Photography, Seasons

Fall 2020

Fall leaves can look like fire. Here, I see a ring of fire circling a negative space. When we look into that space we see nothing but a blur of still-green leaves above:

These leaves, rustling in the wind, all the same shade of red, look to me almost edible, like ornamental candy wafers:

The branches and stems here call my attention to all the work that had to be done in spring and summer to bring moisture and nutrients to so many leaves, then young, now orange and resplendent and soon to fall away:

This image recreates for me a bit of the swirling sensation that I experience when, in a forest, I notice that even the things I thought were still are moving:

Taking a closer look at a cluster of leaves glowing in the sun, we find there’s still some green to be seen and remembered as it cedes the stage to brown:

Sometimes a photograph that seems a mistake turns out to be more than that. Here, motion blur combined with shallow depth of field creates a composition that looks chaotic, but for me the diagonal stems give it structure and the smaller leaves in the background that are clearly in focus anchor this image as a photograph. A photograph that reminds me of an expressionist canvas:

In this image I don’t see any one leaf that’s particularly remarkable. The leaf that’s most clearly in focus is also shaded, so we aren’t able to enjoy its full visual potential. But this image teaches me that a composition doesn’t need to contain a “star” to be effective. The shallow depth of field makes the background seem like a watercolor and I like how everything hangs from those two stems at the top:

Here is an enchanted forest. The original version of this image was pale and badly overexposed, and nothing is quite in focus, so I considered discarding it. I find that trying to salvage a flawed image is usually a waste of time; better to go out and take another. But there are exceptions. My efforts to vivify this image in post-processing resulted in a product that represents — pretty darn well — what I think I actually saw. Just the other week, my mother told me that one of my grandmother’s first jobs in the 1930s was colorizing black and white photos. I wonder what my grandmother might have done with the original version of this image, which was nearly black and white, and how much the end product might have resembled what you see here:

My eye is drawn to fall leaves that glow in the sun. Sometimes I have to remind myself to look at those beautiful leaves that don’t happen to be illuminated at the moment:

Of course, I’ll always be a sucker for sunlight, whether it’s lighting up a thousand leaves or just one:

The images here were taken October 17th and 18th in Hopkinton and Berlin, Massachusetts, though I feel like I’ve been collecting them — maybe just the idea of them — for much longer. Dear viewer, thank you for joining me on my Fall journey this crazy year, 2020!



On Writing

It’s almost tautological to say that you can make something better by removing the bad or unnecessary parts. When we apply this advice to writing it means crossing things out with a red pen, or pressing the delete key, hoping that we’ve properly identified the pieces of text that aren’t essential to the whole. I used to try to improve my writing by combing over each sentence in search of “needless words” to remove. I came to realize that apparently needless words can serve a purpose that’s easy to overlook: they can improve the rhythm and pacing of a sentence and can contribute to subtle changes in inflection. I also came to realize that if my goal is to use the reader’s attention well, it’s more valuable to cut out entire paragraphs, pages, or chapters that are unnecessary than it is to worry about individual words. So how can a writer go for the really big prize, eliminating whole paragraphs, pages, and chapters as opposed to a few words here and there? Every piece of writing is different but there are common causes of bloat. I’ll venture to say that the biggest cause of bloat is anxiety – specifically, the writer’s anxiety manifested on the page. Basically, if you can cut the anxiety out of your writing you can make it shorter by, I don’t know, thirty, fifty, ninety percent without sacrificing your message.

When one sits down to write, it’s common to feel a swirl of emotions, and many of these are negative. Writing is hard! The thing you want to discuss might be very complicated. You might not even be sure what you want to say or fully convinced of the point you hope to make. Perhaps you’ve missed something important? You might not feel worthy of writing about your chosen topic, considering that you don’t have credentials X, Y, and Z. Perhaps your point is very serious and you worry that you won’t do it justice. Any time you write something, you expose yourself to criticism. People might misunderstand you. They might question you. They might think you’re naive or stupid. They might think your message is obvious, or that it’s unoriginal, or that you’re wasting their time, or that you haven’t done your homework, or that you’re an imposter.

You want to guard against imagined criticism and ridicule, so you start hedging, making disclaimers, trying to anticipate and preemptively respond to all possible lines of attack. You talk about how dauntingly complex it is to broach this particular topic. You move to establish your authority on the topic while also making sure that no one could accuse you of inflating your credentials. You move to defend your position while also making clear that you’ve considered all other sides of the matter and that you’re aware that nothing can be known for sure. Writing becomes an adversarial project where your goal is to score some points without losing more than you’ve gained. Writing becomes more about you than it is about subject at hand. You think you’re writing about your topic but really you’re manifesting your own personal anxiety with the topic as a vehicle.

If you can eliminate the anxiety, and the gunk it creates in your writing, you’ll be left with something that really shines… or maybe something that doesn’t shine… but you won’t know until you try. Imagine the reader likes you, respects you, trusts you, and is ready to understand your point. Imagine you’re a good writer and you have unfettered access to the truth. Now tell it as simply and vividly as you can. That’s your mission.

What I’m saying here is the product of my own quest as a writer and the insights I’ve gained from one remarkable book: Clear and simple as the truth by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner.

I’ll give an example from my own recent experience. Over the past four years, I’ve done a lot of thinking about how America has gotten so polarized and I’ve wanted to summarize my observations in an essay. But I’m not a social scientist, I don’t have a degree that’s applicable to this topic, and I haven’t done any formal research. I’m just a guy who’s spent some time reading, watching, and thinking. I could have started my essay by making disclaimers and explaining why the reader should still take me – a layperson, an average citizen – seriously as a commentator on the nation’s affairs. But I realized that no reader stands to benefit from my justification for why I should be taken seriously. That justification contributes nothing of value to their lives or their knowledge. If they’ve stumbled upon my essay, they’re ready to spend a few seconds or minutes trying to ascertain my point and decide if it’s interesting enough to pursue, so I better make the point efficiently and let them judge it for themselves. The more I hedge and defend and qualify what I’m saying, the harder that’s going to be for them. Expressing my own doubts about what I’m saying doesn’t help the reader either. It’s better that I speak with full confidence and let them decide if I’m right or wrong.

I make one particular assertion in my Polarization essay: I say that people tend to ascribe good intentions to those who share their gut reactions and bad intentions to those who don’t. This is something I happen to believe. Of course I’m aware that it’s the kind of claim that researchers in psychology and sociology might study and write papers about and gather data to support or refute. Because I respect expertise, I feel that I should either find references to support this claim or let the reader know that it’s just a hunch that I can’t support in any formal way. Maybe I encountered the claim sometime in the past and forgot the source — I had better look it up. If I were writing a paper for a college class I’d indeed have to do that. But an academic mindset is actually my enemy when it comes to writing effective personal essays. If I get quickly to saying what I really think, without the justification, the hedging, the pugilistic citations, the defenses, the reader will sooner be able to make their own judgement, and guess what… so will I! If I manage to get my point down on paper without the gunk of self-defense and reified anxiety, I’ll be able to discover what I actually think and then I’ll be able to decide whether I really believe it. Cut the fear, keep the meat. In this way, the goal of “Writing to learn,” named by William Zinsser, might come to fruition.