Don McGowan

Don McGowan

Friday, 19 April 2019 22:56

The Shape of Floating Color

The small red maples that line the shore of the old mill pond at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, just a stone's throw from the marvels of Moonstone Beach on Rhode Island's incredible coast, offer themselves first as reflected leaves in the tannin-laced waters of the old mill pond. As the season progresses they continue their journeys often on the surface of the pond itself, where they join with the lily pads that have grown from the soft bottom of the pond to break the shallow surface. There they will run the wabi-sabi gamut of decay before finally becoming nutrients to help the next generation of lilies send their creamy blossoms to float with the Atlantic breezes.

A focal length of 450mm narrowed my angle-of-view into three distinct, but joined, areas of liquid surface. An aperture of f/16 at an ISO of 200 allowed for a shutter speed of 1/13th second, just fast enough to stop the slight motion of the light breeze and to provide an overall medium exposure.

The Ocean State's fall color is a jewel of rare beauty that sparkles in the light as if seen through a giant prism.


Thursday, 11 April 2019 13:28

A Communion of Trees

The gentle pastels of spring in the mountains are every bit as wonderful to me as the vibrant hues of autumn. There is an excitement to watching the world rebirth itself that the colors of spring seem to match with intensity and precision from the lowest valley to the highest peak. And there is no better place to begin than the cove hardwood forestlands between Sugarlands and the Chimneys. The great conflagration of November 2016 left scars that will outlast my eyes by many years, but in its wake it also gave Nature a chance at regeneration that shows the transformative power of beauty to heal.

A focal length of 200mm gave me the angle-of-view I wanted to isolate the budding hardwoods about 250 yards away. An aperture of f/22 provided depth-of-field, given the camera-to-subject distance; and a shutter speed of 1.0 second at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure.

The interior of a cove hardwood forest is a realm of richness and diversity. The trees are the instruments of an amazing symphony that plays every day, all day long.


Saturday, 06 April 2019 21:44

This Ancient Land

A slender red maple (Acer rubrum) sapling struggles for a place among already-mature eastern yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). Both are common to the eastern cove hardwood forests of the Smokies. Bonnie and I criss-crossed the Park yesterday in search of spring, and we found it nearly everywhere we looked already well-underway.

A focal length of 300mm, moderate telephoto-land, gave me the narrow angle-of-view I wanted to isolate portions of the maple and the tuliptrees. An aperture of f/22 provided depth-of-field, which, because of where I drew actual focus, and combined with the focal length, was not deep enough to carry all the way through to the background. These, combined with a shutter speed of 1.0 second at ISO 100, gave me an overall somewhat lighter-than-medium exposure.

The vernal splendor of the Great Smoky Mountains is the delightful outcome of the great diversity of the cove hardwood forests and other forest types. We are blessed by their presence and scope; we are their stewards; their gift to us in return is the beauty and serenity of a world simultaneously ancient and original.


Friday, 29 March 2019 22:41

Calf Creek Lagoon

The plunge pool formed by the falling waters of Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument collects seepage from points along the canyon wall. Over time these small interfaces have formed diminutive mudflat deltas where seepage meets pool. The falling water creates a constant breeze which ripples the lagoon's waters, distorting the reflection of the canyon's walls. A blue sky reflects strongly in the nearly still water of one of the seepages, where an errant cottonwood leaf and several twigs have come to rest.

A focal length of 123mm, still somewhat short telephoto-land, gave me the angle-of-view and isolation I wanted. An aperture of f/11 with an ISO of 100 allowed for a shutter speed of 1/8th second, slowing but not freezing the movement of the pool's water and giving me an overall medium exposure.

If I never find the wherewithal to again make the six-mile-journey into Lower Calf Creek Canyon and back, I will never forget the thrill of entering this oasis in the desert and being in the midst of the beauty present there - a lesson in being present that lives within me.

Saturday, 23 March 2019 17:05

Peek-A-Boo and River Too

Over the years I have come to believe that being mindful in the presence of Nature involves some basic truisms of walking in the world around me: seeking to be still, to be present, to be patient and to be persistent. The "4 Be's" as Bonnie and I call them are distillations from the writings of Patricia Turner. Before Patricia Turner there were the teachings of Native Elders too numerous to name and Taoist sages, also an acccounting lost in history. All of them pointing me to a single reality: it is in connection that "seeing" is born. In connection, Nature speaks, and so my wandering is about this and nothing more.

On a very rainy day recently we were wandering along Middle Prong of Little Pigeon River in the Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a place we have wandered many times. But each connection is different, and so this image was what spoke this time. A focal length of 17mm gave me the angle of view I wanted - wide-angle with a bit of a twist. An aperture of f/22 provided depth-of-field, and, at ISO 100, required a shutter speed of 10 seconds for an overall medium exposure.

Holding an umbrella to keep water off a lens and adjusting settings on a camera have always been a fun balancing act, no matter where you are; but nowhere more so than in Greenbrier. 

Saturday, 16 March 2019 07:49

A Road to Somewhere?

Four weeks ago I shared an Image, the first iPhone image, actually, of a macro composition of cracked paint and rust on an old farm implement at the Tom Brown farm in the Beech Glen Township of Madison County, North Carolina. This morning I thought I would be a bit more realistic and share a wide-angle view from the same wonderful old farm. It, truly, is one of our favorite workshop locations. Barns are on my mind because all weekend Bonnie and I have had the pleasure of attending the 42nd Annual Appalachian Studies Conference at UNC-Asheville. It has been a wonderful experience being with so many folks who seriously study and share the natural and cultural history - past and present - of these mountains we call home. We look forward to our fall barn workshops with new eyes. What is it that allows, or encourages, you to find connection in your world?

A focal length of 27mm, toward the upper end of wideangle-land, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted so as to include the abandonded implement and both of the barns with the road to connect them. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field and an ISO of 200 allowed me to set a shutter speed of 0.6 second to achieve a medium exposure, and along with a bit of patience to freeze the very slight breeze wafting through the trees.

I think of Tom Brown and his farm this morning with a renewed sense of connection and respect for the farmers of these wonderful old mountains

Friday, 08 March 2019 15:43

About to Sprung

For each of the previous three weeks there is one characteristic that the Images of the Week have featured in common: each has had an abundance of warm tonalities, especially reds and oranges. So today I thought I would change up and share something that borders on the monochromatic. How significant is a plethora of warm tones in the human reaction to a visual stimulus. What is it about this new Image that either evokes or suppresses a response of any kind - positive or negative?

Bonnie and I have been watching as one winter storm after another has tracked across the country, and last week we took a day to play in my favorite place, GSMNP. When we got to Newfound Gap, in late afternoon, the clouds were riding the ridge of Thomas Divide. Very little color to report, but the new growth tips on the hardwoods showed a blush of incipient spring. Holding our umbrellas, as we had all day, we watched as the clouds covered-then-revealed the various knobs of the ridge as it declined away from us on its journey to lower reaches of the Smokies and into Qualla Boundary.

A focal length of 135mm (somewhere on the cusp of short-to-medium telephoto) gave me the angle-of-view I wanted and some magnification-compression to boot. An aperture of f/22 assured depth-of-field from the camera-to-subject distance, and ISO 200 allowed for a shutter speed of 2.0 seconds.

No matter how many times you see a scene like this, you quickly come to realize that each one is very unique; and with some patience, each reveals its own special beauty.

Saturday, 02 March 2019 09:02

Ontonagon or Bust

On the maps of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan it is known as Bond Falls Flowage, a sparkling lake managed by the U.P. Power Company. Into this impoundment flow Deadman Creek and the Middle Branch of Ontonagon River, and out of it flows Middle Branch on its way north to join East Branch and West Branch before merging at the village of Ontonagon with the waters of Gitchi Gami, the greatest lake of them all, Superior. Not long released from the Flowage, Middle Branch tumbles over a series of cascades ending in one of the most spectacular drops in the UP, Bond Falls. Along the run of cascades is, in autumn splendor, one of the most amazing small falls I have ever encountered; and if you arrive at the right monent in the diurnal and seasonal cycles, and on a reasonably clear day, your reward is assured. Two dear friends who have sadly left us since the turn of the century, Bob and Gloria Epperson, introduced me to Bond Falls from their many adventures to photograph the wonders of America. I never tire of standing beside the flow, in gratitude for the beauty before me.

A focal length of 255mm from a distance of 25-30' allowed me to isolate a small section of the cascade, with the rich reflected colors reaching into the lip of the drop. An aperture of f/13 provided depth-of-field and, at ISO 100, allowed for a shutter speed of 1/6th of a second, fast enough to almost freeze the flow of the water at the drop's edge.

In considering a label for this image, I would discard both Intimate and Abstract in favor of calling it a straightforward (moderate) Telephoto creation characterized by magnification and compression. How do you see it?

Friday, 22 February 2019 16:51

Abstract or Intimate

One very effective way to reach into the land of abstraction is by increasing the focal length of the lens you are using, since by doing so you narrow the angle-of-view of the image and you magnify and compress the elements; all of which serves to significantly reduce the information the image contains, leading toward some essential result which is no longer recognizable as a concrete landscape. Just where the line of this differential is crossed is surely open for discussion; and one of the stops along this journey may well be in the world of intimate landscapes, although focal length alone will never be the sole determinant of intimate-landscapeland. Perhaps we are just too familiar with the rising sun and its conditions to see this Image as anything other than a sunrise, or maybe we stopped before crossing the line and have found ourselves still in the land where intimate landscapes dwell. What do you think?

A focal length of 117mm, still somewhere in the mid-range of short telephoto, eliminated the information I did not want and gave me a compressed mirror-image of the early light reflecting on Pete's Lake in Hiawatha National Forest. An aperture of f/16 provided depth-of-field given the camera-to-subject distance, and a shutter speed of 1/5th second at ISO 100 gave me a darker-than-medium overall exposure.

Even though a month of winter remains, my mind has flown to the Northwoods and the autumn adventure in store.

Saturday, 16 February 2019 19:39

The Joys of Oxidation

The wonderful Appalachian farmsteads of Madison County, North Carolina are treasured repositories of beauty. Often that beauty shouts at us from every angle we behold: the land, the structures, the beings - each sentinent in its own way. Sometimes, however, it is more subtle and must be uncovered through exploration and discovery, almost as if it were there just beneath the surface of our awareness, waiting to be brought to our attention by a look in a certain direction or the glancing reflection of a beam of light. What appeared to be old, or cast aside, now draws us with a depth that we must appreciate on a level that often has no words at first, only feelings.

When you read what I am about to say, you may, perhaps, be tempted to swear that I have gone over to the dark side; but consider this: I regularly use my iPhone to document locations to which I intend, or at least wish, to return with my DSLR. And usually I do return, but during a recent Appalachian Barns workshop, I was strongly attracted to the peeling paint and rust holding forth on an old mower at the Tom Brown farmstead in California Creek. Once one of the showcase residences of the county, the old home is now slowly falling under the spell of entropy and returning piecemeal to the earth from which it came. I have not yet had the opportunity to return, but in looking at what I had created, I realized that the work was sufficient to process and share as an Image for the Asking. The main camera on my phone is a 12mp device with a wide-angle (28mm in 35mm equivalence; in actuality 3.99mm) lens. It has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 and optical image stabilization (OIS). I did not engage the 5x digital zoom feature, but I did engage the auto-focusing sensor in the middle of the frame and released the shutter handheld from about 8" above the surface of the metal.

Perhaps I will manage to return with my D-810 and dedicated macro lens to work this place of beauty with a different technology; and perhaps I will share the outcome of that work, as well. The essence of the feeling will not be changed regardless of the device for capture; that awareness lives in my heart as a wordless reminder of the beauty that dwells within.


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