They take their time and wander
on this their only chance to soar."
- Joseph Albers (1888 - 1976)
Among the countless "rules" (or, more precisely, "rules of thumb") of photography, there are these three gems: (1) just because some "thing" or "place" is beautiful does not mean that it can be captured in a photograph; (2) how "good" a photograph is (whether judged by the photographer or viewer) has little or no correlation with how "hard" it was to get it; and - my personal favorite (and main focus of this short blog post; although all three apply) - (3) capturing "autumn colors" is among the hardest "simplest" things to do as a photographer.
I admit that #3 may not be at the top of most photographer's list of "rules to learn to forget" - I mean, how hard can it be to take a picture of fall colors?!? Point and shoot, right? - but it is near the top of mine! Indeed, combining #3 with #1, I have always simultaneously both looked forward to and dreaded the "peak color" weeks of autumn. I, like most everyone else, find autumn colors (particularly those in my northern Virginia neighborhood) stunningly beautiful. Yet, I have also always found it particularly difficult to capture the beauty of fall colors with my camera. Taking it "all in" with a panorama certainly makes a colorful photo, but is hardly a step beyond the "cliche" shot. On the other hand, while artfully focusing in on a colorful tree or leaf might result in a credible "fine art" print, this is also just as likely to fall far short of expressing the "Wow!" one feels while entranced by the preternatural sun strewn colors of autumn. In my 50+ years of doing photography, I have yet to take a single image that comes close to capturing what I feel when I am surrounded by autumn colors at their best.
And so, we come to aphorism #2, and use it to contextualize the image that appears at the top of this post. This photograph was taken during a hike my wife and I took last weekend at a local park. The small but beautiful - and easily accessible - Scott Runs waterfall appears at the end of the first leg of the trail, and is visible to your left just as you turn toward the Potomac river. Indeed, most pictures of the waterfall are of this "head on" view of the falls from a vantage point near where the trail runs into the river. While I have an obligatory image captured from this position ...
... it is the image shown at the top of this post that I prefer. Why? Not because it is the better of the two (truth be told, I think this one is the superior photograph!); but simply because it required great effort on my part - with considerable help by my wife (without whom I literally could not have captured this image). To get this shot, I needed to first walk "around" a rock/sand embankment (and away from the falls), climb over some steep rocks, wade in slightly-above-knee water, climb back onto the steep rocks (while reaching over them to grab my camera and tripod that my wife was diligently holding for me), and find a position that approximated my "visualized" vantage point. In my mind, at least, and solely because of first-hand experience with the effort that was involved, I imbue the resulting image (the one that appears at the top of this page) with something "special"; for me, it is a "better image" because of what I needed to do beyond "just turning a corner and pressing the shutter." In truth? It's a toss up; whichever of the two images is "best" is - and ought to be - entirely up to the viewer. Sadly, of course, and as always, neither image captures the awe I felt as I was bedazzled by Virginia's autumn colors!
"Far away there in the sunshine
are my highest aspirations.
I may not reach them, but I can
look up and see their beauty,
believe in them, and try
to follow where they lead."
- John Muir (1838 - 1914)
The image above was captured - or, more precisely (following on the heels of Kim Grant's superlative video meditation on the follies of doing photography while stressed; Kim is one of my favorite YouTube photographers: list here), was creatively seen while I was in a quiet state of mind - along a trail at the Niagara Glen Nature Centre I've been posting about recently. As Kim's beautifully eloquent vlog post says so much better than I am able to by using only lifeless words and a lonely image, it is only when we allow ourselves to slooooow down while doing photography, and let go of our everyday pressures and stressors (as I had the privilege of doing for a few happy hours last weekend while on a trip with my wife), that we can take those first steps beyond just "capturing" images to seeing them. Indeed, it is in those brief precious moments when we somehow manage to quiet the "chatter in our heads" (as Alan Watts liked to describe the constant internal noise we all live with as conscious beings), that the illusory boundary between "self" and "world" dissipates to reveal nature's bountiful creative possibilities. Thank you, Kim, for a wonderfully poignant reminder of the need to clear our minds and become one with nature and our surroundings, if only for a few moments 😊
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)
I mentioned in my last post that my wife and I took a short trip to Niagara Falls, Canada last weekend. I also mentioned that I was a bit underwhelmed by the falls themselves; as a photographer "seeing" the falls for the first time (the "tourist" in me was enthralled, and my iPhone has about a half dozen snaps to prove it). Rather than taking photographs of the "falls as they appear in their full splendor," I instead took a series of more intimate "impressions" of the falls.
Apart from their sheer size - the height varies between 70 and 100 ft, the Canadian portion is close to 2,600 ft wide, while the U.S. side is a bit over 1,000 ft) - Niagara falls are cacophonous and effervescent; indeed, they are best described as a thunderously loud living liquid chaos! While the images that accompany this post may fall (small pun intended) far short of conveying just how thunderously loud and chaotic the falls are, they do provide a sense of what the falls offer photographers apart from their (otherwise grand) splendor.
From Iceland to Niagara Falls, Canada. While I still have an immense backlog of raw files from our recent Iceland trip (which I will post as soon as I find time to process them), I also have a few images I would like to share from a short trip my wife and I took to Niagara Falls, Canada this past weekend. The first set is the "quint-tych" you see above, which contains a modest sampling of the many rocks and boulders strewn along the trails at the Niagara Glen Nature Centre (about 10 min away from the center of town). For obvious reasons, this is a popular park for local bouldering enthusiasts. I enjoyed nearly 8 hours of restful hiking and composing with my travel camera (spread over two days: the first day with my wife, and the second day by myself while my wife was busy at a symposium). While I was a bit underwhelmed by the falls themselves (speaking purely as a photographer, not a tourist - I plan on posting an "impressionistic" image or two in the coming days), I was mesmerized by the rich store of "rocks and leaves" compositional possibilities offered by the nearby nature center; to be sure, there was also plenty of "water" at the center, since the trails weave in and out of splendid views of the Niagara river (I will be posting a few of these as well in coming days). Following Mihaly's sage wisdom, my justification of taking pictures of "rocks and leaves" (when, by all rights, I should have been back in our hotel room working on a technical paper that is soon due) is ... taking pictures of "rocks and leaves"! 😊
- Alan Watts (1915 - 1973)
"A sense of place is a conviction
in the individual’s choice to live there.
That is what gives the whole dignify and purpose."
- Halldor Laxness (1902 - 1998)
"Place is security,
space is freedom.
In a sense, every human construction,
whether mental or material, is a
component in a landscape of fear
because it exists in constant chaos.
Thus children's fairy tales as well
as adult's legends, cosmological myths,
and indeed philosophical systems
are shelters built by the mind in which
human beings can rest, at least temporarily, from
the siege of inchoate experience and of doubt.
It is by thoughtful reflection that the
elusive moments of the past draw
draw near to us in present reality and
gain a measure of permanence."
- Yi-Fu Tuan (1930 - 2022)
- Kahlil Gibran (1883 - 1931)
This shot was taken somewhere along the southern shore of the Snaefellsnes peninsula after only our first full day in Iceland. The scene magically - and quickly - unfolded as we were driving along Route 54. One moment, our car was surrounded by a drab, grey landscape too dark to make one want to even look; the next - and only for a brief instant - the heavens opened up to bathe the landscape with effulgent light! There was just enough time to park the car (although highway pull-over spots are regrettably few and far-between in Iceland - my single complaint about what is otherwise a photographer's true heaven - there was one that fortuitously appeared just as the light broke through the clouds), ask my wife to hand me my camera, and take a quick hand-held shot while still sitting behind the wheel with a running engine. In the time I took to reach for my tripod to head out for a "proper" composition, the light had vanished and the landscape reverted to its prior drab, grey landscape too dark to make one want to even look.
Apart from the majestic landscapes, moody seascapes, waterfalls, glaciers, lagoons, .... the list goes on and on ... perhaps Iceland's greatest gift to insatiably hungry photographers' eyes is the omnipresent drama and spectacle of its glorious light and shadow. Literally anywhere you choose to stand for more than a few brief moments (it does not matter where or even for what reason!) is certain to be the center of a veritable storehouse of every-shifting ethereal luminescent patterns of both radiance and mystery. While our planet is inarguably home to a number of places in which it is nearly impossible not to take a beautiful picture - my wife and I have visited our fair share (e.g., Hawaii, Santorini, and the Isle of Skye) - I have heretofore rarely experienced quite so many "places" ubiquitously scattered around a single country!