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Guest Blog on Landscape Photography Blogger

I wanted to pass along that I’ve had the honor of having been asked by David Leland Hyde to do a guest blog about the Quabbin Reservoir on his site, Landscape Photography Blogger.  If you’re interested, just click on the hot link associated with the name.  David is a terrific photographer in his own right, but really came into the field in part as a steward to the library of work of his Father, Philip Hyde.  Philip Hyde, who passed away in 2006, left behind a body of work easily on a par with that of the other great names of landscape photography such as Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter.  He created magnificent art that stood on its own for its ability to capture something of the spirit of place in the west.  In addition though, his art was also in the service of education and conservation.  He was closely aligned with the Sierra Club among other groups in that effort and perhaps best known for his work in the area behind Glen Canyon Dam in Colorado, locations now submerged by the Reservoir there.  He was a relentless defender of the natural world in part because he felt that the experience of participating in that world was essential for all of us.  As a photographer he was also one of the first large landscape photographers to use color film.  Now we take color for granted, and hardly ever use film!  At the time, that was a major technological leap. David Leland Hyde has I think invigorated Phillip Hyde’s legacy, as both an artist and an environmentalist, in a way that is so important.  This story goes on, thankfully.

I was thrilled then when David contacted me and expressed a real interest in our Massachusetts wilderness, the Quabbin Reservoir area.  As my wife and I joke sometimes, it’s not Yosemite, but it’s pretty darn interesting.  As I tried to capture in the piece on Landscape Photography Blogger, anyone who cares to go there can experience that sense of being in the wild that Philip Hyde rightfully drew to our attention.  Thanks to David for helping spread that story.

A while back, I posted the video you see below that presents some of Philip Hyde’s work.  I titled the post, Images that Changed the World.  Have a look.  The imagery is stunning.  David Leland Hyde is the narrator.  And yes, Philip and his colleagues had to fight to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon, if you can believe that. It seems to me that we have come a long way, but that alas, we have a long way to go. Those of you reading this blog who are interested in landscape photography should make a visit to Landscape Photography Blogger a routine part of your week.  It’s always worth the time.

Portrait of a Hawk – Another Couple in Elm Park

In my last blog I mentioned being provoked to think about the meaning of my work in the context of the on-going reconstruction of Elm Park, in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts.  I had bumped into a couple who had questioned the value, financially and otherwise, of the Park and its reboot.  We bumped into another couple today, quite a different experience.  These two young folks, sitting on one of the benches at the Park were chatting like, well young couples do, and probably enjoying the more moderate temperatures.  We happened to be passing by, pursuing yet another reflection shot, when we were joined by the individual you see here.  He landed not too high up in a tree, perhaps thirty feet from the four of us, and commenced to screaming at the top of his/her lungs.  In case you are not aware, hawks can really let it loose when they have something to say.  I think the young couple was amused or annoyed (their attitudes may have broken down along gender lines, I’m not sure), but I had the sense that they were thinking that it would be OK if I were to act like an annoying photographer and get the hawk to fly away, leaving them to get on with their business.  The ability to be annoying is of course is a key competency in photography, so I hit the shutter.

Hawk, Elm Park, Worcester MA James Hunt copyright 2013

I’m not a wildlife photographer.  I would never want to do anything that required that much work; and the hours?  Forget about it.  But this individual’s stare got under my skin a bit.  My wife and I talked about that look, trying to figure out what it means.  What was the screaming about?  There was another hawk in the area that seemed to be working closely with this one.  Hawks scream for a few different reasons and it is a scream.  It is a basic form of communications.  It may have been part of a conversation with its mate.  There may have been another errant hawk in the area, from another family.  I can anthropomorphize almost anything, so I kept thinking about a comment by the famed wildlife photographer Frans Lanting.  I can’t remember the quote, but in effect, he was making the point that animals in the wild routinely live with the experience of desperation.  They struggle every day with the unceasing need to balance the hunt for food with the loss of energy that is required by the hunt.  If they do too little, they starve.  If they do too much, they run out of energy for the hunt and die.  All that, and they have to raise a family.  It’s a tough way to make a living.  This is an image of a hawk on duty and for me, you can see it in his/her eyes.

The hawk flew off to join its partner about 50 yards away.  The mission of the annoying photographer was accomplished. The couple returned to their chat. Another day in the Park.

Technical note for photographers:  This image was taken with a Nikon D600.  The D600 is Nikon’s cheapest and lightest “full frame” DSLR.  I rarely talk about gear in the blog.  I’m far more interested in technique and art making, and most modern cameras are so good, it really doesn’t matter which one you use.  You should use the equipment you like.  In this case though, I have to make an exception for this camera.  This is a good camera that I don’t think gets the respect it deserves.  This image was heavily cropped.  I was only shooting with a 200 mm lens, which may seem like a very long telephoto lens to some, but it is nothing for birders.  The image was not sharpened in post-production.  The level of detail that can be recovered was, for me, stunning.  The autofocus was spot on.  The bird was nearly in silhouette, against a bright sky, but I was able to recover all the detail in this ISO 400 shot, without generating any noise.  This crop has about 5 megapixels left in it.  I bet I could print it at 13 by 19 and it would look great.  The high quality of the image from the sensor, the accuracy of the autofocus and the light weight form factor lead me to recommend this camera highly. There was a notion going around the net that the sensor was always going to be dusty.  I had no such trouble and the camera store where I bought it, E.P. Levine’s in Waltham, said that dust on the sensor was not a problem.  I have no affiliation with Nikon.

Why We Do What We Do

I was doing some photographic work in Elm Park, in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts earlier this week in spite of the heat.  While in pursuit of a particular shot, a couple walked by, disgruntled apparently, and began to complain about the cost of renovating the Park.  I wasn’t quite sure what I did to deserve that, but the experience gave me pause.  As I’ve described in this blog before, the Park, one of America’s oldest, was getting to be quite shabby.  In spite of my love for the shabby, clearly an update was in order.  Updates do cost money.  Addressing that issue first, as a business school professor, I would also add that a major American city without a nice park downtown is going to take a severe commercial hit.  Parks are good for business, believe it or not.  Elm Park is no exception.  But I understand that money is tight for many people and certainly they’re free to question this particular investment.

I’ve been trying to make the case with images like this one that the Park has a value beyond the commercial.  This common ground, open to everyone who cares to go there, represents an experience that matters.

Elm Park, Worcester MA

At the same time, I’ve been reading a book by Lenswork Editor, Brooks Jenson.  In The Creative Life in Photography, he raises a number of good questions about the connection between art and experience.  As he points out, useful art often asks more questions than it answers.  Why did I choose to present the Park in this way?  Why did I choose to use an infrared camera to capture the image instead of doing a typical color shot?  I think one has to choose a media that somehow captures the experience in question and hopefully communicates it to others, but that process is fraught with ambiguity.  Infrared and more generally monochrome, what we used to call black and white, has a particular strength when it comes to capturing design.  It’s good at capturing shape.  The design of a Park, if you will the lines and shapes of the shore, the bridges, the paths, the trees and the few buildings are laid out in fashion that is visually powerful, regardless of the season.  This is not lost on those who design parks, artists themselves.  None of this is done by accident or on a whim.  Compare this scene to an open flat field.  An open flat field may be relatively inexpensive to create and maintain, indeed.  Those are good places for ball games, to be sure.  Of course, the north end of Elm Park includes a playground, but that’s a bit different from the purely open field.  Most of the Park is laid out for something else.   I believe that purpose is in part to help us collect our thoughts.  In a park such as this you’re in the city and not at the same time.  It is a different world, if only for a brief moment.  Is it worth it?  It is to me.  Of course, your mileage may vary.  Stay cool.

Happy July 4th at Elm Park

Happy July Fourth to those from the United States.  It’s a day to relax but also remember.  I wanted to take this occasion to provide a brief update on one of my most memorable places, Elm Park in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts.  It is one of the oldest Park’s in the United States. I’ve blogged about the park many times, most recently about the experience of being forgotten there, as illustrated by the state of some of the more contemplative locations at the Park.  It made for interesting photography but poor park upkeep.  Then, low and behold, in the middle of that project, the City, State and Feds came to the rescue and began a significant restoration of the park.  I’ve continued to photograph the changing nature of Elm Park as the reconstruction, in the north-east corner at this point, continues.  I have to admit, it has taken some getting used to.  I had grown quite fond of the shabbiness of the old dowager, but that won’t make for a viable and livable inner city.

The process has created a number of interesting visual opportunities, in and of itself.  Rebuilding is co-existing with on-going use of the Park where that can be done safely.  (Click on the images for a better view.)

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There are significant signs of progress.

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Those familiar with the Park will know this scene.  The stones along the shoreline are new.  Children used to feed geese on the sand here, there was no clearly demarcation of the Pond.  That may seem kind of nice and wonderful on the surface except it’s bad for the geese and the Park.  It always used to bug me that such behavior would take place right under a big sign that says “Feeding Wildlife is Harmful to the Wildlife and the Park.”  But I digress.  The construction has also provided an opportunity to see the detail that goes into making a park work.  Did you ever wonder why all those trash cans are never stolen?  Here’s the reason…

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That is one big base.  Invest in trashcan stability in major urban parks.  You cannot go wrong.  The lighting is also changing.  Previously, there had been rather attractive lighting in the Park.  It was sparse and rarely turned on.  Now lights are being added throughout.  With the exception of some very tall structures around the north pond, most will I think fit right in with the history of the park.  Some are up now, but not turned on yet and as such, not particularly good photographic subjects.  This will give you an idea, however.

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So the work continues and I’ll try to provide more imagery in the future.  It is difficult to document a project like this with a fine art eye.  It may be that only the final product will do justice to the intangible experience of the Park, an experience that those of us who love it will always value.

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It is so easy to think that “common” areas such as parks have no place in our individualized society. It’s also easy to dis the government for nearly everything.  These commons, such as Elm Park though provide the touch points for a society.  That remains as important as it always has been.  So thanks to those who are maintaining this particular touch point.