Author Archives: Lawrence Russ
I’ve titled this image “Prominence.”
Every word has an infinite number of meanings that depend, in part, on the context of its usage and the capacities of the one who receives it. “Prominence,” for instance, has a physical, spatial meaning. It has a societal meaning. And it can, more uncommonly, relate to comparative importance or value in a more absolute sense.
“[The] notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
— William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Children in a playground at the edge of the vast and bountiful and mysterious and increasingly-dangerous sea (“increasingly” thanks to our stupidly-heedless “play”) — with glory stretching away, above and beyond. Given, in part, what is happening these days, and what we should expect in the year to come, I decided to put a print of this image on my workday office wall.
Recommendations in this context: Reread Moby Dick — skip the whaling-industry stuff, if you like — and watch Peter Wier’s The Last Wave. As profound and prophetic and poetic as you could want!
And here is a pertinent poem by the great, late (d. 1994) Norwegian poet, Rolf Jacobsen, translated by Robert Bly:
Sssh the sea says
Sssh the small waves at the shore say, sssh
Not so violent, not
So haughty, not
Say the tips of the waves
Crowding around the headland’s
They say to people
This is our earth
And, lastly, and particularly with Christmas in mind, a short poem of mine:
or not, the well
But you must fall a long way
And from there,
must draw you up.
I love to quote this from Tiny Tim on many occasions, but never more than on Christmas:
“God bless us every one.”
Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
Could but thy soul, O man,
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.
– 15th Century
With President Obama’s imminent departure from office in mind, I thought of a photograph that I’d taken back in 2003, before I’d ever heard the name “Barack”: “Mr. Lincoln’s Sympathy Viewed with Suspicion.” If I’ve ever captured what Cartier-Bresson called a “decisive moment” (when “one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart [join] on the same axis”), this is evidence of it.
I was sitting on a bench in the Town Square of Stamford, Connecticut, waiting to see what the world would bring my way. Across from where I sat was the statue of Abraham Lincoln that you see in my photograph. Abe sits, leaning forward, forearms on his thighs, head tilted downward, thoughtful, maybe melancholy.
Slowly, another critical element came into view, crossing the square toward the statue: a heavy older woman with frizzy white hair glowing, backlit by the summer sun. She wore a tight, hot-pink T-shirt with a picture of Minnie Mouse dressed as Carmen Miranda. She lowered herself carefully onto the front of the concrete slab that supported the Great Emancipator. Then she set down beside her a couple of plastic bags and a cup of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee. Certainly, this, too, was an American presence.
She looked around suspiciously, squinting at passersby with a wary disapproval. And I started to think, “Oh, please, please, please, let her look at Abe’s face in just that way!” I began, as covertly as I could, taking photographs of her and the statue — wishing and hoping all the while. At the twelfth exposure, not only did the moment I prayed for arrive, but something else, entirely unforeseen and felicitous, had happened in the meantime. Four pigeons had settled on the corners of the concrete plateau, surrounding Lincoln and his sour companion. So, at the moment when I got the desired image, it also featured those avian sentinels, witnesses to the less-than-happy encounter.
(For a better view of this photograph, see my website at: http://www.lawrenceruss.com/index/C0000HrILmRgUq4A/G00004_tcloQpRik/I00006jzaFm0FQaw
I voted for Barack Obama in two presidential elections. In my hopefulness, I’d been struck by his admiration for Lincoln, and by my sense, a sense shared by many other people, that Obama, too, had uncommon intelligence and uncommon concern for his fellow humans. In the end, I think that most of us who supported him are disappointed that his Presidency didn’t come to more. Yes, some of us think that he should have realized sooner what intransigent selfishness and malice he faced from Republicans, and that he should have confronted them with the central issues of “economic inequality” more directly and forcefully. But we can’t justly blame him for the ruthlessness and heedlessness of his opposition. Sitting on the sidelines, we can’t know if and how he might have accomplished more of what we wanted. And we can’t know the pain, frustration, and sorrowing disbelief that he must have suffered while trying to swim against a terribly cold and unrelenting tide.
What I do believe is this: that part of what thwarted Mr. Obama as President, in addition to the racism, the unconscionable greed, and the lust for partisan power, was that so many people are blind to honest virtue when they see it. They’ve strayed so far from it, and society and its media have cast it in such a disdainful and worldly light that when people meet earnest good will, they frequently view it as weakness, simple-mindedness, or deceitful posturing. Too many people just could not believe, given his seeming difference from them, that Obama did not wish to cause them harm. Suspicion and projected selfishness faced our all-too-soon-to-be-former President whenever he came to the public square.
For his wonderful collection of short, imaginative poems from world literature, called The Sea and the Honeycomb, Robert Bly rewrote Frances Desmore’s translation of a Chippewa poem. And I think that it’s crucial to notice, in these days of promoting esteem for a misconceived and egotistical “self,” that the poem’s last line does not read “I am flying”:
Sometimes I walk about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.
I drove by the site late one day and took a few photos for my final-stretch planning. After dinner, when I looked at the photos on my computer, I did a troubled double-take. In the few days since I got the property owner’s consent, the very tree whose “pose” I intended my wife to imitate had disappeared.
Perhaps the owner had thought that the trunk was so close to breaking that it would be a hazard for us. In fact, on the day of the shoot, as I was setting up, he came out to talk for a couple of minutes and warned me that the trees were not in sound shape and might have to be taken down, so we should be careful.
I have to say that my experience, and my trust in God’s will and the gifts of the Tao, give me decent equanimity about such turns, knowing that however they first appear, they can lead to something better than what I’d planned. As I believe this one did.
I got the idea that I might also try having my wife kneel in an attitude of prayer or supplication for the photos. After all, those were not exactly friendly-looking trees in that yard. Part of my sense of the desired image had to do with the brutish look of those trees, and the brutish nature of our world, which in turn made me think of Moses’ statement that during his exile in the land of Midian he had been “a stranger in a strange land.” It struck me, looking at the remaining trees, that a kneeling posture would more closely mirror their verticality.
The Unforeseen apparently took this as an invitation to make still further improvements on my scheme. Not only had I not planned on the alternate pose for my model, but I didn’t anticipate that when we tried the kneeling poses, a wind would rise to blow her hair sideways and to make her move her head and hands a bit during a few exposures, so that. Seeing them later, I would feel that those effects had given my wife’s appearance an added sense of urgency or distress, which I believed was affecting.
I also didn’t plan or foresee that during the kneeling shots that I liked best (with my wife’s palms turned pleadingly upward and the wind blowing her hair), an intensely-red sky would appear behind her. Without the emotional and visual force of that sky, my “final” image would not be nearly as compelling as I hope that it is. Here’s the photograph, “In the Land of Strangers” (please view it at larger size and better visual quality on my website, by using the following link – it’s Image # 6 of the “Marion under the Moon” portfolio within the “Fires in the Night” collection):
But there was a still-deeper element to the work of Mystery in making this picture.
While we were engaged in the shoot, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the fact, and my wife did not know, that about three weeks before that I was given news that caused a crisis in my life. I didn’t want her to have to suffer while awaiting its outcome, so I kept it from her in the meantime. In such a time, under other circumstances, I would have wanted her to pray for me.
Two days after our photo session, I was able to tell her what had been happening, and that there was no longer anything to worry about.
The next night, as I was intensely engaged in editing the new “Marion” photograph, I realized that by having her adopt the pose that I had, and having shaped the image as I had, I had essentially drawn her into praying for me without her having to know about it or the reasons for it – except insofar as she might have prayed for the success of the photographer’s present, complicated efforts.
And when I consider who and what gave birth to this photograph, I have to remember that part of my idea for “Marion under the Moon” is that each photograph in it should in some way reflect another aspect of my wonderful model-wife. If she were not as loving and caring, as spiritually profound as she is, would I have made this photograph as it now stands? Would I have thought to put her in the pose that I did? Was I unconsciously or half-consciously calling on her prayerful strength without having to disclose my troubles to her? If none of that had been the case, if she were other than she is, if she were a lesser or different kind of inspiration to me than she is, could I have made this photograph? I don’t believe so.
And did her posed prayerfulness contribute to the happy conclusion to my trial? How can I know? We live among mysteries. And sometimes we receive help, with our photography and more, without asking for it or even being aware of it. There are more things and allies in heaven and earth and art, in anything that “we” achieve, than are dreamt of in our philosophy or vanity, Horatio.
There is a virtually-unkillable part of us that, when anything we’ve touched is considered successful, wants to proclaim to everyone in earshot (even if that’s only us), “Mine!,” “I did that!” Especially when we’re feeling shaky about it, we stake such claims in order to argue, “I am valuable,” I am special.” Almost invariably, that means “I am superior to you.” Sometimes the “you” is a sibling or fellow photographer, sometimes a fantasized parental ghost, sometimes a distorted idea of someone’s ethnic group.
But we do nothing “by ourselves.” Certainly not if by “self” we mean only our conscious mind and will. Certainly not if we mean the Gollum wretch within us, clutching his “precious” ring of power, calling it “Mine!” Poor, vicious, pitiable Gollum. So let me acknowledge unaccountable gifts.
In the winter of 2014, I was driving near my home, when my attention was seized by a group of trees in a yard along the street. I’d never seen trees like those before. They had fairly slender trunks and were of modest, barely-more-than-human height. But whether naturally or through cultivation, they were topped with bulbous, bristly knobs of wood, like the bludgeoning ends of maces, or like dark cells corrupted by a virus. I thought that perhaps they were dead; I certainly didn’t think they’d be growing leaves again. I immediately thought that I’d like to find some interesting way to photograph them, but I didn’t yet know how. In the days that followed, I began to have a vague notion of using them in an image for my “Marion under the Moon” series.
In April of 2016, I took a casual shot of them from the street, as a kind of notebook entry:
To my dismay, though, I soon saw that they’d sprouted leaves! How dare they? That didn’t suit my photographic purpose. Not at all.
As is often the case, though, it may have been for the best that I was forced to wait and let the tea of my imagination steep a bit longer. Over the summer, my idea for a photograph emerged from the rising mist. I would use portable flashes to light the trees and Marion, my wife, individually, knocking down the ambient light by speeding up the shutter speed, so that the background would be dark enough to be taken for night, but waiting until the daylight was low enough that I could shoot at a shutter speed below my camera’s synch speed of 1/200th second. That would give me far more useable flash power than I would get using the flashes’ high speed sync function or my PocketWizards’ (radio flash triggers’) HyperSync.
I thought that I’d have Marion adopt a kind of modern dance pose, with fists raised at differing levels, suggesting both participation and grief in the group of strange, brutish trees. Her pose would mirror that of the almost-horizontal, second tree from the right in the photo above. I wondered, though, if she’d be able to hold the pose without falling over. Well, I figured, we could adjust it as necessary.
Every now and then, I’d drive by to see if the trees had shed their leaves yet. They certainly hung on stubbornly, long past the time that most trees had already given up their greenery. Finally, one day on a weekend in November, the trees were bare except for two or three leaves on a couple of their crowns. Weather predictions had said, however, that snow might fall within a week or two. So right then, I parked on a side street, walked up to the house’s door, rang the bell a few times. Finally, to my relief, the owner opened the door. Thanks to his hospitable nature, I really only had to tell him my name, that I thought his trees were extremely interesting, that I’m an exhibiting photographer, and that I’d be grateful for his permission to set up lights on stands and take some pictures of my wife among the trees whenever the weather and our schedules permitted. I assured him that I would do no harm to his property. He said “Alright.”
The next week was Thanksgiving, and when I saw that the one day of the weekend that would be dry and partly sunny would be Sunday, I planned the shoot for that day, knowing that the next weekend after might be too late. I just hoped that the trees’ owner wasn’t going to have family visiting for the weekend, who might be frolicking in the yard on Sunday afternoon. Then the unexpected began to have its say again, intruding on my artistic control!
[TO BE CONTINUED!]
First, a subject alert, so that I don’t waste your time. This is probably not of much interest or use to you if you don’t use portable flash units. If you do, or if you think that you might want to use them, then this might save you some money, aggravation, and potential damage to your equipment.
As anyone who’s looked through my work will be able to tell, especially from the work in the “Fires in the Night” collection of portfolios on my website (and from the photograph featured in my last post here), flash lighting has been critical to my photography in recent years. All of those works could not have been made without the use of my Canon Speedlites and my PocketWizard Mini/Flex ETT-L remote triggers (but what I have to say here will, in whole or in part, be relevant to anyone using any brand of portable flash units).
This is a matter of what you use to hold in place your flash (and perhaps PocketWizard) units when you’re shooting. As I soon discovered when I began using portable flashes, the most common type of cold shoe is badly designed for its task. So many cold shoes, including those commonly supplied with light stand and light modifier mounting assemblies, look pretty much like this:
What’s wrong with these? First, some of them are made of metal, not necessarily a good idea for something that may come into contact with equipment that generates an electrical charge. So you may read the suggestion, which I followed in my early days with flash, that you place a piece of electrical tape between the pins of your portable flash and the metal bed or platform of these standard cold shoes. And if there is contact, you may eventually wear through the tape, and then. . . .
Second, the portable flash is held in place by that type of cold shoe in two ways. One is a pin that screws into the side of the cold shoe, which you turn to press against the foot of the flash to hold it in place against the other side of the shoe. It’s not usual for continual vibrations, like the kind generated by a car in whose trunk you regularly carry such cold shoes, to loosen and dislodge those little pins, which then may roll into cracks or crevices where they may never be found again.
Third, the other method by which that common type of cold shoe holds a flash in place is by relying on the flash foot’s own wheel to tighten its purchase on the side walls of the cold shoe. Unfortunately, the side walls of some of these cold shoes do not provide a good fit for various flash units’ feet; they’re either too wide or too narrow. But here’s the more serious problem: the walls are on either side of the flash unit, and not on the “front” side, toward which you’ll most likely tilt the flash. Even if you tighten the darn shoe pretty well, it won’t take much of a bump to send a Speedlite flying out that unblocked front end, in which case you better hope that you’re not set up on pavement.
Here, by contrast, is the best cold shoe that I’ve found:
Why do I use these and recommend them highly to you? First, you can see that it has (bravo!) not two, but three side walls, the third of which you should always put on the “front” side, the one toward which your flash may be tipped. Second, the size of the cold shoe’s bed is perfect; it has been a good fit for all of the flashes that I’ve used with it: a Nissin unit, and, primarily, Canon Speedlites 430EX, 430EX II, 580EX, 580EX II, 430EX-RT III, and even the big flagship 600EX-RT. Third, on the underside of the cold shoe is a sturdy, durable ¼” brass socket for placement on a light stand stud or attachment to a speed ring mounting assembly, or a triple-flash bracket, or a light bar.
If you need something to insert into that bottom socket through the arm of, say, certain speed-ring mounting assemblies, you can either use the bolt or pin that was supplied for the cold shoe that came with the assembly, or buy the right size of bolt (slotted for a flathead screwdriver, which would mean that you could use just about any coin in your pocket to screw it in or out) at a Home Depot or other hardware store. And fourth, these Nisha units are about as inexpensive as you could want, at $5.99 apiece (from B&H).
WARNING! I love B&H, and their salespeople invariably give you great advice over the phone, but ignore their Nisha cold shoe page where it tells you that the Vello Cold Shoe Mount is “A similar item at a lower price.” I tried those Vello shoes and found them to be too tight for some Speedlites. And I almost broke a flash unit’s foot trying to dislodge it from the tight rubber grip of the Vello shoe. (At least that was the case several years ago when I tried the Vellos.)
I hope that this is helpful to you. The Nisha shoes (and I’ve purchased and used a good number of them on various kinds of flash mounts) have never given me cause for disappointment or complaint.
Photographers, or artists of any kind, are probably more aware than most people are of fortuitous coincidings, of happy or regrettable appearances and disappearances: “I could kick myself for not having shot that scene the first time I saw it, and now it’s gone!” Or: “I sure am glad I photographed that building with the graffiti last month, because they’ve knocked the whole thing down!” And, especially around Halloween, both great and popular artworks engage us with unseen forces, unexplained happenings, intimations of malevolent or benevolent magics.
Earlier this year, a bit of such elvish fortune occurred (as it does from time to time) in my photographic life. Certain friends of mine who know my work would not be surprised that it would happen, as it did, around evening, in the woods. (Evidence for such a view might be taken, for instance, from my website’s “To See in the Dark” portfolio.)
In late winter, the ground was beginning to thaw. I was walking near twilight in a small wood near my home, when I happened on an abandoned livingroom couch. It lay at the edge of a dirt path, flat on a wooden pallet. I snapped a few pictures, as notes, thinking that perhaps I could have made something from it if at least I’d had a couple of flashes with me. Even so, I thought it somehow fell short.
But walking back that way a month later, I found that someone or someones had, whatever their intention, arranged a gift for me. The couch had been dragged about twenty feet from where it had been, onto sloping ground near the base of a tree. Its bottom raised up more, the bulky couch tilted at an angle had now struck a livelier pose. The biggest surprise, though, was my discovery that neighborhood spooks, vandals, or photography sprites had painted in big black letters on the fabric skirt below the seat this single word: “FLYing.” Had I missed it the first time? What did its author intend? No way to know, but it was certainly good fortune for me.
I hurried home and returned with three Speedlites and a couple of light stands. Dark woods, digital darkroom, and here it is:
The felicity continued. I wanted to submit the photograph for an exhibition, and the A Smith Gallery in Texas was soliciting entries for a juried “Habitat” show. What could be more homey than a livingroom couch? (Although, of course, mine was not in a comfy frontroom.) Almost without thinking about it, just recognizing that I needed a good title and didn’t want something as obvious as “Couch in the Woods” or “Flying,” it popped up as if from behind a tree: “At Home in the Secret.” (I hope that you like it, too.)
A little twilit magic in it all — which continued when the “Habitat” juror, Julie Blackmon, chose the photo for the exhibition, and the Gallery’s owner, Amanda Smith, gave it a Director’s Honorable Mention.
My friends and fiends, in case you don’t hear from me again before Halloween, I’ll wish you happy hauntings now and hope that you like my darkling photograph. And I won’t warn you not to walk in the woods at nightfall.