Saturday, April 05, 2014

Shooting High-Concept Photos, Perhaps

by Don Davis

I recently sought close-up images of wild turkeys along Mill Creek Road.
 It was a sunny late-March afternoon that would brightly reflect the sheen of the strutting Toms (or gobblers) with their puffed-up obsidian and bronze plumage crowned by wrinkled blue heads with bubbly swollen blood-red chin wattles dangling below limp snoods flapping over their beaks.
Hooked, thick-black-fathered beards protruded from the centers of their bulging breasts.
Janes, or turkey hens, scooted from their paths.

In the last dozen years, wild turkeys in Eastern Washington and Oregon have made a massive comeback from near extinction.
A few weeks before this outing, we saw 200-plus turkeys strolling along the graveled North Fork McKay Creek Road. Sky blotting flights repeatedly launched from the north hillside to glide with un-turkey-like grace, even beauty, over our heads (Darlene’s, Nora the Schnauzer’s and mine) to flop down in a stream-edged pasture south of the road.
My simple goal then, and for the decades of my photographic efforts, was to capture turkey images as sharp as possible, preferably of the big birds in flight.
Well, my photographic goal became muddled thanks to an article about high-concept photos, preferred over low-concept photos, by Ian Plant in the April edition of Outdoor Photographer.
As Plant wrote, “High concept photography, in a sense, is all about  ignoring the obvious and exploring your subjects hidden truth.”
The article enticed me to question my view that even the best photographers -- like master mechanics, furniture makers and dry-fly tiers – should be called master craftsmen rather than ARTISTS.
Plenty of photographic master craftsmen deserve respect without cloaking them with the artistic tunic of a Leonardo da Vinci or a Picasso.
I spent some time online reviewing truly magnificent photographs produced by past and contemporary masters: Anzel Adams, Galen Rowel, Art Wolfe, Annie Leibovitz and Dorothea Lange to name a few.
With their stunning, superlative works before me, I wondered if any of them pondered a difference  between high and low concept photos. 
I suspect they saw subjects and set to employing all of the skills and equipment they possessed to capture the images they wanted.
None of their works that I studied suggested envy or pretension.
Consider the quote below from a 1930’s B/W movie, "Off the Record," recently shown on the TCM channel:  A surly kid (Bobby Jordan as Mickey Fallon), being reformed  by a pair of supportive journalists (Joan Blondell and Pat O'Brian) who give him a professional's camera, takes a dramatic photo of heroism at a fire.
The photo receives front-page coverage. 
When praised for capturing the photo, the kid shows humility: "I didn't do nothing‘,“ he said. "All I did was press the button. The camera did the rest."
The photo did two things to qualify as  Plant's definition of a high concept Photo: It presented an image that viewers had not seen before; and it told a story.
Fallon had the skill to set up the camera with the proper film and flash, to aim the lens at the dramatic scene, to hold the camera steady and to press the button at the dramatic moment.
The camera did the rest, with the film developer adding light and shadow if needed in the dark room.
The process involved a distinguishable level of craft. It would be a stretch,  however, to see the image as and expression of Mickey Fallon's personal artistic view or his "hidden truth."
I have pressed the button and eventually found many photos that I did not plan, and for which can't claim any artistic intent or vision of truth. 
Yet each may have a story, an interest and a beauty. 
Some examples appear below:
I stumbled on the fishing heron at Hood Park on the Snake River during a potty stop for Nora. It was completely unexpected, and I snapped images without preparation.
I napped the photo of the girl straining against the huge log section. It suggested and interesting tension. I forgot it until much later.
I still can't explain the photo of Nora with the owl's head, and I captured it with pure luck. We walked along the top of Bennington Lake Dam. I looked back. She ran toward me as revealed in the photo.
I snapped off three frames.  One image turned out focused. It shows Nora as very young, before her first hair cut. She will be seven in November. I discovered a dead barn owl's remains, probably left by a coyote. Nora had picked up the head to play with. 
The girl with the sea otter is leaning on the container's glass-like wall at the Oregon State Aquarium in Newport. There's an unplanned condensed distance between the girl and the otter on opposite sides of the glass.
As the kingfisher with the fish flew past on Mill Creek, I pulled the camera from my shoulder and fired off two frames and it zipped away.
One frame came out sharp.
Finally, I edged across a Mill Creek weir, drawing closer and closer to a heron, and snapping images with each step. When processing the photos later, I discovered the minnow in the Heron's mouth.
Lucky, I guess.


Photo journalists (including outdoor-page photographers?) are exempt from Plant’s encouragement to avoid snapshots in pursuit of a “personal and unique artistic vision.” 
Plant wrote, “Low-concept photography can also describe photographs that have a primary purpose of creating a literal or documentary interpretation of a subject. …for some subjects the low-concept approach works best -- but if you’re looking to stand out from the crowd, you’ll have to be a bit more creative."
That is, you must “move past the straight forward or literal approach.
“High-concept photography seeks to capture mood and emotion,  and to use light, color, composition, time and the moment creatively.”
Plant enjoins photographers to to start the “process with abstraction -- seeing your subjects not as rocks, trees or bears but rather in terms of shape, color, light, motion and energy….” 
So, like Picasso or Matisse, photographers may achieve a "personal artistic view" by manipulating color, light, shape, composition, movement, time,  and especially moment.
To do so, they add filters to a lens, set up elaborate lighting systems, adjust shutter speed and aperture settings, choose golden-hour moments for shooting, take multiple exposures by pushing the button.
Later, using computer software, they may blend light, stack focus or stitch images for effect. Photographers may employ software to add and remove objects from an image and that allows the adding of a wide range of high-definition effects (with the push of a button) from "painterly" to "weird" to "grunge" to enhance mood and emotion.
Post processing may be used to change "light, color, composition, time and the moment creatively.
Actually, such "personal visions" have been captured by painters on canvas and by sculptures in stone for centuries, not including the personal visions scratched on cave walls in France  and on boulders along rivers in the Northwest.
And they have been done infinitely better than many of the high-tech  photographic efforts called ART today.
How many technology blurred streams or waterfalls and artificially red or orange saturated sunsets can be recognized as personal artistic visions of truth that "ignores the low-hanging fruit and reaches for the top branches" as Plant suggests?
Such images may be created by taking a dozen images of a scene, by using a range of filters to capture light changes and cloud movement and by pressing a button and combining the images with mass produced software operated by more buttons.
Granted, each user of such processes may develop differing images just as master craftsmen produce differing shapes and beautiful colors in restful chairs, efficient engines and effective dry flies.
They do so without the artistic visions that creates the touching  skin tones of Titian's red-haired beauties, the touching compositions of Andrew Wyeth's landscapes, the colorful stormy visions of Van Gogh, the cool geometry of Picasso or the haunting surprises of Dali.
Perhaps such truths can't be captured by pressing buttons.
Well, at least not unless you rank among the select such as:  Ansel Adams, Galen Rowel, Art Wolfe, Annie Leibovitz, Dorothea Lange and John and Barbara Gerlach to name a few.

See  more of my photos at

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