Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Darwinian Philosophy of Photography

Big Cloud over Austrian Alps
For a number of years, I have maintained a passive interest in philosophy.  By passive, I mean regularly exposure to various aspects of philosophy without investing the requisite energy and time to truly study it.  One of my passive approaches is subscription to several philosophy podcasts.  “The Philosopher’s Zone” hosted by Alan Saunders is among my favorites.  A recent episode of The Philosopher’s Zone titled “The Art Instinct – Evolution and Aesthetics” was particularly interesting because it combined two of my interests – art (in the form of photography) and philosophy.
Garmisch Field at Sunrise-4
Allan’s guestwas Dennis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who argued a form of Social Darwinism or “Art Instinct” as an explanation for our attraction to art and even as rationale for why we prefer certain forms over others.  I’m afraid I would not give due justice to his nuanced explanation so I will take the easy route and simply cherry pick some of the highlights.
Mountain Lake View from Neuschwanstein Castle
Dutton proposes that one could have an art instinct because “the various aspects of our enjoyment or appreciation of art, our interest in creating it, could have some kind of survival or reproductive value, or it could be in some way by-product of something else that has survival or reproductive value.”  He goes on to say “there might be an instinct to produce creative objects which are admired by your fellows, in which your particular personality, your ideas, your take on the world, are expressed and understood and enjoyed by other human beings.” 
Mules at Stonington Lodge-2
So why do we want to be admired?  And here comes the bottom line:  “It also…can simply be very attractive to members of the opposite sex. I mean, it's not for nothing that we have this sort of folk tradition of groupies going after rock groups and so forth. But I think the rock group groupiedom, is as old as the Renaissance and probably a lot older than that. It goes back to the Greeks and the Romans.”
So, translating this to the photographer-artist, we arrive at the fist conclusion.  Conclusion #1: Photographers have fragile egos that demand the unrelenting adoration of their audience, and by the way, groupies are welcome.  Now we know why photographers make their art.  Pheeew – I’m glad I now understand.
Reflections in Breckonridge-4
Next we move on to what people like in art, and why.  Alan Saunders begins this conversation with a summary of the opening to Dutton’s book The Art Instinct.  “And it turns out that when it comes to painting, people the world over tend to prefer realistic art, landscapes are the preferred subject for paintings worldwide, and landscapes of a particular kind: a bluish scene with trees and open areas, water, human figures and animals. And this seems to be true, whether you live in the desert, the city, the North Pole or a rural area.”
Shenandoah National Park
Dutton responds by saying “…you find that if you look at calendar preferences, preferences for illustrations on the fronts of chocolate boxes across the world, you find this same Pleistocene savannah landscape, the most productive landscape that we enjoyed and where we reproduced well and lived well in the Pleistocene, and that our liking of this kind of landscape is not itself a product of our culture, that is to say, some conspiracy of calendar manufacturers to make us want to like this, it's rather that the calendar manufacturers are responding to our Pleistocene tastes…”
This leads us to the second conclusion.  Conclusion #2If you want to be a successful and psychologically healthy photographer while attracting adoring crowds throughout the world and increasing the opportunity of success with your throng of groupies, shoot savannah landscapes with some cattle or sheep - and a shepherd for good measure.
Shenandoah National Park-4
The final segment of the conversation is prompted by Saunder’s question of nature versus nurture (or culture).  Saunder’s asks “Did art emerge as a by-product of other evolutionary developments, is it to be explained on grounds of sexual selection, or is it to be explained because it's selected us to be adapted well to living and thriving?”  As part of his response, Dutton points out the value of art, beginning with the Pleistocene and extending through modern times, as a vehicle or tool for communication, documentation, and description that for which language fails.  The punch line comes from the statement that “At the same time, beyond the kinds of advantages that we have from fiction-making, from storytelling, in terms of natural selection, there's also the fact that storytellers are rather attractive, interesting people who grab our attention, who keep our attention, and who have a special place in our lives. And that seems to me to be an outgrowth of sexual selection.”
And of course, this leads us to the third and final conclusion.  Conclusion #3Photographers are handsome, captivating and attract many people to their remarkably interesting lives.
Shenandoah National Park-9-2
If you care to read the transcript without my highly insightful interpretation, follow this link to the Philosopher’s Zone. or subscribe via iTunes for weekly conversations in philosophy.
Have fun, and go shoot some landscapes of bucolic fertility…with some cows…or sheep…oh yea, and a shepherd, farmer or some other randomly placed person.  Then wait for your adoring fans to bloat your poor, suffering, anemic ego.  And finally, send your friends to this blog…I can still fit my head through standard size doorways.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fall Colors in Black and White–Golf Landscape Photography

Blue 1-1

Last week I spent a couple mornings shooting the golf course at Army Navy Country Club in Arlington Virginia and posted a few photographs to the blog (Golf Landscape Photography at Army Navy Country Club).  As the regulars to the blog know well, I am biased toward black and white photography but the striking fall colors were quite compelling and led me to process (most of) the shots in color.

Blue 4-3

Even though I relented to the color, I could not completely give in.  The photographs in this post are a few that I decided to process in black and white.  For the most part, these shots were either similar to other photographs I had processed in color, or the color was not sufficiently dramatic to convince me that retaining the color information was the best choice.

Blue 4-5

One of the difficult aspects of shooting a golf course in black and white is providing context and scale.  Our mental image of a golf course includes lots of green (fairways, greens, rough, and trees) with a smattering of white bunkers.  When processing in black and white, the color context of a golf course disappears and challenges our mental image.  In other words, the greens, fairways and rough loose some of their definition and the result is something that looks much less like a golf course.

Bridge at Red 6

In order to make these black and white photographs “work” I selected compositions with strong foreground elements, texture and strong lighting to provide a sense of scale and context.  Without these components, I feel the “golf course” is lost.

Red 3-6

As an example, look at the next photograph.  While having the bunker as a foreground element, and the cart path leading the eye through the composition, this shot (in my opinion) is much weaker than the previous photographs which have stronger foreground elements, texture and light enhancing scale and context.

Red 4-3

Even though the fall colors were clearly the star element of this project, my bias for black and white photography leaves me satisfied with the B/W results as well.  As we transition from fall to winter, I am excited to extend this project to the more austere views brought on by the skeletons of barren trees.  And although I would prefer to golf, some photographs with snow will make for some interesting and challenging black and white shots.

To see the whole shoot, visit my ANCC Set on Flickr.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Friday, November 12, 2010

New York Street Photography

Graffiti Alley

Three posts in a row featuring color photography!  I noticed the last two each featured color, so I said why not?…make it a third.  This post is also inspired by the quickly approaching Thanksgiving Day celebration which I will be passing in New York with my family.  My daughter is preparing her first big family Thanksgiving feast, and I am very much looking forward to it.

Heating Depot

The photographs featured in this post were taken in March, 2010 on a trip to NY to visit my daughter.  New York is a paradise for street photography.  Not a step goes by that something new and interesting is sure to cross your path.  The first two photographs are a great example.  These shots are of the same alley.  The second, at the entrance to the alley, and the first further into the alley.  Except for the blue doors and window frame of the cafĂ© at the end of the alley, it would be difficult to recognize these shots were taken within 100 feet of each other and focused in the same direction.

Brooklyn Bridge Condos

The previous photograph is a small portion of the Brooklyn bridge.  It is unclear what is going on inside these doors, but my mind was wandering a bit when I named the shot “Brooklyn Bridge Condos.”

Old Staten Island Ferry

This photograph of some details from the Old Staten Island Ferry Building begged to be processed as color.  I really wanted to make the B/W transformation, but the colors kept screaming to be free.  With some great tonal range within the colors, I relented.

School Church Park

Finally, here is a shot of a school and a church from a park.  Sorry, I don’t recall the name of any of them.  But I can tell you what I like about the shot.  First, the starkness of the barren trees add a wonderful texture to the composition both directly and through the shadows cast on the ground.  Second, the lightly clouded blue sky  frames the buildings and park below while adding a complimentary color.  Finally, I like the colors of both the church and the school particularly in the way the two color relate to each other.

I’m sure I will be returning to black and white soon, so stand by.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Golf Landscape Photography at Army Navy Country Club

Blue 9-2

For quite some time I have planned on combining two of my passions – golf and photography.  Specifically, I have had a work list item to shoot the beautifully renovated holes at Army Navy Country Club (ANCC) in Arlington Virginia.  It has remained on my list for too long because I was patiently waiting for the right confluence of events; light, color and time (my availability and the difficult choice between golfing and shooting).

Blue 2-1

On Sunday and Monday of this week, everything came together.  With the fall colors blazing, that element was perfect – much more interesting then the dominant green fairways and white bunkers.  As the sun dips low on the horizon as the days shorten, the light was similarly great and gave me a long window to shoot with near horizontal light and long shadows.  And thanks to a frost delay on Sunday, I did not have to choose between golf and photography.

Blue 4

On Sunday, I was able to shoot about half the course as I raced around in a golf cart, setup the shot and quickly moved on.  I had such great success on Sunday, I returned on Monday to get the rest of the course.  It was important to me to do this immediately so I could capture the whole course under the same conditions.

Blue 4-1

From a photographic perspective, these shots are all HDR – mostly three exposure compositions with the exception of the shots looking directly into the sun which are five exposures.  Using HDR in landscape photography has become common practice for me.  The only aspect of this photography that is atypical for me is color.  I am quite biased toward black and white photography, but the vivid fall colors were compelling.

Blue 9

From a golf perspective, I cannot pile on enough complimentary adjectives. ANCC Arlington is comprised of three nine hole courses that were recently renovated.  The renovation was true to the rustic nature of it’s beginnings when the course was constructed with mules and lots of back breaking work.  The course has deep bunkers with furled rims to prevent washout, ample “no mow” areas that provide wonderful texture to the course (and reduce maintenance, pesticides, fertilizer, and water), plentiful woods to bound the holes and give a sense of seclusion in a urban setting, and dramatically sculpted fairways and greens that enhance the beauty of the course.

White 7

If you get the chance to combine other passions in your life with your photography, I highly recommend you do so.  I know I enjoyed it.  If you go to my flickr link at the right and go to the “ANCC” set, you will find more photographs of ANCC Arlington.  I have quite a few more to process, so check back.

Red 9

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Not “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”

Tax Cheats

My last post – Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear – featured a few photographs from the rally and made commentary on the thoroughly moderate and reasonable nature of the rally in comparison to the more common march or rally that includes tasteless attacks on some person, politician, policy, or group.  Unfortunately, I do not have a collection of photography to support this.  I plan on correcting this by attending and photographing as many rallies, protests, marches or other such events that occur in DC.

Don't Flush

In the mean time, I thought to share a couple of photos I happened to find while processing some shots from last spring.  These shots are emblematic of what the rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was not.  I don’t recall the purpose of this rally, but I was able to catch this guy passing by the Capitol Building on the way to the Mall.  As you can see, the Capitol Police were quite entertained as he chanted and marched in the midst of his solitary protest.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

Rally to Restore Sanity-Fear-7

This weekend I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear hosted by John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  From a photographic perspective, it was a great opportunity and I had a complete field day.  Unlike some of the rallies in DC often filled with hateful, mean, or completely slanderous messages, this rally was a remarkable exercise in moderation – as it was intended.  Certainly there were people with signs that poked harshly at some of the people and policies on the extremes, but the vast majority of participants with signs were creative and frequently entertaining.

Rally to Restore Sanity-Fear-11

One aspect of the rally that impressed me most was the shear number of people.  The rally was well organized and designed to take place on the National Mall between 3rd and 7th streets.  It was clear that the organizers had underestimated the popularity of the event as the crowds stretched to the Washington Monument (14th street) and clogged many of the cross streets for several blocks off the Mall.

Rally to Restore Sanity-Fear-16

I am including several photos here, but you can see more at my Flickr Photostream.

Rally to Restore Sanity-Fear-20

Rally to Restore Sanity-Fear-31

Have fun, and go make some great photography.