Water and photography bear many similarities. While each adheres to specific rules and laws, both can be malleable, beautiful and unpredictable. Rather than being fixed and rigid, water and photography achieve their greatest power when the smallest change or gesture results in a moment of beauty. For photographer Richard Hamilton Smith, water is more than just a static element in his pictures. Instead, it's part of his photographic palette of light, motion, texture and tones.
Smith uses these qualities in a way that forces the viewer to linger with the photograph. Considering the importance of water to all life, the exceptional photographer can reveal both the complexity and beauty of nature's most precious element. Smith does just that.
As water is transformed by temperature, so the seasons also change it. The frozen water and snow of winter turns into the rapid rivers and streams of spring. The moisture of an early summer morning creates a seductive and alluring mist. It's this knowledge that helps Smith previsualize and plan many of his photographs. For Smith, preparation is of the utmost importance. The majority of his images are created as a result of a well-practiced methodology.
"Ninety percent of the time, I know what I'm going to get," he says, explaining that his familiarity with the location, the light and the weather allow him to preconceive the images that he'll eventually record on film. "However, 10 percent of the time, the photograph surpasses the image that I had in my head."
It's Smith's willingness to use the unexpected that allows him to take advantage of moments where light and water offer the promise of a stunning image.
Those "10-percent" images he speaks of come as a result of moving past the disappointment of not discovering the expected when arriving at a scene.
"I've gone to a location and expected something, but it's not there," he says. "I get frustrated, and it can get in the way of seeing what's actually there."
On one occasion, Smith hiked deep into a rarely traveled section of wilderness in the hope of photographing a waterfall, only to discover that it wasn't there. Rather than turning around in disgust, he began to experiment with the scene that existed and made some wonderful discoveries. "It just turned out to be boulders and a lot of rapids," says Smith. "The bank was overgrown and there didn't seem to be much there, but I decided to shoot anyway. I started playing around with the color and the motion of the rapids over the rocks."
The resulting image captures the power of the rapids while revealing the muted blue and green hues of the water and vegetation; the rapids' white froth provides a vibrant highlight. Smith recognized the reflective quality of the water and how light from the summer leaves would likely appear on its surface. He also knew how a camera's slower shutter speed would render the rush of water into an almost painterly blur.
In Smith's hands, the camera is more than an opportunity to record a scene, but also a chance to capture the subtle nuances of movement, color and form that converge to create a photograph. He has come to use the camera as more than a device to record a natural scene, but also to explore and reveal the basic elements that come together to form a special moment in time.
A Journey Of Discovery
After receiving his first camera in lieu of rent from a college roommate, Smith made photography both a profession and a passion. His images have been published in numerous magazines such as National Geographic and Smithsonian, as well as several books, including his latest, Spirit of the North: A Photographic Journey Through Northern Wisconsin (Trails Books, 2003; ISBN: 1-931599-23-8). Since that first camera, Smith's life has become a journey of discovery, camera in hand.
Water can be frozen, fluid or vaporous. Yet in each of its states, there's a variety of characteristics that are important to be aware of as a photographer, according to Smith.
In one image, he can use the reflectivity of water to reveal the fall colors of overhanging leaves. In another, he uses the blurred movement of water as a counterpoint to the rough details of earth and stones. Yet in another image, he uses the stillness of the water and its almost muted tone and color to reveal the dark and light elements in a scene. He can photograph a winter pond and reveal the texture of the frozen water and the mirror-like reflections of a cloudy sky.
These images come about from his awareness of water's ability to be transformed by season, weather and the very earth itself. It's this recognition of the various possibilities of water beyond being more than an object in a photograph that makes his images stand out. This ability has come not only from years of experience, but a dutiful dedication to craft.
"I kept a rigorous picture journal and I learned from my mistakes," says Smith. His exactness also is seen in his use of non-photographic gear to determine not only the best locations, but the best times to shoot an image as well.
"I take compass readings and enter GPS coordinates to discover when the light will be at a certain bend in a river," he says, explaining that familiarity with gear, location and light have come over time and a willingness to make mistakes and to learn from them. "I know what I know from experience."
"I was never afraid to experiment. I never worried about wasting a frame of film. It's all about playing, playing with exposure and seeing what happens. Rather than just thinking about the leaves reflected in the water, it's about distilling the elements that make up the picture."
Smith feels it's this ability to look beyond the obvious that bestows the gift of a superior image to the observant photographer. "Most of what I do is a personal challenge," he says. "It comes down to experimenting with the various tools of the trade. I shoot it straight up, but I also imagine how it would be more evocative if I pushed it a little further in the direction that I was leaning. It opens up an avenue of surprises."