“Wings of Fancy”

A week ago, my photography friend Linda kindly invited me to go with her to the “Wings of Fancy” butterfly exhibit at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland.

For two hours from 8:00am until 10:00am, when the public was admitted, about a dozen photographers were left alone inside a large, flower-filled conservatory with hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies: a rare privilege.

While the butterflies were undoubtedly beautiful and enchanting to watch, as they flitted from flower to bush, they were maddeningly difficult to photograph because of their constant, erratic motion.

As a slow-working, methodical landscape photographer, I simply don’t have the speed of reaction to make the many decisions and adjustments to my camera controls that are necessary to capture great photographs of fast-moving butterflies.

Unsure of what to do, I first hit upon the strategy of stalking individual butterflies around the conservatory from one plant to another, hoping to catch one in a perfect pose on a pretty flower. At first, I stalked an orange one, hoping it might land on a blue flower, willing it to enter the perfect colour theory composition that I envisaged in my head. That didn’t work.

Next, I decided to kneel by an individual flower, focus my camera on it and wait for an unsuspecting creature to land on it. I must have wasted a good 15 minutes on this ill-judged approach.

Finally, Linda took pity on me and pointed out that the best approach, and the one being employed by all the other photographers in the room, was to prowl around the various flowers and bushes, carefully examining them for a butterfly that had come to rest. This approach worked better than the others.

The next set of decisions I was faced with had to do with lens choice and whether to shoot on a tripod or hand-held. My camera is always on a tripod. I hate hand-holding my camera because it makes precise control over composition nearly impossible. So, I started off shooting with a 70-200mm lens on tripod-mounted camera but it quickly because apparent that this approach slowed me down so much I was unable to keep up with such fast-moving subjects. I then switched to a 105mm macro lens and hand-holding the camera, which at least enabled me to keep up with and get closer to a few subjects, though it did, predictably, lead to a whole host of other technical challenges.

Despite the newness of this photographic challenge, I stuck resolutely to my established method of using my camera in Manual mode, selecting aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings myself and adjusting them for each shot, as I judged necessary. The hardest choice in every case was that of the aperture. What little I know about butterfly photography tells me that a successful image demands perfect sharpness in the head and throughout the wings. To achieve this, I was working mostly in the f8 to f11 range but, with the subject’s wings in constant motion, even that wasn’t enough to guarantee sharpness in many cases because of motion blur.

Over the course of two hours, I shot about 150 images, of which fewer than 10 are usable.

I can’t wait to get back to landscape photography.

 

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Longwood Lilies

Last weekend, I was so enthused by seeing a magnificent image of a water lily taken by John Barclay at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, that I jumped in my car at 6:30 on Monday morning and made the two-hour, 120-mile drive to Longwood to photograph the lilies myself.

Of course, I should have realized that, when an amateur photographer tries to emulate the work of a top professional, it is bound to end in disappointment.

As John lives close to Longwood Gardens, he was able to pick an overcast day with light drizzle to create his images, so that the lilies were covered in a light coating of tiny raindrops and their colours were saturated and luscious: perfect flower photography weather.

By contrast, when I rolled up a Longwood, despite a “partly cloudy” weather forecast, I was met by bright sunshine with not a cloud in the sky and a blustery wind that constantly shook the delicate blossoms: possibly the worst conditions for flower photography.

It is often said that local photographers, those who live closest to a given location, always capture the best images of a given subject because they can pick when to shoot it: the time of day, time of year, weather conditions. I suppose my two-hour drive up to Pennsylvania illustrated that truth.

From when the Gardens opened at 9:00am, I spent most of the first two hours sitting indoors hoping that some clouds might roll in. Eventually, at around 11:00am, some scattered clouds crossed over the gardens and, with a lot of patience and by carefully picking my moment when to trip the shutter, I was able to capture a few images when the lilies were still and in shade.

After spending three hours at Longwood and arriving home at four in the afternoon, these five images were the only ones I managed to salvage from a long, tiring day.

Next time, I’ll think twice before thinking that I can easily replicate the work of a professional photographer who lives on Longwood’s doorstep.

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Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens 2017

This morning, I made my annual summer visit to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in northeast Washington, D.C.

The gardens are an extraordinary place, a haven of unmatched beauty in the middle of one the roughest neighbourhoods in Washington. Outside the gardens, the low, redbrick houses are dilapidated, the streets strewn with discarded beer cans and plastic bags. It’s not the sort of place where most of the DC area photographers I know would normally venture but, each July, we make the trek up to the northeast corner of the city to photograph the thousands of lotuses that briefly bloom in Kenilworth’s extensive lotus ponds.

Flower photography was my first love when I took up digital photography seriously about seven years ago. Although I have been doing mostly travel photography lately, it is always a pleasurable feeling to return to my first love.

Every time I try my hand at flower photography, I contemplate the words of two of the greatest exponents of the art: Joshua Taylor Jr. and Mike Moats. Josh always says that there are only two times to photograph a flower: when it’s at its pristine best or when it’s withered and atrophied. And, if you’re attempting the former, you have to look for the most perfect specimen in the garden, the one flower that seems to jump out at you and shout, “Hey! Photograph me!”

Mike’s advice is to look for what he calls the “Lady Gaga flower”, the one that’s weird and flamboyant and doesn’t look like any of the others. I didn’t find any Lady Gaga flowers this morning but I did spot a few lotuses that were at their peak, so I followed Josh’s advice.

The principal challenge of photographing the lotuses at Kenilworth is finding order in the midst of chaos. It takes patience to spot pleasing compositions when the lotus beds are teaming with flowers in different stages of bud, bloom or decay; plus, of course, the green foliage that supports the flowers is massive and often impedes clean compositions. In the above image, I noticed that the way the light was reflecting off the outer rim of the pad was creating a circle of light, so I positioned the lotus bulb in the centre of the light circle as a way of framing the subject. This is the classic “frame within a frame” compositional device, so beloved by photographers.

Other than that, the compositions I found this morning were mostly simple portraits of the flowers. I’m fine with that. In flower photography, it takes a while a re-train the eye, once you’ve been away from it for a while, to seek out more complex compositions. I may go back to Kenilworth next weekend and challenge myself to do so.

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La Recoleta Cemetery

On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, I had the good fortune to spend two afternoons in the imposing La Recoleta Cemetery, the final resting place of Argentina’s great and good for the past two centuries, since it opened in 1822.

Interred here are almost all of the legendary figures of Argentina’s past, most notably Eva Peron. Her tomb, in the Duarte family mausoleum, is surprisingly modest. While many of the tombs have open panels or glass panes, allowing one to look inside and see the coffins, Eva’s tomb is sealed. Indeed, she is buried two floors below ground level, fifteen feet down, under two heavy slabs of marble, in order to forestall the possibility that some unreformed Peronist might exhume her remains and, with them, her still-powerful political legacy.

Far more than a cemetery, La Recoleta is an architectural marvel, containing some 6,400 elaborate mausoleums, monuments and statues. Some of the mausoleums are as large as churches, while others resemble Gothic chapels or Roman statuary. It is no surprise, therefore, that CNN lists La Recoleta as one of the ten most beautiful cemeteries in the world.

Resting here are the remains of several Presidents, high-ranking military officers, sportsmen, artists, musicians, poets, scientists, two Nobel laureates and an illegitimate granddaughter of Napoleon Bonaparte, Isabel Walewski Colonna. There is even an Irishman: William “Guillermo” Brown, born in Foxford, County Mayo in 1777, founded the Argentine Navy and was its first Admiral. He fought in the Argentine War of Independence in 1810-1818 and is still revered as a national hero. His mausoleum is made of the melted-down bronze of canons from ships he once commanded and painted green in honour of his country of birth.

Another notable occupant is Luis Angel Firpo (1894 – 1960), nicknamed The Wild Bull of the Pampas, a professional boxer who became the first South American ever to fight for the world heavyweight title. He fought the great American world champion Jack Dempsey in New York in 1923. Firpo was knocked down seven times in the first round alone but, in the second, he trapped Dempsey on the ropes and hit him with a punch so powerful that it knocked the champion clean out of the ring. While millions of South Americans, huddled around their radios, had already begun celebrating their first world heavyweight champion, Dempsey climbed back into the ring and knocked Firpo out in the same round. Boxing historians have described Dempsey versus Firpo as the greatest fight in the sport’s history. Today, Firpo stands tall, handsome and unbowed in La Recoleta, his boxer’s boots neatly laced up, his open dressing gown exposing his muscular chest; the sporting hero of an entire continent.

Each grave in La Recoleta is adorned by plaques, made of bronze, stone or slate, inscribed with the homage of loved ones, former colleagues, employees or simply devotees of the heroes buried within. One of the most touching, written by a wife to her late husband who died in 1914, read, “Luis, my love. Thank you for having loved me so. May Almighty God put light and peace in your repose.” (I have translated the inscription from the Spanish.) She joined her husband in his tomb in 1923.

The intricacy of the decoration of many of the mausoleums is evidence to the extraordinary level of craftsmanship that went into their construction. Now that decades or, in some cases, centuries have passed since they were completed, many of the fixtures have rusted. To a photographer, this just adds to their charm, of course.

Although I spent a total of about six hours in La Recoleta over the course of two visits, I felt that I had only scratched the surface of what it offers the photographer. Indeed, I took relatively few photos, as I spent most of my time in awe-filled study of the inscriptions on the plaques, so intrigued was I by the life stories of the cemetery’s many accomplished inhabitants: men who led armies into victorious battles, conquering huge swathes of territory and building a nation in the process; a woman who, without ever holding political office, inspired a powerful nation by sheer force of her charisma.

It was a humbling experience to stand there surrounded by the remains of people who achieved so much in their lives, by so many heroes, by people whose achievements in their lifetimes live on centuries after their passing. While my first impression of the mausoleums was that they were excessive, upon reflection and having researched the lives of several of their inhabitants, I concluded that they are entirely appropriate to memorialize people who achieved so much in their brief time on earth.

 

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La Antigua Guatemala

 

I recently had the good fortune to spend three weeks in La Antigua Guatemala, improving my Spanish.

Despite the length of my stay, I got out only twice with my camera. On both occasions, shooting conditions were far from idea, as the sun was high in the sky and, because the streets of the city are cramped, with narrow sidewalks, it proved impossible to use a tripod.

So, I was reduced to hand-holding my camera and shooting in harsh daylight. These are possibly the worst conditions for image-making but, then again, Antigua is such a picturesque town that it is difficult to take a bad picture of it under any conditions.

The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1521 and underwent numerous catastrophes over the ensuing centuries, including fires, avalanches earthquakes, of course, volcanic eruptions.

The “of course” is appropriate due to the fact the Antigua is ringed by three volcanoes: Volcan de Fuego, Volcan de Agua and Pacaya.

The nearest, Volcan de Agua (lead image), stands on the very edge of the town, towers over everyone and is visible no matter where you happen to be standing in the town.

For those of us who do not live in volcanic regions, it really is an unnerving experience to step out into the street in the morning, look around and see this huge, smoking volcano towering over your head. It’s an ominous, ever-present reminder of one’s mortality and I found that my behaviour changed as a result of living in its shadow. I was having more fun, talking more – and more kindly – to strangers, due to the knowledge that the smoking giant on the edge of town might capriciously obliterate all of us at any second.

The overall impressions I took away from Antigua were twofold: poverty and religion.

The poverty was overpowering and omnipresent. One can see it in everything from the old women who spend their days walking the streets, trying to sell a few meagre possessions – fruit and vegetables, toothbrushes, packs of chewing gum – from the heavily-laden baskets that they carry on their heads, to the women who sit in every doorway, trying to force brightly-coloured fabrics unto passing tourists. Most days, I would buy some fruit, pay the woman twice the asking price for it, then hand it straight back to her, in hopes that she could sell it again later and make a little extra money.

The Spaniards brought the religion with them to the Americas, of course, and, although I have read several reports of the Catholic Church losing ground in Latin America to the Pentecostals and other, newer religions, in Antigua at least, the grip of the Catholic Church remains tight, even five hundred years later.

The dependence of the Antiguans on the church is evident in the fact that, at all hours of the day, the city’s many churches are busy with despondent-looking people prostrating themselves in front of altars, lighting candles, touching the hems of garments draped over statues of various saints or, like the lady in the penultimate image, sitting outside confessionals abjectly apologizing for whatever sin they think they’ve committed.

As for the relationship between Antiguans’ persistent poverty and their devotion to the Catholic Church, now that’s a subject I’d be interested in exploring.

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Seeing in the Abstract

“One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.”

– Minor White (1908-1976)

In studying photographic composition, one of the lessons I have learned is to distinguish between the literal elements in a scene and the abstract elements.

In surveying this scene – the tiny island of Sugar Loaf, shot from Levera Beach in the extreme northeast corner of Grenada, West Indies – I was contemplating the words of the late, legendary American photographer, Minor White.

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What was I looking at? A volcanic island and a rock in the sea: the literal elements.

What would my camera see? A circle and a triangle, surrounded by space filled with the dramatic movement of sea and sky: the abstract elements.

A great contemporary American photographer, Ian Plant, wrote in “Visual Flow”, his excellent e-book on composition, “Learning to see abstractly is critical to advanced image making and creating sophisticated compositions”.

In preparing to photograph this scene, the words of both Minor White and Ian Plant were swirling around in my head and influencing my conceptualization of this image.

Before setting up my camera and making the various technical decisions I knew would be necessary to produce a technically correct image, I de-focused my eyes, squinted against the bright Caribbean afternoon sunlight and made a conscious effort to deconstruct the scene to its most graphic, abstract elements: a circle and a triangle.

In terms of composition, I placed the circle in the foreground in sharp focus in order to invite the viewer’s eye to come to rest there first, and the triangle in the distance, to draw the eye towards the back of the frame.

Using a six-stop neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed, a low ISO of 100 and an aperture of f8, a Nikon 24-70mm lens at 36mm on a Nikon D800 camera body, the shutter speed slowed to 1.5 seconds, thus accentuating the dramatic movement in the waves and clouds.

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Mabry Mill

This picturesque little mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia has been on my bucket list for a few years now.

While recognizing that it has already been the subject of many thousands of images captured by other photographers, I still longed to see and photograph it for myself.

I finally got to photograph Mabry Mill last month on my road trip through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. While the primary objective of that trip was to photograph waterfalls, I made an exception for this beauty.

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The mill was built between 1903 and 1910 by Ed and Lizzie Mabry.

Having started out as a blacksmith in the West Virginia coalfields, Ed Mabry (1867-1936), a versatile handyman, came to Floyd County, Virginia in 1903 with aspirations of building and making a living from operating his own mill.

_dsc6331When first constructed, the primary purpose of the wooden building was to house Ed’s blacksmith business but he soon added a wheelwright shop, then a sawmill and, by 1905, he had expanded the site to include a gristmill.

Ed cut his own millstones out of rock hewn from Brush Mountain, near Blacksburg, and built his own wooden overshot water wheel.

The expanding functions of the Mabry family business remain clearly visible to this day in the three discrete sections of their little, wooden building.

Ed and Lizzie worked long days grinding grain, sawing lumber, gardening and tending farm animals.

Between 1905 and 1914, they bought adjacent tracts of land, mostly for the purpose of acquiring more water power to drive the water wheel, the lifeline of their business, for additional days each year.

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While Ed and Lizzie left no children, they surely left behind an enduring testament to the virtues of hard work and self-sufficiency that was typical of the Appalachian people of their time.

Today, Mabry Mill attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, all of them drawn to the simple beauty of the three-part mill by the calm, circular pond, that the Mabrys built with their own hands.

When Ed and Lizzie Mabry were working hard on building and operating their mill, they surely could never have imagined that, more than a century later, it would become one of the most photographed buildings in America.

 

 

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Grassy Creek Falls

 

d800-wc_va_nc-waterfalls-shoot-oct-2016-1-6396-2016-10-27-brighterOn my recent photography road trip through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, the subject in which I was most interested was waterfalls. And the most spectacular falls I found in all three states were Grassy Creek Falls.

Although the highlands of western North Carolina are home to many well-known waterfalls, Grassy Creek Falls are a well-kept secret, mainly because they stand on private property and the owners, while not dissuading visitors, also do not encourage them.

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The falls stand at an elevation of 3,080 feet, a few miles distant from the aptly-named town of Little Switzerland, and require a steep downhill hike of a mile or so to approach them. Upon reaching the end of the hike, one must scramble down a treacherous, near-vertical valley wall to get to the top of the falls themselves.

From there, to reach the base of the falls, from which the second image was taken, requires scrambling down several steep layers of rock, all of them strewn with wet leaves and flooded with fast-flowing water.

 

While this was undoubtedly physically challenging, the effort and the risk were well worth it for the exhilarating experience of standing at the bottom of the falls, with not another soul in sight, and staring up at their pristine majesty adorned by autumnal yellows, reds and golds.

Of course, the predictable opposite of a steep downhill hike and scramble is a seemingly even steeper uphill scramble and hike, which pushed me close to my physical limits.

d800-wc_va_nc-waterfalls-shoot-oct-2016-1-6366-2016-10-27Once back up at the top of the falls, the next image I simply had to make was from behind the falls themselves, looking out (lead image). This required taking another crazy risk of standing knee-deep in freezing cold water and getting both myself and my camera gear drenched just long enough to shoot a single frame.

But, what the hell, I’d come this far, what difference is one more crazy risk going to make?

 

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Avery Creek Falls

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I have just returned from a six-day road trip to Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, where I was photographing mostly waterfalls under fall colour.

These pretty little falls, located on Avery Creek in Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, were the last falls that I shot, on Friday afternoon, the final day of my trip.

Getting to the falls required driving two-and-a-half miles off-road, then hiking three-quarters of a mile along woodland trails, before heading upstream, then scrambling down a steep bank to the base of the falls.

d800-wv_va_nc-waterfall-shoot-oct-2016-3-6474-2016-10-28I first scouted the falls in the early afternoon but the bright autumn sunlight and cloudless blue sky made photographing them impossible. So, I headed into Brevard, the nearest town, for lunch, then returned at around 5:00pm, by which time the sun was starting to sink in the sky and the light to soften.

While first surveying the falls and envisioning how I would photograph them, the first thing that struck me was that the water all came down one side of the rocks, causing the water on the opposite side to move in a circular motion, carrying with it the brightly-coloured autumn leaves that had fallen from the overhanging trees.

This presented me with an opportunity to capture the classic “swirl” of autumn leaves beneath a waterfall: a favourite subject of photographers (second image). This was my first-ever attempt at capturing a swirl image and it made for a thrilling finale to my trip.

The swirl image was captured using a circular polarizing filter, to cut the glare from the water, and a six-stop neutral density filter to facilitate a long exposure of 1 minute 45 seconds.

While I was happy to capture this image in the rapidly fading evening light, the downside was hiking back out of the forest in the dark.

 

 

 

 

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Nostalgia for Another Country’s Past

I recently came across this idyllic scene, “Ron’s Hot Rod Garage” in a remote, agricultural area of Shenandoah County, Virginia, some ninety miles west of Washington, DC.

d800-rons-garage-6102-2016-09-17It’s a classic Second World War-era American scene of a small, rural garage, with the obligatory 1940s Ford pickup truck – the workhorse of many American farms – parked outside, complete with signs for long-dead brands of motor oils, such as “Pennzoil”, “Standard” and “Fire Chief.”

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The gas pump for the latter boldly proclaimed that it “contains lead”, as if it were a declaration of power, not the source of shame we consider it to be in these more environmentally conscious days.

The oil cans standing among the pumps had been heavily weathered by years, perhaps decades, of rain, wind and sun. Their rusted surfaces allowed me to capture some macro images of abstract patterns.

Standing alone, looking at the simple, rustic scene, I was filled with feelings of nostalgia: that bittersweet, sentimental sense of loss for a past that is long gone and can never be reclaimed, combined with a poignant sense of satisfaction that it ever existed in the first place.

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But why should I feel nostalgic for 1940s-era America? I wasn’t born here. I didn’t grow up here. There were no Ford pickup trucks or Fire Chief gas pumps (they would, in any case, have been called “petrol pumps”) in rural western Ireland, where I was born and raised.

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I really couldn’t figure it out. Maybe it’s retained memory of American films from the post-war era that I had seen as a boy.

Maybe it’s “The Waltons”, which was set in that time period and in exactly this area of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Unlikely: I’m aware of the programme, of course, but was never a fan.

For me, I can only think that Ron’s Garage takes me back to a simpler, gentler past typified by universal values, such as good neighbourliness, tightly-knit families and isolated farming communities that lived in close reliance on the land.

Values not unlike those with which I was raised in rural Ireland.

 

 

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