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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Subtle Drama

Scott Mansfield’s black-and-white landscape photography shows how soft tonality and a quiet approach can be every bit as strong as big, high-contrast imagery

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Scott Mansfield's photography has a quiet elegance. The more you look at his images, the more nuance becomes visible. Mansfield takes an artistic approach: "I'm less interested in what the scene is and more interested in the motifs that exist between the scene and myself as the artist. And oftentimes that's very quiet. I often find myself just sitting and watching for long stretches of time, not necessarily waiting for any particular photographic moment, but just being out in nature. That was one of the big draws for me for being a nature artist." Being on a Mansfield photo excursion isn't a relaxing time, though. He describes a recent expedition: "I'm only in Yosemite for a week, and I'm working 24/7, always looking. Maybe it's being away from home that offers this spontaneity. As soon as I'm on the clock, as it were, it's a nonstop real photo trip. Most people don't like coming with me because it's just nonstop. I don't eat; pretty much, I'm just going constantly—looking, seeing, shooting, sleeping, getting up early, slamming some food, going back at it. And I love it. That's my bread and butter."

Olympic National Park, Wash.
Scott Mansfield is a rule breaker. Check his work against any list of tips for better landscape photographs and note how Mansfield's approach differs. He works primarily in black-and-white, he doesn't shoot at the magic hour, he won't wait around for the perfect moment, and he only uses a few prime lenses. Yet somehow his photographs are spectacular.

Unlike many contemporary landscape photographers, Mansfield's work is a study in subtlety. The more time a viewer spends with an image, the more each image reveals. Rather than gripping the viewer with grand drama, Mansfield's photographs invite viewers to spend time exploring inside their borders. And that's just how the photographer likes it.

"I'm less interested in getting a pretty postcard scenic," he says, "and more interested in letting you know how I was feeling. I'm interested in putting as much of myself into the work as possible. My wife recently summed it up: There's a similar theme that runs through all of my work that speaks to who I am; it doesn't necessarily speak to what the place is.

"You often hear," Mansfield says, "especially from color landscape photographers, 'This is exactly what I saw, I didn't manipulate it, and that's what you're seeing on the print.' And I've always felt, I don't care what you saw! I want to know what you felt—manipulate the hell out of it! For me, it's the end product; your piece of art should show what it was that you were feeling, what you were seeing in your own mind's eye, not necessarily what was there in reality. Sometimes they match, but oftentimes they don't have to. This need in photography to defend that you didn't manipulate it—you hear that so much it's just like nails on a chalkboard. I think they're missing the point. That's not what I think art is."

Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park, Calif.
Mansfield points out that the unquestioned master of landscape photography, Ansel Adams, was deliberately manipulative with his prints, going so far as to render skies pure black or tree leaves bright white. Like Mansfield, it was done in an effort to create a motif that appealed to the artist—that delivers the message the artist wishes to send. And it's easier done in black-and-white.

"It's artistic manipulation," says Mansfield, "and I think black-and-white is a little more accepting of manipulation than color. You get rid of all that color information and you get it down to just the basic two tones with the gray tonal scale, and it's visually okay to make a sky go black. But if you do it in a color landscape and make the sky go purple or red...eww."

Mansfield may embrace creative manipulation, but that's not to say his photographs are unreal. After all, the very act of framing a composition is an abstraction of reality. The artist simply imbues images with added meaning. Mansfield does this through reduction.


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