Tag Archives: 2020

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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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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