Familiar and Strange

photographer – Harold A. Parker, c. 1919

A photograph is a particularly concise method of capturing a moment in time – a moment that another can savor later, sometimes much later. The masks here look very familiar, but not the litter transporting the patient. Was this a standard stretcher replacement during the 1919 pandemic? How strange. The familiar and the exotic speak to us from a century ago. And yet, what do we really know? Is the patient falling ill, recovering, being tested, or just being allowed a brief trip outdoors? A photograph can convey with almost infinite detail, while unable on its own, to give us the larger story. I am drawn near, then tugged into its orbit. But my time traveling spaceship will never land for a closer look.


Are structure and entropy truly opposites of one another? Or, like space-time, are they so intimately linked as to be essentially inseparable? This image, “Formation”, is one way of looking at this pair of seeming opposites. This may be a planet being formed or it may be one in the throes of destruction. As the “Lion King” teaches us, the circle of life means that our elements pass from one kind of life to another… the same elements that once made up the stars.

What Else?

What else? The question I always ask when looking at my work. Photographs are interpreted by the same visual apparatus of cornea, lens, retina, optic nerve, and brain, as is regular vision. But I like to imagine what else this image might be. Is it a river system, an x-ray of a patient’s arterial structure, a bolt of lightning, or just an abstract painting? This imaginative process is critical to me when I edit my own work. Can I tell something about the external world or about my internal world (normally only encountered in a therapist’s office).

I don’t think of vision as a fixed, mechanical and electrochemical process. My vision is malleable and subject to change. Why? I’ve struggled to maintain physical vision throughout my life – so I can never take it for granted. Through the ups and downs of lenses, surgeries, daily life, and becoming a photographer, I’ve seen with perhaps 20 or 30 different kinds of optical systems. What has remained constant, since the age of 25, is my desire to make good use of my vision – to record it, catalog it, and save it for later consumption.

Okay, so I’ve decided that today this image looks to me like a river system as seen from above. I like the combination of graininess and soft edges. It kind of reminds me of my sight through the set of glasses that I currently see through. But tomorrow, arriving at a horrible, frustrating day (e.g. one of a string of Mondays), I will see it as lightning. I’d like to knock or shock down everything that stands in my way. Tomorrow might be a Covid-19, uncertain, scary, frightening day and yet on the news I see crowds lounging on Florida beaches. What are they missing … or what am I missing? It depends on perspective.

Plenty of other photographers (actually, most) make photographs as indelible records of moments. Let’s say I’m looking at an image of a New York city woman on the street, dressed in 1960’s style – Garry Winogrand’s work. It’s beautiful and it’s chock full of information, but I can’t see it as anything other than what it is. At that moment I feel limited.

a so-called visual impairment

Having a “visual impairment” is a gift–if you look at the situation just right. There are so many everyday functions I take for granted. I can wake up, stand, walk, hear, and touch. These are the things I don’t notice or appreciate. But not so with vision—I have struggled with corneal disease since age 9 or 10. Keratoconus is a kind of weakness in the cells of the cornea, allowing internal pressure to deform its shape. I am lucky to have had many successful corneal transplants, a gift from the dying to the living.

Take nothing for granted. See everything. Watch the sun rise over Mount Washington. See your daughter’s gorgeous smile on her graduation day. Notice how the 6:30 am light plays pixie over your favorite painting.

Photographing the Oort Cloud

About 100,000 astronomical units* from the sun there’s likely to exist a belt of icy objects astronomers call the Oort Cloud. The Voyager spacecraft is heading out there but it’s gonna take about 300 years to reach there.

When a photon leaves the sun it takes about 1 ½ years to reach an object in the Oort Cloud. That’s a damn long way. So a photographer standing on a comet in the Oort Cloud has to take at least a 1 ½ year exposure in order to picture what is happening right “now”. I’m not sure what the word now means in such a context. But that’s a super long exposure – make sure your tripod is really steady.

This image reflects my understanding of how the Oort Cloud might look from an extreme distance. It also gives some insight as to how chaos looks – chaos in the mathematical sense. Photographing the results of chaotic behavior is easy though. Go outside your workplace on a dry winter day, a day or two after a snowfall. Search for that place on the sidewalk where rock salt has melted away the ice. Make an exposure on your digital camera. Import the image into Photoshop and add a black and white filter layer. Then add extreme contrast using the legacy feature of contrast layers. The result is an approximation of what god sees when s/he looks down on the Oort Cloud. You are now a creator.

*one astronomical unit is the distance from the earth to the sun



Thoughts on photography

Every photograph is in part, a self-portrait. I’ve photographed all the things that photographers do – burned out buildings, homeless folks, bare trees in the wind, grandparents, football games, and the rest. I don’t know what it is that makes a bare tree into a self-portrait, but it is. Where words fall short in describing myself, the photograph speaks volumes. It describes the tree in great detail but it can also be looked at as a symbol. The leaves may be gone, branches craggy, and trunk standing solid against the sky. In this sense, in resilience, isolation, and contrast, the tree is me. The roots are my feet, trunk is a skinny torso, limbs are outstretched arms, and branches are aging fingers with knobby knuckles. A photograph is a visual poem – it says as much through what is missing as it does in its myriad details.