This is the fourth part of the “seeing in the field” series, an ongoing dialogue between myself and Tom Robbins.
With this installment, we’ll continue our look at images that were made on excursions to places where scenes other than that represented by the selected image were the main impetus for the visit. The principal question we’re batting around is: what is it that compels us to take notice when we’re in the field?
For this installment, Tom will set the scene for the included image and then Tom and I will engage in a dialogue to try to tease out something of the creative process that led to the shot’s capture.
Setting the Scene
Unexpected photography subjects are usually found while en route to a destination or after having arrived on site. Occasionally, they will present themselves in the most humble and unpromising circumstances. This simple winter landscape, photographed within a half mile of home, is an example:
[View a larger rendition here.]
I was out that windy and near zero degree February day primarily to shake off a case of cabin fever blues, something almost everyone in the upper Midwest has experienced this winter to one degree or another. All roads leading out of town were hazardous that morning due to yet another snowfall, so a quick hike in a local park would have to do. I expected only fresh air, but took the camera gear along out of habit. About half way into the hike, the scene in the photo grabbed my attention. It’s a place I’ve been to countless times, yet fresh snow, diffuse light, arrangement of elements, and subtle colors created an entirely new combination that I simply could not pass up.
The local park served as a stage for the distant coal chute, a relic from the steam locomotive days. Nothing else seen during the walk caught my eye. It is odd how a particular point of view and the circumstances of a moment can lift the spirits as if by magic.
Kerry: Odd indeed, but I think we’re discussing the essence of what constitutes the substance of the matter underlying these dialogues: seeing in the field. It really is fascinating how a scene that, under one set of conditions is a compelling photographic subject but under another wouldn’t merit so much as a glance, let alone consideration for setting up one’s gear. I’ve poked at the carcass of this issue a few times in the past, most notably in an entry on shooting in foggy/misty conditions but perhaps we can dip into this a bit more completely–and universally.
What was it about this particular visit that made this scene–one that you specifically noted you’d encountered many times before–so compelling on this occasion? You’ve hinted at this in your description–fresh snow, diffuse light, etc.–but can you be any more specific? Can you draw a direct comparison to how this morning’s visit differed, aesthetically and in motivational terms–from your previous experiences in the same spot?
Tom: On that day, the surface of a pond at the lower left side of the frame had completely frozen over after several days of extreme cold. This, combined with fresh overnight snow, effectively masked some of the visual elements that are usually present at this location. The result was a landscape with its normal distractions naturally filtered away. The simplifying effect of snow and ice in this instance is similar to that of fog and mist; it provides a clean stage for the central elements.
Kerry: I think we’re approaching a near-universal conclusion here (and I say “near” because, when it comes to art, I’m not sure that there’s anything that is truly literally universal): simplicity is a very powerful–and inspirational–aesthetic. It certainly holds up to intuitive scrutiny as well. Think about how often, when composing in the field, the instinct is to attempt to remove or at least de-emphasize compositional “distractions.” So when atmospheric forces–fog, snow, soft light conditions in general, etc.–perform that task for us, we can take advantage. Obviously this is part of a larger, more general theme–knowing what conditions flatter what places–but I think there’s something directly actionable here: otherwise cluttered places (e.g. woodlands, etc.) are often best photographed when something obscuring is present.
Tom: I agree with your assessment of simplicity; Asian ink wash painting is an example of the aesthetic. There is probably a limit to how far the idea can be taken. The old chestnut, if less is more, then nothing is everything, comes to mind.
Kerry: Oh, absolutely. Taken to its logical extreme, the most highly simplified picture of the foggy scene would be of nothing but fog…which, presumably, wouldn’t be particularly compelling.
Tom: Your observation about knowing what conditions flatter what places is on the money. Wonderfully complicated and tangled landscapes do exist, but when they are effective, it is usually because all elements are working in harmony or are supporting a theme.
Kerry: Are there other times when you’ve revisited a spot that hadn’t spoken to you previously but something about that time, that moment resonated with you? If so, can you compare/contrast those times with this one? What are the relevant comparative similarities and differences?
Tom: There was almost too much fog at the creek one foggy July morning last year:
[View a larger rendition here]
The same place with snow and ice, about half a year later:
[View a larger rendition here]
Fog simplifies in the first image and ice and snow simplifies in the second. This third image is straightforward September:
[View a larger rendition here]
The creek reliably conveys its water from source to destination without regard to any viewer’s point of view. Just the same, I prefer the winter version because it’s similar to the stark aspect of the winter coal chute photo. There’s something irresistible about the cold and clean contrasts of winter.
Kerry: These sample images are an excellent guidepost, demonstrating what the scene looks like at different times of year and in different conditions. It’s interesting…it almost seems to me that the best of all possible worlds might be a kind of combination of the foggy image and the winter one (a set of conditions that, admittedly, is extremely unlikely to reveal itself in the real world, since we don’t see much fog in winter). Somewhat ironically, I think the foggy image may very well have the best sense of visual depth of the three (ironic because the fog all but eliminates the background and totally obscures the horizon, making actual depth almost non-existent), due to the comparatively strong leading line of the creek itself. That leading line is greatly mitigated, of course, by the snow in the winter scene, and the foliage in the late-summer version.
But on the subject of simplicity, I’m wondering…is perhaps one reason why you don’t feel that the foggy scene works as well as it otherwise might the fact that, despite it’s simplicity inducing properties, something about this location makes it impossible to really simplify it enough to really make it work? Consider this image:
I think this shot works precisely–and in fact solely–because of its stark simplicity. There’s an entire background–a tree-filled hillside–that’s normally completely visible behind the lone tree you see above, one that–without the heavy fog–makes it impossible to make the tree (and its reflection) stand out. Given the proximity and size of the elements in the foggy creek shot of yours above, it’s probably impossible to garner that kind of effect, no matter how thick (or thin) the fog is. Perhaps this–the creek–is the kind of scene that works best with a half-step of simplifying obscurity–the snow cover, as depicted in the winter shot–rather than the full step?
Tom: Yes, absolutely so—wonderful image, by the way. Varying degrees of simplification are needed for different subjects and circumstances. It is rare for the simplifying element (snow/ice, fog, or whatever) to be ideal for a given scene, and I suspect some photographers haunted their prospective gems for many years before the tumblers of the lock finally clicked into place. The reason that a photographer’s best work is often made locally probably has more to do with the ability to make numerous attempts than to knowledge of place.
Kerry: Agreed. And I think this reinforces the notion that we’re speaking in abstract generalities here; there is no cookbook recipe to follow. We’re simply identifying and discussing general principles, the specific applications of which will vary depending on location, subject matter, specific conditions, individual artist and so forth.