Category Archives: Creative Process

IT’S A POLITICAL AGE

Gelatin silver photographic print of stumps titled "Remains"

Remains, 2012, gelatin silver print.

Though I consciously have avoided the political in my photographs (and my poems), more and more I am drawn to projects that involve moral issues. Confronted daily with images that convey the dismantling of our human values, the death of society, destruction by killings and war, the collapse of our planet, I am led to wrestle with my own notions of what it means to bear witness and to create work that matters. What will I make of this pounding on the doors of perception, this battering of rationality? Increasingly, I think these things must work their way into my image-making. And I find myself excited by the idea of engaging new directions.

I am reminded of a poem by a brilliant poet, whose work I love:

Wislawa Szymborska

CHILDREN OF OUR AGE

We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours, theirs—
are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.

Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps,
on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,

or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.

Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

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LOOKING AT PHOTOGRAPHS

Apples on the tree in Tieton, Washington

Apples, Tieton, Washington.

For the past week, I have felt this intense need to look at photographs. I don’t mean to look at photographs-in-the-making, those being exposed; I mean to look at photographs that are printed images.

Truth is, I haven’t been out with my camera for awhile, so mining my old files, looking at photographs made by me or someone else that inspires me is the next best thing.

To see them with expanded awareness—Minor White’s approach to seeing, which is akin to meditation or “being still with yourself”—is a way for me to stay sane in the face of my growing apprehension about some health issues. Even though it’s hard to relax into a soft focus when I’m anxious, if I can bring myself to a heightened state of awareness, and look at images from that place, my vision is as creative as the act of making the image in the first place.

Reading poetry, like looking at photographs, can change you.

This poem by Jane Hirshfield comes to mind:

Bad Year

Even in this bad year,
the apples grow heavy and round.
Three friends and I trade stories:
biopsy, miscarriage, solitude,
a parent’s unravelling body or mind.
What is reliable? What do you hold?
I demand of the future, later.
The future–whose discretion is perfect–
says nothing, but rolls another
apple loose from its grip.
A hopeful yellow jacket comes to hunt
the crack, the point of easy entry.

© Jane Hirshfield, from After

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WHAT IS YOUR PHOTOGRAPHIC VISION? – PART ONE

Ghost Tree, Salton Sea

One of my favorite photographer-bloggers is David DuChemin. Just after I had read his recent blog post, “Image or Imagery?”, written (and tagged by him as a bit of a rant) in response to questions about his gear, beginning with What camera do you use?, I received a kind invitation to participate in an interview. Ironically, the first question was, What equipment do you use? What camera?

Don’t get me wrong, questions that get me thinking about making images interest me a lot. But equipment, gear, and gadgets? Not so much. They are mere tools that can help us convey our personal, distinct photographic vision. Vision is what I am passionate about.

What is photographic vision? It defines the work we do and why we do it the way we do. It determines the artistic choices we make. And I think that when we clarify our photographic vision we become better photographers.

I will have more to say about developing photographic vision in a follow-up post. Meanwhile, I want to let you in on the interview with Karla Locke. You can read my responses and see my work here in Anacortes Magazine or here on Blame It On the Light.

Thank you, Karla Locke.

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SURPRISE

Efflorescent Utility Pole

Efflorescent Utility Pole

I travel this street nearly every day, and sometimes more often than that. It is my usual route out of town. This residential street lined with ordinary houses, tidy lawns, and arborvitae privacy screens is as familiar as a place can be.

There is comfort in familiarity. It is reassuring to get what we expect, to see the same old scene altered merely by time or season. And yet there is another side to this regularity. Sameness can make the eye lazy.

Surprise snaps me out of this kind of passivity.

I have learned to always carry a camera, which not only makes me ready for the unexpected, it actually shifts my mindset to see the unexpected. It invites surprise.

And sure enough, on this day I saw the surprising juxtaposition of a flowering tree and a utility pole. The pole looked like the tree’s trunk with full-blossomed branches growing from it. It was positively an electric spectacle! As Joel Meyerowitz says, “It is this kind of surprise that keeps me interested in things that might easily go unnoticed. It is paying attention that makes photography a vital form for me.”

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FRESH STARTS

The Dike in Bloom

The Dike in Bloom. Photograph © Jane Alynn.

Xīnnián hǎo! Monday, February 8 was the start of the 2016 Chinese New Year. It is the year of the Fire Monkey. I read somewhere that the Year of the Fire Monkey is a great year for fresh starts.

This photograph reminds me of the treasure of standing still, in the quiet cool of a spring morning, on the dike that rises along Skagit Bay, breathing in the salt marsh exposed by low tide.

Though it is a familiar landscape, at that moment I felt surprised, open, and inspired. Even my step had a spring to it.

But then, in seeing and photographing, isn’t every moment a beginning?

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LET THE FEELING BE LOVE

Couple on the Beach, Waldport, OR

All you need is love.
~ John Lennon (October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980)

The deluge of news about acts of terror at home and around the world makes it easy to believe that danger lurks behind every door, that we are not safe, and that we must then be wary of everyone who is different from us. Otherness becomes a defense for fear and suspicion, which hardens into irrational beliefs that lead us to act out against innocent people. Closed doors, hearts, and minds are the enemy of life.

It is a dangerous progression. And the media, in reporting the rhetoric of hate, further deepens ignorance and extremism.

I’ve written before about the power of words and how they affect seeing.

Clarity of vision demands a receptive, compassionate heart, free of labels and preconceptions.

So let the feeling be love.

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Stairway to Nowhere

Stairway to Nowhere

Stairway to Nowhere. Photograph © Jane Alynn.


 
Last week, on a drive around the backroads of Monroe’s Tualco Valley, I came across this concrete staircase, standing alone, fixed in time. There were no clues as to the original structure that once necessitated these steps for access. Fascinated by this stairway that led to nowhere, I pulled off the road to photograph it.

For many years now I have been interested in liminal places and spaces. Liminal relates to a boundary or threshold, an interzone that is neither here nor there but in-between; a passage that connotes transition and transformation. Liminal places are embodied in promenades, paths, alleys, aisles, bridges, stairs, doorways, windows, and other places of openings and passage.

What I love about this particular body of work is that I am not out searching for images to become a set of photographs. I am collecting images as they present themselves. The work grows organically in the way a collection of poems accumulates, building, slowly, over time, and gathering its strength from the diversity as well as the interaction among them.

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Roll with the Punches

Carpe Diem, Port Townsend, WA

Carpe Diem, Port Townsend, WA. Photograph © Jane Alynn.

I just spent several days in Port Townsend. The main reason for my visit was to make images. In particular, I wanted to photograph Fort Worden’s extensive system of large, abandoned bunkers, creating new work to add to my What Remains portfolio.

As I stood among those fascinating structures, awed by their complexity, aware of their dark history, I set up my tripod and camera, loaded my film, and turned the crank. Instead of stopping at the first frame, the crank advance kept turning. Oh, no! I thought. My camera is broken! Indeed, after several tries, it was clear my camera’s advancing mechanism was not working properly. Shortly after that I took a hard fall and my camera and I went tumbling. It took me about five seconds to call it a day.

But life is like that. It requires flexibility. By accepting this and adapting to the circumstances as they are instead of what we want them to be, we open ourselves to new possibilities. So, I decided to roll with the punches and see what I could do with my digital camera. I was too bruised and achy to do anything more at Fort Worden, but the accessibility of the boat yard offered me exactly what I needed.

Carpe diem is usually understood to mean “seize the day”; its more literal translation is “enjoy the moment.” And I did.

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Words as Invitation

desert snag study #1

Desert Snag Study #1, Salton Sea, CA. Photograph © Jane Alynn


 
This image was made near the Salton Sea in the Colorado Desert of California, almost a year ago today. I have always loved the desert for its stark yet expansive beauty. These days, given climate change and the resulting water shortages, I am drawn to the desert as metaphor for the coming extinction. The words I carry with me are desolation, bareness, isolation, loneliness, mystery….

Words hold great power. Certainly, I experience this in writing poetry. But words can focus our visual work in the same way. Before I go out on an image-making expedition, I make a practice of expressing my “felt-sense“ of the project.

Felt sense is a vehicle of expression. Like intention, it is intangible but drives the creation of something tangible. It gives voice to the feelings I have about a particular subject or idea and focuses my attention.

Felt sense is a starting point. An invitation. It opens the door to seeing.

Scottish-American photographer Albert Watson, I learned recently, also uses words as a starting point. For this discovery I thank photographer-writer friend, Steve Meltzer, who published an article in Shutterbug about Watson.

“With the Isle of Skye project he thought long and hard about the images he wanted and the feeling he was looking to capture. He said that he had words in his mind like desolation, strangeness and romanticism, and he added even, ‘A touch of the The Lord of the Rings.’ ”

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Observation

Barred Window, Northern State Hospital, Sedro-Woolley, WA

Window, Northern State Hospital, Sedro-Woolley. Photo © 2015 Jane Alynn.


 
Recently, when I was wandering around the old Northern State Hospital farm for a project I have been working on, this wall with a barred window on one of the dilapidated buildings caught my eye.

At first glance the surfaces attracted me. The textures of long-growing lichens, of cracked and peeling paint, its many layers exposed by years of neglect.

Then I saw the puzzle of geometric shapes: the rectangular window, a frame within a frame, perfectly centered in the middle of what remained of a square structure; and the space divided into triangles by the diagonal bar, which together formed another rectangle.

But that slash of metal! The diagonal line, even as it contributed to the symmetry of the composition, furnished the needed contrast, subverting the visual balance with a sense of drama. Slicing across the front of the window, its meaning was clear and commanding: entry was forbidden!

Observations like that make connections with something more inward.

As I stood there, looking at the cracked and peeling layers of paint, the barred window, I envisioned the layers of mystery that surrounded the hard lives of the mentally ill patients who once lived there.

It is this process—the same process, really—as writing a poem, that makes seeing and then photographing so vital for me.

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