We have had two major wildfires here in the Jemez Mountains over the last four years. Each destroyed well over 100,000 acres leaving large tracts of forest scarred with the burned skeletons of once majestic conifer trees. After a while, you get used to the desolation. It can even have its own kind of harsh beauty.
Winter can be especially beautiful in a burn. The tonal contrast between the white snow and the black, charred trees is striking. The textural contrast between the trees on a burned ridge and a lowering storm cloud provide strong elements and tell a story of loss reconciled by time and weather. We can use such conditions to make more compelling images.
When conditions are right, the bones of the dead trees become coated with hoarfrost and are transformed into fragile, crystalline structures. You can almost hear the tinkling of their branches as they sag under the weight of the frost.
When the sun breaks through a low-hanging bank of clouds, the light is transformed; it becomes, in a way, magical. The shadows and the mist of the clouds create a kind of frame that surround and isolate the area which is lit, making it the focal point of the composition.
Otherwise unremarkable elements of the landscape become worthy of attention when they are enhanced by a coat of frost.
They come front and center when the rest of the scene is obscured by cloud cover. Such conditions reduce the clutter that would, under normal conditions, draw our attention away from them.
The last two images are successful only because of the low clouds which block the view of a conifer covered hillside. If we could see the entire scene, the trees in the foreground would become lost in the background of similar shapes and patterns. By using the softness and the simplicity of winter conditions, we can imbue otherwise unattractive or unworkable scenes with qualities that make them stand out, and render them more recognizable and appealing to the eye of a viewer.
Artistic vision is not something that is easy to define, at least not in terms of individual style. It is something that is (or should) always be changing, evolving. When I look at the work that I was doing five years ago, I am struck by the difference from that which I am doing today. That’s as it should be. If I could see no discernible change, I would be worried that my creativity is stagnating.
Vision has to do not only with the subject matter you shoot, or the way you choose to capture it. It is also about how you take the image from the one in the camera to the one that hangs on the wall. So, post processing is just as important to expressing your vision as the initial capture, perhaps more important. This first image was made one January day on the edge of what was soon to become the Valles Caldera National Preserve and after many years of learning and evolving, both in my shooting style and in my processing technique, this is still one of my favorite photographs.
I tell my Beginning Digital Photography students that they should always be looking for new ways to present their subjects and of course this extends to the work they do in the digital darkroom. I made the above image in 2002. It is a close-up of burned tree bark that I took in the burn scar of the Lake Fire. This is pretty representative of the work I was doing at that time: close-up/macro/intimate landscapes.
The third image was made several years later and it is one of the very few I made during that time that included a hint of anything man-made. All of these photographs were made using film cameras. The first two were shot with a Nikon F3, the second, a Nikon F100. All three were made using Fuji Velvia transparency film.
Sometime around 2005, I began to feel that my strict adherence to shooting almost exclusively macro/close-ups was stifling my creativity and I began to broaden my horizons (both literally and figuratively). I had also purchased my first digital camera, a Nikon D200. Looking back, I think the new-found freedom of no longer being constrained by the cost of film played a major role in my ability to experiment with a new shooting style.
This black and white landscape was an early attempt to further break from my habit of excluding man-made elements from my images. I still hadn’t perfected my B&W conversion technique, but it was a step in the right direction.
When I was shooting mostly macro, I preferred diffuse lighting; no shadows means clearer details, but as I began to see the broad landscape, I began to take advantage of the multi-faceted nature of light. In the five images above, I make use of different kinds of lighting: overcast, early morning, evening, and mid-day with partial overcast. They each paint the landscape with a different brush and each portrays a different mood.
Lately, my work has come full circle, back to the subjects I was pursuing when I first started out all those years ago, which is to say–anything and everything. The difference is, I now have the expertise I lacked back then, so I am able to show my viewers what I saw in my mind’s eye before I released the shutter. That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean that I feel I’ve reached some kind of photographer’s Nirvana; I am excited to see what kind of curve my vision will throw me next.
When I was a much younger man, I spent a great deal of time standing by the side of a road with my thumb in the air spurred on by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey. Some of those roads were paved and four lanes wide; some were dirt or gravel and you couldn’t really tell how many lanes wide they were. I guess it really didn’t matter as long as they seemed endless.
These days I’m somewhat tamer in my ways, but I still get a feeling of expectancy when I look through the windshield and see nothing but the road, the sky, and a wide open or unknown landscape. Until recently, however, I would not allow the hand of man to enter the world of my landscape photography, so the roads were banished.
Now that I’ve overcome my phobia of including anything that smacks of man in an image, I am free to express my love of the open road in my photography. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I am working on a project; I am making images of highways and byways as I travel around on my photo excursions. I hope to accumulate enough good photographs to publish a book. The images in this post are ones that have made the cut; some have been displayed in previous posts, but most of those have been re-worked to bring them up to snuff.
The only down side to all this road photography is that I seem to be spending a lot of time standing or kneeling in the middle of some very busy highways. Most of the time though, I’m on a road like Indian Rte. 13 or NM 16 which see very little traffic.
And, at other times, I find myself on unpaved roads such as BLM 1103 in the Rio Puerco Valley, or small access roads like the one in the photo of the Shiprock Lava Dike below where I could stand for hours or even days without being in danger of becoming road kill.
An aspen grove in the snow! An iconic photographic scene captured by the greats: Ansel Adams, John Shaw, Art Wolfe to name but a few. This is my humble contribution.
I made this image while driving home from Los Alamos. Coyote Call is a trail on the “open” side of the Valles Caldera NP. This stand of aspens is just a short distance from the trailhead. Normally, I would avoid making this type of photograph in this kind of light, but I think the long shadows in this case give the image more depth.
I captured this photo in color, but did a B&W conversion in Adobe Camera Raw, and I like the result better than the color version.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikon 17–35 mm zoom lens, Bogen tripod
Camera Settings: f 36, 1/15th sec., ISO 100
I made this image a couple days ago. I was just past the Valles Caldera when I spied this pair of aspen tress growing side by side, and knee deep in snow. Aspens are like an extended family in that they share a common root system with other aspens that are nearby. So, these two really are siblings.
I was striving for simplicity in this image, so I framed it tight to exclude any other extraneous physical features. I had visualized it as a black and white image when I was setting up the shot, so one of the first things I did after importing it into Lightroom was convert it to greyscale.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikon 80–200 mm f 2.8 lens, Bogen tripod.
Camera Settings: f 6.3, 1/400th sec., ISO 100
Processing: Greyscale conversion, contrast, and clarity adjustments in Lightroom, curves adjustments in Photoshop.
This image was made at the Valles Caldera. The Valles is a large meadow created by the collapse of an ancient volcano. For years it was private land, a part of the 89,000 acre Baca ranch. In 2000 the federal government bought the ranch; it is now public land, protected from development, for now at least.
I made this image one day on my way home from Los Alamos. I have photographed this scene numerous times, but never with a more dramatic sky.
Equipment: Nikon D300, Nikon 17–35 mm f2.8 lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod
Camera Settings: f 14, 1/125th sec., ISO 400
Processing: Contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, curves adjustments, and RAW conversion in Photoshop
Okay, Okay, I know it’s another fence photo. This was actually the first time I had consciously included a manmade object in an image in a long time. I was driving across the Valles Caldera one winter day; it was foggy and there was fresh snow on the ground. I noticed this fence line angling off into the distance, and it seemed as though it was floating. There was no discernible horizon; it was like watching a dream unfold.
This is another of those images that I visualized in B&W as I was setting up the shot. I knew I wanted simplicity, to the exclusion of everything but the lines, shapes and tonal values. Color would have been an overstatement.
Equipment: Nikon F100, Nikon 35–70 mm f 2.8 zoom lens, Fuji Velvia.
Processing: Nikon CoolscanV, Curves, and B&W conversion in Photoshop