The numerous posts over the past few days on social media in remembrance of Ansel Adam's birthday reminded me of a lesson I learned from John Sexton early in my photographic career.
I attended the last Ansel Adams Workshop in Yosemite National Park the year after Ansel's passing. Like many photographers of my age and generation, we learned photography with a 4X5 view camera and black & white film using Ansel's Zone System of exposure and development. Also, like many photographers back then, I dreamed of attending his workshop. I couldn’t imagine anything better than working with the photographer that I not only admired but who also wrote the books and created the photographic workflow that shaped the core of my photography.
Someday I would go to the workshop. “Someday” - the word we use as we postpone doing something we know we need to do. Then "someday" in the future things change, and perhaps we don't have the option anymore or we never quite do what we planned. I was determined that if I didn't attend while Ansel was alive, I would attend any final workshop planned after his passing.
The photographers instructing at that workshop changed my photographic life. I went expecting to learn new technical aspects of photography and a funny thing happened: the instructors never discussed exposure, film development or cameras at all. What they did do was challenge us to understand why we were making photographs. What were we trying to say through them?
We spent hours sharing information and discussing photographs in small groups, interacting with each of the featured photographers including Paul Caponigro, Ernst Haas, Jerry Uelsmann, Ted Orland and John Sexton.
In our session with John Sexton, he showed us original Ansel Adams 8X10 negatives, the straight contact print and the final interpretive print made by Ansel. Holding up the original negative for "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico", he told the story of how Ansel was driving down the road, saw the light reflecting off the crosses, stopped his car, immediately set up his camera, and quickly made one exposure. By the time he turned his film holder around for a second exposure, the light had faded.
John then went on to tell us that the best accessory we have in our camera bag was the u-turn. He said most of us drive by something we want to photograph and for a multitude of reasons, convince ourselves that someday we'll come back and make that photograph. Like many of you reading this, I have had the good intention of doing that hundreds of times and almost never actually kept the promise to myself. I could do a book of all the images from over the years that I would have made “someday" IF I had ever gone back.
The images in today's blog post were made a few miles from our second home on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Just south of Portree, the capital of the island, the roads begins a long, steep climb into the Cuillin Mountains. About half way up, there is a parking area that offers an ever changing view of the mountains. On numerous trips to the south of the island I have stopped there to photograph the beautiful mixture of clouds and light that are so unique to Skye.
On this drive, for the first time ever, a herd of Highland cattle were grazing next to the parking area. I drove by, made my u-turn at the first opportunity (while repeating out loud John’s observation about the best accessory in my camera bag) and pulled into the parking area to make a few images before the cattle decided to move on. The parking area was crowded with people with the same idea, and instead of photographing the cattle, I made photographs of others as they photographed the cattle. I became immersed in photographing a couple focused on what seemed to be one of the cattle posing for them.
I then turned to find my wife Catherine engaged in conversation with two couples on the other side of the parking area. As I walked over I noticed one of the men, who besides being extremely tall, was dressed in traditional Scottish clothes. Given that it was the middle of tourist season, I assumed he was dressed like that to lead a group around the island. In fact, he dressed that way everyday and was with friends from North Carolina.
As we finished our conversation, his friend from North Carolina asked him to stand by the fence so he could make a photograph. While he posed himself I asked if I could also make a photograph and he agreed. As I looked through the viewfinder it was if I had hired a model, dressed him, posed him, and used auxiliary lighting to “create” the photograph. Everything was perfect.
I drove away fully understanding John’s words of advice. I also realized that, as photographers, sometimes the photograph we think we are supposed to make is only a map leading us to the real reason for being there. "Someday” is really today.