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.


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."