Author: Mike Ross

My name is Mike Ross and I have obsessive compulsive photography disorder, although I consider this a somewhat healthy obsession. Compared to some of my past addictions and obsessions, this one is a walk in the park. I was born in New York City, spent most of my life on Long Island (pronounced Lawn Guyland), and am now living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I am currently using a Sony A6000 with a 35mm f/1.8 lens and a Sony RX100. All photos are from RAW files processed using Lightroom, Photoshop and occasionally HDR software.

Narcissus Tristitia

Narcissus Tristitia
Narcissus Tristitia

It happens at almost the same time each year here in Lancaster, one day it’s sunny and warm enough for the beach, and the next day it’s almost too cold to stand outside and fill your gas tank.

Recently, after weeks of record setting warmth, we had a cold snap with temperatures well below freezing. Although all I had to do was wear an extra sweatshirt, many plants, trees and flowers took a beating.

Some managed to hold on while others were not so fortunate. For them, it’s the end of the road. The ones that made it, the lucky ones, know that many of their friends are gone, and they seem depressed.

But this is nature, survival of the fittest and all that. Lions eat gazelles, giant tuna end up in cans, and photographers remember that it’s hard to adjust camera settings with frozen fingers.

Geraldo Rivera, best know for opening Al Capone’s vault, said: “Mother Nature may be forgiving this year, or next year, but eventually she’s going to come around and whack you. You’ve got to be prepared.” Touché.

Photographic Memories

Circa 1962
Circa 1962

This is a photograph of my mother in her early thirties on a trip we took to Taconic State Park in 1962. She is not that person now at 86, and in a way she is.

In her dining room there is another old photo of me at age 2 and a half. I’m sitting with my favorite teddy bear, wearing a sailor suit, and look as happy as a clam, and I ask myself who that person is.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh addressed this in his book No Death, No fear: “I have a photograph of myself when I was a boy of sixteen. Is it a photograph of me? I am not really sure. Who is this boy in the photograph? Is it the same person as me or is it another person?”

“The body of the boy in the photograph is not the same as my body, now that I am in my seventies. The feelings are different, and the perceptions are very different. It is just as if I am a completely different person from that boy, but if the boy in the photograph did not exist, then I would not exist either.”

He goes on to say: “You would not cry if you knew that by looking deeply into the rain you would still see the cloud.”

Note to self: reread this book and get a new rain jacket.

Love and Work

The big car
The big car

I saw this car for sale in Cecil County, Maryland and had to take a look, and a photo. I think it’s a 1951 Chevrolet with a 3 speed 235 inline 6, but that’s just a wild guess.

Back in the 50’s a big car was a goal for most working men. It was a sign of success, and for many it was a very important thing to have.

After achieving that goal, other important things to have were a big house, a big pool, and a big bank account. If everything went well, one day they could retire in style and play golf, fish or do whatever they loved to do in their golden years.

If their bank account was big enough, they might eventually move into a luxury nursing home, with manicured lawns and comfortable chairs to sit on and think, think about what was important in their lives. Chances are it wasn’t any of the things that they thought would make them happy.

Freud said that successful living means functioning well in love and work. One of his quotes on this is; “Love and work… work and love, that’s all there is.”

You might want to figure out what is important to live a successful life now, rather than when you’re sitting in that chair, complaining that your soup is cold, and thinking about all the things that you could have done differently.

Beginner’s Mind

Simple pleasures
Simple pleasures

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes; “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What he calls beginner’s mind refers to doing something without thinking about achieving anything, which could be recognition, likes on a Facebook page, or a tweet by the President and a free room for life in one of his hotels.

Last night I spent two frustrating hours taking photos of colored pencils for a piece I wanted to write called selective focus. It was to be about the way we get caught up in our own bullshit by the way we think, and what we think about. So of course the photo had to be tack sharp, it had to be perfect.

Finally I decided the whole thing was pointless and gave up, putting the pencils in an old cigar box along with some crayons I had for another project on color. I looked over and saw something that was random and perfect and nothing special (also the title of a fantastic book by Charlotte Joko Beck).

I took six photos for the simple reason that I thought it was cool. Yes, I shot RAW and JPEG in manual on a tripod, but people don’t change overnight. And it was absolutely perfect in its own way! It’s a simple photo of crayons in an old cigar box given to me by my father 20 years ago.

So at 2 am last night I had an epiphany and it was free, there is true joy in doing something just because its fun. I can’t wait to tell this to my therapist next week when I pay my bill. She might tell me that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I have a feeling she’ll read more into this than there really is.

Coming Home

Lancaster County Cow
Lancaster County Cow

An old expression that is rarely used these days is “until the cows come home.” An example is: Mike can dodge and burn until the cows come home, but he’ll never fix that photo. In my experience driving around the back roads of Pennsylvania, cows do not actually come home because they never leave.

Once in a while a brave one will decide to make a break for it, to see what’s out there besides walking around in circles and getting milked. So knowing that there’s an electric fence to keep her in, she decides that a little bit of pain is worth the pleasure of doing what she wants and goes for it.

After the brief thrill of the escape is over, she stands there in the middle of the road wondering what to do next. She has the same look that a prisoner has after being released from jail, and the same thoughts. Being where they were wasn’t exactly heaven, but it wasn’t hell either. In many ways it was safe, predictable and at times even comfortable.

So like many ex cons do after realizing that the unknown can be frightening, they go back to the life that they knew. Ordinary people also do this and it is sometimes called quiet desperation.

Occasionally, someone will escape from a place and stay out despite not knowing what to do or what will happen next. This is known as courage and is different than bravery.

The essence of courage is not the feeling of being certainly capable of overcoming what’s one is faced with, but rather is the willful choice to fight regardless of the consequences.

Write that down.

A Mushrooming Perspective

Enoki Mushrooms
Enoki Mushrooms

These are Enoki mushrooms I shot one day experimenting with still life photography. If you’ve never seen them, it’s hard to appreciate just how small they are, the whole package easily fit in the palm of my hand. Up close though they look very different, which brings up the matter of perspective.

We think that things such as birth, old age, sickness and death are a big deal, but of course those things are unavoidable. Now I’ve already been born, many times I was sick, and at 57 I’m rounding third base into old age, but death I’m not too comfortable with.

So I ask myself, self, how can I put everything into perspective? How can I accept the four noble truths, my own mortality, and the fact that I didn’t win Powerball again?

Michael A. singer, author of The Untethered Soul wrote: “You’re just standing on one little ball of dirt and spinning around one of the stars. From that perspective, do you really care what people think about your clothes or your car?”

He makes a very good point, but that philosophy goes out the window when you’re flirting with the gorgeous blonde at the Mercedes dealership.

Many, many years before that, before people had cars, or even paperback books, Marcus Aurelius, an Emperor of Rome, is reported to have said: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

Well you really can’t argue with that kind of clarity, but he wasn’t photographing tiny mushrooms from two inches away, trying to get everything tack sharp, properly exposed and correct the white balance because he used the wrong color lights.

Note to self: buy bigger mushrooms next time, daylight balanced bulbs, and learn to use the perspective warp tool in Photoshop.

What Difference a Day Makes

Crocus 2/28/17
Crocus 2/28/17

I went back to the park this afternoon for two reasons, I have too much time on my hands and I like to watch the progress of the spring flowers. And I’m obsessed with photography and if I don’t get out of the house I go stir crazy, so four reasons.

Yesterday the crocuses were closed for the day and today they were open for business. What a difference a day makes, twenty four little hours…

Nothing Is Black and White

Strasburg Rail Road
Strasburg Rail Road

In photography, a lot of things are black, white, and fifty shades of grayscale. People, animals and landscapes sometimes do look better in monochrome, but it’s also a way to compensate for the fact that the light was bad.

I took this at the Strasburg Rail Road station at 10:30am, too late in the morning for the best light. The left side, which I kept in color for scientific purposes, is pretty good but the rest is washed out, and the patch of sky on the top right was almost pure white. I liked the composition so I tried to make it work as a color photo but couldn’t. That left me with a couple of options.

I could tell myself that steam engines are awesome, and that color and sharpness don’t matter because it’s only a photo. Or convert to monochrome and call it done. I live close enough to go back and try to do better, so I converted the RAW file to black and white using Lightroom, in what could have been a ten second process using a Photoshop action.

The Strasburg Rail Road takes you on a 45-minute, round-trip ride through the tranquil Amish countryside to Paradise (Pennsylvania) and back. If tranquility is not your style but you like trains, photo opportunities are yours for the taking.

Starting in April they have trains that leave at 6pm on Saturday, and the best place to watch or photograph them is in the parking lot of the nearby Red Caboose Motel. Somewhere around 6:45-7:00 on those nights, they will be slowly chugging back to the station toward you, with amazing light low in the sky in just the right direction for a perfect trainspotting photo.

Note: it’s very easy to get excited and blow the shot completely, but remember, steam engines are awesome, and color and sharpness don’t matter because it’s only a photo.

Strasburg Rail Road B&W
Strasburg Rail Road B&W

The Search for Truth

Long’s Park Heron
Long’s Park Heron

This is one of the Herons that live at Long’s Park, and the possible murderer of the goldfish I wrote about in an earlier post. He seems to be searching for something, although it’s more likely to be a snack than the truth.

Roughly thirty five years ago I was in a topless bar ordering my third scotch. An old man sitting next to me, making love to his tonic and gin, looked at me and asked: “What is truth?” I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.

Hakuin Ekaku, one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism, is reported to have said; “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away.”

Yes…of course. And if I didn’t quit drinking, I’ve have a few Yoichi Single Malts at the Seventh Heaven in Tokyo, and think about that for a while.