Join me on a journey to explore the landscapes behind the photographs and words. What I see, what subjects and ideas belong to me and guide my journey, direct my eye, and tell me where to stand. Where would you stand?
Prologue. Earth Shadow
"Earth Shadow" describes a wonder that most people never see, one example of the ideas and stories that are embedded in the world, waiting to be discovered and read.
I first saw the earth's shadow at Uluru, in Australia, when a dark blue line appeared along the horizon at sunset. I thought it was a singular wonder, unique to that sacred place. Years later, I learned that it happens everywhere on every clear day, just before the sun rises, just after it sets. That dark blue band is earth's shadow.
Now, on a clear day, I look to the east at sunset, to the west at sunrise, to watch that shadow-cast onto the atmosphere by the sun passing below the horizon. The sequence of hues is not exact but varies with the presence and distribution of clouds and airborne dust and moisture. On some evenings it is the intense aqua of a robin's egg, on others blue-violet. Certain moments of color one may never see again.
Photography and the Art of Visual Thinking
"Photography and the Art of Visual Thinking" describes how photography has been, from its invention, a means of discovery, for scientists and artists alike.
For Eudora Welty, celebrated for her short stories and acclaimed for her photographs, the camera was "a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know." "What I learned for myself came right at the time and directly out of the taking of the pictures." A "double thunderclap," she wrote, reverberates "at the author's ears: the break of the living world upon what is already stirring inside the mind, and the answering impulse that in a moment of high consciousness fuses impact and image and fires them off together." I hear that double thunderclap in some of my photographs, where image and idea merge. The photograph, the record of that union, may be the beginning of a train of thought, as it was for Welty, or it may stand alone as an end in itself, a freestanding idea, whether glimpsed or fully formed.
What Craft the Subject Demands
"The Craft the Subject Demands" disputes Susan Sontag's denigration of photography as an effortless practice, requiring only "a touch of the finger" to produce "a complete work." The "touch of the finger" is but part of a process of observing, reflecting, focusing, editing, printing, and sequencing that may last hours, days, months, even years. The nature of the "complete work" and the craft required to achieve it depend on the photographer's subject.
To me, nature is the sum of creative and life-sustaining processes that connect everything in the physical universe, including humans, processes that connect scales of time and space and all that lives within them. To photograph "nature" as I seek to do demands a craft akin to that of a documentary photographer, capturing the stories of formation, the unexpected, paradoxical, and anomalous, the complex and dynamic, the serendipitous and ephemeral, as well as the eternal and monumental.
"Knowing Where to Stand"
To know where to stand is to know oneself and one's subject. Moving several feet, or even a few inches, backward or forward, to one side or the other, up or down, can change the whole story.
On a morning stroll along Sydney Harbour, I had rounded the top of a bluff, looked down, and saw this basin of bright turquoise against the ocean's dark ultramarine, cutting into the sandstone bedrock. I walked around the pool to find a place to stand where my camera could frame what I sensed here-an artful adaptation of the built to the deeper geologic structure of the place. I photographed it from the hill above and from down below, from the ends and sides, before I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and stepped out on the wall, following a dialogue of natural process and built form. Lens focused where water sloshes over the wall, finger on the shutter, I wait for a wave to complete the vision of image and idea.
One way to find a place to stand is to recognize it by a quickening of mind or heightening of senses. "Something is here, pay attention." I paid attention on a detour looking for rutted traces of the Oregon Trail, where I spotted an immense shed filled with sand, its roof aligned with the sand's angle of repose, the quarry in the background. I drove by the pyramid of sand, debating whether to photograph it on my way back, I turned around and stopped instead. An hour later the gate was locked. Eight years later, the shed itself is gone.
Sceaux, a private estate from the seventeenth century, now a public park on the outskirts of Paris, is an expression of political power, of advances in military engineering, of a philosophy of Nature and State, and of the debates between France and England embodied in the geometry of designed landscapes. On Sceaux's sloping, flat-planed terraces, I focused first on the rows of yews clipped into conical shapes, then found a tension between clipped foreground and a distant grove growing freely behind a wall of sheared yew. I looked again at the cones nearby and saw branches growing freely beneath the clipped surface. I heard Anthony Hecht's poem about another garden and saw the paradox of "Controlled disorder at the heart / Of everything . . . where the tension lectures / Us on our mortal state."
The ice of Vatnajokull, the third largest glacier in the world (after the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland), thousands of feet thick, lies atop seven volcanoes. At the base of Skaftafell, one of the glacier's lobes, receding ice makes global warming tangible. I focused on a kettle hole and envisioned the melting block of ice, broken off from the glacier, saw the void it left, and envisioned the dwindling pool as recorded in concentric rings. I stepped back and, through the lens, saw life taking hold, in plants green against the russet bowl. I stepped back again and the glacier's toe entered the frame. Three photographs and three stories, each providing context to the one before. The kettle hole and plants tell of time and succession, the glacier of origins.
Dorothea Lange's 1939 photographs of farms and towns in rural California and the Pacific Northwest brought me back there many times. Her purpose had been to discover and document the plight of migrant workers and farmers aided by government programs; mine was to find out what had become of her places and people, to discover and reflect on the stories the changes might tell. I retraced her journey, and, in the process, found my own. In the nineteenth century, when wagons lumbered along the Oregon Trail, this land was sagebrush desert, and it was desert still in 1939 when Dorothea Lange photographed the Malheur Siphon, built two years earlier and then the world's longest, to transport water to transform the arid land into fields of alfalfa, corn, and sugar beets. Lange photographed the siphon from the green fields on the opposite side of the valley, her emphasis on farms, not desert. I photographed the irrigation system: from the Owyhee Dam and its reservoir to the spillway to the Snake River many miles north.
Lights of Day, in Season, in Place
"Lights of Day, in Season, in Place" explains how light varies in intensity, clarity, and color with place, season, and time of day; how it responds to, exposes, or conceals materials, surfaces, and forms, and creates shadows; how light, in turn, is reflected, absorbed, and transformed by surfaces; how light affects mood; how it can be used to evoke feeling and convey meaning.
The water's edge is prized by artists as a laboratory for light, especially on a spit of land or a small island where the view is panoramic. My home of Nahant, a narrow peninsula in Massachusetts Bay, is an ideal place to study the blue hours of dusk and the split colors near sunrise and sunset, when waves' facets reflect different parts of the sky vault and the sea turns iridescent from colors' juxtaposition.
The weather on a three-day trip to Stockholm in May was overcast and rainy. My plan to photograph Woodland Cemetery was thwarted by rain on the second day, and on the third, but, with only a few hours before I was due to leave, the rain lightened and the clouds seemed to lift, so I hopped on a train for the cemetery. With the sky overcast and still no direct sunlight, I sat on a bench near the entrance, wrote in my journal and sketched the scene. At last, the light came, a low, golden light, and the landscape came alive. I seized my camera and ran, first to the Hill of Remembrance, which Sigurd Lewerentz had designed "to comfort a sorrow that cannot be told."
What Color Tells
"What Color Tells" depicts color as far more than an aesthetic consideration: color is information.
In Japan, I saw a stand of bamboo at the foot of a steep slope between temple and garden in Kyoto's Saiho-ji: a chord of color. Noting a pattern in the succession of tones, I wondered-many species or one? Successive growth? I learned that bamboo is a grass, spreading by underground runners, the trunks (culms) like single blades, emerging bright green, then fading to grey and brown. Colors tell culms' age: siblings, sprung from common roots-grove of grass, bamboo.
Every landscape has base colors of predominant hues with characteristic saturation and tones, which vary with season. The primary palette of the Swedish countryside is greens of field and forest, greys and browns of rock, red of buildings. The boulders of a barn wall in southern Sweden are multicolored, each stone expressing its origins; those who know their granite can tell by its color and texture what part of northern Sweden or Norway it is from. The barn sits in a sloping, undulating landscape, a still center in a sea of blowing grain on glacial till-stones ground from bedrock and transported hundreds of miles by a glacier-deposited on ancient chalk and limestone. Erratic boulders, brought by ice, tilled, bound by lime: the wall a landscape. The barn's painted colors are quintessentially Swedish: Falu red and black, pigments produced from tailings of the copper mine at Falun, once the source of Europe's copper roofing and Sweden's wealth.
"Significant Detail" explores how such details, alone and in combination, expose larger patterns. Photographers seek significant detail to serve as metaphor-to stand for a larger whole, to hint at the deeper meaning beneath the surface, to tell a story.
On the slopes of Japan's Mount Aso, past clouds of steam and billowing smoke, smell of sulfur, cold wind blasting grit, a boulder drew me in. Its roundness and rose-grey color, its fine-grained, porous texture, so unlike the rocks of the dark and jagged peaks above it. I studied my photograph of the boulder months afterward, researched volcanoes, and learned how a rock's form and color, its position far from the volcano's mouth, are clues to its origin. The rock is a big cinder, a volcanic "bomb" blown out of the earth, formed when water met magma-molten rock-beneath Japan, where tectonic plates collide along the Pacific Ring of Fire, birthplace of land, sea, and air.
Once I discern a pattern and identify cause and effect, I look for correlations. High up in the Basque Mountains of Spain, I found a correspondence among flowing water, weathered limestone, and ancient road. Water had dissolved the limestone; over thousands of years, it created a sinkhole and a passage through the mountain from west to east: the San Adrian Tunnel. Romans built a road there. They plucked out rocks, cut and laid them to form an elevated path through the tunnel, across the rock-strewn, bowl-shaped meadow, up the slopes alongside a stream, and on across the mountains, one segment of a much longer route. The result is two patterns, overlain, and two orders, juxtaposed: the jumble of jagged stones jutting out of the earth, and the line of cut stones, fashioned to serve human purpose, worn smooth by feet and hooves. The Roman road was a medieval trade route. For a thousand years pilgrims have followed it on their journey to Santiago de Compostela. It is the Way of Saint James.
Patterns can be congruent and connected; they can be overlapping yet unrelated. In Glen Loy in the Scottish Highlands, I saw overlapping patterns of encroachment, erosion, dispersion, exile, and plantation, and read stories, some linked, some independent. I saw in its U shape and its cirques, those bowl-shaped hollows high on the hill, the enormous sheet of ice that filled that valley once, scouring and plucking out huge blocks of rock as though they were pebbles. In long furrows of newly planted seedlings, I saw the future forest. In a wall of stacked stones, extending up a hill and over the ridge, I saw clansmen exiled by the 1747 Act of Proscription, "transported to any of His Majesty's plantations beyond the seas," and crofters evicted from their homes by the Highland Clearances, which sent them "outcast on the world," their small farms replaced by pastures for sheep whose wool was needed for English textile mills. In that highland glen-fields of force, lines of power, an opening closed.
Humans understand and experience one thing in terms of another, giving to the river a mouth, to the mountain, a foot, associating ideas with landscapes and projecting stories onto the universe. The ancients found patterns in the stars and gave those constellations names suggested by myth, like that of the Greek Perseus, whose characters occupy adjacent parts of the sky: his horse, Pegasus; the sea monster, Cetus; Cepheus and Cassiopeia, king and queen; and their daughter, Andromeda, sacrificed by her father to appease the gods, chained to a seaside rock to be eaten by the sea monster. Perseus saved her. Looking down from a rocky headland one foggy morning, I saw a spiral of sea foam created by waves, advancing and receding, and thought of Andromeda, her white dress swirling in the sea, and Andromeda, the galaxy. Seen through a telescope Andromeda is a white spiral, the spiral a sign of centrifugal or centripetal force and a basic type of movement that links galaxies, waves, and myth. Metaphorical thinking is fundamental to human thinking and to discovery. Metaphors make connections.
Details disclose meaning; they also reveal the artist. At Marnas, I recognize the gardener's mind in a silhouette of branches: hawthorn hedge, briar rose reaching out, poplars with pruned poodle-tail tops inspired by the ones in Hobbema's painting of 1689, The Avenue at Middelharnis. Life imitating art. Sven-Ingvar Andersson, the garden's author, planted it in 1965 as a laboratory to explore the open plan as a paradox of order and complexity, control and serendipity. How to establish a framework that accommodates change rather than a fixed composition that resists it? How to achieve a balance between stability, freedom, and growth? Establish a structure and let the details evolve. Don't overplan; leave room for the unexpected, for the briar rose left by the clippers to poke out of the hedge, for the lilies to escape from cultivated bed to grass, for the branch released. Design and chance in dialogue. The garden a metaphor for planning human settlements.
"What Is There, Hidden and Real"
"'What Is There, Hidden and Real'" recounts how a photographer can divine the ideas latent in landscape, the camera a diviner's rod, and how printing, editing, grouping, and sequencing are also means of drawing out the ideas embodied in photographs.
I am drawn to photograph a landscape as if it were a person: to capture its distinctive spirit, reveal its history, and show the contexts that shape it. I try to portray a tree or a hill or a wall as animate, because each shapes human lives even as it is shaped by human imagination and human use.
I sometimes write captions in haiku because the kind of thinking the haiku form requires is kindred to the photographs. A haiku is a condensed image, a sketch of a phenomenon or event; it captures a moment. Seventeen syllables, arranged in three lines of 5/7/5, are the frame. And because haiku captions are suggestive, not definitive, clues to what is there (Helsinki: Crystalline, alive, Northern light in May-Aalto's inner sight; Mount Aso: Leaves flame in dark ash, volcanic dust fanned by wind: Cinder, Ring of Fire). The break-an arresting word, a punctuated pause that divides and bridges ideas-leads to sudden perception, combines the material and the mental, the disparate and the paradoxical.
The Ridgeway's route along the crest of the downs on a road people and animals have traveled for at least five thousand years is reputedly the oldest highway in Britain. In the sweeping curves of cloud and road I saw that movement is a fundamental process, the path a basic pattern. Sky, earth correspond-cloud's path and ancient track, a mirrored flowing.
The Eye Is a Door
"The Eye Is a Door" concludes the book with a discussion of how photographs and words can open (or close) the doors of perception and of what may be found beyond those doors.
Why a door and not a window? A window is something to look through, but a doorway is to pass through; crossing a threshold, one enters a new place. To see, to really see, is to open a door. To pass through that door is to arrive at a new understanding.
Beyond my own eye's door are landscapes, the stories they tell, and the ideas they embody. I pass through the eye's door and see: that the natural and the human are one, continuous not separate, landscape a mutual shaping of people and place and a form of language born out of living, a language with which to tell new stories and to envision how to adapt human settlements in life-sustaining ways.