I spent fourteen days in southeast Utah last spring, and made somewhere between one and four photographs that merit public display. Fourteen more days in the Grand Canyon in September, with maybe a half dozen noteworthy photographs to show for it. More recently, six days on the California coast yielded one good photo, and even that one stands out primarily for its conformity with the parade of outdoor photographs seen in magazines and on the internet.
Then, this past Saturday, I spent the day at a favorite spot twenty-five minutes from where I live. I had been there many other times in the past, and every time I visit I’m concerned I won’t see anything new. Sometimes, indeed, I don’t. This time I came away with the two accompanying photographs, both of which I am happy with.
Why is it that this can happen? When confronted with some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth I can’t make a decent photograph, but in a modest local spot I can realize my vision not once, but twice (!) in one day. We could chalk it up to the familiarity of the location, but I don’t think that is the reason. I conjecture that when in an amazing place I’m often conflicted by things that are counterproductive to making a good photograph: Attempting to capture everything. Caught up in images of the location that I have seen over the years. Overwhelmed by the obvious to the point of being oblivious to more nuanced scenes. The list goes on and on…
This is not to say that it is easy to make a good photograph in familiar locales, and both of these photos came very close to not being realized. Consider this one:
I had walked around for a couple hours and made a few photographs, none of which had excited me when making them. I went back to my car for a snack and to perhaps walk a different direction. A group of cub scouts showed up and ran around making joyous children noises. I walked around near the parking lot, eating an energy bar. It began to snow very lightly, and there was a very luminous light. I spotted a group of trees and started photographing them in various arrangements before settling on the one you see here. The light was absolutely magical - without it this photograph would not have presented itself.
(Note that, in contradiction to the conventional wisdom that landscape photographers always need to be out there for the “magic light” of sunrise and sunset, this was at about 1 PM!)
The scouts left on their hike and I went to check out the waterfront. There were a couple interesting and fairly dense groups of what I’ve learned to call tules. (The internet tells me that these are “a large bulrush that is abundant in marshy areas of California” - well, we are almost in California!) I attempted to photograph them, knowing instinctively that these would probably be failed efforts. In one case the wind had come up a bit and ruffled the water to the point of ruining reflections. I then found the sparser and more interesting group in this image:
As I photographed this group I didn’t have high hopes. For one thing, this threatened to be a banal imitation of other photographs I’ve seen over the years, usually in black and white. For another, wind was still rippling the water. Regardless, I made a number of exposures to account for the fact that the reflections were constantly changing.
When examining the image file at home I noticed the subtle horizontal bands due to the gentle rippling of the water, and the fact that the rippling was just enough to make the reflections interesting with breaking them up. To me, these two things, along with the very nuanced color, really make the photograph, and prevent it from falling into the realm of cliché.
Dorothy was right, there’s no place like home!