Tag Archives: 2014

Footprints

Longs Peak, Advancing Clouds and Shadows Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Longs Peak, Advancing Clouds and Shadows
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Sometimes I feel like being a photographer is like leaving footprints in snow.

Most of my work ends up on my website or shared via social media.  Sometimes it is exhibited in galleries, and occasionally it gets published.

Who are the people who see it?  Are they young or old, men or women, inspired or dissatisfied?  Did they see it because they came looking for art, or did they see it by random chance?  Did they give it a quick glance and move on, or did they pause to let it sink in for a moment?  Did they remember it later, or did the impression fade away like snow on warm day?

Mostly I photograph for myself and my own reasons, and I don’t generally let the opinions of others sway the how or why of my doing it.  But I can’t help sometimes wondering about what kind of connection my work makes with others, if any – I think that’s only natural for anyone who chooses to put their work in front of an audience.

When I see footprints in snow, I sometimes wonder about the person who made them.  I wonder if that person also wonders about who might see the tracks they’ve made.

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Simplicity

Sentinel Trees. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Sentinel Trees
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

- Albert Einstein

 

This is one of my favorite quotes about photography, along with “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are” (Minor White) and “Anything more than 500 yards from the car just isn’t photogenic” (either Brett or Edward Weston, depending on who you ask).  Okay, the Einstein quote probably wasn’t about photography specifically, but I find it highly applicable to this discipline.

In previous posts, I talked a bit about my takes on Formalism and Minimalism.  Simplicity, to me, is a broader, more ambiguous concept.  The best description I’ve been able to come up with is that it is the absence of unnecessary complexity.  In this sense, works that are formal or minimal probably would be considered simple, but not necessarily vice versa.  The image in this post, for example, has formal elements, but to me the overall arrangement of the elements is just a little too imprecise for it to be truly formal.  Similarly, the image has an element of minimalism, but there’s just a little too much detail in the background for me to call it truly minimal.  On the other hand, to say that the image embodies simplicity sounds about right to me.  It’s about striking just the right balance between too much and too little – being made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

There’s many ways to achieve simplicity in a photograph.  Here, the very foggy conditions I encountered one day last summer on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park did much of the work for me at the point of capture.  I built on that by adding, with judicious application, white gradients around the edges of the frame.  To me, this heightened the effect of the fog and created the illusion of added sharpness and contrast in the trees, the illusion resulting from the juxtaposition of the trees (which were not covered by the gradient) against the soft and high-key background (which was subject to the gradient).  The white gradients at the frame edges also serve to reinforce direction of the viewer’s attention to the trees centering the composition, kind of a nifty flip of the old photographer’s trick of darkening the edges of the frame.

Simplicity is a virtue.  While I appreciate and try my hand at more specialized approaches to photography, such as formalism and minimalism, simplicity still is the benchmark I keep in mind as the basis that underlies my fundamental approach to making images.

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Formalism

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 7 (Julie Penrose Fountain) Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 7
(Julie Penrose Fountain)
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

I’ve become interested recently in the idea of formalism in art and how that may play a role in my photography.  At the outset, I should state that I have no formal training in art or photography, and so my thoughts on this subject are based only on my own experiences making images and what I have otherwise read or taught myself.  That being said, my understanding of formalism in visual art is that it is an approach to making images that stresses the purely visual aspects of the image – line, shape, texture, etc. – rather than other ways to interpret the image, such as what the subject is, what the concept is, any social or historical contexts, etc.

Formalism really resonates with me.  I think it’s always been the crux of the way that I see things photographically.  To me, objects in the world are more than things that happen to be in my field of view.  Lines have power, they slice through the air in arcs or diagonals, or create balance and harmony in horizontals and verticals.  Shapes have weight, they pull and tug on things and need to be arranged and balanced.  Textures have feel, the smooth ones feel like you could reach out and glide across them, the rough ones feel like they could skin your knee.  Composing a photograph is mostly a fascinating and immensely enjoyable game that’s all about managing these powers, weights, and feels to arrange them in pleasing, harmonious or interesting ways.

What’s missing in this approach?

Well, for starters, there’s not a whole lot of emphasis on the subject.  In this image, the subject is the Julie Penrose Fountain, a large work of public art in a park in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  However, the image is not about the fountain, at least not to me.  If you were to look up a picture of the fountain online, I think you would agree that this image does not represent what the fountain really looks like in a faithful or representative way.  Rather, this image to me is all about the lines, the shapes, and the textures.  And not even these lines, shapes, and textures in an abstract, theoretical way, but rather in the way that the lines convey power in their sweep, that the shapes defy gravity in their curves, and that the metal surfaces create fluidity in their smoothness.

What else is missing?  There’s no particularly cerebral concept here – the photograph basically is a visual game, and represents no deeper thinking than simply the impact that the visual information has.  Also missing is any social or historical context – it just doesn’t matter to me when this fountain was erected, or why, or even who Julie Penrose (the fountain’s namesake) was.

If there’s a criticism of formalism, I suspect the criticism is that formalism is cold, emotionless, and detached.  I respectfully disagree.  While it’s certainly possible that formalistic art can be cold, emotionless, and detached – any art can be bad – there’s nothing about a formalistic approach that commands this result.  Instead, when used well, I think formalism serves to bring out and highlight the emotional impact of an image, for example by emphasizing aspects such as power, weight, and feel, and eliminating competing and potentially distracting elements like concept and context.

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Outside, Looking In

Bristlecone Pine, Mosquito Range Windy Ridge, Near Alma, Colorado, 2014

Bristlecone Pine, Mosquito Range
Windy Ridge, Near Alma, Colorado, 2014

There’s a certain image of a landscape photographer that seems to be held in high regard these days.  This kind of landscape photographer is a person who immerses himself deeply into the wilderness, perhaps spending days or weeks at a time removed at great distances from civilization and insulated from all human contact.  A person who travels at great lengths and through epic hardships in order to reach places ordinary people can’t.  A person who communes so intimately with nature that he or she appreciates it on a level that normal people do not, and for whom a camera almost is secondary to the outdoor experience, such that any images made manage to be somehow both incidental to the outdoor experience and yet still attain virtue in a way that cannot be achieved by those among the crowded field of ordinary photography.

I’m not that person.

Yes, I enjoy being outside, but my backcountry skills are limited and my outdoor experiences mostly are confined to daytime trips.  Yes, I enjoy a good hike to get somewhere interesting, but most of my photography is done fairly close to my car.  Yes, I often get to locations away from crowds of people, but I don’t eschew the popular overlooks or the landmark destinations.

The problem is, landscape images made by the kind of photographers first described above seem to be treated with a kind of almost reverence that images made by other photographers don’t get.  There seems to be a link made between a person who commits a great deal of time and resources to being in the landscape, and the quality of the images that this person makes there.  It’s an extension of the idea that the photographer is more important than the photograph, an idea that usually is treated with disdain by most photographers I’ve met, but somehow seems subtly validated in the field of landscape photography.

I don’t begrudge those who choose to approach landscape photography in the manner first set forth above.  Really, I don’t.  But there seems to be a negative implication among those who do that those who don’t cannot make landscape photographs that are equally worthy, and I do have a problem with that.

Ultimately, landscape photography is more about the photography, and less about the landscape.  It’s more important to see the landscape through the eyes of an artist, not the eyes of a wilderness adventurer.  It’s more important to be knowledgeable about photographic techniques and equipment than about backcountry survival skills.  It’s more important to feel moved by the landscape on an emotional level regardless of the ability to move through it on a physical level.

I suspect my views on this are out of the mainstream.  I’m okay with that, even though sometimes it feels like I’m on the outside, looking in.  But being on the outside and looking in sometimes is not a bad place to be.  It tends to create a perspective that is less common, more unique when compared to that of the “in” perspective – a potentially powerful tool when applied with creativity and restraint.

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What Else It Is

DTC Identity Monument No. 1 Denver, Colorado, 2014

DTC Identity Monument No. 1
Denver, Colorado, 2014

Happy New Year!  I sincerely hope everyone reading this is looking forward to a wonderful 2015 ahead.

Originally, I had a different image lined up for this post, but that one will have to wait because I decided to go with this one instead.  This one felt more in the spirit of the new year to me, not because the monument in this photograph has anything to do with 2015 specifically or new years generally, but rather just because of how it feels to me when I look at it – bright, clean, soaring.  Full of promise, kind of like the new year.

As I continue in photography, this kind of thinking has come to figure more prominently in my approach.  The American photographer Minor White said, “one should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”  When I started in photography, I thought I was photographing simply the subjects that captured my interest themselves, but the more I photograph, the more I realize I’m photographing to capture my feeling about the subject.  There’s a difference.  If you want to see simply a picture of the DTC Identity Monument, just Google it online.  If you want to see the DTC Identity Monument the way I see it – in the way of “what else it is” to me – then I hope you’ll see that difference in my photograph of it.

“What else it is” can be a tricky concept, but that doesn’t make it any less real or relevant.  In fact, I would suggest that the ability of a photograph to convey to a viewer the “what else it is” about a subject is one quality that sets apart true fine art photography from ordinary snapshots – or indeed any art from that which simply is ordinary and mundane.

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Blue Sky, Blue Filter

White Trees, Series 3, No. 2

White Trees, Series 3, No. 2

I use Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro to do my black and white conversions, and I have to say that I continue to be impressed with using the blue filter when editing landscape images.

Allow me to backtrack a little.  I’ve always been very taken with drama in landscape photography, particularly of the kind where a blue sky goes to black or very nearly so, and any white clouds in the sky end up really standing out.  In film photography, this kind of effect often could be achieved by placing a red filter over the lens.  Colored filters tend to pass their own colors and block complementary colors, so a red filter tends to lighten up things that are red and, importantly, darken things on the other side of the color wheel from red, such as the blue in blue skies.  As a result, with black and white film a darkened blue sky tends to show up as dark grey or black.

In the digital world, most black and white images are made starting with a color capture (because the color capture contains more information – three channels, one red, one green, and one blue – as opposed to a black and white capture, which contains just one channel of information – greyscale).  Because there is color information in the capture, when converting to black and white, you can digitally apply a “blue filter,” which will tend to lighten things that are blue and darken things that are, for example, red.

Using the blue filter in Silver Efex Pro is really easy.  There’s a button you can push, and then a couple of sliders to control how strong the filter is and what hue of blue it is.  Pretty cool, really.

In any case, in the past I routinely would use a red filter to really darken a blue sky.  The image in this post, “Bristlecone Pine, Bare Branches,” would have been a prime candidate for this treatment in the past, because it has nice white clouds in the sky that probably would look really striking if the cloudless blue portions of the sky were dark grey or black.

But, of course, I didn’t use a red filter, I used a blue one.  This had the effect of lightening the cloudless blue portions of the sky, making them light grey in the converted black and white image, and in fact reducing the overall contrast with those white clouds.  It’s just the opposite of how I used to do things, but I’ve come to really like it.  Putting the clouded and cloudless portions of the sky in the same value range – in this case, light greys to whites – creates a nice, delicate feel to the sky, at least in my opinion.  Plus, it simplifies the overall composition, because the more unified values of the sky – again, all tending toward light grey or white – make the sky as a whole contrast more with the black needles of the pine tree, which is where I want the viewer’s eye to be drawn to.

I still like dark skies and am sure I will continue to use the red filter effect in the future.  But it’s nice to have another tool in the toolbox, and an alternate way of interpreting blue skies in landscape photographs.

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30 Minutes and 30 Yards

Cattails on the Prairie Near Greenland, Colorado, 2014

Cattails on the Prairie
Near Greenland, Colorado, 2014

Just one guy’s opinion, but I think the image in this post, “Cattails on the Prairie,” looks quite different than the image in my previous post, “Cottonwood Copse.”  For example, last post’s image is higher in key with less contrast overall, while this image is overall darker in key with much stronger contrasts.  The prior image is pretty simple in composition, maybe even bordering on minimalism, while this image has a few more elements to it.  Perhaps most importantly, I get a much different feeling from the two images – the prior image feels to me sort of cold and wintery, while this image feels much more warm and summery.

Thing is, these two images were taken about 30 minutes and 30 yards apart.  This post’s image was seen about 30 yards up the road from last post’s image.  The cottonwoods in the previous image are part of the line of cottonwoods in this image, just seen from a different angle.  If you look closely, you might even see a fence in these two images – it’s the same fence in both.

There’s a couple of things I take away from this.  First, as a photographer you really do have a lot of latitude to interpret your photographs in whatever way you want to, and editing the image in post processing (whether in a wet darkroom or on a computer) is a decisive part of the artistic process.  Never think your images have to look just how they came out of the camera.  Have a vision for them, and make your vision happen.

Second, it’s amazing just how much creativity you can add to your photography with some simple fieldwork.  Don’t stand around in one spot – move around, look at what you can see in all directions, wait a few minutes and see how the clouds move, how the light changes.  Be an active part of your photography process.  When I do these things, I often find there’s more photographic possibilities for a given subject than I originally thought.

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Is Photography Too Easy?

Cottonwood Copse Near Greenland, Colorado, 2014

Cottonwood Copse
Near Greenland, Colorado, 2014

Is photography too easy?  This may seem like an odd (and possibly pretentious) question coming from one who photographs, but I think it’s a fair one.

There’s no doubt that it’s now easier than ever to make a photograph.  Digital technology has eliminated the requirements for developing film and printing in a wet a darkroom.  And computer software makes it relatively easy to produce a polished-looking photograph that can be quickly and easily printed.  The barriers to entering this discipline have never been lower, and the world has never been flooded with as many photographs.

They’re not all good photographs, of course.  Most probably are in fact simple snapshots, with no aspirations toward being anything more, quickly taken with a mobile device of some kind simply because it was easy to do so, and destined for no purpose greater than being shared on a Facebook page or something similar.

Still.  The sheer number of photographs being made today suggests that many will be “good” simply by being happy accidents.  Beyond this, the lowered entry barriers to practicing photography means that more people are able to pursue photography seriously now than ever before, resulting in a larger pool of increasingly accomplished practitioners making work.  And among these practitioners, digital processes mean that they are producing more work more quickly.

As a result, there really is a large amount of very high quality photography being done today as compared to even 10 or 15 years ago, at least in my opinion.

I wonder, does this devalue the worth of photography as art?  Fine art photography has always labored under a legitimacy issue when it comes to being taken seriously as an art form.  In my experience, it still does not get respected by the public as art in the same way that, say, painting does.  Has the increase in the amount of good photography being done these days created a glut that further threatens the legitimacy of this discipline?

Or, is there still room for individual photographers to create unique, compelling art?  At the very least, I think the bar has been raised.  It’s no longer enough to make technically proficient, aesthetically beautiful photographs.  There’s just too many very good photographers who can do this.  I’d like to think that technical proficiency and aesthetic beauty are still prerequisites to good photographs (sadly, much of what is regarded as contemporary photographic art seems to lack these ingredients), but really good photographs require something more.  Reaching what that something more is is not easy to do, though I do think there are a number of contemporary photographers who get there.  The really interesting question is if these achievements will be recognized and embraced in a time when making photographs is just so easy.

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The Obvious View

Great Sand Dunes National Park No. 4 Colorado, 2014

Great Sand Dunes National Park No. 4
Colorado, 2014

In landscape photography, sometime it’s the obvious view that’s the best (or, if not the best, at least pretty darn good).

On the day I made this capture, I arrived in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park with the idea of hiking out into the dunes, far enough to get away from all the tracks and footprints near the parking lot, in order to photograph the dune forms and shapes in their pristine condition.  Unfortunately, as so often is the case with landscape photography, the weather had other plans for me.  Specifically, it was a terribly windy day, and the wind was whipping up sand in the dunes like spray on the ocean.  I’m usually pretty willing to take my camera out into all kinds of adverse conditions, but one situation I avoid is wind-blown sand.  It’s just too easy for sand to get into the lens and camera, which can really pose a problem for those moving parts.

Instead, I had to make do with what was available.  I drove around to different ends of the park, seeing what there was to see, occasionally snapping a photograph or two, but not really coming away with anything that spoke to me.  As the sun began to set, I figured I would call it a day, and I pulled into the now-deserted visitor center parking lot to pack up my things before getting on the road.  As I was stowing my gear, I noticed a short trail making a quick loop around the visitor center – from the trail, one could take in the view of the dunes as seen in this photograph.

Turns out it’s a pretty nice view!  So I grabbed my camera and spent 20 minutes or so experimenting with some long exposures.  The one benefit of the windy day was that the clouds were really moving through the sky.  As a result, I was able to capture the movement of the clouds over the dunes as seen in this image.  On this day, at least, it was the obvious view that was the best.

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Roadside Photography

Cloud Waves Over Spanish Peaks Near La Veta, Colorado, 2014

Cloud Waves Over Spanish Peaks
Near La Veta, Colorado, 2014

On several occasions, when others have viewed one photograph or another of mine, I’ve been asked how far I had to hike, climb, or otherwise go out of my way to get a particular image.  There seems to be an assumption that landscape photography requires a commitment to travel to remote, out of the way, or otherwise difficult-to-access places.

Sometimes this is true.  There are a few photographs in my portfolio that required at least a hike of a few miles – see the image in my previous post for an example.  However, the vast majority of my landscape images are made by the side of the road.

This view of Spanish Peaks, a landmark in Southern Colorado, probably is quite familiar to anyone who has driven on U.S. Highway 160 west out of Walsenberg, Colorado on the way to La Veta Pass.  I found myself on this road a couple of weeks ago on the way to photograph the sand formations in Great Sand Dunes National Park.  Though I hadn’t planned on photographing these peaks, I know a good thing when I see one, and when I saw this scene coming together I didn’t hesitate to pull over to the side of the road (safely, of course) to photograph for 20 minutes or so.

I think the principle at stake here is that there is good photography all around us.  Photographers, especially those of the landscape variety, seem to want to put themselves through extraordinary lengths to get a photograph.  That can be appropriate, but by no means is it necessary.  The quality of a photograph is largely unrelated to when, where, and how it was captured, at least in my experience.

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