Living in the desert southwest environment of Los Angeles for most of my life, I am fascinated by rain. Please enjoy my Ireland Impressions which chronicle my travels through the country-side and towns across County Mayo and a little bit of Dublin – May 2015.
(Click any image to view large and enter slide show mode)
I want to talk about this image – what makes the image stand out for me and why I put it in black and white (something I rarely do), I want to illustrate how I got the shot and what I was thinking. It is a process I use often and sets me up for being able to capturing these poignant fractions of time.
Choosing the frame
I took 36 images to get this shot. This image is frame number 10.
I chose this particular frame from the sequence because it shows clearly a figure and a dog miniaturized by the breadth and majesty of the forest. There is not a lot of detail in either the future or the dog and this helps the viewer appreciate the size and magnificence of the forest around them. They are clearly recognizable, however, and in each occupy own separate space in the image. The figure, all in silhouette, looks mysterious with her jacket forming the shape of a cape. The silhouette is also fully surrounded by lighter areas making the shape standout without ambiguity. In art they call this using “figure and ground” to make the shapes stand out. The dog, is also in a figure-ground relationship with the background, only in this case a white dog against the shadow of the path floor. The fast that the figure is black on white and the dog is white on black increases the visual enjoyment of the image. Finally there is the forest and the diffuse light hitting all the bright green spring leaves in such a way as to highlight every little layer and texture.
I rarely turn my digital images to black and white, not because I have anything against black and white, but because I usually use the color in my images as an additional form of contrast, focus, and emotion. For this image, however, it is too green – all green. The beauty of this image are the layers of texture and light patterns in the leaves and the use of figure ground and I think black and white will show this best.
Getting the shot
If this were a roll of 36 exposure film, this is what you would see.
Novice photographers often try to capture these types of images with a chase the image sort of process: “see image, hope your camera is set ok, pray you focus well, try to grab the shot”. Rarely am I successful in taking “grab” shots using this method, instead I have developed a discipline of looking for situations that could present opportunities in the near future and following my instinct and waiting for the image to materialize, as was the case for this image.
I was standing on the steps of Moore Hall and had just finished taking this shot of the graffiti I found inside. I turned around and saw the forest and the path and liked this higher vantage point.
I was lagging my friends because I was taking many pictures in the forest on our way to Moore Hall. They had already moved off the scene and where off to the right. As I turned around I noticed the figure coming up the path. My first thought was to wonder if something unusual would happen to make this more than just a “person on a path” image. I framed up the shot, checked my camera settings and dug into my position.
(Frame 2) As the figure moved closer I noticed that her jacket looked like a cape
– that would create a nice extra piece of the story. I started shooting, not really confident that my tiny photographer brain would know, in the moment, exactly what combination of person, path, and forest would have impact.
(Frame 6) A little closer and I noticed the dogs. “Dogs!”, my tiny photographer brain in my tiny photographer voice exclaimed, “A cape and dogs!”. “Oh no, two dogs! Why two dogs? I need just one dog.” My tiny photographer voice continued jabber on. I continued to shoot.
(Frame 7) One dog lags behind and I evaluate the scene: a figure in a cape, with a dog, on a path in the forest. I figure is nice with the cape-like silhouette, the dog still just a speck. I keep following the scene as it unfolds, carefully holding my composition as best I can.
(Frame 8) Good, the dog is now in profile. It is recognizable as a dog, even at this small size. What will it do next. I just follow the dog. Taking my pictures to capture the dog gestures and relationship with the unidentified “caped” master. This is perhaps the most important moment of getting the shot.
(Frame 10) The dog stretches. I hardly notice that this will be the keeper, I’m simply keyed into taking a shot at each different gesture of the dog.
(Frame 15) The dog starts to run ahead. Just as with Frame 8, this is another important moment to notice as it constitutes a pivotal point in time for the next potential perfect alignment of juxtaposition and gesture. Another shot might still be in the future. Will the dog turn and do something interesting a little closer? As it happens, it doesn’t materialize.
(Frame 20) Sniffing the ground, the two dogs are separated, this is promising, my tiny photographer brain thinks.
(Frame 28) One dog is now out of the picture and never really made an interesting gesture. The figure is not in the light with fully recognizable features, and the small dog by her side. I keep shooting, but notice that when the dogs run, my shutter is really to slow and the mystery is gone as soon as all the figures are in the light.
The scene is over. Did I get one? I remember the steps and the concentration, I’m pretty sure I held my composition throughout the sequence. Did I get a moment, a gesture, and a play of light all to coincide? I would only be able to evaluate my success by looking at the whole sequence after the emotion had passed.
If my job as a photographer is to report not just what it looks like, but what it feels like, then let me start at the beginning. Spring, Western Ireland, County Mayo, the sheep had given birth just a short time before we arrived and the weather was predictably chilly, damp, and variable. It might be bright blue skies at 7am only to turn to heavy clouds and rain an hour later.
On our first day we traveled from Ennis, a small town just north of the Shannon Airport, to our home-away-from-home in County Mayo, just outside of Westport. I was traveling with three other photographers from southern California and our guide the venerable Cormak (Connie, or just Conn) Cullen. Connie would tell us, in his lilting Irish brogue, to just ask to stop if we saw a scene we wanted to stop and photograph. It was all new to us. It was all green to us.
On the side of the road we saw our first, of many, ruin sites. An abandoned stone house, now used as open grazing land for the sheep and cattle. This is the beginning of how Western Ireland felt.