Thursday, November 26, 2009

- New Word New Way of Seeing – Bokeh in Prime Position

I have recently been tempted away from the use of zoom lenses back to prime. For over a decade I have been happy with the zooms covering 16 – 200 mm in just three cylinders. When I did sports photography, I only ever had primes. Zooms were supposed to have got better, which they did, but recent experience has shown me that the difference is appreciable. Not only that, this crisper way of seeing has sharpened up my practice encouraging me to be less lazy and move about more. There are objective tests for lenses and they tell you quite a bit. What they are silent on is the feel of the lens. Not just in the hand, but the overall quality or qualities which the lens lends to every image.

Prime lenses can be much faster, wider, more available for less light. This alone makes looking through the camera a heightened experience. At wide aperture however, the depth of field is perilously narrow: it is so easy not to hit the spot even with autofocus target areas and motors or for the lens to be distracted by back focus or be drawn to a strong, contrasty pattern in clothing or background. Such lenses are appreciably brighter. In old money, back in the day of wet processing, one used to talk about acutance which I always understood as the apparent edge sharpness around a subject; something to do with the kind of contrast you got with a certain time/dilution and chemical adjustment. In other words, something you got out of the processing rather than the lens itself. With the lenses I have just got, this acutance seems to be imprinted their DNA. Then there is resolution something which wet processing also could also enhance but which mainly inheres in the quality of the lens: the ability to deliver objects in terms of the amount of detail transmitted. There is correction for chromatic aberration, too, which describes how a lens copes with colour. Newer to me was ‘coma’ which I take to refer to a lens’ tendency to distort light sources.

Newest of all however is the term ‘bokeh’ borrowed from the Japanese meaning ‘dizzy’ or ‘fizzy’. This applies especially to one of the new prime lenses which has an aperture of f1.2, ie which is very wide and fast. It refers to the quality of bur you get in out of focus areas especially in highlight areas. I kind of know what this means but it’s as if I have only really twigged it since I discovered the term. Actually though, whether the term works or not, something else is working for me at a more intuitive and subliminal level. Quite simply, I like the sharpness and shallowness of the lenses even if the successful shoot rate is lower at such apertures, because when it is right it is almost other dimensional. It’s as if the zone of focus, all the more narrow with a wide aperture lens used at a wide aperture, cuts the subject out with a scalpel, creating some sort of stand-alone sliver within the frame. I have just recently learned that the new Canon bodies are being used by professional video and film makers partly because of the tack-sharpness and narrowness of focus afforded by these still lenses used in conjunction with wide apertures (see for example. In the bouquet of bokeh, by way the examples above, it is in the eyelash and part of the glasses of one shot, the right pupil with its contact lens on another and the left eye particularly again in the other. (The eyes always have it for me: a strong tendency in my approach as well as a widespread phenomenon in our culture, it is deserving of a far deeper exploration, but at some other time!) What’s more, these lenses have enabled me to start to see in a different way and to find a new pleasure in creating images.©

Monday, November 23, 2009

- Amid the wreck of is and was

Whilst looking up a sporting moment on YouTube, I tripped upon a lovely short video from Cambridge Ideas, entitled Strange Seas of Thought, in which the presenter Ruth Abbott looks at the comparative production of the imagination in the arts as opposed to sciences via a consideration of Wordsworth’s notebooks (See The strange seas of thought comes from a few lines in consideration of Newton’s statue in Trinity College in which Wordsworth muses at his

Voyaging through the strange seas of Thought, alone.

Along Ms Abbott’s short but intense journey in this piece, she refers to the phrase

Amid the wreck of is and was, things incomplete and purposes betrayed.

‘Betrayed’ is such a strong word. Regret turns to resentment. Who’s done the betraying? The rest of the expression is so matter of fact in comparison, merely identifying things as they are or as they come about. Life is like that. ‘I could have been a contender,’ says Brando, as Terry Malloy, in On The Waterfront .

As I look over my shoulder I can see the chair in which I meditate functional and comfortable enough, but it is empty and I have not been in it today nor for a few days. I’ve got excuses transparent as the air. Usually to do with busy-ness, breaks in routine. But I also know – and I don’t need to burrow very deep – that I have betrayed my purpose through a mixture of sloth and distraction, perhaps allowing myself to get too caught up in the moment of residing in some version of a devaloka. Am I a meditator whilst I am not actually doing it? When exactly does ‘is’ turn to ‘was’?

Such procrastinations can easily mask the fact that change is possible in every moment. The day is still young and so I may yet avoid trading places between a devaloka and Brando’s Palookaville. My inspiration will be Bhante serving so well as an example of how to occupy a chair.©

Sunday, November 8, 2009

- Technology and Wordsworth – Seeing through the dark

If you calibrate a Mac display using the faculty of your eye, you begin with a screen shot, in System Preferences, which invites you to set the brightness at the point where, in true Goldilocks style, the oval centre within a black square is neither too light nor too dark. It is both a question of judgment and a leap of faith that the display has the technology to deliver what is assumed to be the correct level of brightness. I wonder what Vermeer might have made of this, for whom the dark shadowy areas from a distance appear to merge but close up they maintain their variegated differences. I have never seen anything approaching a good repro of Vermeer for this reason. The photographer always seems to expose with too much deference to the shadows thus rendering the overall feel too light, muddy, lacking mood and contrast. I am thinking of paintings such as The Letter, The Geographer, Lady with a Maid where there is a heavy use of dark shadow particularly on the edge or the side in a way that frames the subject.

Pursuing the Bahiya advice from the Lord Buddha (which turned to Insight for him on hearing it) if we move from ‘in the seen only the seen’ and ponder what do we actually see – a good and fruitful enough exercise at most times – then Wordsworth segues most powerfully from the recalled visual experience to the imagined in the episode from childhood recalled in The Prelude involving what is often referred to as ‘the stolen boat’. (I prefer ‘borrowed’ to ‘stolen’ because he was always going to return it. What else could he have done with it?)

At first he rows out into the dark lake as light is falling, gradually he becomes aware of a great mass which seems to pursue him. This ‘grim shape’

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me.

He hurriedly replaces the boat to its original mooring and is left to ponder on the nature of this experience of something else beyond him, leading him to a sense of the transcendental and a ‘dim and undetermined sense of unknown modes of being’ where

There hung a darkness, call it solitude

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

I certainly don’t access this gateway through from the visual to the imaginal when I am calibrating my Mac display, but it does make me stop and ponder where else there might be portals. At the moment, such an illumined space, where brightness may be found in the dark, lies somewhere between what was gleaned on a recent retreat on the Sutra of Golden Light, led by Vedanya and Padmavajra, when we were all given a bunch of keys with which to open particular doorways into the sutra, and the excellent book by Nagapriya called Visions of Mahayana Buddhism which is full of maps and signposts of understanding.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

- Not Selling any Alibis

Once upon a time you dressed so fine

You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

The other night I met up with the first guy I met and the first friend I made when I first went to university. He became a TV reporter and front man and we naturally lost contact over the years. A couple of years ago he was thrust into the media spotlight because he had been found sleeping rough: the latest chapter in his demise through drink and debt. He was in many of the papers and indeed became the subject of a documentary called Saving Ed Mitchell. In this documentary we learn how drink had taken him over, lost him his job (and barred him from further similar employment), his marriage fell apart, the family house was repossessed, and his grown up kids were understandably devastated.

Nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street

And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it

We see him trudging along the stoney beach at Shoreham weighed down by a rucksack full of the burdens and necessities of his drunken existence. Then we see him, already full beyond excess, honking up, ill, yet making way for still more. The final shot is of him in front of the Priory taking his last swig before who knows what.

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

Now, nearly two years on, Ed has turned his life around. He is well and truly sober and has just received his first pay cheque working for In Excess a drug and alcohol recovery organisation. A couple of things struck me about meeting Ed again. One was that after 36 years and leading completely separate lives (though we both have daughters of the same age born on the same day) the sparks of friendship very much flickered around us as we spoke, caught up and dug deep. The other one was the insight his experience had given him.

How does it feel

To be without a home

Like a complete unknown

In this pride-less place, where he had hit rock bottom and not only lived the life of a homeless tramp but had this exposed and witnessed in the public limelight, he felt that there was nothing ‘lower’ to sink into. In part due to this public profile, he was presented with a generous benefactor who paid for him to go to the Priory and, if he was able to kick the habit successfully, he would be able to work again as a TV journalist for In Excess. This auspicious concatenation of events, coupled with a dimension of not wishing to fail in the eyes of many, was sufficient to lend him the support and give him the propulsion he needed to step into a new realm. Ed talks of how alcohol was added to everything he did until it just became everything he did. A beautiful sunset could not be appreciated as such, it had to be accompanied with a shot of something or other. Now he uses language which is congruent with acceptance, being in the moment, appreciating what is there, being more content. His was no religious conversion. Yet it was a complete spiritual overhaul. Whilst he respects the 12 steps and how they can help some to maintain a path of recovery, and whilst he can see how religion can become a raft for others, his route was different and somehow of his own concoction: in his own words, it had to be ‘-ism free'.

He recommends Viktor Frankl’s book recalling the latter’s experiences in a concentration camp. Some of Frankl’s aphorisms chime in with Buddhist thought such as the notion of the space between stimulus and response inside of which we are confronted with a choice, where we are empowered to act differently than the momentum of all the accumulated habits (samskaras) might lead us act. Here lies the possibility of change. I believe Frankl relates this space to growth and freedom. It seems somewhat akin to the space between craving and attachment (trsna and upadana) in the nidana chain. And it is in acting in this gap that Ed has found his freedom: freedom to do otherwise, freedom not to drink, freedom to grow into a new person into a new phase of life.

Through this new found sense of freedom, Ed feels less separate and more a part of the universe. ‘The Universe is consciousness turned into light turned into energy turned into matter and mass. That consciousness pours through us’, he concludes. Most eloquently, he talks of being made of similar stuff and moving to the music of it, as it flows through him. All of which has led him to the belief that the notion of an ‘I’ or ‘me’ is illusory. I may have been the one who studied Wordsworth at Durham, yet now this social scientist turned journalist is wandering into the domain of Tintern Abbey when he says that ‘we are not generators of consciousness but receivers of it’!

His is a journey of self-help in that his recovery doesn’t have a title or heading to subsume it under, but he would be the first to say that he couldn’t have done it alone. He has made some startling and life changing insights in his journey so far, but how many of us would want to change places to access such insights? How many of us would have been able to get into that gap and work with it and come out the other side?

You can see Ed’s current incarnation here:


Monday, October 5, 2009

- A Note in Passing: Jack Jones

The weight of this sad time we must obey; 

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. 

The oldest hath borne most: we that are young 

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(Kent of Lear, final scene.)

Today saw the commemoration of the life of Jack Jones, trade union leader, who died earlier this year. It was a moving affair with tributes from all quarters of the labour movement world including Spain where he went to fight against Franco in the thirties. In this era of celebrity culture where a few moments of fame and notoriety are dangled on the same piece of coarse string in front of an ever increasing would-be constituency of keen takers who seek out the limelight just because it’s there, Jack Jones’ life and times are 96 years’ worth of reminder that becoming well-known may just be a by-product of having spent a life dedicated in the service of other people. At the core of Jack’s life was an unstinting mission to improve the lives of others. His socialist syndicalist beliefs were so deeply established that it was easy for him to follow them through with self-less acts and actions. What came easy to him, many of the rest us would find difficult to emulate. When he retired from the T&G he started the pensioners’ movement with the same amount of vigour and dedication and commitment. And success. He stood for far more than the wages and conditions side of trade unionism, important though those concerns are. Just today Tony Woodley, the current joint General Secretary, of Unite (the latest incarnation of the T&G) reminded us that this is part of his legacy when he said that what the union fights for now it isn’t just wages and conditions but for the happiness of its members. Sardhu to that! ©

Friday, October 2, 2009

- In the Scene only the Seen

"An impeccably formed quarter of a tomato, cut out of the fruit by a gadget with such perfect symmetry. The peripheral flesh, homogenous and tight, in a beautiful chemical red, is of a consistent thickness between a strip of shiny skin and the bit where the pips are displayed: yellow, with a regular consistency, held in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along the bulge where the heart is. The latter being of a gently attenuated granular pink, begins from a recess on the underside via a membrane of white veins from whence one extends out towards the pips – albeit in a slightly hesitant way. At the very top, a scarcely visible accident has occurred: one corner of skin, come unstuck from the flesh by one or two millimetres, imperceptibly juts out."

In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1953 novel, Les Gommes, at one point he describes in wonderful detail, the segment of a tomato. It is so precise and exact yet it comes to stand generically as such for a quadrant of tomato. In the photographic equivalent or attempt at replicating the written into visual discourse, the representation remains singular and precise – even though we can’t eat either depiction and experience the experience of eating a tomato. I don’t know what surface R-G’s tomato wedge finds itself on but mine is clearly on a white plate. The photo is clearly a mise en scène – as no doubt is R-G’s description at that point in the novel. No matter how simple the shot is by shutting out whole battalions of signifiers, whole regiments are nonetheless there even in the so called neutral choice of background, as well as with whatever distortions and propensities the lens, ISO setting and aperture bring to it.

By attempting to limit and shut out certain other signifiers it’s as if we are trying to lead the viewer down an avenue of apparent simplicity where what is seen is just a tomato, a wedge, a quadrant of tomato. Yet in order to do that, at a fundamental level, we have presented not so much what is seen as what we (photographers) want to be seen as the seen. Clearly we do this all the time with more complex images. Take my picture of the rupa on my shrine. It is simple enough notwithstanding what it is of and what it represents with the addition of the two items I have added to it, a symbol of blue to remind me of Akshobya and a book at the Buddha’s feet to represent the Dharma. There is a plain background which I manufactured so as to further isolate the figure. Actually what I saw with my eyes is closer to what is apparent in the other shot – you may just make out my shrine in the top third of the picture, about a third in from the left. (Unconscious use of classic thirds maybe?)

I am not sure I want to start taking all my pictures in this way, somehow trying to replicate a seemingly haphazard way in the human eye scans and absorbs the visual environment, but it is somehow an encouragement to be simpler in approach and to try less yet at the same time to deepen our understanding of what is going on and what we bring to a picture. These are not neutral choices and they may be made through instinct and ignorance. As photographers we always bring certain elements to a visual situation and overlay it with choices and pre-conceptions. We rarely - if ever - just take things as they are. Even the simplest of pictures is highly pre-constructed.

The same could be said of mind. How often do we really see ‘things as they really are’? How often do we just see what our eyes show us, hear what our ears deliver, use our imagination not for mere fantasy but for access into the nature of reality instead of seeing what we hope, want, dread and fear to see, and hearing the unsaid and imposing so many narratives onto our experience like some over-worked Bollywood metteur en scène? ©

Bahiya of the bark garment, after asking three times, gets a teaching from the Buddha in which the Buddha says "In the seen only the seen, in the heard only the heard, in the imagined only the imagined and in the cognised only the cognised."