Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Looking for Humanity

I have long had an idea for a photo series that would study the relationship of man to his natural environment. This concept is an extension of my study of the human mind and consciousness, all related to my efforts and study to understand what it means to be 'human'. The photo project is waiting for me to come to some sort of creative conclusion as to precisely what I want to express and also how to convey that message through the photographic medium. My Street Photography Series is the beginning of this process.

It must go much farther than the restrictive environment of man existing - for better or worse - within the self-constructed cocoon of concrete, glass and steel that urban street photography captures, however. Much of the Western world has developed an unfortunate - and potentially fatal - idea that man exists separately, above and independently from what we consider the 'natural' environment. The urban environment is the perfect construct of this reality. Too many of us consider the natural world - those parts that remain mostly unaffected by man's presence and mechanizations - as an alien thing. A thing to be avoided, at minimum, and preferably subjugated and cleaned up a bit at best. The real truth is that, even buried deep within our most impressive skyscrapers, we never exist completely apart from the external environment. We can temporarily alter parts of it to suit ourselves and our unfortunately misplaced and misdirected egos, but in spite of our best attempts the entropy inherent within the broader system always, inevitably catches up with us. This process is actively manifesting itself all around us even now, although most don't have a deep enough understanding of natural processes to recognize what is happening. Worse, many of those who do have an inkling, but an interest in maintaining the status quo, work to promote obfuscation and/or denial.

One of the purposes of art is to open channels of communication not otherwise available to us. By sidestepping the more accustomed verbal channels of interaction and encouraging the viewer to pause and be exposed to a new perspective, art can sometimes deliver a message that might be otherwise missed or never considered.

A friend of mine, Shane Steinkamp, has spent a good portion of his life trying to come to terms with this not always subtle reality. Among my broad group of friends, he is one who can speak clearly and at length to the general concepts touched upon in the paragraphs above. He has also been experimenting with photography and video as a way to convey some of what he has learned. He is, unsurprisingly, a naturist who eschews the artificial shell represented by clothing and prefers to shed that shell whenever a practical opportunity to do so presents itself. During a recent canoe trip with friends, he took a series of photographs which mark a new level of success for himself in the photographic medium, but also served to help clarify where I want to go with at least a part of my project. Of the photographs he posted for us to see, two were standouts in-so-far as what he was trying to accomplish. The two photographs posted below were taken by Shane and then processed by me.

I immediately saw the potential in these two images and decided to see if I could help them along a bit to better communicate what I saw in them and what I thought would better reflect Shane's intent. The first image is of Shane balanced on a fallen tree in a remote section of the Mississippi's Black Creek. I am really attracted to the dynamic of this shot. The composition is spot on, with the shattered trunk anchoring and dominating the lower right and the flat diagonal of the fallen tree leading to and literally - as well as visually - supporting the obvious focus of interest, Shane himself. A case could be made that the figures presence is too small within the frame, but for this image to work as intended it requires the broad angle of view of that long, fallen tree trunk and the resulting void around the image only enhances the sense of place. The pose speaks directly to raw exposure and joy in this scene. The original is in color, but the photograph, to my eye, is far stronger in black and white as the conversion both removes the distracting element of color and forces the focus onto the parts of the image that are most relevant.

(click on image to enlarge)            Release

The next image is actually my favorite of the pair and speaks more directly, if more subtly, to what we are trying to convey with these photographs. Shane set up for a long exposure and then positioned himself in Black Creek for the shot. The result was this photograph:

(click on image to enlarge)          Water Spirits

As with 'Release', the composition is excellent. The presence of the main subject is again a bit small within the frame, but the sense of place is critical and, accordingly, requires an enhanced place in the subject's background to effectively convey the moment. One of the most important aspects of this image is the tension in the subject which is communicated to the viewer within the subtleness of body language. This is not the quiet, immobile, zen-like moment it appears to be at first glance. Note the curve in the subjects back and the expression on his face. His eyes are closed, but he is not relaxed. He is forced to lean into the slow but steady current as the water flows by, implacable and unrelenting.

These are parts of the message we need to deliver. The photograph 'Water Spirit' speaks directly to the metaphorical description of mankind's increasingly precarious position. It requires attention and careful balance to maintain ourselves in an ever moving and changing environment. Failure to achieve this balance will ultimately result in our being swept away with nary a trace.

Monday, July 11, 2011


"Her eyes were a shade of gray between onyx and miscalculation." - Harlan Ellison

The panoply of writers that I admire comprise a rather eclectic group, ranging in subject from philosophy through science and nature through psychology and even speculative science fiction to hit a few high points. Mr. Ellison holds a special place in my heart as the writer who possesses a searing ability to not only convey the dark side of human nature, but to dwell in and caress it in a way unique to himself. The above quote is from his short story "On The Downhill Side", published in the collection "Deathbird Stories".

I read this story recently, part of a long overdue revisit to Mr. Ellison's work. As much as I admire the writing and the story itself, the quoted sentence above stands on its own in a way that grabbed me and wouldn't let go.

"between onyx and miscalculation."

On the surface of it, the conjunction of the words has no meaning. Yet, something deep inside is blasted by the phrase. A connection was made and I keep going back to the sentence and re-reading it, trying to identify the reason it hit. I actually highlighted it in my Kindle reader so it would be easier to find.

Here lies the reason that fixed print media, whether word or image, will never go away. Other media cannot be studied, examined, visited and revisited the same way: in quiet, leisurely privacy and contemplation. Yes, you can watch the same bit of video or listen to the same bit of music over and over again, but you are held captive to the pace of the media. At the very least, having to hit rewind and replay to cycle back through moving dynamic media certainly breaks the contemplative reverie.

The printed word and image, whether paper or digital, has that more important, timeless quality of allowing the viewer to set the pace of the meeting. I can slowly roll the words over in my mind at will, caressing them along with the implied, imagined meanings. Photography and other printed arts are the same in that they have the static quality that allows leisurely, focused contemplation. One of the elements which I try to bring into my photographic prints is the ability to not only survive this type of close, thoughtful examination, but to actively encourage it. It is necessary that the viewer be able to project themselves into the image, to make that direct connection to it. This quality, if properly achieved, is a fundamental characteristic of successful art, including photography.

The image below is very simple. There are very few visual elements within it, minimalism being something I really prefer if the subject allows: a bit of dune, the walkway winding away and fading in the fog. That's it. Yet, these simple elements draw the viewer directly into the image. Where is it? Where does it lead? Where am I going...
(click on image to enlarge)         Destination Unknown
Imagination is a critical part of this process. We are all metaphorical creatures in the sense that we cannot think or communicate without the use of metaphor, although most of us do so without realizing it. Yet, who of us has not gazed into the eyes of another with whom we have an emotional connection and not been transported?

"Her eyes were a shade of gray between onyx and miscalculation."

It is in the familiarity of the emotion and the vagueness inherent in metaphorical communication that we find our room for personal interpretation. Our individual connection is found somewhere in that opening. The sentence makes no literal sense and yet we connect to the individual components in a way that bridges the irrationality of it. In the end, we do understand its meaning, but at a visceral, emotional level, not a literal one.

Photography can work on this way, but it is much more difficult than with most other visual arts. The photographer must take a bit of reality and distill the scene or image within the camera in such a way that the literal distractions are minimized, allowing the potential for the metaphorical connection to come to the surface. The ability of the viewer to study the image in their own space and time, to contemplate the emotion inherent in the elements of the photographers work, is often a necessary component of the process. This is where the value of the physical print comes into its own. Hung on the wall, the viewer can revisit it at there own pace and leisure.
(click on image to enlarge)                Invitation
The nature of photography, based in the reality of physical objects and light, requires the photographer see the metaphorical potential of a subject in real time. When we are in this groove, we are moving through an imaginary reality, examining the material reality for these metaphorical constructs even as we move through them. The image above was taken right from the sidewalk, looking into the unlit restaurant. The carefully prepared table right up against the window sill and the rest of the space in dark shadow, except for the window at the far end of the room. I felt the space as I walked by and connected with it instantly. There was a curious energy and potential in this most mundane of scenes that could be brought out if the camera was used with sensitivity and care for the metaphor that it silently communicated.

Do these images work on this level? Only the viewer can say, as we are all different with varying likes, interests, sensitivities and degrees of ability to communicate in this mode. I've seen people make the connection with these two prints, enough so that several have been sold already, so I know that some do make that metaphorical leap of imagination with them.

Let's close with an architectural image:
(click on image to enlarge)    The Shining Light of Reason
The title is a rather broad hint at my intent with this one. Take some time and contemplate it. Does it connect with you? If so, why and how? The static nature of the image allows you to come back and reconsider it or even rekindle the emotion it might ignite within you. This is the gift of photography to the world of the arts.