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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The New Traditionalist

In less than a decade, Jim Shoemaker went from being afraid of his SLR to a life filled with landscape photography and creating images that convey what the scene feels like

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Castro Crest, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California.
"People get hung up on wondering, 'Did it really look like that?'" he says. "My answer is, 'Maybe not, but that's what it felt like.' A good example is when I was in the North Cascades in Washington last year. [See the photo in the Showcase section of this issue.] I was in the Heather Meadows area one morning before sunrise.

"I had set up my gear and was waiting in silence for the right light when I suddenly heard music from a Native American flute coming from somewhere in the nearby woods. It was amazing. The music was soothing and beautiful, and as the morning alpenglow began to hit the mountains, I wondered if this was a tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years.

"I looked through my viewfinder and considered how I could frame a shot that would transmit the sense of tranquility and serenity that I was feeling. I don't know that such a thing is possible—to define the combined input of all five senses into the single sense of sight via a two-dimensional image—but I begin framing every location I visit by how it makes me feel to be there."

With every click of the shutter, Shoemaker feels the weight of every master photographer who came before him. He knew them well, after all, through their books. He may be working with different tools in a whole new era, but he's quite comfortable walking in their footsteps, carrying on their tradition.

"Considering the bulk of my education came from reading the books and studying the works of photographers like Adams, Weston, Hyde and others," he says, "I'd say that I'm probably more of a traditionalist when it comes to the style of my framing. But again, I'm more interested in how it feels to be there. It's an interpretive process, but by 'interpreting' I don't mean 'fabricating.' Everything that appears in the image was present when I made the exposure. I'm not interested in stripping in skies that are more dramatic or adding and removing objects in post. I'm also not interested in creating a hyper-reality by overcooking HDR images, oversaturating colors or over-exaggerating the mid-tone contrast in Photoshop. There are a lot of styles that have become popular due to improving technology in cameras and digital darkrooms. Everyone needs to find their own voice, and there's nothing wrong with pushing boundaries and experimentation, but my subjective preference lies in a slightly more traditional look."

When it comes to aesthetics, Shoemaker's 20-year career in graphic design left him with a sensibility that still informs the way he builds compositions. His tend to be formal arrangements, full of rich tonalities that emphasize the beauty of the land.

"I construct images the same way I design a layout," he says. "I simply put things where I feel they need to be. Understanding color is important. Understanding shape is important.

Understanding how the eye moves over a page, or image, is important. The use of negative space, of symmetrical and asymmetrical balance, shape, form and repetition have to be understood.


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