Category Archives: On Photography

Sunday at the Park in Raleigh

On a walk from my house to the campus of Dorothea Dix hospital in Raleigh N.C. a couple of weeks ago, I discovered this group of painted plywood figures erected in the wide open spaces of the central lawn.

© Lawrence S. Earley

© Lawrence S. Earley

It was an almost perfect replication of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte” (below). A couple of the people in Seurat’s composition are missing to the right of the foreground couple, and the spacing between that couple and the figures on their left could have been better, I think. But the organization of the figures matched Seurat’s remarkably well.

a_sunday_afternoon_on_the_island_of_la_grande_jatte

courtesy Wikipedia Commons

I would have loved to know why they were there. It was a little eerie—all those figures, so artfully arranged, but with no explanation as to why. I took a photo with my iPhone and continued my walk. A few days after I made the photograph the figures were gone.

I’ve looked at my photograph quite a bit since then. Someone had taken great care to carve the figures to match Seurat’s composition, to paint them very carefully and to space them almost exactly.  You don’t just do that for fun.  Perhaps they had been made as a background for an outdoor theater presentation of Sondheim’s “A Sunday in the Park with Georges.” Perhaps a dance troupe could have danced through the figures. After the performance, the pieces were left to be picked up later. I’m sure it was something like that.

I could probably discover what they were doing there with a phone call or two, but I’m not sure I want to know. I like the mystery of it. Here today, gone the next, my photo the only evidence of its existence. There are a lot of possible explanations, including, of course, space aliens. They always seem to represent the best explanation for things that are hard to understand.

If I had a truck and made a few trips, I could have picked up the whole bunch of figures myself, although I’m not sure what I would have done with all the pieces. Maybe I’d keep the couple on the right, put them out in our garden. Maybe the little girl running. But I really didn’t think of doing that, although someone else might have. An eccentric drug king with a yen for Sondheim, for example, stole the pieces and had them reassembled at a large estate in another country. I think that’s pretty unlikely, but you never know.

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Low Tide at Pawleys Island

Some decades ago, when my wife and I began spending a week each spring at Pawleys Island, SC, my black and white photography feasted on the splendors of marsh, creek and beach. My three-ring binders grew fat with negatives and contact sheets of landscapes, seascapes and marshscapes. People were noticeable in my photographs more  by their complete absence. In recent years, however, people have begun to creep into my Pawleys Island negatives in greater numbers.Low Tide #22.tiff copy           I’ve increasingly spent my time photographing during low tide, especially at the inlets. These were the most dynamic times of the day, when the inlet waters gradually lowered and narrowed, and the beach widened as the tide fell. The broadening space attracted great numbers of people. Sometimes they walked alone, sometimes in twos or threes, sometimes bending over in a pose of thoughtful discovery. Some looked for shells, moving in a slow and almost dreamlike way. Others walked across the shallow inlet to reach the sandy islands that had formed as the tide dropped. Parents gathered with their small children to wade and play in the warm tidal pools that formed at low tide. The tide’s retreat from the beach had created a zone of contemplation, discovery and play.

Low Tide #19.tiff copyLow Tide #17.tiff copy            I became interested in the way the figures moved about, and especially in the relationships they formed with each other as they moved. A figure’s pose might suddenly echo another’s at some distance and that’s when I’d take the picture. Some figures passed completely unaware of each other but they formed an interesting arrangement. I’d look for those kinds of pictures, too.Low Tide #11.tiff copy 2Low Tide #6.tiff copy 2All Photos ©Lawrence S. Earley

I photographed these “Low Tide People” at a respectful distance, not so far away that they would be only dots in the picture, and not so close that my presence might interfere with their spontaneous movements. I wanted to capture them as figures occupying a large space of sky, sand and water.

Please view more photographs in this series at my photography website, www.lawrenceearley.photoshelter.com.

A House in Maine

A photograph may be a little more complicated than you think it is at first.

Maine-House001(grgam).jpgMaine House, ©Lawrence Earley

This is a picture I took about 30 years ago of a house along the Maine coast. It’s a small photograph, 5¼ in. x 8 in., made from a 35 mm negative, and I’ve matted it on an 11 in. x 17 in. board. It’s something that I enjoy looking at quite a lot.

I like the different tonalities in the photograph, first of all—the gray tones contrasted with the garage’s bright white and the stark black of the small racing horse medallion. I like the comforting way the dark tones of the foliage almost cradle and protect the bright garage. From one perspective, there’s a great deal of comfort imagery in the photograph: the fence enclosing the property from the front, the screen hiding the interior of the porch, and the aforementioned foliage surrounding the garage from behind. This seems to be a photograph of interiors, safe interiors, a place where you are protected from people like me, the photographer, viewing from the outside.

What else is going on? It’s got a nice, slightly off-kilter balance to it. It doesn’t particularly say Maine to me in a clichéd or trite way. What it evokes to me now (and perhaps when I took the picture) is a sense of a well-ordered space.  That sense of order is present in the photographic composition and it’s also in the space maintained by the people who live there. Perhaps the scene said to me, “What a nice place to live.” My wife and I had recently bought a house and perhaps I had the house on my mind.

I’d like to sit on that porch in the summer. Would there be a porch swing there? There should be, or a rocking chair, perhaps. Perhaps the chair makes a slight noise on the wooden floor as it moves. I would be reading poetry in this space, not that I read a lot of poetry but I think the silence within that space would reward a reading experience in which you pay attention to the words.

But isn’t there another way of looking at the photo? It’s not one that I was immediately aware of, but it’s there, I think. Couldn’t this be an image about fear? All the doors and windows and gates are closed. It’s a walled space, a walled castle minus the moat. Then there’s the fence with the sword-point tops; the closed windows of the building on the bottom left; the opaque screens on the porch; the porch protected by two buildings, each of them closed up tight. Couldn’t this photo be saying “Keep out!”? Despite the homeliness of their wooden construction, aren’t these solid structures like defensive walls?

This is a good example of how enigmatic a given image can be, like a Rorschach inkblot which you can read in two or more ways, depending on how you’re feeling at the time or on your basic personality type. If you flip back and forth between seeing the scene in the photograph as protective and comforting, or closed and defensive, it’s a little like the famous optical illusion in which you either see an old hag or a pretty young woman.

A simple photograph may not be so simple.

 

 

 

Why Photograph This?

I wonder why I am drawn to make photographs like this.  A wintry, cold, overcast day in early January.   Lake Johnson, in Raleigh, a walk I love to make often and have only begun to photograph.  Rain the day before.  Fallen leaves along the marsh’s margin.  A somewhat dark composition, although the sky’s reflection and the grasses in the background give it a little tonal lift.  Is the subject beautiful?Image

I think so, in my cracked way of looking at things.  I’ve taken many photos like this over the years.  I used to categorize them as “Common Places” but I think they’re more special than that.  I don’t know how to label such scenes, but maybe it’s not necessary to do so.

Which gets me back to my original question:  Why do I photograph a scene like this?  That’s a question that’s at the heart of all art, I guess. I know some will say it’s not beautiful, but perhaps we will agree scenes like these are compelling in their own way; they focus attention, at least for a little while.  Winter, they say.  Death and rebirth.  Darkness and soon the light.

Grasslands Exhibit

Big Yellow MountainI just hung my “Carolina Grasslands” exhibit at the Nature Art Gallery of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.  It opens on August 2 and closes on Sept. 2.   For the last month or so I’ve been printing in the darkroom for the show, but for the first time I’m exhibiting inkjet prints along with the silver gelatin prints.  About half the show is made up of inkjet prints.  All of the work is film-based, so the inkjet prints were made by scanning the negatives and then working them up in Photoshop and Aperture.

It’s probably unusual to exhibit both inkjet prints and silver gelatin prints in the same show, and I have a lame excuse and a better excuse for it.  The lame excuse is that I ran out of time to do the show entirely in the darkroom, which is where I prefer to do my exhibition work.  A better excuse is that, truthfully, some of the digital prints were superior to prints that I had labored over in the darkroom for a couple of days. That, of course, really bummed me out because I think of myself as a pretty good printer.

Having admitted that to myself, I could have gone in two different directions: I could have said the heck with the labor and time involved in film and darkroom work, I’m going digital one hundred percent.  I’ve been tempted to abandon the darkroom for a couple of years now.  I know many photographers who are doing wonderfully creative work with digital materials.

The other thing I could have done is say that I need to improve my darkroom printing skills, and, no surprise for those who know me, that’s what I’m doing. I signed up for a Vision and Skills weekend course with Michael Smith and Paula Chamlee in Ottsville, Pa., in September.  They are two wonderfully skilled veteran photographers and printmakers whose work I admire.     I’m hoping to benefit from seeing how they work in the darkroom.