Jane Alynn is a Pacific Northwest poet and photographic artist who, for over 40 years, has found inspiration in the natural world. Self-educated she studied the work of masters, such as Minor White, Paul Caponigro, and early twentieth-century pictorialists; and she studied with gifted teachers. For a number of years, she led creative vision workshops in Seattle, the Southwest, and B.C. Among her awards, she was selected in 2014 as a finalist in Photolucida’s Critical Mass. Her photographs are exhibited regularly and are collected at Western Washington University; the New Mexico History Museum, Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Pinhole Collection, in Santa Fe, NM.
Uncut for the Curious
From childhood, I prepared for a career as a classical ballet dancer. After a year with New York City Ballet, still a teenager, I soured on the grueling life of a dancer and abandoned my nascent career. But I loved New York City, and I wanted to stay connected in some way with the arts. How I landed a way-out job as a graphic designer in an art department, given the chance to learn on the job, still, to this day, amazes me.
I loved my job. But a couple of years in I began to think a college education might be important. I returned to the West Coast and, rather than do the logical thing of staying in art and design where I was happy, I did what I thought was most practical. I majored in psychology. I even went on to earn a Master of Arts Degree in Clinical Psychology.
That was the mid-1970s, and I was living in a small, high-desert town in California. A colleague at the clinic where I worked persuaded me to take his camera and go make pictures. “It’ll teach you to see (yes, the art of seeing is essential for clinicians),” he said, “and it’ll assuage the intensity of this profession.” I was intrigued.
It took me the click of a shutter to become a passionate image-maker. I bought my own camera and whenever I was not seeing patients I was out seeing—exploring the natural world, its light and shadow, delicacy and tenacity, life and decay—rendering it photographically. I loved the desert’s unique textures and forms, its wide-open space dotted with small details, compelling a closer look. It was a place of harshness and beauty, a landscape of contradiction. Seeing photographically, I came to know this place as I never would have known it, with reverence and deep connection, a sense that remains with me still.
In 1978, I left the California desert and returned to the Northwest. It was hard to leave, but I had children who needed to know their family and their family was in the Northwest. I landed in Seattle, which was at the time a beautiful and livable city.
Since a formal education in photography hadn’t been possible for me (I had already exhausted those resources), I developed my vision by devouring photo books, in which I studied the work of masters. Minor White, who was also a poet; Paul Caponigro, whose musical training and insight contributed significantly to his photographic imagery; and Linda Connor, who was doing soft-focus work were especially important to me, as were early twentieth-century pictorialists Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Alfred Stieglitz, and Imogen Cunningham. I also studied with gifted teachers, such as Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson, author of many books, including Photography and the Art of Seeing, and John Daido Loori, Zen master and student of Minor White.
Often I would notice the work of photographers described as “poetic.” What did it mean for a visual image to be imbued with poetic qualities? I knew intuitively that certain photographs—those to which I was drawn—were charged with a special power. Was this potency a visual manifestation of the “poetic”?
That question lingered. It preoccupied me even after I moved north to the Skagit Valley, in 1995. Finally, in 1999, I responded by enrolling in Antioch Los Angeles’ Creative Writing/Poetry program. I closed my psychotherapy practice, retired my license, and gave myself over to the enterprise of writing. In 2002, I received my M.F.A., after which I published two books of poems and led many presentations and workshops, including one I especially loved to teach: Photography Through the Poetic Lens.
Over the years I had come to appreciate how much my early dance training—its music, kinetic movement, and rhythm—and my Zen art practice—an aesthetic characterized by simplicity; use of negative space; black and white; freedom from habit, formula, and preconception; wabi-sabi (imperfection); and stillness—had contributed to my image-making. Now poetry would add its energies to my photographs.
From the beginning I had used a sharp lens for photography. After my study in poetry I became more interested in creating imagery as a visual expression of poetry—emotional, symbolic, metaphorical—not only photographing things for what they are but for what else they are, as Minor White would say. I wanted to make photographs that were more suggestive, mysterious, and ephemeral, images about in-between states and places. I wanted to make photographs that discouraged a literal response and instead evoked something unexpected, subverting a viewer’s sense of logic.
To achieve what I wanted I bought a cheap Russian Lubitel camera with a lousy lens that I could easily remove and replace with a zone plate, a non-lens optical device that softens the image, creates a bit of ambiguity, and infuses forms with a glow that I think of as a glint of the numinous. The soft focus evokes a mood of dreaminess that was so important to the pictorialists whose photographs were often described as painterly and poetic, and it tempts the imagination to see beyond the literal. The tinge of abstraction functions in the same way. I also love the way zone plate images convey a sense of vulnerability—the fragile, fleeting, ephemerality of our existence, a reminder of what we think is fixed is bound to disappear.
I have been doing zone plate photography for twenty-seven years now. I love the mystery and dark beauty these lensless images convey visually. And I love that I’m often surprised the prints reveal something that was not visible in the viewfinder. While the work has continued to satisfy me, I have begun to experiment with digital photography. Choosing to use a digital camera enables me to end my dependence on a wet darkroom. But for that, I have to give up making beautiful gelatin silver or lith prints. And unless I fit my digital camera with a zone plate device, I have to figure out a way to make sharp-lens digital images conform to my vision. Stay tuned.
Click HERE to download Jane’s résumé