Back to Where it All Began

 

Fuji-6I’ll admit, I didn’t feel a sense of nostalgia when I stepped onto the beach at Big Talbot on Saturday.  It wasn’t until I began processing the first photos from my new camera that the memories of the solace I found there five years ago came flooding back.

I came then to take pictures of the driftwood with my little Nikon D40.  It was the first place I brought my D7100 and D7500 after that.  It did not cross my mind, however, that I would be christening my new camera, as I had time and time again, by bringing it here.  Still, something in my subconscious drew me back to this beach on Saturday with a new camera and a renewed zeal for photography.

My new camera is a Fujifilm X-T30, a small but exceptionally powerful mirrorless camera.  It is so vastly different from the Nikons I have loved for so many years that I spent the better part of two weeks getting acquainted with the features and controls of the camera, watching tutorials and reading the manual like my very life depended on it.

Because the camera itself was more expensive than any of the Nikons I have owned, I only managed to pick up the camera and an 18-55mm f/2.8-4 AF lens at first.  I knew I wanted a wide angle lens, like my old Tokina 11-16 f/2.8, which had quickly become one of my absolute favorite landscape and architecture lenses.  The autofocus lenses would have put me back $500+, and I couldn’t justify this, so I took a flyer on a Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 manual focus lens.

I have not used a manual focus lens since I used my mom’s old Minolta SLR, but it proved to be an incredibly rewarding experience.  I felt more like a photographer dialing in the aperture manually and focusing the lens with the slightest movement to just below infinity, than I can ever remember on my autofocus lenses.  I picked up a cheap, but razor sharp manual focus 35mm f/1.2, which is by far the fastest lens I have ever owned.  I think this one is going to be more of a challenge, but I am greatly looking forward to it.  I have my eye on an 85mm f/1.8 for portraits of the kids (with their ages and frenetic movements, autofocus is all but a requirement).

The photograph above is the first one I took at Big Talbot.  The shot was taken handheld at 12mm, f/2.8, 1/350, ISO 125.  The sky was wonderfully expressive, and the application of a bit of a gradient filter to it in lightroom brought out the heaviness of the clouds that began to unleash their rain very shortly after I got into my car to leave.

I only took 150 shots during the hour and a half I was there.  With my Nikons, I would have taken at least twice that and kept, perhaps, five or six shots.  Something about the camera and the lens made me more thoughtful about composition and the elements in the shots.  I hope you enjoy this one, and the ones to come.  We are going up to North Carolina at the end of the week, and I cannot wait to see what my home away from home has in store for me.

Weathered

SSA Photography (102 of 400)

I love the textures of this photograph.  It was taken with a telephoto lens, not a macro, as I did not own one at this point.  Still, the detail came out perfectly, even the little snail tucked under one of the crevices in the broken trunk of the live oak.  There is a subtle, yet almost violent movement in the lines, which lead to the center, but the many fissures and cracks scatter one’s attention.

“Boneyard Beach” on Big Talbot Island just north of Jacksonville, Florida is aptly named because of the many skeletons of driftwood trees left behind by hurricanes and time.  This one must’ve fallen a number of years ago, because even the jagged edges had been smoothed, and I could run my hands over the wood without fear of splinters.  The diameter of the trunk was about 6 inches at its widest, which made it a rather small live oak.

The gradients and ribboned-patterns in the wood are beautiful, and they were what drew me to woodworking and turning bowls on the lathe (another one of my hobbies) in the first place.  Although these would have been enough to make and interesting composition, it is that little tulip snail that is almost hidden in plain sight that makes the photograph.  When I first took the photograph, I didn’t notice the little snail.  Now, however, I cannot draw my eyes away from it.  It is a subtle sign of life clinging to the underside of the long dead tree.

I can’t put my finger precisely on what feeling it evokes in me, but I sense a certain kinship with the snail.  It is a survivor amongst a powerful and rough-hewn backdrop, yet a part of it is anchored to something that was destroyed by a power greater than it can ever possibly conceive.  Perhaps, also, it is because the snail is alone, whether by choice or fate.  Whether it is a hermit or in exile, I can only venture to guess, but I cannot help anthropomorphizing the little tulip snail whatever its true reason for being there.

Verdigris

SSA Photography (76 of 400)

Sometimes the loveliest composition is the most simple.  This photograph of the mossy trunk of a fallen water oak (Quercus Nigra) was taken in the Nocatee Preserve south of Jacksonville, Florida.  The day was extremely overcast, and the photographs that I came to take were not turning out as I had hoped.

I saw this tree lying astride the path, and I took a dozen or so photographs of it from various angles.  As I was leaving, I decided to put my macro lens on to see what I could capture with the lens and ring light setup that I use.  I took a few test shots of the tree, with the aperture as far open as it could go, and I did not think anything of them until I returned home to see what had turned out.

Life is often like this, recognizing the beauty only in hindsight.  This is by no means my most treasured photograph, but it is special insofar as it was a happy accident that reminds me never to dismiss even the most mundane subject.  With the right angle and eye, most anything can turn into art, even a dime-a-dozen fallen water oak in the middle of a North Florida swamp.

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Framed

SSA Photography (86 of 400)

Life is a kaleidoscope of perspectives.

I have had many perspectives in my relatively short life.  I have seen the world from the top and from about as low a bottom as anyone could imagine.  I have begged for forgiveness, often undeserved, and I have forgiven.  I have now even seen the world through my own children’s eyes.

Photography allows me to manipulate perspectives, to frame them in ways that you may have never thought to look at a particular scene.  This photograph was taken at Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida.  It was a hot summer day, and in my infinite foresight, I arrived around noon, just as the sun was reaching its apex in the sky.  The shadows played on the driftwood as it began its slow descent to the West.  I came upon a particularly large live oak (Quercus Virginiana), which had two large branches reaching towards the sky.  One was perfectly vertical, and the other was at about thirty degrees.  I took a number of photographs of the geometry of the branches, but none were particularly aesthetically pleasing.  Although mathematics often make photographs interesting, when it is particularly complex like a fractal in a snail’s shell, when the shapes are so simple, they sometimes do not lend themselves to a pleasing composition.

Determined to use them for a shot, I evaluated what struck me about them.  I zoomed into one of the closer shots I took, which approximately resembled this final photograph, and I loved the contrast between the dark, shadowed wood, and the brightly lit ocean and clear blue sky.  I reframed the photograph, itself a frame, and captured this scene.  The fact that the wave rolled in at the exact right time with a sandy color to complete the triangle was a bonus that I only realized when I was touching the photo up later that day.

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Quest

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In the end, we are all searching for something.

The quote I chose for my yearbook junior year of high school was “Life’s a journey, not a destination, and I just can’t tell just what tomorrow will bring.”  This was from Aerosmith’s Amazing, which hit so many chords with me even then.  The quote is hackneyed and attributable to dozens of people, most commonly Ralph Waldo Emerson (though he does not appear to have written the exact quote, just the sentiment).  Some days I regret choosing it instead of Faulker’s quote from the Unvanquished: “I realized then the immitigable chasm between life and print – that those who can do, and those who cannot, and suffer enough because they cannot, write about it.”  That, I think, would have been more appropriate for that time in my life.

Kemper has inherited many things from me, but at his core he does not know what it is to deceive.  We often joke that he acts the same for Anna and me as he does for his teachers, and as he would for a stranger; what you see is what you get.  It is a brilliant, albeit foreign, trait to me.  As he has matured, I have waited for the introversion to take over, but he must have received a recessive gene from Anna.  Though he cedes to quietness after a long day of entertaining people – and not as a defense mechanism – he is not like me, like who I was.

In my earlier years, if you saw me, casually, on the street, to you I looked happy.  I was the greatest liar that ever lived.  That did not seem like hyperbole at the time, and when I look back on the years between college and where I am today, I can still say that without any reservation or apprehension (which, perhaps, is a testament to how often I convinced myself of my own deception).  But then I recovered.

I am different now, too.   I remain introverted, but the life I lead is no longer a duality of darkness and feigned brightness.  Hawthorne once wrote “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”  I read this quote (from The Scarlett Letter) in high school, and I still remember it to this day.  I lived the quote, not as much then as in my later years, but even at sixteen, I recognized my ability to con and fool others (and even myself) into believing I was capable of feeling joy.  But then I recovered.

I have found that capability, and I experience joy every day.  I am cautious though.  The joy is always tinged at the corners with a fear of free-falling back to a time and place I can now barely remember.  I do not regret my past, nor do I wish to shut the door on it.  Instead, it has made me who I am at this moment, and this moment is all I have until the next one passes.  For now, I have joy and contentment and knowledge and peace that there are things both within and without my control.  Honestly.  Because I recovered.

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Lion’s Teeth

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I am a philologist, a lover of words.  As an English and Latin double major in college, I pursued my love of language (even through the trials of reading Beowulf in its original Old English).  As you have seen in many of my previous posts on nature, I like to include the taxonomic name of the plants, not because I want to show off my knowledge of nature – it’s a notch above rudimentary, at best – but because I love the Latin names.  A white oak is so much more august as a Quercus Alba, or the sweet-gum tree as Liquidambar Styraciflua, which literally means a tree flowing with amber liquid (referring to the gum that exudes from the tree when it is cut).

In this vein, I give you a (false) dent de lion, a lion’s-tooth flower, better known as a dandelion.  Although the appellation refers to the coarsely toothed leaves, this photograph – one of my early macro lens experiments – focuses on the petals and the pseudanthium, or false flower head in the middle, which is actually a small cluster of tiny flowers grouped together.  The pictured flower is actually a false dandelion, or a Carolina desert chicory flower (Pyrrhopappus Carolinianus).

The simplicity of the composition is appealing to me on the one hand, and on the other, I have always been troubled by the dead center focus on the flower.  Unfortunately, when I was first taking my macro shots, I was more concerned with aperture and focus than I was with composition.  I have sincerely amended my ways.  Nevertheless, the clarity and the stark contrast of the petals and the void behind them have always been pleasing to me.

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Tulips at Noon

SSA Photography (97 of 400)

The main draw to Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, is the driftwood beach, commonly referred to as “Boneyard Beach.”  The first time I went to Boneyard Beach with my camera, I was so focused on the gorgeous shells of the trees scattered across the beach, some of them with full root systems intact, as if they just had been uprooted the day before, I failed to notice the smaller elements around me, such as these gorgeous tulip snails, which I featured in one of my first posts to this page – and still one of my favorite photographs, “Three Hermits.”

It was not until I bought a good macro lens and began avidly looking for the beauty of the minutiae that I first discovered the snails, and their unique patterns of verdigris and Tyrian purple.  The ancient Romans valued the murex shell for its dying purposes, and purple robes dyed with the tint were reserved for royalty (and during the Republic, for senators and upper statesmen).  The murex snail was found only in Carthage, the capital of which was Tyre, hence the appellation of the deep purple hue.

The deep saturation of the shells only shows up when the light hits them just right (or in some minor post-processing of the photographs), and I was lucky enough to catch them early on a sunny Florida afternoon.  They congregate on the trunks and branches of the driftwood trees, often in the crooks and interstices that are too small for even barnacles to have taken hold.  They must live in such crevasses for months, perhaps years, because their shells are too large to have found their way into them fully grown.  These two were on the top of a lower branch of a white oak (Quercus Alba), which was drying out from the ever more distant ebb and flow of the tide.

The patterns and gradients of the shells are almost abstractly perfect.  Looking at them that day, and again as I began to write this post, reminds me of the divinity of nature.  Although Darwin explained the evolution of creatures in his Origin of the Species, he did not (to my knowledge) opine on the divine proportions of the carapace of the Galapagos tortoise.  It took me many years to accept that there was a divinity common in all living things, but now that I have seen it, it cannot be unseen.  God, as you understand Him, is present in these snails – you just have to find the trees in the forest and look a little closer.

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Driftwood Core

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At the core, we all have holes.

Some are larger than others, and while most can eventually be filled in, some remain empty.  My paralegal lost her daughter in August just after childbirth.  The sorrow was unimaginable, and we did all that we could for her, but nothing we did or said could fill the hole of the loss of her only child.  Her daughter left behind a husband and three children, five, two, and a newborn.  Our paralegal was out for three months, and our practice slowed in her understandable absence.  More than anything, I missed my friend, and I looked forward to the day that she returned.

She came back at the start of January, less than complete and not totally present, but she was managing better than I could have.  My job (self-appointed) was to keep a smile on her face, to listen when she needed it, and to offer a shoulder to cry on in the moments when she needed to be vulnerable.  I brought her lunch, and we joked with each other, superficially, but still she laughed.  It was a little thing, but it was a bit of normalcy.

On Saturday tragedy struck again.  The baby stopped breathing, and could not be resuscitated.  He was gone, and so too was she once more.  I could not do a thing but tell her that I loved her and that I was here for her – howsoever she needed me.  I cannot imagine the gaping hole that this tragedy tore asunder, ripping the partially healed one of her daughter’s death back open to the elements.  I don’t know if it will ever heal.

My own holes are filled for the most part.  There are still remnants of them, cavities and interstices that remind me of the voids that were once a part of my life.  I do not dwell on them as a practice, but at times like these, I am reminded of the grace and providence that allowed me to see the faintest hint of light peeking through the chasms.

We all have holes at our core.  Some will be filled by time, but the unimaginable others, I just don’t know.

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Astride

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This photograph of Kemper was taken not too long ago at Big Talbot Island.  He is in his element among the low-lying branches of the fallen live oak (Quercus Virginiana).  Kemp is ever-cautious, and consequently has not broken any bones (so far).  Even convincing him to climb the trunk, no more than four feet off the ground, took some coaxing.  I am fine with his wariness of danger.  It would have served me well as a child, who, by his age, had already broken both wrists and a couple of toes.

Despite his cautious nature, he is impulsive and fiery.  His temper burns hot, though it is extinguished quickly with proper redirection.  This has caused great consternation at school, where someone will call him a name, and he will explode momentarily.  In that instant, he cannot control himself.  I was not as impulsive as a child, though as an adult, I find myself irrationally upset at times, which quickly cools.  I cannot help but think that he has seen me in such moments of weakness, where my sarcasm and passive aggression come through in full technicolor.  I hate that he has witnessed this, and since his temper has blossomed at school, I have made every effort I can to dull my own temper — especially around him.

He is a sweet child, and wants nothing more than to make those around him smile or laugh.  His intelligence is off the charts, but his emotional maturity lags behind significantly.  Eventually this, too, will catch up (though I admit, I am waiting for my emotional maturity to catch up even at age 34).  By every account, we are good parents, and he is a good kid.  Nevertheless, since he returned from Christmas break, he has been sent to the principal’s office nearly every day by his young teacher, who appears incapable of managing his behavioral outbursts.  He sees no point in doing the multitude of worksheets, on subjects that he has known since he was three or four, and he is overwhelmingly bored.

We have sat down with the principal, assistant principal, grade level chair, and his teacher, but the conflict between Kemper and his teacher persists.  Anna, especially, is questioning our decision to place him at this particular school, which is, admittedly, rigid in its principles.  Her years of training as a behavior specialist gives her great insight into how to manage children with his unique blend of intelligence and immaturity, which makes it all the more difficult to see him go unmanaged and unmotivated.  This, too, shall pass, and we may move him before the school year is up.  For now, we will provide him the positive reinforcement that he so thrives upon, and continue to embrace his unique personality.  I will continue to bring him to Big Talbot, where he has begun to climb the trees with less and less coaxing, and I will pick him up when he inevitably falls.

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Crescent

SSA Photography (99 of 400)

The whirls of the driftwood on Big Talbot Island, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, are peculiarly wonderful to me.  My father is a woodworker in his spare time, and throughout the years, we have made scores of pieces of furniture, boxes, and we have even turned a number of bowls on the lathe.  As such, I am a constant admirer of wood and its natural beauty.  I have turned beautifully featured bowls from a pecan log wrought with worm holes, and ambrosia maple, and spalted sweetgum, but the oak bowls I have turned are lovely, but plain, almost like Shaker furniture.  They have a very ordinary grain, and little about them is exceptional.  The fallen oaks on Big Talbot Island, however, have fantastic patterns, some like the ornamentation of a medieval Celtic manuscript.

I do not know how these patterns came to be, though I speculate that it has something to do with the effect of the sea air on the tree’s formation, both nurturing and stunting the growth at the same time.  Some of the trees must have been tall and vast when they stood decades, or perhaps centuries, ago, but it is the smaller ones that have the more intricate patterns like this one.  To capture the perspective of this photograph, I set the aperture (depth of field) quite low, so that only a piece of the limb was in total tack focus.  The foreground and background are blurred, and the focused piece catches your attention, not only because of its placement in the composition (according to the rule of thirds), but also because of its contrasting sharpness.  I would have loved to turn a bowl from this tree, if only to see whether the patterns on the surface came through onto the finished product.  But now I have turned my artistic attention away from woodworking to photography, and so I must satisfy myself with capturing the beauty of the wood rather than pulling it from an unfinished block.  It is a different approach, but no less satisfying when the photographs turn out like this.

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