Visionary Wild, LLC • 2200 19th St. NW, Ste 806, Washington, DC 20009
E-mail: email@example.com • Tel: 1-202-558-9596 (9am to 6pm, EST). • Justin Black’s iPhone: 1-202-302-9030
We look forward to hearing from you!
The November 2011 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine features an article by Justin Black about ways to add greater meaning and purpose to your photography. You can read the full text and see the accompanying photos here:
by Justin Black
The very American artistic tradition of celebrating the concept of wilderness, associated so closely with photographers like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, reached an early zenith in the mid 19th century with the Hudson River School painters. Their work attempted to capture exceptional qualities of light, topography, and weather to render idealized visions – not always far from the truth – of sublime landscapes across the continent, from the Catskills to California, in which humanity is often permitted to be present but never dominates.
It is hard not to characterize the light captured with oil on canvas by the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and Sanford Gifford as “photographic” while we often refer to comparable light in photographs as “painterly.” We still see and photograph similarly sublime scenes in wild areas across America today. A key difference is that the Hudson River School artists experienced a view of nature and our place in it that was entirely new, but our vision still works the same way theirs did 150 years ago.
In fact, this piece by Gifford once helped to open my eyes to the way we see and go about capturing images of the world around us.
His painting depicts three tiny figures on a frozen pond, with a fence line and shrubbery in the foreground, and a row of trees in the background. The trees’ bare branches are silhouetted against a colorful evening sky. Something about the way the artist rendered the highlights and shadows in the image seemed oddly familiar…
Back in the film days, frustration with the limited range of tones that photographers could capture led to the development of solutions like graduated neutral density filters that enabled us to easily balance differences in brightness between two or more areas of a composition. The apparent flaw of grad ND filters, however, has always been that when an object is itself entirely in shadow but crosses over from dark to bright backgrounds within the composition, the filter gives away its effect because the section of the object that is against the brighter background (the area being darkened by the dense part of the filter) ends up going black, while the part of the same object that falls against the shaded background (not being effected by the filter) shows good mid-tone detail.
In Gifford’s painting, objects in the area of shade at the bottom of the painting displayed good shadow detail, while the tops of the trees against the brighter sky and were painted as black silhouettes – exactly the sort of rendering I had seen time and time again in color slides made using a graduated neutral density filter. But the painter had never seen a color photograph, much less the effect of a grad ND filter, so why would Gifford paint the tops of his trees black when good detail is readily apparent in similarly illuminated subject matter within the scene?
Without resorting to complex darkroom masking, a film photographer attempting to render good color saturation in the bright sky behind the trees would have had no choice but to force the silhouette and the accompanying loss of detail in the branches. Gifford on the other hand, with the unrestricted palette of artistic freedom at his command, chose to paint the trees this way. It’s the way he visualized them and what looked most natural to him as he applied paint to canvas.
To put it simply, the silhouette of branches against the sky is precisely how he saw it – and how any of us would see – despite the fact that the light source for the illumination of the treetops is the same as that in the shadowy parts of the scene that he chose to paint a bit lighter and with good detail. This makes sense: when we look at an object illuminated by diffuse indirect light against a dark background, our visual system sees good detail in it. The same object illuminated by the same light but against a sufficiently bright background will look black as our visual system responds to the increased overall brightness. This is precisely the reason why, when used carefully, graduated neutral density can make an image look more like what we saw with our own eyes.
Fast forward to the present day. Finally, digital technology empowers photographers in the early 21st century with a degree of control and creative freedom comparable to that of a 19th century oil painter. In comparison, however, photographers have it easy – no need to sketch numerous detailed studies in the field for use as artist’s references in the creation of the final piece later, and no need to labor for weeks on end to complete a single finished work.
The tradeoff of course for our powerful digital tools is a greater burden of creative and aesthetic judgments. As wonderful as they are, all the array of technological tools at our disposal are only as good as the eyes and brains used to apply them. High dynamic range processing (HDR), for example, can create visually striking images, but the lure to routinely over process can be seductive. When technology guides the creative process rather than serving as a tool under the thoughtful control of the artist, we can experience more difficulty in aesthetically and intuitively accepting an over-manipulated photograph of a real scene than we do a naturalistic 19th-century oil painting of a scene that only ever existed in the artist’s mind.
HDR and other new tools are not the problem, but we are faced with an broader array of decisions that influence the quality, relevance, and character of our work. We take for granted the immense power of post-production tools that enable us to radically lighten and enhance detail in a shadow area – that back in the film days might have been rendered as pure black by default – while simultaneously rendering finely detailed bright highlights. We have the technology to do it, but one has to carefully consider when, how, and how much to use the tools in the digital toolbox, and whether each modification really serves the image. We can boost saturation and contrast of the most banal composition to the point that it grabs visual attention, but will it mesh with our visual intuition and actually hold up aesthetically over the long term?
Finding ourselves with complete and easy control over the color and tonal value of every pixel in every photograph we produce, photographic artists can enjoy the freedom of total creative license. Like a painter, we have the option to render the treetops as silhouette, or instead can choose to depict them as richly detailed mid tones against the same bright and vibrant background. Gifford conspicuously chose the approach that is more in accord with naturalistic visual perception despite his ability to have depicted it any way he wished.
In the context of a world filled with high-definition digital animation and fantasy photo-illustration, it is truer than ever that the most meaningful nature photographs will be those that inform us in some way about real nature and our relationship to it. These images may be spectacularly beautiful; they may reveal situations, phenomena, and juxtapositions in nature that seem unbelievable, uplifting, or devastatingly depressing; but the greatest power of nature photography stems from the trust that the image we find so compelling is also representative of another human being’s authentic experience.
Interestingly, A Winter Twilight doesn’t depict an actual event in time and space. Concealed by Gifford’s masterful rendering of light and tone is the fact that it is an imagined composite of real situations that he sketched in various locations and at all hours of the day rather than during the fleeting twilight depicted in the final painting. His highly tuned ability to see and visualize a final composition, however, enabled him to create a fairly convincing illusion of reality back in his New York studio. Though we photographers work on location and in the moment, we can still learn a great deal from the impressive visual intuition, understanding of light, and thoughtful aesthetic choices demonstrated by Gifford and other painters like him. As fast as the times, technology, and tastes may change, we share a profound connection with our antecedents through the human visual system.
…the ocean was illuminated as if under a black light…so awesome, cannot describe in words…no need to drop acid on this one…every white particle of wave was iridescent, florescent, glowing like you can’t believe…step on the sand and your footprint glows and sparkles… there were banks of waves coming in, white caps in the distance just glowed, and when the waves connected it was elongated strips of fluorescent green stripes across the water… whew…
This strange oceanic occurrence is likely the root of ghost stories told by early sailors who saw the mysterious green fire in the water but failed to comprehend what they were seeing. Documented as far back as 500 B.C., most bioluminescent light occurs in tiny plants called dinoflagellates which live in the sea and gain energy from the photosynthesis of sunlight. In darkness they emit a blue light in response to movement within the water. The intensity of the light peaks about two hours after dark and is simply amazing to watch. During the day they turn red and can be the source of the neurotoxin that poisons shell fish during Red Tides.
After receiving Ellen’s note, and being somewhat fascinated by natural optical phenomena, my mind immediately began pre-visualizing how I could make an interesting photograph. I often try to imagine best-case situations that might occur in nature. The trick is to carefully consider the conditions which would be necessary for a scenario to occur and then consciously reverse engineer it and attempt to put yourself on location at just the right time while being prepared to capture the moment. Something magical often ends up happening, even if it is somewhat different than what you had imagined.
As I pondered the complexity of making an evocative image of the psychedelic tides I felt that the images would look very alien if there wasn’t an earthly land form with which the viewer can easily identify. I started piecing together two ideas that I thought I could achieve in the same night. I’d seen the first sliver of a moon the night before, just after sunset, and knew that the next day it would be about fifty minutes higher in the sky. So I wanted to first make an image of the crescent moon setting at twilight above the breakers and Arched Rock near Jenner. The second image I was visualizing was a long exposure at the cusp of night where I would have just enough light to see the arch, and enough darkness for the dinoflagellates to show up in the water.
I checked the wunderground.com weather satellite which showed crystal clear skies, then double checked the angle of the moon relative to the arch by using a very useful software for such things called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. All the elements seemed to align and it looked like a promising evening.
I pulled up at Goat Rock Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park right about sunset, (which-oops!- is when the Park closes), geared up in rubber boots and wind gear and headed south down Blind Beach in gorgeous light that I would normally have been shooting. This time I was on a mission for something more mysterious than a sunset but at one point I did stop and made a few exposures of boney rocks protruding from the sand with crazy beams of light coming over the horizon. This was an early and unexpected bonus shot. As the light diminished I came to where the convergence of the setting moon and the sea arch were just perfect.
The first set of images were exactly what I expected. In years past I’d made similar images here with the full moon setting at sunrise into the Earth’s shadow. What I didn’t expect this time is that my camera’s sensor was picking up the Milky Way directly above the Arch! This added a layer of intrigue to the image that was far beyond what I’d imagined. Soon the starry night was fully visible to the naked eye.
If the moon had been larger or higher I believe its light would have polluted the clear, cold night sky and blown out the reflection in the water. But it was just slight enough that the relative contrast between the starlight and reflections fell into a range which could be handled if I was careful. But it was the bioluminescence that was most incredible. Each waved rolled in looking like a million neon glow sticks had been dumped into them. The blue-green light shot across the breakers as they crashed, the more wave energy released, the more light emitted. The backwash on the beach left momentary trails of light which resembled a million little galaxies.
I was in “the zone” watching wave sets, adjusting exposures as it got darker and darker, moving south down the beach as the moon traversed to the north, trying to keep my juxtaposition with Arched Rock in alignment. It was a bit ridiculous to realize a shot like this had come together: crescent moon shining through the arch under the Milky Way with the glowing ocean. Then as if in a nod to affirm all was okay in the universe, I watched in awe as a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky above the arch while I had the shutter open. All the while I was very aware that I should not have parked my car in the heavily patrolled parking lot.
The moon was finally setting so I packed and hiked across the beach toward the car, arriving just as two park rangers stepped out of their cruiser with spot lights on. “Hello!” I called out of the darkness in attempt to not get myself Tazed as I stepped into the blinding beams with a big tripod on my shoulder. I received the full lecture from them (the park closes at sunset…we don’t want to have to come looking for you…) and apologized sheepishly. They wanted to know what I was doing out there. Still buzzing from an incredible experience, I pulled out the camera and offered to show them. The three of us huddled in the wind with our heads close to the back of my Nikon’s LCD and looked through the entire image set frame by frame while dispatch ran my plates and ID. The officers have one of the best office views in the state out their front windshield and were excited to see my photographic interpretation of what they see every day. As it turns out we share mutual friends and a deep connection for preserving California’s wild coast. I didn’t get a ticket that night. Instead I walked away with a couple of new friends, some images with which I’m really happy, and the good info on where to park the car for my next outing.
Visionary Wild instructor Jerry Dodrill will co-lead two workshops on the California coast with Justin Black in 2012, at Point Reyes National Seashore in March and on the Sonoma Coast in September. We hope you can join us.
Sonoma Coast State Park: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=451
by Justin Black
The lone-wolf photographer is a concept with which we are all familiar. Many of us like to think of ourselves as self-reliant and passionately free-spirited, driven only by an innate creative vision. In my experience, however, most of the people I know who have mastered anything haven’t done it on their own. They’ve done it through interaction with others.
One of the most important experiences in my formative years was in George Washington University’s small but excellent photography program, founded by a landscape photographer named Jerry Lake. Professor Lake treated his students like family and regularly joined us on weekend photography outings, an act of “above and beyond” generosity to be sure. Back in the studio, students and professors alike would regularly pin up prints in a common area and critique each others’ work. The atmosphere was open and supportive, and everyone felt free to share their work and honest opinions. We all benefitted tremendously from the process of peer review and constructive critique.
In the early days of my photography career, I began to miss the honest and constructive feedback of other photographers, so a friend invited me to participate in Photo Salon, an informal group of serious photographers who met each month at a photo studio outside Washington, DC. Work prints were spread across a huge table, everyone would circle around, look them over, ask questions, share impressions, and offer suggestions. Each of us would have the opportunity to say a little bit about what we were working on and what challenges we faced as we developed our body of work. There was a documentary photographer following the stories of cancer patients, a portraitist doing a book project on transvestites, a fellow who created beautiful abstracts in abandoned industrial sites, and my landscapes among several others. With so many different genres coming together in one place, we each left our comfort zone and benefitted from the insights of professional peers who were all sophisticated visual communicators despite coming from differing interests and backgrounds.
These experiences taught me the art of constructive critique that I regularly apply to this day as a workshop instructor, and they drove home the tremendous value of gathering with other serious photographers in a spirit of camaraderie to discuss aesthetics, themes, techniques, ethics, potential outlets and markets, and myriad other topics. As much as I value creative independence and cherish solitude when I can find it, it seems to me that engaging with a community of passionate and insightful peers is one of the most personally and artistically rewarding activities any photographer can undertake. It is with this knowledge that I look forward eagerly to every workshop critique session and the happy déjà vu experienced every time a participant tells me that they learned far more from the critiques than they ever imagined possible. I have indeed been there before.
by Justin Black
The Dragon rippled as I slid the kayak out into the swamp’s caramel-brown water. The still quiet of pre-dawn was broken only by the song of a prothonotary warbler, a croaking bullfrog, the sudden splash of a jumping sunfish. Gliding along on the glassy surface past lush swamp plants – arrow arum, water lilies, swamp rose, the lovely purple poker-like blooms of pickerelweed – and under the spreading branches of bald cypress, their conical “knees” emerging from the water in rows like the Dragon’s teeth, I felt completely removed from the Tidewater Virginia farmland that encircled me beyond the forest. Entering this place was like time-travel.
by Justin Black
A recent dialog with a friend and fellow photographer got me thinking about truth in photography. For over 170 years, we have relied on photographs to document and share information about the world around us. How many books and documentary films have relied on photographs to connect us with the reality of events and the familiar humanity of lives long past? Using photographs we’ve seen, we construct a broader picture of the reality within which we live, though we may experience only a tiny percentage of it directly. I’ve never been to the Taj Mahal, and yet it’s part of my reality, in large part because of photographs.
Of course, it has long been said that photography routinely misleads us by means of the selective and exclusionary perspective of the lens and the agenda or tastes of the photographer, despite the noblest intentions of honesty. Before even considering the problem of manipulation in the computer or darkroom, some would even go so far as to say that every photograph lies the moment it is accompanied by the claim that it represents “truth.”