Windows On The Natural World

Using subtle framing techniques within her images, Linde Waidhofer creates dynamic photos that guide the viewer through the frame

Ear Of The Wind, Monument Valley, Utah

1) This arch, the "Ear of the Wind," in Monument Valley has been the site of numerous Arizona Highways-type photos, showing Navajo shepherds on horseback driving their flocks along below the rock. I found an alternate framing, moving around until I got the dark branches of a dead tree in shadow to surround and echo the curves of the arch. This image was shot on Fujichrome Velvia, and typically with slide film's limited dynamic range, we tended to protect the highlights and let the shadows go black. But when using today's digital cameras, there's a natural tendency to want to bring out lots of detail in the shadows—just because we can. But it's not always the best thing to do. Sometimes, like here, strong black lines provide the punch and drama the image needs.

Looking at some of Linde Waidhofer's photography, it occurred to us that she has a way of framing subjects within the rectangular frame. These "windows" within the frame create depth and guide the viewer through the composition. Obvious examples are found in keyhole photos of the desert Southwest. Waidhofer's images are frequently less obvious. She uses shadow, silhouette, natural and man-made features, reflections and colors to create her windows on the world. We sent Waidhofer a selection of images, and we asked her to describe each one, as well as how she composes and frames the subjects.
—Christopher Robinson, Editor

The assignment seemed simple: Describe the processes, technical and mental, by which I composed a series of favorite photographs—but it encouraged me not just to remember the story of each photograph, but to think about the way I approach photography. Each photograph required significant thought and effort, experimenting with different juxtapositions of the elements in the picture. It wasn't enough just to spot my subject and take a picture of it. True, in casual speech we always talk about "taking a photograph of something."

But that's not the real story. It's a question of "making" or "creating" a photograph, a visual composition within a rectangular frame that organizes the subject in a strong and meaningful context. In short, I think finding your subject is just the beginning of the process. Then you have to wrestle it into a satisfying composition—a photograph that makes the moment and its subject into a special experience. And perhaps what I love the most about digital photography is the way digital cameras encourage guilt-free experimentation with many compositional variations while searching for that elusive optimum image.

Icebergs, Lowell Lake, The Yukon, Canada
I made this photo of icebergs from an inflatable raft when we were crossing Lowell Lake on the Alsek River during a two-week trip from the river's headwaters in the Yukon to the Pacific at Glacier Bay. This is a very wide-angle shot, and the reason it works is that we were able to put our raft right next to the iceberg. From even 30 feet away, the berg would have looked tiny and wouldn't have been silhouetted against those clouds. For me, a wide-angle lens is almost always an invitation to get really close to my subject, not to shoot an extra-wide scene.

Autumn Aspens In Mist And Cloud, Colorado
3) Autumn in the Rockies with its golden aspens is beautiful in any weather. But over the years, my best autumn aspen photos seem to have been made in bad weather: rain, drizzle, storm, overcast. In this case, thick clouds were streaming over Cumbres Pass on the Colorado-New Mexico border. I was using a long lens and remember zooming back to include more cloud and mist so the aspen grove and its surrounding spruce seem to be floating in a distant world of gray.

Templo de la Concepción, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
4) This photo isn't just about two subjects in two planes—the wall and the church tower—but equally about the relation between them, with the wall revealing a particular view of the church. Photographers have learned from 20th-century abstract painters how powerful large fields of color can be, so the vivid yellow wall is what first caught my attention. But my creative contribution as a photographer was to put the wall and the church into a special relation to each other. This involved moving along back and forth beneath the wall, placing the church tower in different wall scallops until I found one that I really liked.

Grand Canyon Reflections, Arizona
5) Rafting the Grand Canyon is a high-energy, whitewater adventure, but some of the most memorable (and photographable) moments involve hikes up the many side canyons. Here, walking back to camp in the late afternoon from a side canyon hike, I was surprised to see golden reflections of the canyon walls in rain puddles on rock slabs that were already in deep shadow. I found this upside-down and out-of-place reflection at my feet—as though seen through a window in the dark rock—more evocative of the magic of this spot than the more literal view of the cliffs looking up toward the canyon rim.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico
6)The Bisti Badlands of northern New Mexico never disappoint. Strange, eroded formations create a surreal landscape. This hoodoo sticking up into a bald sky seemed too simple, though, so I found a nearby overhang of rock and positioned it in the sky above the hoodoo without showing the formation that it was attached to. The result is a composition that asks questions: What? How? Where does this strong intruding shape come from? What holds it up? A successful photograph doesn't have to explain the situation as much as intrigue the viewer.

La Catrina In Front Of La Parroquia, Day Of The Dead, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
7) Everywhere in Mexico, the Day of the Dead, el Día de los Muertos, is a virtual festival of folk art and bright colors, a celebration rather than a time of mourning. San Miguel de Allende is no exception. The main plaza, el Jardín, in front of la Parroquia, or cathedral, is wildly decorated with colored sawdust murals, large paintings on canvas and strings of paper cutouts—too much to put into one frame! So the photographer has to look for telling slices of this crazy scene. Here, I liked the two opposing V shapes of the paper cutouts and the church spire, with a large canvas painting of la Catrina (the elegant grande dame calavera, or skeleton) hung on the church grill serving as a base for this burst of color into a dark sky.

Gravestone, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
8)This is a very different image of the Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, with an altogether different feeling. I was wandering through the municipal cemetery, or Panteón, and in a back corner I spotted this marble gravestone with a real skull inexplicably placed on it next to a bunch of bedraggled red-orange flowers. Pure serendipity—I swear I didn't touch this grave! Sometimes fate presents you with a perfect still life. It was easy to come in close, cut out the surrounding graveyard and just capture this simple juxtaposition of three elements, each of which in its own right symbolized the Day of the Dead. Nothing more was needed.

Checkerboard Mesa, Zion National Park, Utah
9)This photo is pure trompe l'oeil. At first glance, it isn't clear whether the thick black line is a crack in the rock wall or a twisted dead tree in front of it. I confess that I love photos that aren't instantly understandable, instantly obvious. Here, I was able to place dark silhouettes against the richly lit and finely textured sandstone of Checkerboard Mesa. The late-afternoon sun had already left the ground in front of me and the diagonal of shadow, plus the tree silhouettes, strengthened the geometry of this composition.

Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona
10)In this photo, the twisted rock walls of Lower Antelope Canyon seem to form a lozenge-shaped window through which one looks into—what? A glowing interior that seems to emit its own light even though we know it's well below ground. Midday light in Antelope Canyon bounces from wall to wall, gaining warmth and color as it does so. But what makes this photo work, I believe, is the feeling that you're looking through a natural opening, from a literally real world, of ordinary textured sandstone, into a much less real one beyond.

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