Contd… When I started shooting landscape, being a city boy, I was so blown away by the natural scenes that I shot far too many images, and then of course had to process tons of film. Now my wife jokes that whenever we go to some beautiful scenic place and she expresses how amazing it is I end up saying, ”It’s nice, but I’ve seen better.” I don’t want to sound jaded but it does become harder for a scene to make an impression on someone who sees amazing scenes on a routine basis.
I edit very tightly, I have to be willing to live with the photo hanging on my wall every day in order for me to want to release it. I think there are currently about 100 B&W landscapes in my catalog, and to be honest some of them I would edit out today, but if you consider that I got serious about landscape in 2000, that means I average about 7 images a year. Granted in the year just prior to my recent sabbatical from photography, because of the move west, I produced about 15, so at least I’m getting more productive, hopefully I’m getting better too.
It’s tougher to be prolific when you attempt to capture special moments, you need the real scene to exist, and I don’t rely on any gimmicks to enhance them. My work does not use lenses, capture or print processes that impart artifacts, distortions or artificial “styles” to it. They are straight images, which means I need the scene to actually have most of the drama or interest already there and you only run into these Unicorns so often. Granted there’s a lot of darkroom work like dodging and burning, and when I think it’s appropriate to the image I’ll use long time exposures. Long time exposures are one of the oldest aspects of photography and one of its distinct qualities over the other visual arts. Movies and photographs can utilize the fourth dimension, so why not? However it seems today that everyone has a 10 stop ND filter and they use it on everything in an attempt to make poor photographs somewhat more appealing. To me unless you’re bringing more to the image than that, I think it’s just becoming a cliché.
All of that said, some of my favorite photographers produce work that requires those very same gimmicks I mentioned above the difference is that their use of it works with what is great content and emotion.
Q. You compositions are exquisite and this is wonderful to see in an age where there seems to be a mass lurch towards ‘casual, non-technical everything’. How do you ‘work a scene’, how long do you spend on site and what sort of emotional or visceral experience do you go through?
Thank you for your kind words. The way I work a scene is by first being observant. I’m looking for relationships between forms, tones, textures and patterns as well as content that can tell a story or has some deeper meaning. When I get a sense of the general angle from which I want to capture the image I then look more at smaller details. Are there tangencies that work for or against the image, are there distracting elements? I believe that if an element doesn’t add to the image it detracts from it. And while in nature it’s impossible to avoid all of these elements I aim to minimize them.
But this is only the first step. Even if I find the perfect angle if the conditions aren’t right all I will do is capture a scouting photograph of the scene. I use an iPhone app called Theodolite, which will record on a cell phone image my GPS location, the direction the camera is facing as well as the vertical angle of the camera. I’ll check this with a hand held compass as well, and then I’ll use astronomical or photographer’s apps to get a better sense of how the Sun, Moon and stars will move over this scene. I will also use a viewer, either an iPhone app or a Linhof multi view finder to show me which lens works with the composition.
But it doesn’t end there, I’ll also give consideration to the foliage, is it better when the trees have leaves, or autumn colors, and even the possibility of whether there could be too much human activity there, like holiday weekends or vacation times. With my night images I also take into account airports, light pollution from cities and elevation. After all of that, and probably other factors that tend to arise, I will calculate when will be the best time of the day and year to come back to capture the scene.
Once I’m there and ready to capture the scene, I’ll stay there for as long as it takes as by this point I’m pretty invested in this particular location. So if I need to spend a few days at a local motel, I will. And the exposing of the scene is continuous as long as the conditions are working. This is one of the reasons I prefer to use roll film. Scenes continuously change with the light and clouds so I will make exposures while this is happening. I will often go away for a couple of months and have only shot a dozen scenes, but I might have 100 rolls of film because I shoot them over and over again, sometimes several days in a row until I am satisfied.
But I only go through this rather extensive effort if the scene really resonates with me, it has to elicit an emotional response in me and be a scene that I want to live with. People place a higher value on a home, a hotel room, a vacation spot, etc. with a view because there’s an emotional response that many of us get by seeing someplace beautiful or dramatic. I view a print hanging on my wall as a window, and I really want to be moved by the view.
Q. Has your exploration of darkness – your ‘Night’ work – affected your creative and technical approach? If so, how?
It really hasn’t affected my approach all that differently once I got the technical stuff figured out, but I have to say it’s physically much more demanding. The night shoots start while the Sun is still up, because I have to compose the image while I can still see it, and I don’t get back to the motel until after sunrise. There’s a lot of waiting around before I can shoot because it’s not dark enough for the stars to come out until 2-3 hours after sunset depending on which direction you face.
The stars add an element to the sky, just as clouds do to a daylight landscape, but they also provide context. An image captured at night can often be mistaken for day, especially if there’s a full moon but the stars reinforce that this is night. During the day the illuminated sky hides the vastness of the universe, there’s a veil over our heads, but this veil is lifted at night and you can get a true sense of the universe and our place in it. I don’t know anyone who does not feel awe when they view a star filled sky.
Shooting at night also gives me the opportunity to light the scene. You can’t really do this during the day, so night gives me a chance to control lighting, something I am quite comfortable with from my studio days. I will use a very powerful handheld flashlight, one with a very high quality and focused beam, and I will move about 100 yards or more to the side of the camera and paint the subject. The reason I move is two fold, the first is so that the side lighting of the subjects maintains dimension and texture, and the other is that using the light near the camera tends to illuminate dust in the air and you actually get a fogged or flare-like look on the film. This lighting far from the camera does have drawbacks though.
In the image “Dixon Cemetery” if you look at the stars they have a Morse code like effect going on. There are gaps in the trails like dots and dashes. This is because I had to shoot from across a road, and every time a vehicle approached I had to run the 100 yards back to the camera and cover the lens so the headlights would not ruin the exposure. I got quite a work out that night, and some of these exposures took about 3 times as long because of all the times I had to cover the lens and then compensate for the lost exposure time.
Q. I know that from years ago on apug.org, you shot exclusively on 120 Kodak Tmax 100 and Fujifilm Acros 100 and printed in the darkroom, often diffusing the print in various ways. Has anything changed since then?
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