26 September

Would You Photograph if You Couldn’t Share?

The following article appeared in summer/fall 2016 issue (#38) of Outdoor Photography Canada (OPC) magazine. Subscribe to get this great magazine delivered to your mailbox. The latest issue (#43) is one of the best yet!

©Darwin Wiggett

I recently found myself pondering a rather strange question…would I still photograph if I could never share the resulting images with another soul? This thought got me thinking about why people photograph in the first place. Most of us do share our memories, stories, travels, and life events with others. Without an audience to view our pictures what’s the point of making photos? Indeed, among art circles there is the contention that for art to exist there has to be a ‘connection’. You can’t have connection without an audience. By this logic art can only exist if there is someone beyond the artist to view it.

©Darwin Wiggett

The point here is not to debate whether art needs an audience to be art but rather to get to the fundamental question of why we photograph, or why we create in the first place. Beyond recording memories and experiences, I suspect we photograph for many different reasons just like people write or paint or compose music for many different reasons. And, as with other art forms, I think we photograph because of internal and external motivations at heart.

©Darwin Wiggett

Henry Darger was a custodian by day and a painter and writer by night. He spent most of his adult life creating fantastical paintings and writings in his spare time, and no one around him knew anything about his creative life. It was not until after his death when his landlord came to clean out his room that his art was discovered. Henry did not create his pieces with an audience in mind; he kept his art to himself and made his art for his own pleasure or more likely for his own therapy to work through his difficult childhood as an institutionalized orphan. Darger’s motivations and reasons for creating art were internal.

I wonder if there are few Darger’s out there in today’s era of social sharing. I can think of plenty of artists, probably the majority, who produce work for external reasons. They feel they have something to share with the outside world whether that’s simply to share the joy and beauty of nature as they see it or to make social statements about the world around them. They make art showcasing how they see the world but knowing at the time of creation that they will present their work to the world.

©Darwin Wiggett

There are dangers to both approaches. For those who do it purely for internal reasons there is a danger that what you create will be too personal for anyone else to understand should it ever be seen. On the other hand, because the work was not created for an outside audience it will be pure of intent. When producing work to share with others the results are often more accessible but there is the likely possibility that the responses of your audience will inform the content of your art. I see this latter point a lot in photography where social media responses to a photographer’s work colour what and how they photograph. Personal work that does not get a lot of ‘likes’ is abandoned for a style of photo that generates many positive responses. There is the real danger of creating homogenous and predictable or fashionable and trendy work.

©Darwin Wiggett

In the end, I think we all need to look at why we photograph and what camp of artists we generally fall into. Are you a navel gazer or a social sharer? Once you know your true motivations you can then try and avoid the pitfalls that lie in wait with either approach. In my own photography I started out making images purely for my own purposes without expectation or need to share. Later on my photography became all about sharing what I saw with others. It soon began to feel like I was creating for an audience and not for me. I am now returning full circle to creating for internal reasons and I feel a new spark of inspiration. Will I ever share this new work? It’s hard to say but for now I am creating a new body of work just for me and it feels great. So would I photograph if I couldn’t share the results with anyone else? The answer for me is a resounding yes! What about you?

©Samantha Chrysanthou

18 July

Atmospheric Haze: A Landscape Photographer’s Dream or Nightmare?

This article was first published in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine over one year ago. To keep up with the freshest content from top Canadian nature photographers we highly recommend subscribing.

The view from Bald Butte during a hazy sunset (Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Centre Block, Saskatchewan)

Nature photographers like their landscapes pristine; generally, we don’t want to see any ‘hand of man’ in our pictures but rather we want to present nature in her purest and finest form. So we venture forth in hopes of recording clean and crisp mountain, desert, and forest landscapes. When nature photographers encounter atmospheric haze it dampens their enthusiasm for making pictures like chores ruin the day of a kid on summer holidays. We know of many photographers who have cancelled trips to areas like the Canadian Rockies when they heard that forest fires have obscured the clear alpine skies. It’s a shame that our preconceptions of what’s good and what’s bad colours what and how we take photos. Atmospheric haze can offer up unique opportunities for stunning photography if we’re open to seeing beyond our expectations.

The low tonal contrast and scattered light of atmospheric haze kills colours so why not work with this condition and make B+W images that emphasizes the subtle gradations in tone in the scene (Lower Waterfowl Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta).

 

Forest fire haze creates scattered particulate matter that helps add drama to the sky (Upper Brazeau River Valley, Jasper National Park, Alberta).

Atmospheric haze results when smoke, dust and other dry particles accumulate in relatively dry air. Most of the time we blame human activity on atmospheric haze and consider it un-natural. For example, in the fall, activities from the harvest of cereal crops stirs up dust and particulates that results in hazy conditions. Fires burning, dust from gravel roads and particulate pollution from industry also creates atmospheric haze. But atmospheric haze has been around longer than humans. Lightning strikes burn vast tracts of forest, volcanoes spew out tonnes of particulate matter, wind storms churn up dust from dunes… the list goes on. So rather than fight or avoid haze, embrace it! Haze is a natural part of nature.

Atmospheric haze, in this case caused by a forest fire started by a lightning strike, looks blue because short blue wavelengths of light are bounced off of particulate matter in the air to be recorded by our eyes and cameras. To retain the blue cast be sure to keep your white balance set to ‘daylight’ or ‘sunny’.

 

When haze kills colours turn to monochrome.

Atmospheric haze does several interesting things that can be used by the creative photographer. First, it reduces contrast in the scene due to the scattering of light by the particulate matter. These low contrast scenes look moody, ethereal and even painterly. Second, haze selectively scatters light waves with shorter wavelengths, like blue, being scattered more than red wavelengths. This is why haze and smoke look blue – the blue wavelengths bounce off and are recorded by our eyes (and cameras). Red wavelengths tend to pierce through the particulate matter and so in backlit situations we see warm colours coming through the haze. Anyone who has seen the sun through thick smoke knows the sun appears as a reddish ball even at mid-day because only the red wavelengths of light are passing through the smoke. As photographers, we can use this natural filtering effect of light bouncing off of or moving through haze to add further mood to our photographs. Indeed, atmospheric haze creates incredible mood and ambience. Just ask anyone who has travelled to India or China whether haze has added to the mood of their travel photos. You’ll get a resounding yes!

Mid-day sun becomes an orange fireball when filtered through thick smoke.

Winter winds churn up blowing snow, ice and dust causing hazy conditions in the distance (Abraham Lake, Alberta)

And so, when it’s hazy, don’t give up. Your expectations of clear, crisp, and contrasty nature scenes has evaporated. Advanced shooters see the potential in the murky skies. Look for scenes where the blue, low contrast light works with the subject to give a dream-like mood. Or, find situations where the glowing warm backlight creates an ethereal glow. Some of my favorite images have been created when nature (or human activity) created atmospheric haze and I was open to possibilities beyond my expectations. Rather than the haze being a nightmare that destroyed my nature outing, it became a dream that allowed me to create memorable images. Happy hazy shooting!

Dust from a gravel road creates beams of light when back lit by the sun (Water Valley, Alberta)

Hazy days help add mood and atmosphere to scenes we would normally pass by (river path in Cochrane, Alberta).

18 September

Beyond Documentary Nature Photography

Good stuff should be shared! The article below is reprinted from my column in the Winter 2009 issue of Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. Support this great magazine and subscribe to get fresh content quarterly  😉

Beyond Documentary Nature Photography

Most nature photographers believe that their photography is purely documentary. The definition of documentary is, “a factual record or an accurate representation of reality” so if all you ever do is record what’s in front of your lens, how can you be anything but a documentary photographer?

Take a look at photos 1 and 2 below. Both photographs are of Mount Rundle at Vermilion Lakes in Banff National Park. Both of these images were captured with slide film and neither of these images were manipulated in-camera with special technique or after the capture in computer software. Both images capture exactly what was in front of the lens. And both images were made on the same evening session. But are these photos “an accurate representation of reality”?

Photo 1 – Vermilion Lakes and Mount Rundle – ©Darwin Wiggett

Photo 1 above is shot with a ‘standard’ lens and represents, according to ‘visual experts’, a perspective similar to that of the human eye. Photo 2 below is shot with a 300mm lens and is a small detail shot from the foreground shown in photo 1 but shot later in the day as the setting sun warmed up the face of Mount Rundle. Many people would classify photo 1 as ‘documentary’ and photo 2 as ‘abstract’ or ‘expressionistic’. Both photos accurately show the scene that existed before my eyes, so why do we classify one differently from the other? Can only photos shot with a 50mm lens be called documentary? Does that mean everything shot with a 300mm lens is ‘interpretive’? Can we even define ‘documentary nature photography’?

Photo 2 – Detail shot of a reflection of Mount Rundle in the second Vermilion Lake – ©Darwin Wiggett

An acquaintance of mine from Austria recently came to Banff and visited Vermilion Lakes. He had seen hundreds of photographs of Mount Rundle at Vermilion Lakes and thought he had a good idea of what it would be like to be there. He was blown away by how the ‘reality’ of the place differed from what was presented to him in photos. He just kept shaking his head saying, “It’s so different from what I expected!” Were all those documentary photos of Vermilion Lakes wrong? All the photos he had seen showed a pristine mountain lake environment; none of them show the reality of a lake shore paralleled by two busy highways and a shoreline trampled to death by parked cars and pounding foot traffic (photo 3).

Photo 3 – The ‘true’ shoreline of the Vermilion Lakes (the lake shore is on the left side of the road) – ©Samantha Chrysanthou

The lesson I took from his experience is that there is only one ‘reality’ and that is your own. No one sees the world the same way you do. We all have biases and personal histories that colour the way we see the world. My representation of Vermilion Lakes will be different from yours even as we stand side-by-side shooting together. Neither result is more ‘accurate’ or ‘documentary’ than the other. And that is the beauty of photography as art.

My point here is not that we need a better definition of ‘documentary photography’ but rather we should realize that all of our photos are personal interpretations of reality – plain and simple. I now realize that part of my ‘style’ for drama and colour in photography is because I intensely feel my subjects and I want my feelings to translate to the viewer (or maybe I just see the world through rose-coloured glasses). My photos are less about the subject than they are about my feelings for the subject. Often we get too hung up about how others interpret our ‘reality’. Once you let go of worrying what others think about your photography or how they classify it, only then will your photography truly represent the world as you see and feel it. For me, that is the most interesting ‘documentary’ photography of all! Happy shooting.

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