Sunday, July 25, 2021
If you are here for trees, barns, and rust, you might be a little disappointed in this group of pictures. I’ve been kind of letting myself run free when it comes to what subjects I am photographing these days. It is good for my creativity to eliminate barriers at times. One of those barriers that I have placed on myself over the years is that of being a “Landscape and Decay Photographer.” While this is less limiting and more of a description of what I prefer to shoot, there are times that I want to reach outside of that box and get some different types of images to stretch my own abilities as a photographer. If you have been following me this month, you will certainly have noticed that I’ve been shooting a myriad of different subjects starting with some smoke in the studio right at a month ago now. A dat later I was photographing a collection of old cars in East Bend. Just a couple of days after that I was back out on the Blue Ridge Parkway for some landscapes at Doughton Park where I concentrated on one particular scene rather than looking for lots of new images. Having taken a few days to shift gears, it was time to do a portrait shoot in the studio which turned out so well I was impressed with myself. A couple of days later saw me back in the mountains photographing another planned panorama at Beacon Heights. Just when you thought I was getting back to my roots, I threw a wrench into the works and went out for a morning of architecture in North Wilkesboro where I committed to yet another single image for the day. Last week, I was back out on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a sunrise shoot that ended up being a collection from everything from mountain scenes to meadow landscapes, a locomotive, and even an orange construction barrel. With most of my creative ideas sorted out with photographs I was left trying two panoramas that I considered possibilities after a ride in the convertible one day.
Wow! It really has been an active month for me and I’ve had the opportunity to have so many different types of subjects in front of my camera which has been absolutely wonderful. I’ve learned quite a bit with the last treks that I have been on and I’m just having a lot of fun being creative. The problem with having the camera out so much, at least for me, is that I start to get burned out pretty quickly. Normally it will surface as a lack of desire to go out and find new subjects because I think that I’ve captured them all already. I feel like I can’t do anything appreciably different from what I have been doing so I start struggling with things to shoot. It all grows until I just stay home and recharge my creative batteries. This time, things were a little different. I was getting tired of working with the camera, but I was still feeling very creative. In fact, I was feeling like there were so many avenues open for me that I didn’t want to lose my momentum. Having shot so many different types of subjects over the last month has really opened my eyes to a lot of the beauty around me than I hadn’t really noticed before. I was seeing all sorts of things as potential photographs even though I wasn’t looking at landscapes or rural scenes.
The process by which I am learning portraiture right now has put me in a different mindset from where I have been previously. I’ve really been concentrating on some of the fine art aspects of portraiture and thinking about flow and movement within a frame. That has put me in a mindset to really begin seeing things differently. I guess I wanted to build on that and I started to think about going someplace where I could incorporate that movement into some photographs and give myself a chance to work with some fine art subjects. When I think about fine art subjects, I tend to relate better to architecture with the hard lines and the different shadow qualities. I started playing with that idea when I shot the building in North Wilkesboro and it got me excited to delve into that form of photography a little bit further than just the one building. Of course, the reason that I had focused on that one building was that out here in Wilkes County, finding good architecture is a little difficult. I was wanting modern lines and there just wasn’t much in the way of that around here.
I did get to thinking about Appalachian State University which was only about 30 miles from home. I had graduated from there in 1996 and have been through the campus occasionally since then. I knew that it had grown quite a bit from what it was when I attended there and that could be a good thing from a photographic standpoint. It is kind of the crown jewel of Boone and there was a good chance that I could find some things that excited my camera there. I had actually started scouting the campus about a month or so ago as I was starting to get the urge to do some hard edge photography. I really wasn’t finding much along the main roads around the campus, but I did see some good potential there which kept me interested.
When I was pondering where I might want to go over the weekend, the thought of ASU came to mind and I decided that since it was the weekend and school was pretty much out of session it would be a good time to go up and spend some time there with the camera. The question was what exactly did I want to shoot? I went to Google and started to look up the different buildings on campus to see if any of them might fit my ideals for an image. As I scrolled through the different images on the internet, nothing was really jumping out at me. As I was starting to lose interest, I clicked on a link that took me to Spring pictures of the campus and as I was scrolling through them I saw a sculpture that I hadn’t seen before. It was quite interesting with three fins surrounding a lone ball. The pictures I saw of it were fair, but not what I was interested in. Those pictures included the campus around it, and used the sculpture as just an element in the photograph. My intentions were to make the sculpture the entire photograph and not include a bit of surroundings which I thought diluted the shape.
The sculpture is called “Aspire” and is located in the Sanford Mall area of the campus. It was created by Jon D. Hair and donated by Carol and Irwin Belk. I have no idea when it happened, but I am pretty sure that it wasn’t there when I went to school. I could only find two photographs of it online without any indication of the direction of the shot. I pondered it and looking at the surrounding elements in the photograph, I was pretty sure that I was going to be able to isolate the sculpture against the sky easy enough. It was just a matter of what kind of sky and time of day that I wanted to capture it in.
The hard lines of the sculpture seemed to want a soft sky behind it such that a long exposure would create. I really wanted the focus to be on the shapes more than anything and the sky was just going to be a backdrop to the subject. Since I was planning on shooting it nearly straight up in the air, I didn’t want to work under a high sun which meant that I was going to need to get it at either morning or evening in order to get the sun low and out of the way. I was going to need some thin clouds to give the sky texture, but nothing too much, and definitely not an overcast day. My first plan was to go out there Saturday evening and I was going to go up and scope it out while I was riding around in the Miata. Well, as I started to get up on the mountain, the sky was looking dark like it was going to rain. Since I’ve made it a full year without driving the car in the rain, I opted out of that idea and worked my way back to clearer skies.
When I got home, I thought about going out to shoot the sculpture that evening, but I really needed to get the oil changed in the car which turned into my afternoon activity. After getting that service done and getting a shower I really didn’t want to go back out again which turned out to be a fin thing because the weather wasn’t really what I was after for the photograph anyway. Yes, I was critical of the weather for a subject that I had only seen in photographs and didn’t have a clue what I was going to be facing when I got there. I had a creative vision for what I was hoping would turn out and I didn’t want to mess with that vision too much until I got there.
Looking at the weather, the following morning was going to have some mixed clouds rolling over Boone until about 10 am. There was even the chance for a bit of color in the sky as the sun came up just before 6:30. It was going to be my best opportunity until the following weekend to get out there and check it out. The plan was set, I would wake up at 4:15 and be on the road by 4:45 which would put me at a nearby parking lot around 5:20ish leaving plenty of time to walk to the center of campus and find this sculpture before first light. It all went smoothly, even the getting up out of bed part. I pulled into the parking lot as planned and started to make my way to Sanford Mall remembering my days as a student here. It was kind of odd walking on campus once again for the first time in so many years, but I felt reasonably at home doing it. The strange part was that everywhere I walked as a student felt like it took forever. With a lot more age on me now I expected to remember that pain all too well. As it turns out, I was just lazy as a college student because the walk was nothing at all and took no time. I guess that is the benefit of being used to several miles of hiking for pictures at times.
I made my way to the part of the grounds that I thought would be home to this sculpture, but it was actually on a different side completely from what I was expecting. That was neither a good nor bad thing, just an observation that started my mind rolling. It was surrounded by lamps over the walkways and one of them was out. There was not really much light on the sculpture which was something that I was hoping for. I started to walk around it to see where my best angles were going to be and how the three fins would interact from the different positions. It was a really fun looking sculpture and I was glad that I had decided to come and give this a shot. I still didn’t know how I was going to make it work though.
I decided to start with the easiest composition to organize and I got set up facing Southwest to start with. I was hoping to get some early morning color in the sky before the sun came up. Knowing that I wanted to emphasize the shapes, I went with a wide angle lens. I moved the camera around until I found the right spot which allowed everything to line up the way I intended. The camera was down pretty low to the ground and pointed straight up. Since I didn’t have an articulating screen on the back of the camera I had to sit down on the ground under the camera so that I could get the exposure and focus set. That didn’t take too long, and I was looking at a minute or two exposure without any filters. I shot a test image and found that the sky was looking good, but the sculpture needed a lot more light to it.
I needed to do something to make that sculpture pop and I didn’t have any flashes with me, but I did have my flashlight which would work as long as I had a long enough exposure. I started to get things dialed and kept making exposures and composition adjustments while I was using my flashlight to light the subject through a technique that is called “Painting with light.” Before long though, the exposure wasn’t long enough to allow me to paint the subject before the sky went bright. In order to give myself time to work, I slid on a 5-stop ND filter which slowed the shutter to around a minute once again. That gave me the ability to paint the subject as I wanted with my flashlight while keeping the sky at bay. I only had a few chances for this setup before the exposure changed again and the flashlight wasn’t powerful enough to overcome the bright sky.
Feeling that this composition was no longer going to work out with the lighting, I moved around to the Western side of the sculpture so that I could get more of the interesting clouds in the frame. The composition was also a bit more dramatic. I was just hoping that with the sun up and now behind clouds that I was going to be able to get some color and detail in the sculpture with it being backlit now. I loved the composition enough to really give it a try. The 5-stop ND filter that I had been using only gave me a few seconds exposure time in this direction and I was needing more to capture the movement in the clouds. I swapped over to a 10-stop and added a polarizer to gain a little more contrast to the sky. As with the last composition I was in close and down low, but not as low as before. I was able to get the tripod up a little bit so I could kneel to see the back of the camera instead of sitting down. I dialed in an exposure of two and half minutes which would allow the clouds to move through the frame and I started making exposure after exposure. The thing with an exposure this long is you really don’t know how the clouds are going to appear as they will move almost completely through your scene in that amount of time and new clouds will also enter. I was hoping to get a sky that complemented the sculpture and helped draw attention to the inherent movement of it. I was also worried about the shadowed side of the sculpture. I could tell that I had information in the shadows based on the histogram, but being able to retrieve color from those shadows was another task entirely. I had the idea of making this a black and white image, but really wanted to keep some form of color here if at all possible.
As I was making exposures on the dark side of the sculpture, I continued walking over to the brighter side to see how the sun was affecting that side. The sun was behind think clouds which diffused the light, but there was a definite increase in ambient light on the Eastern side of the sculpture. The composition wasn’t quite as powerful from this side, but this had something that the other side lacked. It had bright and vibrant colors. In fact, one of the really cool thins about this sculpture is that the finish changes hues as the light changes on it. From the sunny side of things, I was seeing some incredible warm tones in the fins which complemented the blue tones of the sky incredibly well. In fact, when it came to colors, this was the best view with the morning light. Feeling that the light was getting too bright for my existing position, I happily gave that composition up in favor of the one with the better colors.
I kept the camera outfitted the same way with the 10-stop ND filter and the polarizer as I started to dial in the new composition. I had to work the shutter speed a little quicker to keep the detail in the clouds as they were moving a little slower from this position. I also didn’t want to blow out the whites in the clouds. Ninety seconds seemed to do the trick well enough and I started to make exposure after exposure as I had done before. I wasn’t liking the composition as much as I had wanted to, but the colors were really looking good which kept me motivated to stick with this one. I’m so glad that I did because when it was all said and done, this was my favorite image from the sculpture. It was just too hard not to be elated with the colors that came through and the sky had just enough detail to be interesting, but it didn’t take away from the sculpture design at all.
Normally, I would try to find just one composition and image from a single subject like this and trash the rest. The idea being that there should only be one that is the best of a subject. I had a real hard time doing that here because this sculpture had very different emotions from each side. The different light quality also changed the feel for the images quite significantly. When it came to the pure mood of the image, I had to give the vote to the second composition that I shot into the sun. The muted colors really worked for the subject in the lighting that was there. It was almost a monochrome, but not quite. It was the first composition that I shot that yielded a sky which matched the hues of the sculpture in a way that was incredible. The colors of the sky progressed from light to dark and from white to full color. It very much reminded me of another image that I had shot of the Taubman Art Museum a couple of years ago which has continued to be one of my favorites in this type of photography. It was the color and simplicity of the third composition that I loved as well as the use of negative space. They all said fine art to me, but it was the last that I think will hit that chord with the audience a bit easier.
The most incredible part of this was that I had seen pictures of this sculpture and had decided to shoot it without ever laying my eyes on it in person. The first time I had seen it I had come away with three images that all fit my previsualizations of what I wanted to do. These are the times that really stick out to me as a photographer. It is one thing to be able to scout a location and work through some potential shots before coming back to make it happen. It is another thing to basically scout it and shoot it successfully and uniquely in the same outing. I’m thrilled that the ideas that I came up with had nothing to do with either of the pictures that I had seen of it before. There was absolutely no part of those images that impacted my creative decisions and these images are all my own concept based on what I thought might be possible with this piece.
I really should have been satisfied for the day with that one location. I was actually pretty satisfied, but I still had a creative urge in me to get some more images from ASU since I was here for the first time with camera in hand. I had been looking around the area while making the long exposures and saw a couple of interesting buildings nearby which I was now free to explore a bit more thoroughly so I grabbed my gear and got to exploring. One after another, I ran into dead ends on my quest for unique images. I was just so excited about the first location that I had shot that I wasn’t liking anything else that was going to look like an “also ran” when compared with the first subject. Maybe I was all finished here and just didn’t know it. I started to walk around in search of something and found myself walking some of the same routes that I had going back and forth to classes some 25 years ago. It was a fun walk down memory lane, but those memories weren’t quite the images that I was after.
I recalled seeing a sculpture situated in a very interesting glass cylinder at the entrance to Peacock Hall which was near where I had parked. I had seen it walking towards Sanford Mall and thought that I would go back and check it out. The most interesting part was the cylinder made of those glass bricks which was a fantastic background for the sculpture…or so I thought. As I started to look at it more closely, I saw the glass as a distraction to the sculpture and the sculpture itself wasn’t really speaking to me. There was no motion to it and in order to get it put into a workable composition I was going to have to step back away from it which would put an ugly lamp post in between us. I was just about to tuck tail and head back to the truck when I took another look at that ugly lamp post. As I got closer and looked up at it, I saw a composition coming together based on that glass cylinder that I loved so much.
I could see the top of the lamp being the visual anchor to the image with those glass bricks framing it and going out to the brick walls. In the center of the frame would be the sky and if I timed it right, I was going to be able to get some clouds streaking across to add a little movement and drama to the image. I was all of a sudden excited about this scene and could have cared less about the sculpture that I had walked over to photograph in the first place. I got the camera set up with the 16-35mm lens to really give some perspective distortion to the scene. I framed up a composition that I liked which put the lamp right in the middle of the scene surrounded by the sky.
I pulled out the polarizer and checked to see what effect it would have shooting nearly straight up. It gave a little bit of definition to the sky, but it helped quite a bit with the contrast on the glass wall so I decided to add that filter. I looked at my exposure and decided that I was going to need a 5-stop ND filter to slow the shutter to around 10 seconds which would be plenty to show motion in the small opening above. I had everything in place and I shot the first image. I loved the effect, but something wasn’t right with it. The lamp was a distraction and not a valid part of the composition. That couldn’t be, that was the main part of this entire composition and it needed to be there as an anchor. As I looked at the composition on my LCD I tried to figure out how to make this better since I was after creating art and not a snapshot. The more I looked, the more readily visible the problem became. The lamp was not connected with the building, it was just in front of the building. I needed to simplify things and have the lamp and the building coexist together more seamlessly. I repositioned the camera so that the corners of the cap touched the upper edge of the wall. This simplified the geometrical elements of the composition and simplified the entire scene more than I would have thought possible. This was just perfect and I was all set to make exposures now. I was shooting between eight and ten seconds depending on the brightness of the clouds passing by.
Since I loved the composition so much, I committed to this one and didn’t move anything at all. I just waited for the light to change and for the clouds to move past. As I was making exposures I noticed that the still low sun was casting an ever increasing warm light on the left side of the frame while the right side was much cooler in contrast. I loved that aspect of this as well and tried to capture images where the warm lighting was a bit more intense at the same time that I had good detail in the clouds above. I probably shot 40 frames with this composition just watching the light move around. I only stopped because the clouds were getting thicker and there was no more detail in the sky. Looking back over the images that I had shot here I was really excited about these….possibly more so than the original subject. It was a good reminder for me when shooting architecture that I need to be patient with my compositional ideas. This one took a while to form and that was because I had to look at the geometry of the scene as something other than a building which takes a while to do. I was just using it for the lines and shapes which would translate to my photograph.
I was starting to feel a bit tired at this point which was to be expected. I had been on campus for roughly three hours at this point and had been working quite hard on creative choices the entire time. I was very happy with what I had captured and found myself starting to look at things differently than I once had in my hunt for this type of subject. I had really come away from looking at things for what they were and was now focusing on the shapes and lines above all else. Not quite ready to call it a day, I continued walking around to see if I could find anything else that might catch my eye. I went through the “free expression tunnel” which was just a polite way of saying “we’re tired of covering graffiti so have at it!” I was looking for abstracts there, but nothing really jumped out at me other than I was looking at a lot of spray paint. I went up to the other dining hall that had the best salad bar when I went there, but could find no new photographs to be made. I worked my way around to the area where they were tearing down one of the old residence halls and were building two others. My, the campus is really changing these days. I was now by the parking deck on the main road and went through there to see if there were any possibilities for future shoots with the Miata. When I came out I saw something across the street that caught my eye. It was just the steps coming out of the pedestrian bridge from the deck, but I was seeing it as lines and angles.
I made my way across the street and took a closer look at the steps. It was possible that I could make an image with these in my current mindset. I pulled out the cell phone and opened up the camera app. I framed up a nice symmetrical composition which placed the hand rail smack in the middle of the frame with the steps going away at a 45 degree angle. I liked it, but I wasn’t sure that I liked the hand rail dividing the frame in half. It was a close enough vote that I went ahead and pulled the camera out to see what I could do.
From using the phone, I knew that my 24-70mm lens would be just fine for this composition and that was what I fitted. I pulled out the polarizer to see if it had any effect on the scene. It really didn’t do much, but it did affect the glare on the railing which I found to be an important change. I went ahead and popped that filter on and started to fine tune the composition and exposure. I went with that very symmetrical shot and even cropped it down to a 4:5 ratio to camouflage the fact that the steps were longer to the right. I wanted to keep it very much even and almost like a mirror image since I had that railing going right through the center of the frame.
Unlike the previous images that I had been shooting, I didn’t have to stand here for long periods of time in order to get the lighting right. In fact, I only needed three exposures with slightly different compositions before saying that I had what I needed. I was glad too because campus was starting to come alive now and I’m sure that I was confusing people with a camera pointed at some concrete steps while so close to the beauty of the mountains. I had found my beauty elsewhere and I was sure that at this point they would not have understood.
With that third exposure of the steps, I packed up my gear and was feeling pretty sure that I was all done for the day. I had captured 90 frames, which wasn’t bad at all for the three locations that I had shot. I was feeling cautiously optimistic about how the images were going to turn out. It is often hard to tell with this type of photography because of how the exposures look on the LCD. The RAW image files were just the starting point for what the final image was going to be as I had shot each of them knowing at least basically how I was going to process it for its final presentation.
I do hope that you enjoyed this trek and even though there were no trees, and no rural scenes that you enjoyed the photographs…at least a little bit. It was a lot of fun for me, and it was nice to be able to use my light painting technique again since I have an upcoming workshop dealing with that in September. There is still room left, but I would encourage you to get signed up sooner than later for it so that I can get some material to you beforehand. If any of these images do speak to you, I would love to help match you up with a print in the size and media that best suits your needs.
I guess all that is left now is to start taking bets on what I will be photographing next. I have no clue and will probably be just as surprised as you when it happens.
Until next time…