A complex juxtaposition of street elements, San Francisco
I’m going to have a little fun with you today with this photograph. It might be a bit of a mystery and it contains one or more illusions, and more than one world. I’ll let you ponder that.
I made the photograph on one of my photography walks in San Francisco, which usually are dominated by street photography, some architecture, and even a bit of urban and near-urban landscape, all shot handheld while on the move. The area where I made this photograph is a bustling part of newly developing San Francisco, with lots of traffic (I waited for a break), lots of expensive new housing, and sometimes a lot of people.
This post derives from something I wrote elsewhere in a discussion about a photograph that included something that wasn’t originally in the scene, a discussion that became rather polarized.
“Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.”
― Ansel Adams
All photographs lie. But all photographs carry a burden of reality.
Except for photographers who overtly and obviously manipulate reality in major ways as a central concept of their work — see Jerry Uelsmann, for example, or some work by John Paul Caponigro, among others — viewers come to photographs believing that the images had their genesis in the real. Photographers can respond to this basic presumption in photography in a number of ways, and perhaps in landscape photography the response has even more implications.
Let’s say you are Caponigro or Uelsmann and a major point of your photography is to produce visual art that derives from and references the landscape but then combines it with non-landscape elements or takes those elements and fundamentally rearranges them so that they intentionally no longer can be taken to represent the real landscape. These photographers openly embrace and build their work on creating imaginary fantastical worlds out of materials derived from the real landscape, creating what I refer to as “imaginary landscapes.” The photographer and the viewer are on exactly the same page here – both accept and embrace the fantasy and the sometimes more ambiguous line between the real and the imagined. This work seems completely honest and genuine.
On the other hand, let’s say you are a photographer who builds and bases a reputationnot on the creation of visual fantasies — things we all know are not and cannot be real — but instead on going to great lengths to travel to “special places,” often telling stories of finding special places and special conditions that less focused and dedicated photographers do not find. Continue reading Gray Areas→
Monsoonal clouds above the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur coast, California
Driving along the central California Big Sur coastline in mid-July we experienced a very unusual coastal summer day. Summers in this area typically feature morning and evening fog and relatively cool temperatures, interspersed with clearer days when the temperatures might rise to near 70 degrees. But for a few days this July, California was affected in an unusual way by a dissipating tropical storm and the early phase of El Niño, and we had unusual manifestations of light and atmosphere and more. There were thunderstorms, some of them quite heavy. The ocean was smoother than usual and the swell came from the south rather than the north. Layers of unusual monsoon clouds filled the sky.
This photograph belongs to what I categorize as both minimalist and imaginary landscapes. I wrote more about this in my previous post, so I’ll keep it short here. The idea is to work with simple materials and often not with an obvious central subject, to focus on some kind of subjective reality rather than creating the illusion of objective depiction.
Monsoonal clouds above the Pacific Ocean horizon, Big Sur, California
This photograph and the one that will follow it belong to a small sub-thread in my photography, but a thread that means a lot to me. I think of these photographs as both imaginary and minimalist landscapes. They are “imaginary” in that they are about the subjective experience of the place and an invented or focused way of seeing it, and they are “minimalist” in that they are about simple forms and patterns, and because they often include large “empty” or near empty areas. These are not remotely photographs that are attempting to show the objective nature of places. They are photographs that are about some subjective way of seeing things. I often say that “all photographs lie,” but it might be more honest to say that “all photographs have a point of view.”
I’m not sure that the specific location or subject is all that relevant to this photograph, but since it is my habit to say something about that when I share photographs online, here goes. We spent a few days along the central California coast in mid-July. This is a very familiar place, but several things were unusual this time — and they may have put me in a somewhat different perceptual state. Monsoonal moisture was streaming up the coast from a Pacific Ocean tropical storm near Mexico and bringing clouds and even heavy rain to parts of California, a very unusual situation here. An anomalous plankton bloom turned big areas of the ocean and Monterey Bay an unusual blue-green aqua color. (That is probably the source of the light patch in the water in this photograph.) The swell was out of the south rather than the more typical northwest, and the water was much smoother than is typical, creating unusual reflections of sky and coastal bluffs.
Two figures seen through a gap in walls at the top of a stairway.
There is probably not too much to say about this photograph, though I could probably say a lot about it if I got started. During a rainy day visit to a New York City museum, I saw the gap between walls at the top of this stairway and the effects on color and luminosity of the various different sources of reflected light in this space. I lined up with the scene to leave a slender gap between the corners of two walls so that people passing by in the hallway would momentarily show up in this gap. I tried a variety of focus points – on the people, on the edges of the walls, on the railings… but in the end I liked the version that doesn’t really focus on anything specific.
Something a bit different today – I’m bundling three wildlife photographs into a single post. As I queue this message in advance on an early September morning, it appears that I have enough photographs ready for posting to carry me through October! I think I can afford to put three in this post!
All three were made from the same point on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean at Point Lobos, where I had gone – on Labor Day! – primarily to do landscape/seascape photography. It was an interesting and slightly unusual day. Tropical monsoonal moisture had been streaming over the area for a few days, which is not quite a typical pattern in this area, and the morning started out cloudy. Although it was Labor Day, a bit day for travel and tourism, I arrived early enough that things were still quiet.
On a more typical Point Lobos shooting day, at least one without fog, I would likely complete my work and leave by or well before noon. But the broken overcast allowed interesting and filtered light to continue well into the early afternoon, so I stuck around. After shooting in the forest along the north shore – much easier in filtered than in direct light – I decided I would make a loop along the high bluffs on my way back to my car. I came to this spot just as a very large flock of pelicans floated past below, barely skimming the tops of the almost glassy-calm ocean. With filtered top-light and a good vantage point, I decided to put on the long lens and see what might fly by. Here are a couple of photographs of pelicans and cormorants flying right above the water.
Imaginary (urban) landscape based on the facade of the One Front Street building, San Francisco.
This is another in a short series of photographs I did earlier this month in which I focused on shooting very close to the base of some downtown San Francisco buildings, aiming the camera nearly straight up in order to see their shapes more abstractly, and then working fairly freely in post to modify the images in ways that I felt were interesting. This one, and some of the others, are subject to enough post-processing that they probably fit into the category that I describes as “imaginary landscapes.)
I imagine that architects who create such things understand these buildings in ways far different from this in which the rest of us see them. A few things, likely completely obvious to the building designers, occurred to me. One, obvious now that I see it, is that the visual character of the buildings themselves is formed as much by what they reflect of their surroundings as it is by their own shape, texture, and material. Most of what constitutes this photograph, for example, is not the building itself (which is largely defined by the narrow non-reflecting portions) but by what in the surrounding environment is reflected on its surface and how those reflections are shaped and modified by the reflecting surface of the building. In this case, the building reflects itself in the right angles such as the one in the center of this shot, along with the sky, and sometimes the surrounding buildings. (Though the latter is removed when you aim the camera up so sharply.)