Who Really Made That Photograph? – Part 1 of 2
There is a virtually-unkillable part of us that, when anything we’ve touched is considered successful, wants to proclaim to everyone in earshot (even if that’s only us), “Mine!,” “I did that!” Especially when we’re feeling shaky about it, we stake such claims in order to argue, “I am valuable,” I am special.” Almost invariably, that means “I am superior to you.” Sometimes the “you” is a sibling or fellow photographer, sometimes a fantasized parental ghost, sometimes a distorted idea of someone’s ethnic group.
But we do nothing “by ourselves.” Certainly not if by “self” we mean only our conscious mind and will. Certainly not if we mean the Gollum wretch within us, clutching his “precious” ring of power, calling it “Mine!” Poor, vicious, pitiable Gollum. So let me acknowledge unaccountable gifts.
In the winter of 2014, I was driving near my home, when my attention was seized by a group of trees in a yard along the street. I’d never seen trees like those before. They had fairly slender trunks and were of modest, barely-more-than-human height. But whether naturally or through cultivation, they were topped with bulbous, bristly knobs of wood, like the bludgeoning ends of maces, or like dark cells corrupted by a virus. I thought that perhaps they were dead; I certainly didn’t think they’d be growing leaves again. I immediately thought that I’d like to find some interesting way to photograph them, but I didn’t yet know how. In the days that followed, I began to have a vague notion of using them in an image for my “Marion under the Moon” series.
In April of 2016, I took a casual shot of them from the street, as a kind of notebook entry:
To my dismay, though, I soon saw that they’d sprouted leaves! How dare they? That didn’t suit my photographic purpose. Not at all.
As is often the case, though, it may have been for the best that I was forced to wait and let the tea of my imagination steep a bit longer. Over the summer, my idea for a photograph emerged from the rising mist. I would use portable flashes to light the trees and Marion, my wife, individually, knocking down the ambient light by speeding up the shutter speed, so that the background would be dark enough to be taken for night, but waiting until the daylight was low enough that I could shoot at a shutter speed below my camera’s synch speed of 1/200th second. That would give me far more useable flash power than I would get using the flashes’ high speed sync function or my PocketWizards’ (radio flash triggers’) HyperSync.
I thought that I’d have Marion adopt a kind of modern dance pose, with fists raised at differing levels, suggesting both participation and grief in the group of strange, brutish trees. Her pose would mirror that of the almost-horizontal, second tree from the right in the photo above. I wondered, though, if she’d be able to hold the pose without falling over. Well, I figured, we could adjust it as necessary.
Every now and then, I’d drive by to see if the trees had shed their leaves yet. They certainly hung on stubbornly, long past the time that most trees had already given up their greenery. Finally, one day on a weekend in November, the trees were bare except for two or three leaves on a couple of their crowns. Weather predictions had said, however, that snow might fall within a week or two. So right then, I parked on a side street, walked up to the house’s door, rang the bell a few times. Finally, to my relief, the owner opened the door. Thanks to his hospitable nature, I really only had to tell him my name, that I thought his trees were extremely interesting, that I’m an exhibiting photographer, and that I’d be grateful for his permission to set up lights on stands and take some pictures of my wife among the trees whenever the weather and our schedules permitted. I assured him that I would do no harm to his property. He said “Alright.”
The next week was Thanksgiving, and when I saw that the one day of the weekend that would be dry and partly sunny would be Sunday, I planned the shoot for that day, knowing that the next weekend after might be too late. I just hoped that the trees’ owner wasn’t going to have family visiting for the weekend, who might be frolicking in the yard on Sunday afternoon. Then the unexpected began to have its say again, intruding on my artistic control!
[TO BE CONTINUED!]