Autumn tree reflections on Bubble Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine 1992
(revised from 2003 essay published in Outdoor Photographer.)
I enjoy impressionistic art. As a teenager, my mother worked as a docent at the National Art Gallery when we lived near Washington, D.C., so I often had the chance to visit the exhibits. I was captivated by the en Plein air approach of Monet and by the pointillism of Van Gogh I viewed there. Art soon became my favorite class during my high school years. My intrigue with the Impressionist movement led to my experiments with blurred many images years later.
The sensation of light and the emotion of seeing a beautiful moment are the qualities of the style I like. Impressionism, the French school of painting that developed in the late 1800s, has been defined as a method of depicting transitory visual impressions. One early adherent advised other painters to “submit to the first impression” of what they saw. This idea, in part, can be attributed to the invention of photography in the previous century. The Impressionist painters saw the enormous potential of revealing the frozen moments of time as seen in photographs.
In their work, the Impressionists chose to emphasize their direct sensory and emotional responses devoid of intellectual thought. Painters such as Claude Monet were fascinated by the ever-changing lighting conditions outdoors, and they would return to paint the same scene at different times or weather conditions. More traditional painters of the day painted only in their studios. The Impressionists painted on location, working quickly to capture the moment before the light changed. How similar this sounds to landscape photography!
A critical photographic idea grew out of, at least in part, from Impressionism’s sensory method. The concept of the Equivalent, developed by Alfred Steiglitz, relies on the photographer’s intuitive response to a scene to create an emotional equivalent. Mentored by Steiglitz, Ansel Adams and Minor White taught this approach to their students. They used the idea in their own work, applying it using straight photographic technique rather than altering reality. Reflecting on his own path, Adams once wrote, “If I feel something strongly, I would make a photograph, that would be the equivalent of what I saw and felt…. I’m interested in expressing something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.”
Freeman Patterson, in his book Photo Impressionism and the Subjective Image, discusses another approach, writing “the “impressionist” photographer deliberately abandons physical exactitude in the belief that he or she can convey the reality of feeling more effectively by doing so.” Patterson wishes to “help photographers venture into some aspects of the non-literal world of photography and to create (or, for that matter, to record) impressions that convey a truth of feeling or spirit.” If you are frustrated creatively with traditional methods, you might explore this option.
Most of us photograph the landscape by attempting to capture special events in nature, such as mountains in dramatic light, in a realistic and documentary style. Such literal imagery, if composed well and heartfelt, can speak powerfully about the beauty of the land and express the photographer’s unique perspective. The danger in this straightforward approach is that images can be so blandly descriptive that the viewer is left unengaged and the artist’s viewpoint unapparent.
For the most part, I photograph directly and realistically. There is usually little doubt that the subject existed as seen in the photograph. Ideally, the scene is transformed in a magical way, via composition or light, to make an extraordinary image. When I make abstractions of nature, the reality of the image is only a question because the exposure itself has altered the reality, such as with blurring water, or that I have isolated the object from surrounding clues, not because I have changed reality.
It seems to me that there is a continuum of possibilities between realistic photographs and photo impressionism, a gray (middle gray?) area where photographs have the attributes of both. “Autumn tree reflections on Bubble Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine 1992″ is a photograph that depicts reality impressionistically. I exposed the image with my 4×5 camera with a single exposure. The only factor that “distorts” reality is that the shutter speed used blurred the reflections. Is blurred water reality? Is it more real if a fast shutter speed stops the water’s action? The answers are less important to me than being open to exploring artistic options and having the willingness to experiment in hope for creative inspiration.
My photograph here was made using straight photographic technique, yet evokes an impressionistic feel, returning me to that brilliant autumn afternoon, when harmonious colors blurred in water, like a painting!
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