Photography, Signs and Ads

No Art Beyond This Point


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 the intrigue that bokeh is supposed to supply.

Earth, Photography

My Spider

Considering that today is a holiday that has some association with spiders, I thought I would share some photos of a 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:


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 broke 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 the 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:


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:


When the spider 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:



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




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:


After further encasing the moth, the spider again decides that the moth cannot be left where it is. 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:


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:


Here’s a closeup:


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. But by taking photographs and looking at the photographs very closely, I’ve learned some interesting thing about spiders that I didn’t know before. For example, spiders (some spiders) have claws. That’s how they’re able to grasp the strands of the web. Look at this:


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:


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



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.


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





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:






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!





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:






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:



Assumption Statue

One of my goals in taking pictures is to capture the elements of my own, everyday visual life — the things I see as I walk around my neighborhood, as I go about my mundane business. When there’s an object I see over and over again, because it just happens to be situated on my daily path, I become intrigued by the problem of representing it in a single, definitive shot.

Perhaps the hardest things to capture are those we know the best, because we’re more aware of the shortcomings of any particular depiction. When you’ve seen a thing thousands of times, on different days, in different light and weather, while you were in different moods — if you’ve come to know the many faces it can assume — which version do you identify as the truest, the most representative?

There’s a difference between what our eyes show us and what we see in our imagination. Which one of those should a photograph capture?

If the actual process of seeing is a mix of perception (let’s define it as the deterministic processing of sensory stimuli) and interpretation (something that includes extrapolation, memory, and fantasy) what then should a photograph be? You could try to capture what you think is really there or you could try to represent the way that thing makes you feel. You could manipulate the photograph to bring it closer to your imagining, or you could wait until that special circumstance when you are able to take a shot of the object that – without alteration – conveys both “what is there” and “how you feel about it.”

One recurring site in my life is a statue at the Our Lady of the Assumption church on Sumner St. in my East Boston neighborhood. It’s not something that I decided to make a part of my daily visual life, not something I go out of my way to see, but rather something that’s just there on my path, day in and day out, because of where I happen to live and where the statue happens to be.

Since the statue is bright white, it lacks contrast and tends to get blown out in full sun. Behind it are two stained glass windows. The windows are intriguing in themselves, but they tend to look disappointing in a daytime photograph because their colors are hard to see on the exterior side. The statue is also challenging to photograph at night: now the stained glass is lit up but there’s also harsh flood-light nearby that casts the statue and brick wall in a rather unpleasant yellow. How to do the scene justice when the windows are so much more naturally engaging at night than the statue itself?

For a long time I embraced a very restrictive approach to my photographic process: shoot only in squares, with a fixed-focal length lens, and do absolutely no post-processing. I was resisting the convenience, the seeming effortlessness of digital photography. I wanted to add friction to the process, I wanted to make it harder, so that when a shot really worked out, it would “mean something.” Of course this was a trade-off as it meant that some images I might have liked to create were simply impossible.

In my earlier approach, the Assumption statue was one of those subjects that I considered out of limits. There were too many challenges to getting a “great” shot given my self-imposed restrictions. I was OK with that. I was OK with the idea that there were certain subjects I’d have to pass up, since this seemed to make it even more valuable when I found something I could capture effectively.

Now that I’m experimenting with a less restrictive approach to my process, I’m startled by just how much easier things become. I can go outside and snap a few photos, then go home and sit in front of a screen for an hour or two, and with a little bit of software magic, I’ve got the image I want. Where’s the struggle, the search, the days and days of effort and frustration?

As for the daytime shot, converting it to black and white makes the white statue even more brilliant and softens the “disappointment” of not seeing the colors of the stained glass. After an initial conversion to black and white, the statue was still “blown out” but by judiciously adjusting contrast I was able to recover and intensify the faint shadows on the statue to bring it into definition. Cropping the image allowed me to get that perfect frame that can be so difficult to achieve at the moment of capture.  Here’s my processed, “ideal” daytime shot of the statue:


As for the nighttime shot, this one seemed a good candidate for a post-processing concept I’m fond of: the partial or selective conversion to black and white. Here the statue is converted to black and white while the windows are left in color and their saturation is increased. By adjusting the brightness of the statue one can achieve a balance where the statue no longer seems upstaged by the windows:


So what’s the value of my having done this? What’s the outcome of relaxing my once-strict process to create these images?

On the one hand, I think I’ve done justice to what I observe.  I’ve found a way to convey a mix of what I “see” and what I “imagine” when I pass by this particular subject. This is not to say I’m done forever, that I’ll never want to take another picture of this subject. But I no longer see it as the challenge I once did. It’s no longer an “impossible” subject that will tantalize me indefinitely, making me wonder if someday, by some special chance, the circumstances will be just right that I can take the picture I want. No, after some casual shots followed by heavy post-processing, I’ve got the result I want, and I can move on.

But I’ve lost something too. These shots are more brilliant, more striking than what my former, highly restrictive process would have allowed. But I’m not sure I feel as personally connected to them, or as proud of them, as I feel about some of the other images in my portfolio that I’ve really struggled for. I don’t have the memory of standing there in front of the statue for hours, experimenting with every possible vantage point, every possible frame, moving this way and that, all in pursuit of the elusive perfect shot — because, of course, I didn’t stand there for hours, and most of my experiments were made after the moment of capture.

Now the question is, from the viewer’s perspective, if I say nothing and simply show you the image, does it really matter how I feel about it? Would you rather see a less brilliant shot that I’m personally attached to, that I really struggled for, or would you like to see the “perfect” shot that I feel more distant from — the one I achieved with heavy editing?

Now that you’ve seen my serious, processed shots, here are two quick mobile snapshots of the statue to give you a sense of the raw material of the scene.




Salient Color

In a recent post I described my changing attitude towards post-processing in photography. I’ve gone from someone who avoided it completely to someone who’s open to exploring it when I think I can learn something from it, or when I think it can help me communicate more effectively.

I consider this as as a radical personal change but most of my acquaintances probably have no idea that I’ve gone through this evolution or that it’s such a big deal to me.

To give you a sense of it, I’ve spent thousands of hours taking pictures and reviewing them over the past decade, and for the bulk of that time, I repeatedly and consistently avoided the temptation to alter the output of my camera in any appreciable way.

I had very good reasons for adopting this strict no-editing policy, and it took me a really long time to even consider changing my approach. Now that I’ve crossed the threshold, I feel I should share a few examples of the sort of image I can produce with post-processing, but not without.

One post-processing idea that I find intriguing is to transform an image to black-and-white but preserve one salient bit of color. This idea gets me looking around and wondering: what’s the most important color (or region of color) that I’m seeing right now, and what would it be like if everything appeared in grayscale except that particular color?

The first time I tried this out was with the lips of a mannequin:


The second time was with a stained-glass window that I saw through a church door:


The third time was with an image of a luxury waterfront condo construction site in my neighborhood that had been flooded during a recent snow storm that coincided with an astronomical tide. The original image was not captured by me, but rather shared with me by a neighborhood activist. Since I had already explored the “salient color” technique with my own images, I knew immediately how I wanted to interpret this image: