January 29, 2018

Cloudy, 26 Degrees, Light Snow, Calm Winds

This morning the weather surprised me as the weather is wont to do in Michigan. I had been visualizing an evening photo shoot in the mild, sunny conditions we had yesterday, only to wake up to snow on the ground and still falling. I suppose it is just as well as one of the reasons for this project is to share the seasonal and daily changes in weather. It’s actually a pretty nice morning as the snow had only accumulated an inch or so and was falling gently with little wind.

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I was hesitant about taking my very expensive camera out in this weather but I slipped a plastic bag over it and set out. It didn’t entirely protect the camera, but it helped. Of course, I had to take the bag off to shoot but I took my chances and took pictures all around my walk before covering it again on the way home. This kind of camera is supposed to have some weather sealing so I think it will be okay. The big, fabulously expensive, professional cameras used by journalists are supposed to be able to withstand virtually any conditions, but my description tells you why I don’t use one. Big. Expensive.

Yesterday I think I described my feelings after my initial photo session as thinking that my project might be a waste. I expected little from the photographs and perhaps less from my writing. But last night, many hours after returning, I picked up the camera and scrolled through the pictures. I was surprised to see several images that were actually pretty nice. Maybe even gallery nice, but certainly good enough to illustrate the beauty of the woods I walk through every morning. So I am much encouraged by my start and reminded why it is so much better to take pictures than to think about taking pictures. You can be surprised in either direction by taking action rather than imagining. Great ideas may turn out to be flops and vice versa. There’s a saying I remember from when I was painting: You should have seen the painting I thought of yesterday. It doesn’t work that way. You have to act and evaluate from there.

The pictures from today look completely different from yesterday with the snow carpeting the ground and highlighting the branches. There are a few pictures that I like. I don’t know if they merit printing or selling, but they are interesting and attractive to me. Jamie is much more prominent in these pictures because his brown and black coloring stand out against the snow where they blend into the browns of the leaf covered ground. He often walks ahead of me and he stops and waits for me each time I stop to take a picture so he appears posed in many of the shots. I guess this is okay. Over time I suppose he will begin to ignore my frequent stops.

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I’m still shooting without a tripod because carrying one just seems too unwieldy. It’s a less than ideal situation as the light was pretty low this morning and I couldn’t get enough shutter speed for reliably sharp images and to retain the depth of field I want. We’ll see how that works out, both the shutter speed and depth of field. I fired a couple of shots in quick succession, hoping that one of them will be sharp. As for depth of field, I usually want the entire forest to be sharp, but this means stopping down the lens and making long exposures. That requires a tripod, so I will have to carry one at some point.

I do like the freedom of just carrying the camera and firing off a frame or two without fussing over adjusting the tripod up and down all the time. I spend very little time in composing my shots, not because it’s not important, but because I trust my compositional instincts. Actually, composition is virtually everything in a photograph. It makes the difference between a worthless photograph and an interesting or powerful one. I look through the viewfinder, appraise the scene I see and if it looks potentially interesting then I zoom in and out a bit, point the camera left, right, up, down, until I like what I see. Then I shoot. Simple as that, but I have many years of experience composing both as a painter and a photographer.

Some photographers are very meticulous about their compositions, considering every element with care, checking the edges of the image for troubling or extraneous elements. I could probably stand to do a little more of that. I trust my general sense of composition, but that doesn’t mean that my images might not be improved by a little more care. We’ll see how things go as I continue. When I finally take the tripod, which I actually plan to do this evening for a second shoot, we will see if that improves my compositions. The tripod makes it easier to consider your compositions a little more carefully as it holds the camera for you as you look and make adjustments.

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As I said earlier, Jamie is quite prominent in these photos with the snow on the ground. In my previous landscape photography I would not have wanted him in the frame. I was photographing the pure landscape alone, but here I have a different purpose and he is part of the story. This may prove to be a good thing or bad. Having him there adds a different element that “humanizes” the pictures, but it runs the risk of being either trite, or too personal to me for the pictures to make sense to another viewer. It might be like looking at someone else’s baby pictures. They are more interesting to the parents than they are to you. Or maybe I just don’t like baby pictures as much as other people.

But Jamie is inevitably a part of this story and I’m not at all sure the photographs would amount to much without him there. They might be too vacant and maybe my previous work was too. I don’t really think so. I think my previous pictures invite the viewer to feel as if they are standing in the scene or might walk off into it. Here, though, I’m not sure the scenes have enough to be that compelling without Jamie’s presence. But, as I say, his presence is essential to the story. I may or may not have made these walks without him. I always did like walking by myself, but the experience of growing my relationship with him over the course of years walking these trails is essential to my purpose.

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Our relationship. There’s no other word for it. From a much less comfortable start back when I first met my wife to be, we have grown closer and more connected day by day until now, when I can’t imagine us being any closer. He was more than a bit wild when I first started walking him. He was younger and more energetic, but Lisa also never imposed any discipline on him when she walked him. He ran ahead, yanked your arm off on the leash, then lagged behind sniffing and peeing on everything in your path.

I soon changed from the twenty foot retracting leash that Lisa used to a six foot leather leash. I required him to walk beside me when we were on the sidewalk and he was on the leash. I walked him in a school yard and eventually the woods so he was off leash most of the time when we walked, but my rule was that he walk beside me when he was on the leash.

He had no idea of how to do this. He pulled me, not like some dogs you see who literally drag their owners like a sled dog, but always a step or two ahead of me and with tension on the leash. I checked him over and over, asking him to come back by my side then releasing the tension on the leash. Constant tension on a leash just invites a dog to pull continually. Shortly after I let off the tension he would accelerate again until the leash was tight, at which point I would check him again and the process would start over.

One day, several months into our walks, I realized that for maybe thirty seconds or so I had not had to think about Jamie and stop him from pulling. He was finally getting it. Now don’t get me wrong, he was not a model dog on the leash and still is only rarely perfect, but now he would respond to less pressure on the leash and slow his walk back to my side—before slowly speeding up again into the lead. Now, five years later, he still prefers to lead. He rarely strolls passively at my side, but now just the slightest curl of my fingers and he turns his head to look at me and slows down to walk next to me at least for a moment or two.

Now, his attention to me is the sweetest thing. He is always looking back to see what I want. Am I going this way, or that? Did you want me to stop here? He has an unusual way of stopping and looking back at me with this penetrating look. He makes strong eye contact and it is clear that he is checking to see if he is doing what I want. Sometimes he does this repeatedly and it’s not clear to me what he is looking for, but it is clear that he is attending to me and that’s a big change.

He has become so familiar with the routines of our walks that he knows when he is supposed to be on leash and when he will be free. When we come to the point in the walk where we get back on the dirt road, he sidles up alongside of me as if to say “Shouldn’t I be on the leash now?” When I say “Come here, buddy” he looks up with the sweetest, softest look that just melts my heart as I slip the leash over his head.

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I think that’s enough for today. I need to download and edit some of the pictures from the last two days and I need to figure out where and how to post both the pictures and this writing or as much of it as I think I should. I want people to read this. Don’t know why and I don’t know if anyone will. It’s way too much for most people. Our attention has shrunk to the 140 characters of Twitter. Facebook cuts off any paragraph longer than a few sentences, which makes sense. The feed would go on forever if I posted this stuff. And yet I want to.

I read and enjoy memoirs and books with little more structure than this but I don’t know if other do. I don’t even know if this writing constitutes story telling or not. There’s no plot; no conclusions, dramatic or otherwise. My stories tend never to have a punch line or conclusion. They just end. They’re descriptions of experiences. It’s up to the listener to put themselves in the situation and consider what it might have been like or to let their minds wander to experiences of their own. My hope would be that my meandering thoughts might lead someone to have some reflections on their own experience. I don’t know if that’s enough but it’s what I’ve got.

It may be that I will have to do a massive edit, reorganizing, structuring, cutting brutally, to make a more cohesive and compelling story. The idea doesn’t appeal to me much. I know that writers have to do these edits, usually with the guidance of a publisher or editor of some sort. But I don’t envision publishing other than on the web, certainly at this point. Maybe just a few of my closer or more curious friends will read some of this. Maybe not. I certainly risk the embarrassment of making a fool of myself, but no artist can function unless they are willing to expose themselves to criticism. I am certainly exposing myself here.

2 Replies to “January 29, 2018”

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