The Challenge to See.

Cross country skiers in a spruce forest at the Notchview Reservation in the Berkshires.  Windsor, Massachusetts.
Cross country skiers in a spruce forest at the Notchview Reservation in the Berkshires. Windsor, Massachusetts.

We recently received a big dump of snow here in New England - up to 40 inches in some places. It was great timing as I had an assignment to spend two days shooting in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts for the Massachusetts Trustees of Reservations. The Trustees have some great properties, and I was excited to do some exploring in all the fresh snow. I spent most of my time skiing and snowshoeing in mediocre light, seeing lots of potential images that just fell flat in the bland light.

Cross country skier in the Berkshires. Massachusetts.

Thankfully, I had one hour of beautiful light at the end of my second day so that I was able to create some of the images I had envisioned, but overall, the experience reminded me how hard it can be to see pictures when conditions aren't panning out the way you had expected. I am currently writing a new guidebook to outdoor photography, and it is making me realize that no matter how well I explain the technical details of how to take a picture or tweak it later in Lightroom, those skills can take a photographer only so far. Actually seeing the photo is a deeply personal experience and while I can attempt to teach my students to develop their own photographic vision, that can only happen through practice, experience, and a personal involvement with your subject matter. I am currently re-reading one of the first photo books I ever bought more than 20 years ago, Freeman Patterson's "Photography and the Art of Seeing." In it he talks about how preconceived notions of photography can hinder our ability to see a photo:

"Letting go of self is an essential precondition to seeing. When you let go of yourself, you abandon any preconceptions about the subject matter that might cramp you into photographing in a certain way. As long as you are worried about whether or not you will be able to make good pictures, or are concerned about enjoying yourself, you are unlikely either to make the best photographs you can or to experience the joy of photography to the fullest. But when you let go, new conceptions arise from your direct experience of the subject matter, and new ideas and feelings will guide you as you make pictures."

Trees in winter, Abstract. Ashfield, Massachusestts.
Trees in winter abstract. Ashfield, Massachusestts.

During my Berkshires trip, I was definitely confining myself to my preconceptions of shooting in golden hour light to really highlight the textures in the new snow. Flat, overcast light was making this impossible, so I spent much of my time carrying lots of camera gear through deep snow, cursing the light. When I finally let go of my "previsualizations", I started just enjoying being out in the quiet of winter and started thinking about ways I could shoot the winter landscape in flat light. Hiking up the side of ravine, I saw the above group of trees on the opposite side of the ravine and was struck by the stark contrast of the tall tree trunks and the surrounding empty spaces filled with snow. While I didn't have beautiful light streaming through, I was able to capture the essence of what I was feeling by making this blurred abstract of the scene. While I had learned the technical skills of making this picture from studying the work of other photographers like William Neill, "seeing" the photo only happened because I was out, as Galen Rowell called it, "participating in the landscape" and letting go of my photographic plans for the day. I'm still determining how to get this message across to readers of my new book, but I am glad to have been reminded that photography is much more than f-stops, light, and the rule of thirds.

If you're interested in getting out and shooting in winter, check out my recent blog post: Winter is Coming - Get out the Camera!

11 Comments

    Jerry – This is a fantastic post. I especially connect with your comment about letting go of your photographic plans for the day. I often find myself consciously making this decision when things don’t go as I had visualized because of conditions or light. Immersing yourself in the landscape, capturing the essence of what you feel and effectively sharing this is part of becoming an artist who uses photography as their medium.

    Great post! I love that Freeman Patterson book.

    I absolutely agree – when you are out shooting for yourself (this may not apply to actual assignments) it helps to just let the world show you what to shoot, instead of trying to look for imagined scenes. Great reminder of that!

    Thanks for the reminder! Sometimes we do just have to let the photographs happen, especially landscapes when so much is out of our control. I will be pulling out my copy of “Photography and the Art of Seeing” soon. It is a classic!

    The abstract of trees is a great shot. I believe it to be a better depiction of what one really sees in the forest than a more traditional photo. Next time I’m out with the camera I’ll try to lose myself.

    Hey Jerry, Always enjoy reading your stuff. This one is very good, and Patterson’s book has been well used by me. Hope you are well and having fun. Miss your presentations at Geneva Point. If you are ever in Florida, stop by.

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