Friday, January 20, 2012


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  It's always interesting the way people react to sunrise and sunset pictures. I'll bet all photographers take them even as many photographers belittle them. To some degree I agree with those who say, it's an easy catch to photograph such prettiness. Certainly the digital world is clogged with images of sunsets, and mine may only have added to the noise. However, that easy prettiness is a challenge that makes the problem interesting: How does one make a sunset photograph that is more than a secondhand version of an event that always has more power when beheld live? How do you make the photo lead somewhere beyond sunset?

Although sunsets may be easy prettiness, they are not really easy to shoot.  Every bright sunset photo is a compromise somewhere between the brightness of the sun and the fragile beauty of the clouds. To save the clouds, we may have to turn the landscape black. On our images bright light blooms around dark corners, melting their solidity, distorting colors in ways that are not like vision.  And even when there is not a speck of dust on the lens, the bright light may erupt into  bouquets of ugly lens flare, or worse yet, lens flare may cast a haze over large areas of the image. The sunset photographer may go right to the edge of achievable results. Now there's a challenge!

Sometimes the light of the sun bouncing from surfaces is even too bright for our eyes. How are phenomena that we can not see to be treated in a photograph? What chiaroscuro magic can we cook up where our eyes are momentarily blinded, and what would it take to create a photographic image that answers that question as elegantly as Turner's "Mortlake Terrace"?  

Often the problem becomes the reverse of what a photographer usually faces: Normally we ask how we can reduce the clutter in front of us to a few manageable forms. With sunsets we often have a beautiful, abstract array of light and color, and the need to find just that bit of the world that gives it context and opens sunset to further meaning.  How can we compose an image where the context is minimally intrusive and maximally communicative?

As the poem following the second sunset notes, the photographer makes the picture; something else makes the sunset. It's cheesy for the photographer to claim the sunset's power as his own. However, the visceral power of the sun disappearing over the horizon has never been questioned. For eternity it has been a sign of our connectedness to something hugely larger than we are and about which we know relatively little. Whatever we believe, a powerful sunset can't help but speak of primal forces at work, and its imagery is essential to our understanding of our place in the universe. We are led to photograph sunsets because we are overwhelmed and moved to try to "paint" with that light; we are moved to express, to communicate ecstasy, exaltation, expansiveness.

On the other hand, I apologize for possibly sending the blood sugar levels of some sensibilities into seizure with two sunsets in close succession, whatever their merit. I take it as a challenge to do better. I certainly don't claim that I have solved any of the problems posed above, but I find them interesting and worth pursuing, and I welcome comments about both where images succeed and where they fail.  In most cases sunset light is most interesting for what and how it strikes, but sometimes cloud events call us to look sunset in the face.  

Did I hear someone wondering why this sunset jabber is accompanied by a cloudy snow scene?