Author Archives: David

Tufted titmouse

Figure 1 – Tufted titmous, Sudbury, MA. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

Before we get too far into winter, I wanted to post the photograph of Figure 1. Just after Thanksgiving I put up mu bird-feeder for the winter and literally within minutes it was swarming with birds. One of my favorite feeder birds is the little greyish blue tufted titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor, shown in the photo. I can, of course not resist reference here to Gilbert and Sulivan’s Mikado.

“On a tree by a river a little tom-tit
Sang “Willow, titwillow, titwillow”
And I said to him, “Dicky-bird, why do you sit
Singing ‘Willow, titwillow, titwillow'”
“Is it weakness of intellect, birdie?” I cried
“Or a rather tough worm in your little inside”
With a shake of his poor little head, he replied
“Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!”

Well, yesterday we had our first snowfall of the season and the titmice (or mouses) (I will not go into that argument again) are scurrying about very busily. Their size make them very hard to photograph well. But you have to love the little Elvis bouffant and the jet black eyes, that speak so well to their reptilian origin.

They will be outside my window all winter now flit to and from the feeder and foraging for fallen seeds in the snow. One cannot help but admire their ability to endure the vicious Northern winter.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Consistency of Christmas

Figure 1 Woman and Christmas tree c. 1860. in the Public Domain in the United States because of its age.

Yesterday was our first snow of the year, and this morning it is absolutely gorgeous! I have been trying to get into the “Christmas Spirit” by ignoring world and national events and by searching the web for antique Christmas images. What I have found is an amazing consistency of western tradition. Christmas is pretty much the same as it has always been. There are styles and regionalisms, of course, but the fundamental celebration remains the same.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

There are literally thousands of images, both candid and posed, of excited children and families in their “Sunday Best” posed rigidly in front of Christmas trees. These span the period from the 1860’s to today. I am particularly delighted by a photograph of “mom” from 1959 happily holding her cherished gift of Ricky Nelson albums. 

Figure 1 shows a young woman in crinoline from around 1860 standing before “the family” Christmas tree. We feel that we could inject ourselves, or be injected, seamlessly into this little happy scene. I find myself wanting to extend my perception, to look out the window and wonder what is going on in homes next door.

“Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors. One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t.”
 Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory

We connect with frozen memories, contrived or real, from Christmases past. And we are compelled to add to the mountains of photographic memories. So many will be posted on Instagram and Facebook this December 25. Let’s take a lesson from Old Scrooge and remember how to laugh.

“Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years it was a splendid laugh!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Posted in History of Photography

The great fuzzy time

Figure 1 – van der Weyde Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building in a Sunday Storm 1 – February 20, 1916, from the New York Tribune, in the United States LOC and in the public domain in the United States.

By definition the past is fuzzy. And the only reason that we may feel otherwise about it is that our minds “abhor a vacuum,” and we fill in all the missing pieces. Memories fade, I’m afraid that we tend to, well, make things up.

We have looked at a lot of old photographs on this blog and spoken about capturing moments in time. And one of the dominant features of photographs, unlike memories, is that they can be crystal clear. Indeed, we so often marvel in their sharpness and feel almost that we are intruding on the past. How were photographs distributed in the past? There were three basic modes: 1. as personal cherished images themselves, 2. in magazines, and 3. in newspapers. Magazines and newspapers were the internet of their day. Newspapers probably more so because they were daily. But one point to remember is that photographs in newspapers were generally printed by rotogravure. This was not an inconsequential piece of technology, its origins date back to 1852 when Fox Talbot described using a piece of cloth to produce a photographic half tone plate.

But a key problem was the fuzzy dots of newspaper images. Brilliantly sharp and vivid photographs were reduced to an unpleasing blur. And when the photograph was something of beauty, this could become rather disappointing. Case in point, I’d like to consider Figure 1, which is an image from the United States Library of Congress’ Newspaper collection, specifically from the New York Tribune issue of February 20, 1916 – 101 years ago. The photograph is by van der Weyde and shows New York’s Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building. Here, at least, the goal was to capture the fogginess of the stormy moment, and the image is charming. You can feel the resistance of the wind as the lady makes her way across the park and, when you can empathize with someone in a photograph, you know that something great has been accomplished. The trash bin is a bit of an enigma or incongruity. And of course, we have the Flat Iron Building itself in the background, this made photographically famous twelve years before by Edward Steichen’s iconic 1904 photograph “The Flatiron Building at Night.”  It is a stunning photograph and you wish it was clearer and less blemished.

The development of communication media has been and continues to be an unstoppable march towards broader dissemination and greater sharpness and fidelity. The long period of fuzziness in newspaper photographs, a process that continues to exist even today, is but a strop along the way. More pixels, greater dynamic range, and vivid color are where we are inexorably marching to. But this does not necessarily equate with greater vision on the part of the photographer or greater perception on the part of the viewer. We have so many images that photographs are expected and no longer precious commodities. They have become cheapened by familiarity. So on this particular morning, I prefer to walk with the lady with the hat and umbrella along an imagined winter walk in Madison Park. The image is fuzzy and the memory all the more so.

Posted in History of Photography

Thanksgiving weekend

Figure 1 – Pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Mr. Timothy Levy Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker living in Ledyard, Connecticut. Photograph by Jack Delano for the US Farm Security Administration, Nov. 1940, from the US LOC and in the public domain.

In the United States the time of Thanksgiving Weekend is rapidly drawing to a close. As a result, I have been reflecting on family, friends, and memories of Thanksgivings past. Holidays are memetic and we judge them against an archetype. This afternoon, I sought out that archetype in the the archives of the United States Library of Congress and came across the wonderful photograph of “Pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Mr. Timothy Levy Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker living in Ledyard, Connecticut.”

Jack Delano (1914-1997) worked as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration, the United Fund, and the Farm Security Administration. It has been said of Delano that his photographs ” elevate the ordinary individual to heroic status.

This particular photograph uses the trick of image in a mirror. It is a, not so classic, foreground-background flip image. Your eye darts back and forth. Is it a photograph of the pies and cakes or is it a photograph of the family? They seem on a different plane, framed in a glowing silver, set upon a field of simple, yet sweet, flowered wallpaper. You wonder for a moment if it might not be a Norman Rockwell painting. I marvel at the complexity of angles and planes in this photograph. The image within the image is capturing a divine and personal moment in time. With our advantage of hindsight, we understand and recognize that the world was becoming engulfed in war – a war that would evaporate their way of simple American life. Yet they persist in a moment of family, and we wonder about the face of the little girl turned away from us – wonder what she looks like and wonder what became of all these people.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers! May you be blessed.

Posted in History of Photography

Animal faces #9, “Alpaca”

Figure 1 – Animal faces #9, “Alpaca.” Lincoln, MA. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

For the last four years I have passed the historic Codman Hill Estate in Lincoln, MA every day on my commute and have always wanted to stop and photograph the Alpacas. It is always so serene to see them especially when they frolic in the freshly-fallen snow. Well, today I finally stopped, since they were all out in the field and this guy and a friend came running up to me. I really wanted to pet him. But l was deterred by the electric fence – “Massachusetts photographer gets too close; fries camera on electric fence – Vicugna pacos laugh.”

I spent several happy moments stretching to get my camera above the fence line and waiting for the best pose to augment my series of “Animal Faces.” The square format is requisite for the series.  The goal as always was an image that captures the gentle creature’s inner self – dare I say, soul? The result is Figure 1, which I leave to speak for itself.

Canon T2i with EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 120 mm, ISO 800, Aperture Priority AE Mode, 1/1250 th sec at f/7.1 with -1 exposure compensation. Codman Hill Estate, Lincoln, MA.

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

At the physical therapist

Figure 1 – Physical therapist’s table, Concord, MA, (c) DE Wolf 2017

Yesterday I had an appointment with my physical therapist. It was the quintessential November day in New England – cold, cloudy, and damp. Still it was not so cold as to rush me inside, and I paused to take in the Assabet River meandering lazily in the bleakness. A few duck persisted defiantly against the weather and floated or paddled along. November is like a month between seasons. It is as if the weather cannot yet make up its mind, although we know the inevitable choice that it will make. The paradoxical fact is that rather than dismaying, we actually rejoice in the gloom and melancholia.

My physical therapist’s offices are within an old, restored, and repurposed Massachusetts textile mill. You see these in particular as you ride up I 495 particularly in Lawrence and Lowell – absolutely huge structures and you imagine them filled with cloth looms. No problem you think, but then you realize that this is 1853 and there was no electricity. It was all done with water power, canals, flues, giant wooden turbines, belts and gears transmitting mechanical energy throughout the plants – a triumph to there age. The archeological remains of all of this are channels diverting the river into and out of buildings, and lots, really lots, of handmade stonework. The Massachusetts economy did not die with the American textile industry. Rather it was resurrected first with the high tech boom and then with the biotech boom. Many of these wonderful “old mills” have been restored and re-functioned including the offices of my physical therapist.

So I found myself that dull November morning in the scene captured by Figure 1. Gloomy skies outside, blobs of condensation on the window panes, and this therapist’s table with its complex yet simple wooden mechanism. I shifted it to black and white, adding a deep creamy sepia tone to it. The image was taken with my Iphone and to my mind’s eye perfectly captured the mood.

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

Promises, promises

Figure 1 – Percival Lowell in 1914, observing Venus in the daytime with the 24-inch (61 cm) Alvan Clark & Sons refracting telescope at Flagstaff, Arizona. From the wikipedia and in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

Young David was promised air-cars and men on Mars. Don’t think I’m complaining; I am. Well finally, we are talking again about reaching out into the solar system and finally going to Mars. To us Star Trek fans, it’s a matter of destiny.

But just as I am starting to feel good again, Stephen Hawkins weighs in with the dire prediction that we must leave Earth within 600 years. Bottom line we are using up and spoiling the planet, and in general making a dogs breakfast of it. It is, of course, totally depressing. Who’s going to leave the Earth? I am pretty sure not so many of us, or more correctly the them which is future us – very confusing I know. The rest of us/them is going to need to stay behind to choke on our own effluence, and judging from current events, I am pretty sure that a government that is prepared and heartless enough to take healthcare away from twenty-one million people cannot be counted upon to choose the survivors equitably. I remind you of the scene from the movie “Dr. Strangelove.

“Muffley: Well, I, I would hate to have to decide…who stays up and…who goes down.

Dr. Strangelove: Well, that would not be necessary, Mr. President. It could easily be accomplished with a computer. And a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross-section of necessary skills. Of course, it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do. Ha, ha. But ah, with the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present Gross National Product within say, twenty years.”

OY, this could be a problem!

Despite this sticky issue, it now appears that we are moving forward towards our rendezvous  with the Red Planet. Lots of folks are ready to make the sacrifice even those associated with a one-way ticket: a multiyear journey, exposure to deadly radiation levels, living the rest of their lives in cramped corners with the same people. And then there is the most hideous fact of all – no online shopping, no more, no how, never again! Frightening! Still Mars is out there, as elusive as it is tangible.

And Mars has long fired the human imagination. Saturday marked the one hundred and first anniversary of the death of Percival Lawrence Lowell (1855–1916), who led the movement in favor of canals on Mars – alien life – an other that challenged human hegemony over the universe. Lowell is shown in Figure 1 in 1914 his eye set, in this case, not on Mars, but rather on whether the 24-inch Alvan Clark & Sons refracting telescope at Flagstaff, Arizona could pick up Venus in the daylight. It could, and this is a wonderful photograph with a coffee sepia tone that adds a sense of age. The subject matter portrays the intricate scientific instrument. Lowell is the master of the technology, like the professor behind the curtain – the universe revealing its secrets to modern science. Or in this case fooling the old professor. There are no sentient being-made waterways on Mars – or at least not that we know of. Our robots have been there,  guided by our hands. Lowell’s canals are not real. But the belief in alien life – in an otherness that intrigues us and challenges our belief structure remains. In Lowell’s own words:

“If astronomy teaches anything, it teaches that man is but a detail in the evolution of the universe, and the resemblant though diverse details are inevitably to be expected in the hosts of orbs around him. He learns that, though he will probably never find his double anywhere, he is destined to discover any number of cousins scattered through space.”

Posted in History of Photography

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Figure 1 – A “gob”, two “Tommys,” and a Red Cross girl in Paris, November 11, 1918 – out to celebrate the Armistice. From the US Library of Congress, taken by the US Army Signal Corps, and in the public domain in the United States.

I have set today’s post to publish at 11 am GMT, that is ninety-nine years to the moment of the armistice that ended World War I, the moment that the Western Front fell silent. In some sense it seems strange that World War I ended still less than a century ago. It seems such a remote and alien time – the time of our grandparents. People gasped, and people celebrated. They went on to live their lives, but always carried those times with them.

Figure 1 is from the United States Library of Congress and is a photograph taken by the United States Army Signal Corps

– Paris, A “gob,” “two Tommys,” and a Red Cross girl went to make up this merry quartette [sic] in Paris on Armistice Day.

A “gob” was an American sailor. A “Tommy”, as we have previously discussed, was an English soldier – much like a GI Joe in America.

There are lots of pictures of people celebrating the end of that war from all around: New York City, London, Paris, Sydney … But these images are usually of great crowds, and your eye has to draw in to isolate individual faces. But here the camera has magically and intimately done that for us, and as a result empathy is easy, as we catch their eyes.

In the end, it was not the war that ended all war, but rather a first episode in a series of terrible conflagrations to end European monarchy and imperialism. But at that moment there was great joy and great hope for the future. Look no more into their faces. We have failed them.

“This is a war to end all war.”

President Woodrow Wilson

Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

George Santayana, Spanish-American philosopher

Posted in History of Photography

Dark moments with Cthulhu

Figure 1 – A dark moment with Cthulhu, Stow, MA. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

I want to thank all of you who made it to the opening of my show “The Laser Pen of Nature” last week at Beyond Benign. The show will last until January 31; so “come on down.”

I have spoken before, perhaps too much, about how when you walk the Assabet River Natural Wildlife Refuge there is always the sense of the Cthulhu mythos in the woods. More specifically, I start the little hike through the marshlands, which are rough and gorgeous, looking for birds to photograph, and then when you descend from the marsh on what is referred to as “Otter Way,” there is a great squawking of blue jays just before you enter the pine barren. It is as if they are warning you to beware. At that point my search changes, I am now looking for oddly-shaped trees and finally the World War II ammunition bunkers that were built into artificial berms, now covered, seventy plus years later, with trees and vegetation. These bring you into the mood of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and Stephen King’s “It.”

It is easy to image that there is something not quite right. That these sealed bunkers with with very impressive and prominent locks hold something not so wholesome – and perhaps of another world.

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.
In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.

“That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.”

It is an ongoing theme in Lovecraft’s and subsequent “followers'” work that humanity is wholly irrelevant in the face of the cosmic horrors that exist in the universe. Central to the theme of this fictional mythology is Lovecraft’s frequent references to the race of the  “Great Old Ones,” a pantheon of ancient, powerful deities who traveled through the four dimensions of space-time to Earth, where they once ruled and have since fallen into a deathlike sleep. But if mankind itself becomes too evil these creatures, chief among them Cthulhu, may rise again to wreak unknown and unspeakable horrors.

It is an intriguing question just what it means to travel through the four dimensions. We all travel through the four dimensions of what is referred to as a Minkowski Space along our personal world line. But we are subject to two limitations: first, time is an arrow, we always move forward in time; and second, we can never travel faster than the speed of light. Physicists have recently conjectured about geographical four dimensional structures like worm holes that would allow passage between any two points in the Minkowski space. It sounds, and is, of course very much science fiction; but it is kept alive by the basic indifference of the equations of physics to time reversal – that is they can run both forward and backwards.

So when you come upon a strange, dark spot in the woods, you can become just a bit unnerved and uneasy. What is inside of those bunkers? In Figure 1, I have photographed such a moment and place – remember the four dimensionality of space and time. It was a very dark and dull moment. The forest floor was made silent by the annual fall of dried pine needles from the canopy. Here is a little geometric structure – the pine needle covered steps that lead to the great sealed iron door, and masses of concrete keep us out, or perhaps, “it” in.

Canon T2i with  EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 100 mm, ISO 800, Aperture Priority AE Mode, 1/50th sec at f/6.3 with -2 exposure compensation.

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

Pine needles shed

Figure 1 – Pine needles shed, Stow, MA. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

First, a reminder to all of you in the Boston area who can make my show Thursday night, it will be great to see you all.

You can always learn from nature – and “things are not always as they seem.” I came upon this little bush in the woods the other day and was intrigued photographically by the little dried pine needles glistening in the light. I thought that I was looking at a dying pine tree. But in fact, on closer examination, I realized that what I was seeing were needles being shed from the canopy and getting caught upon the twigs of a leafless shrub. The result is Figure 1.

It is, in fact, the case that pines and other evergreens do participate in the annual shed. It is just that they hold onto a particular crop of needles for several years before dropping them. This autumnal release is part of the forest’s life cycle. I remember the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell talking about how when you reach the end of your life, it is time to give in to the shedding of leaves. So the pine needles falling to the ground, here caught for a few moments, as forests and trees measure time, is a symbol of the recuring mythic trilogy of birth, death, and resurrection.

There are few places more calming than a pine forest. No better place to walk silently than on the needle carpet. It is certainly the case that there in a pine barren the world is both simple and explained. There we may be closest to the ambiguity of mortality and immortality.Henry David Thoreau remarked that “Ever little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.

Canon T2i with EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM at 100 mm, ISO 800 Aperture Priority AE Mode 1/100th sec at f/7.1 with -2 exposure compensation.

Posted in Uncategorized