One of the hardest things to figure out when making art is why an idea isn’t working. There’s a certain amount of stop and start when a new idea gets going and that’s an expected part of the process. It’s different when things won’t gel, when what you see in your mind’s eye isn’t within reach, despite many attempts. I ran into this problem when I began shooting the glacial formations in Central Park with my pinhole cameras.
During the Pleistocene age, several continental glaciers flowed across this region from northwest to southeast, moving across the Hudson Valley and what would eventually become the land beneath New York City. Through a combination of uplift and erosion caused by the glaciers, the bedrock, which had originally formed at depths of almost 20 miles, became exposed. Much of the rock in the southern part of the park is from the Hartland Formation, composed of sedimentary and volcanic rocks folded together, while the northern section consists of the Cambrian Manhattan Formation, more commonly known as Manhattan Schist.
When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in 1858, they recognized the impressive natural beauty of these geologic features and incorporated them into their Greensward Plan.
I had long admired the rock formations and thought it would be interesting to create a set of pinholes documenting them. I worked on it for nine months, for the most part unsuccessfully. What I saw as beautiful, dramatic formations were flattened by the pinhole camera. The undulations and jagged edges of the stone disappeared, the scale didn’t translate, and the incredible presence of the formations vanished. It took me a long time to admit that my method wasn’t working. While I did take a decent photo now and then, most of them went straight into the Failure File.
However, one of the first photos in the series, of Umpire Rock (below), came out just as imagined. At first, this made me think that the ensuing duds were unusual and that fabulous photos lay ahead, enticingly within reach. Nope.
My nemesis was a formation that I called Jaggy Rock, just north of the Children’s Zoo, at about Fifth Avenue and 67th Street. A remarkable, jagged mound of stone that clearly showed the direction of the glacial flow, it was impressive. Well, in person, it was impressive. Here it is shot with my phone.
Here’s a person standing on top for a sense of scale.
In my pinholes, it looked like an puny lump.
Maybe low angle would make it more dramatic? Uh, no.
What about a close up of that amazing texture? What is this thing?
I shot it close up and from a distance, on rainy days and dry, in the winter and the spring. It didn’t matter, it was either indecipherable or uninteresting.
Fascinating fact: New York City may not seem to be the most practical place to study geology, but the city’s rocky floor is one of the most exposed and excavated in the country. Excavations for subway and water tunnels, buildings and railroads have brought the rocks and minerals beneath the city into the hands of many happy geologists.
Another subject was Umpire Rock, one of the biggest and most spectacular natural exposures in the park. It has beautiful folds, areas where the rock resembles frozen liquid, and gorgeous glacial troughs at the northwest corner, where meltwaters once carved their way. Here they are, again shot with my phone. Look at these incredible grooves!
I tried to photograph the glacial troughs. As usual, I placed my camera on the ground, since I don’t use a tripod. This is the strange pinhole that resulted. I still can’t figure out what we’re looking at.
Some photos sort of worked when I used the rock as a feature of the landscape, but the stone’s drama is M.I.A.
Pow! This is what it’s really like.
This is one of the folds in the rock. Not a showstopper, but finally, some texture.
In person the surface looks more like this.
The grooves in the rock are caused by sand, pebbles and boulders embedded in the base of the glacier as it flowed over the slopes of the rocky hills. Most of the glacial formations have these grooves, lending a beautiful texture to the stone, which you wouldn’t know from the pinhole photos.
After months of frustration, I realized that this was no different than problems I encountered while painting. If a task is painfully difficult, if the technique should work but doesn’t, if I can imagine something but can’t bring it to fruition, then the first thing to do is to determine if I’m using the right tool. Instead of trying of force an outcome, it’s time to rethink the method. The details of these rock formations are better served by working with a different camera.
Eventually I began shooting the formations with a Diana camera. Suddenly, the texture, mood and drama were right there. What a difference!
Lesson learned: Sometimes an idea is sound, but the tools need to change in order to bring it to life.