The Quinces of Oakland (2 of 3)

From The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair:

“In 1666, the same year that the Great Fire of London consumed the city, a 24-year-old Isaac Newton began experimenting with prisms and beams of sunlight. He used a prism to prize apart a ray of white light to reveal its constituent wavelengths. This was not revolutionary in itself — it was something of a parlor trick that had been done many times before. Newton, however, went a step further, and in doing so changed the way we think about color forever: he used another prism to put the wavelengths back together again. Until then it had been assumed that the rainbow that pours out of a prism in the path of a beam of light was created by impurities in the glass. Pure white sunlight was considered a gift from God; it was unthinkable that it could be broken down or, worse still, created by mixing colored lights together. During the Middle Ages mixing colors at all was a taboo, believed to be against the natural order; even during Newton’s lifetime, the idea that a mixture of colors could create white light was anathema.

Artists would also have been puzzled by the idea that white is made up of lots of different colors, but for different reasons. As anyone who has ever had access to a paint set knows, the more colors you mix together, the closer you approach to black, not white….

The explanation for the fact that mixing colored light makes white, while mixing colored paint makes black, lies in the science of optics. Essentially, there are two different types of color mixing: additive and subtractive. With additive mixing, different light wavelengths are combined to create different colors, and when added together the result is white light. This is what Newton demonstrated with his prisms. However, the opposite happens when paints are mixed. Since each pigment only reflects back to the eye a proportion of the available light, when several are mixed together more and more wavelengths are subtracted. Mix enough together and very little of the visible spectrum is reflected, so we will perceive the mixture to be black, or very close to it.”

This post is the second in a series with photographs of Japanese quince that I took at Oakland Cemetery. The first post is here: The Quinces of Oakland (1 of 3).

I’m always fascinated when taking pictures of white flowers, and I had a little fun this morning poking around in my photography books and several web sites to read about the color “white” — what it is technically, how we experience it, and how representations of white in nature and in physical objects vary because of its reflective qualities and the presence of all colors in swatches of white light. Wikipedia lists nearly two dozen “shades of white” — many with clever sounding names; go to any hardware store to buy a gallon of white paint, and you’ll be greeted by many, many more. In nature, though — and certainly among flowers — white blooms are seldom pure white (if that’s even a thing), but are typically a mix of colors that change (often diminishing) as the flower opens. Yellow, green, and purple or magenta seem most common, as you can easily see if you take a close look at the white quinces below. Our eyes and minds tend to discount the color variations when we look at white flowers in nature, but the camera — it misses nothing!

“White balance” (or “color balance”) is a common photography term, of course, and can refer to a setting on the camera (or in the post-processing software) that alters the intensity of red, blue, or green applied to an image when it’s taken or developed — often interpreted as “cool” or “warm” color temperatures in a slighted mixed metaphor. I generally use the camera’s automatic white balance unless I know I have a specific reason to change it, something that I seldom do for nature photography but occasionally change when taking pictures indoors.

A challenge for photographers when taking pictures of white flowers is that it can be very easy to over-expose the white, resulting in “blown whites” or “blown highlights” for which detail can’t be recovered in post-processing. You end out with a bright blob of white, in other words, and shape but no texture in that portion of the photograph. To help eliminate that problem, I’ve gotten into the habit of using the camera’s exposure bracketing capability — to create three images at slightly different exposures from a single press of the shutter, from which I’ll pick the best one during post-processing.

This first pair of images below features a tiny blossom I noticed at the bottom of one large batch of quince shrubs, hiding among branches of the shrub and surrounded by winter debris from fallen leaves and sticks. It was so small that I had trouble getting it in focus without falling into the shrubs; but I kept the photo anyway because I liked how it seemed so determined to grow in the most inhospitable part of the plant. If you enlarge the image, you can see traces of green and bits of magenta tinging individual petals; and that it’s nearly translucent at this stage in its life.

Some of the quinces are very self-protective; it’s pretty common to see blooms like this nestled among a series of thorns. No fingers were pricked while taking these pictures, though the flowers were in full sun and The Photographer had to insert himself between the sun and the plant to get usable photos. I wasn’t able to determine why one of the flowers thought it was a good idea to bloom upside-down.

As the blooms get larger, the petals get thicker — and the appearance of white is more saturated and less translucent. These two pairs of blossoms grew farther up on the mass of shrubs, trailing a stone wall that shaded them from the midday sun. There is less magenta in the petals at this stage, though the center of each flower reflects back shades of yellow, some of which may also be pollen dust waiting for a bee to buzz by.

This pair shows my favorite photos in the series. The background was very simple without my intervention — always a plus! — and this single flower was in full bloom on a length of over-wintered wood that, in real life, was about five feet long. The light was just right for this one — it’s the purest white of the whites in this series — and the center looks like an ornately-dressed dancer, if you like to imagine flowers as other things.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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The Quinces of Oakland (1 of 3)

From “The Onset of Spring” by Elizabeth Lawrence in The Writer in the Garden, edited by Jane Garmey:

“In the South we go in quest of spring as soon as Christmas is past and the new year begins. The first days of January find us searching among the last fallen leaves for purple violets and white hyacinths and the yellow buds of winter aconite. And when we have found these frosty flowers close to the cold ground, we break off and carry into the house a few branches of Japanese quince with buds already swollen and ready to burst. By the time the quince buds have opened into flowers as pale as apple blossoms, their fellows in the garden may be in bloom too, if the days are warm.”

From More Than a Rock: Essays on Art, Creativity, Photography, Nature, and Life by Guy Tal:

“I characterize my work as creative explicitly to suggest that it may deviate from ‘the way it really looked,’ because I want there to be a sharp and honest division between reality and artifice. I care very much about the reality of the things I photograph, and I believe that to conflate that reality with the limitations of what may be expressed in a photograph most often leads to the diminishing of the former rather than the elevation of the latter. This is because such conflation always requires a degree of misrepresentation. Rather than relying entirely on characteristics of the subject, creative art draws its power primarily from the imagination of an artist. It does not aim to become a substitute for the real experience, or even an approximation of all its dimensions, many of which may be subjective.

A creative image is not a record of a scene nor a substitute for a real experience. Rather, it is an experience in itself — an aesthetic experience — something new that the artist has given the world….

“The Quinces of Oakland” — haha! for some reason I think this is funny! Sounds like a family of Victorian aristocrats, doesn’t it?

I found the Elizabeth Lawrence quote a few weeks ago, and with her reference to Japanese quince in mind, I headed over to Oakland Cemetery (where I knew there were bunches of quinces) to see if it was true that they start blooming shortly after Christmas. I mean, she sort of promised, didn’t she? Turns out she was right; among the plants engaged in very early flowering, there were quite a few red and white quince blooms scattered around the gardens. This post features the red ones I found.

So we’re a year into The Apocalypse and I’ve made about 60 trips to Oakland, my safe space for taking pictures of plants and flowers. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter trips — about to circle ’round to spring again. Right now, I have just over 100 late winter/early spring photos I’m still working on, to wrap up over the next few weeks so that by the time April flowers start busting out, my photo backlog will be empty.

Returning to Oakland again and again, week after week, has seemed a little strange at times: everything is familiar, yet there are simultaneously endless variations. What sometimes feels like a dispiriting routine, as it turns out, is really just a state of mind and doesn’t reflect the space I immerse myself in. If the routine is limiting — which in some ways it is — then limitations must be powerful too because they just mean selectively including what will be seen and not seen, what will be shown and not shown, which stories will be presented and which ones will not. Our best public spaces have characteristics like this: they contain layers of meaning about nature, history, society and culture, cultural relationships, demographic distinctions, and even variations in color, shadow, and light that are there for the taking — the taking of pictures, that is.

I made up the idea of the Quince family, of course … or maybe I didn’t, since “Quince” (and a variation, “Quint”) is a surname and not just a plant name, and I now imagine their ghosts accompanying me on my photo-shoots. If I keep looking — don’t you think? — I may (or may not!) find a mausoleum or tombstone or other memorial with that name on it. Wouldn’t that be something?


Happy Inauguration Day!

From Our Time Is Now by Stacey Abrams:

My America sees my brother and my sister as the promise of what our nation can and must become — a place of extraordinary success that transcends barriers and a place of redemption that defies the cynicism of our politics. This is a vision that only comes into being when everyone has a true voice in our futures. America, for all its faults, has always been a place of promise and renewal, of mistakes made and the constant pursuit of atonement. This is a new manifesto for our progressive future, one emboldened by understanding that our time of waiting is over. The fight for our future has already begun.

From Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau:

Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.

On a chilly and cloudy morning this week, I went hunting for a bit of midwinter color. The landscape seemed bleak following a stretch of below-freezing weather we recently endured … but then I stumbled across this audacious daffodil, the first one I’ve seen … starting to bloom in a splash of sunlight as if spring was already here. It appeared as an appropriate metaphor for this day, when our new President and Vice President will assume office, and two new Senators from Georgia (yay!) will be sworn in. After a challenging couple of weeks that marked the beginning of our new year, this tiny flower shifted my mood entirely — and in a few days I’ll post some more photos of a surprising gallery of color I found after it inspired me to take a calmer look at the world around me.

Happy Inauguration Day!

Update: It’s official! From The Biden-Harris Administration at The White House web site; here we go!!!


New Year’s Day 2021 (Finally!)

From “Gerontion” by T.S. Eliot in The Essential T.S. Eliot:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now 
She gives when our attention is distracted 
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed, 
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon 
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with 
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours.

From “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot in The Essential T.S. Eliot:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language 
And next year’s words await another voice.

You may have thought it would never end, but it did: 2020 is finally over, and a new year has begun. Happy New Year!

In a decade, or maybe in half a decade, we’ll already be looking back on 2020 as a transitional year — though I’d have to be Nostradamus to predict how we’ll characterize the transition. You’ve probably caught some of the 2020 recap stories that are popular at a year’s ending (many of which atypically included the words “Good Riddance”); one of the reasons 2020 seemed so long was that it was jam-packed with life-disrupting events, all accumulating to create not only anxieties but to make us reflective about aspects of society, culture, politics, and economics that seemed overlooked until recently. Paraphrasing the title of a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, “where have we been, where are we going?” is going to be an obsessive question for some years to come.

I wandered over to my favorite sanctuary earlier this week, in search of something that might capture a feeling about the ending of The Longest Year — but all I found was a half-dozen faded roses. We’d just had a couple of freezing days smack-dab in the middle of temperatures in the fifties and sixties, so hardy flowers that still manage to bloom in late fall and winter here had faded and shriveled in the cold. Still I got caught up a little in the appearance of these roses: even though they looked like they’d melted, a lot of their original color remained. So while they might not fit the traditional image of “beautiful” — their purple and magenta colors combined with the softened flower petals still struck me as not entirely unpleasant.

Flowers representing a new year vary by culture, but while searching for some ideas around that, I learned that Queen Anne’s Lace — in the language of flowers — is said to represent both sanctuary and safety, so seemed like good stand-ins for the beginning of a new year, as we (hopefully) move into a period of decreasing peril and increasing stability. I took these photos earlier in 2020, in June, and had some fun in Lightroom accentuating the minute flower detail, freshening up the lacy whites, and fading the backgrounds to give the flowers their deserved prominence.

Here are a few experiments, from the same trip to Oakland where I found the faded roses. The first two are of a fine piece of fuzz, originally against a mostly green background — which I converted to pale yellow then increased shadows and dark colors to highlight the fuzz. The first photo on the second row comes from an intentional overexposure, just aiming the camera at a this seed structure against the cloudy sky and using the last camera settings I had used to photograph the fuzz. I wanted to see what detail and color I would be able to recover from a monochrome, overexposed image.

For the last photo: I made fog!

If you’re interested in the “sausage factory” aspects of these experiments, here are the same four images in before-and-after pairs. My goal with the first two pairs was to render something that looked more like late fall or winter; to bring out seed detail against a winter-white sky on the third pair; and two transform the last pair into a different kind of photo emphasizing the cluster of seed stalks toward the right side amid dry grasses. Select any of the images to compare before and after versions in a slideshow.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


Happy Thanksgiving!

From World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen:

The more one can disengage from one’s own self-centered myopia, the more the world, in all its glory, rushes in to fill the gap. Gratitude creates a space in which nothing is not welcome: the fog, the hummingbirds, the blue sea and the sails….

“In the I Ching, when a line of the oracle reaches its most extreme, expansive state, it swings back, like a pendulum, into its own opposite…. It seems possible to me that our culture of speed and confusion, busyness and overwhelm, has reached just such a state, and that the time has come for the quick double-flip of transformation, from greed to gratitude, from isolation and depression to community and calm.

From President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden Pen Thanksgiving Op-Ed for CNN:

We are grateful for the frontline workers who have never stopped showing up over these long and confusing months, making sure our food is harvested and shipped, keeping our grocery stores stocked, picking up our trash, and keeping our cities and towns safe.

“We are grateful for the health care workers who put in long shifts and isolate themselves from their loved ones, the nurses who comfort and help people say one last goodbye, and the doctors who fight for every breath.

“We are grateful for the educators who learned to teach in virtual classrooms almost overnight, who did extra work to reach families without technology, or who took late-night phone calls from parents on the verge of tears.

“We are grateful for the parents who have carried their families through the chaos, working or searching for a job, navigating childcare and remote learning.

“We are grateful for the researchers and scientists who have spent this year learning everything they can to understand how to fight this pandemic and working tirelessly to find a vaccine and therapeutics.

“We are grateful for the American spirit that does not cower in the face of crisis and hardships but instead comes together to lift up one another. All those who lost jobs but not heart, who donated to food banks or asked their neighbors, What can I do? How can I help?

We’re grateful for everyone who reminded us that we are bigger than the challenges we face.