Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sea breeze in grasses: the intimate relationship between subject and photographer.

The subject is within you, nature giving only the suggestions.
Arthur Wesley Dow

I'm walking along the rocky headland called Beaver Point on Saltspring Island. This place is close to home and in the past I used to work here as a Park Ranger so it is very familiar photographic ground indeed. Here is subject matter all around, boats of all sizes race past, and yet this time I focus on the afternoon sea breeze waving tall stalks of grasses on the cliff's edge. There are interesting visual contrasts here between rock and sea and between the blur of grassy movement and the action of the waves. My subject is nothing unusual unless I make it so through how I visualize it, my camera settings, and how I frame it. Why am I choosing to take this image anyway and why do I choose this one specific point of view to shoot from?

When anyone takes a photograph he has to answer many questions which can be placed in the three categories of technique: 'Aesthetic, intellectual and mechanical'*.
Mechanical would be all about the machine we use, a camera. Intellectual answers the question why we are taking this particular image and not some other. Aesthetic concerns the way we organize the elements that comprise the subject to fully express what we are thinking about. For most of us this doesn't seem all that big a deal, but that is because we usually work within a narrow channel of perception where these questions do not readily arise.

Here on this cliff edge, facing the grasses waving in front of the waves I begin to make some choices. I am attracted to subjects that contain contrasts, and here I have several working together. I seek images that promise a glimpse of eternity and here is a harmonious association of wind, water and earth, animated by the wisps of blowing grasses. From past experience I know how to use my camera so the grasses will be caught in a blur, the waves stilled but obviously animated by the same breeze, and the curve of rock portrayed as large, solid and monumental.

It is in the proportions, where the line between the sea and rock falls, where the two stalks are placed within the frame, that my image stands or falls. That in the end is sheer intuition, the art of the whole process. If I were working to some rules of proportion, the image would have become frozen by convention; the applying of craft, so useful with camera settings, is inappropriate here where my mind must be free to wave and blur with the wind in the grass.

There is one aspect that most of us shy away from mentioning to others but which is essential to making my images, and that is my attitude, my inner intention. The poet Rilke expresses this well: “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is soulless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them”. The idea that a photograph, so mechanical, so rational and so craft oriented, could need anything like love, first to make it and then to view it, is definitely a challenge, but that thought of his really opens up the mind to a wider understanding of picture making*. This rocky and familiar headland, the fresh breeze forming the waves on the sea's surface and animating the grass stems; there is a deep reality here in this familiar place that I first experience and then express as love.

    * The camera makes an image – record of the object before it. It records the subject in terms of the optical properties of the lens, and the physical properties of the negative and print. The control of that record lies in the selection by the photographer and his understanding of the photographic processes at his command. The photographer visualizes his concept of the subject as presented in the final print. He achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique - aesthetic, intellectual, and mechanical.
    Ansel Adams

    * In our day to day contact with natural things, we establish emotional bonds. It is as natural to love Earth as it is to love one's human family.... The person who cares about Earth is likely to observe it thoughtfully, to see patterns of relationships between things that a casual observer does not, and also be cognisant of his or her own emotional responses to different aspects of Earth's content. While caring by itself does not ensure clear perception, real awareness of subject matter is impossible without it.
    Freeman Patterson, 'Portraits of Earth'

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