Winter Shapes and Forms (2 of 3)

From “If Thou Indeed Derive Thy Light From Heaven” in Selected Poetry of William Wordsworth, edited by Mark Van Doren:

If thou indeed derive thy light from Heaven,
Then, to the measure of that heaven-born light,
Shine, Poet! in thy place, and be content:–
The stars pre-eminent in magnitude,
And they that from the zenith dart their beams,
(visible though they be to half the earth,
Though half a sphere by conscious of their brightness)
Are yet of no diviner origin,
No purer essence, than the one that burns,
Like an untended watch-fire on the ridge
Of some dark mountain; or than those which seem
Humbly to hang, like twinkling winter lamps,
Among the branches of the leafless trees.
All are the undying offspring of one Sire:
Then, to the measure of the light vouchsafed,
Shine, Poet! in thy place, and be content.

From “The Recluse” in Selected Poetry of William Wordsworth, edited by Mark Van Doren:

“[The] gates of Spring
Are opened; churlish winter hath given leave….”

This is the second post in a three-part series showing some natural shapes and forms revealed by winter. The first post is here: Winter Shapes and Forms (1 of 3).

With daytime temperatures here in the southeast reaching the sixties and seventies over the past couple of weeks … spring is sprouting all over the place! I’ve already accumulated batches of daffodil, plum blossom, cherry blossom, snowdrop, and unidentified flower photos — all in the early stages of post-processing. With fabulous weather, though, I’ll admit it’s a little hard to sit still and work indoors in Lightroom, when every day ever more plants are just screaming at me to take their pictures. But I’ll try to balance my indoor and outdoor time to get some work done while still adding to my backlog….

Some of the photos in this post were experiments … like these two shots isolating one branch of what might be wintering baby’s breath, followed by a single “blossom” from the same branch. I took them just to see if I could pull it off: the branches waved in the slightest breeze, even moreso as I moved back and forth while taking several dozen photos to get something in focus. The images that worked best — the scene was lit with full sun — were actually over-exposed with high ISO, a high shutter speed, and a shallow depth of field — which rendered most of the background as shadows and highlights, that I reduced as far as possible in Lightroom to produce the dark backgrounds.

Capturing these bead-sized white flowers was a similar experiment — and a challenge! — though in this case I kept the backgrounds intact (slightly softening them in Lightroom) to retain the impression that the buds were suspended among a mass of twisted vines — exactly how I saw the scenes in real life.

I think the first two photos here are a tiny rose, that started to open on one of the warmer February days, then got zapped by some freezing weather. No idea what kind of plant that is in the third photo; I just like to contrast between the stone wall in the background, the orange/yellow leaves, and the tiny dark blue berry clusters.

New growth on old wood in nature is always interesting; here you can see three views of the same petal and leaf cluster just making its late winter or early spring appearance. I plan to go back and check on this same batch of shrubs on a later visit; there are quite a few buds just getting ready to open, and once they do, I might have some luck identifying the plant species.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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Winter Shapes and Forms (1 of 3)

From Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit:

“We tend to consider the foundations of our culture to be natural, but every foundation had builders and an origin — which is to say that it was a creative construction, not a biological inevitability. Just as a twelfth-century cultural revolution ushered in romantic love as first a literary subject and then a way of experiencing the world, so the eighteenth century created a taste for nature without which William and Dorothy Wordsworth would not have chosen to walk long distances in midwinter and to detour from their already arduous course to admire waterfalls….

“This is not to say that no one felt a tender passion or admired a body of water before these successive revolutions; it is instead to say that a cultural framework arose that would inculcate such tendencies in the wider public, give them certain conventional avenues of expression, attribute to them certain redemptive values, and alter the surrounding world to enhance those tendencies….

It is impossible to overemphasize how profound is the effect of this revolution on the taste for nature and practice of walking. It reshaped both the intellectual world and the physical one, sending populations of travelers to hitherto obscure destinations, creating innumerable parks, preserves, trails, guides, clubs, and organizations and a vast body of art and literature with almost no precedent before the eighteenth century.”

From The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals by Dorothy Wordsworth:

“What a beautiful thing God has made winter to be by stripping the trees & letting us see their shapes & forms.”

This is the first post in a three-part series about … what Dorothy Wordsworth wrote above!

I was a little puzzled at first about the phrase “shapes and forms” since my dictionary and thesaurus seemed to treat the words interchangeably; but, guess what, shape is shape and form is form! See The Difference Between Shape and Form or Shape and form (visual arts) if you, too, would like to be unpuzzled about these words.

These desiccated hydrangeas (probable either oakleaf or bigleaf hydrangeas) seem to keep many of their spent petals for the entire winter season, at least here in the southeast. I took these photos in late February, after quite a few winter rain and windstorms, yet their dried blossoms are mostly intact. Hard to shake the feeling the one of more of these is a cluster of moths (or bees!); and I half expected them to flitter away before I finished taking the photos.

The five photos below show the remnants of bluebird and blue billows hydrangeas, plants with fragile flowers that barely make it through the dog-days of summer here yet keep a few bleached-white, slightly shiny petals hanging around through fall and winter. These are from my garden (which is why I know their names) and it was fun to position them suspended in my macro lens against the muted backgrounds.

I’ve not yet identified these tiny yellow flowers, one hanging near the tip of a branch … and one in a black hole!

Japanese Maple trees and shrubs produce the most delightfully shaped leaves throughout the year, even in winter when they keep their fall color for a couple of extra months, shrivel up a bit, yet are still fascinating enough to capture my camera’s attention. The third photo below shows where the first two closeups came from: the branches of one maple hanging over a thick batch of English Ivy, which covered the length and height of a long, four-foot high stone wall. English Ivy is everywhere in my neighborhood (and much of Georgia, including many homeowner’s yards (like mine)), and is often used in place of grass (especially on homes built in the early 1900s) as a hardy, low-maintenance alternative to grass. Many people say you can take some cuttings, throw them on the ground, and they’ll root and grow — though I did try that and it didn’t work.

The leaf color below may appear a bit unnatural, but it’s what English Ivy looks like here in the early morning, after a night with below freezing temperatures. It will stay that way for a few hours, unfazed by the cold except for the color change, until the sun warms it back to a brighter, greener-green.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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The Quinces of Oakland (3 of 3)

From Through the Garden Gate by Elizabeth Lawrence:

“In old gardens through the South there is a beautiful white quince…. It has bloomed out-of-doors as early as New Year’s Day, and can be forced very easily. The nice thing about these strong-growing varieties is that they can be cut ruthlessly. The white-flowered quinces in the trade are ‘Candida’, ‘Nivalis’ and ‘snow’, all forms of Chaenomeles lagenaria, and all vigorous. ‘Snow’ grows taller than wide, is almost thornless and has pure white flowers to two and a half inches across…. The way the quinces grow, thick and thorny and close to the ground, makes for a good hedge plant.”

This post is the third in a series with photographs of Japanese quince that I took at Oakland Cemetery. The first post is The Quinces of Oakland (1 of 3); and the second post is The Quinces of Oakland (2 of 3). I took extra photos of a few of the white quince blooms, specifically to convert the backgrounds to black; you can read a bit more about that and see before-and-after versions just below this gallery.

Here are the before-and-after versions of the same five photos. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve gotten in the habit of using exposure bracketing to generate three images of each scene: one recorded at the manual exposure settings I’ve selected, one underexposed image, and one overexposed image. A surprising benefit of the overexposed image — which renders the entire scene brighter and with lightened colors — is that it’s easier to paint the background black, since it’s colors are less intense and therefore easier to blacken with Lightroom’s brushes. The camera still captured enough detail in the white blossoms that even though they look “washed out” in the before versions, they come through quite nicely by adjusting the images’ highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks, and adding a bit of texture to each one.

Select the first image if you would like to compare the before and after versions in a slideshow.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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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?