Around the Spiral(again)
Around the Spiral(again)
A story of three images..and a journey
Have you ever seen a photograph by one of the masters which gripped you from the moment you clapped eyes upon it, so powerful in fact that it shaped and directed your journey for decades? You fell in love with it and wanted one day to make one just like it or, at least, your version of it.
A long time ago, perhaps around 1988, I first laid eyes upon Ansel Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite. I stared at it in awe. It was perfect. One day, I promised myself, I would make one just like it—one day.
So I set out on a journey. I researched Adams. I studied his techniques. I worked to embrace the Zone System he had developed with Edward Weston. I took my understanding of darkroom Fine Art photography to the point where I could study a scene and see the finished print before I pressed the shutter. I experimented with different developers. I began mixing my own chemicals, making minute adjustments to the formulae and finding the best combinations of exposure, development, and printing for particular scenes I encountered. I knew I would never stand on the same spot in Yosemite where he had made this image, and, even if I could, I might wait years until all the elements of the scene came together. And, anyway, what would be the point? I knew the meaning of the word plagiarism.
One day it came to an end. After fifteen years in a toxic,chemical-laden environment, my body shouted “enough!”. I began to have anaphylactic reactions whenever I was in the darkroom. I stepped outside one day, turned off the power and walked away. My darkroom days were over. It was a bittersweet moment.
I went digital.
The years passed. Then, as so often happens, my life journey made one more turn of the koru (spiral). It brought me back to the same point.
It was 2010, and I was travelling with a group of friends on a boy’s adventure around the South Island of New Zealand, working towards a coffee-table book to be titled Out There South. That morning we crossed the Borland Saddle in Fiordland and descended in tot Grebe River Valley. We rounded a bend through a cutting, and the valley stretched away before us. The autumn storm we had followed all morning was retreating into the mountains’ vastness to the west. Pools of light and cloud flowed in rivers across the valley.
And I knew my wait was over. In my mind, Adams’ image suddenly came to the fore. I could see the finished work in a frame on a wall. Here it was—my Clearing Winter Storm moment. A strong wind was blowing up the valley, and the risk of camera shake was very real. I got out my heavy 12kg tripod and screwed the camera to it. I put on no less than three neutral density grad filters to tone down the sky and drag its brightness inside the camera sensor’s dynamic range. I focused manually. I used a remote release. I had the others shield the camera and lens from with their bodies. And then I made around 70 exposures, waiting for gaps in the wind’s breathing to make the exposures. Every trick in the book I could think of. You see, what drove me were the transmission towers and the fine filigree of their latticework away in the distance. I wanted every detail to be sharp and clear.
One exposure made the cut—just one. I laboured over it in post-production, making numerous versions unit I felt it was at a place where I could sit back and feel a sense of accomplishment. And of a journey completed. The finished version was in colour, and the framed print looked fabulous. My twenty-year odyssey was over. I could now move on. I stepped away from Adams and didn’t look back.
That is, Until last week.
A friend had come down for some one-on-one-mentoring, and we decided to travel into the Grebe Valley as far as the South Arm of Lake Manapōuri. On the way back, we stopped, and I looked over my shoulder. The storm of the previous day was abating and pulling back. Deja-Vue. I had the joy of using his Fujifilm GFX 100 for the day, with its 102MP medium format sensor and IBIS (in-body image stabilisation). Little wind and no need for a tripod. Again I made two dozen hand-held exposures, varying the framing slightly. Protip: shoot plenty. Discard later.
In front of my computer, I began work on the file. First, I converted the RAW file in Capture One 20 and then opened it in PhotoShop. It was the pools of light and shadow which drew me, and after a few minutes, I realised the image was more about tonality than chroma. It was a black-and-white image.
After 30 years, I was back where I had begun. I could hear Adams whispering to me down the years.
I could feel Clearing Winter Storm hovering, pale and diaphanous on the edge of my awareness.
I think that our artistic journey can be like that. Our life journey is a circular one, where we revisit the same things again and again across our lives. The concept of our life path as a neat linear journey from the cradle to the grave is an illusion.
And sometimes, one image can follow us, whispering to us and counselling us.
For years. Or decades.
So I would love to know.
What is that seminal image which got you into photography and has driven you?
Please share below.
April 04, 2021
If you have enjoyed this post and it resonated with you, you might consider owning a piece of my work and having it on the walls of your home. In doing so, you are contributing to my journey and my determination to bring beauty and light into the world. You are making it possible for me to continue doing what I love doing and believe I am meant to do. You also become a part of the journey. You are walking with me and all of us following this path. It is really simple. Just go here and follow the markers. Ngaa mihi nunui ki a a koe. A big shout-out to you.