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What the Viewer Does Not See

My ideal day of photographing occurs when I find myself alone in some wild, quiet place with no schedule and no thoughts of my life outside photography. I’m free to wander slowly and take in all that I see, smell and hear. I’ve spent countless hours at a local area, Shoalwater Bay, listening to a choir of waterfowl and hearing no other sounds, and the area has been a fertile source of photographs for me.

It is times like this that the photographic maxim “don’t show what it looks like, show what it feels like” can inform the photographer in their choice of subject matter and framing, and in how the photograph is presented to the viewer. We can attempt to impart with our photographs the mood that was present, that we experienced without the distractions of traffic, other people, and the like.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality behind many of my photographs, and the same can likely be said for others. I recall reading an anecdote by Michael Kenna about the photograph on the cover of his book A Twenty Year Retrospective. The photograph shows an empty dock extending out into a dreamlike body of water, under what appear to be light evening clouds. The photograph conveys a feeling of calm – what we don’t know when viewing it is that there were groups of drunken soccer fans partying behind the photographer when he made the photograph!

Two of Ansel Adams’ most famous photographs, Moonrise and Clearing Winter Storm, were made from the side of a highway in New Mexico and at the most popular scenic pullout in Yosemite Valley, respectively. Adams’ contemporary Edward Weston stated, likely tongue-in-cheek, that “Anything more than 500 yards from the car just isn’t photogenic.” Do Moonrise and Clearing Winter Storm convey the sounds of cars passing by on the highway, or the large expanse of asphalt at the valley view parking lot? Definitely not, and that is what is important, at least in my mind.

Which brings us to the point that, to a serious photographer, what matters in the end is the photograph itself and the experience someone has when viewing it. The photograph is not the object or objects photographed, it is simply that part of what was there when the photograph was made that the photographer chooses to show us, presented in the way that the photographer wants us to see it.

From a more pragmatic point of view, sides of roads and parking lots often have sight lines that are less obstructed than what we encounter in “the wild.” And, of course, designated scenic viewpoints are located where they are because, well, that is where the best view is from! Finally, we have the fact that we spend a fair amount of time traveling in our cars, and the opportunistic photographer will be at the ready when presented with interesting light or a captivating subject (or, better yet, both at the same time).

I leave you with the photograph below, made at Fremont Canyon, Wyoming. Those who know it well can probably figure out where the image was made, and what I have chosen not to show in the photograph. It was made with a 4x5 view camera, which requires the photographer to duck under a cloth and view the prospective photograph (upside down) on a 4 inch by 5 inch plate of glass. One pleasure of using such a camera is that under the cloth all else that is nearby just melts away, leaving only what is seen on the ground glass. A friend made this comment about the photograph: “Captures the quiet, remote feel of the canyon,” which is exactly what I wished a viewer to feel. With that, I’m proclaiming the photo a success!

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