Making sense of a riot

An instructor of mine said we get seduced by color in photography and our images end up being chaos of colors with no subject or primary element.  I agree.  Many times I get my images up on the computer and wonder “what was I taking a picture of here?” because there so much ‘stuff’ in the frame but no real reason to look at it.  Other than the color, of course.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.  That is the photographer’s mantra.  Just because I see exactly what I want to be the subject of an image doesn’t mean you will see it – unless I make it obvious.

But all those colors; don’t they deserve just a moment of admiration?  Why else are they there?

4x5" color transparency film, 210mm lens, 1 sec., f/32

And so I make images of them just for the satisfaction of remembering the moment and reveling in the glory of fall.

I wandered around the Kentucky woods for a few days with a clear idea in my mind for an image.  Layers of different colors behind a darker foreground, with the sun slanting through from behind and the side to illuminate the leaves.  Every stop I’d look around and sometimes find just about what I wanted only to realize the scene was cluttered and chaotic.  I wanted an obvious scene – bright fall colors – but didn’t realize exactly what that would look like in reality.

Of course it’s chaotic – it’s the woods!  Only Disney can portray the perfect symmetry and layout of an imaged forest; in real life biology controls the composition based on far more complex rules.  Finally I saw this scene and realized all those perfect details were not going to fall into place, that I would have to use big areas of dark and light to frame the brilliant colors that are my subject.  Here is how we see it, standing on the edge peering carefully into the distance under the canopy, wondering what lies just beyond the range of our eyesight.  We take in the dark shrubs guarding the distant explosion of autumn hues, flanked by the trucks of trees reaching up into the sparkling sunlight and we create a complete scene in our minds.  One that screams to us – autumn!

We see it all, but are continually drawn to those colors, all blending together into that area of brightness in the distance but remaining discrete as individual leaves show off their varying intensities and hues, competing with neighbors for our passing glance.  The sun slowly sweeps through the forest, highlighting an area for a bit before moving on to reveal another section even more spectacular.

I haven’t really made sense of this composition.  There’s no strong subject (other than the color), no key element for your eye to return to after wandering through the image.  It’s the scene presented by the forest, messy and disorganized but also inviting and mysterious.

Perhaps that is the subject, the variegation spread across the canopy.   Perhaps there is no one subject but rather a swath of subject for our eyes to play across and think about.  What makes the forest celebrate the season?  After months of green throughout why does it now branch into these patches of red, yellow, orange, and brown, where each tree seemingly displays its true coat for a brief time?  In a Tolkien-like moment I want to ask the trees to share their secret, if only to make me a better photographer of such beauty.

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