Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best of 2014: December


“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it."           --Confucius

And prattling on about this photo seems to diminish it. So I'll just say my December choice is usually a previously unpublished image. That is true again this year. Thank goodness for my trip to Chicago. 

It's been a good year. Looking forward to 2015.

Best of 2014: November

Home of the Wounded Healer III
I began the year at the quarry, and I was back in November. The light on this occasion--a late afternoon--brought out the dark turquoise of the water and the magenta hues in the landscape.

This panorama is stitched together of three shots. But unlike most panos made by joining shots in a string, I have left the edges of the photos unaligned. Indeed, I shot the sequence with precisely this form of pano creation in mind.

When I posted this pano on Google+, I expected some comment or curiosity about that, but in fact the image received little response. Very little. I was surprised. And disappointed.

Maybe people thought it was just carelessness or laziness, or that I don't know "the right way" to create a pano by stitching shots in a string. Not true.

Indeed, doing it this way is much harder and more time-consuming because the seams must be adjusted and all of the detail work of making them invisible must be done manually, a few pixels at a time. Photoshop has a built-in, automatic stitching feature, but it assumes the edges of the photos are to be aligned. You can't use it to create this.

So... what's my point? Just that whereas I want my landscapes to be accurate representations, I also like the reminder of the unaligned edges of the pano that this is, indeed, a photographic interpretation of that landscape. I want the viewer to see where the seams are, but at the same time unable to actually SEE the seams.

In sum, I want some tension between a highly realistic representation of a landscape and a photographic interpretation of it that perhaps invites viewers to contemplate the nature and relationships among representation, interpretation and photography.

'Nuff said. Like it or leave it!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best of 2014: October

Autumn's Alchemy
In October, I attended the Arkansas Native Plant Society meeting in Texarkana, Ark., at the invitation of Eric Hunt, a faithful participant in Wildflower Wednesday, a photo theme I started and curate on Google+. Eric is not a botanist but his knowledge of plants and his photo skills are both extraordinary. I was honored when he invited me to attend the ANPS meeting and had a wonderful time hanging out with him at the meeting.

We went on two wonderful photowalks Saturday, in the morning to White Cliffs Natural Area and in the afternoon to Millwood Lake. I came home with hundreds of images, many of which I have not yet had time to process and share.

I have come to appreciate the subtler colors of autumn in the south. Here, a Great Egret (Ardea alba) hunts in the shallows of Millwood Lake in western Arkansas, directly north of Texarkana.  

Interestingly enough, another of the images from that trip is the first photo I have shared on Google+ that received more than 100 +1's. In fact, it has received 349 plus-ones so far! For comparison, the photo in this post has received 77 +1's. (For you Facebook friends, a +1 is equivalent to a "Like.")

So... why didn't I choose the more popular image as the Best of 2014 for October? I had to think about that for a minute, but...: 

1) Popularity is not necessarily equivalent to "quality." The more popular photo is a macro shot of a wild orchid blossom, and it is nice, but in my view, macro shots of flowers are kind of "cheap shots" in the world of photography. It's not that they do not require skill. They do. But even poorly done ones tend to generate oohs and aahs. 

2) The shot with this post was, in fact, quite challenging due to distance from the subject matter, lighting conditions, and having to dodge trees to get the angle/point-of-view I wanted, and in editing, to bring out the subtle colors without making them surreal. Moreover, the egret was a moving target--not very fast, but moving nonetheless.

3) And maybe I'm just a bit of an art snob? As in,  'if it's too popular it can't be that good'? Whatever. My year-in-review selections must satisfy me first, and then I'm delighted if you like them, too!

Best of 2014: September

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) on Whiteleaf Mountainmint (Pycnanthemum albescens)

My May Best of 2014 selection is a wild orchid I found at Cooter's Bog in the Kisatchie National Forest, and I wrote about my growing and appreciation for this national treasure. Indeed, when I retire, I'm doing a book called Kisatchie Splendors.

So... in late May I visited a portion of the Kisatchie closer to home than Cooter's Bay. It's just west of Alexandria and quite wonderful. Spent a day there and have many wonderful photos. But that still wasn't close enough to get to, spend some time in the woods, and get home again in less than a full day--which I rarely have to devote to photography.

Thus in August, driving home from a diocesan obligation in Alexandria, I was on the lookout for access to that portion of the Kisatchie closest to Monroe that Highway 165 passes through. And I found a great spot just an hour and a quarter from home!

I've been there three times, first in August, then in September when I encountered this beautiful little Gray Hairstreak feeding on the very plentiful Whiteleaf Mountainmint. I stopped for a few minutes again in November,  when very little was blooming, yet I found plenty to shoot: longleaf pine saplings, spent blooms of various kinds, gorgeous grass heads.

Hmmm. Wonder if the National Forest Service would be interested in helping fund the book project?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: August

Louisiana Black Bear (Ursus americanus luteolus)
What can I say about this experience? Wow! It's obviously not a prize-winning photo, but it sure was an exciting moment.

I was approaching Tensas National Wildlife Refuge down a gravel road from Highway 65 in northeast Louisiana. I was moving very slowly looking for wildflowers, dragonflies and butterflies in the ditches and field edges along the road.

I came past the end of a line of trees perpendicular to the road that ended very close to the road. Those trees had hidden my approach from the bear, who was feeding along the edge of the next field. I'm not sure, but I'm guessing those are soybeans behind the bear.

I recognized the silhouette of the ears at once and slowed to a coast. My first shots were taken through a very dirty windshield, but I was able to coast into position to lower the passenger window and get four shots through the open window. This is the last one.

Of course, lowering the window also allowed my scent to leave the car, especially since the AC was running full blast on a very hot August afternoon. I remembered to turn off the radio before lowering the window; had I thought to turn off the fan, who knows? I might have gotten even closer!

In any case, the four shots I got with the window down show the bear putting his nose into the air. The moment I realized the bear was sniffing me is the exact same moment it bolted into the field!

Best of 2014: July

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens)
It is entirely appropriate that one dragonfly shot should make it into the Best of 2014! I love shooting these creatures. They are the jewelry of the insect world. Butterflies have a softer beauty, IMHO. Drangonflies are all a-glitter, some with gold filigree woven into their wings and bodies seemingly carved from precious metals.

And I love attempting to capture them with a camera. Depending on the species, that can be no small feat. I actually have a number of excellent dragonfly shots from 2014, but this one makes in into the year in review because it is a Wandering Glider.

Wandering Gliders rarely perch. I have sought to capture them in flight often, and occasionally gotten an acceptable shot. But the ratio of clicks to acceptable shots is about 20 to 1!

But on a hot Sunday afternoon while returning from leading worship at St. Andrew's in Mer Rouge, La., I stopped to explore the edge of a fallow field. And in the shade of trees along the fence line, this female Wandering Glider finally posed for me.

BTW, if you, too, are fascinated by dragonflies, you might enjoy a visit to Odonata Central, a database constructed by the University of Texas at Austin to make available "what we know about the distribution, biogeography, biodiversity, and identification of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) world-wide."

I have submitted 33 records to the database, each consisting of a photograph and notes about location and species. To view my records, follow this link to Odonata Central, click on the "Records" tab, select my name from the "User Filter" drop-down menu, then click "Apply Filters."

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Best of 2014: June

Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

In late June 2014, I made my first trip to Lake Charles, La., in the southwest corner of the state. The official excuse was an ordination I participated in as deacon, but I spent an extra day and a half to explore the awesome ecology of the area.

I have many wonderful photos from the trip. A number of photos from a day with a guide exploring a marsh rookery by boat have been very well received on Google+. A shot of a little blue heron has been viewed almost 5,000 times and held the record of 88 +1's for a couple months.

But the one above is my favorite. What could be more ordinary than a red-winged blackbird among cattails? What could be more satisfying than seeing and showing the beauty in the ordinary? 

This encounter happened at a spot I found on my own. If you're ever in the Lake Charles area, I highly recommend a drive south from the city toward the Gulf on a highway called the Creole Nature Trail (Hwy 27). The field edges, irrigation canals and road ditches of the upper stretch of the highway offer plenty of dragonflies, wildflowers, grasses and birds. 

But you'll soon come to the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, and within the refuge on the east side of the highway, the Pintail Wildlife Drive. This is a marsh with an elevated loop road meant to be driven at a slow rate of speed. You will be rewarded.

The instructions at the entrance are to stay in your car--for good reason. If you sense eyeballs lookin' at you, it will most likely be one of the many curious 'gators that raise their heads and come to check you out!

But at one point along the drive, a parking lot and a large loop of boardwalk enable you to walk right out into the marsh. I had it to myself that Saturday afternoon. Moving slowly and quietly, pausing to enjoy the breeze, look and take photos, this red-winged blackbird allowed me to get within range of my 70-210 zoom. 

Oh, and I did see a pintail, but did not get within range of it!

Best of 2014: May

Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes)
The magnificent Kisatchie National Forest occupies 944 square miles of western Louisiana. It sprawls across seven parishes from just a few miles south of I-20 to just below the center of the state.

This past summer, I began to appreciate the splendors of the Kisatchie as never before. My May birthday gift to myself was a 3-day plant identification workshop with my friend Dr. Charles Allen, botanist for the U.S. Army at Fort Polk. He and his wife run Allen Acres, a B&B surrounded by gardens just a few miles south of Cravens, La., along Highway 399.

The plant workshop included several field trips around Allen Acres and into neighboring Kisatchie National Forest land. But my driving route to Allen Acres includes Highway 436 through the eastern edge of the Kisatchie and past an area called Cooter's Bog.

I left for the workshop in plenty of time to stop and shoot along the way if I saw something interesting. So when I got to Cooter's Bog in the late afternoon, I stopped.

Wow! What a beautiful spot! Not huge, but in 30 minutes and within just a few yards of the access road, I photographed more than a dozen wildflower species, plus long leaf pine saplings and ferns.

But my pride and joy is the shot of above. When I spied this plant, I was not sure but I thought it was a wild orchid. Imagine my excitement when I got to Allen Acres, showed my shots to Dr. Allen and he indeed identified it as a wild orchid, common name "Lady's Tresses" of the genus Spiranthes.

Unfortunately, I did not photograph the leaves, so he could not name a species, but I'm still excited about my first ever wild orchid find. Since then, I've seen many more, but nothing compares with the first!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Best of 2014: April

Nana Buruku

This ancient, immense cypress tree presides over Lake Martin in south Louisiana on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin. To be more precise, Lake Martin is south of Breau Bridge and east of Lafayette. It is more swamp than lake.

I am in awe of the place. My second trip in April 2014 I went on a swamp tour--a mere $20 very well spent--and hiked part way around the lake. And although I came home with more than 200 photos, of which several are outstanding, this one is my favorite.

All while processing the photo I kept thinking "spirit of the swamp." And so, with some searching, I found Nana Buruku, a large, strong, dark-skinned wise old woman from Yoruba religion who presides over waters, especially swamps. Surely this is she!

A couple of photographic notes:
     1) This looks like a pretty straight documentary shot, and it certainly is "documentary" in intent and result. But swamps are over the top in terms of visual distractions, and I spent several hours in photoshop using a variety of tools to make the tree stand out and bring out the texture and light, but keeping the fullest sense of context possible.
     2) The January and February photos I shared can't be anything but color. This one for April and the one for March are black & white, and really can't be anything  but black & white. They just don't work in color. In perusing my swamp tour photos, I passed over this one again and again, until one day I was looking with an eye toward black & white, and it popped out. I couldn't even see it until I was seeing it in black & white!

Best of 2014: March


I have no idea why shooting photos through the windows of moving trains fascinates me. Maybe because where I live, moving trains for people to ride in are pretty rare!

So when I'm in a moving train, it usually means I'm getting a city fix of some kind. This one was in Baltimore last March where I attended the annual Archdeacon's Conference.

Of course, when shooting from a moving train, I waste a lot of clicks--altogether way more affordable than wasting film! I guess that's why my fascination with shooting from moving trains did not emerge until after the digital revolution.

In any case, I don't just hold down the trigger and let the camera auto-fire multiple frames. Rather, I keep one eye on the passing terrain and one eye in the viewfinder and shoot one frame at a time.

Now that's still a gamble on what Henri Cartier-Bresson--one of my photographer heroes--called "the decisive moment." It is a lot of luck when things come together in the frame and my timing is right on. Nevertheless, it is more satisfying to me than the alternative.

So... I love this one. It is the underside of a huge cloverleaf intersection somewhere on the edge of Baltimore. But to me it's kind of cathedral-like. Mundane and majestic. The magic of "and."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Best of 2014: February

The Shining Word "And"

"And" teaches us to say "yes"
"And" allows us to be both-and
"And" teaches us to be patient and long-suffering
"And" is willing to wait for insight and integration
--Richard Rohr

February was slim pickin' in terms of photographs. I shot very little and most of the take was pretty ho hum. 

Indeed, I would not usually include a sunset in the "best of" album. That's not because I don't love a beautiful sunset. I do. But beautiful sunsets require relatively little from either the photographer or the camera. Point and shoot, or so it seems to me.

I do love this one a lot because of the cloud patterns and the relative subtlety of the colors, which I brought out by adjusting contrast. You will find this image on the home page of the Episcopal Mission of Northeast Louisiana.

This beautiful moment happened while I was driving on Highway 15 between I-20 and Winnsboro, La. And it resonated with the Richard Rohr I was reading at that time.

The sky speaks to me. It saves my life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best of 2014: January

Turn on Your Heart Light

It's time once again to have a look at the winding-down year by picking one photograph from every month's take. In January, it took me 'til the last day of the month to get something I really, really like.

I call this "Turn on Your Heart Light" because the sun reflected in the water appears to me to be coming from within the earth. Processing it, I was reminded of E.T. and the "heartlight" that glowed from within his chest. Here's Neil Diamond singing the song: Heartlight

This location is a quarry on the east side of Highway 165 just north of the turn-off to Camp Hardtner. The quarry was dug to get fill dirt to make 165 four lanes. But they struck a spring and the hole filled with water--beautiful turquoise water.

It is one of my favorite places to shoot. I call it "Home of the Wounded Healer." And to understand that, well, I guess you need to read some Henri Nouwen!