photography


 

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Grand Teton National Park

{Lent 2018 has provided me with time to let my photographs prompt some writing. The days dwindle down to a precious few, as the old song says.}

As I age I grow aware of my limitations. This is the time of our lives when we just have to admit that some things we had hoped to do, or dreamed of doing one day, or even things we had once enjoyed — well, those things are no longer possible.

This is not to say that advancing age means we are now invalids, or in-valid as persons. It simply means that we know we must learn to deal with some limitations. While retirement has brought awesome (I rarely use that word unless I mean it) opportunities for travel, our sight-seeing reminds us that our trails are shorter, our hikes less intense, our energy levels not what they were when we were 35. No kidding, huh? You too?

There we were in Grand Teton National Park. We had hiked, and thoroughly enjoyed the journey over some fairly easy trails. But looking into the distance at that grand panorama, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be climbing any of those peaks. Just gazing at them from afar would have to do.

 

There was a time, however, that I climbed, and with a heavy backpack weighing

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The Writer Back When…

me down. I’m not a veteran climber of the most challenging high peaks, handling ropes, harnesses, rappel devices, grip savers, etc. I liked the smaller challenges of Virginia sections of the Appalachian Trail, or hiking up Montreat’s Lookout Mountain in western North Carolina. I had the legs back then, and the energy, and the will. Today, I still have the will, but less energy, and a bad knee. So my climbs are more modest. I know my limits.

 

That expanse of water in the photo above prompts another limitation of mine. After three local attempts at swimming lessons when I was a kid, and even after a couple of years of weekly classes in college, I am not a swimmer. I never got over my fear of high water. I guess I could do the back stroke, but why would I want to? So, swimming in that lake, or canoeing or kayaking? No, thanks. It’s been a lifetime limitation; not one related to aging. What is related to my growing more elderly is the realization that at my age, I do not hold out much hope that I will ever learn to swim. Please…I know it’s possible. But, I’ve gotten along just fine, so far. I like boat rides, from my friend Matt Matthews’ speed boat ride through Hampton Roads, to transatlantic cruises on huge ships.

A recent episode in deep water brought back my water-related phobia. We were in the Caribbean and a boat ride was to take us to an island for lunch. When the boat’s pilot learned I wasn’t a swimmer, he rather casually noted, “Hmmm, that might be a problem. There’s no dock I can get to there. We usually anchor a ways out and swim in for lunch. But I’ll try to get as close as I can. If the tide is right, you can probably wade in.” Probably. I left the boat and the water was chest high. All I could think of was stepping into some hole and… Or, what if the tide rose a bit and water that was chest high would be over my head? Turns out, the wading thing worked, and I am here to write this.

Living with limitations is something we all have to adjust to. And aging does mean the limitations grow. But, for every sign of slowing down, there is an opportunity to compensate. I won’t be learning to swim and enjoy water sports. So what? I won’t miss it. But, look, I’ve learned to over-write about it! (Freshman composition professor Dr. Bleasby would not be pleased.) I have other skills I can continue to develop. I may not be able to climb Mt. Ranier’s peak, but I can take a lesser trail there and pull out my camera. I may not follow my cousin Danny around the track at Watkins Glen at 100 mph, but I’m content to put miles and miles on my RAV4 between here and there.

One more limitation I’ve learned to live with. I can’t play an instrument. I go to jazz jams and wonder what it would be like to just get up there and play…play anything! Piano. Guitar. Trombone. But as I near the end of my third quarter of a century, I’m realistic. If I didn’t have the self-discipline to practice back then, what makes me think I would be able to “take lessons” now, and how much time would it take to actually play well? (The estimate, I’ve heard, is 10,000 hours. OK then.) So, while I can’t blow into a mouthpiece, strum strings, or beat a drum, I am a big fan of those who can. I am a music appreciation junkie. And, thanks to an invitation a few months ago, I am writing a monthly column about jazz artists in our community.

I live with one limitation after another, but adjust, adapt, compensate, and continue to bloom where I’m planted. Like a weed.

One more limitation: my understanding of God. The older I get, the more the Mystery deepens. One would think that after some sixty-plus years of Christian education and nurture, my aging would bring my theology into clearer focus. Maybe I have a theological cataract that’s come with age. I certainly hold to my faith, but my system of belief is blurrier. Maybe that’s not really a limitation after all. Maybe it’s a liberation. I am free to be me, and God is free to be God.

And perhaps — just maybe — that is indeed the wideness in God’s mercy!DSC06037

 

 

 

 

 

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A Trio Sitting Out the Season

 

{Lent…40 days…40 panoramic photos, and some reflections on the images}

I quote myself here:

Seasons Smile
Winter’s smile was icily sinister.
Spring’s will be warmly sympathetic.
Summer’s smile brightly inviting.
Autumn’s gently reflective.
Mine is always seasonally appropriate…
except when the climate is laughable.

Above is another “drive-by” photo. All winter we’ve passed those three hay wagons (or whatever the official name for them is), and I’ve thought about taking a picture of them. On the way to church one Sunday, we stopped, I pulled out the camera, and took the shot. I’m thinking that today’s theme could be “seasons.”

Here are pieces of farm equipment standing idle for the winter months. Do I see a small plow there, too? And maybe a rake? Not much use for them on a frigid Upstate New York farm from fall harvest to spring planting. So there they are parked.

I’ve previously written in these “pages” that I like living in a part of the world with four distinct seasons. Every season has its blessings. Every season has something less than a blessing to endure. But the rich variety of weather events, of colors and temps, of light shows and seasonal activities — I’d be bored if I lived anywhere else. This is not to judge my Florida friends or south Texas relatives. I’ll admit that our northern winter lasts a little too long here, but I can take it. We lived through 27 hot, humid Virginia summers, so some slush or black ice is tolerable.

As the ancient philosopher of Ecclesiastes sang, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” And so sang the pop version by the Byrds:

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

We lived in Vermont for ten years. Though winters were long and harsh, spring would come gloriously. And seemingly suddenly. Once the snows had melted and the ground had thawed, the khaki colored lawn “greened up” almost within a day or three. And citizens of the Northeast Kingdom made up for winter’s drear with flowers lining walks, colorful gardens, window boxes…as if to say to the world, “Look! We’re alive! And we can match your southern blossoms and blooms with our rosy floral resurrections.”

Spring here in New York State is just as appreciated and celebrated as in Vermont. We might join New Englanders in shivering through an Easter Sunrise Service, but when April arrives, we are ready for our migrant birds to resume their posts at the feeders, for jonquils and daffodils to push through thawed soils, for opening day at the ball park, and for pumping up bike tires.

Summer will come, and there will be those Florida days when the AC saves our sanity. But for the most part, we’ll enjoy every meal on the back porch, when I take over some of the cooking on the grill. (I rarely order salmon in a restaurant because no one does a better job than I at delivering a truly succulent salmon steak.) We’ll take longer bike rides, hike in the cool glens and forests, take in the longer hours of daylight while listening to the peepers and chirping insects in the not-quite wetland beyond the backyard.

And then autumn in New York. Not quite as garish as the Vermont maples, our leaves will turn brilliant reds, yellows, and golds on the hillsides, and cooler breezes will mean a light jacket as we ride the bikes in a nearby park. Here’s the bonus pic of the day: that nearby park in autumn.

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Hickories Park

I can identify with that Sinatra signature song “The September of My Years,” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.

 

One day you turn around, and it’s summer
Next day you turn around, and it’s fall
And the springs and the winters of a lifetime
Whatever happened to them all

I have been blessed with all the seasons of life, with a few more calendar pages to turn, season-wise. (Please…not actual months; we’re talking figuratively here…I hope.) The “September Song” sings of days dwindling down to a precious few. Again, figurative! But, yes, seasons. Our childhood, then adolescence, the young adult years, and before you know it, you have children who speed into adolescence while you haven’t finished growing up yourself! Then grandchildren. The seasons of life. “Whatever happened to them all?”

Again to the image at the top — a time to plant, a time to reap, and there in that photo, a  time to be idle for awhile. To await. Rest. Prepare. And then, engage again. Hook ’em up to the tractors and put them to work in summer’s heat and fall’s harvest.

I write in Lent. Where, while not exactly stationary, the Church and its people of faith slow down to await, to rest, to prepare. We breathe more deeply in Lent, I think. Meditate more mindfully and reflect more intentionally. The season of lengthening days will culminate in an Easter sunrise hard to believe, a surprising burst of daylight difficult to take in with eyes so used to winter’s subdued rays.

For everything there is a season. A time to die, and a time to be born again.

Turn, turn, turn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our Road in Winter

{Forty days of Lent 2018, and forty images prompting a writing exercise. Proceed at your own risk. I’m pretty ticked off that WordPress didn’t save my previous draft and I am about to rewrite with a chip on my shoulder. As I said…your own risk.}

 

I was a good scout growing up, not the official Boy Scout goodness, but honest, loyal, and kind. And I obeyed the rules. Mostly. I wasn’t sinless, but I tried to do the right thing.

Most of us aren’t big fans of rules. We don’t like to be limited or to be told what to do or how to do it, even if the rules mean well. Yet, rules are important to set some moral, ethical, or organizational standards. Or, safety standards. Imagine highways without speed limits, a government with laws, Presbyterians without that “decently and in order” thing.

Many of life’s rules are unspoken, but some are made perfectly clear in words. The first rule I remember wasn’t, “Don’t play in the street.” That may have been said, or shouted, but the one I remember very clearly was spoken by my Dad when I was in about second grade.

I had learned the “choosing rhyme,” eeny-meeny-miney-moe. Because it contained the racist “n-word,” I doubt I was taught it in the classroom. I probably heard it from classmates on the playground. But when Dad heard me saying it in the front hallway of our house (see? a clear memory), he told me that in our family we didn’t ever use that word. “Well, what should I say instead?” I asked. He repeated the rhyme to me saying, “Catch a doggie by the toe.” And that’s the rule I kept forever.

A few years later, when we had moved into a house only three blocks from the Susquehanna River, I heard another rule stated plainly. “Don’t go near the river.” Dad couldn’t swim, and he didn’t want us kids anywhere near deep, flowing water. Since I hadn’t learned to swim either, it was an easy rule to follow.  Within a year or so of that rule, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a flood wall between our street and the Susquehanna. That meant it was easier to follow Dad’s order.

When even later in my senior year of high school I took driver’s training, not only did New York State have some strict rules of the road to follow, it was Dad again who suggested his own rules. Among them, when you drive down the street, be aware that at any moment a child could dash between two parked cars. And keep your car in gear at stop lights, not in neutral, in case you have to move quickly in an emergency situation. Dad’s rules I drive by even today.

As we grow older, we realize that some rules no long apply. They are suspended because they are archaic (the Apostle Paul’s rules to women: keep your heads and mouths covered in church), silly (no whistling on the Sabbath), or were wrong-headed to begin with (“whites only” restaurants and drinking fountains).

I finally broke that rule about the river when I was an adult with children of my own. I visited my hometown with my young son and we found our way to the banks of the Susquehanna, and watched the river run. I realized that I had missed something in my childhood, the calm beauty of that place that looked across to an island I had never seen before. I guess we might say that some rules do wear out. (Credit Dad though: I never fell in!)

And there are the misfits and rebels who escape the constraints of rules by bending, conveniently forgetting, or just plain breaking the rules in order to “go where no one has gone before.” Steve Jobs no doubt broke a few rules along the way. Someone has said that though rules may not have been made to be broken, they were made to be tested.

Essayist and critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote: “Rules and models destroy genius and art.” The photo that heads today’s entry and prompts this essay of mine may signal proof of Hazlitt’s theory. What do you see in that panoramic photo? Our semi-rural road, winter thaw, looking west toward the golden glow of sunset. Looking into the sun. That breaks a long-held rule of photography. The first camera I ever owned was a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash that used 127 film. And the first rule I learned was, “Always keep the sun at your back.” That way, your subject will be well-lighted.

What a dull photo that wide shot would be if I had followed the old rule. We’d never see a picture of a sunset or sunrise. Here’s still another example of shooting right at the sun. There’s a cairn (see a previous entry here) as seen in the Canadian Rockies. Backlighted. I love it! To be sure, theIMG_0741re are still some reasons to avoid pointing a camera directly at the sun. You can permanently damage the camera’s image sensor, melt something critical, or just flood the film (film?) with too much light. But still, that first photographic rule is one I’ve often left behind.

Jesus certainly broke a number of rules. The beloved story of the “Good Samaritan” illustrates the bending of a couple of rules until they shattered. In his ministry he was accused of breaking the Sabbath rules, touching the untouchables, and, eventually, committing the crime that got him crucified: sedition.

Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Tutu… breakers of rules…and heroes.

What am I advocating here? Nothing. I’m just saying that God gave us heads and minds inside those heads, so that we can measure the alternatives that life brings, and make good choices that contribute to the common journeys we share along roads like the one pictured above. Before the sun sets on our lives, let us consider what guidance is truly helpful and just, what leads to civility, yes, but also to peace, the Shalom that is the best rule of life.

{Another rule I must abide: back up your work, Jeff. It’s a simple step really. Save it!}

 

 

 

{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

DSC07357.JPG{Another day in Lent, and another mug. Yes, it is a mug.}

This is the newest mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Joan gave it to me for Christmas, having chosen it from similar ones that weren’t quite as realistic. On the plus side, it IS realistic, and it’s insulated so it keeps coffee hot. On the negative side, look at the narrow bottom. But it’s not supposed to be practical. It’s fun!

And it’s so me. I’ve been taking pictures since I got my first camera for Christmas, maybe 1957? It was a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash. Then, an Ansco Color Clipper. And on to a variety of 35mm and digital cameras. Add the video cameras, and you can imagine how much fun it is to travel with me. If I can’t pause to capture memories…why even go?

My brother Kim is also a photographer, and is far more artistic than I, more creative, I could say without being redundant. Kim pointed out not long ago, in complimenting me on a Facebook-shared photo, that I had a way of seeing things in the moment, noticing the potential of a glimpsed scene, and capturing that picture on film, or digitally as is the case these days. Kim, too, has a keen eye for such potential. He can make a manhole cover into stunning photographic art. I agree that some of us do have a way of looking at things and seeing something special in the ordinary.

Isn’t that true of every artist? A certain grain in granite or mahogany inspires the sculptor or carver. The curve of the river suggests a painting. An iris’ soft color insists it be preserved by pastel chalks. Someone else just walked by and glanced (or didn’t), but the artist saw something enticing, and responded. The words occurred to the poet; the musician heard a rhythm. Pen, brush, shutter, chisel, chalk, fabric. A scene, a moment, a vision, a risk.

It occurred to me just now that I know many artists! Judy makes jewelry in her basement. Joan and Bill are musicians. Matt and Bob write stories and publish books. Carol, Joanna, and Kim are wonderful photographers. Jack is a fine poet. Some artists are twice blessed, now that I think about it. Joan is also a quilter and Matt is a musician. Oh, I could go on, of course. I don’t have room or words to list every person I know who has a way with words (Pat), music (Mike), or even flowers (David)!

I used the word “potential” in a preceding paragraph. The artist sees potential in a piece of metal, in the way light strikes the snow, in a chance encounter at the market. A pendant, a photo, a poem results. Potential: latent power. Art is power awakening. And the open-eyed artist is powerful. Art is political, and can change the world one perception at a time.

For me personally, photography and videography are usually just ways to preserve enjoyable times, as on vacations. I want to relive, remember, even restore the good times by looking at my albums, my computer files, my DVD “movies.” But now and then, and not often enough, I am startled to see some beautiful thing I had overlooked in the 1/60th of a second. The bee in the aster or the twinkle in the eye of a child. IMG_20170304_115812297_HDR[1109]Or, just recently, the color, the light, the angles, the sweatered dachshunds staring up at me in my daughter Wendy’s kitchen. It’s a memory. Is it art? Why not?

Imagination feeds art and art returns the favor. We see things in new ways, refreshing ways. Art enlivens us, informs us, inspires us. (Thus the essential National Endowment for the Arts, to help preserve that which so enlivens, informs, and inspires!)

Now, Kellam, how are you going to tie this into Lent? Look! During this forty day time of turning around, reflection, and preparation for the new life to come, isn’t it a good time to keep our eyes open to potential, to see old things in new ways, to imagine how a moment of insight might have lasting benefits? We needn’t have the ability to paint a portrait of Jesus in the wilderness, or to write a cantata for Holy Week. It may well be enough to glimpse a vision of peace. And to create the space or the energy in which that peace grows from potential to lasting wonder, when the Spirit moves…or muses.

During Lent, open eyes and perceptive creativity can lead us from shadows to Easter. Focus on that for awhile, that art is theological.