Hawk, Mono Lake, California, 2004
An oncoming snowstorm forced cancellation of our scheduled visit to Mono Lake – a strange briny oasis in California’s dry Great Basin, and a vital habitat for millions of migratory and nesting birds. We did get a chance to briefly pass part of Mono’s shoreline as we headed home, and I stopped long enough to make this early morning photograph of a watchful hawk scanning the surface of the lake’s glistening water for its next meal. Using a 432mm telephoto lens, I took my reading off the water, and abstracted the image down to its bluish-black essence to capture to mood of the moment. It is an eerie scene, but then Mono Lake is said to be one of the strangest lakes in North America.
Aspen Forest, near Lee Vining Canyon, California, 2004
If nature were to build its cathedral, it would probably look something like this. A picture inside of a forest is very difficult to make because of nature’s natural clutter. However in this case, I was able to use light to organize this forest of Aspen trees into a coherent landscape photograph. The sun guilds the floor of the forest and brilliantly illuminates the yellow and orange Aspen leaves up top, providing both a “floor” and “ceiling” for this natural cathedral. I also make use of the tent-shape shadow in the background, gradually tapering to a peak at the center. This peak crowns a single pair of Aspens in the back of the picture that pulls the eye right into and then through the image. The angle of the sun creates “rim” lighting on many of the trees, giving them a delicate glow. There is even very soft light deep in the forest, reflecting on hundreds of tiny leaves that twinkle like a band of distant fireflies. The rhythmic repetition of tree trunks draws our eyes across the forest, just as the light and shadow pulls them into it. I used my Leica Digilux 2 for this image because of the remarkable ability of its Summicron Lens to interpret light and resolve detail. All of these factors work together to help me express the very nature of nature, but it is light that holds the keys to its success as a landscape photograph.
The Chapels of St. Vincent, St. Malo, France, 2004
Mystery can often be expressed by the interplay of light and shadow. And such mystery can work symbolically as well, as in this image. I was initially drawn to this scene by the beauty of the light itself. It was flowing into this cathedral through its stained glass windows, producing a subtle rainbow-like pattern, and striking the steps that led to each of the chapels that line the side of its nave. Then I realized that it was much more than just the beauty of the light itself that was drawing my eye. It was the interplay of that light with the deep shadows, creating a pattern that mysteriously lingers at the entrance of each chapel. Light and shadow also define a series of black rectangles on the floor - each of them a gravestone. My spot meter was an essential tool here - by exposing precisely on the bright light, I was able to intensify the depth of the shadows, instead of washing them out, as I would have done if I had used standard evaluative metering.
Ultimately, the meaning of this image must be resolved by each of my viewers. As for the meaning I intend here, I hope I've been able to imply that there is beauty and meaning in death, as well as in life.
Figurehead, Upton Slip, Falmouth, England, 2004
When you enter the narrow Falmouth alley known as Upton Slip, you will encounter an enormous figurehead moored outside of a sail-maker’s shop. My goal is to confront you with this strange piece of nautical history, and do so with impact and power. I take an intimate, in-your-face vantage point, making the head of the figurehead very large and powerful. The sun was very high in the sky, throwing harsh shadows on the face, particularly around the eyes. It was not good lighting at all. I solved the light problem by making it the solution. I made the mysterious, high key light work for me instead of against me. I let this confrontation become an eerie one, full of mystery and veiled menace. I tilted my camera so that the figurehead dominates the picture as a forceful diagonal instead of in a passive, vertical orientation. I leave half the face light and the other half dark, by metering on the bright side of the face with my spot meter. (Normal “evaluative” metering would tend to lighten the shadows and wash out the highlights in a situation such as this.) The result is a surreal encounter with a mysterious lady of the sea.
The old Parade Ground, Guimaraes, Portugal, 2004
The vast 600-year-old plaza fronting the Ducal Palace in Guimaraes was used as military parade ground in the 19th century when the building was turned into a barracks. Today, the old parade ground is still there – a sea of cobblestones glinting in the early morning light. I often photograph the interplay of light and shadow on cobblestones because of the wonderful textures, rhythms, and patterns it produces. As I was shooting this old parade ground, I heard the tramp of feet. Alas, no long dead Portuguese soldiers marched into my frame. It was but a single man. I used his illuminated shoulders and long shadow to provide human scale to this shot. I also made good use of appearing, disappearing and reappearing light here. The foreground is brilliantly illuminated, clearly displaying the long deep shadow leading into the picture at left and also defining the rows of pavement within the cobblestones that gradually recede into the distance. The middle ground is plunged into deep shadow, but there is still enough detail visible to make out the Ducal Palace in the background. The light reappears once again in the sky – a searing white light that explodes from behind on overhanging tree to define the shape of palace roofline, turret, and chimney. The backlighting from this bright sky also illuminates the leaves of this tree, which embraces the image from the top and holds it together. All in all, I’d say that light does a pretty good job of holding this picture together and reawakening the thud of old soldier’s boots on this historic pavement.
Dawn, St. Malo, France, 2004
A sunrise does not make a great picture by itself. It only offers the light source and provides the coloration. It is up to the photographer to make use of that wonderfully warm light in a memorable way. The sunrise that morning in St. Malo was in and out of the clouds, and I could see immediately that any picture would be as much about the effect of light on the clouds and on the sea as the nature of the light itself. I shot continuously for nearly fifteen minutes during this sunrise. I was on a cruise ship anchored just offshore, and my position regarding the direction of the light was fixed. But as I shot, the coloration and intensity of the light changed constantly during those 15 minutes. Spot metering was essential, because I wanted to capture the richest colors, while abstracting both the city and the harbor. I metered on the most intense band of light in the picture – that bright yellow streak just behind the city’s buildings. The colors of the light on the sea and the clouds were remarkable. Traces of the houses can barely be seen coming through the black shadows. The closer I study this shot, the more I imagine I see. The image of this historic city becomes timeless. Aside from the design of the boats in the harbor, it could have been made in 1804, or 1904, as well as in 2004. Rare are images you can look at again and again without tiring of it. This is one of those images – and it’s all because of the light and how I was able to use it.
Awakening, Tomb of Emperor Qin, Xian, China, 2004
Over 6,000 life sized soldiers made of pottery guard the underground tomb of China's first emperor in Xian. Unearthed in 1974, these soldiers were accidentally discovered by farmers digging a well. I visited the site just as the sun was grazing the front ranks, leaving the soldiers behind them in shadow. I exposed for the lighted soldiers, defining them clearly but leaving the rest in virtual darkness. It is the perfect way to suggest an awakening – after 2,000 years of darkness, these soldiers seem to come to life again as they march into the light of day.
Shoveling gravel outside of Xian, China, 2004
Two workers attack a pile of gravel in a small farming village. A day of hard work has just begun. For the vast majority of Chinese, physical labor is a way of life. This picture could not say what it says if I had taken it only an hour later. I wanted to stress the nature of the gravel itself, hard edged, dusty, and heavy. At this hour of the morning, the low light throws each stone into hard relief, providing a texture to this picture that defines the essence of the task at hand. The light also elongates the shadows, and makes the dust raised by the shovel seem to hang in the air. High contrast, high relief, and the low light angle combine here to tell us what this job must feel like.
Door knocker, Chengdu, China, 2004
I was trapped for a half hour with a tour group in a brocade "factory" in Chengdu, which was well off by itself and far too isolated for me to escape to more photogenic areas. (The tourist industry often put its "factories" in such places because it sets up a "shop or else" situation.) Distressed by my predicament, I concentrated on making a worthwhile photographic opportunity come out of this situation. I found the answer in this tiny lion’s head door knocker. It adorned the door of the brocade "factory" and the side angle of the afternoon light was illuminating it perfectly. This frumpy lion seems to feel just as I did -- a frustrated captive being led around town with a ring in the mouth!
The Old Yangtze Ferry, Sanxia, China, 2004
The key to landscape photography is light, and the best light for photography comes just after dawn or at dusk. The Three Gorges of China’s Yangtze river are as beautiful as any riverscape on earth, but I still needed be able to shoot it in warm, low angled light such as this to get the most out of such a scene. This image reminds me of the 19th Century paintings of New York’s Hudson River Valley – the hills, the mist, smooth water, and an old boat about to touch land. Even small details such as the boat’s shimmering reflection on the water and the tiny figures on the bow of the ferry are dependent upon the angle of the light. The tinge of warm gold, and the four levels of land rising through the frame, complete a timeless vision of a river soon to vanish forever, as it becomes a reservoir for Three Gorges Dam Project.
Art school storage area, Shanghai, China 2004
Our tour group sent an hour or so visiting a neighborhood art school in Shanghai. My most memorable image from that adventure came from an unexpected place – a corner of a room used as a storage area for props and materials. Beautifully soft light was flowing into this corner from a nearby window. Whenever I make photographs, I try to look for the effective light first, and once I find it, I learn what subject matter it can illuminate for me. That was the case here. I had no intentions of photographing a floodlight, a few easels and a copy of large Greek sculpture. But when I saw how that window light was illuminating these things, I knew I had a chance to make an expressive image. I kept moving the camera until the floodlight and easels partially blocked the head, making it appear as if it was lurking there in the shadows. The head’s intrusion into the easels is incongruous and the light and shadow bathe the head in a soft glow. I focused and exposed on the brightest part of the picture with my spot meter – the curls on the big head. The rest of the image darkened accordingly, and I came away with this image of “art waiting in the wings for its moment.”
Devotion, Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong, China, 2004
This woman spent nearly an hour praying and chanting at various altars within the Man Mo Temple. Her passionate spirituality was a welcome counterpoint to the rapacious commercialism I found in Hong Kong. I followed her with my camera over most of this period, staying quietly out of her way, and photographing her in the temple’s dim light. She was so involved in her devotions, working herself almost into a trance, that she never even noticed me, and I never gave her cause to see me. I never use a flash when shooting indoors – I much prefer to remain invisible and produce pictures made by natural light. And I certainly did not want to disrupt her worship in any way. Using a flash would have been insulting. I used the spot meter option in my camera to take readings off the dim bulb on the altar, and on the nearby candles. I am using a technique here known as “Rembrandt Lighting” – making the scene as dark as possible, and recording only the highlights coming out of the dark shadows. In this shot, the fruit, lights, candlesticks, ceramic vases, as well as the woman’s face, hands, and shirt are highlighted and everything else goes black. The key to “Rembrandt Lighting” is the use of a spot-meter, a tool essential to available light photographers. It allows me to paint with light, exposing for only for the highlights and letting everything else recede into abstract darkness.