WHISPERS IN THE FOG
© 1999 William Neill
Here is an essay I wrote in 1999. Enjoy!
Simplicity. Subtly. These are words I value highly in my landscape photography. I love making quiet and simple images. I strive to distill those aspects of nature that whisper, that entice the viewer to delve deeper— into the image and, most importantly, into nature.
A common tendency for landscape photographers is to include too much information. Too many mountains or trees. Too much foreground or sky. It is a natural and enthusiastic response to a great location or scene. Let’s describe it all! After all, it is the entire 360-degree experience of sound and smell that makes us raise up our camera. It is difficult to tell the whole story in one frame so what happens, most often, is that the resulting image is merely a description. Including too much has the effect of diluting the composition. Had the photographer paused to consider how to create a composition that encapsulates the experience, the viewer will have a better chance to sense the place through the photographer’s eyes. To distill is the key idea here; to isolate and concentrate the key elements of the photographer’s interaction with the scene. Through this process of focusing compositionally, the selective process gives one a better opportunity to discover a new viewpoint.
A few years ago (1993), I traveled to Sequoia National Park on an assignment for Sunset Magazine. My job was to photograph the Sequoia groves in the park, and especially the less-protected groves south of the park. As I drove into the first grove on my assignment list, a thick fog enveloped the sequoia forest. These conditions were not exactly the ideal conditions for the work at hand. Yet I was entranced. Perhaps I could make an image that would evoke the Sequoia’s timeless and epic qualities in a new way. And happily, the magazine sent me right when the dogwood were in bloom.
I spent the next few hours wondering amongst the dogwood and Giant Sequoia as the fog sifted through the woods. Slowly and subtly, the fog thickened and lightened on a soft breeze. I listened to a tape of Japanese flute music while I photographed, intensifying the wondrous experience.
What the fog provided me was a forest simplified. The combination of soft light, and the reduction of depth and detail provided by the fog allowed me to distill the key elements around me. I photographed dogwood branches, with their blossoms seemingly suspended in air and floating in the fog. With my wide angle lens captured two lone sequoias soaring up into the fog, an image that was later used in a Nike ad! I photographed a dogwood tree growing in front of a sequoia. I made vertical and horizontal images in panoramic format. The creative juices were flowing, and I worked the scene until no more ideas would come.
In the photograph shown here, “Giant sequoia and fir tree in the fog, Sequoia National Park, California 1993,” I chose a normal focal length 150mm lens for the 4×5. I composed the image so that the tree filled more than half the frame. The small fir tree contrasts dramatically with the massive sequoia. Only a small part of the huge tree is included in the photograph yet its presence is felt. The forest floor was cluttered with fallen branches, so I raised the front standard of my view camera to eliminate the distraction. This movement also served to keep the lines of the trees parallel. By not settling for the obvious approach—describing the whole tree—I discovered a fresh viewpoint, one that leaves the viewer to imagine the rest of the picture outside my frame.
The fog was gone the next day; the sun came out so was able to make the type of images needed for the assignment. Not surprisingly, the magazine did not use any of my photographs made in the fog, but many of them have been subsequently published and exhibited in galleries. It was a successful trip on all quarters, especially for me artistically!
My mantra, once again, is Simplicity and Subtly.
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