One shot

So there I am, searching for an image to serve as a header for the Festival of the Trees coordinating blog. (I had decided to switch to a theme with less annoying fonts.) It’s late morning, and I’ve been going through my photos for close to an hour. I’m getting frustrated, because I only have a small number of what I’d consider acceptable tree photos, and none of them look much good cropped to banner dimensions. I’m also feeling some frustration at the fact that I haven’t done anything that you might call creative so far today.

I glance up and find myself gazing out the window at a sudden snow squall. I relax and watch the swirling flakes for half a minute, then on an impulse, grab my camera and go out on the front porch. With the camera on wide angle and natural light settings, I shoot three pictures almost at random. Snowflakes are already beginning to hit the lens, so I scurry back inside. Reviewing the pictures on the LCD display, I delete two of them right away. But it occurs to me that the third — a shot into the sun, which was half-hidden by a scrim of snow cloud — might well yield a good banner image. I upload it to the computer and look at it in Photoshop, and sure enough, at about 50 percent magnification, there are plenty of likely banner-size images. I crop and save three in quick succession, and the first one I try at the Festival blog looks fine (I keep another in reserve at Flickr, just in case). It fits the season, which is nothing if not festive. Only after the photo is up and in use as the new header do I take the time to look at it more closely — the kind of looking that would have to precede image-making in almost any other medium than photography.

Sketch artists may draw a fairly negative moral from this story: look how totally inattentive one can be and still end up with a half-decent photo! Snapshot photography is obviously an invitation to semi-distracted, careless looking rather than genuine seeing.

All that may be true. But I am ridiculously pleased that I managed to get a good image largely “unencumbered by the thought process,” as they say on Car Talk.

Is it fair to say that I was inattentive, though? I don’t know. Thinking back on it, I’m pretty sure that I had the image I wanted to take already in my mind’s eye before I went out on the porch. Looking at the two images I got out of the one shot I saved, it’s evident that a couple things were working in my favor: the snowflakes were effectively backlit by the almost-shining sun, giving maximal contrast with the trees behind them; and the fact that it was the edge of the woods, as opposed to somewhere in the middle of it, meant that there were plenty of outstretched branches to suggest motion and energy.

I’m dwelling on this not to blow my own horn — I really don’t think of myself as anything but the rankest of amateur photographers — but because I’m fascinated by the creative process. In the close to two years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve found myself taking fewer and fewer shots of each subject. Quite often, the first picture snapped turns out to be the best, and I know it when I take it. But quite often, too, I’ve been looking at the subject for a good long time before I get the camera out. Take the recent deer skull pictures, for example: the skull sits right outside my door, in the lilac bush above my stone wall. I’ve been looking at it for months. The view from my porch? I take it in for at least a half-hour every morning.

I watched myself on Sunday, when I went for a walk around the mountain with the camera. As usual, I took a certain number of shots of things simply because they looked cool, and more or less knew when I took them that they wouldn’t be keepers. I got close with a couple, including a strikingly grotesque red maple tree that I’ve been photographing off and on for months without success. I think I may have the right angle now, but probably the light needs to be different. I spent a lot of time standing and looking at things, and found that simply by gazing with no particular expectations, a couple of times a viable shot would appear. One of the better photos featured a clump of turkey-tail fungi I’d never noticed before, and I took it with very little deliberation. But I’ve photographed other clumps of turkey-tail fungi, so quite possibly I already knew what angle to shoot from.

Has photography made me a better writer? I don’t know. More than anything, I suppose, it provides me with a creative outlet when I don’t feel up to writing, and the results often make good writing prompts, too. (This post doesn’t count, being more analytical than creative.) Has it changed the way I look at things? I doubt it. But I think it has reinforced some of the lessons I had already learned from three and a half decades of writing poems: to trust my impulses, and to work with whatever comes most readily to hand.

I’d be interested in hearing from other writers who have taken up photography. What, if anything, do you think you’ve learned from it?


deer skull 2

Our task, is it not an exorcism,
a response to the inscrutable challenge?
–Enrique Lihn

the world's selves

The world’s selves cure that short disease, myself.
–Randall Jarrell


For the rest of my deer skull series (shot yesterday), see here. Mosaic created with fd’s Flickr Toys from my own photos: 1. black bear footprint, 2. mannequins, 3. Baltimore checkerspot, 4. orange and blue, 5. phoebe, 6. art for sale, 7. solitary vireo 2, 8. fawn face, 9. The Middlewesterner, 10. wheel bug with wasp, 11. mushroom beast, 12. cairn man, 13. locust borer, 14. turkey hen, 15. Carolina wren, 16. annual cicada on sidewalk crack, 17. spectacled owl on eggs, 18. wattled curassow, 19. Sri Lankan mask, 20. squirrel window, 21. field sparrow grooming 3, 22. snail 3, 23. wood turtle with its head drawn in, 24. convertible, 25. vulture 2

The Collector

May, 1905. The run-down end
of a village in Hungary, where
the peasants are marrying
& giving in marriage, the same
as ever. A slight young man
with a silk bow fastened to his neck
is taking a strange-looking machine
from its case & assembling it
on a stool. The hurdy-gurdy player
watches as he inserts a cylinder
& attaches a brass horn.
What kind of music does it make,
he asks. All kinds & none,
says Bartók, his voice
crackling with wonder. It’s an ear
with a perfect memory
He points to the stylus.
They finally invented a pen
that knows how to speak!

August. In Paris to compete
for the Prix Rubenstein, Bartók visits
the Moulin Rouge — so many butterflies
of the night with painted faces
he writes in a letter to his mother —
& a cabaret called Le néant.
Here instead of tables
there are wooden coffins,
the walls are black & decorated
with human skeletons or parts
of skeletons, & the waiters
are dressed as if for a funeral.
The lighting is such that our lips
take on the color of blackberries,
our cheeks a waxen yellow,
nails violet — in other words,
we look like cadavers —
& for entertainment, one
of our party lets himself
be wrapped in a winding sheet
& changed into a skeleton
before our eyes.

1915. The Great War
restricts travel to a few counties
in the interior. Bartók writes,
I often leave the road & cut
through the woods, where I find
a great many insects.
That’s my other collection now —
it too will keep me occupied
long after my return.
The peasants here are poor
but very hospitable. I am bound
always by gratitude, never
quite free. But on Sundays
we go to collect songs
in the neighboring villages,
taking the long way around
& hiking through the mountains
whenever we can. I’ve started
taking photographs, too,
a difficult thing.

January 1943. New York.
At what will turn out to be
his last public performance,
Bartók is soloing with his wife Ditta
in the Concerto for Two Pianos
and Orchestra
: the New York
Philharmonic, conducted by Fritz
Reiner. Suddenly Bartók veers
off-score, leaving his wife
& the others to grope along
after him as best they can
on this new path through
the same, steep terrain.
Afterwards, Reiner is furious.
How could you risk everything
on a whim?
They are riding
in a New York taxi cab.
After a long silence, Bartók turns
to his wife beside him & says,
The tympanist! It was
the tympanist who started it.
He hit a wrong note — & suddenly
there was a new idea
that I had to try out right then
& follow wherever it led.
I couldn’t help it. That moment
will never come again.


gall face

It’s blog carnival time! Hie thee over to Arboreality for Festival of the Trees 6 — Taking Root and Bearing Fruit, an exceptionally generous and well-organized link-fest. Take work off early if you have to.

I thought I’d get into the spirit of things with the above shot of an oak apple gall, made by — get this — an oak apple gall wasp. Last May, the parent wasp hijacked an oak leaf (still attached) and made it grow a brood chamber for her larvae, which eventually burst out, Alien-like, through the little holes at the front. Either that, or the holes were made by some predator going in. In any case, I was disappointed to see that my favorite invertebrate carnival, Circus of the Spineless, has been postponed for another week.

However, in scanning the list of just-published blog carnivals at, I was very pleased to discover a scholarly section of the blogosphere I had no idea about represented at the Biblical Studies Carnival. If you’re as turned on as I am by topics such as “When did Yahweh and El merge?”, “Were the Galatians already circumcised?” (a seven-part series!) and “Going Potty in Ancient Times,” then please join me in checking out this carnival. If you’re after lighter fare, though, perhaps the Carnival of Satire will be more to your liking.

If you’re a bird-lover, you probably already know about I and the Bird, but if you don’t, the latest edition (#37) offers an excellent introduction to one of the original inspirations for the Festival of the Trees.

By the way, if you’d like to help spread the word about the Festival of the Trees with a colorful badge in your sidebar, just like the one I have —

Festival of the Trees

or with a more minimalistic “antipixel” button —

Festival of the Trees

we have the code available for copying and pasting at the coordinating blog’s new Promote page.

UPDATE (3:00 p.m.): I’ve just finished reading all the posts in the Festival. I learned about a form of meditation in which people try and imitate trees; trees wrapped entirely in straw for the winter; fungi that kill animals and share the spoils with their tree partners; the amazing xylothek; a tree so toxic that the smoke from its burning wood can kill people who inhale it; and medlars that must be bletted. If you want the links, you know where to go.