The Mysterious Far-Away

Plains Song. Near Carr, Colorado, 2020.

I suppose it goes without saying that, as a photographer, it’s important to pay attention to the backgrounds of your images as you are composing them.  I’m sure most photographers do this, but sometimes I get the feeling it’s done pro forma, as kind of a chore that goes along with making a photograph of an interesting  foreground subject.  The background is something that’s necessarily there, but the task is simply to make sure nothing in it detracts from whatever the main subject of the image is.

Me, it’s almost the opposite.  I’ve said before that I feel like many of the subjects of my images are simply excuses to be able to make a photograph of an interesting background.  It’s an exaggeration, I don’t really believe that, but it’s not that far from the truth, either.  The content of the background contributes just as much to the meaning of the image as the content of the foreground, be the background a sky, a horizon, a collection of buildings, whatever.  It has to work in the composition as a matter of visual design, and it has to exist in meaningful relationship to whatever is placed in the foreground.  It’s not an afterthought, it’s that important.

But, I’ve also come to realize that, for me at least, the importance of the background extends even further, to a metaphysical level.  Backgrounds have the characteristic of being the mysterious far-away.  Whatever is in the foreground generally is definite, described, known.  That which is in the background generally is indefinite — again, to greater or lesser degrees, mysterious and far-away.

Take the image in this post.  it’s fairly easy to take the measure of the broken fence post that is the subject of the image because it is close, observable, and easily seen.  As a matter of visual communication, you know most of what there is to know about it because you can see it clearly.  The background, not so much.  What’s there, on that distant horizon?  Do you see the range of mountains?  Do you see the break in the clouds?  What lies in those mountains to be discovered?  What light shines there on what is to be seen?  How unlike the plains, with its broken fences and dangling barbed wire, must those mountain landscapes be?

I guess it’s in my nature to think the grass is greener on the other side.  That’s the appeal of the mysterious far-away.  It’s all about possibility and what is not yet known, rather than the immediacy and definiteness of what’s happening in the here-and-now.  And, maybe, it’s useful food for thought when thinking about backgrounds, foregrounds, and photographs.

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The Power of Ordinary

Windmill and Railroad Grade. Near Cheyenne, Wyoming, 2020.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’ve been listening to the “F-Stop, Collaborate and Listen” podcast put out by Matt Payne.  It’s a great podcast, I highly recommend it.  Since I’m not really plugged in to the photography community at large, it’s been interesting to listen to in part because it discusses attitudes and trends in the landscape photography community that I otherwise would not really be aware of.

One trend that is discussed a lot is that of landscape photographers, whose photography largely consists of identifying popular images of popular locations and then seeking out those locations to make more or less copycat images.  It is, apparently, kind of a widespread activity, and as a practice is rightly criticized on many levels, not the least of which is that this kind of photography is, for obvious reasons, not particularly creative.

I think this criticism can go even deeper.  The practice seems to presuppose that extraordinary photography relies on an extraordinary subject.  Photography done in this way results in exceptional photographs only because the photographer has placed his camera in front of something exceptional to look at.  The practice of copying other’s images in this manner probably makes photography a lot easier, because the original photographer already has accomplished half (or more) of the task – finding a subject that is exceptional.

But this approach also seems to me to be incredibly limiting.  Imagine how restrictive photography must be, when you have to plan a trip to some extraordinary place just to make a photograph.  What does your camera do in the meantime?  Sit on a shelf, waiting for its day in the sun?  How much easier would it be, if you didn’t have to go out of your way to make a good photograph?  How freeing would it be, if good photographs were to be available everywhere outside your door, near or far, any day, any season, under any conditions?  That’s the power of the ordinary.  When you can find photographs in ordinary things, truly the world of creativity is at your doorstep.

There’s more.  When you can make compelling photographs of ordinary things, you begin to see that everything is (or maybe, more accurately, has the potential to be seen as) extraordinary.  Even the gesture of a windmill, the line of a railroad grade, and the movement of a cloud.  It’s all subjective, of course, but I would not have photographed these things if I didn’t find in them at least a hint of the extraordinary.

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Right Place, Right Time

Silos, Cars, and Cloud. Eaton, Colorado, 2020.

Photography definitely is a medium that rewards being in the right place at the right time.  Operating a camera doesn’t take much skill these days, and a photograph largely is limited to what was in front of the lens at the time the capture was made, so simply being present with a camera when something cool is happening stands a pretty good chance of yielding a good photograph.

I think this is one reason why photography gets disrespected as an artistic medium.  Given the above, it follows that many who do not pursue photography in a serious way nevertheless likely will produce some very nice photographs.  It’s a numbers game – stand with a camera in enough places enough times, and the odds suggest that every now and then you’ll be present when something interesting is happening for which you can point a camera at.  If you want to be disrespectful of photography as art, you can point to this fact to support an argument that it takes no particular skill, talent, or discipline to produce good photographs.

However, I think this argument is true only so far as it goes.  The measure of a successful photographer-as-artist is not a few lucky shots, but rather a body of work that shows repeated successful photographs time and time again.  Successful photographs made even when the photographer was present when nothing out of the ordinary was happening.  Photographs that show the eye of the photographer as picking something special out of the ordinary, something unusual out of the commonplace.

Of course, this is not one of those photographs.  The cloud in this photograph is decidedly unusual, and its placement behind the silos and rail cars was unusually perfect.  Getting this photograph was definitely a case of being in the right place at the right time.  What can I say?  These kinds of right place/right time opportunities don’t come along every day, no sense in passing it up if you happen to be there for one.

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Different Enough?

Triptych, Flux No. 1.

Someone told me the other day that my White Trees series of photographs (see e.g. last month’s post) is “repetitive” and merely travels “well-trodden” subject material.

Okay, this different enough for you?

Maybe the three panels here simply are repetitive of one another.  Maybe this abstract simply is derivative of all those abstracts that have trod before it.  Truth is, so many people are doing so much photography these days that just about any photograph likely can be said to be derivative of something else.  At least one relatively well-known photographer’s name comes to mind that this abstract might be said to be derivative of, though personally I didn’t even know that name when I started the series of photographs of which this one is a part.  As for repetitive, what a subjective judgment that is.  Is Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents” series repetitive because they all are of clouds?  Is a series of portraits repetitive because they all are of people?

Good thing I make my work pretty much for myself, or else that little bit of criticism might have stung a bit.

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My 5D Mark II and Me

White Trees, Series 2, No. 10.

Like most of the images on this website, the photograph in this post was taken with a Canon 5D Mark ii.  I bought my 5D Mark ii in late 2012, when it was the outgoing model being replaced by the Canon 5D Mark iii.  I’ve kept my 5D Mark ii through the reigns of the 5D Mark iii, 5D Mark iv, 5Dsr, and now the newly introduced 5R.  Since the Canon 5D Mark ii was first released in late 2008, as of this writing it is a 12-year-old camera, which is an eternity for a digital camera.  Why haven’t I upgraded it?

Well, truth to tell, I’ve been meaning to for awhile, but I’m surprised at how little urgency I feel to do so.  The new Canon 5R is the first Canon camera I’ve felt would be worth the upgrade.  For various reasons, none of the 5D Mark iii, 5D Mark iv, or 5Dsr really held my interest.  I’ll check out the 5R, and if it holds up like I think it will, I’ll probably get one.  Eventually.

In the meantime, I suppose I really like my 5D Mark ii.  It’s been getting the job done.  It makes inkjet prints 21 inches wide pretty much just fine, and I rarely find the need to print much larger than that.  Web pages and print publications have been no problem.  I have no doubt image quality is better from newer camera models, but I don’t feel the image quality produced from the 5D Mark ii is holding me back (indeed, I tend to like images that are a bit “rough around the edges” – I kind of wonder if I would find images from newer cameras to be too “clean” somehow).  Plus, I’ve been using my 5D Mark ii for so long, I’m really at home with it.

There’s a lesson in all this somewhere.  Maybe it’s the idea that you don’t need the latest equipment to produce artful images.  Maybe, in some cases, older equipment might even be better.  I’m sure I’ll get around to upgrading my camera at some point, probably sooner rather than later.  But it seems not be an urgent matter for me, so looks like it will be my 5D Mark ii and me, for at least a little while longer.

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What Can I Say?

Railroad Grade. Near Cheyenne, Wyoming, 2020.

What can I say?  I like quiet, unassuming scenes like this one.  I like them, but I recognize many people (maybe most people) will see nothing special here.  Where are the tall mountains?  The pretty sunset?  The fierce waves crashing against a rocky coastline?

Why do I like this scene?  I like it because it is a study in light:  the way the late afternoon sun lights up the dead level of the rails, and how the light fades away as you move up from the horizon and leaves the foreground in pitch-dark shadow.  I like it because of the graphic design:  the very dark foreground juxtaposed against the very light sky, with the long white horizontal of the rails and the upright black verticals of the posts adding just enough visual tension.  I like it because it communicates to me the feeling I had when I was there:  the peaceful and somewhat foreboding emptiness of the wide-open prairie, and the anticipation of the power and controlled fury of the locomotives that regularly and inevitably thunder through this place.

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A Sense of Place

Longs Peak, Low Clouds. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2018.

I’ve talked with some photographers of landscapes who have told me they need to travel away to distant places in order to be inspired to make photographs.  I’ve also heard it said that a real photographer should be able to stand in a random place and make an interesting photograph based solely on what’s available to see there.  It’s opposite ends of the spectrum.  One view says it’s preferable to be in a special place to make a good photograph, and one says a good photograph should be able to be made anywhere.

There’s merit to both positions, I think.  Myself, I think I lie somewhere in the middle.  My approach generally is to put myself in an interesting place at an interesting time, but to then, as much as possible, have no particular agenda and let the photographic opportunities fall where they may.

In general, though, I do try to imbue my landscape images with a sense of place.  But this is interpretative – the sense of place I’m seeking is what a place means to me personally.  It probably doesn’t take much imagination to connect the subject of this photograph, Longs Peak, to the sense of place of being in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  Sometimes, a sense of place lies with obvious things.  But other things that have connected with me as embodying a sense of place for Colorado include mundane things such as grain silos and railroad cars, both of which are well represented here on the Front Range of Colorado.  If I were to put together a “Colorado” portfolio, it would include mountain peaks, pine trees, railroad tracks, industrial agriculture, and modern architecture, all having nothing particularly in common with one another other than embodying what “Colorado” means to me.

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The Photograph Is Its Own Reality

Figure Study, Duomo of Milan. Milan, Italy, 2019.

Here is a photograph of a sculpted figure decorating the exterior of the Duomo in Milan, Italy.  When you look at it, maybe you see the graceful lines of the carving, or the way the proportions of the figure blend harmoniously with the alcove in which it is set, or maybe you feel the sense of serenity seen in the figure’s face or are uplifted by the movement conveyed in the outstretched arms and tilt of the head.

What you don’t see is how small this figure is from where you must stand to observe it.  It must be, if I recall correctly, two or three stories above the ground (I had to use a long telephoto lens to get this close to it in the photograph).  You also don’t see that this is one of a dozen or more figures of this kind decorating this wall of the cathedral, all of which compete for attention with one another and with the other various busy decorative embellishments and designs on the building’s facade.  You definitely don’t hear the noise of the traffic on the nearby city streets, feel the jostle of the crowds that gather around the Duomo at all hours, nor feel sleepy from the heat of the late summer Italian day that lingers on long into the gathering evening.

In short, the experience of standing and looking at this figure on the side of the Duomo was nothing like what is depicted in the photograph.  But that’s okay.  No photograph can ever really document what it was like to actually be there in the specific time and place in which it was taken.  It’s just lines and shadows on a flat piece of paper, after all.  To the degree a photograph presents a reality, the reality presented is only that of the photograph itself – a two-dimensional scene, in your hands (or on a screen, or hanging on a wall), at the particular time and place you happen to be at when you look at it.  The reality presented is that which the photographer wants you to see, nothing more and nothing less.  It can be related (maybe even highly related) to what was there when the photograph was captured, but it need not necessarily be related to that at all.

Myself, I like to think my photographs reflect my particular way of seeing the world.  If you were to stand ten different people in front of the Duomo in Milan, sure, they would all see the cathedral, but my guess is they would have ten different individual experiences about seeing the cathedral, all embodied by different aspects of the cathedral that they saw.  This photograph is what I saw when I looked at the cathedral, is this what you would have seen?  The way this photograph makes me feel is what I felt when I looked at the cathedral, is this what you would have felt?  The reality of this photograph is not at all like the reality of standing in front of the cathedral, and almost certainly not like what your individual reality would be if you stood in front of the cathedral.  But it was my reality, maybe even my reality alone, and it is what I have sought to embody in the reality presented by this photograph.

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More Than Meets The Eye

Windmills No. 1. Near Cheyenne, Wyoming, 2020.

I don’t generally get too excited about the mechanics of photographing these days, I’m far more interested in the content of the images.  The mechanics of this image actually are a bit interesting, though.  If you have some photography knowledge, you may know that the blurring of the clouds in the sky is due to a long exposure.  In this case, without looking at the metadata, my guess is the shutter speed was on the order of 15 seconds to two minutes.  Even at the 15-second low end of that range, though, turning blades of a windmill typically would move so fast as to have registered in the image much like the blades of a propeller airplane engine.  Why do the blades appear so still?

Well, obviously, because they weren’t turning.  This windmill field was newly installed when I photographed it, and probably had not been brought online yet.  Importantly, the blades of the windmills were stopped from turning.  But not perfectly so — they were permitted to move very slowly, my guess being that truly stopped windmill blades would undergo an extraordinarily high amount of stress in a stiff wind, and so even stopped windmill blades must be provided a bit of slack to turn.  That is why the blades of the windmill in the foreground appear slightly ghosted.  The blades oscillated back and forth between the positions over the course of the exposure.

As mentioned, I generally don’t get too excited about photography mechanics, and these days am more focused on image content.  Seeing these gigantic windmills up close in the rolling high plains landscape west of Cheyenne, Wyoming was a surreal experience, and the blurred clouds and ghosted windmill blades help evoke that feeling, I think.  Still, the mechanics of the image in this case are kind of interesting too.  More practically, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get another photograph like this one, because the field has become active and the blades now turn with a fair amount of speed.  Any exposure time sufficient to create blurring in the clouds now most likely would indeed cause the windmill blades to look like the blades of a propeller airplane engine.

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Just. Sounds. Terrible.

White Trees, Series 1, No. 9.

I’ve been listening lately to the photography podcast “F-Stop Collaborate and Listen” by Matt Payne.  It’s a great podcast, I really recommend it if you are a landscape photographer.  Every week he interviews a different landscape photographer, often a full-time working professional, on a variety of topics in current landscape photography.  Being pretty much an outsider, I’ve learned a lot about how this field works and who some of the personalities within it are.

One topic that comes up over and over is social media.  If you want to be a professional landscape photographer starting out today, I gather that social media is critical to succeeding.  Myself, I have virtually no social media presence, so I can’t really speak from firsthand knowledge, but I have to say it just… sounds… terrible.

First, as near as I can tell, the consensus seems to be that social media for photography is basically a big, hothouse, echo chamber.  It appears to reward the posting of essentially the same kinds of images over and over (the same locations, from the same viewpoints, under the same kinds of lighting conditions, etc.), typically in the form of a grand landscape in bold colors.  Since I photograph in black and white, often in anonymous locations and with somewhat subdued subject matter, it seems to me my photography might not have a place in this kind of environment.

Second, I get the impression there’s a lot of hostility in social media.  Say the wrong thing online, even with good intentions or by virtue of simple mistake, and you run the risk of being slammed with a backlash of vitriol and negativity.  While I realize that I’m an outlier, I’ll confess that I find people unpredictable and volatile under the best of circumstances.  I certainly would not want to expose myself to the ire of thousands of strangers online.

So, I used to think of my lack of presence on social media as a bit of a personal failure.  And really, it probably is – if someone wanted to magically offer me 100,000 followers on Facebook, I’d have a hard time saying no.  But given what I’ve learned about how social media works from listening to interviews with the pros, I do feel less bad about not being engaged with it.

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