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Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Charles Cramer’s magnificent landscape photographs reflect his musical training in the use of form, balance, dynamic range and a sense of scale

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Young Pine, Upper Young Lake, Yosemite National Park, California.

Ansel Adams described printmaking in musical terms: The negative is the score, and the print the performance. Few photographers understand this analogy better than classically trained pianist turned photographer Charles Cramer. Cramer studied piano at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, founded by George Eastman of Eastman Kodak. While in Rochester, a budding interest in photography was nurtured by visits to the public library that, because of Eastman, had an excellent photography section. When Cramer wasn't at the piano, he was studying the books of Ansel Adams and other photography greats.

Focusing more and more on photography, Cramer eventually studied with Adams at a 1977 workshop in Yosemite. A decade later, he was teaching a class on dye-transfer printing for the esteemed workshop. When digital printing came of age, Cramer embraced it. In 1997, his image "Snow-covered Trees, El Capitan" was the first digital print sold at The Ansel Adams Gallery.

Regardless of the medium on which he's printing or the source being a piece of film or a digital file, Cramer's images bridge the gap between grand and intimate landscapes. He has a knack for pulling elements out of a big scene and displaying them with just enough context to tell a visual story.

Aspen Trees In Autumn, June Lake, California.
OP: What do you look for in a landscape?

Charles Cramer: When I started photographing, I would often find compositions and scenes based on my left brain—my intellect. But I discovered that this usually resulted in banal and ho-hum images. I've learned instead to pay attention to my feelings and now ask myself "Does this scene excite me?" If it doesn't on an emotional level, I don't take it.

Don Worth, one of Ansel Adams' early assistants, told me that when he looks at a scene, he asks himself "What can I do differently?" When I'm photographing, I look for something that's maybe a little bit "off," like a small tree that's bent or two trees together that do something interesting. I'll look for that first point of interest and make the image around that. Then it becomes a question of the background working with the foreground and finding a good composition. I always use a framer card—an 8x10-inch matboard with a 4x5-inch opening in the middle—to explore the scene. Closing one eye to see in 2D is also very important. Many scenes are wonderful in 3D, but become utter chaos in 2D as would be seen in a print.

After several years of photographing, I also realized that I grew tired of the "grand vista." Instead, I concentrate more on the details in a landscape. Someone described my style as "the grand detail." My images would be terrible for stock work, as it's not very obvious where these details were made!


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