thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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Are you a telephoto lens (close up) or a wide angle lens (big picture)?

color among the cedars

color among the cedars

This morning my loaner bicycle took me up along a road I hadn’t traveled for 31 years, and never by 2 wheels. It was an unseasonably mild November Sunday morning around 7 a.m. and the road grew narrower until it finally stopped; at least the paved surface ended. On one side was a catchment pond for run off to collect from surrounding mountains and from there feed into the cascading steps of rice paddy, now empty after the harvest. On the other side and also continuing up the narrow valley, but now overgrown and very coarsely covered in stone fragments there were roads to reach the timber in wood lots on the faces of the mountains. To someone local perhaps there was little appeal in pedaling uphill to the end of the blacktop and then walking a little ways into the mountain where signs warned of wild boar and disturbed patches showed signs of their recent search for eatables. For nearby residents such things may go unnoticed, or may be taken for granted. Such places and spaces are utilitarian work sites or in earlier years no man’s land, suitable for abandoning an unwanted TV or bicycle, from what I saw. In other words from the hustle and bustle point of view, those neighboring features are only salient when there is work to do, money involved, or social obligations affected. Routine days and weekly schedules are dictated by an instrumental mindset, a linear set of tasks, a narrow field of view – much like a telephoto lens.

By contrast my own eyes were filled with wonder at the immense silence of the woods, the light filtering through the canopy, and the occasional fall colors of a deciduous tree amid the many market valued cedars. And I felt a sleight trepidation at the possibility of gaining personal experience of a pack of wild swine. The occasional Shinto shrine along the way up the valley was a reminder of the customs from premodern times that live on in some ways, partly in recognition of the seismic pulse of the Japanese islands and possibly the generational respect for forces unseen. So my mental angle of view was more like a wide angle lens, taking in the novelty of the surroundings, hyper aware of smells, sounds, colors and light. And yet these same footsteps to a local person might not detect any of this mental process that was running through my senses.

The same must also be true of every reader’s local situation – the routine pathways, spaces and places of weekly activity become dull in some way; unremarkable. Although to a visitor from out of town or out of the country perhaps the same locations would trigger all sorts of responses. Perhaps the richest experience would be to have a little of both; benefiting from the local knowledge and layers of memories there, but also enjoying the sense of wonder and fresh eyes that an outsider brings.


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Golden hour, blue hour, gray hour, night

fading light Sunday after 4:30, central Echizen City

fading light Sunday after 4:30, central Echizen City (click image for full size)

For some reason the fading light of the evening beckoned and rather than climb the apartment steps and make supper, I set off for a walk to the riverside and enjoyed the cool November air and the rising north breeze. Street lights began to shine, headlamps on the cars came on, and the dusk deepened. What is it about the day’s changing light toward the evening (or in reverse order: night to gray, to blue, to golden at sunrise) that so appeals to emotional response? The time when the sun is low in the sky and the light temperature shifts to the warmer tones does seem to amplify and intensify the colors alone and against each other. The shadows are sharpened and darkened, too. As the golden hour gives way to the blue hour with its cooler color temperatures, it is the opposite effect to the golden hour. Now the reduced range of colors makes those remaining colors seem precious; or at least they seem different to the normal look found in broad daylight. Even a familiar location takes on an unfamiliar look in this light. Then the last of the colors become even more muted until the light values that define shapes and relative distances is something like grayscale. Now the full night is not far away, so something magical happens – the boundary between history and the ordinary daily life of the present tense blurs a little. The leap of imagination to step into the past or the future only requires a small jump. It takes just a little effort to imagine the time has changed. The line between the living and dead thins in the quickly passing twilight as night takes over.

What is the attraction of night photography? Using a tripod changes the pace and length of exposures that now is possible, thus producing images different to ones quickly composed and captured. And the extreme lighting of artificial source versus unlit adjacent space means that point-source light is clearly defined. It is individual, palpable and 3-dimensional (unlike the all-surrounding direct sunlight and indirect sky reflection). All together then the 2-hour span from Golden to Blue to Gray to Night provides a seamless stream of changing light conditions, each of which has appeals of its own. But when taken back to back, it is a feast for the eyes in four courses, both morning and evening!