August 15, 2008 Reading a Photograph
Most of my photographs are straightforward views of landscapes, wildlife, small towns, or whatever else catches my eye. I love taking these pictures; they are part of a long tradition of photographers seeking out the best light and working with finely tuned technical skills. Sometimes, however, my work takes a step beyond, to where the subject and intent can be “read” by the eye in several ways. Here are a few examples, using the names I gave each picture.
AMERICAN ICON 1: Log Cabin
While photographing an old cemetery in central Pennsylvania, I was first interested in the 200-year-old shale gravestones and took several pictures portraying the fascinating hand-carved shapes of these memorials. Then I photographed several gravestones with the log cabin as a background. Then the cabin’s windows caught my eye and I took a few detail photographs showing the combination of logs, chinking, and windows. Then it struck me like a thunderclap: the flag icon was right there in front of me. At that point the adrenalin started pumping and I took one of the best pictures of my life. Your eyes can read it either as a log cabin or as an American flag: either way, it is a strong and iconic symbol of American life.
We Are As Spirits
While visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I carried only a pocket film camera, hoping perhaps to get a few snapshots. I didn’t use it much, but when I entered the chamber where these people were standing, mesmerized, in front of a giant tank with tuna and sharks and other huge creatures, it cried out for a photograph. I loved the blue light and the human forms, so I stood back and took a dozen or so pictures, with exposures ranging from about 1/4 second to 1/2 second, hand-held. For the first picture, I had left the flash on by accident, and it turned out that this picture was the best because of the ambiguous shapes the flash reflection added to the dark human forms.* Most people realize that this is an aquarium picture, but when I view it–even knowing exactly what it is–I see spirits living among us. Others see it as humans lined up during a UFO appearance. Whatever the interpretation, it is ambiguous enough that it invites repeated viewings.
*So often, mistakes in photography are useful, because they can lead to a whole new interpretation of an image. Perhaps it says something about my photographic skills, but I make plenty of mistakes–and end up liking some of them.
LAYERS 3: A Parallel World
While photographing the interior of a ghost town building in Bannack State Park, Montana, I found some of the small details fascinating–such as these crackled paint layers on a wall. It wasn’t until I looked at the slide on the light table that I realized that this photograph looked like a map, but not a map of any world that we know. It could well be a parallel world, and it reminds me for all the world of the colored maps on the classroom walls of my youth.
When Rocks Dream
While visiting Joshua Tree National Park, I took lots of beautiful pictures of the Biblical-looking Joshua Trees, lizards, desert tortoises, and granite cliffs dangling climbers. But when I came upon this formation, I actually laughed out loud at the Mojave Desert’s dry humor. The rock was about life-sized and the lighting was “just right” for my formal portrait.
At a recent art show I found myself seriously explaining to a nine-year-old boy about how some pictures could be understood in several different ways at the same time. I pointed out the log cabin and aquarium pictures and how they could simultaneously mean different things. I’m not a teacher, and I wasn’t sure if I was getting through to him. But then he smiled and pointed at my rock photograph and said “like that picture.” Yes, he indeed got it!
For more examples of my work, visit my web site at LeeRentz.com