Monday, March 24, 2008

Stay Away

CONSTANTIN STANISLAVSKI: There are no small parts, only small actors."
SCOTT McLEAY: "Each part of the image is equally important."
EDWARD WESTON: "Composition is the strongest way of seeing."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: After scouting and scoping Great Falls on Friday, I had my site and my time for a single falls shoot. I wanted to be as close to the foot of the falls as possible so I could shoot up across it to the dam station at the top of my frame. The spot I chose was a bit off the official trail and at the bottom of a steep embankment. It was at an the elbow where the river turned, creating a small pool. At the back edge of the pool a rock shelf had been left beneath an overhanging cliff. It provided plenty of room to move about and scope the falls in front of me for the best spot.The afternoon sun was sure to light the falls through much of the afternoon, but I wanted to be there still when the shadow began to creep upstream. I needed another clear day which came immediately on Saturday.

My friend, Louie, has written to suggest "serendipiting" as an additional step in my methodology. In fact, like most photographers, I acknowledge the importance of divine gifts. On the other hand, while one needs to be ready when the unexpected miracle appears, one can't consciously serendipit. And yet...

I had previously noted that if there was a decent wind to pick up the spray of the tumbling river, a portion of this site would be in periodic "rain." What I had not seen from my scoping perch above was that down on the ledge, that spray was continually creating rainbows. They'd come and go with the wind and change as the wind shifted. Sometimes it would be all bottom rainbow; sometimes the arch would only appear in spots and often it wouldn't be there at all for a few moments; every once in a while the wind would do something strange and reveal a complete arch of color from my level at the river up over the top of the falls and part way back down - serendipity! Well, not so fast.

I did all my usual shifting and zooming to identify and place the characters; to try to find the, "strongest way of seeing." For each possibility I shot many more images than normal; it was hard to tell if I'd just caught or just missed the rainbow. I also knew that by using the tripod, I'd be able to assemble a complete rainbow if I took enough shots.

But here's the thing: suddenly I was only half shooting falls and half shooting rainbow, and because I couldn't get them into a clear relationship, I wasn't shooting composition at all. In frustration, I positioned myself so the rainbow's brightest segment fell across a skeletal tree and made it fill the center of my frame. Simply plunking the image in the center of the frame risks discrediting the rest of the "canvas"; It's not the things that matter, but how they fit.

The shadow began creeping up the falls at 4:20, for the first time all afternoon, I ignored the rainbow. I took my last shots at 4:30. That evening not a single shot from the day's shoot pleased me. Such days are disappointing, and I easily give in to self-blame. In fact, it was a failure of concentration caused by the distraction of the rainbow and my determination to make this "gift" work.

Although I know I'll eventually return to shoot from the elbow pool, I chose a very different spot on my return on Monday (Amazing, another clear day!) When I arrived, I wasn't sure where I was going to shoot, but I decided to start above the falls. In contrast to the previous day, I was soon seeing many possibilities and my problem at home was how to choose from many options. Even shots that didn't work suggested fixes if conditions permit a similar shoot. Why had I previously avoided shooting here?

Perhaps I chose TODAY's image out of my yearning to be as close as possible to the edge of the danger. Or maybe getting this close provided the strongest contrast between the calm pool above and the menace ahead. In any case, to my eye all parts of this image are equally important.