Monday, December 05, 2011

watch the skies 2: the making of a photograph series

The photographs of a Wisconsin sunset and evening and of a full moon were made sequentially, on the same day. These photos were all made within a span of two or three hours, on a very productive day for my photography.

I was out driving through the farmland countryside, mostly empty of people, and after the harvest. Most of the fields had been cleared for winter, and the leaves had finished falling from the trees. I had been noticing the dramatic clouds after a rain storm had swept through the region, so I grabbed my camera, got in the truck, and started driving.

The clouds were low and bold, steel-blue-gray in color, when the sun emerged briefly in a gap between cloud layers, just before sunset. I was on a county road between open farm fields, with the occasional home and barn dotting the landscape. There is a quality or tranquility in the juxtaposition between the human-made buildings and the eternal landscape and changing sky.

The same clouds then were painted from behind with bright sunset colors as the evening continued. I placed the line of the horizon low in the frame, with bare trees and some distant buildings, as a way of giving scale to the magnificent show of color in the sky.

As the sun sank further, and the sky darkened, I noticed an abandoned barn that made an interesting silhouette against the sky and the band of clouds. I like the contrast of the bold edges of the building against the softer forms of the clouds.

The full moon rose, sometimes in a clear patch of sky, sometimes covered by fast-moving veils of cloud.

I chose to switch from making color to B&W photographs when the light had faded enough that little color remained in the dusk light. Also, the barn and late dusk clouds were more interesting as a strong composition in B&W, and any color in the photo would have been distracting rather than interesting. I continued with B&W for the moon photos, because what was interesting was the moon being played against the pine tree's silhouette—an inspiration from japanese art, in terms of the composition I chose—and against the clouds. The clouds partially covered the moon at times, but their edges also transmitted and reflected the moonlight in dramatic, moody shapes. I made the moon images as square compositions partly to emphasize the composition of forms.

The poems accompanying these photographs were written spontaneously, as I sorted through the images, preparing them for printing (and posting). I have made a practice over the past few years of combining poems and photographs, and have in mind at some time to publish them as an illustrated book of poems. The poems were directly inspired by the photographs, and they ought to be presented together.

People sometimes ask me how I make photos like these. What they really want to know, sometimes, is how to do it themselves.

There's no special secret to it. It's really very simple:

1. Always have a camera with you.

2. Always pay attention to your surroundings. Always be seeing what's around you, the sky and the land, the light changing continuously throughout the day.

3. Be willing to drop everything, when the conditions are just right, be willing to stop whatever else you're doing, get out the camera on the instant, and make the photograph.

4. It's all about the light.

You can take this to a deeper level, too:

1. Always have a good camera with you, one that you're familiar with, that you have practiced using. If you know your camera well, you don't have to fiddle with it, getting it set up and ready to go. You don't have to fight your tools before using them, you just use them. Sometimes the light changes so fast that if you're spending too much time getting ready to make the photograph, you lose the moment. Modern digital cameras do make set-up times faster, which is an advantage. The disadvantage is that sometimes they're so easy to use that you shoot a million pictures without having actually stopped to see what you're shooting first.

2. The difference between "taking pictures" and "making a photograph" is all about the time you take to see before releasing the trigger. The difference between "taking" and "making" is subtle, but it's important.

"Taking" is about the borderlands of greed, and can be a violent act: for example, paparazzi taking photographs of celebrities they have pursued is about greed, about intruding your desire to acquire an image onto someone else's private time. You get a great shot (and isn't "shooting" a word about violence, too?), you get paid by some tabloid. It's not about friendship, it's not really about love. It can be about mania, or obsession.

People on vacation take lots of pictures, most of them not very interesting, continuously snapping their cameras, shooting (shooting again) everything in sight. People make videos of themselves and post them on online social networks. The difference between the authoritarian culture of surveillance and the personal culture of narcissism has become deeply blurred.

"Making" is about taking time to first see what you want to photograph. It can involve walking around the subject, contemplating it for awhile. It means preparation: prepared at all times to make an image—sometimes very quickly, as the butterfly alights on the coneflower—by having set up the camera a long time ago to wait for the perfect moment to arrive.

At all times pay attention to your surroundings. See what is there. This can be taken beyond the level of ordinary awareness, into a kind of Zen awareness, a Warrior's awareness, where you always know what's going on around you. With practice, you can make a camera walk into a kind of meditation. My Ki Aikido sensei used to tell me that he doesn't do sitting Zen meditation as much as he used to, because after thirty of daily of practice of meditation, he's pretty much meditating all the time. That's more than most photographers aspire to, or are even aware could be possible, but it can make a big difference in the kind of photographs you make. It even applies to fast-paced photography like sports photography. be paying attention—and all meditation really is, is Pay Attention, Pay Attention, Pay Attention—you can often feel something is about to happen, and be ready for it when it does. There's nothing magical about this: it's merely about paying close attention to your subject, and merging with what you're doing. Photographers can be "in the zone" in the same way athletes are.

3. Be willing to stop everything to make the photograph. Don't hesitate to stop whatever you're doing, in order to make a photograph, when the moment's right.

If you're driving, pull over and stop and get out of the vehicle when you see that perfect photographic moment about to happen. If you're out jogging, stop and make your photograph, then resume jogging. If you're out taking a walk with your camera, you can stop and stare for as long as you want, make your image, then walk on.

Don't hesitate to look foolish. Don't worry about what people think, if you break off for a moment to make a photo. If you're too self-conscious about how and where you make your art, you're probably not going to continue making your art. At the very least, you'll have to find to cope with your self-consciousness, if you want to progress with your art.

4. It's all about the light.

Photography is about light. Light is what makes the photograph. Light, whether it's visible light, or infrared, or x-rays, consists of photons traveling at the speed of light, at whatever frequency and amplitude. You can't make an image when no photons are reaching your lens.

I noticed some years ago, after it had been pointed out to me by some perceptive viewers of my photographs, that a lot of my landscape photographs are really about the sky. The sky dominates the photograph, no matter what the photo's subject is ostensibly about. I generalized that awareness to a realization that when I am making photographs, I'm really looking at the light.

That means that some kinds of light, certain times of day, certain places, are more attractive to my photographer's eye. I am drawn to dramatic landscape, to saturated colors, or to contrast and brightness in B&W compositions. Some of my favorite photographs are all about the light, the sky, and the landscape.

But this isn't limited to time or place. This morning I awoke to another cloudy day of flat and featureless gray skies, gloomy in mood, dark in tone, with no contrast in the shadows, and no interest in the sky. Even on a gloomy, cloudy day with featureless skies and flat light, making a photograph is still all about the light. I can find something to make a photograph of even on a day of featureless gray clouds. I just have to go looking for it. When you go looking, and you start to Pay Attention, you realize that the light is still beautiful, albeit subtle rather than saturated, gentle rather than dramatic. You can change the way you perceive the day, the sky, the light, and still find a photographic subject worthy of your attention.

That's how learning to Pay Attention, and always having your camera with you, can serve you well, even on days you might otherwise find aesthetically challenging. What's changed from the morning when you woke up thinking the light was flat and uninteresting? You've changed. Your viewpoint and attitude have shifted. You've paid attention to what's there, and you've slowed down and stopped what you were doing to see what's actually there.

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