Photography, Signs and Ads

No Art Beyond This Point

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I saw this sign at Boston City Hall on November 20, 2018 at the edge of an exhibit of posters made by MassArt students to raise awareness about climate change. Many of the posters in the exhibit were ominous, like one poster that showed a human whose neck had been caught in plastic six pack rings as happens to turtles other animals when they encounter our dangerous waste. When I saw a sign with the words “No Art Beyond This Point,” I immediately interpreted it as if it were itself a poster in the exhibit, and I apprehended a message to the effect that “If climate change continues unabated, we will reach a point of chaos beyond which it will be impossible to make art.” Given this interpretation, the “No Art Beyond This Point” sign struck me as perhaps the most ominous of all the items in the exhibit. Of course, the sign was most likely posted by the exhibit organizer to let viewers know that they had reached the end of the exhibit and there were no more posters to be seen down the hall. Or perhaps it had been placed there by City Hall staff to the let the exhibit organizers know that they should not hang posters beyond that specific point. One thing that struck me as odd about the wording is that there seems to be an unofficial convention that signs of the form “No X beyond this point” mean that the thing in question, X, is not to be taken or done beyond a specific point. For example, “No alcohol beyond this point” means that you can’t carry your drink any further. “No fishing beyond this point” means that you can’t fish past where you are now. Considered out of context then, “No art beyond this point” should mean that you can’t carry your art any further? You can’t leave with art? You can’t make art outside these confines? Speaking of conventions and common assumptions, there seems to be a prevailing idea that photographs are “artistic” when they contain lots of bokeh. So, I thought it might be provocative to take a photograph showing the “No Art Beyond This Point” sign along with the nether region that is supposed to be devoid of art, with the quirk that this nether region appears “bokehfied” and, maybe, full of artistic possibility.

Earth, Photography

My Spider

Considering that today is a holiday that has some association with spiders, I thought I would share some photos of an Cross Orbweaver that I took in September 2017. I found the spider one day in my garden, and it stayed there for about a week, building and rebuilding its web. I developed an obsession with photographing it. By the time it left, I had taken around 1240 shots and had begun to refer to the creature as “my spider.” I’ve been struggling to edit the collection since then, but with the impetus of Halloween being today, I thought I’d present an abbreviated version.

This first shot shows the spider with its legs outstretched, as if in shock, desperately grasping for something that’s no longer there:

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I just said the spider looks like it was “desperately grasping for something that’s no longer there.” Indeed, that’s what it was doing, and I’m to blame! You see, as I photographed the spider over many hours, I felt so much gratitude for the fascination it was affording me that I made a resolution that I would never do anything to disturb it, even if some disturbance would give rise to better photographs. My one manipulation of the environment was to mount a piece of black paperboard in the background to make the web easier to see. At one point, when I was probably five-hundred shots already into this photographic journey, I inadvertently violated my resolution. As I was adjusting the paperboard, I accidentally touched and jostled the web, causing the spider’s meal — a meticulously encased moth — to fall tragically to the ground. This photo shows the spider reaching for the meal that had just dropped from its preprandial embrace. I was surprised at how long the spider held this pose (maybe five seconds?) as if it simply couldn’t accept that moth was really gone.

Eventually the spider retracted its legs in a gesture filled with more pathos and desperation than I am used to seeing from an arachnid:

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The spider seemed to be feeling pretty bad, and so was I, for having put it in this state. Luckily I hadn’t entirely ruined the spider’s day. While I had caused it to lose one of its meals, there was another partially encased moth waiting elsewhere in the web. The spider eventually emerged from its curled-up lamentation and began heading towards the second moth as I watched:

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When it found the second moth, it decided that this morsel could not be left where it was (why?), so it began carting the thing to the other end of the web. Here you can see the spider pulling and swinging the second moth around with only two threads supporting the precious cargo:

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Now the spider begins to approach the precariously suspended moth as if ready to eat:

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But instead of commencing its feast, the spider decides that the moth must first be wrapped in more layers of silk (again, why?). Here you can see the spider secreting a “blanket” of silk from its rear end and wrapping it around the moth:

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After further encasing the moth, the spider again decides that it cannot be left where it is (why?). For some reason, another precarious transfer is undertaken. The moth, now hanging from just one thread, seems to be in danger of plunging to the ground at any moment:

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But spider’s execution is virtuosic, the silk is remarkably strong, the moth never falls, and finally in this third position, the spider begins to eat:

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Here’s a closeup:

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That’s the end of our little story of the spider losing its meal and finding another, but I do have a few more images to share. I should mention I don’t really know anything about spiders. I just love watching them. I’ve never studied entomology. But by taking photographs and looking at the photographs very closely, I’ve learned some interesting things on my own. For example, spiders (some spider) have claws. That’s how they’re able to grasp the strands of the web. Look at this:

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And as we saw above, spiders can “spray” a nebulous blanket of silk from their rear ends (technically, from their spinerrets) when encasing their prey. But they can also secrete a single, well-defined thread of silk. Here’s a nighttime shot of the spider pulling thread to use in rebuilding its web:

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Haven’t seen enough yet? Here’s what the spider’s underside looks like:

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I should mention that while the spider looks big and dramatic in these photographs, it’s really a tiny little thing that you might consider to be visually unremarkable if you didn’t get in very close. This next image shows my basic technique for photographing the spider. The idea was to position the black board behind the web in such a way that the board itself would be in shadow while the web and spider would be illuminated by sun. I got lucky with several days of bright sun. The photos in this collection were all handheld shots taken with a macro lens at a distance of only a few inches — basically as close as I could get.

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I’ll leave you with this closing portrait of our eight-legged friend:

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Photography

Butterfly

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A monarch seen on August 21, 2018 at Eastie Farm in East Boston, MA.

The color contrast in this image has been accentuated, making the flower seem almost psychedelic, and perhaps there’s something fitting about that, when you consider that butterflies are known for having excellent color perception, with the ability to see into the ultraviolet range.

It’s humbling to consider what a butterfly accomplishes in its life. As it searches for nectar, it inadvertently carries pollen from plant to plant, helping those plants reproduce. If it lives for six to eight weeks, how many plants does it pollinate? Hundreds? Thousands? How many resources does it consume, and how much waste does it leave behind?

Ask those same questions of a human. Generally, humans don’t pollinate plants. In fact, a typical human living in the developed world kills vastly more living beings than that same human fosters or assists. A human generates countless tons of non-biodegradable waste and causes the emission of countless tons of carbon dioxide.

If the butterfly’s kindness to plants is not true kindness, because it is inadvertent, so too could it be said that the human’s malice towards plants and other living things is not true malice, because it is inadvertent? We don’t want to pollute, we don’t want to destroy, but we live in a system where pollution is the byproduct of most choices available to us — our choice of what to eat, our choice of where to go, our choice of where to live and how to fuel our home.

Why is it that one being’s effort to survive places it in a virtuous cycle, while another being’s effort to survive places it in a vicious one? Why did it happen that the butterfly’s system of survival leads it to inadvertently assist so many organisms in its short lifespan, while injuring so few, whereas the human’s system leads it to destroy so many while assisting so few? And what does that mean for the longevity of these systems?

A second image of the same butterfly doing a dive:

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Photography

Dragonfly

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This is a dragonfly I spotted at Millenium Park in West Roxbury last Sunday. It was resting on a twig with its wings forward. As far as models go, it was accommodating and not at all skittish. Whenever it did become startled by my motions, it would fly away and lead me to believe I’d never see it again, but then, in an act of apparent forgiveness that startled me each time, it would promptly return to the same spot! It seemed not to mind as I got deeper and deeper into its personal space, but it did take exception when I made wide changes in focus with my lens. Conditions were mildly windy and I didn’t think I had a chance of focusing manually here, so I repeatedly engaged autofocus as the twig blew a few millimeters one way or another, trying to keep the dragonfly’s eyes sharp. The dragonfly didn’t mind those tiny focus adjustments on its eyes, but when I tried to focus on a different part of its body entirely, like shifting from the eyes to the abdomen, it would somehow sense the bigger change and fly away. How did it know what I was looking at? I realized that my lens was making a louder noise whenever I made a larger focus adjustment. Although dragonflies are not supposed to have a sense of hearing, I gathered that this dragonfly was somehow sensing the stronger vibrations made by the autofocus mechanism when asked to make a larger adjustement. The micro-adjustments were soft enough not to startle the insect but the large ones caused too much vibration for comfort.

Earlier in the morning on Sunday I had listened to an episode of the radio show Living On Earth  that discusses an observed decline of flying insects in the natural areas of Germany by a whopping 75% since 1989.  Professor Dave Goulson tells us that “[flying insects] pollinate more than 80 percent of all the plant species on Earth so if we lose the flying insects we will lose all the flowers on Earth, literally all of them… Three quarters of our crops need pollinating by flying insects. So, we’d have a world without most fruit and vegetables… Most birds at some stage of their life cycle eat insects. Almost all reptiles, amphibians, aquatic fish, bats, lots of small mammals, all depend on insects. So, essentially take away the insects and everything else is going to collapse.” Reflecting on this, I look at the dragonfly above with a different awareness. It first caught my attention as an interesting photographic subject, but of course it’s more than interesting. Without this dragonfly and other flying insects like it, I wouldn’t be here to do photography and you wouldn’t be here to view it. So, thank you, dragonfly!

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Photography

Moon

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Here’s an image of the moon rising of Revere Beach around 10PM on June 29, 2018. I’d like to use it as an album cover someday, perhaps.

I got to Revere Beach just as the moon was rising and struggled to set up my camera equipment in time to capture the dramatic moment. As the moon emerged above the horizon it really was shockingly, gobsmackingly red. But I couldn’t get it into focus and my first dozen shots didn’t capture any of its red brilliance.

As the moon continued ascending, it became brighter and easier to photograph, and its color changed to golden and eventually white.

Straight out of my camera, the shot here was underexposed and much less saturated than in the edited version I’m presenting. In a sense, the red here is artificial. When the moon had reached the height shown in this image, it was not nearly as red. Still, this processed and fantastical image represents something of the drama of the scene as I experienced it, with that intense red from the first moments of moonrise lingering in mind even as the color progressed toward white.

This next image is probably the most technically good photo of the moon I’ll be able to capture in a while. I took it on June 20, 2018 in East Boston. Since my last blog post where I wrote about photographing birds without a telephoto lens, I’ve actually acquired a telephoto lens, and this moon image is one of the first things I’ve been able to do that I couldn’t do before. It’s shot on a 50mp full frame camera at 600mm. 1/320 sec at f / 6.3. ISO 125. Tripod. Manual focus. Remote shutter release. Post-processing to adjust brightness and contrast. Cropped.

I’ve tried a few times just to get another photo like this, but I’ve been encumbered by clouds, fog, wind (leading to a shaking tripod), and other hindrances that made it non-trivial to just go out and get this same photo again. I have a teleconverter that can get me up to 840mm but I’m not yet sure the optical quality is good enough to make the extra reach worthwhile for moon photography. So here’s what I got for now:

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Photography

Gulls

Just for fun, here are some seagull photographs that I took at Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, MA earlier this month.

For me, there are two notable things about these images. On a visceral level, I enjoy looking at them because they remind of the freedom of flight. On a philosophical level, they raise some thorny questions about authorship in photography. Am I the “author” of these images? For many of the photographs that I choose to share, the answer to that question is an unambiguous yes, but these seagull images defy a clear answer because of the particular way I captured them.

Wildlife shots like these are often taken with an extreme telephoto lens that lets the photographer see and track a distant subject as if it were “up close.”  But these seagull images are actually extreme crops of wide landscape shots. What that means is that I didn’t really see these gulls in any significant detail at the moment of capture: when I was looking through the camera viewfinder, these gulls were small spots set against a wide expanse of sky. Thanks to the super-high resolution of the camera I was using (50 megapixels) I was able to zoom in after the fact and see these gulls in good detail, for the first time, in my photo processing software.

Of course I had to lug my camera to the beach, watch the gulls for an hour or so, take a few dozen shots, and then spend some time in post-processing before arriving at these particular images. Intuitively, I feel like I earn some kind of “credit” for that. But yet, it still feels awkward to call these photographs “mine” when I didn’t even clearly see the subject at the moment of capture, or have any idea of what I was getting.

This leads into the bigger question of what makes me as a photographer feel connected to any particular image that comes out of my camera? One thing that gives me a feeling of connection is when I set out with a certain intention for a shot and then recognize the intention manifested in the result. Another thing that gives me a feeling of connection is simply that I happen to like the result, regardless of whether I intended the result or not. As for these seagull images, I certainly like them, but it doesn’t feel right to say I intended them.

UPDATE Aug 8, 2018

I couldn’t resit sharing my latest and possibly most dramatic gull photograph so far:

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