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 become open to explore and perhaps comprehend that hidden truths may be captured and revealed with my images.
That is, open my approach to new, artistic visions 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.
I propose now to view scenes as visual metaphors and use photographic tools to express personal concepts about them and, therefore, express truths about myself as a total human being, not as simply a photographer.
If possible, I will move beyond capturing images OF natural scenes, great blue herons or launching hooded mergansers; I will open myself to seeing images ABOUT my subjects, achieve 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 ABOUT them. To repeat, by contemplating deeply and seeing insightfully, I well create photographic visions about them, visions laced with my very own personality.
I wonder if waking up to a flat tire on the vehicle or slipping onto my backside during a freezing fog will color my very own personal artistic vision.
Surely for many days after a spanking new Nikon 600-mm lens -- I can only daydream -- arrives by UPS, an explosion of joy will permeate my images.
As wells as my daily life, at least for a few days or hours.
Now, however, 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 a number of other qualities.
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 seen so suggests, I should honestly reveal the negative qualities.
Nevertheless, old dogs may learn new tricks. I say that after decades of working as an outdoor writer/photographer who fished, hiked, skied, snow-shoed, 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 below a trail and noticed in it the reflection of Eagle Cap mountain, for example, I dropped my pack, scooted down the slope and pondered the scene until I determined the best vantage point for capturing the scene. 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 suggest what a wonderful, smart, insightful person I am.
Or even what a scofflaw and laggard.
Also I don’t recall feeling a special calmness or flow (beyond being alone with my faithful companion Nora the Schnauzer (after Sadie the Dalmatian) in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on a perfect blue-sky day with scattered clouds) before collecting the image.
This absence of a precise personal concept reminds me of a quote attributed to Ansell Adams, one of the world’s premier nature photographers and photographic innovators: (OP 11-20014) “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”
Oh, if only I could produce images accurately imitating his.
Since Adams held sharpness, clearness and definition in high regard, he may have felt some concern for the opposite.
If that’s possible.
I’m 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.
This postulates that what 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.
Nature photographers record the real world, the living reflective light that records images on film or a digital sensor.
Painter and sculptors done?
To me, this is a minimal distinction, if a viable one. 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. He painted the same scene hundreds of times in order to capture the changing of light and the passage of seasons.
This images took form through his vision, his skill and his tools.
Painters also employed models, human and otherwise, and relying on light and color, produced images of them as realistically or as impressionistically as their skill, equipment and vision allow, much as photographers do. To say they create something from nothing ignores reality.
An in terms of an accurate, detailed rendering of reality, many painters and drawers render bird and animal images for field guides and stamps that challenge photos with their realism.
An ocean-side scene as “the sinking sun flung a carpet of gold across the sea” from a story 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 it as impressionistically or realistically as her concept and skills allow.
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.”
I’ve heard that those who argue that a picture is worth a thousand words can’t read, can’t write and can’t think, but be that as it may.
I intended to experience that calmness and flow that will elevate my photography to the next level.
As Monday’s outing began with a clear blue sky, a refrain played through my mind “On a clearrr day, you can seee foreeeeverrr,” but by the time Nora the Schnauzer (she enjoys daily treks) and I arrived at Rooks Park, haze hung heavy on the horizon and a leaf removal crew’s mulching machine rent the air with irritating grinding sounds.
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 Manfroto tripod and ball head.
With the jaw-tightening grinding in the background and shadowy men moving beneath dark trees, I stopped at the children’s 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 growing haze low to the south.
A 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 shadow-facing the sun and through tears in my eyes, caused my 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 couldn’t tell for certain.
I realized, however, that I underexposed the first few images and made an effort at correction. I couldn’t tell if I succeeded, and moved on.
We crossed the bridge over Mill Creek and climbed the trail overlooking the stream above the day. 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 fallen tree smacked of both natures power and the endless impacts of time.
Of loneliness suggested by the dark sky above the barren field with a winding snow-covered service road running through it. Finally, back at the park, the symbolism of the bridge connecting to sides of Mill Creek, with the stream washing away troubles beneath it and an cold-barren ice covered bond surrounded by still warm-feeling golden grasses.
And Island of weeds in the rushing stream, with warm ducks nearby,
With a four-point buck looking down form 60 feet above the stream, and finally, a noble herron enthroned on a rock and wearing a a feathery cloak spotted with frozen crystals.
I’m not sure any of this raised my photography to the next level or rather I care if it did or not.
I had more pleasant picture taking times along Mill Creek and around Bennington Lake with Nora the Schnauzer.
Maybe it's not really so bad to be a little bit stuck in the mud, after all.