On the edge
December 16, 2016
Click. The perfect shot. In focus. Perfect light. Well composed. Still, something is missing. The processed picture seems out of place. It has no sense of being. It’s a studio shot. Recognizable perhaps because it is a well-known place. Other than that, the viewer has no idea where they are. Or the setting. How does the picture fit into the world around us? A great picture – taken in a zoo? Where are the towering mountains that dwarf the stream bed? Or the endless miles of pinyon forests before the gaping chasm of the Grand Canyon? Where is the context I am trying to convey?
I can certainly attest to the fact that certain photographs stand alone. Their aesthetic value can invoke an emotion, or convey a certain quality about the object. But the style of photography I want to present requires a story, background, a framework to wrap around the picture. It’s about context to help the viewer with the experience, to feel immersed in the environment.
I met Ed Ruppel, Montana State Geologist and Chief of the Branch of Central Environmental Geology for USGS at the turn of this century. He told me three things a geologist needs to know. What am I looking at? What does it mean? Why is it there? In other words, context. A museum specimen may be a great sample, but what does it tell you? Where was it collected, what surrounded it? Dinosaurs are fantastic to look at but these bones are often devoid of the sediments they were buried in, the matrix which could tell you the story of the plants, the other animals, the climate, what they ate. We need context to understand their story.
I have tried to put this into practice. Not just with geology but in my observations. Travelling with myself, or with different groups, too often we arrive at some iconic spot and immediately rush to see or photograph it. At best we might try for different angles, look at the lighting or even see what others are observing. Click, the perfect shot but no sense of context. Thinking about trying to answer these questions, I wonder how I can give a picture more meaning? Arriving at a place I now try and look beyond just some photogenic view. I try and walk around. It could be even walking away. I try to explore. Go around the bend or over a hill. Look down at my feet. Observe the sky. This is not to say that every photograph needs or even can or should convey context. But there are ones that can reach out and tell more of a story.
When I talked about “outer limits” in a previous muse (Oct 27th) perhaps part of the answer lies in creating a gallery or more than one picture. Nevertheless, with one picture, the idea of landscape photography, is to try and give the viewer a perspective, and not just an isolated view. A tree by itself, is isolated. Surround the tree with a hot desert or canyon walls conveys the feeling of struggle and the success of nature in a hostile environment. Can your picture of a river, conveys how persistently it has, over millions of years, carved the surrounding rock to reach its temporary resting space?
I don’t find this easy. This is not about some formula to make every picture a showpiece. And you still need the other elements of tension, composition, lighting and frankly it must be interesting. A tree in a forest, certainly giving it context, but often ends up lost and you find yourself with a photograph filled with distractions. Not every picture works.
Creating context compositions is different than just good photographic technique. Frame it with objects that tell you where you are. Use other objects to give it scale and place. Look for natural angles that tell you why it is there and to draw you towards the subject. It could be clouds in the sky, or the ground at your feet. A canyon or river drawing you in or back out. It should be interesting enough to allow the viewer to look around without distracting them. To explore the setting, to understand what they are looking at, to give it context. When you do find the right balance, it is immensely rewarding.