At our house we believe in a few things. Hobbies and birthdays are among them.This policy offers ample opportunity for indulging in pleasurable interests all year around, with permission to go a little overboard on special occasions such as the anniversary of your arrival on the planet. Floyd, easily the best gift-giver I’ve ever known, is very good about asking for what I might like; and I know he will make it happen.
The problem is, at such moments I have a terrible time thinking of things I want. Which is ridiculous, since I see things I’d like to have every day. But then when it comes right down to it, do I really want Italian dishes or a new living-room rug or a handy carrier for garden tools?
So I hem and haw and dither, waiting for inspiration. It usually arrives in a flash of light and a focus clear as a laser beam: this is what I want. I want this. I don’t think I’ll ever want anything else in the world. I’ll never want another thing again. This is the only thing I have ever really wanted.
Who knows what possessed me to believe I wanted a macro lens for my camera? But there it was.
Despite the fact that this would be a birthday present, I carried out a duly diligent search of the internets for information about this sort of item. Some say “macro” and some say “micro,” but it turns out to be the same kind of lens. Close-up. They start out not-cheap and go astronomical from there. Fortunately, I had no intention of wandering into the four figures on something like a camera lens. The mid-three-figures was guilt-producing enough.
Evidently if your budget demands the kind of restraint we keep thinking of trying, you can buy a gadget to screw onto the front of a normal lens so you can screw the lens onto your camera backwards! But wait, there’s more: you can even take pictures with your lens (facing outward as it is supposed to do) detached from the camera body, just held a little in front of it, and get the same effect! The mind casts a merciful veil over the number of ways these little tricks could go very wrong in my hands. I just knew that in no time at all I’d go from saving money to a destroyed lens and a camera body full of mud.
But since it’s my birthday, I said to heck with it. Took myself up to Precision Camera (http://www.precision-camera.com/) and bought me a macro lens. As Floyd pointed out, at our house we buy our own birthday presents; it’s the permission to indulge in such extravagance that constitutes the gift. And wouldn’t you know, on that very day, someone brought me a hyacinth? What a great place to start: an array of blossoms on an assortment of stalks.
I keep talking about taking a photography class, and I swear one of these days I will. Next winter, maybe, since I cannot possibly sit still indoors at any other time of year. But there’s also something compelling about taking on a new hobby, or a new aspect of a familiar hobby, and learning about it on your own. And how can you lose, with digital? You can take a million photos and throw a million away. Why, this new lens has pretty much paid for itself already, when you think what I would have spent on film and developing back in the day.
Well but so this puts you in a position of getting to watch me learn this new trick, and here I am posting my first efforts, knowing full well that if things go as they should, I’ll be doing a face palm a year from now when I look at these pictures.
But all that’s neither here nor there: what’s of much more interest is what you get to see when you get down low and up close. I walk up and down our sidewalk a dozen times a day nearly every day, watching for changes. (Anne Sexton to her daughter Linda: You’re like a garden! Something new every day!) The bright orange promise of the lion’s tail pushing its way out into April, for example.
Or take the cactuses, all of them busy producing new paddles like starfish produce new limbs. Cactus don’t grow so much as they explode, tiny nubbins emerging from what look like small round wounds in the green skin, growing quickly into new paddles so the whole plant is exponentially larger than it was last year.
It’s not really surprising to step outside in the morning and see how things have progressed since yesterday, but it never ceases to amaze me how much can happen while I am inside working on laundry or a syllabus. At this time of year I’m up and down like a jack-in-the-box, checking on every part of the yard for what’s been going on behind my back. If plants had mothers, I would be a very annoying one.
The cactuses also lend themselves easily to this type of photograph, because stillness is required or else the whole picture is a blur. It seems all I need to do is put one foot out the door and the wind starts up. The poppies, glad as I am to have them, don’t even seem to need a wind; I’m starting to think they have a pulse.
In 1981 Alan Alda made a movie called “The Four Seasons.” The wonderful late Sandy Dennis played a character who was an obsessional photographer, taking months to get a single shot right. It was one of the main complaints her insurance salesman husband held against her when he decided to dump her for a young flight attendant (a character made sympathetic against all possible odds by Bess Armstrong).
Me, I like to take photos in a flurry, this, this, this! Then hurry in to pop the little memory card into my laptop and see what I have, immediately relegating the majority of my shots to the trash. I imagine I will always throw photos away quickly, choosing between three or four shots of the same scene with very little thought (because I don’t know anything about photography, so I don’t know what to think!), with only my first instinct to guide me. This one. Not this one. This one. Nope. Nope. Nope. This one. The privilege of the dilettante.
But working close up slows me way down, until to my surprise I discover a piece of Sandy Dennis’s character inside myself. It’s hard for me to imagine myself taking my time with anything.
But to take close-up pictures you need your tripod, for one thing. Even if you pick a slow-moving plant like a cactus, at my age every part of your body is at least slightly atremble the majority of the time. I try to shoot on the exhale, just as I would down at Red’s Indoor Firing Range, but then my bad foot protests, or my hand falls suddenly asleep, or my co-artist Travis comes over to help. There’s no holding still without a tripod, and since setting it up just right takes a little time, I might as well settle down and attempt a few shots.
This is where the discovering begins. Small things I might register as pretty when I walk by become amazing, and the pretty of a flower unfolds into a dozen layers of pretty. I’ve been a fan of bachelor’s buttons for as long as I can remember; they grew like weeds in the scruffy front yard of our beach cottage. This one on the right is the “Brazilian Bachelor’s Button” I picked up in a four-inch pot a couple of weeks ago; I’m still awaiting the ones I planted from seed. Who knew they had all this flower-flower-flower action going on?
There’s no getting around the fact that age slows us all down. It’s nice to know that this can be a good thing.