Challenge: Take photos of all the letters of the alphabet in nature. Do not move except to get the camera into position. Do not alter images other than cropping them. See what I learn from the challenge.
Outcomes: A bunch of photos. Pleasure while pondering views and images. Skills in photography. Skills in imagining features that may produce a letter. A less judgmental outlook overall through striving to accept the views in front of me. And a measure of clarity of mind.
Insights: For each successful photo, I need a view that looks like a letter, a background that does not interfere, good lighting, and enough skill to capture the image. It is harder than I expected, with the hardest letters being a, B, g, G, k, K, m, n, and R. It took three years to get one image for each letter. I have been at it for seven years. It is also more rewarding than I expected.
- Try it. The search is fun, and the prize of getting a letter may make you ridiculously pleased. I get to go off trails, pull off roads, and look close and far away at scenes that I never would have noticed. I learn about properties of rocks and bark and leaf surfaces I never would have known. For example, ponderosa pine bark comes off in flakes that look like an infinite variety of puzzle pieces—until you look at them up close. After two hours in a quiet grove I photographed only three letters: an O I couldn’t use (it looked like a hole in some plastic), a semi-recognizable r, and a semi-recognizable d.
- Write the letters by hand in upper and lower case and then categorize them. Which ones use straight lines? Which ones use curves? Which ones need intersections? Then look for letters in the landscapes that have the characteristics those letters need.
- Have a camera with you. I do better with my dedicated camera than my cell phone camera because I can change settings to capture what I see.
- Have patience. You will get better at it. I have become more adept at imagining where I will find a letter (e.g., “I will look at leaf margins in that gooseberry that has so much herbivory and that grows in waterways”). I have become more skilled with my camera. It has become reflexive for me to search for specific letters when I am in a particular sort of landscape.
- Accept that some terrains, vegetations, soils, and light environments just will not yield letters. Three-fourths of the time I find no letters worth keeping. Of the letters I keep, I eventually use only about a quarter of them.
- Do not be discouraged if you show your great shot to someone and that person says, “Meh.” Ironically, you already see the image as different from what is on the screen because you know which part you will zero in on for your letter. On top of that, when you later string a few letters together, the sum will be greater than the parts.
- Keep accumulating more versions of the same letters. You may one day want different colors or shapes for a composition, and your feelings about an image might change after it has other letters around it.
- Take the time you need to compose your shots. While you are there, experiment. The light can change or a caterpillar can wander by. Change angle—go behind the object, or lie on the ground and look up.
- And if you’re walking with buddies, suggest they leave you behind for a bit.
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Conclusions: In the end, my alphabet is not about being rushed. Nor is it about producing realistic letters, merchantable product, or material for gifts.
The alphabet I produce is a distillation.
My alphabet is about dialing down the processing to see what is in front of me.
My alphabet is about attempting to suspend the judgment that I use all day—which I need to use to navigate my world. But those judgments include churning of the mind that can get in the way of deep, meaningful thought.
My alphabet is about the pursuit of simplicity of thought, because if I can clear my vision to what is really there, then I have the hope of clearing my thoughts, as well.
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