Sky Puddles: “What does it mean to photograph with passion?”
Once upon a May morning, I was photo walking along the Coast Fork of the Willamette where it flows around to create the boundary of Mt. Pisgah Arboretum here in Eugene, Oregon. I was surrounded by the lush fairyland of waist high blue larkspur and camas folded into the rich green grass starred with buttercups and wild Nootka roses.
I was clicking away taking standard shots I’d taken every spring for decades.
I felt a little depressed by what seemed to be impossible—to see all this with new eyes.
I sat down on a bench by the river and asked myself,
“What does it mean to photograph with passion?”
I didn’t exactly know the answer, but I let the question seep into me. Then I got up and started to really look through the viewfinder for something that satisfied some richness I’d been longing for.
I put my camera in the “pop art” setting that I’d heard others scorn. That bumped the colors of the flowers up into the stratosphere. Then I stopped down the exposure until backgrounds blurred to interlocked circles of green or blurred to paintbrush swatches of barn door red and sky blue.
When I could, I positioned flowers against dark shadows, so they would glow with jewel tone intensity on the velvety black backdrop.
At the pond, the lily flowers were radiant little suns about to open against maroon lily pads floating on dark water.
Suddenly, within an hour of asking the question, I had a method, an approach I could take to deepen my vision of a passionate world.
It was Laura Valenti, my photography instructor for “Light Atlas,” who told me, “Sandy, face it: at heart you’re a landscape photographer.”
So how to bring something new, that “what else” factor to the everyday landscapes of my little snow globe of a world?
I was out yesterday with that question, and as is my habit, I made a little nature video like a journal entry for the day—these grew out of the Gratitude Walks in another of Laura’s classes. This one is “Secret Places, Country Lanes.”
For today, I select this image as the one that seems most to suggest worlds within worlds.
When I was a very young girl, I was immersed in a magical, light-drenched natural world. I lived by the wild and undammed Wenatchee River. The mountain range called The Enchantments floated above my childhood home like an Avalon in the sky, seeming to be untethered to my little earth. The snow-covered mountains soared high and free above me and my family, guardian of all I was, protector of all I would become.
My dad photographed all this high country wilderness–macro, micro, telephoto and wide-angled lens and eyes.
My sister became a watercolor painter of trees and skies with a fine brush for the details of the snowy owl, the raven, the vultures and the eagles.
We were a family caught up in a shimmering net of the beauty of place, and each in his or her own way struggled to live up to the emotional privilege of being somehow allowed to exist there for so many years in the wide arm of the river, under the great wing of The Enchantments.
I found my own way into the heart of this enchanted world through poetry and story and was lucky enough to stumble upon a career that sustained me in those passions. It was through poetry I first learned the power of what my photo teacher Laura Valenti calls, “Magical Seeing.”
Like poets, photographers immersed in exploration of soul must consider the contrasts between the elusive light and a rich and suggestive dark. In both word and image, poets and photographers like me struggle to capture the haunting, evocative mood, that sense of timelessness and nostalgia.
I like that these years I live in now are called my “golden years.” I can look back at that young girl and see that she spent her entire life in pursuit of this magical seeing. She understood with her heart what I can now not only feel but explain: that we live mythic lives thrumming with the vitality of light, and, as Valenti puts it, “Rich with meaning and mythology and magic.”
Valenti’s challenge to me is the one I have always put to myself, “What can I do to express ever more profoundly a magical way of seeing and being in my world?”
I still live in a natural world so explosive with beauty and detail that I could weep with despair over my inability to photograph it in a new and “more magical” way.
I read a book once on designing a Romantic garden. The primary tip my husband and I implemented in our garden is the concept of using arches to create receding vistas that open up to little rooms in the garden. Even a small lot like ours became extraordinary when we thought through adding these layers, these glimpsed views into other little secret gardens within the garden.
Earlier this week, I was out specifically shooting for “Secret Places,” and now I add this memory about building a garden to Valenti’s thoughts on seeing opportunities to photograph layers–through archways, under trees into remote and beckoning meadows, through the scrim of a rain cell moving fast across a sunlit valley.
“Tell me,” asks poet Mary Oliver, “what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I am trying to answer this question as best I can: I’m trying to give back the magic to the world it has given to me.
As an assignment in Laura Valenti’s class “Meditations on Gratitude,” we were asked to find some way to celebrate or honor our visual mentors–those who have inspired and informed our own efforts at photography.
I know Laura said we didn’t have to go all-out, but too late! All of yesterday got swallowed up (creatively, just the way I like to get swept away by a challenge) as well as a couple hours this morning. I easily have eight hours in this little four minute video–there was just so much to think about, process, and, of course, my original file was 10-15 minutes, so the agonizing editing!
I originally included my husband and my artist sister, but then I started to think about large family politics and reluctantly deleted them. Same with Galen Rowell and Art Wolfe and Ansel Adams and Andrew Wyeth–too many white guys, thanks to my father’s influence and generation. Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Goya…the list goes on thanks to a lifetime self-education in the arts…and the historical lack of women.
However, many years ago, there was a three-nation traveling exhibit of Georgia O’Keeffe, Emily Carr, and Frida Kahlo, and that single day in the museum shaped my thinking and my vision for the decades to come. I have studied all three intensively and journeyed to the wellsprings of their visual inspiration to find my own.
More recently, thanks to an inspirational video Laura posted, I am being inspired by Jay Maisel not to do something I’m not already doing, but to do it more intentionally.
Jay Maisel was asked what two words would make a person a better photographer, and he said, “Be open. Be open to what is happening around you…”
This is my third class with Laura, and her visual aesthetic never ceases to astonish me because it is so different from my own; yet, it is beautiful and evocative, so I have opened my visual range to include images with that unique “Valenti effect.”
I am grateful to all the great artists, including the ones right here in my own home, who have informed and continue to educate my eye to what is most beautiful in this world.
Who are YOUR visual mentors?
This fun project was for Vimeo’s Weekend Challenge. The concept was to edit together in chronological order the last, say, hundred or so of the videos on your Camera Roll.
The neologistic “stredit” means “straight edit.”
My “recent additions” of videos to my camera roll started in the middle of our Spring Break trip to Monterrey Bay and Aquarium then went to an art installation then up the McKenzie River with Debra Stein to Tamolitch Pool.
Somewhere in there is a day trip to Alsea Falls and the surf park at Yachats (Oregon Coast). Then some shots around my studio of dolls and poems finishing with some Maya Brolutti fire dancing at the beach and rain in the trees.
That’s pretty much my life in two minutes!