“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.”
“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.
“The rise of dystopian politics … must be exposed and challenged on the local, national, and global planes. What is crucial is that the mechanisms, discourses, policies, and ideologies that inform authoritarianism must become part of any analysis that is willing to challenge the anti-democratic forces metastasizing within the United States today….
“This means, in part, focusing on the ongoing repressive systems that have been developing in American society for the last forty years. It also means drawing connections between historical forms of racial, ethnic, and economic violence that have been waged against indigenous communities, people of color, and the economically disadvantaged….
“It means finding a common ground on which various elements of an ethical society can be mobilized under the banner of multicultural democracy in order to challenge the interconnected forms of oppression, incarceration, mass violence, exploitation, and exclusion that now define the militant self-interest of corporatized American politics. It means taking seriously the educational nature of politics and recognizing that public spheres must be advanced in order to educate citizens who are informed, socially responsible, and willing to fight collectively for a future in which democracy is sustainable at all levels. This suggests an anti-fascist struggle that is not simply about remaking economic structures but also about refashioning identities, values, and social relations as part of a democratic project that reconfigures what it means to desire a better and more democratic future….”
I don’t have any firecrackers or sparklers, because I know better; I’d probably burn down the house, or at least set a few pine trees ablaze. I do, however, have red, white, and blue hydrangeas! And if you blink your eyes fast enough, they look like fireworks… or not! 🙂
Happy Independence Day, America! Let’s get our act together, okay?
Me and the dog have been pacing around the dining room table chanting “rain, rain, go away” almost every day since the first of the year, but that magic doesn’t work as well as it did when I was a kid. What’s up with that anyway? In the first not-quite-two-months of 2020, we’ve accumulated more than twice the average rainfall, as shown in this fine image from iWeathernet.com, a site that lets you chart and graph historical weather data for parts of the south and southeast.
Something similar happened last year — from December through January rather than January through February — but this year’s inundations have even surpassed that. I did manage a few hours in the garden one day last week, poking and peeking (with the camera) at some early spring growth.
These are baby Hydrangea leaves, emerging freshly for 2020.
I have one Honeysuckle in a large pot that last year got zapped by a late spring freeze and barely grew after that. This year, it’s going to try again.
Here are two photos of Climbing Hydrangea leaves followed by four Holly Ferns, The ferns really do appreciate all the rain; each plant has already pushed out a half dozen new fronds, so it looks like they’ll have a very good year.
Finally, here are a three tiny clumps of Clematis leaves — just starting to stand out — with the last photo stylized a bit to remove all the background.
“Rousseau claimed to be incapable of thinking properly, of composing, creating or finding inspiration except when walking…. It was during long walks that the ideas would come, on the road that sentences would spring to his lips, as a light punctuation of the movement; it was paths that stimulated his imagination….
“Walk, work, discover…. Trampling the earth with his heavy shoes, disappearing into the brush, wandering among ancient trees.
“Alone, and surrounded — or rather filled — with the quiet murmur of animals and trees, the sigh of wind through the leaves, the rattle and creak of branches. Alone, and fulfilled. Because now he could breathe, breathe and surrender to a well-being slow as a forest path, without any thrill of pleasure but absolutely peaceful. A lukewarm happiness, persistent as a monotonous day: happiness just to be there, to feel the rays of a winter sun on his face and hear the muffled creaking of the forest.”
I’ve been prowling my neighborhood, hunting for splashes of winter color. I’ve ended out with a large, slightly unwieldy batch of photos that I’m organizing into a half dozen galleries, that I’ll be working on and posting over the next week or so. Unlike summer and spring here in the southeast, green no longer dominates the scenes that become my photographs. Where green is present, it’s typically found in hardy grasses; or more commonly, among the ivy varieties whose color shifts from deep green to a shadow-filled version, where aqua or blue are emphasized by seasonal changes and the softer light of a winter sun. Backgrounds, especially, transition toward muted gray, chocolatey brown, and pastel variations of yellow, orange, and gold. My eye moves toward the surprising shapes and textures of plants in their dormant stages, and how those forms stand out as abstractions of their growing season versions.
The two galleries below include images of hydrangeas — bits of hydrangeas — that I found shaded by the trees of Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The first gallery features those where pink and red was still present on the leaves, after their fall turn and while still barely attached to their stems. The white filaments on some of the leaves — a form of mold or fungus — presented some interesting (that is, frustrating) challenges for the photographer because their contrast with the red shades created a difficult-to-overcome sense that they were out of focus … fuzzy, that is. To (attempt to) improve their appearance, I used radial filters in Lightroom individually over each of the leaves, reducing whites, highlights, and saturation then adding a bit of texture and sharpening to emphasize the veins in the leaves over the cottony fungus.
Except for the last photo below, this second gallery shows side-by-side pairs of the same clumps of spent flower clusters, framed differently. I did very little post-processing on these nine images, mainly some brightness and shadow changes to soften and darken the backgrounds and emphasize the remnants of the buds — which through the zoom lens looked almost like they were suspended in mid-air, held up as they were by tiny threads. Our eyes tend to pass over sights like this; but zoom and macro lenses provide a view of the world that our unaided sight typically misses.
The more I learn about using post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom, the more I find new potential in my photos. A few weeks ago, on a Wordless Wednesday, I posted two galleries: one of isolated hydrangea leaves with emphasized color and detail, and one containing photos of spotted dead nettle where I shifted the white highlights on the leaves to shiny silver. Those two galleries were fun to do; but equally important, I learned new skills while doing them. This is the first of two “Before and After” posts where I’ll describe what I did to create the images for those two galleries, from studying the original photos to making decisions about possible enhancements through to the adjustments I applied using Lightroom.
There’s always a temporary downside to adding new tools to a creative process, and as I’ve been experimenting with Lightroom on these and many other (not yet posted) images, I’m running into that downside: I’m spending a lot more time on individual photos and I get a little stuck with each one trying to decide what to do. Making these decisions feels a bit like confusion or cognitive dissonance with at least a dash of frustration, which I try to reduce by remembering something I heard from creativity teacher Julia Cameron many years ago. Learning and growth don’t move forward smoothly, she maintained; instead, as she described it, they move along at a certain steady pace, then seem to fall apart as you experiment, then re-integrate in your mind at a more comprehensive and useful level. She addresses this subject in many of her books, of course, but I found it most explicitly in her taped lecture called Reflections on the Artist’s Way, where she said:
“When you teach creative writing, people write along at a certain level, then everything falls apart. Well, that’s the way growth works. You go along like this, then it all falls apart, [then] it re-integrates at a different level. And when we’re talking about [creativity], you have to understand that you’re going to go along like this, then it’s going to be a mess, then it’s going to integrate….”
I’ve always thought of this as the “Everything Falls Apart” metaphor, one that applies not only to creative writing but to photography and equally to any other type of creative endeavor. To remember that everything will fall apart doesn’t necessarily eliminate the mental tension someone might feel when trying to learn something new, but it does help as a reminder to expect some level of disconnectedness as you expand your skills and make changes to your creative methods — and as a reminder that that stress is temporary. Like learning any new skill, the sense that you are “out of sorts” — the “I just can’t do this” feeling — will pass. And knowing that it will pass can help you push through it to the point where the new skills are incorporated into your thinking and become a more automatic part of your thought processes and workflows.
When I look at a group of related photos I want to work on, there’s almost always one that gets me thinking about what approach I’ll take during post-processing, even though the possible variations are endless and the starting point is often arbitrary. From the set of five hydrangea leaf images, here is the original photo that got me started:
I liked the leaf in the foreground and the one in the shadows behind it; together they created some compositional balance. I also liked the textures and color contrasts: hydrangea leaves typically grow to their final full size here in mid- to late-June, and at that point show intense colors and textures as they thicken and widen. Yet the left quarter of the photo with the blurry intrusion of other leaves and a white smudge made the image unusable as taken: to crop that out (at the photo’s original proportions) would have also cut out most of the foreground leaf. Cropping can be a great post-processing friend, except when it isn’t.
I first applied some vignetting to darken all the edges with a few clicks, then removed it because it’s not very subtle and created too much of a black frame around all four sides of the image. While backgrounds can establish context for the image’s main subject, vignetting removed most of that context and wasn’t right for what I imagined as the end result. Similarly — because the image is heavily shadowed — global exposure adjustments to contrasts, whites, shadows, and blacks simply rendered the whole scene too much darker than the original with no real presence for the subject.
So instead I thought I would experiment with a few things I’d recently learned about using radial filters from some of the B&H EventSpace presentations I wrote about previously. There are three types of similar filters in Lightroom: graduated filters (to select a linear or horizontal area to modify); radial filters (to select a circular or an oval area to modify); and adjustment brushes (which let you patiently select an area to modify by brushing or painting over it). Each of these techniques enables targeted adjustments using many of the settings available for an entire photo, including all of these:
The “Feather” slider toward the bottom of the panel determines how much the selection mask blends with the surrounding image elements; and the “Invert” toggle flips the effect from the area you select initially to apply it to the surrounding area instead.
The Texture slider — near the middle of this panel — is a new Lightroom function, added earlier this year. It enhances fine detail without (unlike Clarity) altering color, luminance, or saturation or creating raggedy edges (like Sharpening sometimes does). In last week’s Wordless Wednesday — Wordless Wednesday: Red, White, and Shades of Blue — I was able to significantly increase detail (perceived as focus) in each of the blooms by combining three adjustments: decreasing Highlights at least by half, using Dehaze to improve contrast inside the petals, and then using Texture to enhance the shapes of each of the flowers.
It may seem complicated, but it really isn’t — especially if you think of it in terms of how you want to change a photo. With the hydrangea leaf image I included above, I knew I wanted to: eliminate the out-of-focus and smudged elements on the left; eliminate the small leaf intruding from the bottom right; and emphasize the color and detail present in the leaf facing front. Some initial Tone and Presence adjustments…
… got me partway there …
… but I couldn’t reduce shadows any more at this point, and further changes to other global settings darkened the subject more than I wanted. To darken the background further, I clicked to create a radial filter in the center of the leaf, inverted it, mouse-dragged a circle to define the area I wanted to adjust, then reduced the exposure for that area (so the leaves remained mostly unchanged).
Radial filters can be duplicated (by right-clicking at the pin in the center) to stack multiple filters on top of each other, which sometimes yields interesting results as the duplication doubles the effect of the adjustments. In this case, however, I wanted to switch from working on the background to working on the leaf, so I duplicated then inverted it to simplify selecting the leaf for adjustment. I then used Dehaze, Saturation, and Texture increases to bring out the color and detail in the leaf, so that the green and yellow contrasts (as well as the increased focus) draw the eye toward this as the subject.
With these adjustments complete, the final image reflects my original vision for improving it: the foreground leaf shows decent color contrast and detail, and the leaf in the shadows provides balance to the composition.
The remaining photos in this series all got very similar changes, nearly identical in the areas I was defining as the main subject. Background adjustments varied in terms of whites, blacks, and shadows — really just by sliding the sliders around until I got a look I liked.
Here are the before and after versions of each of the five images; select the first one if you would like to see them in a slideshow.