Saturday, February 27, 2010

Symbols, people and society...

Most people know the difference between reality and fantasy, and yet they are unaware that just about everything that they have learned, everything they believe, everything they understand, everything in their head is in a way a fantasy - it isn't real. The reason has to do with our wonderful ability to use symbols. (bigger versions)

Symbols represent a concept, a dream of something that doesn't truly exist in nature - or rather something beyond what we can perceive in nature. The truth of nature is always beyond knowing, and yet we have no problem communicating with each other… our languages allow us to communicate, to build upon the knowledge that came before us, to organize and to create. We have languages built on symbols and rules for social uses. We have languages of mathematics to model reality, to predict what has not been observed. We have languages of the arts that can convey emotions and ideas for which our common languages are insufficient. Indeed as we grow older and become members of any society, of any group, the symbols and rules, the language in that context becomes everything to us.

The problem comes when these abstract concepts we so often use are taken as real - when someone thinks that because a mathematical formula gives a particular result that reality must obey - it just doesn't work that way. Our models of they world may predict what will happen, but for every single one there is always a possibility that the model is wrong. Indeed every model we can ever build will likely not always be correct in every context of reality.

For an engineer it doesn't matter. An engineer only needs a model that is good enough for a given application. An engineer uses symbols and rules, a language, to create something for a limited purpose.

For a scientist it doesn't matter. A scientist (a real scientist) always tries to figure out where the models fail in hopes of coming up with a new model that fails in fewer situations, a model that is in some ways better.

For an artist it doesn't matter. An artist coveys something beyond the common understanding to others. Artists are the creators of symbols and rules and language.

Indeed for everyone it really doesn't matter, until we get tricked or distracted by someone else who uses their mastery of symbols and rules to mislead us for their own agenda.

Math however; is a little different than the rest of our languages. Math is a completely artificial and abstract framework of rules and symbols where every single person shares exactly the same internal understanding. Unlike a word such as "tree" for which each of us may have a slightly different internal representation, 0,1,2 and +,-,= mean exactly the same thing always and everywhere. For this reason (the completeness of definition) we can build machines that can manipulate these symbols and these rules faster and faster. When we can model things with math we can therefore be increasingly more productive.

But a machine, no matter how productive, is not a person. Machines operate with a framework completely defined and can therefore be replaced or repaired. Machines can never be anything more than what they were created. Every person functions and exists in a unique way - and so unlike any machine, people have the potential to add something, to make the world different and hopefully better…

With a machine the value is in productivity (what can it do).

With a person the value is in potential (what might you be able to do).

Anytime potential is sacrificed for productivity - a group, a society, a culture will benefit in the short term but is doomed to fail (or be replaced) in the long term.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Scent of nature...

So my dog has been in heat for the last few days and the one nice thing about snow is that everything leaves tracks. Each day going out into the woods we have been finding little fox prints following our trails from the day before. Today, on a ridge, the fox was waiting for us. Got in a few shots while he was focused on the dog and trying to figure out what to do... Nature of scent - Scent of nature (bigger versions)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


There are times in life when you come across something you didn't expect to find. Sometimes you ignore it and are left only with vague memories of what could have been and sometimes you act - you make an attempt to experience and in doing so are left bit changed, a bit closer to what you can become... (bigger versions)

The key is that these situations don't occur with planning - they can't be forced - they can't be learned from a book or taught by another - they must simply occur when life brings the elements together, and even then this only forms an environment of possibility and the choice of what to make of it is yours.

This is an older image from one of the first times I went out hiking with what has easily become my favorite lens. At the time I knew a great amount of information about the technical details of photography, but I was still largely inexperienced in the field. While in some ways it hurts me to see this image because I see so many things I would have done differently and the potential was there in a situation to make a great image but I lacked the skill at the time. In many ways this image is a huge failure, but I keep it because it is one that changed me - it helped me to become better in the future.

At the time I was hiking way out in the woods in an area not easy to get to because it is bound by a major highway and a river without bridges. Most of it has extreme hills and through parts the water from the highway is directed to the river. It isn't an area that sees people often and the ones that find themselves there are probably somewhat like me - driven just to see what is there. I had gone with the intention of looking for birds (an area of almost a hundred acres with woods and fields and hard for people to get to seemed ideal) but climbing out of a valley I came across two baby deer in a side channel. What surprised me was their expression - this because the deer often run and hide but these stayed and simply watched me and my dog hiking through the woods - no fear at all. I only later realized that they had probably never seen a person or a dog yet and simply had no idea how to react on their own - there were no adult deer close by to teach them... So of course I took pictures. When I looked at them later I was unhappy that they didn't reveal what I saw at the time, they were not satisfying to me. This was the first time I was really driven to figure out why, to understand what I had missed and what I needed to learn to get better... as it tuns out almost everything - not one of the choices I made at the time would I have used if I had the experience to do over.

Knowing the details of photography helps in a minor way, but experience and self analysis of failure is really the only way to become better.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Passed over the first time...

With life starting to get back to normal after all this snow, my head is starting to get out of the "survival mode" it's been in for the last few weeks. While it makes sense that stress can change one's perspective on life, it ended up revealing something more subtle about my perspective when I don't feel under stress as well. (bigger versions)

In my normal workflow I first archive all the images from a session and then make a first pass to mark those I find potentially interesting enough to spend time on - these are then copied to a different location and later I make a second pass and decide which ones to finish.

With some more time indoors and not out shooting I decided to look back at the originals, to make a second pass at the full sequences of shots from previous sessions in an attempt to analyze how I was adjusting to different conditions over time - how fast I was adjusting my approaches - how I was learning from previous sessions. What surprised me was how many shots I didn't decide to process that I should have...

Only looking at a few sessions I found many images that I can not find any rational explanation for why I passed them over the first time. Unexpectedly I had discovered that I was simply not seeing what was before me... Now this would normally not surprise me if I was unhappy or sad or overly busy, but this seems to have been happening even when I was in a good mood and excited and engaged.

Funny the things we learn about ourselves when we least expect to find them...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The assumed lost survive...

There is something odd about having your life completely disrupted. To be denied the usual routines - the things about the day that demarcate periods that can be absorbed and understood - the things that provide stability and comfort between the stresses of the day - our own personal punctuation marks of life - our way of building some sense of control of the world... to be utterly denied these things for too long forces reevaluation of what's really important in life, of who you are and why you exist but more importantly, of what gives meaning to your life. (bigger versions)

It is so easy to fall into a routine and become comfortable with it, but after a while it stops becoming fulfilling in the same way it once was... things become a bit less vibrant, every idea seems old, that excitement of merely being alive and having an endless world full of mystery and wonder and new experiences slowly goes away...

But when you are denied the constructs placed between you and the world for long enough you begin to see things a bit differently.

With back to back blizzards here that took out a huge number of trees and denied power and mobility to so many, I found it a pleasant surprise that deep in the woods these dried leaves still clinging to a small tree survived unscathed. So many things I want to forget about this winter, but survival of those cast away and assumed to be lost is worth remembering...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Holding the light...

Sometimes in life it's nice to remember a moment for what it is... form and beauty so often lost in the mundane realities of the day. (bigger versions)

This is one my older images from an experimental series of shots working out flash compensation and higher speed photography using a light trigger. Something about this one just appeals to me, the moment here is what I wanted to capture. I look back on this one and see all the things I would do differently now (and hopefully this season I will achieve a better image) but despite the flaws, I really like this one anyway.