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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Under The Big Sky

Montana-based photographer Jay Wesler’s black-and-white landscape images are born from the same sense of grandeur seen in Ansel Adams’ iconic work

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“Cool Breeze,” near Canyon Ferry, Montana.
Continues Wesler, “It just makes the scenery very dramatic. I like more of a dark tone, a moody feeling. I used to print with subtle gradation, and then one day, I just said, “Well, okay, what if I just make this completely black?” That print—wow—it just really stood out. And ever since then, since 2007, I’ve been working on this theme called Big Sky Country. I like to put maybe the bottom third with landscape and then the top two-thirds with black sky. I think it makes it kind of abstract, gives a mood, and it really produces the effect I want—the impact.”

It turns out that Wesler isn’t so much a landscape photographer as he is a skyscape photographer. He gazes up at clouds the way others might study geography or flora. It makes sense if you’re trying to create graphic, minimal landscapes out there in Big Sky Country.

“I think even if I lived in central Illinois I would be photographing the same way,” he says. “I really like using the sky. I’m a cloud chaser, for sure. I plan out shoots based on that. I love clouds, and I love sky and the way it complements the scenery. I would much rather point my camera up than down.

“I see a lot of work,” Wesler continues, “where you start off with a very wide angle and use your composition rules, the rule of thirds, and then you point your camera down so that you have a little bit of sky. I see a lot of that with photographers who photograph in Utah. I’ve been to Utah. The first time I went, I followed examples of different photographers and the general ways to make landscape photographs, but it wasn’t really doing it for me. It didn’t have the impact. Then I got into blackening out the skies, and then if you have some clouds in there, it just makes the scene. It makes it very dramatic, especially when you use that burning-in technique.”

Fall trees, Grand Tetons, Wyoming.
Drama is key. It may, in fact, be the decisive factor in whether or not Wesler deems a shot a success. If it has power, if it grabs your attention, it’s good.

“I kind of have a guerilla approach to photography,” he says. “Chase down that scene or go to a location really fast because the moon may be rising or the clouds or the light. Chasing dramatic weather, too, that’s important. Dramatic weather makes for dramatic scenery. I like shooting midday. I think it’s the contrast thing. So when there are clouds in the sky in a shoot during midday, and then you really burn in that sky, it’s going to have a real impact. That silvery sheen on those clouds will make them stand out. I want impact. I think, well, would I hang this on my wall?”

To create impact, Wesler relies on the same tools landscape photographers have always used—large-format film and darkroom magic. But that’s not all he relies on. He came of age at the perfect time to be a traditionalist and an early adopter of digital capture. He doesn’t believe in excessive digital manipulation, but he does also use a digital camera.

“A lot of it has to do with my education at Columbia College,” he says. “I was right on the cusp with digital. I do have a digital camera and I do shoot digital. I use traditional black-and-white techniques that I would use in the darkroom. I try to stay in that traditional dodging and burning area with black-and-white.”


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