Photo of Yellowstone River within the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Pink Smoke, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

My initial impetus for making this exposure was the high angle view, the blue reflected light on the water, and principally pink smoke emitting from the fumarole creating a subtle warm cool palette. I knew the light was flat, but in both color and black and white flat light can be your friend.

Most go there with only a single purpose, to photograph the falls, hopefully when it is producing a rainbow. They completely miss the bigger theme, the canyon itself. The colors of the canyon are varied and mixed. There are what appear to be 60+ degree loose scree slopes with outcrops of pastel yellow, aqua, orange and green. The yellows pick up sunlight reflected from the opposing sunlit canyon wall and appear gold in shadow. The stone outcrops vary from neutral, to browns, to purple. If you can ignore the Lower Falls it would be easy to spend hours with a long lens capturing numerous abstracts of the canyon walls.

Later, when hastily viewing the thumbnails this image group stopped me. What was it? From the small size of the thumbnail I couldn’t see the detail, just a blue slash as figure on a brownish ground. Opening the image to size I saw it. The illusion produced by a figure and ground confusion in the brain.

Figure-to-ground, in visual perception, is analogous to signal-to-noise, or positive and negative space in design. It is, at its most basic form, what happens when an object is introduced into an empty field – a blank canvas, a photographic space, or blank paper – what psychologist called a “Ganzfeld”. Figure-ground is the duality between a subject in a frame and the balance of the image – the part that remains.

According to Gestalt theory of visual perception, there are observations to make about figure-ground:

“Figure-ground is the spatial relationships between an object and what exists around it. Recognition of these spatial relationships illustrates how perception depends on figure and ground. Figure and ground may manifest itself through selection, boundary and artifice.

There are observations to make about figure-ground:

The most striking being that both figure and ground cannot be “seen” (brought to the fore) simultaneously. The brain only resolves one or the other at any moment. Figure and ground can be seen sequentially though, meaning the image flip-flops like a good politician. This depends on your point of focus or the brain synapses at the moment. In the figure below if you focus on the black circle, the white periphery becomes secondary and appears as ground. If you focus on the white periphery, the black circle becomes secondary and appears as ground.

The second most striking observation about figure-ground is that they do not appear to exist on the same plane within the frame. Ground is perceived as receding into the frame while figure is seen as projecting forward. In the image above, it might appear as if there is a black hole in a white surface one moment and a black disc on top of a white surface the next. Without further visual reference, the brain cannot resolve the conflict. Again, the figure-ground relationship can change state. Color and its components will easily affect the depth relationship within a figure-ground construct. In the following illustrations the blue seems to recede into the grey while red seems to lift from its surface, even though the two colors are of the same approximate value.

Third, we observe that figure usually occupies a smaller space within the frame than does ground. But this isn’t always true. See the two figures below. It is easier for the brain to accept the circle as ground (a hole) in the first instance than in the second. In the second, the larger circle resolves easiest as a disc (figure) on the surface of the white area (ground).

Fourth, figure is perceived as having contour, or shape, while ground is not. In a sense, ground is usually what is left over. The existence of figure-ground is subject solely on the existence of contrast and is a selective process within the brain. Both illustrations below are the same except the values of the shapes and background have been reversed. In both cases, the rectangles read as figure and the balance is ground.

Last, neither figure nor ground can exist without the other. The moment something is placed into a field, it creates a figure/ground construct.*”

If you are still reading you may have figured out the image by now, not that it is that difficult to resolve, the brain did that quickly on first viewing. But you may have only have discovered the affect after you had read this.

If you still haven’t, look at the image again. Pay attention to where exactly the center of the gaze is resting. Is it on the area of the two sides, or is it on the area of water in the middle? When gazing at the edges, they become figure and the water becomes ground. The canyon walls rise up from the level of the water as in reality. Now shift your gaze to the blue water while catching the canyon walls in the peripheral vision. You will notice that the canyon walls appear to recede away from the level of the water. If you are not seeing this, move your gaze to an area of water right along the edge where the water and rock meet. Now you should be able to perceive the affect easily.  

Adding to the effect is the warm/cool relationship in the image. According to color theory, warm colors usually seem to advance spatially while cool colors recede spatially within a frame. In this image, depending on your point of gaze, that rule in color theory is not holding true. The rule is unimportant, except to the extent that it is happening. Rules can be broken, theories are effective generally but as you can see they can be manipulated.

I don’t always know why I take a photograph of an individual scene. It is often a physical response to a visual mental trigger: something recognized, associated, or remembered in my field of experience.

There are times that I am purposely working with a known idea and goal when making the exposure. There are times when I only perceive the goal or idea later while processing the image. This image fits the latter of the two. Though my brain was processing the field of view through the viewfinder, and making decisions based upon feel and experience, the reasoning behind the image didn’t appear until later. It was in the development process that the visual illusion presented itself and demanded treatment.

An accident? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Catharsis – Time, Place, and Light.

The Fence Line, Paradise Valley, Montana.
The Fence Line, Paradise Valley, Montana.

This was the end of a string of bad days for me, created by a burglary of close to 5 digit proportions. I had just picked up the last shipment of components to replace nearly my entire solar power system.

Driving south about 10 miles out of Livingston a short-lived summer storm was moving through late in the day. The upslope alfalfa fields were being harvested, the downslope fields were fallow in stubble. Behind was a lonely apple tree with green and red fruit managing on the far side of the road. What little light was making it through the clouds was moving across the landscape and softly lit the small hill in the middle ground. I almost kept driving, anxious to get the batteries and controller installed.

But the light turned me, my mind cleared and things began to click. I stopped and worked the scene for about 5 minutes until all of the charm was enveloped by the progression of the elements.

The image was processed twice in LR/PS. The initial work was not quite what I wished for. I couldn’t get the accents to come out of the fore and mid ground areas, and the fore ground fence posts were either too light, too dark, or lacking contrast.

I recently started working with a tool allowing me to create highly targeted luminance masks. I applied this to the areas I was unhappy with and was able to bring the image up to what I had pre-visualized. I attempt to use everything in the frame, but this subject really needed cropping from the top. I had a thought that the odd jogging lines and the opening in the fence on the left would make for an awkward image. Moving to the right a couple of steps helped the diagonal. It also transformed the opening at the left, balancing it with the sloping horizontal fence rail on the right. All in all, a good composition.

Mentally lighter, I moved on to my camp and installed the new solar power system by the light of a flash light with only a single LED. I went through 2 ½ sets of AA’s before I was able to power up the overhead light – about half past one in the morning. Finally allowing myself the bed, I lay there realizing 5 minutes of good light and scenery are cathartic, elevating 10 days of crappy attitude and gloom.


Image of Candlestick Butte at Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Homage, Canyonlands National Park.

This image is the result of photographing in the rain. 176mm zoom lens. Developed: +.15 exp, -35 contrast, +25 dehaze, normal sharpening, converted to B&W.

It brought to mind many 19th Century photographers who produced magnificent works of art with little knowledge of other photo works to draw upon. Many lugged 8 X 10, 16 X 20, and even 20 X2 4 inch view cameras utilizing wet glass plates to arrive at a negative. Timothy O’Sullivan, Carlton Watkins and Roger Fenton being notable.

Lack of sharpness and treating the photograph as an extension of painting led to the Pictorialism movement in photography. This was later supplanted by Modernism, characterized by sharply focused images and a concentration on the objects photographed instead of allegory. Leaders in Modernism were Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz, both of whom influenced later the masters: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Minor White.

I  worked 4 versions of the image in LR for nearly 3 hours. But I kept coming back to this simpler version. The rain contributes a wonderful softness and the dark tones add mystery to an ethereal scene. The sense of depth is enhanced by the indistinct details in the background. It has tonal qualities of old platinum prints. Ultimately the image spoke to my love of the medium and my debt to those who built the foundation of what photography is today.

Birds, Bees, lots of Flowers, and Trees II

Part II

My first morning at Chaco Canyon I was walking from the visitor’s center to Una Vida ruins a few hundred yards away. A silver sheet of stratus clouds covered the sky. The clouds retained brightness and were not thick enough to turn the undersides dark. The light was flat and all of the colors held their own intensity, none demanding more attention with showy sunny brightness. I kept looking at the plants as I walked. The colors, muted as they were, seemed to be glowing to the point of vibrating – at times. It was incredible, and of course didn’t translate photographically. After about half an hour I realized I needed to tip my head forward enough for the brim of my hat to cut out the sky for the affect to be detectable.

A similar thing happened to me at the Grand Canyon in similar light, where if I blocked the sky at the horizon the whole canyon took on a flat, muted look. Blocking the sky also had the effect of reducing apparent visual distance, meaning the layers of the canyon became compressed and at times it appeared as if I were looking at a two dimensional print and not the real place.


The affect, known as the adjacency affect is a phenomenon in the brain when a large area of bright is placed next to a large area of dark. The juxtaposition of the two create a lightness on the adjacent dark and a darkness on the adjacent light along their common border. The same effect occurs with colors, not just tones. With colors one will affect perception of the other by affecting its hue or tone. You can see this in the image above where the central color is exactly the same, but the adjacent color affects our perception of it, changing its appearance and vice versa. The colors in the center of the boxes are exactly the same. This can be tested with a color picker in a graphics program.

In Chaco it was the color affect. If the sky was in my view it sucked intensity from the colors of the bushes. If I tipped my head bringing my hat brim down to block the sky, the affect occurred. None of the colors was actually changing only my perception of them.

This concept was used by photo engineers when designing software to sharpen images. Overdone digitally it causes the ghosting you see on badly processed jpg files.

Once I got away from the Colorado Plateau deserts and into the Rockies proper the Earth served up a different stew plant wise, thicker and more diverse in size and color. Here there was more complete ground cover. Unless heavily trampled the ground is a confusion of flowers, short shrubs, tree seedlings, and the occasional berry bush when near moisture. Where the pine trees have been burned or logged the absence of a tree canopy opens up the sky. This allows the Aspen (poplars) to take hold. In the burned areas along the road to the Walhalla Plateau the immature Aspen are so thick on the slopes you can’t see the ground in places. And, this is before they have begun to bud and leaf.

I read where an aspen will seldom stand alone, if there is one there will be many. It was recently discovered that akin to cattails and creosote, the Aspen groves you see are likely all one organism. They are attached to one another through their roots system and sent up shoots as the roots spread. One tree can share excess nutrients with a neighbor if need be. All members of an organism will leaf out in concert, while a neighboring organism may wait some time before leafing. Two organisms growing in close proximity or even overlapping will leaf out separately. It may be that many tree species act similarly.

In the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, hills are mostly cinder cones of volcanic pumice. Each spring these black hills take on color. Many of the hillsides become purple. Among others, the Dwarf Monkeyflower is the main culprit. Mixed in you will discover many white to pink or orange Dwarf Buckwheat flowers. These have a root system that spreads as much as 3 feet for a six inch wide flower bunch. In affect they take over a wide area from which to collect their moisture. This prevents other Dwarf Buckwheats from growing on their turf. According to one of rangers, people have asked if the Buckwheats had been hand planted because of the lack of bunching that is seen in other flowers. At least 50 species of wildflowers exist here, I couldn’t find a definitive number. Keep in mind these diminutive plants are adapted to the 150 degree plus temperatures existing on the ground in the hottest seasons.

Near Glacier National Park I saw what I thought might be an eagle’s nest along the shore of Hungry Horse Reservoir. Using my 70-200 mm lens I was able to get photos of an adult bird landing on the nest. The next morning I stopped again and took some shots with the 1.4 Adapter on the lens. This took my maximum telephoto out to 280mm. This allowed me a bit more leeway with cropping which I had to do for the photo to work. The images here are cropped to less than 10% of the entire frame. With that done I was able to ID the bird as an Osprey through the identifying traits of the under-wing pattern and the Bart Simpson haircut. You can see the two young birds in the image on the right.

Field of Wildflowers, Glacier National Park, MT.

Field of wildflowers below Mt. Altyn near Many Glacier, on the east slope of Glacier National Park, MT

The east side of Glacier National Park was the high point of flowers, most notable for the concentration of wildflowers on the slopes in the Many Glacier area. Underfoot was a semi firm mat of decaying stalks, roots, and blossom petals. If you were to fall down it would feel as if falling on a firm couch, assuming you didn’t land on wild roses. Stopping at a trail head I took time to wander in the field. I took in the dense dance of color as hikers, and two wranglers with a string of 12 horses and occupants, came and went along the trail. No one commented on the wildflowers. I don’t understand how they could ignore them. The trail wound through the spectacle for nearly 1/2 mile. I picked out an area approximately 100 feet square and started photographing the separate species. I found 20 different types when I reviewed the day’s photographs. Frankly this was among the most gratifying stops I have made on my journey to date.

I am forced to be thinking of the future somewhat. I will likely lag in the north until I am uncomfortable enough with the season that the long trek to the south becomes a necessity. But there is a next year. And I will again have to decide a path, or at least a direction. Following the wildflowers will be on the list of possibilities.


Birds, Bees, lots of Flowers, and Trees I

Listening to: Le Sacre du Printemp (The Rights of Spring), Igor Stravinsky. This ballet music actually caused riots in the concert hall when first performed. It dragged the music world into modernism, just as Picasso did for painting. In the US it was Photographer Edward Steiglitz (later to marry Georgia O’Keefe) to bring Modernism to the American consciousness at the Armory Show. There was a segment on “Radio Lab” a couple of years ago about the riot incident at the first performance of the music.

Reading: Narrative of the Coronado Expedition, Pedro de Castaneda de Najera. English translation by George P. Hammond, 1940. Finished today.

Part 1 of 2

Living in a city/town of enough people, even if in a rural area, you won’t see nature cycling. Blinded by the day to day, her ordinary progression is hidden in all but the trees and clouds. If you are lucky enough to see spring flowers, they were probably nursery raised and potted for a seasonal maintenance contract. What you don’t get to see is tiny life working its way through the surface of the soil merely hours after a light rain. You don’t see the grasses grow from 1 or 2 inches height one day to 4 or 5 inches the next, and you don’t see the buds appear at the twig tips of the trees. Their obviousness isn’t apparent until the blossoms and leaves begin to crowd the hollows created by the previous year’s leaf fall.

I began my galavant in January and having spent the first 8 weeks in an area of mostly Creosote, some unidentified flora, and a few cacti, I wasn’t really treated to any bits-o-the-bloom there until early March when there was a short, light rain. The rain wasn’t more than a friendly wet dusting of the earth with obese drops. It was never enough of a rain to require formal rainwear, but was sufficient to dampen the earth without mudding. The clouds sped away as fast as they had come, both events bracketed by warm sunshine and a breeze. An hour after the clouds set off to the north-west, an anomaly, the ground had dried and even the odor of rain in the ground had evaporated.

Ocotillo in Bloom

Ocotillo in Bloom, Senator Wash. Imperial Dam, CA.

IMG_2890.jpgTwo days later I wanted to explore another camping area run by BLM on the Senator Wash Reservoir. The area was hilly and choked with more Creosote and unidentified flora. Taking a “long-cut” out of the wash I chanced on an Ocotillo, in bloom. I would occasionally find an Ocotillo alone on the side of a ridge. But they had all been in the thorny annoyance stage with no active buds or blossoms.

Ocotillo are not a cacti but a woody shrub. Their stalks can be almost chartreuse in color, and during a wet period will grow leaves at the base of the thorns. I was able to see this up close in the week I spent in the Sonora Desert without a camera. I will likely spend time in the Sonora this coming winter. Regardless, close inspection of an Ocotillo earns you sharp rewards.

One of my interests in the Ocotillo blossoms was as a food source. The dried blossoms can be infused into a tea. I later read that the blossoms will excrete glucose which crystalizes as a sweet clear nodule on the blossoms, these I didn’t see. The blossoms may be eaten directly or stored for later. I read of no medicinal use. I did try eating a blossom, it was mild but uneventful.

This past week I have spent time at the Lee Metcalf national Wildlife Refuge, near Stevensville, MT. While hunting for the not-so-illusive golden dragonfly below I noted a couple of small clear drops hanging off what I believe was Bunch Wheat Grass buds along one of the paths. Recalling the Ocotillo, and me being me, I tasted it. My guess is it was glucose, quite sweet and sticky. I knew that glucose was a byproduct of photosynthesis but I didn’t imagine it being excreted by the grasses. To get any quantity would be a chore, I only saw it on a couple flower heads.

Two Bugs and Five Petals.

Two Bugs and Five Petals in Violet, Silver Creek Preserve, Picabo, ID

I am interested in all food sources that the land serves up, I have been sampling as I go. It is an extension of my interest in what knowledge disappeared when the Spanish and other Europeans systematically de-cultured the Americas. Spaniards, some conquistadors (Bernal Dias del Castillo, Pedro de Cieza de Leon), did write about their experiences or the process of conquest from a first party ethnographic view. Many of these authors (in translation and available at give the reader glimpses of how the aboriginals (American Indians) lived and what they could accomplish without the benefit of iron and gunpowder. The problem is that most of the authors never looked into the how and why of Indian practices, so we are left with no knowledge of processes and procedures. As a result academics and amateurs have struggled to learn what is known today as “Ancient” or “Traditional Skills.” The question left over is, “What is it that we don’t know? “

Two Bugs Boinking.

Two Bugs Boinking, Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID.

There have been flowers blooming everywhere I have been. Many of them are almost undetectable they are so small. Most of the blossoms in the desert have been from ground shrubs growing close to the surface up to maybe 4 feet high. The large majority of these had blossoms that were tiny, less than ¼ inch in size, think Babies Breath. On some shrubs the leaves are covered in fine fuzz. The fuzz helps retain moisture by creating a thermal blanket, cooling the leaves in the hot climates. Others had very thick and spongy leaves, similar to a succulent, though the skin on the leaves was quite tough almost leathery.

The coloration of the plant life in the deserts was mostly muted, subdued tones of greys, greens, yellows, browns, red, and blacks. The only bright colors were blossoms. The most brilliant were the Claret Cup Cactus (Kingcup cactus, Mojave Mound Cactus). With their yellow stigma on the pistil and multiple anther on the stamen.

Purple flowers at White Sands

Possible member of the Geranium family growing in the gypsum sands of White Sands national Monument.

Flora, Fauna, and Updating.

I am spending my time on organizing my photography data. I upgraded to the latest version of Lightroom, converted 3 old catalogs to the new version, and classified all of them. I am also having to categorize, tag, and title any photos I publish. If it is published I re-visit the image to check that it is spotted, sharpened and overall appears as I want it to look. This has taken about a weeks work time and away from adding to this blog. On a scale of importance, shooting rates one step higher than the blog.

Click on any file to see a larger version.

I have also been spending time shooting at a the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge (above) in Montana. A few birds co-operated (see the owls), as did a number of leaves and blossoms. The whole world around here is studded with wildflowers. I haven’t found an area without blossoms since leaving the Yuma area. The east slope of Glacier National Park was particularly impressive. The lower alpine slopes were covered in thick carpets of colors. In 45 minutes I photographed around 20 different species in a 10 yard square area.

I am 2 or 3 days away from the Lightroom conversion from being fully functional. I still need to make the input presets and take a look at the new profiles they featured with the latest update. Last I will create a new catalogs of 5 star and 4 star images so they are easier to access for exports.

If all goes well I will be back to writing by the beginning of next week and will finish at least one of the blog pages I have started.