Tag Archives: Colorado

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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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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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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Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Dark Cars, Dark Clouds. Lucerne, Colorado, 2019.

Why do I shoot photos of railroad cars?  Who exactly is my audience for this?  Would anyone use this to decorate their wall?  Would any critic consider this to be fine art?  Was this really a productive use of my time for photography?  Is photography really a productive use of my time at all?  Does this duplicate the work someone else already has done?  Is it beautiful to look at?  Is it more than just about a train?  Is it more than just about a photograph?  Why does it matter?

I shoot photos of railroad cars because they speak to me.  I am the audience for these photographs.  I would use them to decorate my wall.  It doesn’t matter to me if a critic would consider them to be fine art.  Yes, it is a productive use of my time for photography.  Yes, photography is a productive use of my time more generally.  I don’t know if this duplicates the work of someone else, nor do I care.  Yes, it is beautiful to look at.  Yes, it is more than just about a train.  Yes, it is more than just about a photograph.  I don’t know why it matters, but it does.

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Just Right

Storm Over Rock Cut. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2019.

I’ve noted before that I’m a big fan of the contemporary photographer Michael Kenna.  I’m hardly alone in this.  He is one of the most renowned and widely collected photographers working today with many admirers around the world.  And deservedly so.  His work is just beautiful.

With so many followers, it’s perhaps no surprise that many photographers seem to be trying to (consciously or unconsciously) imitate his work.  On the face of it, the look of his pictorialist, black and white landscapes would appear to be easy to imitate.  And yet.

So often I look at the work of other photographers whose work is playing in Kenna’s space, and I end up having the same reaction:  1) I look at their work, and am very impressed;  2) I later look at the work of Kenna, and suddenly the imitator’s work seems shallow and pale by comparison.  There are, in fact, only two photographers I can think of off the top of my head whose work I think is on par with Kenna’s in the style that Kenna pioneered (whether or not this is a good thing I don’t know, and in any case they shall here remain nameless).

What is it about Kenna’s work that stands apart and above from his crowded field of imitators?  I guess I can say only that it’s “just right.”  There’s something about his choice of subject matter, the equipment he uses (he’s known for Hasselblad medium format film cameras), his perspectives, compositions, and the choices he makes in his darkroom printing.  If any one of these (or a multitude of other) variables is off, even just by a little bit, as I presume to be the case for the many Michael Kenna imitators out there, the result no longer is “just right.”  The products of such efforts become merely, again, pale and shallow imitations of the magic of the original.

“Just right” is an interesting concept.  In my own efforts, it’s the discriminator between work that passes the bar from one level to the next.  In the field, I frame and re-frame compositions until it looks “just right” on the camera’s screen (thank you digital cameras!).  On the computer, I edit and re-edit until it looks “just right” on the monitor.  I then print, tweak, and re-print until it looks “just right” on the paper.

Of course, “just right” also is a difficult concept, in that it is completely subjective to the eye of the beholder and therefore cannot be taught to another with any objective standard.  To this, I can say only that every artist being honest with himself or herself carries around their own “just right” standard with them.  It’s the little voice inside one’s head whispering, even when you want your work to be perfect and finished, that it’s not.  Ignore that voice at your own peril, it’s usually right.

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Wax and Wane

Moonrise Under Tangled Branches. Fort Collins, Colorado, 2015.

I haven’t been terribly active with photography over the last few months, but I don’t think I’m too worried about it. I think there’s a natural wax and wane that comes part and parcel with creative endeavors.

I’m comforted in part by my experience as a musician.  I’ve been active in music for a long time, much longer in fact than I’ve been active in photography.  Over the many years that I’ve played music, there have been many stretches lasting months or even years where I was not very active with music at all.  During those times, I never once doubted that playing music remained a strong part of me, and indeed all of those stretches came around full circle back to being active in music, including being so even today.

I’m pretty sure photography is in my bones now.  I don’t think I could not be a photographer even if I wanted to.  The wax and wane just is part of living a creative life.

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Splash

Longs Peak Sunset. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2017.

I was thinking the other day that making a photograph and introducing it into the world is a little like tossing a stone into a pool of water.  You would like to think that the pool is still, and the impact of the photograph will be like the splash the stone makes, commanding attention and then contemplation until the last ripple fades away.  In truth, I think it’s more like throwing a stone into a tempest-tossed sea.  Hardly anyone notices the impact, and it disappears into the chop nearly instantly in any case.

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On Posting

Marin’s Figures, Study No. 5 (Archivaldo by Jorge Marin). Denver, Colorado, 2017.

The noted photographer Garry Winogrand is reputed to have said “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”  I think sometimes I post to see what photographs will look like posted.

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Realism and Abstraction in Painting and Photography

Five Cars, Building Clouds. Eaton, Colorado, 2019.

It’s been observed that painting is an additive medium, whereas photography is a subtractive medium.  In painting, you start with a blank canvas and add elements to it to build your composition (for example by painting a house, painting a tree next to the house, painting a blue sky above the tree and house, etc.), while in photography you start with a cluttered frame and subtract elements from it (for example, by moving the camera to exclude the fire hydrant in the foreground, zooming in to eliminate the gas station next to the house, etc.) until you have only the elements left necessary for the composition you are trying to achieve.

It seems to me also that painting is a medium concerned with the adding of realism, whereas photography is medium concerned with the adding of abstraction.  In painting, you start with a blank canvas, the ultimate expression of abstraction.  There’s nothing there, it can be anything you want until you start painting on it.  The process of creating the painting is essentially the process of adding realism to it, right up until you reach the level of realism that you desire, be it a still-pretty-abstract piece of abstract expressionism, a somewhat-more-realistic work of impressionism, or a very-realistic work of (quite appropriately named) photorealism.

Photography is just the opposite.  The nature of the camera is to produce an image that is perhaps the ultimate expression of two-dimensional realism.  However, if you hold a camera up in front of something and simply click the shutter, the resulting image will be photo-realistic, but rarely will be pleasing.  It takes the application of abstraction to make a photograph interesting, and the tools of the photographer are largely used to introduce abstraction into the photographic image.  Such tools include, for example, camera placement, lens selection, long exposure, and dodging and burning, which were the tools used to in the making of the image in this post.

 

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Developing a Personal Style

Great Sand Dunes National Park, No. 5. Colorado, 2014.

Wow, I’ve read a lot of stuff online and elsewhere about how photographers can and should develop a personal style.  As a preliminary matter, my understanding of personal style (I’m sure different people have different opinions on this) is that it is a way of making photographs, such that viewers readily recognize them as being the product of a particular photographer.  Having a personal style seems to have become a sort of “holy grail” among photographers, as if having one will be synonymous with success, creativity, and fulfillment.

So how do you develop a personal style?  Don’t try.

If you think having a personal style is important, I’d get over this.  Don’t listen to the advice of people on how to develop a personal style, and don’t have it as an agenda item on your “todo” list for improving as a photographer.

Instead, just photograph what you want in the way that you want to, honestly and humbly.  Photography, to me, really is a simple thing:  you see something in the world that moves you, and you try to isolate what moved you, first by capturing it with a camera, and later by editing your capture with whatever tools you choose to use (e.g., a darkroom or a computer).  Notice that this process does not include a step of making sure that what you capture and how you edit conforms to a personal style, or indeed any other agenda point to tick off in the photographic process.

If you practice photography in this way, I suspect that your personal style will find you.  I can’t tell you this from firsthand experience, though – I don’t even know if I have a personal style, and I’m pretty unconcerned about it.

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