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.
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.
What follows is the preface of a book that I’ve just had printed, featuring a fifteen-image photographic poem of mine, The Arcane Machine. The book is 10×10″, 34-pages long, including this preface, the photographs (with their titles on facing pages), and bio notes. It has a matte hard cover, and it can be ordered through my photography website, http://www.lawrenceruss.com , by “ordering” the last image (which is of the book’s covers) in the Portfolio named (you guessed it) The Arcane Machine. (The portfolio on the website contains only a selection from the images in the book.)
ABOUT THE ARCANE MACHINE
I’d be lying if I said that I came up with some idea for this portfolio. The machine in the title of this book was once used for hauling boats out of the water at a tiny boatyard with a single dock. I’d photographed the machine before and seen it many times. But until this summer, most of the machine, including its motor, had been covered with a large sheet of canvas. One day in July, I went to the boatyard with no artistic purpose in mind. Still, when I saw the whole machine uncovered for the first time, with its intricate, archaic motor, I was intrigued. Before I had any conscious thought of it, this series had begun, almost of its own accord.
I didn’t spend much time at the yard that day, but before I left I snapped a few full-length and side-view shots of the machine in daylight. When I viewed the digital files that night, the images were dull, but I thought, Hmmm, let’s see what might come if I light the machine with flashes. I returned with more gear: a Canon 5d Mark II with a 17-40mm lens, a Canon 5d Mark III with a 70-200mm lens, five Speedlite flashes with PocketWizard radio triggers, a few short light stands, some flash modifiers. My interest in the subject grew as I saw, moment-by-moment, what resulted and what might be possible, as I stood, sat, lay, or crouched (getting a bit nauseated from my cramped contortions), taking photos a few inches or feet from the machine.
What you see in this book isn’t what you could have seen with just the human eye in natural light. For example: without a wide-angle lens and the upward angle at which I aimed it, only a foot from the subject, the cover photo of this book would not have had the sense of space and size, of an expanding “universe,” that I believe it evokes. Without using flashes to light the machine, you’d see only a small fraction of the color and texture that the flashes revealed. The flashes also made minuscule specular highlights, which I’ve mostly left, like little stars.
What matters most, though, is the end result — the experience that these photographs create in you.
Too often, we say things like “just a machine” or “just a dumb animal” or “just an ordinary man.” Too often, we think only “beautiful things” are beautiful. In thinking such things, we can make ourselves bored, disappointed, prideful, even dangerous. For me, this broken-down, corroded, obsolescent machine proved an inspiration. The images that grew from it partake of the machine’s components, the components of my past and my psyche, an array of texture and color and shapes, an atmosphere of shadow and silence, and who knows what else from art history, outer space, or the spirit — and now, from whatever gifts you bring to these images, whatever they give back to you.