Forest Tapestry

Focusing on details reveals a more personal viewpoint

Black oak branches in winter, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, 1994. Wista 45SP 4×5 Metal Field Camera, Nikkor-T ED 360mm f/8.

There is no point in denying it. Eliot Porter strongly influenced my photographic path. I fell in love with his images as seen in his seminal book, Intimate Landscapes, when it was published in 1979. His style of focusing on nature’s details and his use of soft, muted light led me to seek my own such compositions as I explored my home landscape of Yosemite and beyond. As with most of us landscape photographers, I’ve had many other influences as well, such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Ernst Haas, Paul Caponigro and Philip Hyde. Porter’s legacy of revealing eloquent and subtle nature details in his photographs and the powerful use of his imagery for environmental advocacy showed me possibilities for a life as a landscape photographer.

One of Porter’s techniques that inspired me is how he composed isolated sections of forest that show a tapestry-like effect. The photographs can look like fabric with only textures and lines of leaves and branches from edge to edge in the frame. By focusing on such detail, without foreground or sky, a sense of intimacy is conveyed. This type of abstraction allows the viewer “room” to imagine the overall scene beyond the edges of the frame instead of being “fed” a more literal description of the scene. I enjoy images that engage me as the viewer, that ask questions rather than answer them. This approach gives us a narrow view that can frustrate some but is more likely to reveal a more personal viewpoint, an artistic interpretation of the landscape that others probably wouldn’t have seen.

We all see the world around us in our own unique way, and revealing that creative vision is the goal. If we stand at a classic viewpoint with a wide lens, we may well create similar photographs. If we both photograph the same autumn hillside with a long lens, we will more than likely find different sections that draw our attention.

In my winter Yosemite image shown here, a February snowstorm had transformed Yosemite Valley into a most magical state of glistening white. Living a few miles away for 20 years allowed me the luxury of timing my photographic sessions with the best conditions, as well as gaining an intimate knowledge of weather patterns and light. The sunlight came and went as clouds raced across the sky above the Valley. I made many exposures in shaded light as well as brilliant sun. Here I used a telephoto lens for my 4×5 view camera to extract the graceful and repeating shapes to oak branches, removing the base of the trees and also avoiding the bright distractions of sky that were visible at the top of the frame. Although a wider view would give the viewer more context and sense of place, that was not my goal. I wanted to focus the viewer’s attention onto just the wondrous pattern of snow-covered trees. This image is my best attempt to convey the essence of what I saw and felt.

Aspen, June Lake Loop, Inyo National Forest, California, 2008. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM.

In a similar style using the tapestry effect, I isolated the tree branches of a favorite grove of aspen trees in the Eastern Sierra shown here. Although I didn’t use my usual 70-200mm lens, I was able to set up close to the grove, using the tree trunks to block the morning sun’s light. The strong backlight was critical to create a glowing sense of light in the leaves. The processing was pushed to open the shadows, creating a high key effect that I love. The even texture of leaves throughout the frame and the delicate shades of yellow and green complete the vision I had for the final print.

Often my approach has been to work along the edge of a forest, like along a road or trail where I am zooming onto that edge from outside the forest. Another style, with photographs that feel like you are within the forest, has been masterfully captured by Robert Glenn Ketchum in his Order From Chaos series. I suggest studying the works of Porter and Ketchum, as well as other masters of forest photography such as Christopher Burkett, Joe Holmes and Charles Cramer. Educating your eye to the possibilities offered by other artists can often stimulate your own visual explorations—not to copy their style but to discover your own.

The next time you stand in front of a beautiful wooded scene, challenge yourself to find your personal selection within that landscape. Sure, take that expected overview. It might end up as the best of the lot. Then dig deeper, move around while watching the possible arrangements of color and line. Graphic design is all about spacing between and balancing of color and form. See what tapestries you might create!

Author’s Addendum

In the vein of expanding your “visual literacy” of landscape photography’s possibilities, get to a library, a bookstore or research online for inspiration. I’ve listed several important landscape masters above. Also, I’ve recently learned of many excellent landscape photographers in England whose work is well worth exploring. Here are few: Bruce Percy, Colin Bell, David Ward, Doug Chinnery, Dav Thomas and Tim Parkin.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.