Photograph by Jim Richardson
Photograph courtesy Jim Richardson
Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
There comes a moment when it is time to move on. You could say that's what this picture is about.
The sheep, in their browsing ways, moving down the shore on Iona, stopping here and there for a moment—a nibble of grass, a bit of a rest—and then moving on. The growing darkness forced me to use a shutter speed that stretched on into the evening, catching the sheep both in stillness and in their moving on.
After telling the tale of each of the photographs published in my Scottish Hebrides story for National Geographic, I want to share with you a few images that, regrettably, were left on the cutting room floor. Why? Because I like them.
Because I poured hours of intensity into making them. Because they deserve more than just a hidden corner of my hard drive. Because they also represent the discoveries of other photographers with my own experiments layered on.
But mostly I share them now because I think I owe them that. Not only were they part of my life but also they instructed me and helped me to see in new ways. These new ways became part of my brain, part of the network of chemical reactions, part of my ongoing map in the ways of seeing. In the future when I am lost again in the sights of our world, I might have a guide.
In some ways the technique I used in this picture is a trick. But in another way, it represents a way of seeing.
I didn't invent light painting, the technique used in this photograph of the majestic Callanish Stones. Photography, as most endeavors, is built on mining the past, seeing what others have done, learning from them, and honoring their contributions by expanding their revelations.
One of the photographers I have learned from is Dave Black. I'd like to think of Dave as an old master except for the fact that he is younger than me. But he is the master of light painting, the art of using a flashlight while photographing in the dark. Dave has plowed this field for a long time and what he has created is just amazing. Take a look.
Somewhere in my subconscious Dave's lessons were with me that night at the Callanish Stones. This image of mine reveals a pattern in life and makes it visible to our brain. In that way, the photograph is not a trick but, rather, a window into another frame of time. I loved the way a little flashlight could bring the stones to life, how tall and assertive the central stone became with a bit of highlighting, and how the myriad layers of stone popped into a living texture with just a bit of sidelight. I'll carry that night with me for a very long time.
But then experimental fervor took over, and I wanted to see how far I could take the stones' symbolism. So I set up a flash on the central stone and took the camera off the tripod. After the flash went off I proceeded to shake the camera violently during the remainder of the exposure. Thus, the stone was sharp because of the short duration of the flash exposure but the rest of the frame took on a very dreamy, out-of-focus look. It turns out that how you shake the camera makes a big difference in how the background looks. It was a thrill. (See photo here.)
This picture never survived the layout skirmishes, and there is a good reason for that. Ours was a landscape story, and this simply focused on the inn, Baile na Cille. But I found the photograph's veiled mystery appealing. I need to pay more attention to the art of leaving something to the imagination.
I also need to pay more attention to grasses in the future. While on the Isle of Lewis among the dunes on the south side of Uig Bay, I made this image of the grasses whipped to a frenzy by the howling winds coming off the Atlantic. This picture came about because of work I had done a couple of years ago in the Flint Hills of Kansas. It was probably the first time I had looked on grasses as subject matter, not just inconvenient stuff between me and the real subject of my pictures. In the Flint Hills, grass covers rolling hills as far as the eye can see. On Lewis, grasses are partners with the sand, keeping the dunes in place. Mostly I was intrigued that the image could be so turbulent and angry looking, not just another scene of serenity and order.
On the other extreme of the time equation was this image from the Isle of Skye. I spent a wonderful two hours hunched over this water cascading down the rocks. I had tied a flash onto a stick and extended it so that the flash's short exposure would stop the water's motion in all its intricate gyrations. While on vacation in Cornwall the year before, I had experimented similarly, and it had reminded me of the incredible complexity of splashing water. Sooner or later I'll find a story where this kind of picture works.
And in this final image, I experience a melancholy that I cannot deny. I think of that pleasant day sitting up in the rocks on the Shiant Isles with the whole place to myself. But not alone. I was hunkered down, and it was only a few minutes until the puffins were landing four feet [1.2 meters] away, all funny-faced and curious in the way only puffins can manage. It was an enforced pleasure—important that I do nothing, disturb nothing, just shoot and take it all in. I don't know when I'll ever be there again on such a day. Mine is certainly not the greatest puffin picture ever taken, but it was a pretty good day by any standards.
These pictures and many more will now slip out of my everyday concern. Some of the cutting room floor photographs will find a life for themselves in other projects; some may even find some measure of fame. But some will never be looked at again. I'll do my best to carry them with me, to learn the lesson and do better next time.
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