Posted by: kerryl29 | October 16, 2013

Seeing in the Field, Part I

In an entry, posted about two months ago, I provided an introduction to a series of collaborative exchanges planned between myself and my friend, photographer Tom Robbins.  For more information about what we hope to accomplish, broadly speaking, check the prior linked post.

Here’s the first installment of the series.  The basic exercise was to introduce a single image that was produced from an excursion to a place ostensibly unfamiliar to the photographer.  The notion was to flesh out the ideas behind recognizing a photo opportunity that wasn’t preceded by any obvious preconceptions.  In other words, the purpose of the excursion was to see what popped up–it wasn’t a case of going to a location to photograph something specific.

We started by having Tom present an image that resulted from one of these excursions, and he’ll set the scene.  We then engaged in a dialogue to hopefully expand up on and clarify aspects of the in-the-field thought process that followed.  The image itself will be included below, as will a link to a larger version that resides on his Website.

In the next installment in the series, we’ll switch roles; I’ll provide the image and set the scene and Tom will ask the questions.

We heartily encourage readers to post remarks and ask questions in the comment section below, and hope you get something out of this entry.


Setting the Scene

Tom:  The leaves have several weeks to go yet in the Midwest [this was originally written in late September — KL] before they reach peak color, so I spent this morning at White Pines State Park, in Ogle County, Illinois to explore the landscape possibilities. I remembered the general layout of the place from visits as a kid with family a few decades ago, so this was essentially an exploration of new territory. Tripod and camera with 45mm and 90mm tilt shift lenses were on hand—I’ve forgotten how to hike without that gear—but only for chance opportunities. The primary goal was to establish familiarity with the area.

I chose a trail that ran along the eastern edge of the park. The choice was not random as the morning sun had cleared the horizon just a few minutes earlier. A forested area with direct sunlight, even early in the morning, will present dynamic range problems more often than not. The east edge of the park would hopefully allow an unobstructed wash of early sunlight over farm fields, and so reduce the likelihood of “hot spots.”

The strategy didn’t really work within the park itself, but things turned around when I hopped over a maintenance gate and found a gravel county road running north and south. The view southward was OK, but the northward view drew me in. A railroad crossing was off in the distance, and there was no particular subject beyond that. However, the disparate elements of the simple scene seemed to fit together like the tumblers of a lock. Such a gestalt may work as a photograph, or not, but it will certainly be a logical construct. Very often the appeal at first sight is subconscious, with analysis following later.

Late Summer, Ogle County, Illinois Image Copyright 2013 Tom Robbins, All Rights Reserved

Late Summer, Ogle County, Illinois
Image Copyright 2013 Tom Robbins, All Rights Reserved

Link to larger image:

In this instance, the warm oak trees and grass alongside the road on the left are a starting point; a home base for the eye. The backlit scruffy woods on the right provide some late summer color, and the cool blue sky mirrors the path of the road. Aside from that, I just can’t seem to pass up young shadows crossing a road.

The Dialogue

Kerry:  For me–strictly as a viewer of the image, the first thing that catches my eye–and the “center of interest” (for lack of a better term)–is the road.  It’s lighter in tone than virtually all of the other elements, so it has a natural tendency to draw my attention first, but there’s more to it than that, in this case.  It’s providing a kind of entryway into the image, both literally and figuratively.

Tom:  You’re absolutely right. Oddly enough, I tend to take the existence of roads for granted these days. After the number of my farm and rural photographs grew into a sizable collection, I noticed that most of them included roads, lanes, and such. My first thought was that I’d fallen into a rut, but then realized that the Midwest is covered by a network of roads, most of them in quarter to half mile grids wherever the terrain allows. They were originally created in the early to mid 19th century, and are an essential and common part of the landscape.

Kerry:  Did this principle figure into your decision to make this image when you were in the field–either consciously or unconsciously?  Do you see the road as a crucial element (meaning, in your view, can you see having made an image here at all without its presence)?

Tom:  Yes, the road is a key element, but at this stage it’s an almost subconscious one. Good question about its being crucial. I’d say it is absolutely crucial. Not only is it a means of transportation, it also provides a lane for the utility poles. The open sky above the road would not exist but for the road.

Kerry:  I like what the light is doing here, but I can also imagine this shot working in, say, even light.  Would you agree with that assessment or do you feel that these lighting conditions were a necessary component to the shot?

Tom:  Ah, it may very well work in even light, especially with fog or mist. I doubt the scene would have captured my interest to the same degree without the direct early light, however. The light ran through a gauntlet of trees and brush at the right side of the frame and enough made it through to light up the road and the woods on the left side. The direct lighting was a necessary component for recognizing the composition at a glance. The composition in even light light would require a more subtle and contemplative eye to appreciate, and would have resulted in a completely different photograph, of course.

Kerry:  Finally, re your (in my opinion, entirely correct) assessment that “very often the appeal at first sight is subconscious, with analysis following later.”  Is that what happened here?  Was this just a case of your finding the scene inexplicably appealing at the time of capture or were you aware of the why(s) of that appeal when you saw it?

Tom:  Yes, I’d say so. I’m out with the camera just about every day now, and seem to hike around on auto pilot most of the time. Then, smack dab in the middle of thinking about my neighbor’s dog waking me up last night, a scene will stop me in my tracks. Without any apparent thought at all, the pieces of the jigsaw suddenly fit together and the tripod jumps off my shoulder for the shot. I can’t say how unusual this is, but it has evidently become my m.o. these last couple of years.

Next in the series:  Seeing in the Field, Part II:  My image and answers, Tom’s questions



  1. This kind of dialogue is fascinating to me. I often wonder what goes on in other photographers’ minds and what causes them to stop and take a photo, especially landscape photos, which are like a foreign language to me. One of my fellow bloggers, Lyle Krahn, uses a term that he calls “stopping power” to describe the situation or subject that will cause a given photographer to feel compelled to take a photo and, he argues, it varies from individual to individual. Tom’s answers suggest that his thoughts may be similar to Lyle’s.

    • Thanks very much for taking the time weigh in, Mike.

      Part of the reason that we decided to explore this series–without having a good idea where it would take us, not incidentally–was to see just how subjective it is. “Stopping power” is undoubtedly variable from person to person, but is there anything about this procedure–anything at all–that is universal? In an oversimplified way, that’s really what we’re probing, I think.

  2. Thanks for the enlightening post, I found it very helpful!

    • Very glad to hear it, thanks, Jerry.

  3. I love the peek into the mind of the photographer. I will be watching for more posts in this series. Beautiful shot of the road…

    • Thanks very much, Deb, glad that you’re getting something out of this. The next installment in the series will be posted in the next week or two. And, agreed–I’m quite partial to Tom’s photo too.

  4. I think the leading line that roads commonly create is a key reason we are drawn to them in photography, whether landscape or urban. We can use them to draw the viewer’s eye deeper into the picture. In this image, the light on the grass on the left side of the road also creates a second converging line and adds colour to an otherwise muted palette. I can definitely see why this scene called out to be photographed.

    • Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. I definitely agree–roads are an excellent source for adding the illusion of a third dimension to a two-dimensional medium.

  5. Hi Kerry,

    That opening para of the dialogue resonated.I would have called it ‘ the long and winding……’ except that it is not winding. I could have even termed it,
    ‘Stopping by the woods on a ……’ except that this is shot in summer with no hint of snow. I can even fathom that the road may be leading to nowhere, except that it just might lead somewhere.

    So I guess it is all about how something occurs to each one of us. Would you agree?


    • Hi Shakti. (Love the Robert Frost reference, BTW.)

      Yes, essentially I agree with your conclusions. Rather than simply saying “we found this (subjectively) interesting,” we’re exploring the notion of whether there are recognizable correlates. Are there things that are, if not universal, sufficiently held in common that make us stop and take notice in the field? There’s no sense that individuality doesn’t play a role, but we’re inherently musing about whether there’s something else at work that we can (at least try and) put our finger on.

      This may be a fool’s errand; we’ll see. But I think we’re committed to playing it out and seeing what happens.

      Thanks for taking the time to weigh in; it’s much appreciated.

  6. Kerry, this is a fascinating post; my anticipation of it was not misplaced! I love peeking in on the creative process of others and the large image of Tom’s photo was magnificent and illustrative of his inner process. I too am drawn to roads, paths, passageways and my photos and paintings are full of them, and as you and Tom discussed, part of the appeal is subconscious. However, I think it is even deeper, or perhaps broader, than that. Mike’s comment on “stopping power” captures the phenomenon of why any artist is drawn to a certain type of image. My experience is that we have a few powerful threads in our lives, a puzzle or mystery that we are trying to solve, and we return to it again and again until it takes on an archetypal significance, sort of a personal mythology. This is as true for me as a composer as it is for my visual artwork – the light on a forest path becomes both a musical subject and a visual subject, even the stuff of my dreams. I’ve become convinced that a creative act is an attempt to externalize and share something that is deeply important to our inner self.

    • Thanks very much for weighing in, Lynn.

      I find your thoughts on this subject extremely interesting, and I’ve re-read them a couple of times, to help me sift through them. It’s a very interesting notion of what, in the final analysis, might be the seeds of individual creativity. You’ve provided an awful lot to chew on.

      I’ve found myself pondering the question of how comparatively conscious each individual might be about this idea of “powerful threads”…not just in terms of recognizing what those threads might be, but also whether we’re actually conscious of the very process of identifying them. And finally, there’s the question of how relative levels of awareness might impact on our ability to channel creative impulses in satisfying ways. Is recognition of the process and its component parts important? Or is it best to simply “let things flow,” unimpeded by analysis?

      I will continue to think about all of this, and–very likely–apportion it into future installments in this series.

      Thanks again.

      • Kerry, I think it takes a very long time for most of us to even be aware of that process and it bubbles up regardless. Sometimes, though, looking over a body of work and starting to see themes that have emerged starts to bring the process into a more conscious state. But I think that our emotional response to a scene or an idea is still probably the best starting place.

        • I suspect that it takes a certain amount of introspection merely to be aware enough to even consider the kinds of things that we’re talking about. There’s a brief passage–just a few paragraphs, really–about 3/4 of the way into E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India that illustrates this point better than anything else I’ve ever read. I won’t quote it here because in isolation, outside the context of the plot, it won’t make all that much sense. But suffice to say, cognizance of self-awareness isn’t a universal trait.

          In any event, thanks again for your thoughts. I’m sure they will continue to help me form my own.

  7. […] introduction to the series is here and Part I and Part II can be read via the corresponding […]

  8. […] introduction to the series is here and Part I , Part II and Part III can be read via the corresponding […]

Please feel free to comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: