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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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Near Bellingham, North Cascades, Wash.
"I don't feel manipulative," he says. "I feel that I'm a minimalist, in my artwork and in life. And I like to take away as much information as possible, and I start that when I look through the viewfinder and I look around a scene. It may be that I have to change different focal lengths, or it may be that I'll develop this negative in a different way. But I'm always trying to take away information to get at the heart of the thing that it is that I'm photographing.

"In a practical sense," Mansfield continues, "we could place a tree in the foreground. Do I want the bark to be just a little bit darker and, therefore, I'm going to make the background a little bit brighter? The manipulation often happens by subtraction, just getting rid of as much information as possible—manipulation not so much to trick you into thinking this is something that it's not, but manipulation to get at the very basic structure of the scene."

In Mansfield's case, the core meaning he's striving to convey through his minimalist landscapes stems from his transcendent experiences in nature.

"It goes to the very simple heart of it," he says. "I love being in nature. I could just sit on a cliffside and listen to the wind. Just sit there. There's no past, there's no future, you're just here. There's no thought, no stress. And then I'll take out my camera and look at the scene, and I may or may not shoot. Just showing up at a scene, seeing what you see, feeling how you feel and working that moment—that's mostly how I work."

Spontaneity isn't often a word one hears in association with serious landscape photography, but for Mansfield it's integral. Part of his creative process hinges upon arriving at a location, at almost any time of day, in almost any kind of weather, and making photographs. It allows for a purer experience of nature, and it provides him the opportunity to photograph a very special moment in time. Every moment, he says, is unique.

Death Valley National Park, Calif.
"I'm more interested in going out and just seeing what I see," Mansfield explains. "The spontaneity of that is always good for my work. I rarely sit and wait for a particular atmospheric event or some thing—the light changing and so forth. I find that waiting for something to happen kind of dulls the whole moment, and the spontaneity.

"I think there are always good photographs to be had," he continues, "no matter where you are, no matter what time of day, no matter what the weather is doing. It's up to me as a photographer and a nature artist to pull out of that scene whatever it is I'm seeing and feeling at that moment. I've always felt that."

Mansfield's approach frees him from many of the conventional "must-haves" of landscape photography. He's free to avoid the magic hour, free to avoid waiting around for perfect light or perfect weather, and free to explore unique compositions in often overlooked circumstances. He approaches photography this way because this is what he wants to see, and he sees the world this way because this is how he approaches it.

"I don't believe that there's a perfect storm of events to make the perfect photograph for any one scene," he says. "I think a lot of nature photographers feel that way. 'The best light is from this direction, at this time of day, on this cliffside, looking west,' and so forth. I think that's kind of silly. You're selling yourself short and you're not really trying to find what's there. Because two days later is going to be a far different event than two days before. I like just going out and seeing what I see and getting based on what's there at that moment. And I guarantee it's going to be different than that perfect storm.


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