I was back at Bloodworth Bellamy today after several weeks; thought I’d start back in with something simple (though light painting an object so small has its own challenges). I don’t know the origins of the eagle but it’s sitting on a rusty old mould for baby doll arms which I’ll probably photograph at some other time. Below that is a Japanese sack that was used in the fermentation of rice for sake production.
Whilst setting up for a podcast in the studio today, I began reading an automatically transcribed report from our broadcast news service. The AI seems to have inadvertently created a stream of consciousness libretto for a Philip Glass opera.
Yesterday, at Bloodworth Bellamy I photographed two ‘recognition planes.’ These are model planes made in in the 1940’s to train spotters to differentiate between civilian and enemy aircraft. This is the venerable Douglas DC-3 Super at 1/72 scale. The DC-3 had to have been the toughest little plane ever made (it’s still my dream to get to fly in one someday before they are all gone). The models are exquisite; someone carefully crafted every curve and line in metal to make the plane exactly to scale. It’s truly a piece of art. More coming soon, might make a series of these if they don’t move too quickly from the shop. He has a number of them but they are apparently extremely rare (these came from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney).
This is my first light painting with the new Olympus E-M1x camera. Other than a few workflow changes, it fits right in to the process I’ve been using for these images. I’m quite pleased with the results; the colour and dynamic range it outputs with this techniques are impressive (it’s quite easy to fry the specular highlights on metal and the white of the garlic for example but this turned out quite well). The knife is an original from the Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala. It’s probably been used to skin reindeer; however, it handled cheese service with great dignity.
I've had much to reflect on this past week; first, I went to Melbourne to attend a special service for the father of my friend Martha who passed away recently. In the Armenian Church, there is a service forty days after death to mark the significance of passing. The Armenians were one of the first established Christian communities many centuries ago so the ritual of their worship is ancient and grounded (and notably abundant in incense). Though the entire service was in a language I did not comprehend, there is so much experiential material in ritual and song that the narrative itself wasn't so important. We attended the passing of time and life in a way that takes, perhaps, so many centuries to form and express. I think there is something to be said for the old ways that are sometimes more able to hold these moments.
Also, that same day (or technically the day after here in Australia) was the ten year anniversary of my car accident. It's been ten years since I was pinned under tonnes of twisted steel in the middle of a rural highway that evening at dusk. It's been a decade since that day and I'm still not sure I have fully resolved the experience in my head or spirit. I survived a 'statistically unsurvivable' accident. That is no small thing; yet, it's also not something that I can pull out and either fully describe or openly carry with me day to day. The incident itself was a 'peak experience'; it's only a reference point from which I can draw—not a time one can re-live in the same way (and, thankfully, I've had very little in the way of PTSD though there is the occasional sound of metal scraping across cement that brings me right back). The peak experience isn't an end unto itself but a catalyst to something further; it's something that is one's own and not subject to any judgement from outside (in that one person might have a peak experience in what another might consider a mundane activity). The significance isn't bound up in the grandness of a particular incident but how that experience opens a given person to new perspectives and growth. I think this is the problem sometimes with 'arranged adventures' that, in the minds of participants, might not live up to the peak expectation. I'm thinking of the recent stories of long lines of people climbing Mt Everest or hordes of Instagrammers clamouring to photograph the same spot as another influential Instagrammer in some endless cycle of imagery. Both cases are built on the expectation of capturing or reliving the peak experience of another; yet, all those same circumstances might not coalesce into a personal peak. Though they can be facilitated, the peaks cannot often be packaged so. It's more up to the Cosmos to align in a way that one isn't expecting.
I hit a peak though an experience that nearly cost my life; that, obviously, isn't something I would or could arrange. Yet that experience in itself isn't where the meaning is held. The meaning came through my call in that moment that I wanted to live (a life that was for myself and for the people who I'm connected to—even for the future people who I could not have known at that time but whom I have since encountered). The cry for life came so I could sit here on the other side of the world a decade later typing this in a café where the people know my name. That experience of survival at the peak came so I could come back down to the nominal level of life and carry that potential onward. It's the same with the more exhilarating but less life threatening experiences I've had. I've been places and had experiences that I would, if I could, return to and linger on; however, that's not the role or purpose of these experiences.
I went Friday evening to hear Dr David Russell speak at the Jung Society in Sydney. He spoke on The Shadow and the Art of Dying; one of his references was Blake's contrast between Heaven (form) and Hell (energy). It's in the contrast between light and shadow, these poles and intertwined forces, that we find the expression of our Self. Without the contrast of these peaks, we have no dynamism to form ourselves as individuals. If it's all light, there is no solidity; if there is no safe space from the darkness, people can break from the compounded traumas. I've been fortunate, I think, to have had a fairly even balance between in my own life. I hope that, with the life that is allotted me, I will continue to be open to the peaks (no matter what form they may take) because I know these are the experiences that ultimately shape who I become in it. That, on ten years of consideration, is I think 'the lesson' of the accident; yes, it's partially 'I'm glad to be alive' and all the expected reflections, but really it's that one should not fear the experience of light and shadow even in the starkest contrast. Life is constantly in the balance and both my hands need to be open to receive those polarities in equal measure if that's what's called for to become wholly human.
On another note, the further peak experience this week was going for (and passing) my Australian Citizenship interview. Hopefully in the coming month I'll receive a letter confirming my status as a candidate and, some months after when I have my citizenship ceremony, will became a dual American/Australian. This has been now eight years in the making and I'm glad to adopt this country as my new home for the foreseeable future. I hope that, as a citizen, I can contribute to this place as it has given to me in these past few years. (I'm still a long way from developing a proper Australian accent though.)
Back in the shop at Bloodworth Bellamy today for a new light painting. I’m putting some of the techniques from my recent workshop with Harold Ross into play. As an aside, the only camera I had at hand that was set up for light painting was my ten year old Nikon D700; it’s nice to know that it’s holding up well after a decade of service and that one doesn’t always have to have the latest gear (that said, the next time I light paint, I’ll be using my new Olympus…so).
I've just spent several days with Harold Ross in Lancaster, Pa. This was my second workshop with Harold as I continue to learn his light painting technique. As I type this, I'm in Charleston, SC with my long-time friend and mentor, J. Nathan Corbitt. I'm, as I grow older, learning to appreciate the value of mentorship over larger spans of time. There is a place for the punctuated moments of 'wise advice' that we receive early in life; but it's another matter to have people who can both observe and speak to one's experiences over time as one is shaped and matured through them. I think it's the same whether we are talking about navigating our daily lives, work, or art. We need mentors, not to set the course or make the decisions, but to act as collectors and observers of our lives as a long-term project. At one time in my life, I searched for a mentor that could tell me what I should do but that's not a healthy expectation (and I can easily spot the stereotypical older man who wants to play the role of a mentor but is essentially looking for converts to his way of thinking). The best mentors are people who are secure enough in their own life experience that they have no need of changing others but, equally, confident enough to share it.
I've been blessed with good mentors and teachers though my life. I don't know that this necessarily means I've always made the best decisions along the way. However, that may not be the point. Some of the wisest people have made rather unwise decisions (one of the best pieces of wisdom I've had from Nathan is 'you never really find out what you want to do; but you will know what you don't want to do again'). You can't learn that if someone is there to simply fill in the blanks for you and navigate every turn. I found this as Harold guided my work over these past days. I've been using the technique over several months since our last time together; however, I had developed some sloppy practice along the way so much of the workshop was just reviewing the previous one and correcting my errant ways. Harold patiently brought me back through the process as we worked on several images together. There was little hint of frustration on his part. It's an involved technique that has taken him years to master; a good mentor has the understanding of the scope of worthwhile work in a person, a project or a piece of art. Also, though he explains and shows how to do the lighting and then post-production in Photoshop, Harold takes care to make sure his students actually do all the work themselves on a final piece (though, full disclosure, there are a couple layers in 'The Titan' above that Harold did for the sake of time as we ended the last day that I will redo myself later). Over coffee one morning, we discussed people who expect a plug-in that can mimic the look of this whole process with the click of a mouse. That is no more possible (or desirable as an artist) than a magic way with which one can solve any given life issue; the whole point is the process itself regardless of how difficult or sometimes painful.
One of the things I'm starting to understand with my photographic work is that, yes, it's important to have a certain volume of practice. However, for me, I'm at a place where it's perhaps more important to have a slow steady studied output where my technique is refined through consideration and rigour. Perhaps that’s a common theme in life and art regardless.
On the two images: Both images are practice pieces pieces to work on specific challenges (textures, metallic surfaces, etc.). The piece of driftwood is only a couple hand lengths across; however, as we worked on it up close, it presented as a vast cliff face (it would be interesting to see it printed large as it could be quite enveloping). 'The Titan' is an artificial hip joint atop an assembly of various bearings and gears balanced on the largest fuse I've ever seen (I think it was something like an 8000 amp fuse). Scale, scope, angle of light and our perceptions…it all takes time and wisdom to shape and understand.
I’ve uploaded a couple new light paintings to the web gallery. This is a lovely piece at Bloodworth Bellamy (which weighs about 15 kilos; really had to make sure my set was well secured). The dried flowers are Australian natives and the whole thing is sitting on a 100 year old Japanese paper stencil used to dye kimonos.
Here is another one from Bloodworth Bellamy. It’s already sold but there are so many other things to photograph! This was particularly fun to work on with all the details for light and shadow. (However, I think I’m going to have to consider a computer upgrade at some point. Though I have a decently equipped laptop, once I get to about fifteen layers of uncompressed TIFFs, the processor starts to complain a bit).