Traveling the world I have visited cultures from remote tropical jungles to arid African savannas where living a simple existence is dictated by the lack of natural resources. The people simply must pull a substance living out of the land to survive, a way of life that does not come by choice but by necessity. In between seminars in NY and Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to photograph the Amish of Lancaster County, an interesting contrast to see a culture living a simple existence surrounded by all manner of modern conveniences and technology while doing without all of these trappings not because they have to, but because they choose to.
Photographer and friend Tim Mateer acted as my guide over a couple days; a Mennonite himself, he was able to provide insight into this unique culture that dates back to 1693 when a group branched off from the church in Switzerland led by Jakob Ammann. Those following Jakob became known as Amish and in the 1720s several groups migrated to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where their decedents still live today. While many think of this as “where the Amish live” separate communities can be found in over half the states in the US and even in Canada. And they are anything but a leftover dying breed, having an average of 7 children they are among the fastest growing populations today with numbers now exceeding 250,000. As they only marry within their faith genetic disorders are high despite their own efforts to marry into different, unrelated communities.
While the Amish live and work on their own farms they share the same public roads and do not try and hide themselves. To the contrary I found them to be quite friendly; the majority greeting me with a wave and a smile as I photographed them passing by. While in general they may prefer to be left to themselves in this area of the country they have become accustomed to tourists and our curious nature.
The Amish prohibition against being photographed isn’t exactly cut and dry. Though you won’t likely find an Amish person photographing or even painting a portrait of themselves adherence to and interpretation of biblical tenants varies wildly from one community to the next. Some are more relaxed, while others, the “old order Amish” are the strictest with prohibition of all things “worldly”. I suspect those I was interacting with were of the former, more relaxed communities of Amish though refusing to accept assistance from the outside or plugging into the electrical grid seem to be universal tenants.
The motivation behind their simple way of life comes from a strict and literal interpretation of the bible where it says one is not to be “conformed to the world”. In general they operate their own schools and educate their children through the 8th grade, young unmarried women teaching the children, this was determined sufficient for success in their way of life. Most are farmers though they are also well known for fine hand crafted furniture and quilts as well.
While the dress code varies among communities, in general they wear very plain clothes of solid colors, long dresses for the women, trousers and wide brimmed hats for the men. Within the community they believe everyone is equal and one individual should not stand out or be elevated above the rest. Women will not cut their hair wearing it in a bun under a prayer cap and the men’s long beards (they won’t shave their beard once married) are a sign of adult hood and maturity though mustaches were historically associated with the military and are forbidden.
The Amish are well known for their horse drawn buggies and wagons. They have begrudgingly compromised with the modern world agreeing in some places to place electric lights and reflectors for safety though they must be provided to them by local municipalities. With careful study of the buggies you can tell one community (generally 20-40 families) from another as there will be little variation, all being equal after all.
I found the Amish children to be just delightful and I smiled to see them being allowed to be just that, children. Granted I was just getting a glimpse but I what I saw were happy kids playing, goofing around, going fishing on the creek banks all smiles and innocence. I had to wonder to myself how different children in my own neighborhood might be if they spent more time outdoors being entertained by nature and their own imaginations as opposed to the internet, video games and TV.
I don’t pretend to know the Amish from my brief encounter and have neither judgment nor intimate knowledge of their ways of life. That said, a little fresh air and sunshine and working with one’s hands would no doubt do us all a little good in our over saturated technology driven lives. Now excuse me as I return to my Mac and work on some more images in Lightroom, gotta get them ready for the next presentation on the big screen and transfer some files for the Las Vegas gallery.
I was out scouting a location for a future photo shoot when I found myself about to drive past the Weyerhaeuser corporate headquarters building here in Washington state. With some time to spare I pulled off and visited their beautiful bonsai gardens where they have 60 unique specimens from 6 different Pacific Rim nations, some were started as long ago as the 1950s.
When I’m out in the field I’m often drawn to compositions of graphic lines and form. You can find beauty in the patterns of nature just about anywhere you go, you just need to be open to seeing them. Bonsai is a collaboration between man and nature that celebrates this beauty. It is up to the individual artist’s imagination to shape the plants through very selective pruning, removing key limbs, creating a balance to the composition, even shaping the limbs directly either with copper wire or by suspending stones from the branches to weigh them down. Over time the plant will adopt this new shape even as the wire and stones are removed.
In this age that has so much slick art dominating the culture it’s nice to see imperfections. The bonsai is a living plant, it will never be absolutely perfect and it is forever growing and slowly changing. This is a very slow, methodical and thoughtful art form. I find peace and a feeling of zen when I have time to just sit back and admire these beautiful works of art. I was drawn in by all of them, whether the great redwood in miniature or the wabi sabi out of balance nature of the one that looked as if it was growing out of the discards from a giant egg. Serendipity played a hand in the timing of my visit as many of the deciduous varieties had yet to fully leaf out allowing the intricate design of their branches to be seen with just a hint of the color yet to come. It will come as no surprise that I have many bonsai trees in my own landscape.
What was intended as merely a scouting mission, I didn’t even have any formal camera gear with me, resulted in a wonderful opportunity to soak in some art and nature and fill my soul. A wonderful day for me is not always about the perfect light and equipment, the images shared here were simply shot on my iPhone. It was a great way to spend the morning, I highly recommend it.
For details on the Weyehaeuser bonsai gardens click here:
Along the Washington coast we have many species that migrate past our shores both above and below the water. For just 2 to 3 weeks in late April and early May, up to a million shore birds can be found near the town of Grays Harbor on their way to nesting grounds in the arctic. Some of the commonly seen birds include: Killdeer, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Wandering Tattler, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Surfbird, Red Knot, Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Long-billed Dowitcher.
The birds will take a much needed rest in the mudflats of Bowerman Bay on their long flights from South America all the way up the Pacific Coast until the reach the Arctic where they will nest and prepare for the next generation. Your best chance at seeing the birds comes at high tide when the incoming ocean waters concentrate the birds on just a few points of land where they can still find food and safe harbor. This is a most remarkable region for birding because of its varied habitats: rocky seashore, sandy beaches, large estuaries, rivers, meadows and mountains.
You won’t be alone of course, like the tulip fields of the Skagit Valley which bloom just in front of the migration this phenomena attracts hundreds of bird watchers and nature loves alike. The town of Greys Harbor even sponsors a shore bird festival each year giving you some clue as to when you might want to migrate to the coast yourself.
Early May is a great time to catch the migrating shorebirds as they fly up the coast from California, or the Pacific Flyway as it is called. Sanderlings, dunlins, and other assorted shorebirds pause for a couple of weeks at Bowerman Basin in Grays Harbor on the Olympic Peninsula. Boardwalks provide great access. When the tides are high, and there are no exposed mud flats, all the birds are densely packed together. It is quite the spectacle to see a million birds in a tight area. Also, if there happens to be a bird of prey near, they fly around in tight bundles turning in all directions with great precision. It looks like many bodies, but one brain operating them all. It is definitely worth a trip out to the coast if you are in the Pacific Northwest in those two weeks.
The Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival is May 4-6 this year:
What to do with April Showers? – Get an umbrella, grab your camera and get outside.
I spent 2 days photographing in the Columbia Gorge and along the Southern Washington Coast, in the rain, and I couldn’t have been happier. The previous 2 days were beautiful. Blue skies, sunshine, unseasonably warm temperatures – and I wasn’t at all interested in getting outside with my camera.
While I’m always open to any subject, on this trip I had very soft, high key, moody images in mind that I could render in black and white. The coastal and inland waters of the Columbia Gorge in addition to having one spectacular waterfall after the next are littered with old pilings from a bygone era of wealth and prosperity from the timber barons of the late 1800 and early 1900s. I have photographed these subjects in the past and knew they needed the right atmospheric conditions, namely fog, to be successful. Here in the NW fog isn’t all that predictable or persistent, but when you don’t have fog, rain can be an excellent (and even better) substitute.
The overcast skies provided the perfect soft box to light the subject, the falling rain softens the image and disturbs the water such that the long exposures necessary with my smallest apertures render the image as a high key, mysterious and quiet, yet powerful image. I knew I would be rendering these in black and white and positioned myself to maximize the white background where the sky was indistinguishable from the sea. I could have stayed with these as a subject for the entire day working different angles, focal lengths and exposures. It was food for my soul and I felt like I was at an all you can eat buffet.
I wasn’t going to overlook the waterfalls as this was the perfect time of the year to photograph them through the fine lines of the trees. The leaves have only just begun to come out adding a touch of color while not obscuring the view of the falls. Most people would say I was “too early” to shoot the falls but you’ll find in about 2 weeks time the trees will have leafed out to where the shots I was able to create with patterns of lines and positive and negative space would be impossible to replicate.
Lastly I met up with friends early in the morning to photograph the Portland Japanese Gardens. With an annual pass you can visit the gardens 2 hours ahead of the general public and photograph largely unencumbered. Again the time of year allowed for some subtle color in the maple trees as they had only begun to leaf out while not obscuring the fine details and patterns of the intricate under-story of their branches. Yes it was a bit too early for bushels of blossoms but when you look at the patterns in nature, the energy contained in a balance of positive and negative space, you’ll find there is rarely ever a bad time to photograph areas like the Japanese Gardens. And when you realize the potential you may never look at a rainy day the same way again.
For the month of April, you should head back to the Skagit Valley to the tulip and daffodil fields. Many people don’t realize that they grow as many tulips in the Skagit Valley as they do in Holland. The rows and rows of brilliant color is a spectacular sight. Thousands of people from the Seattle area venture north to see this beautiful display of bright colors. One of the best ways to see this fields is from the air; the rows of flowers abstract into bands of color. In Washington, it is how we welcome the spring!