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Tag Archives: Colorado
I’ve lived on the Front Range of Colorado for a number of years now. When you mention Colorado to someone who doesn’t live here, my observation is that most people tend to think of pristine, snowy, mountain-filled landscapes.
I love that Colorado. But there is another Colorado, too. Roughly half the state is flat plains, having more in common with places like Kansas or Nebraska than Vail or Aspen. That’s a Colorado worth knowing as well, equally compelling in its own way.
I used to hold the opinion that “good is good.” Specifically, I think there is a branch of criticism in the photography world (really, the art world in general) that cliched photographs of cliched subjects are per se bad, even if done very well. Think photographs of sunsets over beaches, the Milky Way at night, or iconic locations like the Grand Canyon, which all have been photographed over and over again to the point where even the best executions of such images mostly really do tend to fade into a sea of duplicate, derivative, and look-alike imagery. My counterpoint always used to be that good is good, so even a cliched photograph of a cliched subject can be good if done well.
Truthfully, I think I still largely stand by that opinion, but I’m beginning to see the merit in the other side. I look at a lot of photography, and if you look at a lot of photography, you can’t help but notice the repetitive onslaught of the same depictions of the same subjects done in the same way over and over again. For example, I think I’ve candidly reached the point where I don’t need to see another long exposure seascape, unless it’s done by Michael Kenna or perhaps another of a handful of photographers who really pioneered or otherwise contributed to this genre.
It’s become a relevant consideration in my own practice of photography. I think a conscious motivation behind making the image in this post was to try and reach past photographic cliches. Which, on balance, I think is a good thing. I just need to remember, for myself in my own work, anyway, not to sacrifice fundamentals – like strong light, strong composition, and a conveyed a sense of emotion – that always make the “good” so “good.”
It’s virtually impossible for me to view one of my own images without bringing along a lot of baggage. By baggage, I mean the fact that I was there when the image was captured, I was there for all of the editing of the image, I was there for the first test print of the image and any and all thereafter – in short, that by the time the image is done, it’s spent a lot of time being on my mind.
As a result, at that point it really has no mysteries left for me. One of the joys of seeing the work of other photographers is that I come to it completely fresh. As a general rule, I don’t really know, with any precision or specificity, where they made their image, nor what they did to edit the capture, nor how many evolutions a print went through before it was finished. Such images essentially are all mystery me. I get the impact of seeing it as the artist intended, without being burdened by the backstory.
By way of contrast, when I look at my own images, they’re all backstory to me. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since creating an image comes with a set of rewards and satisfactions all their own. But the mystery associated with seeing an image fresh and new for the first time, without knowing the full backstory of its making and creation, is not one of them.
So I was surprised recently when I went back to look at some of my older images that I hadn’t looked at in a while. Briefly, very briefly upon first viewing, I would get the full impact of the image because I hadn’t thought about it in a while and the image’s backstory would take a minute to return to me. For that brief interval, it was like I was a stranger to my own work, able for just a moment to experience the image like I imagine someone else might.
It was pretty cool.
I remember vividly the evening that the capture for this image was made. The weather forecast called for thunderstorms in Rocky Mountain National Park. This often is a bit risky from a photography standpoint, because it seems there’s about an equal chance of seeing something really cool happening with the conditions, or getting simply a flat, drab sky or a persistent downpour that washes away all of the visual interest in the landscape.
On this night, I got the really cool conditions. In fact, the conditions were unreal, I’ve never quite seen anything like it in several years of visiting the park during evenings in the summer. A rolling fog filled Forest Valley, the valley just behind this spire, and curtains of mist moved in and moved out with alacrity over the spire itself. But the fog and the mist were uneven – a clear sky would sometimes develop, even as most of the landscape otherwise was covered by the fog or draped by the mist. In summer, this location usually is quite crowded with tourists, but on this evening, warned away by the weather, there were few people about, and perhaps none by the time I made this capture. Photographically, it was one of those evenings I probably never will forget.
But there’s something I remember even more – the profound sense of peace and well-being I felt while I was working that evening. This particular image was a long exposure, two minutes or perhaps more if memory serves. While I was waiting for the exposure to run, I simply was sitting with myself, watching the scene unfold, and being at peace with my inner life. There were no regrets about the past, nor anxiety about the future, just being, truly being, a part of the moment. The feeling was all the more remarkable for occurring at a time otherwise rife with personal turmoil.
Photography is like that for me, and there’s a lesson in there somewhere, I suppose. Wouldn’t it be nice to carry that feeling with you all the time?
One reason I like photography (and painting, and sculpture, and all of the visual arts, really) is that it is communication without words. I suppose this concept is fairly obvious to understand, but really, it’s pretty deep with you think about it. If you’ve been moved by a work of visual art (and I hope you have), it’s not because someone described it to you, or explained it to you, or communicated the nature of it to you in a code of linguistic symbols having abstract meanings attached thereto by which we exchange concepts and ideas with one another. It’s because when you looked at it, it acted on you in ways that defy speaking and writing, that refuse to engage the cognitive and reasoning parts of the brain that are required to process language. Instead, it reached out and touched the parts of your brain that don’t work on a linguistic level, but that respond instead to line and shape, to tone and luminosity, to space and arrangement, and it made you
That’s pretty cool.
Not a slam on my writer friends in the audience, just an interesting observation.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
- Lao Tzu
My work is changing.
I didn’t really notice it myself until a friend pointed it out, but now I can see that my recent work looks different than my earlier work, at least to my (and my friend’s) eye. It’s not a sudden break or dramatic shift from what I’ve done before, but more like a gradual change over time that you don’t notice while it’s happening but only after you’ve come a way and look back at where you were.
I can’t quite put my finger on what has changed. I will say that I’ve become more aware of the emotional communication of what I make. When I started in photography, the most direct way I connected with the work I was producing was in terms of its visual communication. The message of the image was communicated primarily by my manipulation of visual elements such as lines and forms, brightness and contrast, etc.
I think I still work this way on a conscious level, but now I think I also am aware of what the image makes me feel like when I’m done with it. Sometimes this feeling simply is what I was feeling when I captured the image in the field, and sometimes it is what I was feeling when I edited the image after capture, which can be quite different. The point is that mere manipulation of visual elements is not enough, there has to be emotional content to the image as well. Perhaps this always has been the case, and I simply now am more conscious of it than I used to be.
I’m very aware that I could have edited this image differently, to make it look perhaps more “pretty.” But, without getting specific about it, I will say this edit more accurately reflects what I was feeling at the time I did the editing.
I am not a deep thinker. No really, stifle your incredulity, it’s true. If you want to read some deep thoughts on photography, go check out Guy Tal’s photography blog.
Still, you don’t need to be a deep thinker to practice photography in a thoughtful way. Being thoughtful can take many forms – thinking about why you photograph, thinking about what you hope to accomplish, thinking about what others are doing and where you fit in to the tradition of photography. The list is potentially limitless, and I suppose the difference is that of photographing within some kind of personally relevant context versus photographing in random, directionless ways or for external motivations or validations.
I sometimes wonder why I still write this photography blog, given that it does not seem to have achieved the goals I set out for it when I started (a topic I’ve touched on now and again in other posts). Earlier today it occurred to me that, if nothing else, it’s been a tangible manifestation of my own thoughtfulness as it relates to the practice of photography. Interesting reading for myself, if not for (or if only for a few) others.
Northern Colorado, where I live, is a great match for me photographically. If I want to photograph architecture or urban environments, there’s Denver and the cities along the Front Range. If I want to photograph rural and pastoral scenes, there’s lots of farming and agriculture on the Eastern Plains. To the north, up towards Wyoming, are the wide open spaces and big sky country of the high plains. We have cold winters that offer up beautiful snowscapes and warm summers that bring dramatic monsoon storms. A day’s drive can put me in the spare landscapes of northern New Mexico or the red rock canyons of southern Utah. Oh yes, and there happens to be a dramatic range of rocky mountains just to the west of where I live here in Fort Collins.
I get out and photograph a fair amount, and I’m very aware that I’m fortunate to have so many opportunities for photography around me. Even if I didn’t live here, though, I’m confident that I would still photograph just as much. I’ve always believed there’s good opportunities for photography anywhere, not just in “marquee” locations like here in Colorado. I think those who feel they have to travel to special or exotic locations to photograph are missing the just-as-good options for photographs closer to home and fooling themselves into thinking that locations make a difference in making good images. It’s not the subject matter that makes good photographs, it’s the photographer. The drive to be creative and express that creativity through photographic images comes from inside, and I believe I would be producing just as much work at the same level I am now whether I were to live here in Colorado, or in Dover, Delaware, or Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, or Bakersfield, California.
Still, the foregoing notwithstanding, I have to admit I got lucky that my environment matches my photographic interests so closely. It’s good to be in Colorado.
If you work on photographs using image editing software, maybe you’ve heard that you should set a true white point and a true black point. In Photoshop, this would be accomplished, for example, by using the Levels tool to move the black point slider to where it just about touches the left side of the histogram and the white point slider to where it just about touches the right side of the histogram. The idea is that having a true black and a true white ensures that the full range of tones from black to white will be present in the image, and that images without the full range of tones will tend to look flat and lifeless.
Well, it’s a good idea and most of my images in fact do have a true black point and a true white point. But not this one. From memory, I believe the blackest point is about RGB = 15, 15, 15 and the whitest point is about RGB = 240, 240, 240. Given that the RGB range for a black and white image is from 0, 0, 0 to 256, 256, 256, this means there’s a non-trivial gap at each end of the image’s histogram, and instead of having the full range of tones from black to white, the image tones here are somewhat compressed into a band from dark grey to light grey.
But I like it this way. If I had used a true black and a true white, the image would have been more crisp, vibrant, and dynamic. It also would have been louder, punchier, and more in-your-face. That’s not what this scene is about. It’s about the peacefulness and calmness that was present in the (very cold) air that day and what I was feeling about it when I tripped the shutter.
I think the more compressed tonal range is an effective tool with which to communicate that calm and quiet feeling. I also should note that I think you can get away without using a true black and a true white in this image because it is an image of snow – the presence of so many white tones means you can still get sufficient contrast between the snow and the fence to keep interest, even without having the full range of tones present.
Perhaps more importantly, I think it’s okay for the image to be calm and quiet. Computers and software make it so easy to pump up the contrast and (for color images) saturation that a good number of photographs these days tend to make me feel like I’m being shouted at.
About a week ago it was daylight saving time here in the U.S., which means that clocks were pushed forward by one hour. I’d been looking forward to this for some time, because the additional hour of daylight in the evenings means that there now is enough time to do whatever it is I may be doing during the day, and still have enough light for some photography in the evening.
For example, this past weekend I spent the day both Saturday and Sunday skiing, but after the ski day was over there still was enough daylight to do some exploring and photographing in the snowy mountains near the ski area. As the days get even longer, I’m looking forward to getting out in the evenings after my day job to photograph in and along the Front Range near my home here in Fort Collins, Colorado. By June and July, there will be enough light for me to make the hour or so drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park and still have an hour or two to explore and photograph before it gets dark.
It’s fun for me to get out with my camera, but there’s a bigger point at issue here. It’s the idea of working photography into my daily routine. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a full-time day job as well as all of the chores and responsibilities of daily living. Often, at the end of the day, I’m tired and it would be easy just to wind things down and call it quits.
But I think photography is kind of a “do it or lose it” discipline. Staying engaged with it on a daily basis – be it making captures in the field, editing captured work, or simply reading and learning new things – is necessary to keep developing one’s art and craft. I think it’s important, therefore, to find ways to work it into the daily routine. Fortunately, for me anyway, it’s not hard to do because the desire is there. It’s simply a matter of making it a priority and following through with it.