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Friday, August 1, 2008

A New Look At The Landscape

Reimagining the traditional landscape image

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The Outdoor Photographer 2008 Landscape Annual features the work of three artists who each takes a somewhat different look at landscape photography. Rodney Lough, Shane McDermott and Sean Bagshaw are all widely recognized photographers who have made their mark by taking steps away from the more staid, traditional landscape scene. Their work differs in both look and approach. While Lough shoots with an 8x10 view camera, both McDermott and Bagshaw are digital shooters, and it’s interesting to note that McDermott has never been a film shooter.

The torch is passing. The path blazed by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Galen Rowell and others is being followed by an ever-growing number of new-breed photographers who aren’t saddled with the same restrictions of film and darkroom. Moving forward, the very fundamentals of landscape photography will be evolving. The first steps are being taken now.

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Chaos Theory—Rodney Lough’s mind for math makes for amazing landscape images

Rodney Lough
double-majored in statistics and mathematics, and followed it up with a master’s degree in the same. He eventually left a highly lucrative corporate job to pursue his other love—landscape photography. Interestingly, neither photography nor math is his true passion.

“If I had my druthers,” he says, “I’d be working as a ski instructor at an out-of-the-way little mountain someplace. For me, the outdoors is exploration. That’s the fun part.”

Lough finds fun in skiing and hiking, photography and statistical analysis. Listening to him talk about the latter two subjects, though, it’s hard to tell whether he’s talking about the numbers or the pictures.

“Math is very creative,” he says, “don’t get me wrong. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division—these are all tools in the toolbox of math. What you do with them—that’s mathematics; that’s what’s creative. Sure, you have rules and guidelines you have to follow, but what you do with those tools can be very creative.”

In that way, mathematics is clearly a lot like photography. The cameras—be they digital or film, large or small, old or new—are the tools, and it’s in the hands of a skilled craftsperson like Lough that the great works are made. More than just a vehicle to get him out from behind a desk years ago, Lough’s left-brained photography actually utilizes his right brain’s affinity for math. Chaos theory, for example, is a continual inspiration.
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“Even in chaos there are patterns,” Lough explains of the mathematical principle that influences his visual style. “For whatever reason, when I walk around, I’m looking for patterns—patterns that are beautiful, things that make me stop in my tracks, and go ‘Ah!’ They touch that inner piece of me, hopefully of other people, too. As time goes by and your image library gets larger and larger, you start critiquing your own work more and more and then eventually you come to this realization.

“One of the best compliments ever paid to me,” Lough continues, “was from this photographer who said, ‘You know, he doesn’t use any rules, and I can’t quite figure out his compositions. I don’t know what it is he’s trying to do. But what I do know is, it works. What intrigues me is that I can’t figure it out.’ That’s when a little light came on, and I thought, ‘Oh, I wonder if it’s because I can see the patterns in chaos?!’”

Whether the patterns are bold and striking or subtle and hidden, Lough’s eye seems to be precisely attuned to finding them. When he does, he works quickly to capture them, knowing that such moments in nature are fleeting.

“For me anyway,” Lough says, “there are three classifications of photography. There’s the grandscape, there’s this midscape thing and then there’s the intimate. A grandscape is obvious to see; it’s slapping you in the face, yelling, ‘Here I am; photograph me!’ This isn’t anything revolutionary. Sometimes I have an hour to work and compose and set up, and sometimes I have five minutes. I’m trying to fling crap out of the backpack with the 8x10 and put it together and do all the adjustments and compose it. It’s kind of ugly-looking sometimes, with stuff scattered all over.”

Lough has been at this new career for only about 12 years, but he still prefers the timeless method of large-format film photography.

“Trust me,” he says, “there’s no bravado to carrying a 150-pound backpack into the backcountry for two weeks. It’s really a pain in the butt. The moment they can give me a credit-card-sized device that can capture a one-gig RAW file in under a second, I’m all over it. The problem for me today in the digital world—at least for landscape photography, for being able to capture an image under multiple types of conditions—is that 8x10 film is still sharper, especially on large photographs. And I like going large. It’s basic physics, isn’t it?”

Lough may prefer film over digital capture, but he’s neither a classicist snob nor a technophobe. “It’s not like I think digital is dirty,” he says. “Oh, no, I’m not afraid of it. My goal has always been to get back to what I saw. How I get there, I don’t really care. We’re scanning 8-bit TIFFs at 1.2 gigs. They’re huge. I’ve done 60-inch-wide prints. You should see them. I have one from Mule Canyon, the burning-roof ruins; at a 40x50, it’s as plain as day—on the roof is the little tiny circle of what’s left from where a bees’ nest broke off. You can actually see the little honeycomb pattern in it. It’s amazing. It puts you in the moment. When it’s that large and that crisp, you actually feel like you’re there. That’s one of the things I want to convey. I want people to feel like they’re standing there.”

Adds Lough, “The integrity of the medium is tied to the user. The engineer who created the crescent wrench never thought that it would be used as a murder weapon, but I’m sure it has been. I don’t think the artistry is the tool; I think the tool is the tool. Is a chisel in my hands going to work the same way as a chisel in Michelangelo’s hands? I don’t think so. It’s the artist who makes the artwork. It’s the photographer who sees that beautiful thing and finds how to obtain that image to share it with others because, ultimately, that’s the goal.”

To see more of Rodney Lough’s photography, visit www.theloughroad.com.

Rodney Lough
Rodney Lough describes his shooting style as “hit and run.” A trip to the Mall of America may involve a detour to the Badlands. “Let’s see what we see,” he says. “It’s like a drive-by.” His mind is always looking for patterns. Sometimes, they’re subtle. Other times, they’re quite obvious, what he calls “slap-you-in-the-face” landscapes. When composing, he uses all of the fundamentals, but it basically comes down to how the shot feels. “Sometimes I have to tear down and walk away because it doesn’t feel right,” he explains. “I can stand next to my camera and look at the scene and say there’s definitely something there, but I can’t get it. It comes with the territory. There’s always another day.” ABOVE (TOP TO BOTTOM): Navajo Falls, Havasupai Indian Reservation, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona; Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming; Glacier National Park, Montana; Kings Canyon National Park, California. Lough shoots with an Arca-Swiss 8x10 F-Line camera, Schneider Super-Symmar XL 150mm f/5.6 and Fujinon 300mm f/5.6 lenses, and a Gitzo G1325 MK2 carbon-fiber tripod.


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