Category Archives: Photography

The Appreciation Equation (You might want to sit down. Turns out, it’s exponential.)

Thursday night I got the game ball. It felt so great!  In my dubious athletic career, I never got the game ball.  I have thrown a game ball. I have caught a game ball- once, in the back of the head.  I have dribbled a game ball, shot a game ball, even caught a game ball (once, right in the nose).  As a coach, I have even given the game ball. I have never been given the game ball, until last Thursday night.  I was given it in appreciation of my work which is about as far from athletic as you can get: data analysis, assessment and research.  I felt truly honored to be recognized for my work. Of course, the first thing I did was send a picture of the ball to my husband and daughter who are my biggest cheerleaders.

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My sly cell phone pic of the game ball for my family.

They were so excited for me.  Then I remembered the 14 letters my daughter gave me for my birthday! I remembered that one was entitled “Open when you are a data badass”.  If there was ever a good reason to open that letter, this was it. I could not wait to get home to read it.  Well, I can tell you that I was definitely feeling that letter. Here is what it said (used with permission of the author):

“So, I don’t know when you’ll be reading this, but I can almost guarantee that I’ve already called you and asked you how to use Excel or had some number-y struggle at school.  Not only are you a data badass at work but it turns out you’re a data badass at my university too:). It has always made me laugh and smile the way you get so excited about data at your work.  I hope whatever you did today to be a data badass made you excited, and even made the Superintendent tell you that you’re a Rockstar!  Give me a call and tell me about your data badass-ness today!”

My first thought was “I think my kid might be psychic.”  Then, I just took a moment to soaked that letter  up.  It made me feel very special. She knows I love my work. Clearly, she shares my joy when I come bouncing home with some great story about analyzing data. I have about the nerdiest job that there is, and she gets just as excited as I do, not because she cares about data, because she knows and cares about me. She appreciates me- especially when I help with her “number-y struggles”.

Train your people so well that they could work anywhere.

Treat your people so well that they won’t want to.

-Branson

I started to wonder why appreciation or gratitude can evoke such powerful emotions.  Of course, that led to research. This will not be a surprise to anyone who knows me.  I came upon The Science of Gratitude by Summer Allen (University of California Berkley, May 2018). I learned that I am not the only person wondering how gratitude benefits people, and why both giving and receiving it feels so great.  There is now a field of gratitude research which, though in its infancy, gave Dr. Allen fodder for 72 compelling pages on the subject.  (I should note that there is some debate on the relationship between appreciation and gratitude in the research. I am lumping them together as more research is needed.) In addition to citing studies of improved health outcomes for people who practice gratitude, I was struck by research that suggested “practicing gratitude changes the brain in a way that orients people to feel more rewarded when other people benefit (Summers, p. 17).”  Gratitude begets altruism.  Think about that. Expressing gratitude makes you feel better in and of itself, and it makes you feel even better when you do something that benefits someone else. It is like an avalanche of gratitude.  It’s an exponential equation. I express gratitude. I feel great. I do something nice for someone else as a result. I feel even better, and the person I help feels appreciated. So, they feel gratitude. If they do something nice for someone else, they will feel great! It will be completely out of control. People will be grateful for other people with no expectation of reward, and yet, they will feel rewarded.

Have an attitude of gratitude.

-Hinckley

What if we intentionally practiced gratitude?  What if we intentionally taught our children to practice gratitude?  Practicing the skill of identifying the people and things we are grateful for, and then acting on that gratitude, has lasting positive physical and emotional effects individually and collectively.  I am sure of it. The research backs it up.

I propose an experiment that I am going to call Passing the Game Ball. I would like you to join me in it and then share your experience by leaving a comment.

  1. For one week, make a list every day of at least 5 things you are grateful for.
  2. Each day, express your gratitude directly to one person you come in contact with. Look them in the eye, give them a smile, and say it loud and proud: “You deserve the game ball! Thanks for…..” (Or write a personal note if that is more your style.)
  3. See if expressing gratitude for someone else feels just as great as receiving gratitude.
  4. See if expressing gratitude makes you want to do it more.

I bet we could start an avalanche! I’ll start. I am so grateful for all of the people who read my blog and take the time to share their experiences and perspectives. You have enriched my life.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

 

Copyright

Adventure Days!

For the last couple of weekends, I have been shooting my daughter’s senior portraits.  It was so special to me that I was able to do this for her- that she wanted me to do this for her. Though I have shot a number of senior portraits and I always feel honored to do it, this one had a weight to it. I was at once thrilled and saddened at the mere thought of it.  All summer, it was on my mind. I searched through hundred of images for interesting poses. I looked at images of every park in the greater Puget Sound and into the Cascades. My husband and I even braved 14 miles of washboard and loose gravel on the Mountain Loop Highway from Granite Falls to Darrington looking for the perfect spot.   Washington was very dry last summer though.  Dismal browns covered the normally lush, emerald greens.  So, we waited until fall when the leaves began to turn to scarlet, orange and gold. Unfortunately, September was quite rainy, and we had trouble finding a dry weekend.

When the sun broke through one Saturday morning, we quickly loaded the Jeep with four changes of clothing and my camera gear and headed into the mountains. As we drove along, my daughter commandeered the stereo and the conversation. It was bliss to listen to them both.  As the miles rolled by and the cell towers disappeared, we really had the chance to talk.  I love long road trips with her. I am tickled by her quick wit, strength  and passion.  Without the distraction of social media, we have space for all the things there is never enough space for.  Finding space, I thought, was so much easier before cell phones, AP classes, Friday night football, work, sports, friends and cars. It made me think of that long stretch between diaper bags and dating boys when we just hung out together any chance we got.

When she was very young, I pronounced that, whenever she had a day off from school, we would have an Adventure Day.  I would take a vacation day and off we would go.  Sometimes we would throw around ideas for weeks ahead of time. Other times, we threw caution to the wind and waited until Adventure Day arrived.  Either way, no decisions were made until we were seated at O’Donnell’s awaiting their amazing French Toast.  Then the true negotiations began. We would throw out ideas.  Should we paint ceramics?  Drive to a city we had never visited?  Swim in the salt water at Colman Pool?  Ride a ferry? Sit on the beach?  Explore the Market? Ride bikes? The possibilities were endless. She would always say, “Let’s compromise and go with my plan.”  I would remind her what compromise means and then we would go with her plan.  After all, the truth is I just wanted a carefree day of singing to the stereo, talking about every little thing going on in her life, and listening to her laughter.  My personal favorite was Adventure Day in Bellingham.  We spent the night in town and the day exploring Fairhaven. It was a weekend that alternated between giggling girl and growing up.  On a side street, we found an antique shop that had a display of old hat with veils and feathers my grandmother might have worn as fashion. We cracked up as we tried them on, posing in the most ridiculous way and exclaiming “Daaahling, you look fa-bu-lous!”  A block away we found our kryptonite: a bookstore.  She begged me to buy a history of Africa that weighed more than her head and was sure to fill it.  She was enamored with Africa having listened to the childhood stories of my best friend’s father.  And then I was dragged into a fireplace shop whose resident dog was a Golden Retriever- apparently with a gift for getting people to stop and scratch his ears. She is powerless to pass any pup by.  And on it went, and, as usual, I was filled with wonder and awe at this growing sprite.

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Adventure Day 2014

As we drove up the Mountain Loop Highway, and the sunny skies turned to mist, then drizzle, then rain, I was not disappointed even though I knew we were not going to get the shot that day.  For I had hours that day in the car with her, scouting spots and marking them for the next sunny day.  And we talked about every little thing. And we sang to her playlist.  And we laughed.  Though not an official Adventure Day, it felt like one. (Thanks to the rain, I knew I was going to get another one.) Though unplanned and meandering, that day was precious because I knew these opportunities were dwindling fast.  Sure, we will carve out time even when she was in college, but it is time for her life to grow outward. It is time for her to have some Adventure Days without me.

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Adventure Day 2018
(1/125 sec., f/4, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Gamble

I am not a gambler.  In fact, the betting window would be closed and the race long over before I even identified all of the variables or made my first graph.  The horses would have died of old age before I analyzed all of the data. It’s not that I can’t make a decision quickly. I can. But data is my security blanket. If there is data to inform my decision, I am compelled to use it.  I can’t just pick “Betty’s Aunt Mary in the Pea Patch” in race two because I once knew a Betty who had an Aunt Mary who lived on a farm with two acres of peas.  I need something rational like a statistically significant difference in leg length or weight to height ratio.  It’s not that I don’t have hunches.  I do.  They are even often right. But I do feel the need to back them up with a reassuring trend line and four supporting peer-reviewed articles.  The truth is, the world is not always predictable or quantifiable. Yes friends, I said it. You can’t measure or calculate everything.  And it turns out that some of the most rewarding things in life come after a massive leap of faith into the unknown.

One year ago today, I took a huge gamble.  I decided to begin selling my photographs and paintings. So, with a frighteningly small amount of research on my part, I got a business license, found a wall to hang my artwork on and created a website.  I did all of that in one weekend. I hyperventilated through much of it. (A big thanks to my family and close friends for talking me off the ledge repeatedly that weekend as I chanted, “What am I doing?!?!?”)  Again, not because it was particularly scary, but because the sum total of my preparation was to read the state and city business license laws.  To put that in perspective, my dissertation is 253 pages long and, after four years of classes, and two years of reading research and crunching numbers, my unbelievably patient doctoral chair literally called me up and said, “Enough researching already, start writing!”  He was a wise man. I would have read “just one more article” and calculated “just one more ANOVA” forever if he had let me. I thought of him as I hung that first photograph and said to myself, “Put the nail in the wall already! What’s the worst that could happen?” Putting my artwork out for everyone to see was a little like jumping into a cold lake in early summer. It took my breath away and made my heart skip a beat. Creating something is so personal. And I didn’t have a chart of data proving it was right or good. I really liked my work. But I am biased. I had no idea if anyone else would like my work.  I’ve sold some photographs and paintings over the year.  That is an amazing feeling – knowing someone wants to look at my art, every day, on their wall! It was also an amazing experience to come to a place where it was OK if someone did not like my work.  The joy is in the creating. It’s icing on the cake if someone shares in that joy.

One of the many unexpected experiences this year was writing this blog.  As with the rest of this magnificent adventure, it was completely unplanned.  The truth is that I really liked the website template I chose on WordPress and I just could not figure out how to get rid of the blog page. So I wrote a short post about how I came to love photography. I truly thought that would be the only post I would ever write.  Blog.  Check. Not surprisingly, my dad figured prominently in that first post and continues to make cameos. I found I really enjoyed writing my blog (and friends I hope you are sitting down, I am not talking about a technical article!). I wrote about the amazing moments (and some hilarious ones) I have had behind my lens. My blog has grown and grown as I remember the big moments – and small ones – of my life.  Sometimes I just muse on life, love, and lessons I have learned. Whether I am writing about the love of my life, my grandpa, my dogs, my dad, my daughter or my day, I find myself laughing and crying and shaking my head.  In the words of Zorba the Greek, I love “the whole catastrophe” that is this amazing life.  And 53 posts later, I am having a great time writing about it.  I am glad I gambled on this adventure. Thanks for gambling on me!

I selected this photograph for my post today because it is really the first photograph I “gambled” on.  I entered it for the annual photo issue of  Rowing Magazine in 2015 and it was publish in the January 2016 issue. It was the moment when I knew that I wanted to take a  leap of faith and gamble on myself.

Women rowing

After the Finish Line
(1/1000 sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Manny Scott, one of the original Freedom Writers, speak.  If you ever have the chance, don’t miss it. He is an extraordinary individual who really embodies the power and resilience of the human spirit. At the end of his speech, he said something that was both so profound and so obvious that I couldn’t decide if I should shout “Amen” or slap myself on my forehead.  I know that I will not say this as eloquently as he did, so I am paraphrasing here. He said that, in reaction to his story, people would often say, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink’. Then one day, someone pointed out, ‘That maybe true, but you can make him thirsty. All you have to do is give him a little salt.’  Manny Scott was honoring the teacher who changed his life by making him thirst for learning. What a powerful thing it is to ignite a passion in someone that makes them thirst to learn.  The best teachers and coaches know just how to do this.  For that matter, the best parents and bosses do as well.  I think it takes just one person in your life to change your whole trajectory. One person who sees all that you can be. One person who sees your gifts not your challenges.  One person who knows you have it in you to do the hard work – someone who can see a future you cannot yet even imagine. I have had more than my fair share of these people pass through my life. But it all started 45 years ago when I entered second grade and found out I was smart.

I attended a small Catholic school north of Seattle.  Though you might imagine nuns with severe hairstyles, stern looks and inflexible rules, I was taught by nuns who hugged and played guitar. (One even wore Go-Go boots occasionally.)  I liked school. It was predictable.  Not much of the rest of my life at the time was. My parents had divorced loudly.  My mom was struggling to manage entering the workforce and raise four little girls. In the wisdom of Family Court circa 1970, I only saw my dad every other weekend.   But I trusted my teachers, so I did not question them when I was moved to a special classroom.  They explained, in gentle tones, that I was having trouble reading and needed extra help. Apparently, that was early code for Special Education.  I took their tests, packed up my school supplies and moved across the hall. I’m not really sure how my dad found out about this unfortunate turn of events. But he did. When he called to tell me that he was taking me out for lunch alone, I knew something serious was about to happen. He always took me out to lunch when he had something serious to say.  I remember sitting across from him in the booth, my legs sticking to the Naugahyde, hoping that the waitress would take her time getting to us.  Nothing serious could be said before we ordered.  Once the drinks were served, my dad launched in.  He was a big man with a big personality who seemed to take over the room.  He was very animated and, at first, I thought he was mad at me. Then I realized he was mad at the nuns which was utterly shocking. Surely, it was some kind of a sin to be angry at a nun.  Surely, they could not have done something wrong.  Then I realized what was going on. He was angry that they had put me in a special classroom. He told me that he had insisted that they do an IQ test (whatever that was) which apparently showed that I was smart.  I almost couldn’t understand what he was saying. After all, I wasn’t a very good reader.  But here he was telling me that I was smart. That I could read. That I would read well and someday I would go to college.  He told me that the nuns had made a mistake which was going to be rectified.  I couldn’t wait to find out what rectified meant.  I just hoped it didn’t mean that the nuns would be mad at me. He was so sure. And he made me believe in that instance that I was just as smart as everyone else, maybe even smarter.  He told me I had to work hard just like everyone else and, if I did, then I could do anything.  The next day, I packed my school supplies and walked across the hall. I never looked back. I could not wait to read something, anything, everything.

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if he had not been in my corner. I did need extra help in school.  But I needed a lot less once I believed that I could learn. I was willing to work a lot harder once I knew that there was no ceiling to my potential.  It changed everything for me. I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and went on to earn a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate.  He led me to the water and made me thirsty to learn.  We all have the ability to do this. There are people in our lives who need a leg up. They need to see their possibilities through our eyes.  Give them a little salt. Trust me. They’ll drink.

I chose this photograph because, as I was photographing an elk herd, this young elk split off from the herd to chase down a couple of elk who were heading toward the highway. Literally, he led them back to the water.

Hey Come Back!

Hey, Come Back!
(1/50 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

My Heart

My daughter is a junior this year. She is our only child. The good Lord blessed us with only one child but, in so doing, He blessed us every single day after.  In just over a year, she will leave us to go off to college and start this new adventure. The part of her life where she becomes an adult independent of us.  Every day I fight the primal urge to cover her in bubble wrap leaving holes only so that she can breathe.  I want to protect her from the world. I want her to have a life without ever feeling pain or loss.  But of course, this is not possible.  She has, in fact, experienced pain and loss already.   And the truth is that you cannot know great love and not know great loss.  You cannot have great happiness and not have great grief.  You cannot appreciate your successes without experiencing some failures. Some days, I feel like Nemo’s dad: protective, fearful and powerless.  I also know Dory was right when she told him, “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.” (https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2015/04/23/9-dory-quotes-deeper-than-the-drop-off/)  And yes, I am aware that I just used a Disney animated film as a literary reference.  What can I say? There was at least a decade when animated films were my only cultural outlet.  At any rate, Dory is right.  As a parent, I have done my absolute best, first to keep this tiny human alive and then help her grow into a capable adult. I believe to my core that it is my responsibility to help her to become a strong, independent adult.  I know that this means walking that fine line of letting her make her own mistakes and dust herself off and wrapping her in a bear hug while wiping her tears.  I am aware, as every parent is I’m sure, that I have fallen short at times. Despite this, she has become a strong, smart, compassionate, talented young woman.  I also know these are tumultuous times to be a teenager.  Whatever your politics, I think we can agree there is much strife in the world.  It can be a scary, unpredictable place. I want her to find her voice, her place in the world.  I want her to live her convictions.  Meanwhile, every day she is bombarded with media, popular and social.  The world is literally at her fingertips.  She has never known a time when the knowledge that is power was not hers for the searching.  It is so much for a young heart and mind to navigate.  When I look at her and her friends, I am so hopeful about the future.  It is in the hands of courageous, creative, compassionate people. But I will hold my breath and pray, because one of those is my baby. A single voice in a powerful chorus.  A fragile human testing the frontline of change.

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My Heart
(1/30 sec., f/4.2, 560 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Rub Some Dirt On It

Let me just say at the outset, I know that this story is going to reveal with lights and sirens the unhealthy relationship I have (or had) with my Jeep, Angus.  Yes, I named it. Don’t judge.  We were together for 10 years.  A couple of weeks ago, I wrecked Angus.  It was the one and only snowy workday morning of the winter.  I think snow is the most beautiful type of weather. Snow makes my heart happy. If I know it is going to snow overnight, I hop out of bed extra early in the morning to look out the window hoping for a thick blanket of white powder.   I am cheerful when I get the ‘two hours late’ phone tree call.  When I was teaching, I even made my freshman science students do a snow dance whenever the forecast called for snow.  I convinced them that I had learned the snow dance in Alaska.  (Freshman are gullible and generally willing to do silly things.)

I left my house a little later than normal hoping some of the ice and snow would clear. School was two hours late and my daughter was snuggled up to our two boxers.  She didn’t wake up to say goodbye.  The boxers had the decency to make eye contact but made no effort to move from their revered and toasty spots.  Just as I was leaving, my husband texted me to tell me to avoid the Lowell Rd.  It is a windy road cut in a hillside along the valley and my preferred method of getting to work. He knows how much I love to drive on country roads.  I have put a few icy miles under my wheels.  I went to university in Fairbanks, so I know how to get out of a spin.  I had a lot of practice.  Until this fateful day though, I had never been in an accident.   I was driving well under the speed limit, gearing down as I approached the stop lights.  I gave everyone lots of room.  When I came to a small dip in the road, I hit a massive patch of ice.  You always hear that your life passes before your eyes in these moment.  Time definitely slowed down drawing out those terrifying seconds.  My first thought as my rear axle whipped around behind me was “This is gonna leave a mark.”  I grabbed the gearshift so hard one of my fingernails popped right off my pinky finger. It all happened in slow motion. My glasses flew off my face and hit the windshield. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my coffee cup exiting its holder in the console and splashing across the passenger door.  As I traveled across the other lane of traffic, I briefly made eye contact with the wide-eyed driver of an oncoming car. Fortunately, I slid right in front of him. I hopped the curb taking out a fence and landing on a power pole.  I sat there for a moment at a loss of what to do. The glass on the passenger side was shattered and through the gaping hole I could see a little snow-covered lake.  It looked serene and I was so grateful I was not submerged in it.  The 911 operator was very patient with me.  Once she determined I was not hurt, she said “No one is coming for you.  There are just too many injury accidents.”  That should have been my first clue as to just how lucky I was.  I wasn’t hurt.  Not a scratch. I did not hurt anyone else.  But I was rip roaring mad.  I put Angus in 4 low, pulled us off the fence and headed home.  I was standing teary-eyed in the driveway staring at the crushed hard top and dented quarter panel when the wrecker came to tow him away.  Even though my insurance company was unbelievably helpful, I still felt like I wanted to throw a temper tantrum worthy of a nap-deprived three-year-old.  “I don’t want a rental car! I want my Jeep back. Don’t tow Angus away!”  Eventually I got a grip.  That lasted just until a man whose title is “Total Loss Evaluator” called.  (What kind of title is that! Why don’t they just call him the Automotive Grim Reaper?!)  In my defense, everyone kept telling me the Angus could be rebuilt.  It never occurred to me he was never coming home again.  I’m not proud to say it, but it is the truth:  I moped. I whined. I complained. I hate buying cars. Angus was everything I wanted in a Jeep.  I didn’t want to deal with finding a new one.

In the midst of this crisis, my life went on – another clue as to how lucky I was.  I was visiting a school (which I had driven to with great annoyance in the three-bedroom SUV I rented) when I noticed a staff member carrying a very large wheeled back pack, certainly too large for a child to carry. I asked her what it was for as she stacked it among 15 others of the same style.  She told me that the backpacks were filled with food by the staff and a local church for children to take home for their families who had no food on the weekends.  The students were bringing them back that day so that they could be refilled for the next Friday.  It instantly brought tears to my eyes to think of children going a weekend without food. But of course, they do. Not just in my home town but all over this country.  The staff member shared that the children were so thankful every week and that they had a much greater need than they could fill each week.  I felt so ashamed to have made such a production about a Jeep.   I wasn’t hurt. I did not hurt anyone else. I had insurance.  I could afford to buy a new Jeep.  While I was standing in my driveway in the snow staring at my totaled Jeep, there was a child waiting to pick up a backpack of food for his or her family.  My dad would have told me to ‘rub some dirt on it, suck it up and do the right thing’. He would have been right.  I should have spent my outrage on something that really mattered like kids who have real needs they have no control over.  There are so many needs in our communities. None of us can do everything. But each of us can do something.  I bet your local school has a program like this one.

 

The photograph below was taken in 2011 in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.  When I visited, there was a group of the grandchilden (though hardly children – quite old themselves in 2011) of the men executed for their part in the Easter Rising. Just being in this place, I felt the full force of the sadness and suffering these walls held.

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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland
1/200 sec., f/5.6, 100 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth Will Set You Free

I was two months into my first year in a new school when I found myself hunched over a lunch table in the staff room praying for an earthquake. Not a big earthquake. Loss of life and limb was not necessary. I didn’t even want property damage. I just wanted everyone to get stuck in first period under their desks waiting for the ‘all clear’ until it was time for third period. So, there I was: palms cradling my forehead, deep groan of dread building in my throat, listening to the clock tap out the minutes to my doom. I dreaded second period. They were mean. They were never prepared. They never ooh’d or aah‘d when I lit something on fire or made things bubble over a beaker. On lab day, they acted like they were being forced to act out a Shakespearian drama through interpretive dance. And they were mean. I had never had a class like this. I loved science and every day I wanted students to love science. My classroom management skills were good for a relatively new teacher. I only had one awful day student teaching and I blame that on my ill-chosen outfit: pastel checked sweater and cream skirt. (That color combination is responsible for prison riots. You cannot blame teenagers for losing it.) So pretty much every day for two months, I sat in the teacher’s lounge and prayed for temporary illness, fire drills, mild earthquakes and locust. They never came. At 8:20 every morning, I trudged to my classroom chanting in my head “You are the teacher. They are teenagers. You can do this.” But on this particular Monday, I could take no more. I realized I needed help. The other teachers tried to help. They gave me advice. They told me their “second period” horror stories. I am pretty sure the Shop teacher even had a few covert come-to-the-mountain talks on my behalf. All to no avail. I knew I had to figure it out. I also knew that just beyond the staff room, a mere 20 feet away, sat the very man I needed to talk to. I swallowed my pride and prayed it would sit firmly on top of my breakfast. Just the idea of talking to the principal made me nauseous. I was only in the principal’s office one time as a student. As I sat across from him, that moment flashed back in my head. Believe me, the principal’s office is just as scary at 26 as it is at 16. The principal was a lanky man with straight, jet black hair that looked perpetually two weeks overdue for a cut. He reminded me of a cowboy in an old western. Everywhere he went, he seemed to mosey along like he had all the time in the world. I sat across from him and explained my problem. I asked if he would come to my class and observe. I told him that I had tried everything, and I just needed him to tell me what was going wrong in this class. It was a risk, as a new teacher, to even ask. (Less risky than the earthquake I was praying for, I guess.) But I really didn’t think I could take another day.

He came to my class the next day probably sensing I had one foot out the door and, since I was coaching three sports, fearing he would have to replace me in the middle of the year. He came in after the bell. I was worried that my students would all be on their best behavior with him there. It turned out that I had nothing to fear. They gave him quite a show. He took it all in. At the end of the class, he asked to see me after school. Now, that got ooh’s and aah’s. The rest of the day dragged on as I faced the possibility that asking for his help might just have ended my career. When the final bell rang, I headed for the office where he was waiting. His office felt a lot smaller than it had the day before. I scooted my chair closer to the door as I sat down anticipating the need for a rapid escape. I opened with, “So that is pretty much how they are every day.” With fingers tented, he tapped his chin, took a breath and said, “I can see why you are concerned.” I charged into the breach and asked, “So could you tell what the problem was?” He pronounced, “yes.” I had just a millisecond of hope before he continued. “It’s you.” All of the air went out of my lungs and I am pretty sure my heart stopped beating. I know for a fact I was staring at him in utter shock and disbelief when I squeaked out “me?”
He didn’t make me wait, which was good because I was already rewriting my resume and considering becoming an ornithologist (birds being clearly nicer than teenagers). He said, “Catherine, you do not teach that class like you teach your other classes. It is obvious to me and it is obvious to them. You walk in and expect them to misbehave. You don’t plan interesting activities because you don’t trust them to act appropriately. The problem is you. If you taught these students like you teach the rest of the day, they would act like all of the rest of your students.” As any smart, new teacher would do, I thanked him for his sage advice and taking the time to help me. Then I stormed out to my Jeep and used the 52-mile drive home to question everything from his parentage to his education degree. At about mile 30, I remembered that I had asked him into my classroom to assess the situation and give me his advice. Pretty stupid move if I wasn’t going to take that advice. So, I did 22 miles of soul searching and realized he was right. The situation was completely in my control. They were teenagers. I was the adult. My job was to teach them even if they were expertly applying the principles of aversive therapy on me. The fact is, even a porcupine has a soft belly. I needed to turn the tables on them- expect them to want to learn and participate in class. And deal with it like an adult when they did not. I had to teach as if they were already my favorite class. It was a lot of work. Harder than any other class I taught that year. It took months to turn it around. In the end, they were my favorite class that year.

I cannot say that I was grateful to have such a direct and honest principal at the time. But I am grateful for having learned the lesson. The cold, hard truth is tough to take sometimes. But as my dad used to tell me (often), the truth will set you free. It saved me in this case. Our perceptions drive our actions and influence all of our relationships. Perceptions are a reflection how we see ourselves in others. They grow out of our experiences and feelings and, because of that, they are flexible. Perceptions are less like granite and more like clouds. The fact is we can change how we see things. When we change how we see something, there is something in us that changes as well. I had to take responsibility for my behavior. I had to ask myself, “would they be different, if I thought they were?” In the end, it made it possible to see them as they really always were- just a bunch of normal teenagers trying to figure out life.

I chose the photograph below because it was another lesson in changing my perception. I came across this grave marker in the Annagh burial ground in Ireland. I dismissed it quickly as not worth a photograph. I was taking pictures of all of the graves in search of ancestors. In the burial ground, other graves were marked with large ornate crosses adorned with Celtic knots. As I was walking through, a local man stopped and told me that it was a Famine grave -probably an infant child not yet baptized who could not be buried in the cemetery proper. It changed my whole perception of how worthy of a photograph this weathered stone was.

DSC_0397-1Famine Grave
(1/200 sec., f/7.1, 100 ISO, 55mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Making Things Right

When I was a new teacher, I applied for a job in a small town in northwest Washington. I remember driving into town wearing my most professional skirt suit, firmly ensconced in my big old pickup truck. It was a beautiful drive from my house 52 miles away on country roads they brazenly labeled highways. As I drove up to the small office where I was to have my interview, I instantly knew this town was where I was meant to be. I can’t explain it really. I just had this sense of peace and clarity that I was in a place that fit (See my post A Life That Fits). I was young – about half my current age. Though I felt like a grown up, my youth must have been obvious as I stood teetering on high heels, tightly clutching the briefcase my dad had custom made for my graduation by the saddle maker in our hometown. I can’t imagine what I even held in that briefcase beyond a copy of my resume and maybe a legal pad. The superintendent’s assistant was kind and must have sensed my apprehension because she tried to put me at ease by talking about the high school where I was hoping to work. The time came for me to walk the short distance down a narrow cream-colored hall to meet the superintendent and principal. They were gruff men but that did not deter me for I had a lot of experience working with and for the sensitivity impaired. I don’t recall much about the interview except the last question. The principal, who reminded me of a cowboy from a B western, leaned in with forearms to the table and said, “What have you ever done that would prepare you to be a high school teacher?” At first, I thought that I must have completely failed in answering the last hour’s worth of questions. Clearly, he had heard nothing I said about my education, training or experience. But then I realized that he simply wondered if I could pull this off. And then it came to me and I replied, “I worked graveyard admitting in the emergency room. Nothing rattles me.” It was a bold statement, but I knew any chance I had of getting this job lived or died on my response in that moment and I wanted that job. He looked me in the eye beneath his jet-black bangs, took one breath and stated, “You’re hired.” I was relieved and terrified in equal measure. Above all emotions, I was determined to show him that he had chosen well.

I started in the fall and worked hard to prove myself. The principal was terse, but I liked him well enough. I was coaching three sports and trying to survive my first year in a new school. I often drove home late at night after a bumpy ride on a crowded, sweat-scented school bus from schools as far away as the Canadian border only to leave again before dawn to head back to work. Needless to say, it was stressful especially when winter came, and the days were short, the roads were icy, and the basketball team was losing. I loved the kids though. And teaching was everything I thought it would be. I reveled in watching the light bulbs go off. Science was always magical to me and I wanted so much to ignite that sense of wonder in my students. I had one student who seemed on a good day unimpressed and on a bad day downright contentious. I tried to engage him but slowly he worked his aversive therapy on me and, I am not proud to say, I stopped giving him the attention he was after. Of course, at the time, I did not realize this was happening. I was too inexperienced, and self-preservation was my focus. One day as he was waiting near my desk to talk to me, he started to play with the faucet at the table where I often demonstrated labs. I saw him from the corner of my eye and in my haste, with many students lined up for help, I told him quite directly to stop playing with the faucet. I looked over again and he looked me directly in the eyes. I small smirk washed over his face and, in one swift motion, he broke the neck of the faucet. A geyser erupted, and I ran to the water shut off valve. In probably not my best teacher voice (probably closer to a crazy-neighbor-lady-who-is-sick-of-dogs-pooping-on-her-lawn voice), I sent him to the office. I was furious. He broke my faucet! With malicious intent. With a smile on his face! I had enough.

My recommendation to the office was for swift and severe consequences, so I was taken aback when he opened my classroom door at the end of the day. I was about to send him packing when the principal appeared in the doorway behind him. The student stood silently looking at the floor, hands shoved deeply in his pockets. In that moment, he seemed younger than his 15 years and, in some ways, even fragile. A couple of awkward moments passed as I wondered what I was supposed to say. I felt like the words bouncing around my head were clearly wrong, but I am human, and I was still pretty upset that he vandalized my faucet. Finally, the principal cleared his throat in a low and measured growl. The student looked at him like he was being sent to the gallows and slowly turned to face me. In the smallest voice, he apologized for breaking my faucet. He didn’t offer a reason for his actions. Instead he walked toward the faucet, principal in tow. As he moved, I could see that the principal was carrying a tool box. Without saying a word to me, he set the toolbox down on the weather linoleum floor and took out a wrench. As he handed the wrench to the young man, he explained in patient detail exactly how to fix the faucet. As they worked, I listened. He did not lecture the boy on responsibility or condemn him for his actions. Nor did he engage me in the lesson. But I realized that I was a part of it. He could have fixed the faucet anytime, but he chose a time he knew I would be in my room grading papers after school. He was teaching the boy to make things right. And he was teaching me to forgive a young man who had not learned that lesson yet. When they finished, they packed away the tools. I thanked the young man for fixing my faucet. The smallest of smiles washed across his face. I wished I had thanked my principal for the lesson that day. Apologies are great. We should apologize when we harm others. More importantly, we should make things right. We should take action that shows real accountability beyond words and restores our relationships.

I chose this series of pictures because they are a great example of making things right. These two have been like sisters from the moment the younger entered the world. As sisters can, they sometimes step on each other’s last nerve. On this particular day, we were traveling across the Sound for the weekend. We had been stuck in ferry traffic for hours and the younger was getting restless. The older was losing patience. As they sat on the ferry, the younger made things right by making her friend laugh at her antics. She made a hat out of her napkin and wore it until the giggles took over.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Life That Fits

In the fall of 1988, I started my teacher training at Seattle University.  Armed with a newly printed Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Alaska, I enthusiastically set off to change the world – one sophomore at a time.  Every morning I drove my 1984 Dodge Ram pickup in rush hour traffic from my home in North Bend to Capitol Hill.  My pickup wasn’t really a commuter vehicle, but I loved that beast (standard stock for Alaska because it had a 225 slant 6 that would start at 40 below without fail).  Daily, I was subjected to derision as I spanned the width from line to line in my lane.  It was a manual which was my preference in general but especially on the perpetually snowy roads of the North Star Borough in winter.  Unfortunately, Seattle is a hilly city. In Fairbanks, no one would ever put a stop sign or stop light on the top of a hill. Not so in Seattle. It was a hair-raising experience to ease the clutch out and hold the gas steady as the light turned green – a shiny two door coupe hugging my bumper, sharp-dressed man at the wheel.  Needless to say, I am not a city girl by nature. I don’t like the crowds, the concrete, the pace or the traffic.  But I knew I could do a year.  Because at the end of that year, I would be standing in front of a sea of wide-eyed teenagers aching to learn about cells and molecules and the First Law of Thermodynamics.  They would be dazzled by my use of words like entropy and ecosystem and electromagnetism.  They would be spell-bound as I explained mitosis and reproduction and covalent bonding. Finally! I could see the finish line- the career I had been working toward since I babysat the twins across the street and taught them the alphabet.

After the first quarter, Seattle U required us to do a series of internships. Wisely, every student had to spend time in a city school, in a private school, in a country or suburban school, in a big school and a small one before student teaching began.  We were expected to teach a lesson in each setting.  I was anxious to be a teacher and looked forward to actually teaching a class.  My first stop was Cleveland High School in Seattle.  At the time, it was the smallest of the city high schools. But I was not intimidated.  They were teenagers after all. This was my calling.  I had been volunteering at Lathrop High School in the bustling metropolis of Fairbanks for months before coming to Seattle.  I got kids. They liked me. So, I watched the mentor teacher. She was skillful. Students did what they were supposed to do with little effort, it seemed, from the teacher.  Of course, in my naivete, I failed to recognize that it was January. I wasn’t there for the trials and tribulations of September.  At any rate, the day finally came when I was to teach.  I planned for a lesson on protozoans which I would skillfully introduce through Beaver Fever and other disgusting water-borne illnesses.  Because teenagers are fascinated with that stuff, right?  I walked confidently to the front of the room after the teacher gave a brief introduction which I think included some veiled threats should they forget their manners.  I started my lesson regaling them with a story about a friend who went camping and ill-advisedly drank river water.  As a result, she contracted Giardiasis (Beaver Fever).  I thought it was brilliant and I paused theatrically for they surely would have pertinent questions or comments to share.  One young man in the back of the room raised his hand.  I called on him and he stood.  I remember he was wearing striped suit pants and a button-down shirt.  I asked him if he had a question and he replied, “Ya, I do.  Does it look like I go camping lady?”  He wasn’t really disrespectful or aggressive about it.  He was clearly annoyed that I knew so little about him.  All I could say was, “No, it really doesn’t.”  I recovered somewhat when I turned the conversation to dirty drinking water in third world countries and sewers.  I was so relieved when the lesson was over and even more so when I remembered that it was my last day at Cleveland High School.  As embarrassed as I was at my complete failure to read the audience, I was also grateful.  As I drove my 1984 Dodge Ram, half ton, four-wheel drive, pick-up truck east on I90, I realized I just couldn’t relate to kid’s experience growing up in the city.  And that was the key to good teaching- relating new learning to what student already know so that they can make connections that forge deep pathways lasting long into the future and spurring the creation of new knowledge.  I knew a lot about microbiology, meteorology, geology, mammalogy, ichthyology, and mycology long before I ever set foot in a college classroom or even a high school classroom because I went hiking, fishing and camping as a kid. I tromped around the woods. I knew with certainty on that long drive home that I was going about this all wrong. I wanted to be a teacher so bad that I was trying to fit myself into the situation instead of finding the situation that fit me.   Fortunately, Seattle U gave me four more chances before I finally settled into student teaching at Mt. Si High School.  When it was time for me to look for a job, I was selective. I knew from student teaching that being a new teacher was hard work. But it would be much easier and more rewarding if I found a place that fit me.  And so, I did.

I think too often we try to fit ourselves into the life we think we are supposed to have or the life we think we are supposed to want.  The truth is that we first need to figure out who we are and what we need in a life. Then we can find the job, town, family, life that fits us. Actually, we deserve that.  I am not saying we should insulate ourselves. I am not saying we shouldn’t challenge ourselves to try new things or meet new people.  I am saying that becoming an engineer, because you heard it paid well, the job market is growing, and your dad wants you to be an engineer, could make for a pretty miserable life. Especially if it turns out you hate math.  Selling luxury real estate might be a miserable job if you are naturally introverted.  Living on a farm, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, might be unpleasant if you really love the theater and symphony and hate waking up at dawn rain or shine to feed the animals.  Take the time to find out what you need.  Life is too short.  Far too many people drive to a job they hate every day.  I never have- honestly.  And for that, I am so thankful to the young man who helped me to see the error of my ways 30 years ago.

I selected the photograph below for this post because I think it illustrates my point.  The Great Blue Heron was designed for this environment from the length of his legs to the sharp point of his bill.  Certainly, the mud-covered tide flats strewn with barnacled pilings would not be an ideal habitat for many of us. And yet, I think he is completely at home and there is a beauty in that which is undeniable.

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Great Blue Heron on the Hunt
(1/320 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

There’s Something About Sticking with It

I am going to preface this post with “No children were harmed in the making of the story” (well not permanently anyway).  If you were a child of the 1970s or before, you will appreciate this story. If you are a Gen Xer or a Millennial, there is a chance you might be horrified- at least mildly.  This story starts in the time before. The time before bicycle helmets and elbow pads. The time before car seats with 5-point harnesses held children securely until they age of 11.  The time before seatbelts, safety glasses, and earplugs.  This is a story that starts in the time when children went out to play unhampered by schedules and unmonitored by parents.  It was a time when you never admitted that you were having an argument over kickball because your parents would say “Work it out or you can all just come in the house, take a bath, and get ready for bed”.  Now let me be clear, it wasn’t Nirvana by any stretch of the imagination. It was just a different time.  And I was nine.

I wanted so badly to learn to ski.  My dad, being very supportive of anything outdoorsy and adventurous, signed me up. He took me to the Jaycee Ski School orientation.  He bought me a starter set of used ski boots, poles, and skis.  He outfitted me in warm, waterproof clothes.  And then he dropped me off at crack of dawn at Aurora Village where the ski bus picked up all of the Olympic hopefuls who were raring to tackle the bunny slope.

I was so excited! I literally vibrated with anticipation as I sweltered in the seat of the Greyhound Bus.  I was sweltering, by the way, because I loved my parka and ski pants so much I refused to take them off. We approached Snoqualmie Pass and I was on high alert. Unfortunately, I had never been there before, so my high alert was completely ineffective.

I got off at the wrong stop. I went to the wrong ski school.  By the time I found the right ski school, I had missed my lesson.  I was completely deflated and near tears.  I drug my skis to the lodge- quite dramatically I am sure because I swear there was a dirge playing in the background.  I found a pay phone (Gen Xers and Millennials- I didn’t have a cell phone! They were invented yet.) and I called my dad collect (ask your grandma or grandpa what calling collect was).  I tearfully told my dad what happened.  I just knew he would jump in his car and come get me.  I was never, ever going to brave the cold, wet snow of the ski slopes again. I contemplated less risky activities like piano lessons or Blue Birds. My dad’s response came as quite a shock.

“Do you still have your skis?”

I sniffed a weak “yes”.

He then asked, “Do you still have your ski pass?”

By now, I knew.  I knew he was not rushing through the house putting on his coat, searching for his keys.

He said, “You should go skiing.”

I could not believe it! I must admit at that moment I said words in my head that I was not allowed to say out loud. Colorful words. Expressive words. I was so mad. At that moment, I just said “Fine”, which was short for ‘Fine, you jerk, I can’t believe you are not going to come save me, so I will go skiing, so there, I’ll show you!’

And I went skiing. It was awesome. I loved every second and I was back the next week.  I never missed another lesson.

At the time, I was so angry at him.  But I am a parent now, so I know it would have been a lot easier for him to just save me. I know now just how hard it is to watch your child struggle.  But in so doing, he was telling me that he knew I could do it. He gave me a great gift.  He gave me the chance to show myself that I would not fold at the first obstacle.  He gave me the gift of persistence.  I had not had a ski lesson. I had no idea what I was doing. But I watched everyone else and I hoofed it over to the tow rope on the bunny slope and I tried until I got it right. I fell and got up- over and over.  It was skill that has made it possible for me to do the really hard things in my life without giving up. It was a skill that has allowed me to face difficult times without folding.

It is a different time now. But persistence is still a skill every person needs to learn.  Children need to learn that they might have to try something more than once to get it.  They might have to ask for help or find a book or take a class.  They need to learn that failure is not terminal and the reward for persistence is great.  It is not just achieving whatever you set out to achieve but it is also learning to trust and believe in yourself. It is learning that with a little effort, you can improve or learn or conquer.  Success always feels so much better after you have had to get back up, dust yourself off and try again.  Honestly, I am not that proud of anything that came easily to me.  But I remember when I struggled and how sweet it was to finally get it.

If you have been reading my blog, you know I have been on a quest to photograph the elk herd outside of Concrete and to catch the eagles over the Skagit.  Four trips.  Four 4 am alarms. Four long drives. Four standing out in the cold watching the sunrise.  Four just missing them. I am making it sound horrible, but I loved every single one of these trips because I learned something every time. I learned about shooting at dawn. I learned about the importance of monitoring the dew point.  I learned about vantage points and lighting and perspective.  In the end, I was successful.  The struggle was sweet.  They are my pictures of persistence.

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Taking Off
(1/500 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 500 mm)

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Indecision
(1/60 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Like Looking in the Mirror

A couple of years ago, all of my sisters descended upon the eldest’s home in the sweltering heat of mid-July in Arizona.  We came to sort through boxes of pictures my mother had kept. Though I offered to collect and digitize them for all of us, I am grateful for my eldest sister’s wisdom in insisting we get together to go through them.  I’m not really sure what prompted my interest in the pictures, but I imagine it had something to do with our father becoming ill.  The possibility he might pass loomed and I felt like the tether tenuously holding our collective history might snap from that loss.  I know for me, as I get older, I have this need to know about the past and not just mine but that of my parents and their parents.  Somehow knowing our family history gives me a deeper understanding of my own life. I have always been interested in our family history, but I have spent most of my time exploring my dad’s family history.  This was the first time I really had a chance to explore my mother’s history.

It had been some time since we were all together in the same place at the same time.  We spent a couple of days laughing, playing cards and floating in the pool working up to sorting through our history. I expected to find the pictures of our childhood and maybe even pictures of our mother’s childhood.  I did not expect to find so many pictures of our grandfather’s family in Greece.  I came upon the picture below and I instantly felt like I was looking at myself in 30 years.  Her eyes, her nose, the line of her mouth, all mine.  I saw that expression often in the mirror.  My sister had the writing on back of the picture, which was in Greek, translated and it said, “To my beloved siblings and nephews, Christine Georgakopoulou”.  She must have been my grandfather’s aunt given her age in the picture.  My grandfather’s last name was Paraskevoulakos.  Apart from my youngest sister and my daughter, I never really thought I looked like anyone in my family until that moment.  I certainly didn’t think I looked like my parents. But looking at Christina Georgakopoulou gave me this sense of belonging to something far greater than the present.  This old, scratched, creased picture made me feel like there was a thread, tiny but steel-strong, that ran through me to my grandfather and all of his family.  My grandfather crossed an ocean in 1912 alone at the age of 18.  My own daughter is nearly 18 and I cannot imagine putting her on a ship to another country where she could not speak or read the language.  He landed in Chicago and then traveled to Seattle. I complain when I can’t get a direct flight. He crossed a country, I assume by rail, and couldn’t even read the signs in the railway depots.  I know that he found a community of Greek immigrants at St. Demetrios Church in Seattle, so he wasn’t alone. Still, I know it could not have been easy.  He was strong and courageous and as I looked through the pictures of his family members in Greece, I found that same strength in their eyes.  I see it in Christina Georgakopoulou’s eyes and those are my eyes.  I see it in my sisters’ eyes.  I see it in my child’s eyes.

I think we pass on much more than our looks through the generations. We pass down the fabric of our spirit.  I am so grateful for that weekend in the sweltering sun to have discovered a connection to my family history. I am even more grateful to have deepened the connection to my present by sharing those moments with my sisters.

6a Christina Georgakopoulou

Christina Georgakopoulou

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

 

Picture Books

Before the digital age of photography, we printed our pictures and mounted them in albums. We had wedding albums, graduation albums, christening albums and vacation albums. We made scrapbooks chronicling every detail of our child’s life (I only got to age three and it took nine albums, so I entered a 12-step scrapbook recovery program to kick that habit). If you were not careful, you would be invited to dinner at a friend’s home just after they returned from their recent trip through the Panama Canal, and held hostage until you looked at every single shot they took (That one’s not so great because Bert’s head is in the way, but you get the idea- the Panama Canal is so much bigger in person! Don’t you think?). People bought slide projectors and transferred their photographs to slides. Sets of slides were kept in carousels in proper order. I always hated carrying the slide carousel for fear I would once again trip and hundreds of tiny slides would fly across the room. It was a huge production to get them all back in their tiny slots in the right order and not upside down or backwards. With the advent of the slide projector, a new challenge arose- staying awake! With albums, your host had to leave the lights on which made it harder to fall asleep or at least more embarrassing when you did. But with the slide projector, the lights went off and, if you positioned your body just right, you could sleep through the whole thing. Of course, when the lights came on and you were startled from your slumber, you might inappropriately shout “just stunning, so lovely” after a slide show of your Aunt Lena’s funeral.

A great benefit of this era was that people generally passed on their photographs. Generations of pictures would accumulate. The photographs held the collective story of the family. Even when holes existed in the actual story, the photographs often gave us the clues. Since we pass on more than our DNA, they also, in important ways, hold the clues to our own personal story. I have been fortunate to be the recipient of family photographs from several branches of our family tree going back to the early 1900s. A few years ago, I inherited my maternal great aunt’s collection. I always liked her. She struck me as gutsy and strong. Born in 1920 on a small farm in what is now Issaquah Washington, she struck out on her own in her mid-20’s to live in New York city. I once asked her what it was like to move across the country in the 1940s all alone. She said it was her greatest adventure and I knew then that I had inherited some of her spirit. She told me that the world was a very different place back then and so, though she was an adult, she had to get her father’s permission to move that far away to take a job with Bell Telephone. She had to have roommates because it was not acceptable for an unmarried woman to live alone. Her job was to increase the efficiency of the operators. It was a relatively new job and few women held management positions. I cannot imagine the courage it would have taken to do this in the 40s long, long before technology made the world such a small and convenient place. I am sure letters and postcards carried news to family and friends arriving days or weeks later. Traveling home would have been costly, arduous and infrequent. But as I looked through her pictures, I saw a woman unafraid of the challenge. She is always smiling or laughing. Her photographs tell the story of a life well-lived. Throughout the years, she documented her adventures as she traversed the states camping, hiking and golfing with friends. She dressed up and went to parties. She dressed down and went to the pool. She fell in love but never married. Until her dying day, she lived with joy and courage.

Though I do not look like her, I feel I inherited her spirit. The beauty of family photos, especially those passed down for generations, is that you discover the deep roots of those special parts of yourself. I come from a long line of a strong women. I may not look like them all, but the pictures tell the real story.

Aunt Bert Circa 1940

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Seeing the River for the Rocks

I think people fall into one of two categories naturally. Oh sure, people can change. People can even change back and forth. But we all have a fall back type we are most comfortable with. I think people are either hunters or gatherers. I’m not talking about actually hunting (although I am not opposed if you want to hunt for food.) I’m not even really talking about food (although I think the way we eat is the way we do everything in life- but that is for another post). I am talking about life in general and problem solving in particular. By nature, I am a hunter. I see a problem. I hunt the problem down to the exclusion of all other things. I (metaphorically) kill the problem, cook the problem, and eat the problem. Then I move on to the next problem. I want to be more of a gatherer. I know how to be a gatherer. I even apply gathering skills appropriately. Though I sometimes wish it were, gathering is just not my natural style. I have always been very focused. I have often had jobs where there is an overwhelming amount of complex or critical work that has to get done in a short amount of time. In the end, I guess the nature or nurture question really doesn’t matter. As Popeye says, “I yam what I yam”.

The challenge for a hunter is that absolute focus, while a gift in many cases, can mean you risk missing the bigger picture. Take this first photo, Mossy Rock, for example. The background is obscured. You don’t really know how large the rocks are because there is nothing to compare them to. You see the contrast in textures between the rock and moss. There is certainly beauty in the details. But the story is limited to just what is in front of you.

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Mossy Rock
(1/125 sec., f/5.6, 200 mm, 200 ISO)

But if you move back a bit and take in the greater scene, you start to see the magnitude of the rocks and the rich variation in colors and textures that you might have missed in the first picture.  In the second picture, Mossy Boulders, you can see that there is a field of these boulders.  Though you can’t see beyond them, you can see that they vary in shape and size.  The moss is like a tattered blanket on their surface.  But we are still missing a lot of what is going on here.  If we just step back a little further, we can see the whole picture.

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Mossy Boulders
(1/60 sec., f/8, 200 mm, 200 ISO)

The rocks form the bank of a river cutting through an evergreen forest. Though they are immense, they are not most powerful force in the picture, Mossy River. The river is. It rushes by effortlessly sculpting the rocks in its wake. It is responsible for the lush green foliage and the dense blanket of moss. It may even have been responsible for depositing the rocks there. There is motion here you couldn’t see in the first two pictures. The whole sense of the scene changes from heavy, immovable and monotone to light, dynamic and symphonic.

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Mossy River
(1/160 sec., f/5.6, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

As in photography, so in life.  Even though I am a hunter by nature, I have learned to step back. I have learned that focus is a gift in much of my life, but looking upward and outward gives me a better perspective to see what is really going on. While focus helps me to see the intricate details, stepping back helps me to see complex connections. Stepping back helps me to see the river for the rocks.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Redefining the Win

I am a very competitive person. Now, I know what you are thinking. You’ve heard that before usually from someone who is really nice and says it with a slightly self-deprecating laugh as if they are trying to warn you that Mr. Hyde’s appearance is imminent. So, no. I am competitive like one of those jackals you see on a National Geographic film. The one that dies of starvation because she refuses to let go of the wildebeest’s leg and is subsequently drug to her death. Case in point, my “team” once took second in a golf tournament. This is only impressive because I am the worst golfer in the history of the game. Truly. I was only invited to play golf, ever, literally for the comedic effect. And make no mistake, it was comedic.  The kindest, most compassionate superintendent I ever worked for once did his impression of me driving off the 5th hole at Indian Canyon. He even repeated my colorful language, which was shocking in the way it would be to hear Laura Ingalls Wilder swear. It was also painfully hilarious and dead on. The game made me absolutely crazy. I only golfed because I didn’t want to miss out on the deals cut on the course. It killed me that I just could not put it all together for more than one drive in 20.  On this particular sunny Sunday morning, I was having a relaxing day with my team when, on the ninth hole, my assistant principal pointed out we were in second place. Until that moment, I didn’t even know it was a tournament! And then he told me there was hardware! I do love a trophy and none more than one won the hard way. I couldn’t have stopped myself if I wanted to.  I didn’t want to (did I mention there was hardware?). At that moment, had you been on that particular course, you could have felt the joy being sucked out of the air from the 1st hole to the 18th like a twister touched down. Honestly, I was a lot like a tornado at that point- focused and unaware of the destruction I left behind. I never played better and we did take second. It wasn’t fun.

In my defense, I grew up at the height of the space race when your permanent record followed you around heralding the limits of your potential and every Saturday morning you relived the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”.  Being competitive, persistent, determined were seen as strengths in my family, school and community.  School was particularly competitive.  I am sure that at the time the prevailing belief was that competition to solve problems resulted in better solutions made faster.  I don’t think I ever heard the word collaboration in my k-12 education.  In fact, I imagine Sister Estelle would have found that to be a sneaky way to make cheating sound like it wasn’t the sin that it was.  “Collaboration” very well could have ended in a few Hail Mary’s and two sore knees.  As a college science major, we did not do “group projects”. We certainly did not help each other out because back then it could lower your grade and definitely your standing in the class. In retrospect, that sounds really lonely, arduous and inefficient. Fortunately, I learned this before I had a classroom of my own.

I am still competitive. I am also much more self-aware. I think that comes with age and parenthood. If there is anything that will shine a light on those cringe-worthy parts of your personality, it is seeing them in another person – especially if that person is your child. There is just no getting around the epiphany that your child learned “it” from you.   I am aware of this gift/curse in my personality (actually I am aware of several). I have learned to keep it in check- mostly. I’m not saying that I am no longer competitive. In fact, I was watched like a hawk at the post-Thanksgiving feast card game.  I find, though, I don’t feel the need to compete as much anymore.  I find that competing against myself motivates me.  I find I don’t need to win all the time.  I find I learn more from my losses than my wins; from my failures than from my successes.  I find that I want to enjoy the experience rather than miss it in the focused pursuit of the hardware. I find that collaborating brings me deep learning.  I find great satisfaction in helping others.  I find that being really good at what I do is not diminished by others being really good as well.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my daughter. It was taken a decade ago and captures her natural competitiveness I think.  She doesn’t play basketball anymore but she still goes all in no matter what she is doing.

DSC_03173_edited-1.JPGCome On!
(1/60 sec., f/5.6, 200 mm, 1250 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Living in the Shadow of the Mountain

I have lived in the shadow of the Cascades for most of my life. Slogging through traffic on a clear day, I am struck by the deep blues of the sky framing Mount Baker in the distance.  Shadows across the white peak shimmering in glacial blue.  Snow dusting the foothills and highlighting the rocky crags. The impossibly deep green of pines stubborn and proud.  Strange as it sounds, I feel protected in this pocket of volcanoes.  Sentinels of great strength and beauty, it is easy to forget how dangerous they can be.  The range controls our moods. When the wet air slaps its face, the peaks toss it back to earth with booming thunder.  It is awesome. It is frightening. It is unpredictable and unyielding.  When we are socked in for days, I hate that range especially now that my joints creak and ache singing out the evidence of my well-spent youth.  But rain never bothered me as a kid. I would lace up my waffle-stompers, button up my 501’s, put a down vest over my Henley and off I would go. I loved the woods.  Even in a downpour, the forests of the Pacific Northwest protect you under the dense evergreen canopy.  I can still feel the spongy earth strewn with rotten wood; the fiddle head of ferns brushing my jeans; the fat drops of water sliding off a leaf onto my cheek; the electric smell of rain. Tromping through the forest with my dog in the shadow of the mountain was home.   Living in the shadow of the mountain, it would be easy to yield to its will.  You could stay indoors by a fire, warm and dry. Wait it out. Hope it will pass soon. But you would miss so much. It’s better to soldier through.  Take cover when you have to, but be there when the rain stops and the drops evaporate.  Be there when the steam-filled air filters the sunbeams.  Be there when the skies clear and the mountain comes out. Truly live in the shadow of the mountain.

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Shadow of the Mountain
(1/1000 sec.,  f/5.6, 250 mm, 200 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

So Much to Learn, So Little Time

I love school. I love it so much in fact I have spent 42 years of my life in school and another 6 supporting schools so far. Basically, I was 4 the last time a whole year went by and I was not in school.  When I was a babysitter, I even used to hold school.  Parents loved me. Actually, the kids did too because I made learning fun. When I was a kid, my dad worked for a publishing company in the college division. He had so many books! Art history, Spanish, anthologies, calculus, anatomy…. it was all so fascinating to me.  I was voracious. I did not care how many times I had to look a word up in the dictionary, I just had to know they all meant. I mean what was a synapse or alliteration? I had to know. I could not pronounce anti-differentiation but I sure wanted to know how to do it someday.  Not too much was off limits where learning and literature were concerned.  I read Thomas Wolfe’s The Child by Tiger long, long before I fully understood racism.  To this day, I can feel the pulse of Sandburg’s Chicago in 1916 and see the heavy-handed, barrel-chested men eking out a life proud, sweating, and fierce. I wanted so much to understand how different languages worked and how anyone ever understood anyone else ‘in the old days’.  Suffice it to say, I loved learning and I still do.

It was not just the learning though.  I loved the order and structure of school (which was lucky because nuns loved order and structure). Frankly, chaos exhausted me and I have always had a natural inclination to make sense out of chaos. My eyes would dart around as I tried to mentally catalog ideas, movements and comments and put them all into an intricately connected web in my head where it all made sense. Back then school was about right answers, solving problems and rising to challenges. Those were three of my best things. I was good at it. I have the report cards to prove it. I also have a brain full of obscure information- like the names of the twelve cranial nerves. Of course, when I first was a student, people did not have such easy access to information so a brain full of obscure information was highly prized.  Back then, I did not have an iPhone, iPad, and desktop computer where I could look up the twelve cranial nerves and their anatomy and physiology. (Did they even know about cranial nerves in the 60’s?) Back then, I had the Shoreline Library where I could access the encyclopedia and any books they kept at that branch of the library.  So much has changed.  I could probably Google how to perform surgery on the 12 cranial nerves and find 12 YouTube videos showing it in graphic detail.

My love of learning and my tenacity in making sense of the world has come in very handy in this journey. There is so much to learn about photography. Sometimes I feel like I will never learn it all.  Maybe that is so. Part of the challenge is to conquer the device and the elements or at least tame them enough to get the shot.  I am naturally inclined to accept a challenge enthusiastically.  So, I read voraciously. I pick up books whenever I can on the technical aspects of photography as well as the artistic elements.  Currently, I am reading Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits (Amphoto Books) to learn more about how he approached his subjects and managed to bring out the depths of their personalities in a single photograph.  For the more technical aspects, I like Bryan Peterson’s books.  There are great online resources as well. I’ve learned so much from other bloggers and photography websites. I turn to  Agrandaiz Ramana Harahap who writes a great blog outlining skills and processes so clearly. I learned to take risks and experiment from Ed Lehming’s work whose series “Shift to Shiver” is captivating (I Turn to Rust is my favorite). I could go on and on.  So much to learn, so little time. In fact, I gauge my passion by just how interested I am in learning more and how much effort I am willing to put into figuring it all out.  Personally, I hope I never stop learning.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Standing in the Middle of a Bridge

Last weekend, I found myself once again standing in the middle of a bridge at dawn.  My youngest sister was in town for the Thanksgiving holiday and I took her up to see the Eagles on the Skagit river.  There was a brief misunderstanding wherein she thought we were going to see Joe Walsh at sunset and not “Bald” at sunrise but we recovered quickly and were on our way long before dawn. I did some research and found a good location over the river.   The safe walkway was on the west side of the bridge putting the road way between me and the eagles fishing on the Skagit river.  There were four of them when we arrived.  The eagles were screeching wildly as they swooped and soared over the water, landing precariously on the overhanging branches.  Through the early morning fog, I could see the flashes of white from their heads and tails as they raced by.  Their yellow talons extended as they reached a perch or homed in on a steelhead.  I am always anxious when I first arrive where I am shooting especially if the action is already underway.  I feel like I am missing something.  I want to get set up as soon as possible and find the perfect vantage point.  As I was searching the scene, I was awed by the power and beauty of these birds.  I thought about going all of the way across the bridge and shooting back toward the north shore, but I could see they favored the south shore when perching and fishing.  I considered crossing the bridge but it was foggy and I thought that might increase the probability that I would be photographed later by a crime scene unit while prone in the middle of the road. I nixed that idea pretty quickly.  So, I stayed put. I took out my long lens and started shooting.  The fog was a problem and I am going to be going back when it is less pronounced.  Even though I did not get the shot I wanted, it was amazing to be so close to these birds as they were fishing.

I am trying to get more comfortable standing still half way across the bridge. In this case it was literal but more often it has been metaphorical.  I’ve spent the greater part of my life moving forward generally at high speed.   I have been a very goal oriented person always thinking about and planning for the future. I see obstacles as a challenge.  They might slow me down but they do not deter me.  Giving up is not really in my nature even when the evidence would suggest it would be prudent. This has served me well in so many ways. Perhaps it is just age and wisdom.  Perhaps it is the fact that you cannot really rush art.  I am realizing that I am inspired when I am inspired.  Eagles and elk appear when they appear where they appear even if I schedule it for Saturday morning at 6 am in Concrete, WA.  So more and more, I find myself standing on a bridge – literally and figuratively.  I am standing in the present trying to decide whether I should move forward or retreat. But more and more I stop myself and get comfortable standing still right there in the middle. Though my tendency is to move forward, I am working on being present right where I am – marveling at the eagles screaming by.

DSC_6948hrslogoThe Eagle is Landing
(1/400 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

It Really is the Thought That Counts

When I was a little girl, my father gave me a copy of Marguerite Henry’s All About Horses.  He worked for a publishing company and loved books so it wasn’t unusual for me to get one for my birthday or Christmas.  I loved this book. In fact, it is sitting on my own daughter’s bookshelf to this day. This book was special to me because I loved horses and it really was ‘all about horses’- the evolution of horses, types of horses, breeding horses, training horses, colors of horses…. back then I wanted to know everything about them and I had THE book!  This book was so captivating with its photographs of soldiers on horses, barrel racing, wild horses and fox hunts.  Even at the ripe old age of ten, I marked the important sections. I must have really valued this book, because I affixed a library check out form to the front cover and apparently checked it out to one Michelle Sweeney. Good thing she returned it. I have records.  I remember this book fondly forty years later. I kept it all these years. It crossed the United States at least 4 times. The best thing about this gift is that he picked out something he knew I would love because he knew I loved horses. It was more than just a book. It was a gift that said he knew me and wanted me to have something I would treasure. He gave it some thought or maybe he just came across it. Either way he must have thought I would love that book.

We give a lot of gifts out of social convention or obligation. Those are important certainly. But the gifts  that are truly meaningful are the ones we give to honor the people we know and love by showing them just that. We know and love them.  It is not the size of the gift or the cost of the gift.  It is the fact that someone thought of you and knew you well enough to know this gift would be truly treasured.  My husband is this kind of gift giver.  He always gives the perfect gift.  He just somehow knows exactly what I need.    I must confess, however, that I have not always been the best gift giver.  I have even been guilty over the years of giving gift cards.  Sure, I rationalized at the time that I was giving the perfect gift. After all my niece or nephew could go buy whatever they wanted.  But I don’t think an Old Navy card is quite going to give my niece that same warm feeling 40 years from now that I have from a simple book.

As a working mom, I have often found myself over the years in a state of complete panic when I realized that the three months between Labor Day and Thanksgiving had disappeared and I had not even begun to shop for Christmas presents.  I know some of you have shared this terrifying experience when you realize you are once again not going to be writing that Christmas letter to catch everyone up on your family’s activities. You are not going to have time to knit matching sweaters for that perfect family Christmas card picture in a snowy, star-lit meadow.  You are not going to bake 10 kinds of cookies for the neighbors and the mailman and the garbage collector.  It is just not going to happen.  Maybe it is time for me to give some things up that are nice but really fall short of meaningful.  My goal this year is to give the gifts that say “I know and love you”.

I selected the image below because this stand of birch trees reminds me of the special times my husband and I camped across Alaska. I had been looking for a painting for our home for some time but this weekend I found this stand to photograph. I think this is a great gift to us as a reminder of a very special time in our lives together.

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(1/30 sec., f/7.1, 500ISO, 170 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Love in Black and White

I think this is my very favorite picture and that is saying a lot given the sheer volume of my collection. I didn’t take this picture but when I look at it I truly wish I had met the man who did. When I look at it, I wish I could give him one of those fierce, deep hugs and thank him for this photograph; thank him for every time I have looked at this photograph and was wrapped in the memory of the fierce deep hugs my grandfather gave me. This photograph was taken the year he died and I graduated from high school. Though it is old and faded, it brings back memories so rich and real that I can feel and hear and taste and smell them still. I can feel the weight of his big heavy hands patting me solidly on the back. I can feel my face sleepy and warm resting on his chest. A feeling so sweet I put up with the scratchy wool of his button down. I can hear him chanting “a-mana-mana-mana” as he bounced me on his lap releasing giggles and glee. I can smell the leg of lamb roasting in the kitchen and Orzo simmering on the stove on Sunday afternoon. I can hear the soundtrack to Never on a Sunday turning under the needle of the stereo. I can feel my grandfather taking my tiny hand in his and dancing me around the room in a way only exuberant Greek men can- knees high, feet deftly crossing over and back, hands clapping. In this photograph, I see the most beautiful man I’ve ever known. Though the wages of time line his face, he seems no less a lion to me- strong and powerful with no need to act upon it. The slight upward turn of his mouth belies a mix of kindness and mischief. I see the man who called me the Skippy kid because I wouldn’t eat egg salad. And gave me a sip of Ouzo when I wouldn’t stop crying (Ouzo is the cure for a lot of things.)

A photograph can never replace the person. I would certainly prefer to have him here in three dimensions. But he is in my heart. And there is something about this photograph that makes it possible for me to clear away the cobwebs, dig through the boxes and find those long lost moments of joy and love, even of sadness and pain, that bring him back to me in fleeting moments when I need him most. I keep this photograph on my desk and have for as long as I remember. I tell my child stories about him so he will be in her heart too and she will know how powerful love is. A portrait is so common now. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to take a portrait that captures the true spirit of a person. A picture capable of bringing them to the top of your mind and heart. To this photographer, whoever you are, thank you for a gift I cherish every day. May we all give this gift to someone.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Live Your Passion

I think in just about every situation we can learn something.  It has been my experience that it’s usually something we need to learn right when it is time to learn it.  It is not always something we want to learn. It has also been my experience unfortunately that the universe is ready when it’s ready and it’s best to just get on board or the universe will continue to give you learning opportunities. I hate that. Take for example the time my cooling system exploded in morning rush hour traffic on the way to an appointment in Seattle. I learned a lot. I learned I’m way too attached to my Jeep. I learned there is no point in throwing a fit over something you can neither control nor fix on your own (no matter how satisfying it is to throw a fit and believe me I find a boot stomping fit highly satisfying).  I learned there are really good people in the world who will help you out. Now it was not the first time I “learned” any of those lessons. But sometimes you need to be stuck alone on the side of the road for an hour or two helplessly watching steam pour out of your engine to properly reflect on these lessons and really let them sink in deep.

The best lessons do not come from things however.  The best lessons come from the people who come into your life. I am blessed in this regard. I have known so many incredible people. I’ve also known a number of really challenging people. I have found I can learn from both if I just pay attention.  I ran into one of those incredible people just last weekend. I had not seen her since she was a teenager. I always thought she was a special person- and not in the “everyone gets a trophy for being on the t-ball team” kind of special. Special as in I could picture her using her gifts to do something really extraordinary in her life. She is one of those naturally joyous people who just glows. She had just finished her degree in opera and I was curious how she came to study opera in the first place.  She shared that she had intended to study medicine but as she was selecting a college she heard someone speak who changed the course of her life. This person said that many people are passionate about art or music but don’t study it because they believe that they will not be able to make a living. He asked them to consider what would they do with their lives if money was not a factor; to figure out how to make a life rather than a living.  He challenged them to live their passion. And she accepted that challenge. She took a leap of faith that she could live her passion. As I listened to her talk about her education, her upcoming performance and her plans for the future, it was clear she is living her passion.

Admittedly living your passion is a little easier if you are young and just starting out. When you don’t have a marriage, a mortgage, a child, two dogs and a college fund to fill, it’s easy to explore a life making custom surfboards and searching for the perfect wave. But the fact is, even at my age, you can find your passion. You can find ways to make room for your passion in your life.  I see it happening all around me- people are climbing mountains, learning to paint, traveling, training for a marathon, dancing competitively and singing opera. They are finding their passion in big ways and small ones.  They are finding that thing that challenges them and feeds their souls.  I know I have found mine. So, thanks to my young friend for helping me to learn this lesson.

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Taking Flight
(1/500 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

The Eye of the Beholder

When I was a kid, my dad gave me Masterpiece for my birthday.  It was a board game in the mid 1970’s much like Monopoly except that players bought and sold artwork in an auction.  I don’t remember playing the game even one time.  But I remember the game.  I remember the cards.  Each had a different painting on one side of the card and information about the art and artist on the other.  Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, Toulous-Lautrec, da Vinci, Degas, Pollock…the names were so exotic.  Their stories were tragic and even a bit naughty.  Their works were all so different.  I remember the Pollock best of all which is ironic since I first thought a ten year old could have done it.  There was something about it even then that drew me into the painting.  Perhaps it was the motion and the choas of reds and silvers splashed across the canvas. Perhaps it was just the effort I had to put in trying to make order and see something – anything – in it.  I also remember wondering what made it art at all.  How could Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge  and Pollock’s No. 5 be equally art. Perhaps if I had not been destined to be a science major (see my earlier post wherein I confessed this already), the question of what makes something art would be truly obvious.  I see now it is maybe less important to define art by what it is and more important to define art by what it does.  Art touches us deeply, viscerally.  It evokes emotion in indescribable ways.  I cannot explain why Hana Hamplová’s Meditation on Paper exhibit makes me nostalgic.  But I can smell the dusty pages and hear the crinkle as they are turned.  I cannot explain why Masséus’ Under the Same Sun makes me both sad and joyful. Perhaps it is the perfection of contrasting colors and the obvious carefree brotherly love juxtaposed to the horrific story of their lives.  Or why I just don’t get van Gogh at all (and I don’t think his missing ear makes his work more tragic or mysterious).

So how do you know if you created art?!  I know every parent thinks the finger paintings on their fridge are inspired and the hand print plaque is priceless (I personally have a couple of originals hanging in my office now that I would NEVER part with).  I know when I create a piece that moves me, it moves me not in my head but in my heart.  I hope someone else will have a similar reaction of course. But it is just as likely that someone will be completely unmoved maybe even dislike a piece. I don’t think we do our best work or live our best lives trying to please everyone else.  In the end, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.  Create. Just create. Put what you love out there.  You cannot control how other’s will experience it. Cliff Fadiman said, “When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.”  I think the same is true with all art. We see ourselves in it. The more we look at it, we see more in ourselves than there was before.

This piece is one of my favorites.  What do you feel when you look at it?

 

 

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First Frost
(30 sec., f/5.6, 1000 ISO, 18 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Lighten Up!

I’ve always wished that I could be one of those women who goes through life with nothing more than their cell phone in their back pocket ensconced in one of those really cute Kate Spade cases with a sleeve for their drivers license and debit card. A quick swipe of mascara and lip gloss, hair flip and out the door. Nothing weighing you down. Secure in the fact that everything you need will be there when you need it. But I’m not that woman. I’m a planner, a list-maker, a sweat-the-details, an early bird (this is serious- if I’m late call the National Guard because something is seriously wrong). I was that kid in elementary school who launched the backpack controversy because mine was so overstuffed with markers and pencils and extra paper and my dad’s slide rule (yes- you read that right), I was in danger of tipping over. Of course had I tipped over, I would have been fine because I was dressed for the next ice age and therefore well padded. Suffice it to say, the Boy Scouts had nothing on me. I was prepared.

I still am. Last night as I was preparing to shoot Head of the Lake, I went through my camera bag. “Camera bag” does not do it justice by the way. It’s big and holds pretty much all of my gear. I could easily tip over. But I digress. I am going through my gear and taking out the things I know I don’t need to shoot this race. I don’t need my flash or my light meter. I definitely don’t need any lenses other than my 600 mm Tamron. I take all the lenses out. And then I think of this great shot I got off the Montake Bridge last year as all the boats were coming back through. The blue water speckled with shells and teams in every color flashing their oars proudly. It was spectacular. So I put my landscape lens back in. And then I thought, what if something happens to my 600? I must at least have a suitable back up! So I put my 200 back in. (Eye roll completely justified.) Then I remembered it was likely to rain all day and I would not be changing lenses in that. So I took them all out again.

Here’s the beauty of being my age. I’m a grown up. I carry my own load. I know I don’t want to miss a single moment of my life. So if I want to go through life with a 50 lb camera bag or a slide rule, it’s OK. But I’ve also realized that it’s time to lighten up. It’s time to focus on what matters. I’m taking my big beach chair so I can be comfortable sitting for the next 6 hours in the rain and possibly snow. I’m bringing one camera and one lens.  I’m going to focus on what is happening on the water. I can’t get much lighter than that.

I selected this as my “Lighten Up” picture because what are you going to do when a seaplane drives through the race course.  Just go with it I guess. And lighten up!
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Head of the Lake 2017
(1/500 sec., f/5.6, 2800ISO, 260mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

A Different Light

Last Sunday morning at 0530, I found myself next to an empty field on the outskirts of Concrete, Washington.  No, I was not deposited there after an alien abduction.  Also I am too old to pull an all-nighter (debauchery-filled or otherwise) so I was not in the clothes I wore the day before, if you know what I mean.  No, I was there intentionally.  In fact, I had intended to be there in late September or early October but life, as it sometimes does, got away from me.  I was hoping to photograph one of the elk herds in the area.  My research said that this was the spot.  So there I was, standing outside in the dark setting up my gear.  It was a little cold but mostly it felt crisp and clean in a way you never feel in the city.  The sky was glorious.  Millions of stars blanketed the heavens in a way you never see in the city.  Silence, like the fog, hung blissfully in the air.  Not even early in the morning is it silent in the city.

As I waited for the sun to come up, I decided to take some test shots of the field. I was hoping to have everything dialed in just right for that big moment when those majestic beasts swaggered out of the treeline, air billowing from their nostrils, hooves pounding the frosty ground.  After a couple of hours, it became apparent that the elk were not going to make an appearance.  This was disappointing.  The truth is you can’t really change what is.  You can, however, change the way you see what is.  In the light of morning, I did not feel that disappointed really.  I had seen the sun rise through a starlit night over a fog-dusted field.  Seeing that field in a different light was a thing of beauty.  It wasn’t what I set out to photograph but life seldom unfolds exactly as we thought it was going to unfold.  It unfolds in the only way it can. We can choose to see it through the lens of disappointment over what we hoped might be.  We can also choose to see it in a different light.  I would have liked to have seen the elk.  I am glad I adjusted my settings so that I did not miss capturing these incredible moments. As a bonus, I had an amazing breakfast with my husband at the 5 B’s Bakery in Concrete where the nicest woman served delicious food and gave us some great tips for our next trip up there.  I’m glad I didn’t miss any of it.

These photographs were taken in the span of about 10 minutes varying the shutter speed and ISO.  Notice how the landscape becomes defined and colors change in the different light.

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(30 sec., f/5.6, 1000 ISO, 18mm)

 

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(15 sec., f/5.6, 1000 ISO, 18mm)

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(10 sec., f/5.6, 800 ISO, 18mm)

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(5 sec., f/5.6, 800 ISO, 18mm)

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(2 sec., f/5.6, 800 ISO, 18mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Picture Meaningful

I like really old stuff. I have so much antique glassware my husband recently told me he thought we might have to fortify the foundation of our house. Hyperbole not withstanding, I have a lot. I like drinking out of glasses my grandparents drank out of. I like eating off of plates that were used to celebrate holidays and births generations ago. Though inanimate, I feel like my 100 year old cordials hold in their shiny molecules the sum of their history of wakes and weddings, birthdays and baptisms, conflicts and congratulations. This is my lofty goal for my photographs. Don’t get me wrong I am highly satisfied with accepting money for one of my photographs. After all, the generally accepted way to show someone you value their work is to pay for that work. But money comes and money goes. There are other things more enduring.

It is immensely gratifying to know that my photograph Oars hangs in the home of a family all of whom rowed for the same club. I hope it will hang there for many years and be a reminder of a time in their lives when they shared something special.  I hope someday a man will point at one of my photographs and tell his children, “That’s me and your Uncle Leo the last year we rowed together.”  I hope 30 years from now a grandmother will be holding her grandchild and saying, “Look at this!  This is your mama when she was a baby. You look just like her.”  I hope someone is displaying Glendalough Graveyard on their wall and daily sharing in my love of all things old and Irish. I hope, when my own daughter is my age, that she will be wrapped in the warm memories of her life through my photographs. I hope The Ten Faces of Madeleine will ease with humor the inevitable tension of the teen years.  I hope someone is saying my landscapes remind them of home and that their heart clenches when they say it. I hope someone will gaze at the expression of agony on the face of their child in those last strokes of a race and say “I’m so proud of you for having the courage to do that!”  I hope someone will pass on my work to someone who admired it often.

My lofty goal is to create something meaningful. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think everyone wants to do something meaningful whether it is through our work, raising children, passionate activism, creating art or music, compassionate acts or volunteering. At the end of the day, we picture meaningful.

Oars

Oars
Tail of the Lake 2015
(1/320 Sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 150 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Confessions of a Closet Artist

Confession time. I was a science major. There, I said it. It’s out.  What a relief!  Does that mean I am not also an artist?  Well frankly, I sure thought so.  In fact, I could make you a chart quantifying my non-artistic characteristics. (My friends are shaking their collective heads right now both in exasperation and agreement- I really will make you a chart. It will be a work of art.) I thought people were basically artists or scientists.  And every other “ist” was just a branch of those two categories.  Clearly, I spent too much time on Linnaeus. In my overly dichotomous mind, I am a scientist. I definitely see the world through that lens. Even when I am literally looking through my lens, I see the world that way. I just don’t see these as mutually exclusive anymore. We bring the totality of our experiences, feelings, culture and education to everything we do.  My lens is the curious mind of a scientist.  In that way, I see the miracle of life on earth in everything I look at.  I am amazed by the changing color of a leaf in fall partially because I know that there are millions of biochemical reactions taking place to preserve the plant’s life through the harsh winter.  I find the graceful ballet of hunting Great Blue Heron even more mesmerizing because I understand the dance of form and function evolution has perfected.  I see the predictable demise of an abandoned crane perched precariously over a river bank poetic – even elegant- because I know the awesome power of nature and the inevitability of entropy.

The truth is I haven’t changed. In reflection, I have probably always been an artist. At some point, someone or some experience led me to believe that I was not an artist or perhaps just that I was a scientist.  It is really not an “either/or” world though. It is an “and” world.  One can be a scientist and an artist.  Or as my dear friend Madeleine says, a Princess and an MBA.  I see the world not just through my eyes, but through my heart, my experience, my culture, and my education. I create through all of those as well.  And that, after all, is the root of art- creation in all its diverse forms and from all its diverse perspectives.  It is easy to box ourselves into one picture of who we are.  People, every last one of us, are complex and limited only by how we conceive ourselves. Oh sure, we have roles.  But we are not those roles. We are much more than that.  Imagine how you might see the world if you let go- just a little bit-  of the who you think you are or the who think you should be and became the who you already are. I am an artist (and a whole bunch of other things).

The photograph below, entitled The Crane, was taken on the Snohomish River in early spring.  The crane extends on the riverbank, a monument to the days of logging traffic on the river.  I used black and white to bring out the textures of the emerging buds and show the similarity between the man-made and natural elements.  This an example of my awe of the forces of nature.  Though glacial in speed, nature always prevails.

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(1/1000 Sec, f/5.6, 800 ISO, 280mm)
Signed Limited Edition Prints (20) available. Contact artist.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Seeing in Silence

I am a morning person.  I love the stillness of the morning.  I love the way the groggy silence envelops me. Everything slows down.  Without the noise that fills every other space in the rest of my day, I can see so much more clearly. I can hear my own voice so much more loudly.  My favorite mornings are the cold fall mornings when the earth is on the verge of waking up.  The air is crisp and cold. A veil of fog hangs from branches pelting my cheeks. My breath billows and clings.

This is the perfect time for me to shoot. Without all of the extraneous noise, I see things I would have surely missed. Distracted by screens and ringtones even conversation, I miss so much.  It’s not just the silent animals miraculously camouflaged in their habitat that I would miss.  It is fully appreciating the scene unfolding before my eyes. Frost painting the last golden leaves.  The crunch of soil wet just the day before.   A pallette of golds and greens fading subtly to brown.  Sharp sunlight sneaking through without its heat.

Seeing the world in silence is seeing from a completely different perspective.  I am keenly aware of the fleeting beauty that is nature. The impermanence of life that is the cost of the gift.  When I see in silence, I see the magnitude of capturing a unique moment in an ever-changing life.

The photograph below was taken one fall morning.  I was watching a Great Blue Heron hunting in the low tide backlit by the rising sun. Shadows of abandoned pilings reached across the water.  One stray branched curled behind the bird.

Perhaps you are not a morning person. I encourage you to find that place and time of day you are most relaxed. Go off the grid. Unplug.  Even for a short time, see the world in the silence.

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Early Bird
(1/640 sec. f/6, 800 ISO, 420 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Learn… to Let Go

When my daughter started rowing four years ago, I had a lot to learn. And of course, the ink wasn’t even dry on the check for rowing camp before I was grabbing my camera and heading for the shore. Needless to say that even shooting wildlife, I was used to a much slower subjects. Everything is a sloth next to a junior rower. Though I felt really comfortable working with my gear, there was just so much I didn’t know about shooting a race on water and it seemed like I was in the middle of figuring one thing out when the boats zoomed by – picture the aquatic version of a roadrunner cartoon.

As with all photography, scouting the location is key.  This was no exception.  The first race, I took about 50 excellent shots of backs.  I couldn’t even guess which back lived at my house because every person in the boat had a long, blonde ponytail.  I was at the perfect angle for the start of the race but not for the finish.  The first thing I learned to let go of was the start of the race.  (I still watch it and cheer obnoxiously. I just don’t shoot it.) You don’t have to shoot everything.  Know what you want to see.  I wanted to see the sheer exertion on the faces of these amazing rowers.  I wanted to see every muscle flex against the oars.  I wanted to see the joy of crossing the finish line ahead of another boat.  I wanted to capture those unguarded moments of courage.  I learned to let go of trying to capture everything.

After those first races, I spent a lot of time agonizing over those “pretty good” shots.  Oh, I had a trashcan full of pictures I will deny ever taking.  But in the beginning, there were far more shots I should have let go of.  I had the best of intentions.  I hoped a little cropping and touch up would make the photo usable.  I wanted to have a shot for every athlete.  I learned to let go of volume and noise. I learned to let go of settling for usable.  I strive now for that shot that someone would want to hang on their wall.  I’m even thrilled when I hear my work is someone’s profile pic- especially if that someone is a teenager (It’s the ultimate honor).

Shooting outdoors on water adds the elements of weather, sunlight (or lack thereof), reflection, and spray.  Add in the race elements of distance, motion, and boat lengths.  All of these conspire against the perfect shot.  You can adjust for them, but you can’t control them. In Washington, some of these change repeatedly during the race.  The first time I fully appreciated all of those elements, I left the course with a screaming headache.  I’ve learned you cannot shoot with a clenched jaw.  I learned to let go of the need to control every element of the shot. That just leaches the fun out of the experience of photography.  You might miss an amazing moment as you fine tune everything.

The photo below is a perfect example. It was taken at Tail of the Lake on Lake Union in Seattle.  The sun was coming up behind the cox but it was periodically shielded by clouds.  I had a polarizer on my 600 mm leans but as the race crossed in front of me where I stood on a raised platform the angle of reflection changed. Photos ranged from blue to silver as a result.  I could have tried to readjust the polarizer. I could have focused on just one spot in the race.  If I had not let go of all that, I would have missed this: two brothers racing. The freshman is coxing for the senior in stroke seat.  It was poetic on so many levels.  They are all in:  completely focused on those final meters to the finish line.  Good thing I let go or I would have missed this moment.

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Teamwork
(1/1000 sec., f/6.3, 800 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Don’t Be Afraid To Fail

I’d like to tell you that I’m one of those photographers who gets a brilliant idea for a shoot and then instinctively knows all of the right camera settings, the perfect location, and just the right camera angle to pull it off in one shot. I imagine this hypothetical artist getting up before the crack of dawn dressed in stylishly distressed L L Bean. An eager intern waits breathlessly as the photographer selects just the right equipment and then, as if given the most precious and generous gift, trudges about hauling the gear. Arriving at the scene, the intern scurries about setting up the equipment while the photographer gazes pensively at the tableau, chin in hand. She snaps. The camera appears. She adjusts the settings and peers through the viewfinder. With the most parsimonious of motions, she hits the trigger. Turning sharply with a wave of her hand, she signals they are done and victorious.

I’d like to tell you I’m that photographer. Oh I get brilliant ideas. I’m always looking at my surroundings and imagining them in all their digital glory. Stylishly dressed in LL Bean – uh no. Intern? Nope. But I do have an amazing husband who doesn’t mind hiking up on a bridge in the middle of the night with me or driving a couple hundred miles to check out something I heard was going to be perfect.

Take the photograph below. As summer burned off, I’d been watching the fog seep across the Snohomish valley snaking along the river. As I dropped off the hill each morning, I could see the spires of evergreens poking through. The landscape was punctuated by a raised rail track. I thought I knew the perfect spot. It was high enough to look down on the fog but free from power lines that would scar the picture. We hiked up on a bridge over the river on Highway 2 well before dawn and waited for the magical morning sun. The fog was too diffuse that morning. I didn’t get the thick contrast I wanted. I learned that meteorology is important to a photographer. The bridge rail was in my shot no matter what I did. I learned my height can be a problem and I need something to lift me up. Also bridges have safety features that keep you away from the edge. I learned I don’t like leaning over water with my beloved camera. I had a tripod so I could keep the shutter open longer but I didn’t factor in the vibration from cars. You wouldn’t think there would be any at that time day but there were and they shook the bridge. I learned the earth is a better foundation than a bridge.

The truth is I probably get a good shot about 1 in 5 times. (And that might be generous.) I recently got a new computer and transferred over 23000 Images. That means I’ve shot over 100,000. This doesn’t include the years BD (Before Digital). I have boxes and boxes of those. I fail far more often than I am successful. And failing is a skill we need to learn to do better. We live in this instant, reward-based culture. We give up too easily. Some things take a lifetime to perfect. The fact is life isn’t instant or reward-based. We learn from failure. We learn the skill better ultimately. I’m a better photographer for having to figure out what I didn’t do correctly. I’m a better person for my failures. I learned perseverance. I learned compassion. I learned how to solve problems. (According to my dad, I got character.) Don’t get me wrong, I love a trophy and an A+ but I only value the ones I got the hard way. The ones born of struggle hang on the walls of my heart and mind.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Open to the Unexpected 

One Sunday morning – ok practically the middle of the night- I convinced my husband to accompany me on a quest to shoot the sunrise over the Port of Everett. I knew the exact spot. I had glimpsed in passing these abandoned pilings of piers unused for decades. They had an almost romantic quality. I could see grizzled men tying up tenders and wrangling flotillas of logs. In my mind, the sun would rise slowly over my back revealing the shore bathed in golden sunlight. The tide of course would be halfway out exposing fragile creatures scurrying for cover. The glossy texture of the lazy tide would contrast perfectly with the grit of rock and barnacles. Predatory shorebirds would swoop and soar in the tableau.

Here’s what really happened. I waited forever and then boom- full on sunlight. Why? Because there was a massive hill behind me. Mind you, I “glimpsed” that hill about a thousand times driving by the waterfront. But I didn’t even think of its impact to the light of the rising sun. Needless to say no sunrise pictures were taken that day. Just as I was getting really creative in my cursing about getting up pointlessly at 0 dark 30, my husband spotted in the distance a Great Blue Heron hunting beneath some burned out pilings. I quickly changed to my 600 mm lens and discovered something really amazing. The pilings were covered in nesting pairs of Great Blue Herons. They were hidden from the road by a copse of trees and camouflaged on shore by the scorched wood. It was incredible to watch them interact and feed their young. I got so many great shots that day and went back to watch them raise their young throughout the summer.

On your photographic journey, as in life, be open to the unexpected. Not every shot is going to be what you thought it would be. But there is always a shot to be had. I was so fortunate to have a spotter that day (who incidentally took me out for breakfast after our adventure- bonus). But now I know to look around if what I am looking at isn’t working for me. That’s a life lesson right there. Finally, it’s totally worth it to get up at 0 dark 30. It’s a whole world we are missing out on.

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Out of the Ashes
(1/500 sec., f/6, 360 mm, 1400 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

The Digital Experiment

If you’re old as I am, you probably remember buying film. Film was a relationship. Film was like giving up the lease on your apartment and moving in with your boyfriend. You committed. You committed to black-and-white or color. You committed to speed. You committed to brand. You loaded it into your camera and unless you were really good at reeling it back in and forwarding it to just the right spot (and I’m not -hence the scary ghost pictures of my dog at the beach- but more about that later), you shot the roll – the whole roll. And then you waited for days for the film to be developed.  If you were lucky, you had more good shots than bad ones.

I’m sure I am offending many purists out there, and I do apologize, but I was so excited the day my husband bought me my first digital camera. In reflection, he may have been trying to pry his 35 mm Minolta out of my hands and, believe me, I was fiercely clutching it for fear of missing my infants first everything. He might also have been trying to prevent bankruptcy due to film processing.

There I was. Digital. I could take as many pictures as I wanted to.  I could delete them! Before printing! I could see each picture as soon as I hit the trigger.  My first digital was a Nikon D40X. I felt like Zoolander trying to operate a computer. So, so many buttons and dials. I confess to an extended period of shooting on the automatic modes.  But then I remembered- I could take as many pictures as I wanted to! I could delete them!  I screwed up my courage and turned the dial to A. Before you knew it, I was taking the same picture of my dogs at every f stop.  I turned to S and started in on my daughter (dogs have little patience for modeling). I took the same picture at different shutter speeds. I even made her wave her hand around (she quickly lost patience then as well).

Now I also have a Nikon D5300.  I really like this camera.  I still shoot on sport mode when I am at the races and I don’t want to miss anything.  But once I realized shooting on manual wasn’t a lifelong commitment to a shot, I felt free to experiment.  They don’t all turn out just like I imagined they would when I was planning the shot but experimenting has become part of the fun of shooting for me.  I love trying different combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  It is amazing to see the interplay of light creating variations in color.  Take the photos below, for example. They were shot as the sun came up over the harbor in Sequim, Washington on the morning of my best friend’s wedding. She was getting married that evening on the same spot I took these pictures.  I wanted to catch a meaningful sunrise.  But I digress.  These shots were taken within minutes of each other using different combinations.  I had an idea of what I wanted to use I set that early.  After that, I just took advantage of the beautiful scene and silence to experiment.

Don’t be afraid to experiment! Don’t be afraid to shoot in manual.  It’s digital. You don’t have to commit. There will be a sunrise tomorrow too.

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(1/50 sec. f/8 100 ISO, 600 mm)

DSC_3051l.jpg(1/20 sec. f/8 100 ISO, 150 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Ordinary Magic

We are bombarded with images.  Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook deliver cute, scary, heartwarming, devastating, lush, and stark to our mental doorsteps every day.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a photographic documentary of a puppy raised with a lion cub who become lifelong friends as much as the next person.  I just think that we are exposed to ordinary magic every day and we miss it because we are just not present.  (That is probably a heavy handed thing to say – coming from someone trying to entice you to look at my images – so I will apologize for the potential hypocrisy and move on.) Take this image for example.  Two girls, the daughters of best friends, separated by eight years in age.  The older has been holding the younger since she was born. And since that time, they have weathered the normal and not so normal challenges of childhood.  Though at times fighting like real sisters might, this picture captures the truth of their relationship. It is a late summer night by the fire and the younger is cold. She cuddles up on the older girl’s lap in her blanket.  They are rapt looking at selfies they just took on a phone.  Ordinary magic.

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I think it is amazing that everyone carries a camera now, if only on their phone.  The pictures my friends post on backpacking trips or vacations are amazing.  Whether you are carrying your Nikon or your iPhone, don’t forget to capture the ordinary magic that is  right in front of you.  Be present.  Look in wonder not just at the larger landscape of life but of the single tree or branch or leaf.  And don’t miss the things that are perhaps not traditionally considered beautiful which might hide that ordinary magic.  The image below was taken on the Snohomish River.  It was low tide at the mouth and I was waiting for the launch to move out.  As I started to look at the bank through my lens, I was captivated by the contrast of mud and rotting pilings to grass and reeds on shore.  More so even when I discovered that the grass reflected in the lazy water creating an image like a watercolor painting.  Mud and rotting pilings are not widely viewed as lovely but lovely was not what I was going for. Ordinary magic: the underlying beauty in all things revealed here as the tide receded.

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So here is my advice, keep your camera with you.  Be present and see with your heart.  Capture those amazing and rare landscapes you come across.  More importantly, capture those ordinary magical moments that make your breath hitch and your heart clench even when you look at them many, many years later.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Connecting Through Images

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I suppose like all photographers I began very young.  My first memory was of my dad lying on the ground in Volunteer Park in Seattle shooting up and to an awkward angle as brilliantly colored cyclist raced wildly around the corner on the knife-blade edges of racing slicks.  I was fascinated and I was hooked. I carried around a cheap point and click for years wasting who knows how much on cartridge film and developing.  It was like Christmas every time we stopped at the Photomat to pick up the 4 x 6 glossies.  Half of those were blurred or obscured by an errant thumb.  But the ones that turned out, no matter how mundane the subject, took my breath away.  It was like capturing time itself. I was so excited when I was finally old enough to use my dad’s Nikon camera. I listened, rapt, as he described f stops, shutter speed and ISO.  I committing to memory words like aperture and exposure.  The heavy weight of the camera hanging from the strap around my neck. The frustration of threading the film. Learning to hear the film slipping back into the can as I rewound. All of this was magical.  Photography connects us viscerally to each other, to the earth, and to the past.  Sepia images of our ancestors look back at us with our own eyes. Nature and industry are juxtaposed in the landscape.  Animals play out ancient dramas.  All of it frozen in time on copper sheets or cellulose or in millions of pixels magically connecting us.  For me this is always the challenge- capturing an image that evokes a visceral reaction.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.