NOTE: This article is reposted from the original essay in 2012…
Today, I had a request from my long-time friend and master photographer Michael Frye to post the essay in which I tell the story of making my favorite image, Dawn, Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Canada 1995. Here it is as sent to Outdoor Photographer for first my On Landscape column in 1997. For more of my essays, see the OP site here. Michael is mentioning this story is his upcoming blog post: In the Moment: A Landscape Photography Blog
Landscapes for my Spirit
© 1997 William Neill
Welcome to Outdoor Photographer’s new column on landscape photography! I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you on all aspects of the landscape genre. I have been an avid reader of OP since its beginning and I hope that I can contribute to all the exciting ideas and images that are regularly offered here.
The best way that I can think of to launch this column is to put forth the underlying motivation and inspiration for my photography. Any future discussions on light, or composition, or equipment, or technique will be based on this foundation. I am not one for learning an approach to creating images unless that route allows for a direct connection with the subject and helps me to communicate my own response to it. In other words, I keep my approach very simple and pragmatic. We, photographers as a group, tend to let the technique of photography get in the way. Ansel Adams often complained of the overabundance of sharp photos with fuzzy concepts!
The beauty of nature is the foundation of which I speak; it motivates and inspires my photography. When I stand before landscapes of silent rock, reflecting water, and parting cloud, I feel most connected to myself and to life itself. Seeing and feeling this beauty is more vital to me than any resulting imagery. Still, I am compelled to try to put on film some visual representation of the sense of wonder I feel, and I suspect that you know that feeling!
In my new book, Landscapes of the Spirit, I describe my evolution as a photographer, especially emphasizing my belief in the great value and need for the wildness and beauty of nature. This belief emerged from personal experience— a death in my family when I was eighteen. That summer I happened to be working in Glacier National Park. My immersion in that landscape during a time of great personal distress opened my eyes to the restorative powers of nature, and led me to a life in photography. At some deep level, the beauty of my surroundings seeped into my subconscious—the lush colors of a meadow dense with wildflowers, the energy of a lightning storm, the clarity of a mountain lake, the splendid perspective from the edge of a desert canyon. In an effort to capture and convey these life-affirming discoveries, I began to photograph as I backpacked throughout Glacier. Within a few years, all I wanted to do was make photographs!
Ansel Adams, in paraphrasing his mentor Alfred Stieglitz, used to remind his students that a great photograph was the emotional equivalent of the photographer’s response to his subject. Such a lofty goal is rarely achieved. We are all lucky if but two or three or four times a year we make an image where technique and emotion converge to create a transcendent photograph. I don’t mean simply a technically excellent and beautiful image. I mean a photograph that rises above your best and reveals a deeply personal and creative perspective. In this regard, I am not so sure that pros can claim to have a better “batting average” than the amateur given their relatively different expectations of their work. In any case, it is good to have reasonable expectations for your own progress.
Over the years, I have continued to search for imagery that, in the words of the great black and white photographer Paul Caponigro, can”… make visible the overtones of that dimension [of Nature] I sought. Dreamlike, these isolated images maintain a landscape of their own, produced through the agency of a place apart from myself. Mysteriously, and most often when I was not conscious of control, that magical and subtle force crept somehow into the image, offering back what I had sensed as well as what I saw.” I think that the photograph here, Dawn, Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Canada, 1995, is one of those photographs Caponigro describes. Rising very early on a summer morning, I hoped for a dramatic and brilliant sunrise on Lake Louise and the glaciers above. Perhaps it was the two weeks of photographing in rainy conditions that biased my hopes! I waited patiently for sunrise, but my preconceived vision failed to appear as persistent clouds shrouded the mountains. It was a silent and mysterious dawn. I simply sat and soaked in the scene. Finally, I made two exposures, but expected little. I completely forgot about this session during the rest of my trip. When I saw the film after returning, I was amazed. I had to think hard about when and where I had made this photograph. Unconsciously, but facilitated by my experience and instinct, the power and magic of that landscape, at that moment, had come through on film.
The Lake Louise photograph was made with my 4×5 view camera and a 150mm lens. Due to the use of slow film, small aperture and low light, the exposure was about two minutes long. Of the two exposures I made, one was horizontal, the other vertical. The horizontal image looks much like the vertical, minus the rocks in the foreground. I often like to remove clues and context that show depth or scale in my images, and the horizontal exposure fit my standard approach. However, the vertical image has a stronger feeling of depth and somehow this subtle sense of scale adds an essential dimension to the composition. Since the foreground rocks are underwater, and the long exposure also blurred their appearance, they add a little balance and mystery.
I had an idea of what I wanted to photograph at Lake Louise that morning, but when it did not materialize, I didn’t feel as if I had to make an image. The landscape itself presented another idea. When a concept for an image is forced onto film, creativity can be lost. By not needing to make an image, I found one. This lesson is encapsulated by my favorite quote from photographer Minor White,
“Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.”
So wait, watch and relax! It is these magical convergences of light and land and camera that keep us coming back again and again!