So there I am, searching for an image to serve as a header for the Festival of the Trees coordinating blog. (I had decided to switch to a theme with less annoying fonts.) It’s late morning, and I’ve been going through my photos for close to an hour. I’m getting frustrated, because I only have a small number of what I’d consider acceptable tree photos, and none of them look much good cropped to banner dimensions. I’m also feeling some frustration at the fact that I haven’t done anything that you might call creative so far today.
I glance up and find myself gazing out the window at a sudden snow squall. I relax and watch the swirling flakes for half a minute, then on an impulse, grab my camera and go out on the front porch. With the camera on wide angle and natural light settings, I shoot three pictures almost at random. Snowflakes are already beginning to hit the lens, so I scurry back inside. Reviewing the pictures on the LCD display, I delete two of them right away. But it occurs to me that the third — a shot into the sun, which was half-hidden by a scrim of snow cloud — might well yield a good banner image. I upload it to the computer and look at it in Photoshop, and sure enough, at about 50 percent magnification, there are plenty of likely banner-size images. I crop and save three in quick succession, and the first one I try at the Festival blog looks fine (I keep another in reserve at Flickr, just in case). It fits the season, which is nothing if not festive. Only after the photo is up and in use as the new header do I take the time to look at it more closely — the kind of looking that would have to precede image-making in almost any other medium than photography.
Sketch artists may draw a fairly negative moral from this story: look how totally inattentive one can be and still end up with a half-decent photo! Snapshot photography is obviously an invitation to semi-distracted, careless looking rather than genuine seeing.
Is it fair to say that I was inattentive, though? I don’t know. Thinking back on it, I’m pretty sure that I had the image I wanted to take already in my mind’s eye before I went out on the porch. Looking at the two images I got out of the one shot I saved, it’s evident that a couple things were working in my favor: the snowflakes were effectively backlit by the almost-shining sun, giving maximal contrast with the trees behind them; and the fact that it was the edge of the woods, as opposed to somewhere in the middle of it, meant that there were plenty of outstretched branches to suggest motion and energy.
I’m dwelling on this not to blow my own horn — I really don’t think of myself as anything but the rankest of amateur photographers — but because I’m fascinated by the creative process. In the close to two years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve found myself taking fewer and fewer shots of each subject. Quite often, the first picture snapped turns out to be the best, and I know it when I take it. But quite often, too, I’ve been looking at the subject for a good long time before I get the camera out. Take the recent deer skull pictures, for example: the skull sits right outside my door, in the lilac bush above my stone wall. I’ve been looking at it for months. The view from my porch? I take it in for at least a half-hour every morning.
I watched myself on Sunday, when I went for a walk around the mountain with the camera. As usual, I took a certain number of shots of things simply because they looked cool, and more or less knew when I took them that they wouldn’t be keepers. I got close with a couple, including a strikingly grotesque red maple tree that I’ve been photographing off and on for months without success. I think I may have the right angle now, but probably the light needs to be different. I spent a lot of time standing and looking at things, and found that simply by gazing with no particular expectations, a couple of times a viable shot would appear. One of the better photos featured a clump of turkey-tail fungi I’d never noticed before, and I took it with very little deliberation. But I’ve photographed other clumps of turkey-tail fungi, so quite possibly I already knew what angle to shoot from.
Has photography made me a better writer? I don’t know. More than anything, I suppose, it provides me with a creative outlet when I don’t feel up to writing, and the results often make good writing prompts, too. (This post doesn’t count, being more analytical than creative.) Has it changed the way I look at things? I doubt it. But I think it has reinforced some of the lessons I had already learned from three and a half decades of writing poems: to trust my impulses, and to work with whatever comes most readily to hand.
I’d be interested in hearing from other writers who have taken up photography. What, if anything, do you think you’ve learned from it?