Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Encounters with the Here and There

Sunrise, Stonington Harbor, Maine (2004)

“There was no there, there”.          (Gertrude Stein)

For the last several months I’ve been going through thousands of photographs, essentially rebuilding my Lightroom catalog.  I didn’t like how the old one was laid out and too many images were improperly tagged or incompletely tagged or not tagged at all.  I also didn’t like the file structure.  Seeing no easy way to correct the old one, I elected to just start over.  I was, of course, able to maintain the existing adjustments in Lightroom.  After some 11,000 images, I still have a ways to go.  But it’s been a good way to kill time this winter.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things.  Some are technical (with respect to Lightroom and how I use the camera), but other things are not.  They have more to do with the “why” of photography.  At least how I go about it, anyway.

I’ve also been following a discussion about “place” over at The_Landscapist.  In this particular post, I think my friend Mark Hobson gives the clearest explanation yet of why he photographs the things he does.  It’s not that what he’s said previously isn’t clear – this just seems to me to get to the very heart of it.  He says, in part: 

“…..a belief that the experience of living life is best summed up in the accumulative effect of living the “everyday” / inhabiting the “commonplace”. Futhermore, IMO, it is the everyday / commonplace that roots one to a place and from which one can construct a sense of place.      

That is why I make pictures of the everyday and the commonplace, or what many might label as the banal. That is why I intuitively tend to notice and picture the details of a place – i.e. a place’s parts – rather than the grand scenic of a place. To my way of seeing (and thinking), a place is the sum of its parts and the best way to see, and perchance to understand, the whole is to see and understand the parts.”

I don’t know about you, but it makes sense to me.  That is, I better understand what motivates Mark when he’s got a camera in his hand (which is pretty much all of the time).   And I very much agree with his thoughts on Place.  We tend to do our best when we feel a connection to a certain location, or to the idea of a place or location.  It’s very hard, in my opinion, to photograph in an environment where what we “see” leaves us feeling little or nothing.  No connection, no creativity.  It’s just stuff.

Going back to my little winter project, I found that the images I liked best, the ones that I’d given above average ratings to, were the ones that I’d made in places that meant something to me.  Like the one shown here of Stonington Harbor.  For whatever reason, I felt “connected” to that little fishing village on the Maine coast the moment I first laid eyes on it.  If for some reason we’d been stuck there for a month or a year, I wouldn’t have cared.  It was not only as good as home, it was better than home. 

Yes, “place” matters.  Where I diverge from Mark has only to do with interpretation.  This is certainly an oversimplification, but where Mark  sees the trees, I see the forest.  Where he sees the streets of a city and the people walking those streets, I see buildings and cityscapes.  Although it would be wrong to suggest that this is an either / or question.  It’s not.  There is ample room for overlap.  Mark does from time to time make landscape images, just as I sometimes take pictures of twigs.  But we both have a relatively dominant tendency (a mental lens) that pushes us more in one direction than another. 

In case you didn’t know, Gertrude Stein was an American writer (she died in 1946, I think) who spent most of her life in France.  The quote above refers to her feelings about her own hometown, a place she didn’t really care for.  And that’s a sentiment I can easily identify with.   


5 Responses to “Encounters with the Here and There”

  1. Earl

    “We tend to do our best when we feel a connection to a certain location, or to the idea of a place or location.”

    Paul, I wasn’t aware of the conversation thread of “place” at “The Landscapist” but I’ll have to visit and read it now. I do find a personal truth in what you’ve written here. However, I’d have to ask how much of the difference is “doing our best” and how much is “perceiving what we’ve done more favorably” — are the photo really better or do we just feel they are? Perhaps a small point, but interesting.

    I certainly have a Lightroom library which could use some of the loving care you’re giving yours but I don’t believe I want the kind of winter you’re having to make that happen. 🙂

    I knew of Gertrude Stein was but I’d never heard this quote…very fitting for this post.

    • Paul Maxim

      Certainly a valid question, Earl. We’re obviously going to be a little (maybe a lot?) biased when evaluating images of places that we feel connected to. But I think we also tend to actually be better in those places. It would be hard to objectively evaluate that, though, on a personal level.

      Our local meteorologists are saying that this is a winter for the history books, one that will be studied for years to come. I wonder. I’m more inclined to believe that this is more of a preview of things to come. Global warming doesn’t mean that all locations are going to get warmer. Some places will actually get colder and wetter because of things like the North Atlantic Oscillation. And now they’re predicting a colder than normal Spring. Time to look for a palce to live that’s a bit further south…..

  2. Edd Fuller

    Paul, I certainly agree with your thoughts about place in photography. For me the whole process of photography is rooted in place. Photography helps me see and connect to the place where I live, as well as the places that I visit. Thanks


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