Trials and (so many) Errors

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Looking back on my journey, there’s a risk of diminishing the struggle. And by “struggle”, I mean the day-to-day challenges that required months-long brainstorming to overcome. It wasn’t like I had a go-to group of artists that I could bounce ideas off of. Although I come from a creative family with notable accomplishments in the arts, I was on my own with this one. The only person who would have really appreciated what I was doing with kaleidosocopes was my aunt Betty, but she was dead, and had she not died, I never would have considered whether or not photographing the interior of a kaleidoscope was even possible. So when questions arised, (What camera lens should I use? Is natural light best?  Should I shoot in my studio with artificial lighting? How do I get rid of glare? Why do cameras have to be so bloody heavy?) I was on my own. For all but the last question, trial and error was my answer.

I wasn’t a photographer before kaleidoscopes came into my life. Sure, I took photographs of our children and was told I have an eye for composition, but point-and-shoot was as complicated as I got. Now, I was having to take so many varibles into consideration, and they all had to align to create the perfect shot. So when people see my work and ask me how I do it, I always say the same thing: very carefully.

After I learned how to take a consistent shot using David Kalish’s scopes, I started asking different questions, starting with, “How do I get these photos really big?” In a word, RAW. And so began endless hours of YouTube videos understanding why I should only be photographing in RAW and what that means for developing the image and, most importantly, how I could print off gargantuan prints for our living room walls. I was enjoying sending family and friends note cards that showcased my work, but I wanted something more. I wanted to explore something I had earlier refused to consider, and that was gallery-worthy contemporary art work.

[Above photo taken from one of my scopes. It reminds me of a Jackson Pollock painting.]

 

 

Limitless Love

At one point, a few months after receiving the scopes and after I had begun cataloguing them, I became a bit possessive. That is, once I knew how costly the kaleidoscopes really were, I began to worry that something might happen to them; that someone might see them through our front window and decide to break into our home and steal them. In my defence, I had never had so many objects of both sentimental and monetary value, and for the first time ever I actually considered getting insurance just to cover the scopes should they ever be taken or damaged.

Absurd, I know. It was then that I decided that it was time to start giving them away. I was holding onto the kaleidoscopes far too tightly. I was holding onto the memory of Aunt Betty inappropriately. They were objects, easily replaced, and far less valuable than any time I had ever spent with my aunt. So, I took all the scopes out of the cabinet and began deciding which ones would be best suited for my cousins who had not yet received one from their aunt. I took as much time and care as I could, if for no other reason than I knew Betty would have done no less. I wrote out what I knew about the artist who designed the scope and carefully gift-wrapped it with a note that stated that the kaleidoscope was not from me but from Aunt Betty, with love.

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With love…That part gets me every time. I knew full well that the kaleidoscopes stored in the cabinet in the corner of our dining room didn’t belong to me. They belonged to my aunt. But she’s not here anymore, and yet I truly believe that the scopes have not ceased being hers. The kaleidoscopes were bestowed on me that I might have them for safekeeping until that time when I fascilitate their endowment to family and friends. So every time I chose a scope, wrapped it in tissue, wrote a note, and gifted it to someone, I did it with a sense of reverence because I was merely the intermediary between Aunt Betty and the receiver of her scope. I truly felt that it wasn’t about me, and as I continue to take photographs of the kaleidoscopes, I know it’s still not about me. It’s about limitless love; Betty’s limitless love. My aunt is dead, for sure, and one day I will be dead, too, and my photographs lost forever. But for now, there is a legacy that I feel a responsibility to nurture. The legacy isn’t one of things; of scope-collecting or photo-taking. It is a legacy of generosity. I understand now that one becomes richer having given all away. That’s an endowment worth leaving.

[“Still Life No.1” Photo I took of Carolyn Bennett’s Nadelstern scope.]

Suspended Indelibility

When my husband suggested that I start making my own kaleidoscopes, I was rather intimidated by the challenge. I never saw myself on the same plane as the creators of the kaleidoscopes in my aunt’s collection (because I’m not; not by a long shot). But after some consideration, I began poring over books on how kaleidoscopes work. In the end, I was relieved to discover that making kaleidoscopes proved easier than taking photographs of them.

Eventually I picked up my camera again and slowly began producing a consistently good shot, but it still wasn’t translating well onto paper. That hurdle was overcome with the purchase of a high-quality printer, generously given to me by my father. He believed in my vision from the beginning, (as a business man, endeavours and entrepreneurial success were a normal part of his everyday existence), and was happy to invest in its fruition. I bought the best photo paper I could afford, and before long, the walls and shelves of our home started displaying framed prints of my kaleidoscope photography. It took several years, but I had finally accomplished what I originally set out to do: preserve the interor images of my aunt’s kaleidoscopes. And to my amazement, the walls had photographs of kaleidoscopes I had made myself, as well. Who would have thought?

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The interior of one of my homemade scopes.

I could have chosen to hand the kaleidoscopes out to my cousins and never think twice about what they looked like inside or out. I could have not taken care to research the artists who created them, or not call the stores where she bought them to ask the owners if they remembered her patronage. (They always did, even several years after Aunt Betty died. I do remember your aunt and when she would come here to visit. She and her friend would come in to look at kaleidoscopes. I remember her as being very sweet and wearing a badanna in her last few visits. She always smiled. She bought alot of Wedding Scopes by David Kalish, probably as wedding gifts. They have a great story to them. A Wedding Scope has two ends, the idea being a couple can each look at the same cell and see different things…) 

But I did. I did do all those things. The answer as to why I did is simple. Kaleidoscopes mattered to my aunt Betty. Aunt Betty mattered to me. Therefore, Aunt Betty’s kaleidoscope collection mattered to me.

Now, for me, it is very rewarding to be able to widen the aperture of my camera to these scopes in order to capture the transient refractions occurring inside. It’s nothing short of suspended indelibility.

The Leaded Lights of Chesnik Scopes

There were more questions that needed to be answered concerning my endeavours surrounding kaleidoscopes. What, pray tell, was I going to do with the photographs? In the beginning, I had no vision of enlarging and framing them as works of contemporary art on my living room walls. I’m a writer first, and although I have yet to become a member of the IAMPETH Master Penman Society, I am of a dying breed of folk who still value longhand written notes and letters with cursive embellishments. So, it seemed like a natural first step to create art cards with the photos.

I had seen art cards in quaint shops before. Some opted for fastened photos onto card stock, and others had the image printed directly onto the paper. I prefered the latter, searched out a local printing shop, gave them some image files, and waited. The results were less than desireable. They didn’t do anything I didn’t ask them to, but I knew what the image was supposed to look like and it never transpired onto the paper so I shut the door on that idea for a while. It’s not that I didn’t think it could be done well, but I wasn’t willing to invest the time and money necessary until I found a company I trusted to execute my vision for the end product. More than that, I knew I hadn’t reached my potential as a photographer and that my work needed improving. All of these things would take time.

Meanwhile, I kept experimenting with the scopes in my aunt’s collection and invested in a beautiful pedestal scope she purchased that was created by Janice and Ray Chesnik. I bought additional wheels from Janice’s son, Jon Greene, and therefore chose not to include this scope with those I gave away as per my aunt’s dying wish.

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My favourite image I took of the Chesnik pedestal scope doesn’t come close to capturing its true beauty.

Jon was very helpful and encouraging as I shared with him what I was doing with my camera. The Chesnik scope is an exquisite example of leaded mosaics of stained glass, and as hard as I tried, I was never able to capture the beauty as well as I had hoped. This isn’t a reflection of Chesnik’s craftmanship, but rather, my own limitations and inability to do the kaleidoscope the justice it truly deserved. How does one capture on film the wonderment to be found in a cathedral’s rose window? It’s simply not possible, and is best enjoyed by one’s naked eye. I have since upgraded my equipment and could try again, but I am loath to compromise the integrity of Jon’s craft. Some things are best left well enough alone, but I’ll be sure to let you know if I ever change my mind. Either way, I strongly encourage you to purchase your own Chesnik scope and experience the leaded lights for yourself.

Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos.

Latin: Whoever’s is the soil, it is theirs all the way to heaven and all the way to hell.

So, now that I knew I wanted to go ahead and create contemporary art using the images from the interior of kaleidoscopes, I had legal questions that needed answering. And as you already know, lawyers don’t come cheap.

I located a lawyer who specializes in copyright issues. I told him what I was up to and he said he’d look into it. Apprently he had never dealt with a case like mine and was curious to find out what the big books had to say about it. What legal insight did our hard-earned money buy me? This: I cannot profit from the images of kaleidoscopes (interior or exterior) without consent from the artist.

With that consent, however, the photos of the interiors are copyrighted to me as the artist. Although I own the rights to the images, I give credit to the artist wherever possible, as I know full well that my success as a photographer isn’t possible without their success as a kaleidoscope maker.

Of the handful of artists I reached out to — inquiring if I could take photographs of their work — only one sent me a “cease and desist” letter. Okay, it wasn’t an actual cease and desist letter as I hadn’t profited from taking photos of their kaleidoscopes. But they didn’t mince their words. I removed their scope from my studio without hesitation and without any hard feelings on my part as they were certainly within their rights to refuse.

It gave me pause. Kaleidoscope artists often include lower-quality images of their kaleidoscopes on their websites so purchasers are able to have an idea of what to expect of the interior. Artists are busy spending their time creating works of art using glass and mirrors of a different sort than a camera, so I undertand their focused energy. But why, I asked myself, didn’t the artists see how the images could be used to promote their work? Don’t misunderstand me; I wasn’t questioning why they didn’t see the value of my photographs. Rather, why didn’t they see the value and potential of taking high quality photos themselves? Cozy Baker authored coffee table books full of exquisite photographs of the interior of kaleidoscopes. Why weren’t others being inspired to do the same?

So much time and effort is spent on the exterior, and of course for some, the interior. But to me, such a presentation is incomplete without a proper representation of the interior of the scopes. Isn’t that a big part of what the buyers are interested in? That’s where the allurement is truly sated. It’s a high form of workmanship all on its own, and shouldn’t be given short shrift. If the artist who refused my photographs only knew what could be done with their fine craftmanship, I think they would have reconsidered. (I wasn’t given the opportunity to show them what I did.) They produce incredible work that makes for one-of-a-kind images. Now they’ll never know what that would look like on their wall as contemporary art photography.

I asked my husband what I should do. “Learn how to make kaleidoscopes so you can take photos of your own work,” he replied.

Okay.

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An image from one of my homemade scopes.

Challenge Accepted

Although I develop my images, I do not digitally manipulate them in any way. My commitment to photographic integrity has been the most challenging part of my journey. I needed to learn how to take the perfect shot, and it would require the perfect scope. Enter: David Kalish.

There were 60 scopes in my aunt’s collection that I acquired after her death. I took photos of the interior of many of them. But the most consistent shot has always come from David Kalish’s kaleidoscopes. That is to say that the lighting, glass, length of the chamber, cells, stones in the cells, and the absence of air bubbles in the oil cell (this was a big problem in many of my earlier photos) all lead to no post-development editing. This is important to me because, in a digital age where so much of what we see in magazines and on gallery walls is digitally manipulated or generated, it is my earnest desire to produce work that is true. I was so confident in the consistency of his craftsmanship, I registered for a business licence with the sole purpose of taking photos of the interior of David’s scopes. My business name is Sea Green Photography.

What’s in a name? Well, my first name is Carla. C = Sea. My last name is Groen. Groen is Dutch for the colour green. Thus, Sea Green Photography. As a sailor, sea-green also happens to be one of my favourite colours, so the name seemed like a good fit for me. There is a Sea Green Photography company in the United States. This is not me, however, as I am in Canada, and I don’t take photographs of children, families, and otherwise living, breathing creatures. I take photographs of the interior of kaleidoscopes. Needless to say, it’s a pretty narrow niche, and narrower still because where I live (the most densely populated area of Canada, 40 minutes away from downtown Toronto to the east, and Niagara Falls to the south), no one makes kaleidoscopes. On one occasion I saw one (1) for sale in a specialty shop, but its quality was poor. And when people come to my house and ask about my work hanging on our walls, they have no idea how it’s done, let alone understand why anyone would want to do it. I don’t mind telling you that I think being the only person among 36 million doing what I do is pretty exciting.

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Time to Talk About Carolyn

Carolyn who? Carolyn Bennett.

Carolyn Bennett is a kaleidoscope artist who I got in contact with very early in my photography days. There were two of her scopes in my aunt’s collection, and I ordered another, Nadelstern, aptly named after Paula Nadelstern, the incredibly talented artist behind exquisitely designed quilts that are serious works of art. Carolyn’s scope certainly didn’t disappoint. Another of her scopes in the collection had all cream and brown stones and created bouquet images which was very pleasing to the eye.

So, why am I writing about Carolyn Bennett? It is important for me to include her in this story of my journey because it was her scope with earth-toned stones that marked my kairotic moment as a contemporary artist. I looked through my viewfinder, and when I saw the stones in the cell, I didn’t see fractal images suspended in oil. I saw composition; I saw still life. It was at that moment that my eye sharpened to “the shot”. I took it and stopped, not unlike a fashion photographer who hands the camera to her assistant and confidently walks off the set because she knows she just got the cover page.

Am I saying that the photo is up there with Annie Leibovitz’s work? Absolutely not. That’s not the point. The point is that this photo of Carolyn Bennett’s kaleidoscope was the first step on a long road in establishing a relationship I never thought possible between a camera and a kaleidoscope, all in an effort to produce contemporary art photography as I’ve never seen it before. Was I excited? You bet I was. The image itself isn’t necessarily outstanding, but the drive it created inside me was beyond outstanding, and it’s a drive that continues to this day, pushing me to produce photographs of the interior of kaleidoscopes at a calibre beyond what anyone had done or thought possible.

Oh, and I insisted that if I was going to go forward with this, the final product had to be achieved without the use of digital editing programs.

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My photograph of Carolyn Bennett’s scope that changed everything for me.

Getting it Right

Some of the challenges of photographing the interior of my acquired kaleidoscopes included having to learn how to only capture the interior (and not the surrounding floor and couch), as well as learning how to avoid air bubbles, which, as it turns out, are very noticeable in some scopes cells, and not noticeable at all in others. I also had to learn how to get the entire mandala into the viewfinder.

It was impossible to get it right with my existing camera.

My birthday was coming up. I had been looking forward to my birthday because it was not only accompanied by the promise of wisdom which comes with age, but with cards stuffed with birthday money. And I knew what I was going to spend said money on: a new camera.

Now is as good of a time as any to explain the two types of mirror systems the scopes in my bequeathed collection contained. Most used a two-mirror system. When you look into a two-mirror scope, the image is that of a complete circle, or mandala. When you look into a scope that uses a three-mirror system, the image is infinite. This, of course, is a very elementary description. There is alot information on the web if you want to understand the science behind the art of kaleidoscope making.

Personally, I have come to prefer the three-mirrored scopes. Well, my eye does, anyway. Mandalas are more static. Ok, that’s not entirely true. If the objects in the cell are immersed in oil, they are always moving and therefore not static. But it’s harder to create movement in a photograph with the uniformity that comes with a mandala image. Movement or not, the photo has no shortage of colour and complexities. As a photographer who’s eye is always looking for “the shot”, however, I need more visual inconsistencies to work with in order to have good composition. The most useful lesson I learned from taking photographs of two-mirror scopes is the strength negative space gives the subject. I wanted my walls to have a few mandalas on them, so I worked at it and quickly found success. With the right tools, it became very easy.

 

I made every effort to find out who made this kaleidoscope. I sent photos of the exterior to other members of the BKS, but no one could tell me. I have since given the kaleidoscope away, but it certainly did make for some exquisite photos which now adorn my living room walls.

Let me Grab my Camera

I did as Aunt Betty asked and began giving the kaleidoscopes away. After the third or fourth scope left our home, I said to myself, Self, there must be a way to properly catalogue them so I can remember what they look like. Sure, I had been writing all the information down about the artists, the cost of the scopes, and tracking where my aunt presumably bought them (she spent her entire life as a music teacher in Wilmington, Delaware, and kept a cottage in Maine, so her purchases were along the American eastern seaboard), but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to remember what they looked like on both the outside and inside.

I went to my room and found the camera my husband bought me while we were still dating. (He said it was my “promise ring”, signifying his promise to make a lifetime of memories with me.) I took the point-and-shoot camera in one hand and a scope in the other. I looked through the tiny viewfinder of the camera as I placed the tinier hole of the kaleidoscope in front of the lens. I pressed the button halfway down; the camera focused and I snapped a picture. And then I snapped another. And another. I was so excited to see the results that I filled up the 24 exposure film as quickly as I could, drove down to the 1 hour photo shop, and ran some errands while waiting to see the fruit of my not-so-labourious labour.

After paying the developer, I went straight into my car, shut the door, and tore into the envelope with great expectation. The excitement was all for not, however, as the pictures were, in a word, crap. (There’s a lot of crap on this journey, by the way.) The interior image was blurry, and only a small portion of the interior was even visible. The picture was mostly of the exterior of the camera, as well as our couch and floor. And not just one picture. All 24 frames were complete failures. I placed the photos back in the envelope, tossed the envelope in my photobox in the basement, and never thought about taking another picture of a kaleidoscope for another two years. I had other things on the go and wasn’t prepared to give this hobby the time and patience it required. If I ever find that first photo, I’ll be sure to post it. No doubt it’s in a moldy corner of a musty cardboard box in the bowels of our home. Until then, I’m including a photo of one of the first scopes I fashioned together with toilet roll tubes and hockey tape.

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It’s What’s Inside that Counts

I remember visiting my grandmother’s home where Betty lived the last ten years of her life. I followed the sound of voices down a set of stairs into the basement and found my mama and aunts going through her belongings. The cabinet that encased her kaleidoscope collection was at the back of the room. Grabbing a handful of newspapers that was stacked on the floor, I made my way to the cabinet and lifted the hook latch to unlock the glass pane doors of my aunt’s cabinet. Slowly, I began to remove the scopes from the shelves, carefully wrapping each scope as I went, and gently placed them in a large carboard box. I had never opened the doors to my aunt’s collection without her being with me. It felt like an invasion; a violation of her privacy and property. But Betty was gone, and now they were my property. There were so many of them; large scopes, tiny scopes, fragile scopes, and scopes that could easily double as a truncheon. Some were made of wood, some were made of stain glass, others were made of brass, and one of my favourites was encased in marble (or was it soap stone?). But despite the variety of the scopes, they all had two things in common: They had been hand-picked by my aunt, and they were beautiful.

Eventually, after finding her cabinet of scopes a permanent spot in our dining room, I spent my spare time researching the history of the kaleidoscopes. Some of the scopes had identifying markings on them so they were easy to catalogue. Others were more difficult to trace. I quickly learned, however, that kaleidoscope collecting is taken very seriously in the United States, and Aunt Betty’s collection had many of the best scopes American artists had to offer. When I found out that there was a society for makers and collectors of kaleidoscopes (Brewster Kaleidoscope Society), I joined with the hope that I would find additional information on the artists behind some of the more magnificent looking scopes.

Over time, my eye became discriminating. Within a second of looking into the eye cap of a scope, I could see the level of craftmanship, or lack thereof. It’s not the just quality of the mirrors. The angle of the mirrors (they must be seamless), the amount of light the chamber allows in, the objects in the cells, and clarity of the glass all impact the final product.

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One of my favourite images from a kaleidoscope I made. A bit seasonal, but the colours are complimentary.

One lesson I learned when comparing the different kaleidoscopes is to never judge a scope from its exterior. Very cliche, I know, but true nonetheless. The collection had exquisite examples of creative genius in regard to exterior aesthetic beauty, and yet once you peer inside the chamber, it takes only a brief moment to realize that an equal amount of time and care has not been invested into the integrity of the interior. Of course, the opposite is true, as well. One humble looking scope has a tarnished brass chamber and is only the length of my pinky, and yet peek inside the teeny-tiny opening and one’s eye is met with the most illustrious array of red, blue, pink, orange, yellow, and green stones, all perfectly aligned and clear as can be. Finding cohesion between the interior and exterior of the kaleidoscope has been achieved in less than 15 of the 60 scopes in my aunt’s collection. They are also the most expensive.