In Arizona, we don’t have snow days, we have SNOW MINUTES. By the time the clouds had cleared enough to reveal the snow on the mountains, we had minutes to pack up the car, get the kids out of school and drive out into the desert to find patches of snow. As we rounded each successive curve, I worried we may not get anything more than a patch or two of snowy mud in the shadow of a rock, but we beat the melt and found a great view and enough snow to have a little snow ball fight. I grew up around snow. But my wife, who grew up in Phoenix, was 33 when she first saw snow falling out of the sky. So, any chance we get, we expose our children to snow in an effort to make them more empathetic to those who live in the northern climates!
Anyway, here was our view this afternoon as we played in the snow.
I looked out the window the other evening and the whole world had a Tang orange glow. Nothing looked right and as I went outside with my boys to investigate, I walked into another world. The clouds were thick and full of rain, so very little light came through them, but instead spilled over them from the sunset below. The dust was so thick that we were not looking at the sunset, we were in the sunset. It was a magnificent sight. There was, of course no time to go anywhere other than stay right outside my home and watch this spectacle change as the sun dropped to the unseen horizon. And when this kind of thing happens, you stay outside with your camera until the sun goes down completely. I couldn’t have asked for a better evening with my boys, watching such an incredible display of light and clouds.
As I photographed the clouds, I thought of a conversation I had with John Craig from Pittsburgh about photographic composition and the critical nature of the frame. I asked him, “if you could pass on to your daughter, only one thing about photography, only one quick lesson, what would that be?” It is an interesting question and one I think everyone should ask themselves. What would you pass on to the next generation if you had only one concept to pass along? Think about it before you answer. Some will say something like “follow your passion” or some such platitudinous drivel, which has nothing to do with better photography. What I am asking for is serious conceptual advice on making better photographs, compositional strategies and theories that will, if learned and practices, make any image (no matter the content) into a better photograph.
My answer to my own questions is this: I would teach my child how to see and use the frame well. There are so many theories and strategies that go into using the frame of the image, which is a lesson for another time, but there is no question in my mind that it is the most important aspect of photographic composition. Yes, of course there are others, but the frame is where it all starts and ends. It is the great unifier of photography (we all have four edges to our frame). And yet there is nothing that damns so many photographers to second rate status because they do not use the frame well (mostly, they don’t pay attention to it).
So I offer the following as a method for training your eye to use the frame wisely:
Alfred Stieglitz made a series of photographs of clouds, which he called “Equivalence“, in which, he was attempting to photograph object, which in and of themselves held no loaded messages, and simply explored controlling random compositions as pure abstraction. The theory being that without the loaded imagery, one could focus more on communicating the expressions of the inner soul directly to the soul of the viewer. All a bit too artsy for me, but there was still a brilliance in his selection of clouds as a subject.
The experience of photographing clouds is a fantastic lesson in framing which is the cornerstone of composition. The organizational structures of the clouds keep changing, morphing into something new every minute, so that there are an infinite number of frames before your camera, with constantly changing elements. But there are no intellectually loaded symbols to distract the photographer, so the act of including or excluding something is not to avoid a particular statement or to make a point, but rather it is simply to create a stronger composition.
The greatest failure of inexperienced photographers is their inability to emotionally and intellectually distance themselves from the subject matter and watch for composition. But, with clouds, a photographer has the freedom to practice composition by disregarding the content and dealing only with the composition.
So, with such a perfect opportunity, I took a few moments to practice my framing and enjoy the experience of pure compositional shooting. Here is my favorite image.
And when I say, Tang Orange, I mean it. This is perfectly accurate color. What you see here was exactly what we were seeing. We were literally inside the sunset.
Living in the desert is a unique experience. Forget about the 120 degree summer days and the horribly unfriendly plant life. To me, the weather is quite fascinating. I love the monsoon rainstorms and the lightning is fantastic. Other places in the world have their own challenging weather situations, many much more dangerous. There are tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, etc… and none of these options are very appealing to me, which is why I prefer my native state of Arizona. But we do have our own unique weather effect: the dust storm.
I was traveling back from a job in Tucson and took a back road route home (rather than the freeway). I enjoy doing this because everything goes by so quickly on the freeway and there is no inclination to stop and look at anything (and of course, it would be illegal to do so). So the back roads are much more enjoyable as road trips go. On my way home, I saw an approaching dust storm and immediately pulled off the road and pulled out the camera and went hiking. The Arizona dust storm has a beautiful effect on our world. It creates a ghost of anything in the distance if not, it completely obscures it. Like a blizzard, it creates a thin sketch of the landscape with little to no contrast. I am generally haunted by vacancy in an image. I am not sure why, but of all the photographs I would select to hang in my home, it is those filled with quiet and solitude that appeal most to me. That doesn’t mean that I choose to photograph this way all the time, but it has the deepest emotional affect on my soul. I think it is because that is who I am at my core.
If you are drawn to a particular style of photography, or art, and looking at that work brings you home, you can be sure that that attraction says a lot about you as a person. In fact, weather you like a photograph or don’t, says less about the photographer or the photograph and more about you as a person. Which is why, I think, that I get along so well with my clients. They have selected me as their photographer based on their emotional and intellectual response to my work. Which means that they, in some way, deep down at some root level, are like me. We agree on what gives us peace and brings us home.
When I got home and started working with this image, I asked my wife about this image. “Am I off base, or is this image extremely haunting and beautiful?”
“I can see what you are attracted to in the image,” she replied, “but it’s not all that great!”
No, I wasn’t devastated by her comment. I just decided she was wrong. It is great, but perhaps only to me and people like me. Remember, her reaction to the photograph says more about her, than it does about the photo. In contrast, I think my friend Isaac Bailey would like it. But I think we share a common love for solitude (or perhaps it is a sullen longing for sleep). My wife grew up in the city with all of its distractions and noise, I grew up on the prairies of Northern Arizona where the only noise is the constant wind. So, my wife’s take on this photo was an instructive reminder to me. My wife is a good judge of a photograph, which tells me that this image is different, my attraction to it isn’t just about some other brilliantly employed compositional strategy, I didn’t make this picture to sell something or even to make a statement. I made it because something inside me wanted to go home for a little while and relax there in the shadow of the Zuni Mountains and look over the endless flat land, smell the dust, swap stories with my brothers and wait until dark for a ride back into town. This was a free ticket back to Bitter Springs after the long climb through The Gap to witness the brilliant view from the tops of the Vermilion Cliffs. Sometimes photography isn’t about the subject in front of us at all. The subject is just a catalyst for memory, a sort of psychiatrist’s couch for introspection and self discovery. And sometimes, a photography session reminds you of who you are.
These introspective moments almost never happen while the camera is in your hands. They come in the quiet times in the darkroom, or the Lightroom as you study the results. And while my mantra is always about efficiency in post production. When I feel that prompting, I do my best to slow down, and examine my work closely without distractions or deadlines and find out what it is, I have been trying to say to myself.
A few more images from the series that I think you might enjoy.
Tech Talk: All of the images in this post were completely processed in Lightroom. They were never opened in Photoshop. Tones, grain and vignettes were all added in Lightroom without the use of any additional plugins etc. Below is a video about creating custom vignettes in Lightroom like those you see above. This video is also on iTunes and on the Pictage Blog. Check out more of my podcasts at iTunes and more blog posts at Pictage Blog.