Sunday, May 7, 2017

Still Life, Close Up

"The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces." Susan Sontag

Watering can, sedum, pots - simple still life

Photography gives us the power to isolate scenes from contexts, making them appear self-sufficient: above, a watering can, sedum and other plants in pots, and nature poking through and around. Instant still life composition, if you will. This approach to picture taking unearths loads of subject matter in gardens, which while unified wholes break apart readily into their scenic components. Any number of them in fact, for it's arbitrary where one scene begins and another leaves off. But the camera's shutter resolves any ambiguities with finality, peeling off distinct slices of reality and rendering them as self sufficient wholes. And in our digital times, compositions can simply be re-framed until a pleasing combination of content, angle and illumination emerges. But why one collection of objects suits the eye more than another remains a bit of a mystery, a product of aesthetics, opportunity, and subjective intent. And the frame of the camera itself, the rectangular boundaries that can be positioned horizontally or vertically, draws out modes of seeing that aren't necessarily evident in the same way to our naked eye. The technical nature of the lens itself induces or suggests potential framings.

Cluster of fallen cones, from an Atlas Cedar

Releasing the shutter determines your take, while the beauty revealed (if beauty is your intent) remains in the eye of the beholder. I haven't reflected on where this urge to assemble things into still life compositions or to focus on patterns or details originates. It seems always to have been there in my own photography (my godmother painted still lifes and close ups, so I was used to seeing them from early on). And I still enjoy searching for a good cluster many years on, seen in light that intrigues the eye. To me, a good cluster almost invariably possesses a certain innocence or humbleness or even a feeling of naievete. So, no pictures designed to shock or show rank destruction for my eye, although slow decline, marks of wear, and even demise can reveal beauty in everyday objects and so attract me. I have difficulty sharply distinguishing still life from close up photography, so in my approach they tend to shade into one thing or at least exist at points on the same continuum. I'm offering a few examples here as eye-bait and to illustrate how simple things - as often found together by chance as intentionally placed together - can yield if not outright beauty, then at least real visual interest, when focused upon and isolated. Of course, the momentary light they're seen in matters a great deal too, structuring the impression they leave - and in some sense every collection of objects or patterns or details actually is the light it's shown in. 

Snail completing a long stretch across a gap between paving stones

Sometimes you just happen upon your subject, as when I noticed the snail above patiently crossing a deep gulf between paving stones. We only see these snails after soaking rains, while the land's surface is still moist enough that they can move around without dehydrating their fluid bodies. This picture reflects an element of chance: here the snail is just completing a prodigious stretch across the gap, contracting its shell over its body to complete its forward movement.  Such chance timing is a great generator of potential pictures (this scene changed in a slow-motion moment and the stretch vanished). But I often find myself using certain favoured garden objects to achieve still life compositions. These items are props deployed to catch garden effects, such as the galvanized watering can featured in the opening shot. They can be placed to gain an impression of light at a particular moment, or so as to reveal a more general seasonal effect. The watering can confirms the nature of the scene portrayed and implies something about the garden it's been abstracted from. Coming back to the snail, I would say that this shot is more close up than still life, perhaps especially because motion (however slow) is implied? And, you could certainly say that the following picture with the weathered chairs is more scenic than it is still life. As I said, to me these are all part of a continuum and the dividing line between one thing and another is blurry.

Weathered chairs with emphatic shadow lines

Quite apart from my reliable metal watering can and the weathered teak chairs, the garden's plants furnish unlimited opportunities to frame photos as still lives. Perhaps by including plants in their natural settings, the notion of still life is being stretched even further here, but freezing a grouping of objects at the moment the shutter releases certainly guarantees that the resulting picture appears still. I often find myself looking for new clusters combining elements of spontaneity and arrangement, so a 'found' aspect is incorporated into the picture (by found, I mean that some force other than conscious human intention helps cause or derive the arrangement, like time, weather, or perhaps chance proximity. The next shot illustrates this blend of intention and discovery: the pot and rocks are my placement from years before, but the blooms on a neighbour's wandering wisteria have spontaneously (with my encouragement) added themselves to the scene. I find seeking such placements an endlessly entertaining game to play in a garden, with the benefit of occasionally yielding pictures that capture a moment in time. There is, I know, if not an artificiality, then an unreality to this freezing of time, as all growing things are actually in motion and lie somewhere between being born and, if not outright dying, then dying back. But, so too are the fruits and flowers in a painted still life, and even the vessels frozen in the painting's singular moment likely wind up smashed somewhere down the line. Their painted representation continues long after they are gone.

Placed rock cluster, pot with cuttings, found wisteria blossoms

To me, flowers themselves are among the most intriguing garden subjects for still life or close up compositions. Below is a shot of a bearded iris that isolates a single intricate bloom, with its fetching falls, against a backdrop of blurry green that's tinged with yellow and amplifies an overall delicacy of impression. I like using the technique of blurred context for contrast with the principal subject, whereby the background contributes its colour effect rather than resolving into a distinct collection of objects in focus.

A single iris bloom makes a still life composition

Below is another frame, taken on a different April day. Both the iris above and the tulip below are plants that came with the garden, about thirty years ago. I've helped them continue to flourish on this site by periodically dividing and replanting them in freshened soil (note to file re the tulip below!), and they have responded by reliably adding their simple beauty to spring's captivating narrative. I've come to realize through close observation that in Victoria, BC, with its temperate climate and slow, moist spring, many of the spring-flowering plants actually show early, middle, and late varieties - effects which can be consciously deployed to add dimension and length to the flowering season, from tulips to irises, quinces and lilacs. To botanize, we could call this play with species within a genus. I was unaware of this potential for floral differentiation while growing up in Ontario, because there spring is quite delayed, and then comes all in a rush, forcing many spring plants to flower simultaneously. Victoria's spring is a much more a gradual, slow-release of flowering incidents against a gradually greening foliage background. Some find cause for complaint in spring's cool-moist climate, with frequent showers that give it lushness and extended length of blooming. The tulip shown below is in the middle-to-late part of tulip-time hereabouts, helping push the tulip season out into a fifth or sixth week of species-flowering. This time some purplish hints in the shot's blurred background enhance the pink of the tulip flower.

Tulip flower thrown into relief against a distant background

Another thing I enjoy exploring in plants-as-subjects is the vast array of impressions transmitted over the course of their typically short flowering period, from early appearance to the full-on flourishing depicted above. My interest in the whole flowering cycle reaches as far as finding colouring seed pods beautiful. In the frame below an annual lunaria are caught at their height. Here a branch of lunaria, an annual plant, has set large flat seeds within thin, translucent pods. These pods will slowly bleach to grey and their flat sides become a translucent parchment that causes a distinctive fall look. Lunaria, which is called 'honesty' in England, is referred to as 'money plant' throughout Asia, and as 'silver dollars' in the USA. The latter two names refer to the coin-like quality of its seed pods. In 1884, Van Gogh painted a lovely still life of honesty's whitened pods in a vase with other floral elements around it. 

Lunaria sets its flat seeds in pretty coin-shaped pods

Camas lilies are native to our small peninsula here on Southern Vancouver Island, a key landscape signifier in spring's slow, spectacular flourish. The quintessential meadow flower here, they thrust up dramatically under our native Garry oaks before they fully leaf out, seeming to appear out of nowhere as bulbs in spring do, usually in early to mid April, and initially with striking blue veining that quickly becomes blue-purple as the petals burst open. The scene below captures that brief more-blue moment quite nicely, before the petals burst into their ecstatic bloom. I am especially fond of these dramatic local lilies, which we've invited back to a site anchored by a gathering of mature oaks. They offer a vestige of the extensive Camas meadows once maintained here by controlled burning of the underbrush by the Coast Salish peoples, the original inhabitants of Victoria and its environs. Ironically, it was the luxuriant flowering of these spring bulbs that caused British explorers to describe this first-nation-groomed coastal prairie as "a perfect Eden", not ever comprehending the role of human intention and utilitarian purpose behind the seemingly paradisial emergence.

Camas flowers before their turn to purple

Close up and still life allow us to observe a cluster of objects, or a pattern made striking by angle and light, and to catch them in a framed view with the camera. Each serves up a distinct moment in time, captured by the frame. I obviously enjoy the act of associating objects through the lens to create a still life. And I've found that the house within the garden is equally fruitful of scenes that can be captured with the camera. The next still life catches an interesting collection of shapes, patterns and tones, with the added complexity of reflection caught in a mirror. The gentle softness of indirect exterior light gives this shot its mellow, peaceful quality.

Mellow light for a cluster of objects intensified through reflection

The house-and-garden pairing provides opportunities for scenic composing, whether catching the outside as light within a room, or catching the garden framed into niches by windows. We get a lot of satisfaction from the inside looking outwards because the windows give the garden visible presence throughout the house and reinforce the feeling that the house is in its own park.  Ample windows also bring light inside with distinct effects at varying times, inviting the eye to make the parts captured in photographs carry moods and imply their wholes. This ability to see chunks or slices or sections of things as virtual wholes reflects our habituation to observing visual fragments in photographs, bits and pieces of decoupled from wholes, often with arbitrarily defined edges, that nonetheless effectively convey mood. Below, end of day light from the west reaches deep inside the kitchen, throwing shadows on surfaces.

Light and shadow effects as still life

This house is positioned to get a lot of sunlight, being placed on a hill with many windows facing east, south and west. One effect of th is that the inside receives changing light throughout the course of a day, modifying the mood within its interior spaces. This allows the framing of many views of patterns and clusters of objects, with scenic nature often glimpsed through windows as part of the scene.

Double exposure: recycled stained glass window, itself a still life composition

Light through windows often fascinates me, especially if there's some gentle distortion by old glass involved. Above, it's a stained glass window seen inside a garden shed, so being backlit showing colour saturation. This window, one of a pair acquired purely by chance at an auction many years before the shed crystallized, had a fairly long life prior to falling into my hands. I bought these stained glass windows on the then-fanciful whim that their flower theme would go well in a garden structure that I would one-day design as an eye-catcher to be seen from the kitchen. As I wasn't actively contemplating building one at that exact moment, it turned out to be an inspired choice when the idea finally did come to fruition.

Cluster of chive flowers in an unearthed antique aspirin bottle

Ordinary objects sometimes unexpectedly show us scenic clusters. One day I was taken by the simple beauty of some chive flowers placed in an old aspirin bottle, viewed in fading afternoon light against a backdrop of deco style tile. The aspirin bottle was retrieved from a midden in the back yard. It served as final resting place for hard goods in the days before garbage collection and recycling. I unearthed it while rooting around in parts of the garden, and over time it has revealed a tiny trove of small glass containers, from ink bottles to make-up and aspirin. The combination of old bottle and chive flowers makes a humble still life of the found, the grown and the deliberately placed. This combines a chunk of the natural world brought inside and placed in a piece of the inside world that that had been tossed out long ago but was retrieved to serve again inside in an entirely new way (got that?).

Montbretia flowers bring a foretaste of autumn's fiery colour palette

Many garden still lifes or close ups convey a background sense of season - flowers manifest in a defined window of the garden's sequence and their flowering implies both place and time in the sequence of bloom. The quality of the light itself can also be seasonally revealing. The picture above is of Montbretia, which here flowers later in summer and whose burnt orange coloration prefigures the landscape's oncoming shift to fall colours. However, seasonality can also be made to play an even more explicit role in defining the overall composition. Below is an example of snow's presence truly defining a scene, here rather somberly due to the dullness of the light on that day. This lack of punchiness actually reinforces an abstract and monochromatic impression, making the scene appear near black and white (b+w photography amplifies lines of force and spatial presence in its grey-scale renderings). Black and white but for the hint of mustardy yellow on the south face of the limbs and the orange of the chimney. This photo leaves an impression of being hand-tinted.

Monochrome light, snow on oak limbs

Just as snow reliably conveys wintry conditions, fallen leaves signify autumn's decisive impact on plants. This picture catches the warmth of fall coloration and the sculpting of the leaf as it has dried out. These caramel-coloured leaves fall in early autumn, a harbinger of the dramatic shift that is about to come.

Nothing says westcoast autumn like fallen maple leafs

Freezing rain in winter can also impart drama to plant appearances, giving even the most ordinary of context plants renewed presence to the eye and limitless potential to serve up still lifes. Seeing the physical world through glossy classing can be visually astonishing, rendering even ordinary everyday objects with renewed interest. Freezing rain's aftermath has the paradoxic effect of making me want to go wandering in the wonderland of special effects (despite this being risky behaviour), knowing that I will not be disappointed when it comes to fresh effects. The next shot is of a clump of ornamental grass inclining under the weight of a thick coating of ice, a structure imprisoned within another solid while still in view.

Freezing rain imprisons grass in translucent ice

The shot below, taken after the same ice storm, shows how universal the coating of frozen rain is, here emphasized by the thin strands of woven wire fencing. Brilliant sunshine reflecting from the glassy edges brings the ice right up to the eye, which notices the rolling quality of the horizontal wire (traces of the spool it came from) more than it otherwise might. I like the simplicity and relative peacefulness of this composition.

Page wire fencing coated with frozen rain emphasizing forms

One winter day I happened to be working in the back garden, clearing up the debris shaken loose from oaks and firs during the latest winter windstorm. I was taken by the colourful array of bits and pieces of lichen, mosses and funghi littered about the lawn, some together on a single chunk of rotting oak branch. These sometimes symbiotic plants sport their unique colour palette in the wetness of fall and winter. I decided to put an assortment of representative chunks on a garden bench, and from there derived the following shot of some of this aerial debris. The picture 'notices' the assembly by concentrating it into a group, something our eye wouldn't make appear so distinctly otherwise. I enjoy its shapes and colours immensely - the sea-blue tints especially.

Found among the debris downed by a winter storm: funghus and lichen assort

Many garden plants interact uniquely with their environment to cause special effects to appear. For example, seasoned gardeners often notice the particular way rain pools on foxglove's tubular flowers, gathering into swelling droplets as gravity gradually draws the moisture towards ground. Something about the flower seems to repel the water somewhat, compelling formation of droplets that remain suspended. You can almost feel the moisture moving downwards despite being frozen into a still picture. These effects are transient, so if you're to catch them you need to have your camera ready to hand. I like to garden that way myself, with the camera handy. That way, if something suggests itself to the eye in the course of garden operations, or the light suddenly turns transcendent, the means of recording the passing effects are conveniently close. As often as not, that will simply become a still life composition. Or, is it just a close up? Or maybe a detail?

Raindrops clustering on foxglove flowers

My point is simply that even the humblest of gardens, say an assortment of pots on your deck or terrace, offers opportunities to render plants into still life compositions. Van Gogh did it memorably with a cluster of picked flowers in a vase, a painting now famous that remained obscure in his lifetime  (as did virtually everything he painted), but almost certainly gave him intense satisfaction. Look around and you'll see there are opportunities lying everywhere around you. Go ahead and compose. It's a way to preserve a fragment of the flow of time for future contemplation. And it's fun!

Outside-in as spring: crocuses sport their captivating markings

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