Friday, December 4, 2015

I'm The Man Who Came Back

Let me start this post with a lengthy quote from Chuck Abbott, a photographer who was frequently published in Arizona Highways magazine for many decades. For those that don't know, Arizona Highways is a beautiful magazine that features amazing images from fantastic photographers, and they've been doing so for nearly 100 years. Ansel Adams was another frequently featured photographer.

In the September 1955 issue of Arizona Highways Chuck Abbott said:
"Years ago there was a book titled 'The Man Who Came Back,' and while I never read the book or knew anything about the man or what he came back from or to, years later when I went into the photographic business, that title rang in my ears many times as I found myself personifying not only the man who came back but the one who came back again and again!

"When asked by complimenting amateur photographers--'Oh, Mr. Abbott, how do you get such good pictures? I was there and mine didn't turn out at all well'--my answer is invariably the same--'you'll have to go back and try another day, another light, another season.' Meanwhile I am mentally recalling that 'good' picture; was it really good, couldn't it have been better, and shouldn't I go back again and do it over?

"For that's the trouble with this picture business--there is so little satisfaction in it! You are always beset with the haunting thought that every picture could be improved, if not by you, then by someone, sometime; so you end up traveling in a circle, periodically returning to do a better, or at least a different, interpretation of the subject. Perfection, of course, is the goal."
There's a local spot in my neighborhood known as The Bench. It's one of my favorite places to photograph. There's a vista of the south end of California's Central Valley. You can see Tejon Ranch and The Grapevine off in the distance. You're almost 4,000' above the valley floor. There's a wooden bench that you can sit and take in the view.

I visit The Bench probably once or twice per month, and I've been doing so since I first found this little-known location about two years ago. It's found towards the end of a quiet dead-end road. Many locals are unaware of it's existence. It's one of the best kept secrets in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Last month I returned to The Bench. I was once again "the man who came back." And I exposed an image very similar to a previous one, captured back in September of 2014.

Here's the older image:
Hill Valley - Stallion Springs, California
Here's the newer image:
Clearing Storm Over The Central Valley - Stallion Springs, California
They're nearly the same photograph. They both feature the same hill and a similar stormy sky, captured from the same spot using nearly the same focal length. They're also both monochrome. Yet the two photographs are significantly different.

The bottom photograph is more contrasty. That's because the hill is in a darker shadow than in Hill Valley thanks to the darker clouds. The Central Valley is more clearly visible in the bottom image because there wasn't any smog, which you would typically find here--I was fortunate to find the air clean. In Fact, this is what it typically looks like:
Above The Smog - Stallion Springs, California
Because of the contrast difference and because of the smogless air, the viewer is drawn to different parts of the image and sees different things.

In Hill Valley the viewer sees the hill and the trees on top of the hill, and the remainder of the image is largely negative space. It's balanced a certain way, keeping the viewer's eyes mostly in the bottom-right side of the photograph.

In Clearing Storm Over The Central Valley the eyes are drawn to the valley beyond the hill, and the detail-less hill acts as the negative space. You still notice the trees on the top of the hill, but the eyes mostly look beyond the hill. The photograph is balanced completely different than Hill Valley, and the viewer looks mostly at the middle-left.

It's interpreting the scene, and, using photographic vision, nonverbally speaking that interpretation to the viewer. In one photograph the hill is the subject (with the weather and valley providing context), in the other the valley is the subject (with the weather and hill providing context). One scene and two similar photographs, but each with a different interpretation.

I was able to do this because I returned to a previously photographed scene. I'm the man who came back. I did just what Chuck Abbott said that I should do. And when I return to this place again I will have another opportunity to reinterpret the scene, perhaps creating an even better photograph.

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