Saturday, April 05, 2014

Shooting High-Concept Photos, Perhaps

by Don Davis

I recently sought close-up images of wild turkeys along Mill Creek Road.
 It was a sunny late-March afternoon that would brightly reflect the sheen of the strutting Toms (or gobblers) with their puffed-up obsidian and bronze plumage crowned by wrinkled blue heads with bubbly swollen blood-red chin wattles dangling below limp snoods flapping over their beaks.
Hooked, thick-black-fathered beards protruded from the centers of their bulging breasts.
Janes, or turkey hens, scooted from their paths.

In the last dozen years, wild turkeys in Eastern Washington and Oregon have made a massive comeback from near extinction.
A few weeks before this outing, we saw 200-plus turkeys strolling along the graveled North Fork McKay Creek Road. Sky blotting flights repeatedly launched from the north hillside to glide with un-turkey-like grace, even beauty, over our heads (Darlene’s, Nora the Schnauzer’s and mine) to flop down in a stream-edged pasture south of the road.
My simple goal then, and for the decades of my photographic efforts, was to capture turkey images as sharp as possible, preferably of the big birds in flight.
Well, my photographic goal became muddled thanks to an article about high-concept photos, preferred over low-concept photos, by Ian Plant in the April edition of Outdoor Photographer.
As Plant wrote, “High concept photography, in a sense, is all about  ignoring the obvious and exploring your subjects hidden truth.”
The article enticed me to question my view that even the best photographers -- like master mechanics, furniture makers and dry-fly tiers – should be called master craftsmen rather than ARTISTS.
Plenty of photographic master craftsmen deserve respect without cloaking them with the artistic tunic of a Leonardo da Vinci or a Picasso.
I spent some time online reviewing truly magnificent photographs produced by past and contemporary masters: Anzel Adams, Galen Rowel, Art Wolfe, Annie Leibovitz and Dorothea Lange to name a few.
With their stunning, superlative works before me, I wondered if any of them pondered a difference  between high and low concept photos. 
I suspect they saw subjects and set to employing all of the skills and equipment they possessed to capture the images they wanted.
None of their works that I studied suggested envy or pretension.
Consider the quote below from a 1930’s B/W movie, "Off the Record," recently shown on the TCM channel:  A surly kid (Bobby Jordan as Mickey Fallon), being reformed  by a pair of supportive journalists (Joan Blondell and Pat O'Brian) who give him a professional's camera, takes a dramatic photo of heroism at a fire.
The photo receives front-page coverage. 
When praised for capturing the photo, the kid shows humility: "I didn't do nothing‘,“ he said. "All I did was press the button. The camera did the rest."
The photo did two things to qualify as  Plant's definition of a high concept Photo: It presented an image that viewers had not seen before; and it told a story.
Fallon had the skill to set up the camera with the proper film and flash, to aim the lens at the dramatic scene, to hold the camera steady and to press the button at the dramatic moment.
The camera did the rest, with the film developer adding light and shadow if needed in the dark room.
The process involved a distinguishable level of craft. It would be a stretch,  however, to see the image as and expression of Mickey Fallon's personal artistic view or his "hidden truth."
I have pressed the button and eventually found many photos that I did not plan, and for which can't claim any artistic intent or vision of truth. 
Yet each may have a story, an interest and a beauty. 
Some examples appear below:
I stumbled on the fishing heron at Hood Park on the Snake River during a potty stop for Nora. It was completely unexpected, and I snapped images without preparation.
I napped the photo of the girl straining against the huge log section. It suggested and interesting tension. I forgot it until much later.
I still can't explain the photo of Nora with the owl's head, and I captured it with pure luck. We walked along the top of Bennington Lake Dam. I looked back. She ran toward me as revealed in the photo.
I snapped off three frames.  One image turned out focused. It shows Nora as very young, before her first hair cut. She will be seven in November. I discovered a dead barn owl's remains, probably left by a coyote. Nora had picked up the head to play with. 
The girl with the sea otter is leaning on the container's glass-like wall at the Oregon State Aquarium in Newport. There's an unplanned condensed distance between the girl and the otter on opposite sides of the glass.
As the kingfisher with the fish flew past on Mill Creek, I pulled the camera from my shoulder and fired off two frames asd it zipped away.
One frame came out sharp.
Finally, I edged across a Mill Creek weir, drawing closer and closer to a heron, and snapping images with each step. When processing the photos later, I discovered the minnow in the Heron's mouth.
Lucky, I guess.


Photo journalists (including outdoor-page photographers?) are exempt from Plant’s encouragement to avoid snapshots in pursuit of a “personal and unique artistic vision.” 
Plant wrote, “Low-concept photography can also describe photographs that have a primary purpose of creating a literal or documentary interpretation of a subject. …for some subjects the low-concept approach works best -- but if you’re looking to stand out from the crowd, you’ll have to be a bit more creative."
That is, you must “move past the straight forward or literal approach.
“High-concept photography seeks to capture mood and emotion,  and to use light, color, composition, time and the moment creatively.”
Plant enjoins photographers to to start the “process with abstraction -- seeing your subjects not as rocks, trees or bears but rather in terms of shape, color, light, motion and energy….” 
So, like Picasso or Matisse, photographers may achieve a "personal artistic view" by manipulating color, light, shape, composition, movement, time,  and especially moment.
To do so, they add filters to a lens, set up elaborate lighting systems, adjust shutter speed and aperture settings, choose golden-hour moments for shooting, take multiple exposures by pushing the button.
Later, using computer software, they may blend light, stack focus or stitch images for effect. Photographers may employ software to add and remove objects from an image and that allows the adding of a wide range of high-definition effects (with the push of a button) from "painterly" to "weird" to "grunge" to enhance mood and emotion.
Post processing may be used to change "light, color, composition, time and the moment creatively.
Actually, such "personal visions" have been captured by painters on canvas and by sculptures in stone for centuries, not including the personal visions scratched on cave walls in France  and on boulders along rivers in the Northwest.
And they have been done infinitely better than many of the high-tech  photographic efforts called ART today.
How many technology blurred streams or waterfalls and artificially red or orange saturated sunsets can be recognized as personal artistic visions of truth that "ignores the low-hanging fruit and reaches for the top branches" as Plant suggests?
Such images may be created by taking a dozen images of a scene, by using a range of filters to capture light changes and cloud movement and by pressing a button and combining the images with mass produced software operated by more buttons.
Granted, each user of such processes may develop differing images just as master craftsmen produce differing shapes and beautiful colors in restful chairs, efficient engines and effective dry flies.
They do so without the artistic visions that creates the touching  skin tones of Titian's red-haired beauties, the touching compositions of Andrew Wyeth's landscapes, the colorful stormy visions of Van Gogh, the cool geometry of Picasso or the haunting surprises of Dali.
Perhaps such truths can't be captured by pressing buttons.
Well, at least not unless you rank among the select such as:  Ansel Adams, Galen Rowel, Art Wolfe, Annie Leibovitz, Dorothea Lange and John and Barbara Gerlach to name a few.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Looking for the Moose

Looking for the Elusive Walla Walla Moose


A critic asked why I take “endless photos” along Mill Creek.
Perhaps she remembered photos from my  now retired newspaper column. Perhaps, less likely, she saw recent photos at the web site.

Anyway, that’s easy.
It’s close.
It’s a pleasant walk, and Nora the Schnauzer needs the exercise.


I did not quibble.

My brain, however, fast-reversed through a loop of wildlife images that Darlene, Nora and I accumulated while touring within a 60-mile radius of Walla Walla/Mill Creek in recent weeks.

Well, actually, we drove 105 miles to Eastern Oregon's North Powder Valley looking for elk, coyotes, foxes and eagles.
We saw swans, antelope, eagles, an old barn and turkeys.


Twice we fetched coffee and snacks at Starbucks before heading west through the Touchet Valley to the McNary Natural Wildlife Refuge's McNary Dam nature area.
On the way, we saw a bald eagle posing obligingly, then launching and flying, along McDonald Road, plus chilled-and-hunkering killdeer and a launching heron.

A passing rancher said he watched one of his cows have a 30-minute stare down with the eagle that stood on the ground, two yards away.

“The eagle looked huge, even close to the cow,” he said

Later, at the MNWR below McNary Dam, night herons clutched brittle branches and coots raced across the water.

At the MNWR ponds near Burbank, more swans sailed silently like great graceful galleons among clattering rowboats.


Once, we returned to Walla Walla via Highway 124-Luckenbill/Sudberry Road (looking for deer and coyotes):
We passed curious mule deer and a fading log structure.

During those weeks, we made the usual Mill Creek forays and captured  images of  ubiquitous Great Blue Herons, sometimes in interesting shades of gray.

 As well as the equally ubiquitous common merganser launching.



We met a critic on a chilly, blustery day as March winds blew across Mill Creek.

The tall, slender woman’s husky brown dog, held tight on a leash, stood obediently by her left leg.
I called Nora away. She wandered off, to sniff among the rip-rap along the stream bank.
The woman wore a stern look, solid ankle-high boots, dark blue pants and a  down-filled pale-blue vest zipped tight over a maroon sweater.
A dark blue scarf that matched her pants fluffed beneath her chin. She wore a billed cap that allowed thin brown-streaked grey hair to cover her ears.
A row of thin vertical lines showed on her upper unsmiling lip.
So, we do Mill Creek because:
It’s close to home.
It’s a pleasant walk, and Nora the Schnauzer enjoys the exercise.
“And we look for the moose,” I said.
The woman tilted her head back and squinted, creating wrinkles across her forehead and at the corners of her eyes.
“Yes,” I said. “Moose often visit Walla Walla. We're quite optimistic.”

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Snow Geese at McNary Wildlife Refuge

Snow Geese by the Thousands, along with cacklings (resembling small Canada Geese) and Lesser Canada Geese Visit McNary National Wildlife Refuge’s Burbank Ponds.

February 4, 2014

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BURBANK, Wa. -- From Highway 12 at 59 mph I, spotted a bumpy white blanket spread across the cornfield between the highway and the MNWR headquarters’ pond.
“Snow Geese,” I said.
 Nora the Schanauzer perked up and peered across my chest to look in the opposite direction from the geese.
  “Look at ’em,” Darlene said to the passenger-side window.
I exited at the Hood Park ramp, drove through Burbank Heights and took Lake Road down hill to the headquarters’ parking area near the ponds. Armed with a 500mm lens I followed Nora, on her 23-foot leash, along the paved path to the hide (for viewing birds secretly).
From inside, however, I did not see a single snow goose on the water. We left the hide and strolled along a birding trail toward the snow-goose blanketed corn field.
A recent MNWR news release reported that about 17,000 snow geese would be in the area.
Wow! I couldn’t count them. but they thickly covered the corn-field ground. As Nora and I crept closer, flocks of cacklings and Canada geese sashayed away for a dip in the pond. And the ear-buffeting goose honking rose several decibels, like motor traffic in an eight-lane tunnel, as we approached.
Not a scene to be photographed well without stirring them into a cackling cloud of launching geese. The idea of such an image tempted me. But we backed off.
Back at the truck, we decided to look for bald eagles and white pelicans at Ice Harbor Dam and Charbonneau Park.
We saw six pelicans and a dozen coots above the dam but no eagles at the park.

We spent an hour looking, however, and pondered looking for eagles at Hood Park. At the Lake Road turnoff, we decided to check for Snow Geese on the water again. A good choice. They covered a wide swath of the large pond close to the north side.

 I parked near a gated service road with an entrance for walkers and leashed dogs.
Nora and I strolled slowly on the sandy two-track that led to within about 30 yards of the pond.
In addition to the uncountable number of white geese, dozens of darker geese and mallards floated on the water and dipped long necks below the surface.
Four cormorants stood on a small log, and two red-headed female common mergansers paddled along.
The presence of so many geese, however, complicated my limited ability to pick out other species.
As we walked, I snapped photos.
Before we reached the bottom of the hill where the road turned to our right about 25 yards from the shore, the entire 17,000 snow geese and most of the darker ones rose from the water with a Boeing 747 roar of wings, a deafening cacophony of plaintive honks, and a towering spray of churned surface water.
Taken by surprise, I stood transfixed, bugged eyed and slack jawed.
I clutched the otherwise totally ignored camera.
As the birds rose, however, I recovered, focused and snapped repeated images as the birds circled the lake.
I kicked myself for missing the geese churning the water with their launch. I felt some guilt at causing their flight and started back to the truck. I paused after a few steps. My sense of guilt began to fade as the great swarm of white birds circled several times, coming closer and closer as Nora and I watched.
Eventually, after their third or fourth pass, swaths of the huge flock peeled off and to settle again on the water.

This went on until they all returned to float on the pond, but a few that waddled onto the shore near the curve in the trail.

I rationalized that Nora and I may not have sent the birds airborne. So, after a few minutes, we resumed our stroll to get closer to the birds. And they ignored us. We approached within a 30 yards or so of those on the shore and about 50 yards of those on the water. By the time we left, I had the usual ton of images for the day.
And from the truck, Darlene had seen and heard the thrilling swarm into flight of about 17,000 snow geese.