Monthly Archives: May 2014

Longs Peak

Longs Peak, Cloud Dance. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2013.

Longs Peak, Cloud Dance.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2013.

Longs Peak is a landmark on the Front Range of Colorado.  At 14,259 feet, its summit is readily visible from Denver, and indeed can be seen for many miles up and down the Front Range.  Its distinctive, flat-topped profile is easily identifiable and recognized, even in the image in this post, where I deliberately placed it toward the left lower corner of the frame, unobtrusively behind the Never Summer Mountains in the foreground and beneath the dancing display of clouds in the sky.

It’s not very difficult to photograph Longs Peak.  Some of the best views are on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.  There must be at least six or seven pullouts or parking lots that offer tremendous, breathtaking views of this gorgeous mountain.  In the evening, the position of the setting sun produces very dramatic sidelight that creates extremely compelling shadows on and around the peak.  Throw in some dramatic clouds in the sky – not an infrequent occurrence up there – and you have an excellent base of ingredients for good photography.

Having captured many images of this peak, I will confess to having a bit of insecurity about them.  Isn’t there something wrong with capturing what are basically variations of the same image over and over again?  Aren’t these images just derivative of what others have photographed before?  Shouldn’t I be devoting my scarce time for photography to other, less discovered subject matter?

For a long time I’ve resisted building a collection of Longs Peak images, for the reason of not having great answers to these questions.  But the truth is, I’m really drawn to this mountain.  I feel a connection to this subject matter, it speaks to me.  What better reason is there to photograph something than this? If I build a collection of images, perhaps there will be documentary or artistic value in the collection as a whole.

So I’m setting my insecurity aside and going with the flow.  Trail Ridge Road opened for the season this weekend, and I’m looking forward to many summer evenings with this peak in the weeks ahead.

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Many Paths, One Destination

Longs Peak, Cloud Wedge. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2013.

Longs Peak, Cloud Wedge.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2013.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how some of the different photographers whose work I follow approach their craft.  For a group of artists whose work I uniformly admire, it strikes me just how different their working methods are, sometimes even being just about the opposite of one another.  Some in the group study their subjects and plan their trips very carefully, others just show up and react to what’s there.  Some are incredibly technical in managing their camera work and image processing, others are surprisingly hands-off and embrace getting unexpected results.  Some do not look at the work of other photographers or artists, others study such work very closely.  In trying to reconcile these differences, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.

First, the process really isn’t that important, it’s the final image that matters.  When I see an image that takes my breath away, my reaction doesn’t depend on, for example, whether the image was captured digitally or with film.  Rather, I’m captivated by the subject, the light, the composition, or whatever it is about the image that I find moving.  A good image is a good image.  Rarely, if ever, does finding out more about the process change my opinion as to how much I like the image or not.  Technique need only be good enough to execute the desired image, no more, no less.

Second, there’s many ways to produce fine results in photography.  Just because one artist does things in one certain way, doesn’t mean you have to do things in that way.  The proof of this is in the fact of so many artists working in such different ways, and all producing admirable, high quality work.  The better approach is to know yourself – how you learn, how you work, and what works best for you.  Certainly be open to learning how others approach their craft, but only adopt such methods if they make sense to you or complement how you work, and certainly don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s just one way – a “right” way – of getting things done.  There’s many paths available to get to the same destination.

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You Don’t Take a Photograph, You Make It

Windmill and Corral, Near Franktown, Colorado

Windmill and Corral, Near Franktown, Colorado

You don’t take a photograph, you make it.

- Ansel Adams

So many people who are not involved in photography – and many who are – have the misconception that a camera is a magic tool for creating great photographs.  For laypeople, I often encounter the assumption that the quality of the final photograph is directly proportional to how much the camera cost, as if all it takes to produce compelling photographs is an expensive camera.  Among photographers, I’m often asked about camera-specific considerations such as the type of camera, the lens used, or the aperture/shutter speed combination.  The underlying premise seems to be that cameras create great photography, and if the questioner just knew the right combination of price, make, and settings, he or she would be producing great photography too.

Cameras are important, no doubt.  But they’re important as information gathering tools, not image making tools.  A camera capture is just that – a capture.  It’s the starting point for making the final image, not the end of the process.  Camera skills are important mostly to optimize the information in the capture, be it digital data or film exposure, so that it’s in its best form for use by the photographer when the time comes to make the final image.

It’s not hard to accept this concept on an intellectual level, but my observation has been that it’s difficult for most people to really internalize it, at least at first.  I know it was for me.  When I started out in photography, I was seduced by seeing the capture I had made on the little screen on the back of my digital camera.  Problem was, that little image would imprint itself in my mind, limiting my concept of what the final print could be to something that was pretty close to what was on the screen.  If you’re a photographer, don’t do this!  It’s a huge stumbling block to creativity and growth.  It’s important to learn the ability to see the potential of what an image can be with the right editing after the capture (be it on a computer or in a darkroom), and not limit the vision of the final image by what was captured by the camera.

The impetus for writing this post came from comparing the “before” and “after” for the image in this post, “Windmill and Corral.”  The final image, of course, is at the top of the post, and I’ve included the jpg of the capture from my camera below for comparison.  Whatever your opinion may be of the final product, I hope at least you’ll agree that the final image is as made by me, not as taken by my camera.

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Photography In Situ

San Jose de Gracia Church No. 1, Las Trampas, New Mexico

San Jose de Gracia Church No. 1, Las Trampas, New Mexico

To me, northern New Mexico is one of the last places in the United States that retains a distinctly regional cultural flavor.  Among the things that contribute are the many adobe structures that dot the landscape.  The church that is the subject of the image in this post, San Jose de Gracia in Las Trampas, is a well-known landmark and is a popular subject among photographers and painters.

When you take the time to see how this church has been represented in painting and photography, a certain theme becomes apparent.  The depictions of the church in fine art painting and photography tend to place it in a pristine, unobstructed environment.  Fine art photographs rarely include the telephone poles or the dirt road in the foreground.  Paintings often take even more license, such as by changing the arrangement and proportion of the church to the ridge in the background, either to profile the church against the sky, or to position it in the shadow of the surrounding mountains.

I certainly don’t have a problem with any of this.  An important element of art is interpretation of the subject.  Most people probably take this kind of manipulation for granted with paintings, where the term “artistic license” is well known and understood.  It may be less known (among non-photographers, anyway) that photographers also can take quite liberal and substantial artistic licenses with their subjects.  Techniques such as framing, camera placement, lens selection, etc. routinely are used to make photographic subjects take on attributes and characteristics that don’t necessarily reflect the reality of how the scene actually looked.  I myself work hard to present the subjects in my photographs in very considered ways designed to communicate a specific vision I have of the subject that I want the viewer to see.

Nevertheless, I am surprised that I don’t see more attention paid by artists to the environment surrounding their subjects.  If you were to survey the body of fine art paintings and photographs of this church, you might come to the conclusion that it sits on an isolated hilltop, surrounded by rolling meadows that gently and perfectly blend into a magnificent mountain backdrop, with nary a telephone pole or dirt road in sight.  It’s as if this way of presenting the church, while certainly valid, is the only way.

I hope that’s not the case.  I think that showing this church in the context of its surroundings – it’s contemporary surroundings – is not only valid, but has a dignity and beauty of its own.  While not appropriate for every photograph, the in situ approach of using surrounding elements to show the subject in its natural environment is a powerful and often underused mode of presentation.  This is especially true where the subject is a popular and frequently depicted one, as is the case with the San Jose de Gracia church.

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