Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Legendary scenic master Tom Till describes how to use Native American wisdom to find and create dynamic and original images
Before me in the setting sun, three half-circle rainbows rose from the mists of Kaietuer Falls in Guyana. They had appeared as if on cue. The colors were arced in shades of orange, red, violet and green. Because the Kaietuer Falls are the highest in the world, and they have such a great flow, I had been told that such unusual phenomena occurred there with frequency. I quickly composed my shot and pounced for the kill. What had brought me to this special moment? I understood the possibilities of my subject as "prey." I had pursued the photograph with commitment, spending time, traveling far and working through obstacles in my path. I had spent time with the waterfall and learned to love its changing moods through the course of the day and had waited for the right moment to shoot. I had been humble—uncertain of my success until the last moment.
I'm a down-to-earth Iowan originally and not really a "New Age" guy, but I loved the books of Carlos Castaneda, and I first learned about stalking in those tales. Whether truth or fiction, the stalking described in Castaneda's books is often a life or death matter—that's not what we're discussing here. Also, stalking doesn't literally mean hunting and killing another living thing. I've thought over the years, however, that photography and hunting, whether real or metaphoric, come from a common human drive. My brother has been an obsessive hunter with a gun since childhood. I've been a hunter with a camera for decades.
Prey, in the shamanic view of the world, would correspond to the subjects we hope to capture in our photographs. I think it's interesting that the very word "capture" has come to describe taking a photograph in the digital age. The idea of respect for the subject is paramount. I've often said to workshop groups, and in my writing, that our subjects, whatever that may be, are vastly more important than our photography goals. Ultimately, the more harmonized the stalker/photographer is with his or her prey, the more chances for success become possible. The highest form of this harmony is love for your subject. Most photographers enter the field of landscape and nature photography because they like landscapes. As humans, we've been tied to the land for millennia. As photographers, we shoot landscapes because we love them. I've been to very few places on the face of planet Earth that aren't beautiful, and I fall in love with every landscape I visit.
Besides harmonizing with the photo subject or "prey," stalking works well only when a stalker understands his or her prey. In photography, this means being as knowledgeable about the subject as possible. David Muench once said that hoping to arrive at a landscape location on a random day at a random time doesn't give a photographer much chance for success. Muench's tactic, and one I've imitated, is to find out as much as I can about prospective landscape locations and arrive on site at a time of day and year most conducive for events like strong foregrounds, good storms, optimum sun angle and seasonal variations. Last year, I "stalked" a photograph of a site I had seen in the motion picture Gladiator—an ancient city in the desert. Information in the movie credits helped me find the subject, the Saharan desert city of Ait-Ben-Haddou, in Morocco. I determined that the best light on the subject would, fortunately, come in late fall when I also would have the best chance for clouds and cool weather. I climbed atop the restaurant nearby for the best vantage point and shot as all my preparation and my understanding of the subject created the image I had hoped for.
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