Praising the Mutilated World

Photographs of oil slicks grace both my SLR gallery and my iPhoneography collection. "Grace" may seem like a strange word for pollution, but it is precisely what I mean. With a flick and a click in an image editor, spilled oil is shockingly beautiful.

I feared for awhile that if, by finding beauty in even these small degradations, I was ratifying them. Art often glorifies destruction, but I'm not sure it ever should. An exception might be in catharsis. I don't think it is actually destruction that is glorified in destructive catharsis, however. At any rate, spilled oil reminds me of the paradox that keeps me happily rooted to my Christian tradition: the notion that grace takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful than it was before. This is the concept of felix culpa I've written about elsewhere. But it goes even deeper. Look at these two versions

Unsharp mask applied:

Original lens blur:

I could fix the softness of the pavement, but in doing so, I lost the glow, the light, the gentle gradations of color. This edit actually looks marred by pixelation, though it isn't. Even if there had been no lens blur to remove, I'm not sure sharpness would have enriched the image. In this case, "perfect" isn't perfect. Of course you may prefer the sharp edit, or you may have good advice for me on how to restore the positive attributes of light and color while keeping the unsharp mask, or you just might think I'm crazy for photographing and (over)saturating spilled oil at all. That's not really the point. Regardless of the relative merits of either image, my concept of perfection itself needed to change. Most photographers would consider overprocessing to be the mark of a rookie editor, but perhaps there is another, deeper case against it. Overprocessing is an assertion of control. It leaves no room for happy accidents or movements of a spirit outside of the artist. There's no humility in it.

When it comes to control, I'm guilty as charged. Yet here's another happy accident, whether you call it subconscious association, synchronicity, or the still, small voice of a Creator guiding the creativity of the created. I just realized that in cropping the oil slick into four bars, I'd echoed two great traditions of religious art: stained glass and mosaic. All this is grace: things broken and spilled, set together like gems in a new, unexpected, and more glorious whole.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"
by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 


I'm prone to falling in love with places I've never been, and I'm rarely disappointed upon arrival. I sure hope that is true about Chattanooga, because at 40 minutes from my new home, it will be my source for arts, dining, and maybe even church in less than six months. If this nationally award-winning film bears any accuracy whatsoever, I'm about to be seduced.

P.S. I wonder how long this tilt-shift trend will wield so much influence. It is fascinating that such an old technology could suddenly spring to the fore, thanks mostly to iPhone app developers.

+ Video produced by the Johnson Group, in partnership with Atomic Films and Jack Parker Photography. Song by Allen DiCenzo and Roger Vaughn.


The rumors are true. iPhone photography is the most addictive legal pursuit in the world. I've been doing it for one delightful week, having begun in the wake of the Great Instagram Fiasco of 2012, and I've already become a total hypocrite by twiddling my phone in social settings. Apologies to both those I've reprimanded for it in the past and those I've offended by it in the present. Perhaps one day soon we'll edit via hologram so that our conversation partners can see what we're doing and not be bothered -- sort of like knitting while talking. In the mean time, I have to tear myself away.

If you'd like to see what I was doing when I was supposed to be sleeping on a redeye, cooking a balanced meal, or making eye contact in a  l o n g  discussion about agripolitics, visit my new gallery or my Instagram page. I'm still learning the ropes -- that's why there is a rectangular picture in there that will doubtless lose the trust of the purists -- but my creative ambitions are reaching intoxicated heights. Now if I can just turn down that danged competitive streak . . .

Initial Test Results: Pentax 100mm F/2.8 WR Macro

I really should have known better than to buy the kit lens, since one of my nicknames is F/stop. A misguided frugality won that battle, however, and now I've missed a lot of shots and worn down the contacts on the one good prime lens I own because I hate to use the nasty 18-55mm F/3.5 that Pentax bundles with its lovely camera bodies. Enter for some auditions. 

I haven't relaxed for more than a few hours at a time since early September, so now that my job applications are sent and a flower photo contest deadline looms, a telephoto macro takes the stage to bring some much-needed fun. I would have to save for years to purchase this one -- it retails at close to $800 -- but I'm obsessed with both sharpness and close-up photography. Sticker shock may have biased my first impressions, however. The lens hunts for focus noisily and long, has no focus limiter, and is useless for handheld portraits at shutter speeds under 125. But then it gave me this:

1/60 sec at F/2.8, ISO 200, no post-processing besides watermarking/resizing for web. Ranunculus flower.

Straight-out-of-camera sharpness like that, with no evident signs of vignetting, edge distortions, or  or chromatic aberration? Pretty satisfying. Post-processing this one will be a joy rather than triage. This lens is a one-trick pony, but it is probably also the best in its class. I don't see myself needing the weather sealing for macro work, and I'll probably replace my kit lens with a Sigma 17-50mm F/2.8 walkabout first. That said, I shoot macro enough that I'm putting this specialty number on my wish list, though I might try to compare it to the Tamron 90mm F/2.8 Macro that is getting such good reviews. Maybe once I have a telephoto macro and a fast standard-range zoom, I'll never want another lens.

Yep. Because that's exactly how lens envy works.

Care To Give Me Some Advice?

It is time to go shooting again. As I pulled together my photography portfolio, I was reminded that the best image is always the one I haven't made yet. However, it is also time to do some excavating of my file junkyard, a.k.a. the "dumptique." In the past few years I've become a much better editor, due largely to my work at the William Blake Archive. I see solutions for images I thought were hopeless, and I see ways to curtail the over-editing that always seems to plague a Photoshop newbie. The shots below fall in the latter category, I think. What to help me figure out how to revive them?

Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

1a. Unedited Original
This is nearly straight out of the camera, though I cropped it. The exposure is pretty solid, though it needs some sharpening. I like the color contrast and the harsh textures. It looks like a cold day, and it was.

Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

1b. Newbie Edit
I really can't imagine an outdoor photographer who hasn't at some point riffed on Ansel Adams. (Oh hi, Rose and Driftwood.) I went black and white to bring out the texture of the fence, which I nevertheless failed to sharpen enough.

Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

2a. Unedited Original
Of this shot someone once said, "I don't know what it is, but I like it."  That's kind of how I feel. Practically speaking, it is a motorcycle mirror sitting on an oil drum littered with old tools. Symbolically speaking, I think it says something about hope and hard work. Right now it is underexposed and has a blue cast. It could also use some sharpening. All that is easy though -- I'm just wondering where to take the tonal mood.

Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

2b. Newbie Edit
I wanted to emphasize the gritty farm atmosphere of the shot, and I was in love with the wood and rust textures in the lower right. (I still am.) Sepia seemed to be the answer, yet most serious photographers these days would tell you that sepia is never the answer. Plus I cut that nice red paint right out, not to mention the blue sky and yellow butterflies. (I mean really, Katie,  you want to say "hope," so you cut out blue skies and yellow butterflies?) On the other hand, if anything is a candidate for sepia, a Montana farm would top the list. The geometric and textural elements come to the fore in a monochromatic image, and those two attributes are my favorite parts of this fairly busy scene.

So what do you think?  Where should I take these photographs next? Probably only one will make my portfolio, so which would you pick?

Felix Culpa

Castlerigg Stone Circle. Click to Enlarge. Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved.

I was quite literally shooting from the hip. The moment I saw the older couple at Castlerigg Stone Circle in England's Lake District, I started trying to nab an image. Near the end of the human lifespan, they were nevertheless infants next to the stones of that prehistoric human-made monument. The scene was at once an analogy and an a juxtaposition. It was also entirely sweet.

The results were plagued with all the technical problems one would expect from clandestine photography. I painstakingly sharpened, cropped, and brightened the picture, and I even removed several tourists who were lolling against the stones. I could fix the composition, but I was asking more of those pixels than they could bear. At its full size, the image looks like it narrowly survived the smallpox.

I still love it.

Honoring flawed work is rather a proud moment for one who thinks her perfectionism renders her far from perfect. I don't like it because it is flawed, though -- only in spite of that. Yet I do wonder if some art is improved by its flaws. 

Like many teenagers, I once had a bulletin board full of quotations. One read "Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Google reveals that these lines were by Henry Van Dyke, who wrote the lyrics most commonly set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Aesthetically, he did a better job with the latter. However, Van Dyke's sentimental and hackneyed bird quote is in some ways brilliant. Its tortured meter embodies its message.*

Examples of perfection through imperfection, or what Gerard Manley Hopkins might call "pied beauty," remind me of the medieval concept of felix culpa -- the fortunate fall. If humanity had remained in Edenic innocence, the rather unusual logic goes, than we would never have experienced the wonder of divine redemption. 

Maybe I can actually love my stone circle photograph because of its flaws, rather than in spite of them. If these flaws help me overcome my perfectionism, they're fortunate. If, like Hopkins' marvelous poem, they invite me to a definition of beauty that transcends narrow aesthetic rules, they're fortunate. If snatching a permanent record of a moment in time resulted in technical imperfections, well, that is very  fortunate. It embodies the paradox of human mutability, and -- lucky me -- the paradox of human mutability just happens to form the central motif of the scene.

*In a similar vein, I typed and deleted the final prose lines of my post on the Book of Kells many times before I decided to let a really a bad pun prove its own point. It still makes me feel vulnerable, though.