Purpose

SSA Photography (276 of 400)

It is amazing to me just how far one can come in a short while.  I’ve been preparing for my first big hearing at the firm since Monday, and the fact that I am calm and confident this morning is a far cry from the panic I used to feel what I had to go before a judge and argue my client’s case.  The last time I argued a motion for summary judgment, I was at a different firm and certainly in a different place.  I was sweating profusely, my hands were shaking, and I was completely overwhelmed.

This photograph was taken in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.  I do not know the man who gives his silhouette to the scene, but I purposely framed the shots so that he was nearly out of the photograph.  It wasn’t that he was walking quickly; instead, he was walking with purpose.  These days I feel like I am walking with a purpose, because my life has purpose.  My kids, my wife, my job, my writing—all these things give my life meaning.

Still, there is a little voice inside me, faint and almost unrecognizable, which used to scream “You’re going to fail.”  And I did fail.  I failed because this voice overcame me and drowned out my confidence, my self-worth, and my abilities to function.  Nowadays, I can rarely hear this voice unless I let myself listen for it.  When that happens, I distract myself with writing or tending to my plants in my office (which the other associates have lovingly dubbed the “Grove”).  I will not let this terror control me any longer.  That part of my life is over, never to be revisited again.  I am thankful that, like the silhouette in the picture, I am passing through with a purpose.

The Anecdote of the Jar

SSA Photography (291 of 400)

Boneyard Beach on Big Talbot Island is one of my absolute favorite places to photograph in Northeast Florida.  I often lament how uninspiring North Florida is for photography, because there are very few changes in topography.  I think my feelings on the subject are driven in large part due to the mosquitoes and ever-present danger of an alligator or water moccasin deciding that this is the day to make me a statistic or a cautionary tale.  Although I have seen an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake in the surf before, he was as confused (if not more) than I was as to how he found himself there, and though he was quite large, he posed no threat to me.  Thus, the beach is safe.

Having grown up near the beach, I take it for granted.  I also take for granted the incredible wildlife we have from wild roseate spoonbills and butterflies of every variation, to even the bobcat and Florida panther.  (I have seen my share of bobcats, but thankfully I have never had a run-in with panther.)  Yet there is something so unique about walking through scrub oak woods, hearing the crash of waves, and finding yourself not on an empty beach, but on a beach filled with old, weathered live oaks lying there like skeletons strewn about by hurricanes.

Ironically, this photograph of a driftwood oak, still tethered by its roots to the beach, was taken in Jekyll Island—another barrier island about an hour north of Big Talbot in Georgia.  This photo captures a bit of what struck me so emphatically when I came upon the tree.  Unlike Big Talbot, this was the only driftwood feature on the entire beach.  But for this tree, it would have been a perfectly ordinary, flat, featureless Florida beach, and I would not have given it a second thought.  Because of this tree, however, the beach took on meaning.

Wallace Stephen once wrote a poem about the universe taking shape around a jar he placed on a hill in rural Tennessee.  It is a perfectly beautiful little poem that has always resonated with me.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.  
It made the slovenly wilderness  
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.  
The jar was round upon the ground  
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.  
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,  
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Around the jar the world gained meaning.  What was once a wilderness was now not so wild, as it found order in relation to this jar.  In the same way, this featureless beach took shape around this tree.  The beach that was perfectly ordinary became extraordinary because of this tree, just as the wilderness became forever commended to words by Stevens and became a part of American literature because of that simple little jar.  This tree is a testament to how some otherwise ordinary object can bring meaning to an otherwise ordinary, pedestrian setting.

Bixby Panorama

SSA Photography (175 of 400).jpg

Even the middle of the day on the Pacific Coast Highway is breathtaking.  The marine layer has rolled off the water and into the mountains, capping them with a low smoky halo.  The views are breathtaking, and I want to pull off around each new bend, and especially when we get to the Bixby Canyon Bridge, which is but a speck in this panorama.  (A closer shot is included below.)  The Bixby Canyon Bridge has inspired many artists, songwriters, etc.  At one point it was the tallest and longest span bridge in the state of California, and the engineering feats taken to build it were monumental.

This photograph, one of the rare colored ones that I prefer to the monochrome, has always looked more like a painting to me than a photo.  I have gotten closer to where I plan and pose photos with an artistic mind over the course of the last few years, and as such my ratio of purely documentary (read “bad”) photographs to “keepers” has begun to increase significantly.  In many photographs, I am fortunate that I am living in an era of post-processing software.  In the photograph I posted yesterday of the silhouette of a woman, herself taking a picture of the waves, I did not notice her at first when I took the photograph.  She was a happy coincidence, and I focused on her more and more, but I could not capture the essence of the candid photo.  Dumb luck has proven to make some great photographs, at least in my brief career.

For this one, I actually used a tripod – a rarity in my California photos – because I first have to lug it on the plane, and then lug it on my hikes and set it up any time I want to use it.  With an impatient four year old (at the time) this was quite a “do” as Anna’s British cousins would say.  But I had planned the shot for months.  I wanted to capture it from down the coast from the first moment I realized what I was looking at.  These days, I am taking the time to enjoy the artistic act, and not just snapping the shutter and hoping I capture something amazing.  I like the process.

SSA Photography (178 of 400).jpg

On Discovering an Artist’s Mind

SSA Photography (259 of 400)

Salt lingers on my tongue, the shore in my nostrils, even five years later, and miles removed from the rough-hewn valley, where I tried in vain to compose the essence of the waves, the spirit of the ocean in a single exposure.  My camera pulled at me as we walked gracelessly across the rocks.  That’s where Kemper and I found her, sure-footed above the whitecaps, a small silhouette against a dense layer of mist that settled over the shoreline, whitewashing the coal-black granite.

What does it say that I, myself, framed her body against the foothills, lingering on the shadow-play of her form, as if the roil of the ocean were quotidian; yet her profile swelled in the portrait like a distant odalisque?  What draws me back to her silhouette on that promontory, at that moment–that moment that will never be forgotten, though she may not have know that we were even there.

Point Lobos

SSA Photography (202 of 400)

There is something that intrigues me about panoramas.  Ever since I took my first successful one in England years ago, I find myself drawn to them.  Landscapes and nature are my natural tendencies of photographic subjects, but the vastness of them speaks to me, and I always have the urge to zoom out as far as I can, and when that doesn’t work to capture the scene entirely, I lean on panoramas.

This particular panorama captures the “point” in Point Lobos nature reserve in Carmel, California.  As you can see from the left of the picture, the morning layer had not yet burnt off when we went for this hike.  It adds an eerie, almost ethereal feeling to the photograph that simply can’t be manufactured.  The pictures are muted, and perhaps I could’ve done a bit more in post-processing to bring out the vibrancy of the colors.  Nonetheless, the colors are muted as the morning was by the marine layer.  It is a natural touch, and one which I’m happy with.

I often joke that I’m a good photographer, but a great editor.  This is one of those rare photographs where I have done very little to touch it up, instead using Lightroom simply to stitch the pictures together to create the panorama.  I always enjoy the photos that I take, which I don’t have to edit.  They seem in many ways more pure to me, although at the end of the day, all that anyone sees is the finished product and not the raw material.  Nevertheless, I know what has gone into the editing process.  I always feel more like a successful photographer and not a successful editor  when I am able to capture a scene in the camera rather than on the computer.

Hidden Cove

SSA Photography (268 of 400)

There are so many coves along the shoreline in Point Lobos State Preserve in Carmel, California, that I am only moderately ashamed that I don’t know the name of this one.  I have posted a picture of China Cove previously, with its colors that defy the natural palette.  In comparison to the China Cove, this one is a bit pedestrian.  If there were no China Cove, however, this unnamed cove very well could be the highlight of the entire shoreline.  This is a testament to the beauty of this part of California.

As I’ve mentioned previously, California brings out a creativity in me that North Florida never has.  I long to go back, and when I am there, I am always conscious that I must leave.  I honestly don’t know if the desire to be in California is simply a desire to be creative at all times, or at the very least to have freedom to be creative.

As I wrote this post, specifically that last paragraph, I thought immediately (as one clearly does it was spent so many years in the Latin classroom) of the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus.  Although many of Catullus’ poems survive in full, some are only excerpts.  One such excerpt, which has been labeled in the modern canon as Carmen LXXXV, is only two lines long but it is powerful in its brevity, its directness, and its meaning: “Odi et amo.  Quare id faciam fortasse requiris / Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.”

Roughly translated, this means “I hate, and I love; why do I do this perhaps you ask. / I know not why, but I know it happens, and I am tortured by it.”  Although Catullus was speaking about the conflicting feelings he had towards his lover, who he calls Lesbia (her real name was Clodia), and who was the sister of Cicero’s mortal enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher, the second sentence speaks to me in the context of this Cove.  I can’t say why the California air draws out the artist in me, nor can I say why the Florida air does not; but I know it happens, and for the time being, I am (if ever so slightly) tortured by it.

Carmel Bay

SSA Photography (240 of 400)

On vacation, I do not keep the same hours I do for work.  So getting up before the sunrise was rare, but since everyone else was still asleep, I decided to leave a note and go for a walk.  I made my way down to Scenic Drive in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, just as the sun was coming up.  I was born and raised on the East coast, and so to have the sun rise at my back when I looked at the ocean was a new experience.  The marine layer was thick as I made my way down the coastline.  The house at the left of the photograph is the Walker house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  He said that he wanted to design a house “as durable as the rocks and as transparent as the waves.”  He achieved this with his uncanny ability.

I love Carmel, and I feel a special kinship to the place.  I always feel creative out there, surrounded by the beauty.  I understand why Robinson Jeffers called it home, and why so many other artists like Steinbeck were so inspired by this area of California.  If I ever win the lottery (and I have a few eggs in this basket), I will find my way out there for part of the year.  For now, I will look forward to the next visit and the next morning stroll.

Click here for a larger version.