Some pre-spring photography, and appreciating Diana Nyad, a swimmer for the ages

by Rob Tiller

14 03 16_7805This week we had one day in the high 20s, and another in the low 70s. It’s been a roller coaster winter, and we’re all ready for spring. On Saturday morning after yoga, I went to Fletcher Park with my camera and checked for signs of emerging life. Daffodils had popped out, and tulips and others were getting ready. On Sunday I scouted Raulston Arboretum, which was mostly brown and gray (as in photo at bottom), but there were some delicate blooms and buds. Spring is getting close. We’ve just got to hang on!
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As I’ve been taking more pictures I’ve also been trying to figure out what it is I’m trying to do. Make a picture, of course, but there’s more to it. The camera subtly changes the way you see and feel. You look a little harder, and discover there are feelings associated with objects. You wonder, can they be captured, and can they be shared? Your relationship to the visual world has changed. Sure, there’s always a risk that the camera will distance you from the world, but I’m finding it can also draw you closer.
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So there’s a little voyage of discovery that happens in photographic outings, even when the output isn’t especially remarkable. It’s a type of meditation. And from time to time everything is right – the light and shapes and the colors – and none of the many things that can go wrong go wrong (you didn’t forget to take the lens cover off, or get a cat hair off the lens, or to adjust the white balance, ISO, aperture, etc.). At just the right second, you push the shutter, and everything clicks. Ah, happiness.
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It’s just a tiny fraction of a second (say, one six-thousandth). But it ‘s the culmination of many moments – years and years. It depends on your having looked carefully at your subject, but also your having looked for a long time at nature with intensity and affection. It also takes having looked at a lot of art, and considered how humans use images to represent things and communicate emotions. It also depends on your having learned your craft – how to hold the camera steady, how to frame the subject, how to choose the settings. It takes time. And usually there’s something a little off. There are so many not bad, almost-good, but ultimately useless, pictures. But you keep trying, and gradually get better.
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I’m crazy about my new Nikon D7100. Such marvelous engineering – a sensor with twenty-four million pixels! Fifty-one point auto-focus! The focus responsiveness is truly amazing. But I’m also a bit overwhelmed by the apparatus. Weeks into our relationship, I’ve got the basics, but I’m still finding new little buttons I hadn’t previously noticed. I seldom read users manuals, but for the D7100, I’ve felt moved to purchase two additional how-to books. Seriously, its complicated. But on the bright side, I don’t feel the equipment is holding me back. It’s more like I’m holding it back. So I’m daunted, but also inspired. I don’t want its brilliance to go to waste.

Also inspiring: Diana Nyad, who finally made the swim from Cuba to Florida at age 64 – a 53-hour, 110 mile swim, which she was the first to do without a shark cage. This is a feat of human endurance almost beyond imagination. I got round to reading Ariel Levy’s piece on her in the Feb. 10 New Yorker, which gave me a new appreciation for the amazing grit and relentlessness behind this feat. Nyad turns out to be at once a dreamer and a grinder, a brilliant, charming personality with considerable gaps and flaws. It soundss like she has OCD, relationship problems, and no money sense. She was horribly molested as a child. She has a drive that surpasses all known limits.

She started thinking about the Cuba-Florida swim when she was a little girl, and became a world-famous endurance swimmer in her twenties. After becoming the first to swim from the Bahamas to Florida (102 miles), she retired at age 30 and became a network sportscaster and did other things. Then she took up the quest for the Cuba to Florida at age 60. She failed. Then failed again. Then again. And each of these was physically harrowing – hours of nausea, shark worries (perhaps exaggerated, but understandable), and jelly fish stings. And then she did it. After two nights of swimming, she saw the lights of Key West, and knew she had 14 or 15 more hours to go. Which for her was a mere training swim.
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