Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Monday, December 29, 2008

Barnyard Thaw


RIED CALLANAN: "As you progress through your photographic career and experience, you learn that oftentimes you photograph from your dreams and your memories and your intuition and your background. It's not just the perception through your eyes."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Three years of wandering and regular photographing has bred practices and habits worth reflecting on. Why do I regularly return to the same sites?

The snow before the holiday was accompanied by bitter cold, but by Wednesday (Christmas Eve) temperatures had moderated. It was in the bitter cold that I took yesterday's photograph. Although I have shot Skarf Mountain Farm many times, I never saw that angle until I saw it then. What first drew me was the foreground splash of berry brambles against the cracked, aged barn-wood. The big gash in the wall was a feature to be carefully placed. The low sun caught every bit of detail in the wood and the brambles. However, in spite of frequent visits here, I'd never before seen the intriguingly twisted passageway through the barnyard just behind the brambles. How simply and elegantly it let me balance the composition. I'd never seen it that way. Under recent snow and the cold sunlight of the solstice, it was obvious. How had I missed it?

Well, for one thing, I'd never seen it under snow. There are close to two stops of difference between the ground covered by snow and the ground with its usual covering of grass and hardened soil. Under snow, earth and sky unite. I'm reminded of the first thing Freeman Patterson said in his first workshop three summers ago. "It's all about composing tonalities. Learn to see tonalities." Had snow suddenly made it a composition? I spent a long time adjusting placement, height, angle, and zoom to include or exclude various details and to shift the viewer's path through the composition. In fact, there seemed too many good options.

Then this weekend temperatures climbed as high as sixty and the world turned spongy. Naturally, having found the angle in winter's deep freeze, when I was back there Saturday I wanted to see it in thaw. Thick, even fog muffled almost everything as snow condensed to vapor. The density of the fog changed often, but visibility was rarely above 100 feet, often far less. The white snow was off the dark roof of the barns, but snow still led the eye along the ground. The scene composed itself differently. It did so instantly as I looked through the viewfinder. The barns, smothered in fog, loomed somewhat massively, and the snarl of berry brambles were no longer outlined by the setting sun, but made quiet and hung with drops of melting snow.

Looking at the two photographs side by side reminds me of a series of quick decisions I made in standing, zooming, and framing this photograph that were quite different than those I made in the freeze photo, I didn't study this one intently as I had the first, and I made just five quick shots. I was especially aware of wanting to spread out the opposing face of the heifer barn on the right where earlier I had kept trying to pinch it. It was not merely to make more background to the water droplets, but to enhance the broad shape. Shooting it this way was a bit like suddenly hearing the right chord struck on the piano. Very curious, my certainty about this shot and the urge to improvise infinite variations to the earlier one!