November 17, 2014
It’s Not Good for Photographers to Live in the Past
Accepting that I could be stuck in the mud, formed by decades, as a photographer, I should move, explore and perhaps comprehend that hidden truths may be captured and revealed with my images.
That is, open my approach to new, artistic visions NOW as explained recently by articles in Outdoor Photographer Magazine.
I don’t recall their titles offhand, but they were well written and challenging by obviously talented and thoughtful photographers in the March and November issues of 2014.
Now I will view scenes as visual metaphors and use photographic tools to express personal concepts about them and, therefore, expressing truths about myself as a total lovable human being, not as simply a photographer.
I will move beyond capturing images OF natural scenes, great blue herons, great white egrets or launching mergansers; I capture images ABOUT my subjects, achieving a state of calm and flow, allowing a meaningful concept to color my vision.
More simply put, I hope, I will eschew snapping images OF subjects but search for concepts to capture ABOUT them. To repeat, by contemplating deeply and seeing presciently, I well create photographic visions about them, visions laced with my very own personality.
Setting out with camera in hand and finding a flat tire on the vehicle or slipping onto my backside during a freezing fog would color my very own personal artistic vision.
Surely when a spanking new Nikon 600-mm lens -- I can daydream -- arrives by UPS, an explosion of joy will permeate my images.
As wells as my personality, at least for a few days or hours.
So, when releasing the shutter of my Nikon, I am imbuing an image with elements of myself, revealing that I am lazy, imitative, intuitive, bored, energetic, artistic or whatever.
I must come to terms with that reality and use whatever skills I have to generate the positive qualities of my character, of my state of mind, inherent in appropriately composed, focused, highlighted and processed images.
Or, if a scene so suggests, I should honestly reveal the negative qualities.
Old dogs may (nay, must) learn new tricks. I say that after decades of working as an outdoor writer/photographer who fished, hiked, skied, beach-combed, and toured hunting camps, parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges in search of subjects to report about.
Photos accompanied my weekly reports, as visual support, helping readers see what I saw.
When, as I passed a pond or a crossed stream framing the locally iconic Eagle Cap Mountain, for example, I dropped my pack, pondered the scene until I determined the best vantage point for capturing the image, reflections of the mountain and a cobble-stone cloud cover if possible.
One goal (concept?), more professional than personal, occupied my mind: compose, focus and expose the most interesting photo possible for my readers.
I wanted an attractive, straight-forward photo that would represent the beauty of the scene truthfully.
I never thought the image could or would suggest what a wonderful, smart, insightful and prescient person I am.
Or even what a scofflaw and laggard.
Also I don’t recall feeling a special calmness or flow (beyond collecting images alone with my ideal companion Nora the Schnauzer (after Sadie the Dalmatian) in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on a perfect blue-sky, cloud-scattered day).
This absence of a precise personal concept reminds me of a quote attributed to Ansel Adams, one of the premier nature photographers and photographic innovators: (OP 11-14) “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”
Oh, if only I could produce images and concepts similar to his.
Adams, by the way, held sharpness, clearness and definition in preeminent regard, so he may have felt some disdain for the opposite (brilliant concept, fuzzy image, which I can produce without half-trying).
I’m also concerned about the criteria that Adams and others employ to claim photography is an unique art form: Photographers may create a view of the world with a sharpness and detail not possible with any other medium (huh?) and photographers start with an image of reality, seen through a lens and recorded on film or a digital sensor and painters, etc., don't.
This postulates that while photographers see and record reality through a lens. Painters and sculptors start with nothing but a blank canvas or block of granite and produce something from nothing.
Actually, I see strong likenesses here between photography and, say, painting: A photographer records a scene with a camera through a lens; a painter records one with brushes and paints, through the lens an eyeball. Both record on a blank sensor or canvas.
An ocean-side scene (“the sinking sun flung a carpet of gold across the sea” from a story by P.G. Wodehouse) illustrates:
Very calmly she moved to the edge of the cliff, arranged her camp stool, and sat down. Neither of us spoke a word. I watched her while she filled a little mug with water from a little bottle, opened her paint box, selected a brush, and placed her sketching block in position.
She began to paint.
She records the westerly view from Lime Regis in England through the lens of her eyes onto her sketch block. She interprets reality as an impressionist or a realist given what her vision and skills allow.
Then Wodehouse uses words to describe the scene as it fades away:
To the westward the sky had changed to the hue of a bruised cherry. The sun had sunk below the horizon, and the sea looked cold and leaden.
The distant blackbird whose earlier song had been the only thing to break the silence “had long since gone to bed.”
Painter and sculptors don't?
This is a strained distinction, if a viable one, used to falsely lift a worthy craft to the next level.
A rose is a rose is a rose, no matter what it's called.
A writer may see dramatic sunsets, store the images on his memory (sensor, film) and paint them with words when desired.
Eduard Monet lugged his gear (paints, brushes, easel, eye sight and canvas rather than a camera and a tripod) out into the natural light and recorded reality first hand from the impressions made on his senses.
His preoccupation with light reflecting on lily ponds lasted for about 20 years.
He belonged to a movement bent on the expression of perception before nature.
Painters also employed models, human and otherwise. Relying on seeing shape, light and color, they produced images as realistically as their, skills, equipment and vision allowed, much as photographers do.
To say they create something from nothing ignores reality.
And in terms of an accurate, detailed and sharp rendering of reality, or phantasmagorical visions of it, cameras may be quicker but painters can be just as detailed and sharp. Consider painted images in field guides of birds and on stamps.
Consider the crisp images of Salvador Dali.
And those who argue that a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps they just can can’t read, can’t write and can’t think. I read that somewhere.
Be that as it may.
If my mud isn't too thick, intend to experience that calmness and flow that will elevate my photography to the next level.
As Monday’s outing began with no flat andbut with a clear blue sky, a refrain played through my mind “On a clearrr day, you can seee foreeeeverrr,” but by the time Nor'ta the Schnauzer (wriggling with eagerness) and I arrived at Rooks Park, haze hung heavy on the southern horizon and a leaf removal crew’s mulching machine rent the air with a jaw-tightening grinding.
I slipped Nora into her red Ruff Wear coat against 15-degree air. Wearing several layers with two hoods, I pulled on mittens with a flap over my finger tips until time to press the camera’s release button,.
I carried the Nikon D3S with the 24-85 zoom lens, capped with a circular polarizer, and a Manfrotto tripod and ball head.
With a gnashing grinding in the background and shadowy men moving beneath dark trees, I stopped at the empty playground, still covered with a thin blanket of week-old snow.
A sense of loss pervaded the scene, absent of children and darkened by shadows from the trees, with a gray haze to the south.
Sadness of the scene lay on me for several moments as I pondered and pondered, circling the scene and studying composition options.
Eventually my mood lightened as the presence of the sun, directly in my face, forcing light through the haze and the still limbs of tall cottonwood trees, dawned on me.
I saw the light.
I set up the gear, composed the scene to include the sun, lowered the shutter speed, stopped the aperture down to f/22. Although checking the histogram proved nearly impossible in the shadows, facing the sun and with tears welling in my eyes, caused by the chill, even when I turned my back to the sun.
I wanted the sunlight to form a bright, optimistic star in the tree, but I could not tell from the playback or histogram.
I realized, however, that I underexposed the first image and made an effort at correction. I could not tell if I succeeded and moved on.
We crossed the bridge over Mill Creek and climbed the trail overlooking the stream above the dam. Three deer browsed among the thick grasses, shrubs and the rust-colored massive metal devices holding cables to prevent logjams from damaging the dam during spring runoff, and I pondered the scene for a concept.
The deer of course, would be barely visible (if at all) with my short zoom lens wide open, but it occurred to me that this Corps of Engineers flood control project miniaturized the deer and, perhaps, all of nature.
Anyway, feeling I’d had a concept, and with the light behind me, I captured the image.
To cut back on a story that promises to get way out of hand, let me summarize: On a trek of about three miles to Bennington Lake and back, I seeped my personality into many scenes and felt the calmness and flow.
I especially pondered over images of Nora waiting in a trail and looking back patiently for several minutes to be sure I followed;
of rolling wheat-stubble fields sheathed in shallow snow;
and as she waited in a dark thicket where a fallen tree smacked of nature's power and the impacts of time.
Finally, of the loneliness suggested by the sun-darkening canopy over a winter-dressed field with a winding snow-covered service road running through it.
Back at the park, the symbolism of the bridge connecting two opposite sides, one shaded, unpaved and gravel covered and one paved and warmed by the sun, of Mill Creek. People lean on this rail, facing downstream and let the current carry stress away.
We paused and pondered an ice-covered pond reeking of winter's isolating tone, yet sharing a pleasing, intricate design and surrounded by warm-feeling golden grasses and shrubbery.
The way one stood straight and firm and two bent toward each struck me as representing a meaningful concept. So, I paused to ponder.
When I couldn't put one into words immediately, because Nora sat patiently nearby on the icy frost, I felt guilty and, to her ear-flapping joy, moved on.
Anyway, I suspected whatever concept I devised could be easily shared or ignored, not recognized or actually considered a foozle by viewers.
Ah, such is the artist's dilemma.
I had a similar response to the frosted grasses appearing to stand on a island of ice in the stream (that sounds like Hemingway's "Islands in the Stream"). It felt really cold and forlorn until several American Wigeons floated close, giving the scene a sense of community, Or something.
Then, while I aimed my lens at mergansers on the water, a jogger on the other side stopped and aimed her phone at the bank 100 yards to the south. A six-point whitetail buck posed majestically from 60-feet high on the bluff and surveyed its domain. Nuff said, although with hunters in the area, I suspected it would be dethroned before another spring.
Then, speaking of majesty, a noble great blue heron stood statue-like on an ice-rimmed rock.
It ignored my presence as I moved close enough to see chips of ice on its cloak.
My final step in the project was to process the images with Photoshop Elements 12, which allows, with a push of a button or the moving of a slider, many post-camera corrections and additions of artsy effects, if the user is so technically skilled and inclined.
I'm a novice, alas.
Anyway, while doing so, I pondered a legendary poet of nature, William Wordsworth, who spent his 80-year lifetime (1770-1850) developing calm and flow in the presence of natural scenes, storing deeply felt images with his senses, or the sensor of his mind, and later drawing on vivid memories (images, smells, sounds, touches): "I have owed to them/ In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,/ Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;/ And passing even into my purer mind,/ With tranquil restoration:(from "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abby, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye").
I enjoyed the the outings, especially while pursuing such an uplifting goal, with Nora. And she enjoyed them, period.
Yet, did two days of seeking and pondering successfully raise my photography to the next level?
Perhaps it doesn't matter.
Being stuck in the mud may be OK after all, at least if you keep on keeping on.