Category Archives: Stories

LOOKING BACK

Artifice, a photo by Jane Alynn.

Artifice. Photo © Jane Alynn.

It’s Throwback Thursday!

The photograph above is a very early zone plate image.

This week, in the process of updating my website’s ABOUT page, I recalled my beginnings with black and white film-based zone plate imagery.

I was living in Edison, Washington, in a dilapidated building that once had been a lumber yard and hardware store. It was cheap—affordable for us—and we had a dream of creating a live-work space there. It was large enough to accommodate our living quarters, our separate studios, and even a gallery.

Though that dream never came to fruition, and we eventually sold the building, another beginning took root there.

I saw some photographs made by a friend. They were diffuse and mysterious, and the highlights glowed. They could have been out of the early twentieth century Pictorialist movement. It was like looking at the ineffable. I fell in love with those images, and I wanted to explore those lensless creations myself.

Gratefully, our friend sent me a zone plate to fit on a camera, so that I could experiment with it.

I mail-ordered a Lubitel, a cheap Russian-made camera priced at that time, as I recall, under $25—it had to be cheap, so that I wouldn’t feel badly when I crashed the lens out of it—which I did, and then fit the zone plate over the aperture. I couldn’t wait to expose my first role of film with a zone plate.

I’ve never looked back.

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RESETTING YOUR LIFE

Collapsed cabin along hwy 20

Collapsed cabin along Highway 20. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Certain events in life tend to shake the ground on which you stand, upending carefully cast beliefs and habitual states of mind.

Think of losing a loved one, a serious accident or diagnosis, a breakup or job loss, things that happen in life that we neither choose nor can anticipate. These events can precipitate tectonic shifts.

Then, there are the changes we choose, such as having a baby, moving, or changing jobs. Even travel can challenge your usual way of being in the world.

Pico Iyer, in “Why We Travel,” writes: “It [travel] cracks you open, and so pushes you over all the walls and low horizons that habits and defensiveness set up.”

My recent journey to the Okanagan Country in Washington and Canada and to the Kootenay Rockies was just such an experience.

I left with a pledge I would go unplugged. Except for a few posts to Instagram, I, indeed, was disconnected from my network.

Instead, I engaged with people and place; and I made photographs.

I made photographs every day. I wasn’t checking my email several times a day or obsessively viewing posts from Facebook friends or responding to intrusive messages on my Facebook page, reminding me I haven’t posted in 25 days.

In short order, my pressure cooker mind slowed down.

Interestingly, the project I was working on was of ghost towns and the structures that remain. There’s nothing like being among old ruins to remind you of the passage of time!

So, now that I’m home and back in my studio, reflecting on my experiences, I have made a vow to reset my life, honoring my priorities above all other distractions.

Vital and thus deserving of most of my time and attention are photographing, developing projects that I love and that say something; reading and writing; giving space to thought and silence; being with family and friends; traveling; staying healthy; and making a positive contribution to the world.

That’s enough, isn’t it?

Abandoned barn along Old Toroda Road, Okanogan Country. Photo © Jane Alynn.
Abandoned homestead in Bodie

Abandoned homestead in Bodie, Okanogan Country. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Abandoned building in Bodie

Abandoned building in Bodie, Okanogan Country. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Abandoned building in Bodie

Abandoned building in Bodie, Okanogan Country. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Abandoned building in Bodie

Old building, young birch in Bodie, Okanogan Country. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Window in an abandoned building in Bodie

Window in an abandoned building in Bodie, Okanogan Country. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Abandoned cabin in Old Toroda

Abandoned cabin in Old Toroda, Okanogan Country. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Collapsing barn in Malo

Collapsing barn in Malo, Okanogan Country. Photo © Jane Alynn.

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EMBODY THE WILD!

Joshua trees, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua trees. Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

It’s more than synchronistic that Terry Tempest Williams appeared at the Mount Baker Theater in Bellingham for a talk on the value of public lands, “breathing spaces in a country that increasingly holds its breath.”

I say synchronistic because I have this urgent dream to visit all our National Parks, not just the ones I return to again and again. And Tempest Williams came to share her new book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, described by publisher Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux as “a literary celebration of our national parks, an exploration of what they mean to us and what we mean to them… Part memoir, part natural history, and part social critique, The Hour of Land is a meditation and a manifesto on why wild lands matter to the soul of America.”

Among the impassioned essays in this book are photographs from Lee Friedlander to Sally Mann to Sebastião Salgado.

It was a special, and I mean special, event co-sponsored by Village Books and North Cascades Institute.

I’m not sure how to attribute the following quotes, which I took from VB’s and NCI’s websites. I believe they are Tempest Williams’s own words and possibly appear on her book jacket.

“For years, America’s national parks have provided public breathing spaces in a world in which such spaces are steadily disappearing.”

“By definition, our national parks in all their particularity and peculiarity show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect. They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities. Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water.”

From beginning to end, Tempest Williams, her vivid language and her presence, transported me. Several times I was brought to tears, listening to her experiences. One story, which is narrated in her book, she described a visit to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley with her husband. While there, this is what they witnessed:

“A silhouette of coyotes feasting on a bison carcass, surrounded by bald eagles and ravens, appeared in our binoculars. As the light grew stronger the coyotes became nervous and left. The eagles flew. The ravens vanished. A large gray wolf entered.

Morning light illuminated the bison body, now more bones than flesh. We watched the wolf disappear into a red cavern of ribs. He emerged stained. In the several hours we watched, the wolf’s stomach expanded with each mouthful of bison ripped from the scaffolding of bones until he stopped eating, looked over his shoulder, sniffed, and walked back into the woods.

At dusk, we returned to the Lamar Valley. We wondered whether the wolves might be back on the carcass. Instead, two coyotes were picking on the bones covered by a buffalo robe. The coyotes disappeared into the the shadows with the last light of day.

An indigo sky deepened. A mile away, a herd of a hundred bison or more grazed unconcerned. Seven left and walked single file toward the remains of the mother bison. They circled her twice, sniffed her, nudged her body, and tightened their circle as they lowered their heads. They stayed with her until twilight. Then the bison left as they came, walking single file back toward the herd–save one lone bull who stayed behind.”

Her conclusion? “We are not the only creatures on this plant who love.”

“We are” she said, “but one species among many.”

Raven, Joshua Tree National Park

Raven, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

“Humility is born in wilderness,” she said. The lesson, of course, is that we must be good stewards and preserve what we can of the wild.

Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park

Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Split Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Split Rock, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Several moments of silence followed her closing words. A bow to the power of her message. . . and to the truth of it.

“Nature,” she said, “is the pathway to peace.”

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WHAT IS YOUR PHOTOGRAPHIC VISION? — PART TWO

When you make an image, is it of what’s in front of the camera or what’s four inches behind it?” ~ Dewitt Jones

Illumination

I read this story long ago in a Dewitt Jones column, and I have never forgotten it. A stranger encounters two old stonemasons at work. “What are you doing?” he asked each of them. “Laying stones,” the first mason said. “Building a cathedral,” the second mason said. The first had a job; the second had vision.

Last week I mentioned why photographic vision matters. 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.

Photographs come from who we are. They reflect our way of thinking, seeing, and being. When we define our vision, we understand what we are trying to capture in an image and become more mindful in our approach to making that image, increasing the likelihood of expressing the image we saw in our mind’s eye and conveying our intended meaning. We frame that cathedral.

When I first began to photograph, my images were all about passion, play, and mindful seeing. Beyond that, I spent no time at all thinking about what I was doing or why I was doing it. It took some time before I realized I needed to commit to a personal vision quest.

For this journey I set out to explore some questions:

Who I am? Why am I doing this? What interests me? What is it I want to capture? What has personal meaning for me? What do I want to achieve in my work?

Over the years my photographic vision has changed. That is to be expected as we grow as photographers. These days my work mostly reflects my love of the pointillist-inspired photogravures of early twentieth century pictorial photographers, their subtle tonal and tactile aspects and impressionistic soft focus, often strikingly ambiguous. Using a zone plate (with high-grain film) rather than a lens enables me to explore my interest in dream states, liminality, memory, and metaphor. By introducing ambiguity, it nudges the boundaries of abstraction and helps to shift perception toward a sensual experience, tempting the imagination to see beyond the literal. Drawn to the obscure, the element of enigma, I love the mystery and dark beauty these lensless images convey visually.

But I have a second interest in powerful compositions of human moments and images that capture the ironic, the absurd, the misplaced, and the wit and play of contradiction. What has remained consistent is my goal to create effective, meaningful, unforgettable images that entice viewers to look and then to look again.

What is your photographic vision?

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THE MOMENT

Alleyway after the Rain
 
No matter how many times I stroll through the alleys in Mount Vernon, the lyric of these narrow liminal spaces always trips my senses. I love the old brick walkway and buildings, dipping and cracked due to the silty fill, their uneven settling. I am fascinated by the textures, the collection of dumpsters, stuff piled in the back-stoop storage. And after a rain I love how the alley resonates silence and melancholy.

Alleys fascinate me. As liminal spaces, betwixt and between, neither-this-nor-that, these pathways that thread between buildings have intricate histories. Alleys have existed in virtually every urban culture and location in the world in some form or another for at least two thousand years, and often were bustling urban places. Neglected, they turned into scuzzy and sometimes dangerous places that became forbidden territory.

These days there is a move to revitalize our alleys. Surely, the effort to clean them up and give them a face lift is laudable. But some things that make alleys so interesting to me will be erased and paved over. What is now will be gone.

Photography is always dealing with the momentary, and by accepting change I open myself to new moments. These moments of attentiveness are all we have, these and the photographs that remember the characteristics of the place that held my attention.
 
alley-wall

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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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What I am Reading

Before reading Hold Still, my knowledge of Sally Mann was based on the controversies I had heard about the intimate portraits she had made of her children, often nude, and whether they were exploitative. I had not even seen them.

So, I was cautiously curious when my friend lent my a copy of the book.

What a surprise! I found it incredibly illuminating. Mann has written a wonderfully weird and wildly playful memoir about her life and that of her family in the South. Her narrative—generously illustrated by her black and white images of landscape and family—weaves a dynamic story. I was also surprised by her lyrical prose. Turns out, she was first a writer:

Writing came first. I was frequently the poet on duty when the Muse of Verse, likely distracted by other errands, released some of her weaker lines, but that didn’t stop my passion for it. Beginning in that first year at Putney, I could be found way after lights-out, crouched in the closet earnestly composing long, verbally dense poetic meditations, almost always in some way relating to the South. (33)

Then she discovered photography:

Remember how difficult it was for me up there at Putney? The penetrating nostalgia and longing I felt for the farm, the love paeans I wrote about it? “A Summer Passing” was one of them, written for an English assignment from Ray Goodlatte. It was meant to be a “rendering,” which I gather from Ray’s red notations throughout the first draft is a form of writing allowing only objective absolutes, no metaphor, no ambiguity, just the facts, ma’m. Not exactly my strong suit.
I couldn’t be expected to render my passion for the farm in such spare language, especially this particular part, the upper fields. I wrote about those velvety undulations over and over again, even while on the beaches of Paros in 1972, when I should have been having the time of my life. It’s hard to imagine, but there I was, looking out at the wine-dark and paining for them.

. . . Where all my life
By the one river
The upper field. . .
The one place

This has become
All grief
And all desire
For me.

And if I couldn’t do justice with words and certainly not the “just the facts, ma’m” kind, I tried with my camera, composing silver poems of tone and undertow, the imagery saturated still with the words of authors I read in my teenage years–Faulkner, Whitman, Merwin, and Rilke. Many of my (poem-)photographs would sing these words, heady with beauty, ponderous with loss, right back to them.
The visual-verbal love song tune up in earnest for me on a late morning in July 1992 when I took the first serious southern landscape, a day in which the heat was exactly as I described it in “A Summer Passing.” (208)

And we are the richer for it.

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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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A Change of Seasons

Northern State Hospital's Slaughterhouse

The Slaughterhouse, Northern State Hospital, Sedro-Woolley, WA. Photograph © Jane Alynn.

Whenever there is a change in the seasons something shifts in me. Especially in autumn, a certain melancholy sets in. The air feels different. The morning fog packs a chill. And the light—its low and slanting golden rays—reveals textures and forms of the landscape that seem new.

There is a tract of land, east of me, in Sedro-Woolley, that fascinates me. At one time it was the site of the Northern State Hospital’s sprawling and remarkably self-sufficient facility, including a 700-acre farm with highly productive cropland, a cannery complex, barns, milking houses, and slaughterhouse.

The day before the autumn equinox I walked the grounds to see what had changed since my last visit. The abandoned structures are proceeding to become one with the landscape. Graffiti scrawled on walls is mostly gone, whitewashed, as if to erase the asylum’s grim history, or to efface the stories of resident ghosts. In the cemetery many of the anonymous gravestones have mysteriously disappeared.

I was there to photograph the haunting poetry of the place, the exquisite mixture of pathos and beauty in the decay.

In the long shadow of that afternoon, I realized something else had changed. My muscles ached from trekking the acres and acres of trails, shouldering a heavy tripod and camera, straddling debris and twisting into awkward positions to get the image as I saw it.

I nodded to autumn.

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