitely a good day.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Yard work

Yard work is not the sort of thing that tends to inspire one to creative heights. But one must make the best of the opportunities provided. Fortunately, our yard offers plenty of surprises left over from years of horticultural experiments, most of which are left to fend for themselves after the initial planting. Our yard could be considered a bit of a test lab for which nursery plants are of the rugged individualist type.

Happily, spring flowering bulbs are a big winner here. Crocus, narcissus and daffodils not only seem to thrive, but they actually spread. Flowering trees and perrennials are another winner. We have peach, apple and crabapple trees that bloom enthusiastically in season. Much of the tedium of the work is relieved by admiring these transient beauties around the yard.

Here are some of this season's floral finds:

Evening Peach Blossom

Dawn Daffodil

Bleeding Heart coming into bloom

Dawn Peach Blossom

Some consider photographs of floral subjects to be a bit passe, and on some level there may be something to this. I still enjoy taking some fairly straightforward floral shots when the light is interesting just the same. The real fun is using the natural beauty of flowers as the starting point for the creative impulse. A good macro lens is indispensable to fully realize the endless artistic potential to be found in flowers. Interesting angles, unusual lighting situations, extreme closeups can all be used to create interesting images.

Full sunlight is usually avoided in photography, as the available light tends to exceed the dynamic range of the film or sensor and care must be used to adjust to these conditions. Late (or early) in the day, as the shadows lengthen abd the midday intensity of the light backs off a bit, opportunities start presenting themselves for the observant. Such it was that I noticed some late afternoon sunbeams on a patch of tulips. The sun was still too bright for a straight-on shot, but I wasn't much interested in that anyway. What caught my attention was how the sunlight was passing right through the tulip petals from the backside. This would call for a difficult exposure, shooting towards the sun.

Hot Tulip I

The trick is to meter off the brightest part of the subject and let the rest of the scene go dark. If the conditions are right, and your technique is on target, you can get some really interesting lighting and color effects. I worked the tulip patch for about 30 minutes or so and obtained two images I found satisfactory. The results can border on the abstract.

Hot Tulip II

Notice how the everything around the tulip has faded to black. The actual scene was well lit, but metering to the brilliant sunlight on the flower petals, the rest of the scene fades to black, leaving an image almost searing in its intense light and color.

(Click on images to enlarge)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Canyon, Then and Now

Over the years, photographers will tend to build up a rather formidable collection of old images. It is typical for me to select something like five or ten images out of every hundred as 'portfolio' quality after a backpacking weekend. A typical dawn shoot will return two or three potential keepers out of fifty to seventy-five shots. So what happens with all the others?

At least half the images are tossed into the 'bit bucket'. These are the images with clear defects or are backup duplicates of the keeper shots. The remaining inventory are likely to be of interest for one reason or another and I am loath to toss an image with at least some potential. One of the advantages of inexpensive storage is that it very easy to set aside these less-than-perfect images for later review. Unfortunately, the near constant influx of new image files makes it all to easy to forget what one has buried behind the metaphorical cobwebs. This is especially the case when the new work peaks my interest such that the old files barely get a thought, much less a revisit. I was reminded recently of the importance of not being so dismissive of the older images.

One of the things we tend to forget is that we are constantly changing as individuals. Our days and weeks and months and years of cumulative experience change us. Not only our appearance as we age, but also our opinions and how we perceive the world around us. The person who views the world at the age of fifty the same as he or she did at twenty has wasted thirty years. What once may have been of little or no interest, may suddenly provide a newfound insight. Such it is with old images. Those older photographs which tugged at some tendril of interest, but never quite pulled you in, may prove to be jewels in the rough. So, when time and circumstances permit, I will occasionally browse through the thousands of old image files looking for surprises.

Last week I happened to find myself in the directory housing my collection of RAW files from my traverse of the Grand Canyon two years ago. A series of images from this week-long trip inside the Canyon open the Terra Gallery on the Essential Light Photography web site. I had another hundred or so images saved in the archived folder. While perusing them, I found four that peaked my interest. At the time I was in the Grand Canyon, I had not yet developed a working understanding of the power of black and white images. The Grand Canyon itself tends to call for color images to convey the striking imagery in all its incredible beauty. My initial portfolio images follow this line of perception. During this recent perusal, it became clear that something had changed.

I had taken what I consider my first successful black and white image, 'Sunken Forest Pathway I', about eight months before the Grand Canyon trip, but the connection to black and white had not quite solidified yet, and didn't for some time. But my interest and understanding of monochromatic images has continued to grow. This became apparent as I perused the image files and mentally considered virtually every one as a monochrome. I picked several promising files and ran them through the conversion process to evaluate them. Several ended up being returned untouched, but four ended up in the portfolio. One was a revisit to one of my favorites from the Canyon trip, the dead cedar we found on Cedar Ridge during our descent into the Canyon. The high contrast conversion gave this old favorite a completely different - and fascinating – personality.

click on image to enlarge

The next three were images that I had passed over the first time as they did not work for me at the time. Converted to back and white, they found new life. One was a companion to the original Cedar Ridge image:

click on image to enlarge

Next was a view of the bottom of Clear Creek Canyon, just north of the campsite at the start of the route to Cheyava Falls:

click on image to enlarge

Last was one of those small detail shots that seem rather out of place in the grandeur of the Canyon, but remind me of the endless fascinating little details to be found within:

click on image to enlarge

I will be making more time to wander through more of my older archives looking for more surprises. My new eyes may well discover more gems buried within the dross.